'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
Get Adobe Flash player

Robinson Crusoe

By John Kendall Hawkins

Those Ancient Men of Genius who rifled Nature by the Torch-Light of Reason even to her very Nudities, have been run a-ground in this unknown Channel; the Wind has blown out the Candle of Reason, and left them all in the Dark.

    • Daniel Defoe, The Storm (1704)

When author James Dunkerley tells would-be readers of Crusoe and his Consequences that the first thing they should do before reading his book is re-visit Defoe’s castaway saga, I let out a groan. Such re-reading is a sensible approach. But I never got over the many troubling questions I was left with after making my way through the thick underbrush of Defoe’s prose some 30 years ago in an undergraduate course called Adventure: Art and Literature.

Consider this: Over the many decades, Robinson Crusoe has been transmogrified from the lurid tale of selfishness, hypocrisy, insistent self-destructiveness, emotional shallowness, and so on, into a work of self-reliance and “rugged individualism.” What I remember about Crusoe, at my peril, are unresolved questions and the nagging feeling that I was being pushed to celebrate a literary asshole. (What, I thought, I should read Justine next and see heroism?)

Crusoe is from the beginning neither a father-fearing nor a God-fearing son; there’s nothing Byronic about him (he doesn’t have Don Juan’s libido); and while he sees an early near-drowning at sea as a sign of God’s wrath for his insubordination, a night of swashbuckling tankard-tipping sea-chantey drunkenness at the local tavern drowns his imploration to God, the Latter’s warning lost in the morning-after wreckage of his hangover. He’s a hopeless, faithless sinner, and he knows it. He tells us, “[W]e went the old way of all sailors; the punch was made, and I was made drunk with it, and in that one night’s wickedness I drowned all my repentance, all my reflections upon my past conduct, and all my resolutions for the future.”

So many questions: To make the ‘self-isolationist’ Crusoe an admirable “rugged individualist,” we have to conveniently forget his intersections with slavery. Following his aforementioned hangover, Crusoe sails again into sudden stormy seas and gets taken into slavery by a boorish Moorish pirate off Sallee (Morocco). He escapes, after two years, with the help of a boy named Xury; who he sells, (after conning Xury’s help with, “If you will be faithful to me, I will make you a great man…”) essentially as a slave, to a Portuguese captain on his way to Brazil, who shows Crusoe God’s kindness, and gets him to the New World, where he sets up a very successful colonial tobacco plantation. He pretends to be a Papist to collect the cash.

Middle Way style, Crusoe gets bored shitless after a few years of hardly earned success (and, incidentally, never writes home to Ma and Pa to say he’s still alive), signs on to a conspiracy with fellow planters to import slaves — through the so-called Atlantic Middle Passage — from Africa. (The same Africa from which he and Xury barely escaped in terror.) On his fateful journey, God shoots another warning across his moral bow (i.e., his ship sinks in another storm and he’s the sole soul survivor) and washes him up on his bespoke fatal ashore, which he later refers to as “the Island of Despair” — not a Hell so much as a Purgatory full of all the material trappings of the Middle Class he rejected.

Let’s recall that, in a series of raft trips to and from the grounded ship, the stranded Crusoe manages to salvage just about every possible useful item from the fully laden ship. He rescues “the seamen’s chests…filled with provisions…bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh…cordial waters…five or six gallons of sack…two or three bags full of nails and spikes, a great screwjack, a dozen or two of hatchets…a grindstone…two or three iron crows…muskets… powder more…all the men’s clothes…a spare fore-topsail, hammock, and some bedding…small ropes and rope twine…spare canvas…a great hogshead of bread, and three large runlets of rum or spirits, and a box of sugar, and a barrel of fine flour…” And that’s just after three of the dozen trips he made.

His Island of Despair has goats, seals, penguins, tortoises, fowl, eggs and, of course, fish. His fields are fecund and willing partners in his myriad agricultural schemes that gladly yield the corn, barley, and rice that fire up his quarantine quest to make loaves of multi-grain bread. Domesticated goats provide “two gallons of milk” per day. The island trees and vines are falling over themselves to provide bananas, grapes, cocoa, coconuts, mangoes….He builds a fenced-in “fortress,” his main abode, but has two other retreats on remote parts of the island, as well as his “apartment in the tree.”

