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Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: a classic I’m finally actually reading
I’ve read an enormous amount, far more than most others I meet these days, far less than my friends in college: except I keep chugging away at it, I could well have passed most of those friends by now: don’t know, can’t know, don’t want to know.
Professor Nobbe’s 18th-century English lit class assigned Crusoe. I cut an awful lot of the classes, didn’t know what was going on whether I was there or not, but in one such class I came into temporary focus. I remember clearly what Nobbe was saying, and reading from the text. It’s only now, old and half-blind, that I’m catching up on this particular classic: enjoying the hell out of it.
Nobbe read us a passage, I jot my memory of it: Crusoe finds the wreck of his ship breaking up on a reef, swimming distance from shore. He strips off his clothes and swims to the wreck. There he finds the ship’s treasure in gold and silver. Crusoe soliloquizes on the uselessness of gold to a lone survivor of a shipwreck. Then Crusoe fills his pockets with the gold. He further loads himself up with tools and dry goods and swims, thus laden, back to shore. Nobbe wanted to know if we had noticed the total absence of realism in the narrative: if he stripped naked then how did he get pockets to hoard the gold he’d commented on the uselessness of? No, I hadn’t noticed: I hadn’t read it! Did I object? No. I didn’t see anyone in the class objecting. (By the way that class contained such notables and future notables as Arthur MacArthur, his father was General Douglas Mac; Terence McNally, future dramatist; Michael Peter Khan, soon to direct the US’s first performance of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and, following that, Shakespeare in the Park …)
I recall that class today because I’m at least a third of the way through. Crusoe has seen Friday’s footprint in the sand but has yet to meet Friday: or any native. But in my reading Crusoe walks to the wreck, no need to swim: storms have washed the wreck into the shore. He writes about where he stores his goats, his grain, his tools … his desert isle homes are provisioned adequate for the Titanic. But I don’t see no gold, yet. How can I remember Nobbe’s passage so clearly but not yet recognize anything of the details? 2015 10 09 I’m about half way through now. I came upon a passage that I thought would turn out to be the passage of my memory, but it’s not his wrecked ship, it’s another shipwreck: and he sails and rows to it, doesn’t strip and swim. He takes the gold, but doesn’t put it in his pockets, doesn’t swim carrying an added several hundred pounds; but it does soliloquise on the subjective value of coins: no market, no prospective trade partner, no value.
I’m remembering what a one-time teaching office mate, Bruce Spigelberg, told me his doctoral thesis on the subject: not yet completed then (1967), no more than mine on Shakespeare. Bruce said that Robinson Crusoe lands on a desert island and there recreates 18th-century England. Sounded right to me even when I didn’t know the novel any better than any kid with a classic comic. Profound. I hope Bruce finally did write it. I hope more than two people paid attention.
Robinson Crusoe is also reminding me of some hilarious associations: Mark Twain’s satire of James Fennimore Cooper, for one: Twain illustrates the frontier simplicity of his judge’s houseboat on Lake Glimmerglass on which he lives with his two daughters. He humbly has only one Tintoretto over the couch! (You recognize of course that Tintoretto executed huge paintings: huge.)
You can see, this Tintoretto has to be big.
Crusoe in the same way is also reminding me of Samuel Beckett’s absurd specificity, where the math is accurate but the logic, the sense, insane.
2015 10 06 I just read a passage that delights me: Crusoe observes natives visiting his island by boat, and executing and devouring captives on the beach: ritual execution, cannibalism: and who knows what other, to Crusoe, blasphemies. But then he considers that he doesn’t really know what the judgment of God himself would be in the circumstance! He reflects that the natives are not committing a crime in their own minds. I’m impressed.
This evening I watched the Pierce Brosnan movie. I’d forgotten I’d seen it several years ago. Wonderful. In the movie Robin and Friday go to war against the natives who’d been in the midst of sacrificing Friday. Robin and Friday boobytrap their fortress. Each device is a Rube Goldberg machine: the intruder steps on rigging A, a gear turns, a cock is opened, water flows, turning a wheel, the mouse eats the cheese, and forty pounds of powder blows up thirty invaders. Leonardo could have learned from Robin.
2015 10 09 Almost half-way I come upon another native-savage-cannibal passage: Defoe’s Crusoe’s experience on this island, now twenty-some years in duration has been mostly benign, the danger that torments him seems exclusively to issue from the savagery of cannibal natives. He hasn’t been stung by a jelly fish, no crocodile has lain in ambush for him, he hasn’t been swallowed by an anaconda, bitten by a black mambo … Defoe was imagining narrative about what he knew; not about what others would come to discover. His novel is revealing in the juvenility of his experience. Dig it, eighteenth century, European transocean venturing dating from the fifteenth century, English experience from the sixteenth century, English dominance really just getting extablished.
I reflect further that “boy”‘s lit from Crusoe to Treasure Island mostly concerns dangers and adventures imaginable from the society’s classrooms, not from trekking through the Congo. From my own experience I add Bomba and Tarzan.
An hour later I’m still thinking of that last. England at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century was as benign to humans as land got: a little cool, a little wet, but great for sheep, for agriculture: the snakes had been killed, the people tamed … By the end of the Eighteenth Century England had turned as toxic as land got. Blake’s green and pleasant land had come to serve Lucifer with its dark satanic mills. And Scots Robin lives in plenty, without taxation, without the state of Britain telling him when to breathe, except for the a-Christian cannibals.
Ponder, England, Britain, is an island, a couple of islands, temperate, well-watered. History brought agriculture and animal husbandry to its shore, read Jared Diamond, history is geography. I also recommend Rene Dubose on how civilized humans mistake developed land, pacified land, customized land, for “nature”. But realize also that if the land weren’t relatively safe and benign we couldn’t have evolved into ourselves on it. Transforming things for our supposed advantage is seldom safe, for long, and seldom wise.
Defoe wrote a hell of a story even though he’s got thing after thing wrong. I’m so glad I’m finally reading it. But greatest finally-getting-around-to-it of my old age has been Don Quixote. (And I still have Book II to go!)
Ever closer to half-way, thank you, Zeno, Robin has a dream. (He’s seen Friday’s footprint, but has yet to meet Friday.) He dreams that he attacks a troop of natives commencing their cannibal ritual, he rescues their intended victim, the rescued native, bowns down to him, behaves as his servant: now Crusoe can have an assistant to help escape from his benign island and get back to the one becoming satanic in his own time. Robin has the most wonderful reflections on the morality of a Christian killing nine men because he’s afraid of them. How come I can’t argue before the Supreme Court and before the Pope and Dear Abby that I’m entitled to kill everyone else in the world because they might be a danger to me? States use that logic, why can’t I?
Btw it now occurs to me: we talk of Robin seeing “Friday’s” footprint in the sand on the beach. But decades pass between Robin seeing a human foot print and Robin meeting the native he calls Friday. Not at all likely to be an identity. Robin himself tallies his time between wreck and rescuing Friday as twenty-five years!