The Happy Isles of Oceania

What a slacker I am. No, it’s true. But then again, the pressures of work are particularly intense right now, so maybe I can be forgiven for not getting up any writing for a long time. But here’s the thing: you have to keep the best part of yourself for yourself. Being a slacker is not as bad as allowing work to dominate your life. If it were just a matter of wasting time in a pleasurable but not unhealthy way, that would be ok. But that’s not what I have been doing. I’ve been allowing work to suck up all my time and energy, leaving me unfit for anything but watching baseball on tv at the end of the day. Work will take all you give it and never be satisfied that you are giving it enough. It’s like dealing with a particularly demanding and unappreciative child, really. No matter how much you give it, it only asks for more. Time to cut that child loose and let it fend for itself.

The Happy Isles of OceaniaSo I’ve picked up The Happy Isles of Oceania again, by Paul Theroux. It’s a book I started almost four years ago, at a time when I myself was getting ready to visit Micronesia. I never quite finished it, but now I am making time, and loving it. It’s well researched and intimate, and it takes me back in spirit to some of the places I have been.

What Theroux captures so well is the marginal nature of the islanders, their sometimes pointless existence, and their inability to rise above their circumstances. He is particularly hard on the French colonial influence, especially in his chapters on Tahiti and the Marquesas. The Marquesas is where Melville based his novel Typee, and is also where Gaugin is buried (what a bastard he was!).

The islands are very difficult to reach, having steep cliffs down to the sea and no good harbors. At one time the Marquesas supported an estimated population of 80,000 people but it is now down to about 7,000. As with Easter Island, and as with the Mayan empire, The Marquesas is rich in archeological remains which testify to a complex but largely forgotten culture. Ecological disaster seems to be at the root of the de-population. Stone temples covered in thick vines can be found in inpenetrable jungle hills and valleys. Many of these sites have never been excavated, but most have been defaced by overzealous 19th century missionaries intent on whacking off offending penises and such. Most of the native islanders have never visited any of the sites, even the ones in their own backyards, and they have no particular interest in their history – such is the dissapating effect of missionaries and colonialization.

Here is what Theroux has to say at the end of his stay on the Marquesas:
“There is no cannibalism in the Marquesas anymore – none of the traditional kind. But there is the brutality of French colonialism…. The French praise and romanticize the Marquesas, but in the 1960s they had planned to test nuclear devices on the northern Marquesan island of Eiao, until there was such an outcry they changed their plans and decided to destroy Moruroa instead. It is said that the French are holding Polynesia together, but really it is so expensive to maintain that they do everything as cheaply as possible – and it is self-serving, too. Better to boost domestic French industries by exporting bottled water from France than investing in a fresh water supply for each island [there is an abundance of fresh water in the Marquesas]. That is what colonialism is all about… The French have left nothing enduring in the islands except a tradition of hypocrisy and their various fantasies off history and high levels of radioactivity..

“When France has succeeded in destroying a few more atolls, when they have managed to make the islands glow with so much radioactivity that night is turned into day, when they have sold the rest of the fishing rights and depleted it of fish.., when it has all been thoroughly plundered, the French will plan a great ceremony and grandly offer these unemployed and deracinated citizens in T-shirts and flip-flops their independence. In the destruction of the islands, the French imperial intention, its mission civilisatrice – civilizing mission – will be complete.”

So there you have it. “Grrrr…. the French,” as Michael Moore would say. But of course the parallels to our so-called civilizing mission in Iraq are readily apparent – and so is our attitude to the way we treat the scarce resources in this Island Earth. Use it up while you can, because tomorrow only matters for our grandkids – and since they are not us, they don’t really count.

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3 thoughts on “The Happy Isles of Oceania

  1. Pingback: Ishi, et al « downstreamer

  2. Grrr the French? I´m put off by that. Was your intent to mock Theroux´s obvious commentary on the islands or something else that I can´t discern?

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