ESSAYS Mousse 30
Melete (“The Society Islands”)
by Mark von Schlegell
Illustration by Franco Brambilla, 2011.
Mark von Schlegell has a Gauguinish job offer, to move to the archipelago of Tahiti, but to an island that has not been contaminated. Such decision can only be made after careful research. So the author circumnavigates his own head, repeatedly. What emerges from the telluric landslide is Melete, the land of Clear Art and granitic Judges.
The name Melete designates both a volcano and a singular island, as well as a conglomeration of islands and infinitesimals, the so-called Society Islands, within the confines of the island proper. Melete, like most such protrusions, is volcanic in origin.
Otherwise its geology is as out-of-the-ordinary as its cultural history. It constitutes its own proliferation of islands within that fascinating “Proliferation of Islands” in the northern hemisphere of the Mareassic Epoch.
The situation at Melete, or so the previous Curator writes, is peculiarly interesting in regards to certain debates of her predecessors concerning the nature of islands in general and whether they constitute a foundational paradox in our great Encyclopedia . The problem, as she puts it, comes down to this. “It is as an island that any island is convenient to the implementation of a utopian model. But it is as an island that any island is proportionally inconvenient for the upkeep and continuation of the utopia. An islander is self-consciously aware of the possibility of other utopias. One is, in fact, trapped on any island.” Somewhat scandalously, the previous Curator hints that in the island context any utopia is thus easily tending toward the dystopic and no utopia at all. If Melete is within the set of islands so classified by our Encyclopedia, she argues, it is as the perfect exception to this rule. In response, the current Curator only goes so far as to add to the debate his pet principle of the utopia-within-a-utopia. He writes, “The Society Islands in fact managed to engineer the very principle of islands to ensure their utopia’s survival. Everywhere within Bowl Melete new utopias are possible and expected. Nevertheless,were Melete not itself a set of landforms surrounded by water, the special situation distinguishing it would not exclude a simple Gaean generalist state. One might simply be writing of Earth itself as an island”.
Melete is positioned at 9° 75’ N, 179° E by Quinnian’s Compass. Islanders believe, rightly, that the specificity of their location has everything to do with the peculiar pursuit of the supreme, alive excellence of “Clear Art” that governs all their days and deeds. Every inhabitant is a self-conscious artist, and aestheticism extends into every possible practice.
A tectonic megaquake thrust cooling remnants of the great undersea volcano out of the saline hydrosphere into the post-Laurii atmosphere. Soon after, most of the enormous crater’s floor collapsed to expose a mighty aquifer – fresh jugular of a planetary artery untapped since the Pleonastic Age. Bowl Melete reaches some 1,000 kilometers at its widest diameter. Inside, warm, clear, bubbling, abundant, ever-transforming fresh water extends to extraordinarily deep tendrils, so “high” in regions as to be of unknown depth. Some believe the Mirror of the Sea tendril passes clear through the Earth entire.
The bowl’s surface reflects extraordinary views on the rare occasion it is undisturbed. The “Plethora” of habitable islands appears atop compressed and complicated crags, as steep underwater as the bowl is deep. To submariners the arches of stone and clear ether give the impression of magnificent cathedrals of sublime, literally unfathomable dimensions. It is perhaps a result of such changing, continually visual grandeur in nature that architecture is one of the rare arts practiced by the islanders with little seriousness or ambition.
Melete’s rim (“Framer’s Frame,” in local parlance), formed by coral reefs growing from the outer rim and slopes of the ancient volcano, protects the crater’s interior with a ragged, almost un-navigable barrier. On the inner side of Framer’s Frame, the geology is distinguished by outcroppings of obsidian whose fractious encounters with lava and boiling water have left them folded, pressed, and uncannily similar to petrified skin on impossibly ancient bodies. On four points of the inner Frame’s edge conglomerations have emerged which from most angles, at certain distances, resemble enormous faces of precise delineation whose expressions change with every shift of light and position. These are known as the Jury. The islanders work and play at all times beneath their consistently apparent, often ironic gaze. The sense of impending judgment this neverending scrutiny inspires does away entirely with the necessity of criticism.
Clear Art is that point beyond the finest application of knowledge and skill where the artist occupies that level of reality the Jury cannot see. Clear Art makes visible the very invisibility of beauty, leading the enormous gazing faces to ever-new and potential delightenment.
Clear Art is perceived to be without value. Minerals—glass, iron, magnesium, gold—are bountiful in the Frame, though modestly extracted. The intensity of the labor required to mine, and the altogether chaotic situation of everyday life on the islands, has made recycling more fruitful than extracting ore.
