Looking for Robinson Crusoe
In my youth, I was often attracted to books with high sea adventure: Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Old Man and the Sea, and of course Robinson Crusoe. Of these books, I found Crusoe both familiar and disturbing. In a society of one, how do you stave off madness and create a meaningful existence? In my self-imposed isolated existence—no one understood me, the real me, therefore I am alone—I wrestled with faith and belief in God, or a higher power. I questioned the moral superiority of my parents, my teachers, the U.S. government (it was the 80s). Those days are far behind me now, but I suspect I’ll be revisiting these ideas again when I host author Rebecca Chace at the Bryant Park Reading Room.* Below is an article Chace wrote for Fiction Magazine that explores other famous writers’ reactions to Robinson Crusoe. –Purdy, Director of Publicity
*You can meet Rebecca Chace today, July 27, at 12:30pm in beautiful Bryant Park. The outdoor Reading Room is just off 42nd St, between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York City. There, she’ll lead a discussion (free and open to the public) on Robinson Crusoe–and all registered attendees get a free copy of the book!
Looking for Robinson Crusoe
By Rebecca Chace
But it wasn’t.
It was much more mundane, though no less violent.
“Lie Like the truth” –Daniel DeFoe
Why do I need to circle around and invent, when a list of facts could do just as well or better: On an evening in October, your father dies suddenly of a heart attack. Eight weeks later, you find that the reason your husband has been almost completely absent through this abrupt shock into mourning has not been because of his work. Turns out he has another life in another country and another language. A woman with her own daughter the same age as our youngest. What he doesn’t have is an income and apparently he hasn’t had one for quite a while now. Turns out he is in love.
Turns out you are not so much in love, anymore.
I will always know the exact date and approximate time of these events. Time of death is something that strangers write down. It is often not so exact in a marriage, but in this case—yes.
Yet even here, when trying to present the alternative to telling a story I present the facts with an opening as old as a fairy tale.
It is impossible, it seems, for me to face this head on.
I’m a reader, and perhaps because I don’t have the constitution to become a serious drinker, I reach for a book when I am lost at sea.
“Nothing can describe the confusion of thought which I felt when I sunk into the water; for tho I swam very well, yet I could not deliver myself from the waves so as to draw breath, till that wave having driven me, or rather carried me a vast way toward the shore, and having spent itself, went back, and left me upon the land almost dry, but half-dead with the water I took in.” –Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
Shipwreck as in the death of a father who meant to come home but “dropped dead” –as his girlfriend said on the telephone from a rented apartment in Paris.
“O thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never never.” –King Lear ( V,iii) William Shakespeare
Shipwreck as in the death of a marriage. This also in Europe and New York. Nobody said anything like “drop dead.” We used this other language with too many words and no more touching at all.
“What, must our mouths be cold?” –The Tempest ( I,i)
You are standing in the kitchen, waiting for the elevator, hurrying down the block, trying to remember whatever it was you were supposed to pick up on the way home. Then everything changes and you can’t do a thing about it. It’s For Ever and now it has become this enormous task to remember how to take out your wallet at the cash register, when the voices of all these people speaking to you seem to come from such a long way off.
You were on the boat and now you are on the island. And there is nobody else there except the birds, the rocks and the sky. After a long while, you may get a footprint in the sand. But what is a man whom you have named for a day of the week? And how can you know if it was really a Friday when you met him? You can’t even get your wallet out at the cash register.
This is a true story.
“The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” –Robinson Crusoe, Preface to First Edition, 1719
Robinson Crusoe was an instant bestseller at its publication in 1719. It was the only book Rousseau thought was necessary for his ideal pupil in the eponymous Emile, though Rousseau is well known for having shipwrecked his own five children by dropping them off in public orphanages as they became inconvenient. However, Emile was to be allowed only one volume in his library: Robinson Crusoe. This directive from the writer who famously stated, “I hate books; they only teach people to talk about what they don’t understand.”
Here is a list: Jean Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bishop, J.M. Coetzee.
These authors have deeply considered Crusoe. Though not all are in favor. Dickens was baffled by the book’s success, “Robinson Crusoe should be the only instance of a universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry . . . I will venture to say that there is not in literature a more surprising instance of utter want of tenderness and sentiment, than the death of Friday.”
It is true there is a lack of sentiment in the book. It is a manual of survival, a practical guide to the shipwrecked. In The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins has one of his characters declare: “When my spirits are bad—Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice—Robinson Crusoe. In past times, when my wife plagued me; in present times, when I have had a drop too much—Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoe’s with hard work in my service . . . price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.”
A picture into the bargain. Today, children hardly ever read the book. Perhaps modern parents hesitate to give their children an adventure story that portrays all native peoples as “savage” cannibals, and the most intimate relationship on the island is that of master and slave. Yet what is it about Crusoe that compels us despite the book’s often clunky prose and clear agenda of Empire?
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Crusoe in England, she explores a paradoxical elusiveness in the relationship of the author to his character, and his character to his own creations. In an essay written in 1836, Edgar Allen Poe comments upon this authorial feat of legerdemain: “Not one person in ten—nay, one person in five hundred—has, during the perusal of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ the most remote conception that any particle of genius, or even of common talent, has been employed in its creation! Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts—Robinson all.”
Virginia Woolf writes of Crusoe, “Before we have opened the book we have perhaps vaguely sketched out the kind of pleasure we expect it to give us. We read; and we are rudely contradicted at every page. There are no sunsets and no sunrises; there is no solitude and no soul; there is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face nothing but a large earthenware pot.” There is what she goes on to call DeFoe’s “genius for fact.”
