The Galapagos Affair

How much can you change your life by changing your environment? Leave aside childhood—obviously your environment has a huge influence on how you develop then (they’re your “formative years” after all)—but I mean once you’re grown up, how big a difference does it make to who you are as a person if you are in one environment versus another?

Can a change of environment make you significantly happier? Help you to drop some of your inhibitions and come out of your shell? Enable you to work more efficiently and in general better use your time in the ways you value? Lower your anxiety? Raise your self-esteem and confidence? Or for that matter can a change of environment take you in the other direction in any of these ways?

My first instinct is to say yes, it can change you. It just seems like common sense that our surroundings have a significant impact on us. If you’re in a climate you find pleasing versus one that’s so physically uncomfortable as to be consistently distracting (that’s me, by the way, when it comes to cold; I experience any even slightly cold climate as barely endurable at best whereas I find even very hot climates to be minimally bothersome at worst), if you’re surrounded by primarily people of this type rather than that type, if you’re in an area you experience as having much natural or manmade beauty versus one you experience as the opposite, if you’re in a highly congested urban area versus out “in the middle of nowhere,” it stands to reason, I would think, that such factors would affect your day-to-day happiness, your productivity, your ability to live up to your potential, and the aspects of your personality that develop and flourish versus those that tend more to go into remission.

Many would say that even quite minor such environmental changes can make a significant difference. Well short of relocating to some other part of the country or the world, even things like rearranging how desks are situated in an office or how a person decorates and arranges things in their living space can allegedly have a serious impact. Think “feng shui,” for instance; even if that’s more bullshit than not, it seems unlikely that such factors don’t make at least some difference.

But there’s also evidence that it’s largely illusory to think that we can change our self by changing our environment. (“If only I lived in a warmer climate…,” “If only I were in a more liberal, cosmopolitan area…,” “If only I could get away from all these crowds and this noise and hustle and bustle and live out in the country somewhere…”) Maybe, as they say, “No matter where you go, you can’t escape yourself.”

It could be that if you’re shy and inhibited, you’re pretty much going to be that way wherever you are. Same if you’re a depressive sort of person, or a happy-go-lucky type, or a person who takes joy in living for others, etc. Maybe idiots will still be idiots, saints will still be saints, worrywarts will still be worrywarts, assholes will still be assholes, regardless of where they are.

Which is to say, the basic facts of what kind of person you are—once you’re an adult—either cannot be changed at all, or can only be changed by something other than a change of environment (like, maybe taking certain pharmaceuticals for certain conditions).

I don’t know. Like with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, where putting yourself in a substantially different environment won’t change you as much as you might think, but it also won’t have zero such effects.

At the very least, one would think that an extreme change of environment, like going to prison, would change you substantially (in mostly bad ways). But I’m not so sure even of that. I spent a lot of time with prisoners when I volunteered for a couple of years at a maximum security prison, getting to know some of them quite well, and in that environment there were cheerful people, people who had no conscience that prevented them from victimizing others whenever the opportunity arose, people who sought to live by a moral code, introverted people, people who hated being there but accepted it with a calm and stoic attitude, people who hated being there and were depressed and in despair about it, people who were dynamic natural leaders, etc., and I suspect for the most part they’d have been the same if instead of being in prison they were placed in a country club, the military, a white collar corporate environment, a rural community, or wherever. Maybe they just were who they were.

I interpreted The Galapagos Affair as evidence more toward the “No matter where you go, you can’t escape yourself” end of the scale, where when all is said and done, even a truly radical change of environment leaves you with the same basic personality type, the same strengths and weaknesses, the same tendencies in relationships and interactions with others.

Subtitled Satan Came to Eden, The Galapagos Affair is a documentary set primarily on the island of Floreana, one of the Galapagos Islands, 500-600 miles off the coast of South America and little known for much of anything beyond their unusual flora and fauna and their role in inspiring Charles Darwin’s theorizing about evolution.

In 1929, Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a self-important little German misanthrope who was convinced by his study of Nietzsche that he was an unappreciated Great Man, decided to abandon the world and build a new life from scratch in as remote a land as possible. Accompanied by a lover named Dore who had fallen under his spell (they were each, by the way, already married, but whatever), he established himself on Floreana.

Ritter and Dore were quite happy with the island in the sense that it was as empty of other humans as they had wanted, but getting by turned out to be a lot harder than they had anticipated. Their lives became dominated by seemingly endless physical toil, as they had to build almost everything they needed from scratch, from their dwelling on down.