Upon the Plethora, many islets are considerably elevated, some higher than the rim itself, with several peaks rising from 6,000 meters in Nuula to 5,500 meters (Muna) in Savai. The principal human settlements are upon 14 so-called Haven islets, forming a slightly curved chain from west by north to east by south, as follows: Sallmoan, Mammon, Ollopa, Backus, Cheever’s Nose, Knack, Mumn, Nut, Nuul, Treehut, Flaneuve, Off, Senga, Mulliner’s, and Anus Isle. The principals among these, prone to urban settlements, are Sallmoan (area 860 sq. km., population 13,200), Mammon (area 540 sq. km., population 18,400), Ollopa (area 88 sq. km., population 3800), and the Nut group (area 58 sq. km., population 2000), which includes Nut, Tau, Off, and Senga. The total population of Melete ranges from about 21,000 to 39,000 throughout the centuries of its inhabitation.
The climate is moist, sometimes oppressively hot or briefly cool. When not storming, weather is pleasant on the whole. A warm season extends from April to September; a wet season from October to March. It snows only on the crest of Huuala. Strong winds prevail yearlong, providing mill energy and driving all transportation. The southeasterly trades temper the summer heat; westerly winds supervene from January to February.
Vegetation is tropical, with the exception of Anus Isle, a stinkswamp islet rich in dingleberries and natural gas 70 meters east of its nearest neighbor – where local art is of negative value. Everywhere else, the Society Islands are remarkable for the luxury and beauty of their ever-evolving tree ferns, creepers and parasites. Evolutions of the redwood, the coco palm and the breadfruit challenge sculptors; there are at least forty varieties of the one, twenty of the other. The genetic variations of the spreadfruit are uncounted, so avid has been the local cultivation of this delicious neotuber. Handtimbered bamboo, quick-growing and easily manipulated for use in boat building, platforming, inspires the practical arts. Everywhere its natural aesthetics give sober contrast to the extravagances of the natural situation.
The islanders are of a particularly healthy and well-adapted physique. They tend to have brown-colored skin and present handsome, regular features, with an average height of two meters. Their idolatry (polytheistic, superstitious, or atheist) is unaccompanied by human sacrifice, whether practical or enshrined in legend. The previous Curator writes: “Religion tends to be symbolic and hedonistic, purposefully and unnaturally severe, or comically absurd.”
Of the multitudinous Society fauna, perhaps the most singular is the Tridunculus strigirostris, a cyclopian ground pigeon of iridescent greenish black and bright pink plumage, which forms a link between the extinct dodo and the still-to-come Icklessionus residere. The Plethora ecosystem is otherwise dominated by castaway species of other islands and lost continents of the epoch. Humans, pigs, water rats, resurgent redwoods, and highly evolved, modularly self-replicating bamboos are prevalent. Parrots, eagles, seafowl, and other birds from all over the world continually permeate the sky. Furpenguins congregate in the often craggy shores of the Frame, and maintain a protocivilization on the outer rim. Other life around the islands, in the water and the air, is so peculiar and abundant, so ever-evolving, that it is difficult to describe even generally. The fish shine with color and pattern that inspire and out-do human attempts at abstract twodimensional art.
Chance and natural events, are a rich part of everyday life and tradition, controlling population growth of all species and inspiring variation. Although the great volcano is quiescent, the Society Islands are subject to eruptive disturbances at least once every several decades. The weather is extremely variable. Hurricanes are tamed by the Frame into constant and violent squalls and typhoons. Sailors can be swallowed at any moment in sudden geysers. Heat bubbles can blow a lily pad crop to smithereens at harvest time, or re-form the surface of an island overnight. Floating gold leaf from time to time turns whole towns to shimmering marvels, splashing the Jury’s jowls with light. The arbitrary quality of the natural history is celebrated in the multiplicity of the arts that celebrate and memorialize it.
Cultural history is preserved by storytelling. Every individual is a fanatical follower of various artists of the past, and tells stories promoting the problem of art as a problem of the will.
Art in all disciplines is both revolutionary and reactionary, but seldom in-between. The Jury views it all, so long as a work differentiates itself. Variation, eccentricity, and difference are so regular as to demand from each individual artist the willingness to, or refusal to, change. Those perverts and insane who choose to wall out private parts from the gaze are left to their own devices.
Fully aestheticized, war indistinguishable from sport, and claims few victims. The loser almost always wins.
Sailing is by general consensus considered the clearest art. In no other activity, it is believed, can such a particular possible excellence and proficiency be glimpsed tending to that visible, proven grace that is wider still and transparent. Swift and exciting, fraught with danger, loss and gain, sailing on the Society Islands makes use of the peculiar swirls of the bowl’s currents to astonish the Jury with feats of speed, navigation and nautical engineering. Great tales are told of the greatest captains. Surfers, collectors, ballooners, and submariners compete with flair, but too often disappear altogether from the sight of the Jury to swell in cultural relevance.
Writing and reading are unknown. All communication is nuncupatory or signed. As every art aspires to the fine, every tale is tall. Tales are told of artists, who tell special versions of the tales themselves in most tales. People use a bewildering variety of languages, peculiar to discipline and location to celebrate beloved virtuosos. Individuals often are fluent in more than a dozen tongues, employing innumerable variations of slang in each. Sallmoan is the most archaic of all the Meleten tongues, and alone still preserves a poetic tradition. Sallmoan is famous for its great stonework slabs, the origin of which remains mysterious. They are the work of a previous ancient civilization of whom memory has been lost, or of an unknown anonymous collective of extraordinary ambition. Their mystery is celebrated yearly in festivals, drawing radicals and conservatives alike from points all across the Plethora.
