2/5/2020 16:53

Robinson Crusoe

Recently I began rereading Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe". I last read the book about 55 years ago but it is so much a part of our culture that I believed I still knew a majority of the plot and point of the story. So I was surprised.

I was surprised first of all that I hardly remembered any of the first chapters in which the protagonist leaves home, goes to sea, and has an implausible number of unlikely adventures in Africa and Brazil. It was less surprising that Eurocentric racism and colonialism were embedded into those adventures; such prejudices were so thoroughly embedded into the culture of 1719 that there may not be any writing which escapes them completely.

I was surprised again to find that the book is less a novel and more a religious tract. The religion espoused is a narrow version of self-flagellating Protestantism without the balm of any personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ. When our hero becomes despondent enough to open a Bible, which is not until after years of solitude, he claims to begin with the New Testament. Nevertheless the God he finds is an Old Testament, remote, impersonal sort of figure before whom one is obliged to abase oneself. In return one receives abstract assurance of Divine Providence. It is perhaps a good bargain but it is something less than personal friendship with God.

One wonder whether Crusoe may be congenitally incapable of friendship. Years of irreligion on a desolate island can be explained in other ways, but how explain a castaway who never even names and barely mentions the dog and two cats who join him as survivors of the shipwreck? Nor the second dog, nor Friday's father (whom Crusoe is content to abandon while he is away on a mission to the mainland), nor any of the several Europeans who help him so significantly with regard to his property and travels. At best these are treated as employees or as counterparties to his contracts; at worst as pawns.

Crusoe's conversion also failed to save him from xenophobic fears or to incite him to any act of worship (beyond daily Bible reading), although it contributed to his realization that he, who did not condemn slaughter in European warfare, ought to hesitate at condemning cannibals for their customs.

Another perspective sees the book as a suite of just-so stories. What a miraculous island in which each need for a vantage point is satisfied by a nearby barren hill! When I venture away from farm fields I'm hard pressed to find any vantage unobscured by trees, brush, and the next hill. To make baskets, Crusoe tries a variety of twigs until he finds one to suit, but when he expands into pottery making a suitable clay is ready at hand, layed somewhere among the weak sandstone. (Oh, and by the way, Crusoe has experience as a child among the English potters not previously alluded to and never earlier brought to mind -- despite his need for pots.)

Completely unexplained is how Crusoe lit and maintained a fire, a puzzle especially curious during his first rainy seasons. One doesn't need to be isolated for 28 years, not 28 days, to understand how central the fire is to survival. Crusoe however never remarks on the topic. Puzzling too is his selective mechanical abilities which enabled him to build a potter's wheel in a matter of a few weeks but never in all his years alone resulted in a hoe made from a goat scapula.

Then there are the goats. The island is populated with goats which Crusoe harvests for food. That is fortuitous but not implausible, both wild and feral caprids being known around the world. Less probable is their congenital disability to observe danger from above; this allows the inexperienced hunter to easily take as many as he needs by shooting from the high ground. Still less plausible is the ease with which Crusoe domesticates the goats, a process which our ancestors accomplished over many generations. Domestication would be less astonishing if we assume these are feral goats who still possess all the genetic adaptations needful. That assumption would be hard to reconcile with the observation that no large predators lived on the island and yet it had not been totally denuded. And so the goats are unexplained.

But an 18th century religious tract was never intended to explain or even to observe any part of actual reality.