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Reflections on Robionson Crusoe
Jan 1, 1998

Part I: The Myth and the Novel

The popularity of Crusoe

Excepting the Gospel narrative, no story has so dominated the imagination of Europe as Robinson Crusoe. First published in London in 1719, it went through an unprecedented six editions the same year. Over the next century or so, it saw 700 editions and innumerable translations into every major European language. Since then, it has undergone adaptation and abridgement into other media - opera, pantomime, film, serial, cartoon, and so on. For over 250 years Crusoe has been a part of the self-image of every schoolboy with a European education. The author, Daniel Defoe, to cash in on the instant success of Crusoe, had a sequel ready for the press within four months (The Farther Adventures), and later wrote a more philosophical and contemplative third volume of Crusoe’s ‘Serious Reflections’. These sequels never caught on. What holds the imagination is the original situation: how a quite ordinary man, stranded for about 25 years on an uninhabited island, retains his sanity and dignity through every hardship and even emerges from this ‘trial’ with a modest fortune. The novel is a working up of the actual experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a sailor marooned five years on an island off Chile (subsequently named Isla Robinson Crusoe) who got back to England in 1708 and recounted his experiences to an eager public.

Crusoe: the myth derived from the novel

A book so widely read for over ten generations during which the world has undergone remarkable transformations cannot be un-connected to those transformations. The novel has in fact become a modern European myth, and the myth varies from the novel in important ways.

The transformation of Crusoe began very early, through the status accorded to it by the French philosopher Rousseau in Emile (first English trans. 1762). In this treatise on ‘natural education’ (i.e. education without the religious/cultural preconceptions used to adapt children to their future role in society), Rousseau wrote:

I hate books; they only teach people to talk about what they don’t understand… Since we must have books, there is already one which, in my opinion, affords a complete treatise on natural education.... Emile [the boy whose education is being planned] will need no other book in his library for many years. It will afford us the text to which all our conversations on the objects of natural science will serve only as a comment. It will serve as our guide during our progress to a state of reason.... You ask impatiently what is the title of this wonderful book? Is it Aristotle, Pliny....? No. It is Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe, cast ashore on a desolate island, destitute of human assistance, and of mechanical implements, providing, nevertheless, for his subsistence, for self-preservation, and even procuring for himself a kind of competency ...The most certain method for [Emile] to raise himself above vulgar prejudices and to form his judgement on the actual relations of things, is to take on himself the character of such a solitary adventurer, and to judge of everything about him, as a man in such circumstances would, by its real utility. This romance beginning with his [Crusoe’s] shipwreck on the island, and ending with the arrival of the vessel that brought him away, would, if cleared of its rubbish, afford Emile.... both instruction and amusement .... The practise of simple manual arts, to the exercise of which the abilities of the individual are equal, leads to the invention of the arts of industry the exercise of which requires the concurrence of the many. The former may be practised by hermits and savages; but the latter can be exercised only in a state of society.

This account of Robinson Crusoe the novel is inaccurate and unfair. But it is a near perfect account of the myth. The explicit contents of that myth are: a man can enter upon an unknown land with nothing and, by applying his native energies without inhibition, learn the arts and crafts necessary for survival and economic success; later, he can improve this success by using the labour of others as well as his own to exploit resources in a more organised way. The implicit elements of the myth are less attractive: the adventurer is a white man (not a woman), a European. He never enters into abstract speculations about the moral worth or ultimate purpose or far consequences of particular actions; instead, he calculates their present utility and applies the necessary means to secure himself and make economic surpluses. The land is there for him to subdue and use to his present advantage. Ideally, the land should be uninhabited, but if it happens to be inhabited, he must act as if it were in fact empty. For reasons never uttered, the European adventurer has a right to eliminate any competition: the natives will eventually understand that it is better for them to be ruled by the adventurer.

Crusoe: the novel vs. the myth

The reason is that the myth is still carried by the novel and the novel, being better and greater than the myth, saves the myth. Among several inaccuracies of the myth vis A vis the novel, one is the notion that Crusoe enters upon the island unequipped. In fact, though he lacks needle and thread and a metal spade (for which he improvises with characteristic resolve), Crusoe has pretty well everything else - some food, rice and barley seed, cloth and clothing, an axe and other tools, guns and gunpowder, pen ink and paper, the Bible, a dog and two cats, also his comfort drugs: tobacco and the pipe to put it in and rum. He is not, as the myth pretends, humanly unassisted: the assistance of others is available to him in the compacted form of the ‘capital of all that he salvages from the shipwreck. Without this capital’, Crusoe could not have begun, let alone succeeded, as an entrepreneur. Similarly, on the land itself, he has no rivals - neither predatory animals nor fellow- Europeans nor, until he is relatively securely established, natives. In sum, the Europeans complete self- sufficiency is a fabrication. It has been added to what is there in the novel, namely his resourcefulness with his capital.

