A journalist, short on the readies, has a brilliant idea to cash in on the public’s lust for wild new sea stories of exploration and plunder.
People – many of them not very good at reading yet, or only able to listen while someone else reads to them – are really going for that true-life story about a sailor named Alexander Selkirk, who was shipwrecked on a remote island and ate goats. It can’t be hard to make up something a bit like that?
This journalist is quite old, and he’s knocked around a bit, even though he hasn’t had a proper university education like all the classy writers, poets and stuff. He knows what people like: they don’t only want to read about miracles and wonders (‘Woman Gives Birth to 16 Baby Rabbits!’; ‘Hill in Sussex Moves Ten Miles Overnight!’), they like to read about how to cope with life in difficult times, when you’re not really sure if you will able to eat, or how dangerous things are going to be.
So this journalist wrote a long rambly book, all told in the voice of a very ordinary, quite greedy, hotheaded man who was clueless, and didn’t understand when he had it good and ought to stay where he was.
This bloke’s made-up adventures on a made-up Caribbean island with made-up cannibals didn’t always sound that convincing, so the journalist, Daniel Defoe, pretended he’d found his self-penned memoirs.
Defoe had this weird thing printed – why would it sell, though? It was much too long, and written in the ordinary plain English of working people. It did, though.
It was not only a complete runaway best-seller, but also, many people say, the first book we can really call a novel – a long, loose, baggy story which is made up out of all the kinds of ideas, dilemmas, passions and everydaynesses that people really do experience, not just a fable about gods, knights and dragons.
Lockdown on a desert island
Defoe decided that after Robinson Crusoe had been shipwrecked, and all his comrades had drowned, he would have a bit of survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder and basic panic to get over (‘my very Heart would die within me, to think how I was a Prisoner lock’d up with the Eternal Bars and Bolts of the Ocean’).
But then, Defoe kindly arranged that Robinson would find the island was hospitable, with plenty of food, once he’d worked out the basics of catching, killing and growing.
Just a minute – the lockdown parallels can’t be that great, can they, as Robinson had not only a new world, but a whole big uninhabited island to explore? Fair point. It rained, though.
For four months of the year, it deluged down in curtains, and you got ill if you went out in it. So Robinson had to stay in the cave he’d fortified, and keep safe and not go howling mad. How do people do this?
Daniel Defoe knew that people are really good at getting used to difficult or changed conditions.
He knew that people are clever and ingenious at making what they need, or something that’s a good substitute: ‘every Man is his own Mechanic.’
Robinson gets quite cocky about all the things he makes in his cave – baskets, casks, candles, pots – and oh yes – ‘I was never more vain of my own Performance, or more joyful for any thing I found out, than for my being able to make a Tobacco-Pipe.’
Later, he made the bread we’re all making too, although he had to grow the corn first, and find a way to grind it and to cook it. No wonder he was pleased with himself.
Finding ways to survive
Robinson, talking about his experiences, is fine company for lockdown.
Defoe, hoping to make his story feel real, famously packed his story with ordinary, everyday objects, and the familiar problems and cockups you get when you try to make things – like when you make your heavy canoe too far away from the sea, or frighten yourself with the parrot you taught to speak your name.
Charles Dickens, who liked melodrama and jokes, said that ‘Robinson Crusoe has never made anybody laugh or cry’– but Virginia Woolf noticed brilliantly that ‘the pressure of life when one is fending for oneself alone on a desert island is really no laughing matter’ – indeed, ‘it is no crying one either’.
Robinson is good company because although he has to struggle with himself sometimes – self-pity makes him ‘wring my Hands and weep like a Child’– he must also do things to survive, and then he gets excited about telling us how he managed, and even though we’re not building canoes now, we do have to find ways to help ourselves and others.
We wouldn’t behave, however, in some of the ways that Defoe thought were okay for Robinson in the seventeenth century – and that’s interesting too.
Observation is the key
The way in which Defoe was wisest, and the thing which has made this book so central to the development of the study of English literature, is this: like Shakespeare, and Milton, and other classy writers, poets and stuff, he knew that how you look at a thing is more important than what the thing is.
Because Robinson is so good at making lists and counting – his belongings, his comforts and miseries – it’s been easy to think that Defoe didn’t understand the real psychological damage of such isolation.
But in the ‘Hurries of my Soul’, Robinson knew that angle of vision is what saves lives. When Robinson ‘called a Council of Himself’, when he found a way of understanding his condition as peculiarly fortunate, as he did through reading the Bible – as anyone might by finding a philosophical and/or religious and/or scientific way to step outside of themselves – Defoe was demonstrating something.
Observing their own feelings and thinking about them in a distanced way, (as if, indeed, we were characters in a story) was something that the philosophers John Locke and Renée Descartes were doing – to themselves – around the time that Defoe set the events in his ‘kind-of-book-thing-that-wasn’t-yet-called-a-novel’.
Robinson found company of an unexpected sort on the island, and grew happy – he was there for ‘Eight and Twenty Years’, which is a long time without a vaccine; he only grew distressed when he found a way back to civilisation, and that he was rich.
If you’ve enjoyed being cast away...
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