I’ve always loved islands more than the mainland. They’re cut off from the world at large, leaving you feeling a sense of isolation on even the busiest, most tourist-infested rock. The smaller the island, though, the deeper and wider the seas around it, the better.
My imagined paradise is a tiny, sandy spit of land covered in vegetation and surrounded by an impassable sea of turquoise water. And, of course, it wouldn’t be paradise if it weren’t empty of other people – better yet, left off the map entirely.
Owen Wilson’s character in “Midnight in Paris” laments the fact that he wasn’t born in the Jazz Age – the 1920s – with its carefree living, tireless optimism, and creative spirit. I mourn not having been born in the Age of Discovery, that exhilarating period between the early 15th and late 18th centuries when maps had no borders and the uncharted seas were still haunted by monsters. What’s left to discover in the 21st century?
Nothing. Everything has long since been found. Over time, as more and more of the world was discovered, mapped, and named, even those places that no one would ever mistake for paradise were sought out. Antarctica, the North and South Poles, the summit of Everest.
Today, the richest among us talk about venturing to Mars and other uninhabitable planets even further out. Mars? Please. Mars doesn’t even amount to scraps from the table where history’s greatest discovers dined. Even if it hadn’t already been discovered, stepping foot on its sparse red rock sounds far closer to hell than paradise.
But uninhabitable space rocks are all that’s left. Discoverers and their exploratory vessels have gone the way of the dodo, of the corner bookstore. It’s a chapter in time that’s already been written and all that’s left for us is to try and amend it by attaching an asterisk next to the name of Christopher Columbus with words to the effect of “he wasn’t a very nice guy.”
Columbus Day is no longer a day to reflect or aspire to make discoveries of our own – hopeless as that may be – but to protest the man.
“The day was never about the man, it was about the accomplishment – the discovery!”
Of course it’s about the man! The man and the discovery are forever intertwined. Those voracious opponents of a day on a calendar named after Columbus know this, and they’re protesting not the demise of indigenous peoples – that’s merely a cover to make it seem as if their desires weren’t purely selfish – they’re protesting Columbus, as the foremost representative of the Age of Discovery, and a world that’s already been named.
To protest the day is the greatest act of nihilism of all, but it’s the only natural reaction because with nothing left to discover maybe life really is meaningless. To live in a world that’s already been named after those who have long since left it means we’ve been left with nothing.
Today we use the word “discover” to refer to a restaurant our friends don’t know about, a foreign beach in a secluded cove that only the locals know, an author whose name has long since been forgotten.
We take pride in these “discoveries” because all the truly important ones have already been made. We denigrate the original discoverers because we want to be them, but can’t. We hate because we live in a world that really ended when the sun set on the Age of Discovery.
Paradise has already been found by others, which has made it lost forever to us.