Most significantly of all, the myth has wiped from the novel its religious dimension: this is probably what Rousseau meant by the phrase: ‘if the romance were cleared of all its rubbish’. But the religious dimension is not rubbish, it shapes the character and temperament of Robinson Crusoe. The novel has pretensions to spiritual autobiography, in the tradition of Pilgrim’s Progress, but without overtly allegorical characters or plot: the events and the central character are meant to be believed as literally true, not figuratively true. Defoe, it is worth noting, was the author of a very popular book of moral guidance, The Family Instructor, first published the year before Crusoe, and often reprinted.

Crusoe is a first-person diary of events told, as they were experienced at the time, by the wise Christian the narrator has become. Crusoe tells us that his ‘original sin’ was to disobey his father’s instruction to make a career as a lawyer; he could not resist the urge to wander, and ran away to make a fortune in the slave-trade; though he had opportunities to learn the skills of a sailor, he disdained to do so, dressing instead as a ‘gentleman’ (one who does not need to labour with his hands). Through the vicissitudes of storms and capture by pirates, Crusoe tells us, he hardly ever looked upward to heaven or inward to the condition of his own soul. But alone on the island, an earth-tremor that destroys much of his painstaking handiwork, and the sight of seeds sprouting, and his own near death by fever, lead Crusoe to recover his spiritual senses. His life thereafter is one of steady, solitary labour in a state of constant fear - fear of want, of hunger, of attacks by unknown animals or persons. But he maintains a gritty composure, looking regularly for signs of Divine Providence in whatever occurs, expressing gratitude for God’s care of him, in particular of his soul. There are constant references to the patriarchs and prophets of the Bible, so that Crusoe is, as it were, in a state of continual dialogue with his own soul. It is by dint of these inward as well as his outward labours to secure the necessities of life that, little by little, he comes to regard his island not as his prison but as his garden. He accepts his fate by choosing it as his destiny and, till the day he finds a human footprint on the sand, he imagines that he could live there alone and content until Providence decreed his death.

The footprint throws him into turmoil. In part he is afraid of a threat to the security of his person and property. But his chief fear is that the company of men will reintroduce to his life the temptations to sin and forgetfulness of God. Alone, he has no use for money, his needs are minimal; in company, his needs will grow as opportunities for commercial exchange and competition are presented. The ‘state of nature’ (man on his own), conceived as a state of fear, can be relieved by a conscience resigned to Providence; but from the state of society (conceived as a ‘state of conflict’, the war of each against all), there is no relief.

In relation to the natural world, Crusoe is no contemplative or scientist: he sees a tree, not with the eye of botanist or poet but of an entrepreneur, as timber fit for building. He assesses all the islands resources in the same way, and desires to improve them, by which he means quite explicitly ‘to increase their economic value’. His understanding of God does not come through reflection on the natural world as signs of God It comes, instead, through his feeling inwardly that circumstances, and the resources put at his disposal, are all arranged by God to test his faith and actions. His response to the testing is to work hard, resigning success or failure to the wisdom of Providence, and to keep up a stable, steady thankfulness. Once he has attained this peace with himself he can hope that, whatever crisis occurs, he will act in a decent way pleasing to God and his conscience. Thus, for example, when disgusted by the sight of cannibals feasting on the sea-shore, he has an impulse to kill them all in cold blood, but he overcomes the impulse.

Among the resources Crusoe manages and improves is himself.

This aspect of the story is what most delights its young readers: the analysis of how things work or are made, the resort to first principles, the improvisation with inadequate or insufficient materials and tools, the delight in whatever gets made, however clumsy or incompetent. Crusoe is a self-made man, in the moral as well as the economic sense: from the materials provided by Providence, he makes his character - his humility conscience, forbearance, composure, open-mindedness - as well as his outlandish clothes, rickety furniture, leaky bowls, the famous umbrella. Moreover, his religion is not a passive observance, but active personal prayer, personal turning to God, personal reading of the Scripture. What deeper wish does a young boy have, instructed to believe or pray or think in particular ways, and surrounded by things that enter his world ready- made, than to obtain some understanding and mastery of himself and his things through his own effort? Robinson Crusoe is the fulfilment of that wish. It enacts in rich, realistic detail the attainment of economic and moral independence by an individual of ordinary abilities and background, assisted by an omnipresent and benevolent Providence.

