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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/12/20

Crusoe 300: The Myth of the Rugged Individualist

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Daniel Defoe pilloried for his actiivism
Daniel Defoe pilloried for his actiivism
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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 arsehole. (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; whom 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 (use-Xury comes in all kinds of forms), 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 taut-testicle 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 shore, 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 screw jack, 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 a-plenty. 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 literally "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 rescued 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 back in the day?

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. (Hmm.) Crusoe's young children are fobbed off in the process. It "[makes] you wonder," Dunkerley wrote in a private email to me, "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 at Crusoe 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."

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications in Oceania, Europe and the USA, such as Cordite, Morning Star, Hanging Loose, and (more...)
 

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