The coherence of certain intergenerational projects and settlements is old enough to maintain traditions of peculiar depth and richness on many islands. Surprising penetrations are rung out and remembered; discoveries of new modes of picturing through Clear Art erupt volcanically into networks of communication. Ballooners from Huuala, it is believed, using only local materials, have reached the Moon and Old Mars. Except in the Nuts and on Cheever’s Nose, famous for pride and cosmopolitan travel, ostentatious luxury is frowned upon. Every artist is an island and lives accordingly.
Perhaps because of the cacophonic insect chirping and birdsongs (as well as melodic natural bamboo) music is rudimentary and dominated by narrative song.
Most of the fourteen Havens have traditional and memorial cultural centers, celebrating various locally inherited arts. Artist-run galleries and artist-funded museums are the norm, set up atop plateaus in easy view of the Jury.
There is an imperial governor of all Melete, who has under him a high chief assisted by a high council. These functionaries are elected yearly by popular hand-vote in Nut Harbor. Only the minority interested in local games of power pay attention to their decrees. Unless the Island is threatened by war or foreign invasions – both rare occurrences – the government’s function is limited to maintaining order in urban centers and establishing safe routes of trade. Otherwise its role is chiefly symbolic and its practitioners quite alien to the other islanders. In this, the government serves an important function in local life. The previous Curator writes: “The ‘empire’ draws a particularly difficult minority (those inclined toward bureaucracy and social climbing) into its clubby complexities, where their personal perversions will do the least damage to society at large. Meanwhile the debaucheries of the political arts tend to inspire energetic, subversive counterculture defined by the arts of trade, hunting, exploration, homesteading, piracy, and the love of gold.”
New islets are often available for groupings of artists or individual settlement. If one can float the bamboo and bring along a fishing pole or two, there’s no reason a homestead can’t be erected anywhere to begin to show the Jury a thing or two about resilience. Small, highly individual structures stand on stilts over simple rocks, often dotting the visible horizon with eccentric sculptural statements. Here perhaps a traditional “flotty” with its ricket weir and old-fashioned translational windows, there a tesseract fluter, refining the possibilities of gardening for all time.
Individuals, even if they specialize, are usually adept at all sorts of activities, including sewing, gardening, hand-to-hand combat, and high-altitude balloon construction. For the purposes of survival alone, one’s knowledge is necessarily expansive. Every artist practices numerous disciplines. Children are sent to sailing schools as soon as they can walk, where they also learn the rudiments of language, hydraulics, and solar mechanics. Otherwise education varies locally. Though one might be raised according to the most bizarre fictional superstitions, as soon as one can sail, one is free to “ride like the wind” and inscribe one’s experience on the ever-changing slate of the ever-deep world in pursuit of Clear Art. The artistic temperament, of course, is highly sensitive, and it is perhaps for this reason that hospitality is extraordinarily generous throughout the Plethora.
Many older artists are gardeners, fishers, or golf-warriors. They enjoy the pastoral life, mild climate, and relaxed social regulations, and often spend their evenings keeping track of current developments in the arts in public houses or clubs. Not only to individuals concern themselves with individual practice and artistry but each life is peculiarly understood as an aesthetic expression of its own—a “lifeswork.”
Every lifeswork on Melete is peculiarly heroic or anti-heroic, but there is no telling exactly what a hero or anti-hero may be. A lifeswork can prove tragic, comical, philosophical, despicable, misogynistic, feministic, sadistic, masochistic, modern, postmodern, romantic, enlightened, mysterious, fruitless, abstract, sentimentally resonant—even maniacally minimalistic. In this regard, life on the Society Islands, the previous Curator argues, is particularly novelistic.
On Melete, suicide is the normal way of death. Any other mode of expiration is considered unlucky. By choosing the moment and method of death, the individual seals his or her finis on the lifeswork, and gains a key influence on the future assessment of his or her achievements. “For only after death,” writes the previous, “comes Judgment.”
This practice accounts for the high level of achievement pursued in all the arts. Rendered exact by selected witnesses, spurred on and sustained by discriminating praise, it is when an artist intuits that the non-place of Clear Art has been reached (what the Jury cannot see) that he or she tends to sign the lifeswork. What else would there be to achieve? Revolutionaries and romantics die early. Careers rarely drag on into delinquency. Those individuals who choose to live for centuries tend to believe the barrier to Clear Art cannot be crossed. They attempt only to approach its event horizon ever more precisely. For these old ones the bondage of art is especially exacting.
 The New Terran Encyclopedia of Preserved Utopias, edition unlimited.
 The term “Sallmoan” itself, originally “Salmon,” is supposed to have been carried by the founding wanderers over the oceans in a remembered poem.
Originally published on Mousse 30 (October-November 2011)