At one point, he gets sleepy after smoking “tobacco,” which suggests it could be wacky tobacky. (The Portuguese were profligate slavers, and dagga-smoking was widespread among Africans.) He wakes up and finds himself a jack of all trades: he’s a potter; a farmer; an iron smith; a housebuilder; a boat builder. He’s the ship’s dog and two cats. And, many years later, when he nabs Friday, after the latter manages to barely (and nakedly) escape from cannibals, he’s got himself a slave again. You “Friday,” Me “Master,” he tells the dinner escapee, who probably felt like he’d gone from the pot (which Crusoe has plenty of) into the fire. Poor Friday, cracker want another polly. What more could a Middle Class man want?

Still, we seem content dealing with updated versions of Crusoe; okay with seeing him as an inspiring “rugged individualist,” or Republican (or, these days, even a Joe Biden Democrat), stripped of moral meat by a form of censorship that turns the story into pablum for young minds, such as in the 1918 Educational Publishing Company version titled, An American Robinson Crusoe for American Boys and Girls, which begins, “There once lived in the city of New York, a boy by the name of Robinson Crusoe.” Why bother re-reading the original 18th century novel, with its difficult English, political and social concerns we find it hard to relate to, religious intensity we can’t fathom, and a “hero” some find difficult to like?

In Crusoe and His Consequences, Dunkerley performs a kind of stock-taking of the tale after 300 years, and concedes that Crusoe’s character can seem “unedifying,” especially his post-Island return to England, where he spends no time remembering his long-dead parents, and is quick to go abroad again (by sea) after his wife dies suddenly. Crusoe’s young children are fobbed off in the process. It “[makes] you wonder,” Dunkerley wrote in a private email, “if Defoe is setting [Crusoe] and us up.” It’s true, a thoughtful re-reading of the ‘parable’ will make you wonder if Defoe is not pulling your leg.

Dunkerley divides Crusoe and His Consequences into two sections: “Crusoe” and “Defoe.” “Crusoe” is essentially a synopsis of the novel, and “Defoe” is a critical biographical appraisal of the author. Dunkerley makes it clear that his book is not an advanced academic study; there is plenty of scholarly analysis out there already. (Even Marx has a go in Das Kapital.) But Dunkerley proposes a literate person’s guide to a review of what is widely regarded as the first English “realist” novel. Dunkerley is interested in discovering “why a narrative text that is in so many ways a dreadful mess has come to be ‘a classic’, not just in literary terms but in those of economics (‘political arithmetick’), politics, and popular culture as well.”

As his simple book partition suggests, Dunkerley wants to separate Crusoe from his author. The simplest way to do that is to remind the reader that Defoe went on to write three other novels, widely regarded as masterpieces: Moll Flanders, Roxana, and A Journal of the Plague. He is by no means a one-trick literary pony. In addition, Dunkerley describes Defoe as “the first professional journalist.” He was a ferocious, energetic journo, who was deeply ensconced in the politics of the time. Like his contemporary Jonathan Swift, Defoe operated his own newspaper, The Review, the reportage and commentary of which became the catalyst for coffeehouse talk. (Coffeehouses helped expand the ‘public sphere’ and created locales for the dissemination of ideas — old and new.)

Dunkerley points out that Defoe “as a journalist…set about his new trade in an innovative and engaging manner,” including, for instance, in his accounts of the Great Storm of November 1703, which is described, in the introduction to Defoe’s The Storm, as still “the worst storm in British history…An extratropical cyclone of unusual ferocity,” Defoe used “eyewitness accounts of the experience of the tempest.” Previously it had been Voice of God reporting on secondary accounts. The Storm, along with an account of Scottish privateer Alexander Selkirk’s real-life experience as a castaway on an uninhabited island from 1704-09, were inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

To comprehend Defoe more deeply we have to remember that he lived during The Age of Enlightenment, which followed, after a while, from the Dark Ages. He grew up in a time of great natural disasters, not only experiencing the Great Storm, but he was also grew up during the Great Plague of London (1665-6), which killed an estimated 100,000 people, and that was followed, a year later, by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed approximately 70% of London, including, writes Dunkerley, “ninety churches.”

Dunkerley also does a good job engaging the reader in the political milieu of Defoe’s time. The American Constitution (just down the historical road) calls for a separation of Church and State — don’t mix them, don’t talk about them at dinner: things get thrown and overthrown. Dunkerley brings to life the dynamism of battles between Protestants and Catholics, in their various guises, as they fought over thrones and creeds. Game of Thrones live. Out of this mess of politicking came notions of absolute power. But Defoe defied such postures. As Dunkerley writes “[Defoe was] against the divine right of kings, against the doctrine of passive obedience, and against absolutism,” and he fought against it all, in his fiction and journalism and political activities.