Much of that was by choice. They could have brought more stuff with them, they could have made trips to inhabited islands not too far away to buy stuff, or they could have been more willing to accept stuff offered to them by the very occasional passing ship that stopped at Floreana (they did accept a modest amount from them, at Dore’s urging as she was a little less hard core about the self-sufficiency thing). But they experienced it as a hardship.

Dore suffered from multiple sclerosis and could only work a modest amount without exhausting herself, but Ritter made sure to regularly push her past that point. He was a stern taskmaster convinced that a Great Man was entitled to ride lesser folks in general as hard as he wanted, and specifically that his riding Dore hard was actually the best therapy for her disability. Working her like a slave was for her own good, in other words.

Despite all the work and the fact that Ritter was something of a prick, they experienced their island adventure as a positive in some respects. They each wrote about their life on Floreana in correspondence back home with friends and in some cases with the press, and they became a small-scale curiosity back in Germany.

The film is constructed in large part from these writings and others, read in voiceovers. For visuals, there is actually considerably more in the way of photos and even home movies of the folks on Floreana at this time than you’d expect. Not nearly as much as you’d ideally want to have for a two-hour documentary to abide by the “show, don’t tell” rule, but it’s not like there are only three or four faded photos that they have to keep showing over and over.

Of course, it’s not as if there are visuals of everything, or that what material exists of various people and events is proportional to their importance to the story. There might be fifty letters, journal entries, transcripts of later interviews, or whatever from this person and five, or zero, from this other person, or dozens of photos and half a dozen old home movie clips of this person and three photos and zero film of this other person. Which has its effects on how the story is told, which perspectives we’re exposed more too, which people are easier to get to know and remember, etc.

In part inspired by what they read of Ritter and Dore, Heinz and Margaret Wittmer, another German couple, decided they were ready to undergo the same challenge. So they too established themselves on Floreana, a little farther inland from the Ritters, where there were some caves that they were able to convert into a tolerable dwelling.

The Ritters were not at all happy about this new development (especially Friedrich; Dore was a bit more ambivalent), as it kind of defeats the purpose of getting away from it all when the all starts following you. But then again, how much can they really complain since it’s not like they tried to keep this all a secret?

I didn’t get the impression that the Wittmers were at the opposite extreme, that they were gregarious folks wanting to hang out with the Ritters all the time, but I think they were open to somewhat more interaction where island life would be mostly about self-sufficiency but neighbors could help out neighbors here and there. Whereas Ritter wanted nothing to do with them.

That was taken to its greatest extreme when Margaret suffered through a difficult pregnancy, and despite Heinz’s pleas Ritter—who was a doctor—was unwilling to check on her and help in any way. Finally, he did grudgingly accompany Heinz back home when she almost died giving birth, and gave her whatever minimal medical attention he was willing to give.

The Wittmers raised a family, and in interviews we hear from and of some of their kids and other descendants, other Europeans on other more populated islands that interacted occasionally with the people on Floreana, other locals and historians who have opinions on all the happenings on Floreana, etc. My attention flagged a bit at times watching this documentary, and I sometimes lost track of who was who, especially when it went off onto what felt like tangents about other islands, other generations, etc.

But my attention definitely did not flag when it came to the next folks to arrive on Floreana.

Enter the Baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet, a young, toothy, scantily clad lass, spoiled, entitled, convinced that anyone she encountered—male especially—would eagerly do her bidding just because, imperious, supremely confident, selfish, hot-tempered, apt to strut about with a pistol and whip, accompanied by two young fellows that she made no secret were her lovers that she kept in line by alternating bestowing her favors upon them and lashing out at them violently and who she made sure understood that they would have to share her with anyone else she chose to allow to similarly serve her. In other words she lacked pretty much any redeeming qualities as a human being, and yes, was as hot as that sounds.

Shortly after her arrival, she simply proclaimed herself the Empress of Floreana, which, being hot, she was entitled to do (and after all it had worked with claiming to be a baroness), and announced that she was building a hotel on the island (or at least her two minions were doing so, though I’m sure she was happy to participate as far as supervising and collecting any eventual profits).

I don’t remember if the film specified that Floreana was completely uninhabited when the Ritters arrived, but that’s the impression I had. By the time the Baroness—sorry, Empress—and her servants got settled I believe the Wittmers had had their first couple of kids. So the population of Floreana had gone from two when the Ritters delighted in having this unspoiled wilderness all to themselves to nine, an increase of 350 percent in three or four years or whatever it had been, which put Friedrich Ritter in about the mood you’d expect.

