Desert Island Days

And still they come — for good reason, I’ll argue below. Desert Island (or DI [*note]) cartoons (DIcs), two in today’s catch: a Wayno/Piraro Bizarro DIc from 8/26 (with a contentedly solitary DIslander); and a JAK (Jason Adam Katzenstein) DIc from the 8/30 New Yorker (with two DIslanders contemplating a pile of unread messages in a bottle). Plus a bonus appendix on that great icon of DIslanders, Ben Gunn.

[* as I’ve started to call them, begging the tolerance of any Detective Inspectors who might be reading this blog]

The toons. First, “Today’s Isolationist Comic” (as Wayno calls it; Peter Stenshoel suggests “One Man Is an Island”); meanwhile the caption in the cartoon is a sweet pun, confinement vs. contentment — sweet, because the strip shows a man confined to his DI, but contented with his circumstances (so both nouns apply):


(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

The scene should call to your mind other writers and artists enjoying their solitude, celebrating it: Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Virginia Woolf in the room of her own, Pablo Picasso’s “Without great solitude, no great work is possible”, and so on


(#2) From WikipediaTsundoku is acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. It is also used to refer to books ready for reading later when they are on a bookshelf. The term originated in the Meiji era (1868–1912) as Japanese slang.

Imagine a lawyer or any sort of caseworker at their desk, with files piled high on it and around it, addressing a client; or two people (of whatever genders, race/ethnicities, etc.) lying post-coitally under the sheets in bed, with a huge pile of books or magazines (New Yorkers, maybe) on the floor alongside the bed, one addressing the other sheepishly. There are other possibilities.

The DI cartoon meme. From my 8/12/21 posting “The Desert Islanders get visitors” (about a Frank Cotham cartoon):

The Desert Island cartoon meme stands out among memes as having a premise that’s connected to reality by the slenderest of threads, shrinking the fantasy of a desert island to the barest of minimums: ten feet or so across, with one or two castaways, a sole palm tree that seems never to bear fruit of any kind (no coconuts, no dates, nothing) and seems much too small to offer any shade in the tropical heat, and with no visible source of fresh water and no visible way to acquire any non-palm food. Yet the castaways endure.

In fact, the DI meme is so minimal, so sketchy, in what it supplies in the way of actual details that it can serve as a kind of open form for content, so that the fictive DI world (small in more than one sense) can be translated into various real worlds (some alternatives suggested above for #1 and #2).

Several other cartoon memes are similarly flexible: Caveman and Dog Walks Into Bar, for example.

Bonus appendix on the iconic DI: Treasure Island (in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book and in movies and plays based on the book) and the character I view as unifying the story and so as central to it, Ben Gunn. (I hold similar opinions about Papageno in The Magic Flute and Emory in The Boys in the Band; I realize that many would think these are eccentric opinions.)

Ben, talking about his time on Treasure Island, is also the source of a great encomium to toasted cheese:

many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly — and woke up again, and here I were

From Wikipedia on Treasure Island:

Ben Gunn is an ex-crewman of Captain Flint’s who has been marooned for three years on Treasure Island by his crewmates, after his failure to find the treasure without the map. During his time alone on the island, Gunn develops an obsessional craving for cheese. He first appears in the novel when [young] Jim Hawkins [who supplies the first-person narration for most of the novel] encounters him. Ben treats Jim kindly in return for a chance of getting back to civilization.


(#3) Spike Milligan playing Ben Gunn in Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1974

[Gunn had the treasure hidden for some time in his cave. The pirates are defeated. Then:]

The treasure is divided amongst Squire Trelawney and his loyal men, including Jim and Ben Gunn (who gets a very small share, £1000 of £700,000 total), and they return to England, leaving the surviving pirates marooned on the island.

Once in England, Gunn manages to spend his entire portion of the treasure in just a few days and becomes a porter for the rest of his life.

(To other characters, Ben at times seems to be mentally defective, driven insane by his years alone on the island, merely weak-willed, or deviously shrewd. If you think of him as a protagonist, then he’s very much a flawed one.)

The photo in #3. I’d originally intended to use a still of Ben and Jim from the wonderful 1934 film adaptation of the book (the book and this film were treasures of my childhood), but then I found this photo of Spike Milligan as Ben. I was then sure I’d posted about Spike Milligan, but apparently not. So from Wikipedia on this extraordinary character:

Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan KBE (16 April 1918 – 27 February 2002) was a British-Irish actor, comedian, writer, musician, poet, and playwright. The son of an Irish father and an English mother, Milligan was born in India, where he spent his childhood, relocating to live and work the majority of his life in the United Kingdom. Disliking his first name, he began to call himself “Spike” after hearing the band Spike Jones and his City Slickers on Radio Luxembourg.

Milligan was the co-creator, main writer and a principal cast member of the British radio programme The Goon Show, performing a range of roles including the Eccles and Minnie Bannister characters. He was the earliest-born and last surviving member of the Goons. Milligan parlayed success with the Goon Show into television with Q5, a surreal sketch show credited as a major influence on the members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Milligan suffered seriously from wide-swinging bipolar disorder, which provided the basis for his wildly manic performances (radio, tv, film, and stage). An inspired choice to play the rather deranged, cheese-obsessed Ben Gunn.

2 Responses to “Desert Island Days”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Although I don’t think I ever thought of it this way before, I find myself sympathetic to your views on Ben Gunn. I’m also surprised to learn (it’s many years since I read the book) that his isolation had only been three years; I’m pretty sure that it felt longer than that when I read it.

    One detail that I remember is that when the pirates finally start their march towards the “cache”, they are distracted by the voice of a hidden Ben singing the frequently-referenced “pirate song” (“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest”, etc.), and are terrified at first, thinking that it’s the ghost of Captain Flint, but then decide that it’s only the ghost of Ben Gunn (who they suppose to also be deceased); this causes them to relax, because “Dead or alive, nobody minds Ben Gunn”.

    I’ll have to think about Emory and Papageno.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    By the way, by a quite remarkable coincidence, the song referenced above (the lyrics, that is – if there’s a tune associated with them, it’s unknown to me) came unbidden into my head as I was falling asleep last night, followed by a recollection of Stevenson’s account of the return journey, with its comment that “drink and the devil” had indeed “done for the rest”.

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