Americans would appreciate Defoe’s detestation for the 1% of his time, and the way justice favored the monied. Dunkerley writes, “the power and practice of the upper classes were such that they were always treated more leniently than the poor man,” which enraged Defoe: “These are all cobweb laws in which the small flies are catched, and the great ones break through.” Defoe knew poverty. He had been “broken” (declared bankrupt) twice, and “the experience of bankruptcy had been so traumatic that it reappeared many times in his writing on economic and commercial matters.” Dunkerley added, significantly, “Bankruptcy, in short, is a shipwreck.” (Indeed, Defoe,despite all of his literary success,ended up in hiding from creditors and dying alone.)

But he got into more serious hot water when he virtually lampooned the upper classes in his 1250-line poem, “The True Born Englishman: A Satyr,” in which he took the mickey out of the mousey elites by pointing out their debauched beginnings:

. . . These are the Heroes that despise the Dutch,

And rail at new-come Foreigners so much;

Forgetting that themselves are all deriv’d

From the most Scoundrel Race that ever liv’d.

And on and on it goes, pushing the envelope of the times’ “acceptable rhetoric.” Dunkerley goes to gauge response to the poem: “Even those who despised his prolixity, lack of gentility, and whiggish convictions recognised its power, which stands up pretty well in the age of UKIP, the DUP, and Brexit.”

Later, he would enrage Queen Anne when he opposed her edicts of religious intolerance. Dunkerley observes,

Defoe mostly got into trouble—serious trouble threatening judicial execution as well as vigilante violence—over religious matters and their political implications. So, although the doctrinal landscape of over three hundred years ago is complex as well as alien, we do have to recognise that it was just as important to those living at the time as, say, Brexit or Trump are today.

Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church was so ill-received by so many that he was forced to go on the lam for months.

After he was finally caught, he was tried for sedition and sentenced to the pillory. He was also forbidden from mouthing against the monarchy for 7 years. He responded by writing “a defiant poem, even before he entered the stocks, breaking within days the sentence of seven years’ dutiful compliance.” The sentence was deemed so harsh that public sentiments turned in his favor, and, writes Dunkerley, “According to legend, it was fresh flowers, not eggs and tomatoes, that were thrown in symbolic repudiation of the law.”

Defoe was not only a master novelist and in the vanguard of real journalism, he also even penned a little-known science fiction story titled, “The Consolidator.” Dunkerley raves,

The images in the story are extraordinarily innovative, involving communication between China and the moon, where there exists a species of lunar telepathy, a truth-revealing telescope, ‘elevators’ that enabled communion with departed souls, and a lie-detecting chair.

So, it’s clear that Defoe was a leading edge literary figure, and a political dynamo.

In addition, he’s regarded as a pioneering “feminist” writer for his portrayal of heroines Moll Flanders and Roxana. No less than the darling of academic feminism, Virginia Woolf, praised him vociferously:

On any monument worthy the name of monument the names of Moll Flanders and Roxanna, at least, should be carved as deeply as the name of Defoe. They stand among the few English novels which we can call indisputably great.

So, even if Crusoe ends up, in a revaluation, falling short of real “rugged individualism,” Defoe himself, a complex character in a complex time, lived up to his own hype.

Crusoe and his Consequences is a short, engaging read that is full of all kinds of interesting details of Daniel Defoe’s life and times, and how they become the background of Robinson Crusoe’s odyssey. There are also tantalizing streams of information that you sometimes do double-takes over, such as when Dunkerley relates that “as Warden of the Mint, Isaac Newton ordered at least a dozen executions of clippers and counterfeiters following the recoinage of 1696.” Oy, what a fig that Newton was!

Again, there have been so many versions of Robinson Crusoe produced over the last three centuries that it has sprouted its own literary genre: Robinsonade. From children’s retellings in Europe and America, to novels, poems, video games, films and TV series based on Crusoe or its themes (Luis Bunuel’s Crusoe, Tom Hanks’ Castaway, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and even Gilligan’s Island), they all enact aspects of concern a castaway faces in his or her new found self-isolation. Among the Robinsonade concerns are: progress through technology; the rebuilding of civilisation; economic achievement; hostile nature. Some of these are contemporary concerns as well. We are currently facing hostile nature (and, maybe soon enough, civilization will need rebuilding).

Dunkerley suggests that in our re-reading of Crusoe we put away the Little Boy/Little Girl glasses we were handed in class as kids, and read the parable, as literate adults, with new eyes, for the first time. Maybe you’ll still see it the same old way, or maybe you’ll go the way of the comical master-slave dialectical movie version, Man Friday, and hope it ends differently for the colonial slaver.