I don’t think these three little groups were super close to each other. I don’t remember how much detail they give on that in the film, but I pictured the Wittmers maybe a 45 minute to an hour walk inland (and walking is what you’d be doing; it’s not like there were roads and motor vehicles) from the Ritters, and the Empress and her minions maybe a 20 to 30 minute walk down the coast—so not like they could look out the window and see each other, or like they interacted every day or anything—but I’m not sure.

The “hotel” is a bit of a mystery to me too. I don’t believe they ever show it, presumably because no photo or film of it exists. Or maybe they show it and I just didn’t realize that’s it. I don’t know that it was anything more than, say, two or three Gilligan’s Island-style huts that “guests” could stay in; it’s hard to imagine it as a hotel hotel, like some multistory building like what we think of as a hotel. Nor is much said about where any guests came from there at the end of the world, or if it was ever successful in any sense.

Like I say, once in a blue moon a ship stopped on the island, as much out of curiosity to see these few oddball inhabitants as anything, and maybe once word got out that there was a “hotel” modestly more such ships stopped there and people stayed overnight in said hotel, and maybe that was enough for it to be successful.

Also, it turns out the hoteliers’ ménage à trois was evidently not always a happy one. Though they implied that they all slept in the same bed, one of them seemed to be more the Empress’s favorite, and she—sometimes perhaps with his assistance—on occasion delighted in being particularly abusive and humiliating toward the other. It sometimes went far enough that the victim would run to the Ritters’, screaming that he couldn’t take it anymore, that she was surely going to kill him this time, etc, only to soon enough go crawling back to her for another fix to satisfy his masochism.

Late in the film we learn more about the Empress’s past—where she was probably from, what is known about her previous escapades, how she hooked up with these two blokes, whether she is in any literal sense a baroness, etc.—at least the little that is known of her.

We also get to see a 4-minute short film starring the Empress’s nipples in its entirety, which was shot on the island. It’s a bizarre treat.

It was made by a sea captain who also fancied himself a part time movie director (not exactly occupational roles I think of as going together, but never mind), who had befriended the island’s inhabitants, especially the Empress, on his occasional visits. Though this was the 1930s and talkies had been around for about a decade, it’s a silent film that looks more like something from, say, 1910 or 1915. The production values are roughly on the level of a few films I made with friends (actually I don’t know that we ever completed even one of them, so maybe I should say a few films I started with friends) many decades ago in sixth grade.

And I mean that comparison literally. This film has a man playing a female character where the only costume per se is a wig (which is sliding off during the scene anyway), and only the barest trace of a plot with no clear beginning, middle, or end—which is very much at the level I and my buddies were operating on in sixth grade.

In the film, the Empress is some kind of greedy, Machiavellian pirate, and her shtick is that she uses her irresistible sex appeal to manipulate people to victimize others for her benefit and then she betrays and victimizes them so that she can keep all the ill-gotten gain for herself. In other words, it’s not exactly a stretch for her as an actress.

Anyway, the crazy thing is I’ve gotten this far and I really haven’t even mentioned the main thing that The Galapagos Affair is about. I mean, in its way it’s an overview of why these various folks chose to come to this extraordinarily isolated spot, what their early years on the island were like, etc., but beyond that there is a specific, narrower story that is at the center of the film.

And that is a murder mystery of sorts. For it turns out that a couple of the island’s inhabitants disappeared in a way that makes it very likely they were murdered. This was followed soon after by another of them dying an accidental death (in bizarre circumstances that indicated that he may have been fleeing because he was the murderer, or because he feared he’d be falsely accused of murder, or because he feared he’d be the next one murdered) and another dying a natural death (with some chance it was not a natural death, but another murder).

This long after the fact, it’s not possible to know for sure who was guilty of what. The (few) survivors each had their story that they stuck with to their deaths, and though those stories are far from convincing there’s no contrary version of events that can be proven. There’s enough evidence for speculation, though, even if no definitive solution to the mystery is possible.

But to return to my opening point, one of the things I’m most struck by about the story is how these people made about as radical a change in their environment as can be imagined, yet seemed to stay very much the same. I mean, Ritter was totally Ritterlike in how he dominated his lover, was unwelcoming toward others, and in general arrogantly lived his life on Floreana; the Empress was as satanically sexy as an empress as she had evidently been as a baroness, etc. Kooks remained kooks, people who couldn’t get along with others still couldn’t get along with others, and people who had manifested a disposition to get caught up in petty bullshit once again got caught up in petty bullshit as soon as there were enough people on the island for that opportunity to arise.

Their life was very different from what it had been, but they were not. Unless you want to make the case that in this new environment they were different in the sense of being significantly worse, since probably at least one of them became a murderer. But in any case, when all was said and done, even in going to the ends of the earth they never really escaped themselves.

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