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Hypothetical desert island continues to captivate

Monday, February 2, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 1:37 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

It’s the world’s favorite hypothetical situation: being stranded on a desert island.  No matter how cliché it becomes, that scenario shines on with intrigue. But what is it exactly that makes the notion of being isolated on a tropical isle so appealing? There are at least three contexts that provide three different answers (and that variety likely doesn’t hurt its popularity either). 

There is the “What-Would-You-Take” context. Recently, for example, the pastor at my family’s church asked everyone to contemplate what single thing they would take with them to a desert island, assuming they were provided with basic necessities. My father said that he would take cigarettes. My mother said she would take my father — if he were still allowed the cigarettes. If not, she said she would settle for the golden retriever. (I remain dubious about exactly how serious they were being.)

The pastor had asked in order to make a point about the importance of companionship. But the same island-induced, choice-forcing fuels questions about what single food you would take or what single musical album, and those questions never get old. There is a massively popular BBC radio show in the United Kingdom called “Desert Island Discs,” whereon a B list or C list celebrity chooses which eight records they would take if (you guessed it) stranded on a desert island. It sounds all too simple, but listeners have been begging for more since 1942.

The eternal charm of answering this sort of question is that you must entertain notions of sacrifice to arrive at a song or drink or item that most perfectly embodies you. It’s an exercise rich in self-definition. The isolation causes you to decide which of your loves will last, and that decision largely reflects how you see yourself and how you want to be seen. The fun of listening to people answer this sort of question is, of course, that you get to judge them accordingly.

There is also the “Stranded-Primal-Style” context. This is the one behind all of the famous plays ("The Tempest"), books ("Robinson Crusoe"), television shows ("Lost") and movies ("Cast Away") that are based on a stranding event. And there is an entirely different set of reasons that we love this desert island scenario.

Being stranded forces people to reassess their values in a way that few other situations can.  When you’re left with nothing on a desert island, the Monopoly-esque rules which govern society no longer apply. The abundance of leisure time and comfort that leave civilized people so ensconced in themselves and ennui that they sit around and question their purpose in life is (Poof!) taken away.

Needs become basic.  Everything you took for granted — water, food, shelter, safety — becomes of the greatest value. You gain perspective; you develop clear goals; you work hard and are rewarded by discovering your own ingenuity and by getting to stay alive. That latter reward quickly shines through the centuries of ontological hand-wringing to clearly present itself as the indisputable and worthy purpose of life. The Stranded-Primal-Style scenario physically forces you to appreciate normality in a way that no amount of knowledge alone ever could.

Then there is, most obviously, the “Away-From-the-World” context. This is the part of the scenario that kicks in after you’ve built yourself a nice little hut and met up with Friday, so he can do the laundry and hunt for fish. You are removed from all the tedium and difficulty of the workday world and left to lie in the sun.

The appeal of this scenario requires little if any explication. It is worth noting, however, that this version of hypothetical island life is currently on the table as a possible reality. An Australian outfit, Tourism Queensland, is offering an “Island Caretaking” job, the responsibilities of which are to snorkel around the Great Barrier Reef, be pampered at elite resorts, soak up the Aussie sun and then blog about the experience for the masses. The post pays roughly $100,000 for six months “work,” and the only real requirement is to make the hoi polloi writhe with envy. Talk about taxing. 

Sadly, most of us will be left with only the hypothetical island, and with that in mind, I feel we can only end this one way. That is, inevitably, by asking one question: If you were stranded on a desert island with all the basic necessities, what single thing would you take with you?

Personally, I'd have to go with nachos.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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