Crusoe builds himself a little domain, colonises a little empire. But he did not intend to do so; his empire just came to him by way of economic reward for initiative and effort. On the individual scale, his enterprise involved relatively little cruelty to others, no ugly national or racist pride, no brutal genocide, no violent competition with other colonisers. Crusoe is a decent man, disciplined, humble and, in a typically English way, composed and self-deprecating. It is through this self-achieved moral character and temperament that the novel saves the myth: it allows the English in particular to delude themselves that they did not mean to build a world-wide empire, it just came to them - as if armies and navies, mechanised industries and compelled trade, savage taxation of natives and cynical diplomacy, and the rest, had nothing to do with it. The appeal of the novel rests on this principle: provided an individuals own conscience is clear with respect to his personal actions, whatever evil may be done collectively by the state or society or the nation of which he is a part need not be an additional burden to that conscience. Morally, the individual is independent of the collective: at liberty to protest and to take personal initiatives to help alleviate the consequences of collective actions, he is not charged with moral responsibility for those actions themselves. The evident contradiction may be illustrated from the incident of naming Crusoe’s slave, Man Friday.

Naming the native

This incident was described earlier from the perspective of the myth: as Crusoe names his dog, so he names his slave, Friday, the day he ‘discovers’ him. It is not like that in the novel. At the time Defoe was writing, it had been reported by returning travellers that some of the ‘savages’ they encountered did not have names for each other until the Europeans gave them names. The fact is utterly impossible: there are no human beings who do not use human language, and no human language is conceivable where consciousness of one’s self and the other’s self (which necessitates naming each other) does not exist. But we must allow that such reports were accepted as plausible, even as true, without any particular malice - simply as a mistake - by Defoe’s contemporaries. In this way, giving a name is a positive and indeed kindly act. It is certainly the case that Crusoe sees Friday as a person like himself, a fellow human being with feelings like his own (for example homesickness) and faculties like his own (for example curiosity and dexterity), above all with a past and a mind of his own, to whom he imparts the story of his own life and misfortunes as well as his religion. Crusoe learns from the companionship with Friday, and he says so. Because readers may suspect I am overstating the case, they will allow me an extensive quotation. On spotting his homeland from a hill-top, Friday expresses great delight. Crusoe quickly and wrongly suspects that Friday will now return to his people, come back with them in great numbers and kill and eat him. Here are his reflections on his suspicion:

I wronged the poor honest creature very much, for which I was very sorry afterwards. However, as my jealousy [suspicion] increased, and held me some weeks, I was a little more circumspect, and not so familiar and kind to him as before, in which I was certainly in the wrong too, the honest grateful creature having no thought about it, but what consisted with the best principles, both as a religious Christian, and as a grateful friend, as appeared afterwards to my full satisfaction.

Can there be any doubt that Crusoe means well by his Man Friday? Yet, he is patronising in calling him ‘creature’, even as he praises him and criticises himself. The distance between master and slave is taken as a given; Crusoe never questions its propriety. He contemplates entering the slave- trade and his only negative comment on it is that it is a risky business, that it may be more prudent for him to purchase and pay a traders profit margin than risk the financial perils of capturing and transporting his own slaves. Since Crusoe abhors cannibalism without reserve, we may be sure he is capable of recognising something as an absolute evil; evidently, the slave-trade did not rate as such at that time.

The treatment by Europeans collectively of those natives or imported Negro slaves whose abused lives fuelled their commercial wealth is well known; natives and slaves were not accorded a status much above that of property or livestock, and their mistreatment continued long after such policies were officially condemned and outlawed. At the end of the 20th century, the attitudes behind that abuse have begun to die away, but the economic relations and political structures within which that abuse happened are proving more durable. The individual kindnesses in attitude and practice - and one could give historical as well as fictional examples - were irrelevant to affect or contain the evil done collectively.

The novels relationship with the myth is, in short, that it justifies the secularisation of economic and political life then taking place in Europe. Fifty years after Crusoe, the publication of Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations, marked the formal and permanent separation of economics/politics from ethics/ jurisprudence.

All of Crusoes moral and religious reflections are now read (outside specialist academic circles) as idiosyncrasies of the individual, a part of the charm of his character. Most modern Christians, and especially Christians of the Dissenting Non-Conformist Protestant tradition to which Defoe belonged, do not, as Crusoe did, rely upon Providence and their own industry, they rely upon their own industry exclusively, appealing to God only when they are unable to help themselves, and after they are helped, they are oblivious again - precisely the loss of grace Crusoe dreaded on seeing the human footprint. That loss was inevitable. For the reality is that the economic surplus that Crusoe achieves on his island in the state of nature (i.e. alone) is an impossibility: it can only be achieved in the ‘state of society’ (the conflict of each against all). This reality is represented in this realistic novel by (1) the ‘capital’ with which Crusoe starts his enterprise, a fact which, as we noted, the myth simply denies; and (2) Crusoe’s re-joining the economic mainland, his returning to England and voyaging Out again to new colonialist ventures, and (3) the revival of his hopes of entering the slave trade.

(Note: Robinson Crusoe Part 2:Economic individualism and secularisation and Part 3: The Muslim castaway: Hayy bin Yaqzan will appear in subsequent issues of The Fountain.