Monday, 30th October 2017

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MESSAGES FROM CRUSOE - The island narrative and its many readings

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  • Published 27.07.08

Recently, a young friend demanded I read him a bedtime story. He picked a picture-book version of Robinson Crusoe, a book I haven’t read in quite a while. For my seven-year-old audience, the story was an exciting adventure; none of my resurrected anxieties about white civilizing Crusoe and black tongue-less Friday got through to him. This was probably fortunate — there’s time enough for him to discover that things are not always what they seem.

The evening’s reading reminded me how roomy a story can be, how many tales or “messages” it can hold. It also left me with a desire to revisit Crusoe’s island — the place and the text that have spoken to and for so many people for so long. It made me consider, once again, the meanings that can be read into what is apparently a simple narrative of travel, adventure and survival.

Many people believe Crusoe really lived. This is not surprising since the author used a false document technique to give his fiction a realistic frame story. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, regarded by some as the first novel in English, is a fictional autobiography. It was first published in 1719 with the title, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself.

Despite such a title, and despite the absence of a love angle, the positive reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, the first volume had run through four editions. By the end of the 19th century, the book had spawned multitudinous editions, including children’s picture books with little or no text. The book was translated even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese. It also triggered an equally impressive number of spin-offs: the word Robinsonade had to be coined to describe the stories, novels and films that told their own accounts of Crusoe and the island.

What is it about this story that has made it a myth, a resourceful myth that needs to be revisited and retold by so many voices? The castaway genre is useful in that it sheds distracting complexities. This makes it easier to pay attention to the fundamentals — the kind of life and society that could be designed if it were possible to start all over again. Such an exercise includes questions about what matters in an individual’s life, and the complexities of his relationship with nature. But it also creates an ideal setting to decide how power is to be distributed between the castaway outsider and the native.

Can Crusoe’s survival be understood without acknowledging how he reaffirms, indeed imposes, a particular order of things on the island? Crusoe attempts to create a replicated version of his own society. To this end, he applies European technology, agriculture, even a rudimentary political hierarchy. He often refers to himself as the “king” of the island; in describing Crusoe to the mutineers, the captain calls him “governor”. And at the end, the island itself is a “colony”.

Numerous worthy interpreters have commented on how this popular text is the narrative of the socio-psychology of the British Empire. For instance, James Joyce saw Crusoe as the true symbol of British conquest: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” Marx’s analysis of Crusoe’s experiences on the island points out the inherent economic value of labour over capital. Crusoe frequently observes that the money he salvaged from the ship is worthless on the island, especially when compared with his tools. Other commentators have noted the value of island money only for purposes of trade; or the correlation between Crusoe’s spiritual and financial development, underlining Defoe’s belief in the Protestant work ethic.

In recent times, the scholar, Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, has written of “empire islands” to show how island narratives continue to describe and justify colonialism. The argument is that by helping generations of readers make sense of imperial aggression through “simple” narratives of adventure, the castaway story has helped expand and maintain European empire. Why else do so many colonial authors choose islands as the setting for their stories of imperial adventure? And why do so many postcolonial writers “write back” to those island castaway narratives? Making sense of Crusoe’s experiences demands making sense of Friday.

There have also been readings of Robinson Crusoe that have little to do with the colonial or neo-colonial; obviously the text has been grist for all kinds of mills. Most of these responses ignore Friday. Crusoe himself becomes an Everyman, journeying to either god or nature or self-reliance. Rousseau’s treatise on education, Émile: Or, On Education, valorizes this self-reliance to such an extent that till the age of twelve, Emile is allowed to read nothing but Robinson Crusoe.

What about the Robinsonades? There are several of them that also detach the Crusoe-Friday equation from Crusoe’s life on the island. Often, these unintentionally indicate the limitations of a “liberal” position — the society Crusoe left behind is critiqued through the alternative he constructs on the island. But the essentials remain the same — whether it is the absolute standard of morality, or the racism that allows the acceptance of slavery. But other Robinsonades take on more squarely what Crusoe’s survival could mean for us.

One of the subtlest retellings of Robinson Crusoe is the 1986 novel Foe by Nobel-Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee. Through an allegorical story of racism, colonialism and voice, Foe brings us closer to an understanding of the pair forever coupled in our cultural memories, Crusoe and Friday. The pair has to first become a trio: Coetzee displaces the official narrative by supplying the missing figure — a female castaway called Susan who is allowed a narrative on her own terms. The three are rescued, but Crusoe dies on the voyage back to England, pining for the island. Then the pair, Friday and Susan, grows into a trio again, because the rest of the book deals with Susan’s efforts to persuade Foe (Defoe’s given name) to turn the island experience into a popular book of adventure.

The crux of the resulting political parable is Friday’s tonguelessness. He is the only one who knew the island before and after Crusoe’s arrival. But he is unheard; in fact, since he cannot speak, there’s some reasonable doubt about what “language” his narrative should use. Thus, the weight of responsibility bearing down on Susan once she gains Foe’s interest and collaborates with him on the narrative. How is she to give voice to Friday? A complete narrative involves meeting the challenge of writing more imaginative histories. The narrator has “to open Friday’s mouth and hear what it holds: silence, perhaps, or a roar, like the roar of a seashell held to the ear.”