In order to discharge ourselves of certain problems, why not simply erase from our maps the sites of such nuisance?
A few weeks ago, on November 4, 2003, fourteen Kurdish refugees and four Indonesian sailors landed a small ship on the coast of Melville Island, eighty kilometres north of Darwin in the territorial waters of Australia, with the intention of demanding political asylum. Apprised of the news and weary of the tide of asylum seekers, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, took a drastic decision: he decided to cut off Melville Island (together with four thousand other islands belonging to Australia) from the nation’s territory. The gesture was not novel. In 2001 the Australian government had already excluded Christmas Island from its borders so as to be able to deport several hundred illegal immigrants to the island’s inhospitable beaches. Reading the news, I found myself wondering about this curious method of attempting to solve political problems by altering the map of the world.
Sometime in the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Plato, citizen of Athens, described the qualities of his ideal republic by inventing an island called Atlantis, on which he built an imaginary city that supposedly had flourished in the distant past and was then swallowed by the sea. Plato’s Atlantis inaugurates a wonderful imaginary geography that has never ceased to grow and that has given us some of the most famous, albeit non-existent, places in the world: Utopia, Oz, Shangri-La, the mysterious plot of land that houses the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Because the world we inhabit feels at times too crowded for the purposes of our imagination, we have continually created other places that, save for the trivial fact of not occupying real space, have brilliantly served as stage for both our nightmares and our lofty aspirations.
But until now, no one has thought of employing the flip side of Plato’s tactics. If it is possible to add to our world an island like Atlantis in order to set up, unfettered by globes and atlases, a utopian or dystopian society that will allow us to observe, if not solve, certain of our own problems and tribulations, then why not do exactly the contrary? In order to discharge ourselves of certain problems, why not simply erase from our maps the sites of such nuisance? No doubt that brilliant notion must have struck the Prime Minister of Australia as delightfully imaginative. Let it not be said that the land that invented the platypus lacks whimsicality.
Mr. Howard’s solution could have fascinating repercussions. Whenever a country begins to suffer from a problem in any of its regions, all it has to do is pass a law or act of parliament to exclude that region from the nation’s household, like a Victorian patriarch expelling a sinful daughter from the family hearth. If there is racial unrest in Brixton, England, decree that Brixton should no longer appear on road maps of the United Kingdom; if Corsica upsets the image of a peacefully ruled France, paste a blue patch over the island and pretend that Napoleon was born in Marseilles; if Jerusalem seems like an insoluble problem in the Middle East, announce that the only true Jerusalem is the Celestial City of mystical fame of which its stone-and-mortar incarnation is nothing but a superfluous fabrication; if illegal Mexican workers cause discomfort in Texas, order Texas to leave, never to darken the Union’s door again. And if Geist becomes a hotbed of social unrest and intellectual revolutionary thought (as it seems destined to become), sever the whole of Vancouver from the peaceful land of Canada. (Perhaps the Quebec separatists are already in consultation with Mr. Howard.)
For Plato, the invention of an island on which he could construct an imaginary society allowed him to mirror to his own society its merits and its faults. That is why, since the days of the first campfires, we tell stories, and that is why we imagine places where these stories can take place. Unlike politicians, storytellers know that you cannot sever reality from reality: all you are entitled to do is to re-imagine the world in order better to see and understand it.