Shipwreck: You find yourself longing for facts. But facts can be malleable, especially when a person can’t really, actually be disappeared. Will the present tense ever stop being habitual when speaking of the dead? The moment of hesitation, tongue caught in slight embarrassment because of course you didn’t really forget. Just like you didn’t forget that you’re not married anymore. It’s other people that forget—like sometimes the person you’re not living with anymore.
In the wake of death, I spend much of my time traveling to and from the island of Manhattan. I go by highway and train, always following the river, the boats, and the great, lit-up bridges. Coming back downstream, we turn to port and make our way along the Harlem River, a waterway that isn’t really a river at all. (I know to say “port” instead of “left” because I am a mariner). In the early morning, heading north, there are clean rowing shells from the university; in the evening, heading south, a black and white kitten dead on the railroad ties and an abandoned basketball. The train tracks run invisible beneath the commuter train and the black water reflects light from Inwood and the Bronx. In high school, I was coxswain for the crew team until I couldn’t keep getting up that early in the morning, despite the fact that I was the right weight for the job. Still, I missed the river and the way the oars lifted perfectly at my command. I was always picked up and carried off at a run by the strong young boys when we won a race. Didn’t seem to matter at the time. I was impractical, like Crusoe, in my youth. We both took so much for granted: the “middle station” of life, the love of Friday.
Heart Mirror: I woke up today to feel his head on the pillow next to mine. It took no more than a couple of seconds to remember that I am alone here, but it was enough. He is gone and it is better that he is gone, but there is still this haunting that shakes me when I least expect it. They say that the sensation of a phantom limb can be almost impossible to lose. The brain simply doesn’t understand that there has been such severe trauma to the body. Some part of our mind, which is encased within our body after all, refuses to accept the reality of a missing piece of itself. Most of the time the sensation of the phantom limb is maddening. It would be a comfort, perhaps, to feel the missing arm swinging as naturally as the remaining one as you walked down the block. But in general we do not give that to ourselves. Instead, the phantom limb is experienced as painful, cramped, something that needs relief only we can provide.
In his article, “The Itch” in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes that there is a new therapy being developed to help with the sensation of phantom limbs. The idea is that if one can visually re-set the brain, it will stop sending signals to the body that there is something wrong here. Of course, the irony is that what you are really trying to do is to get the brain to believe that nothing is wrong: though the patient knows that the limb is missing and will not be coming back. In the new therapy the patient stands in front of a full-length mirror, or puts their remaining limb into a specially constructed “mirror box” so that they can see half of their body reflected as if it was in fact the missing limb. Your whole right arm, in other words, appears in the mirror to be the left arm—where the left arm “should” be. The patient is then directed to move both the phantom arm and the remaining arm freely, so that the brain believes both arms are responding correctly to the signals it is sending. It seems that this visual exercise, repeated therapeutically, can actually dupe the brain and end these terrible sensations. Gawande writes, “People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open.”
When I read this sentence I had to stop because I was about to cry. These were not tears of empathy for the amputee who is finally getting some relief; that would be very noble, wouldn’t it? I’m interested, but I’m not that noble. The unclenching of that fist undoes me. I long to be free of his back turned toward me with the map of moles and imperfections that I know better than my own, as I have spent more time looking at it. I want to be able to lie on my belly without the sensation of his head resting on the small of my back where he would fall asleep after sex, my own muscles letting go under that good weight.
I want a mirror-box for my heart.
Crusoe: The items brought ashore by Crusoe are listed as they would be in an eighteenth century bill of lading: “two or three bags full of nails and spikes, a great screw-jack, a dozen or two of hatchets . . . two barrels of musket bullets, seven muskets, and another fowling piece, with some small quantity of powder more . . .” and on and on. Once he had his immediate physical needs taken care of, it was time to turn to his emotional and spiritual survival, and even in this, Crusoe is the pedantic, sure-footed man of reason. He draws up a list and points out to the reader that:
“I stated it very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed, against the miseries I suffer’d, Thus:
I am cast upon a horrible, But I am alive, and
desolate island, Void of all hope not drown’d as all
of recovery. My ship’s company was.”
How can the reader not believe in such a man? For such list making could only be done by a castaway facing years of solitude and trying not to die or go mad, or both. Again, Virginia Woolf speaking of Defoe (or is it Crusoe?):
“And so by means of telling the truth undeviating as it appears to him—by being a great artist and forgoing this and daring that in order to give effect to his prime quality, a sense of reality—he comes in the end to make common actions dignified and common objects beautiful. To dig, to bake, to plant, to build—how serious these simple occupations are; hatchets, scissors, logs, axes—how beautiful these simple objects become.”
In 1952, Elizabeth Bishop set up house with Lota de Maceda Soares, a Brazilian architect of good family and high intellect, “somehow melancholy too, the Iberian strain.” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick. They built a house in the countryside outside of Rio, a town called Petropolis. The house had a “Crusoe-like element of improvisation” according to Hardwick, who told Bishop’s biographer, David Kalstone that there was, “’a waterfall at one end, clouds coming into the living room in the middle of the conversation, etc.’ At first they had to use oil lamps; the floors weren’t yet laid, just cement ‘covered with dog’s footprints.” Born in 1911, in Worcester, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bishop dreamed of being a lighthouse keeper and a sailor. She spent her early childhood in Nova Scotia, where she was brought up by relatives. Her father had died when she was eight months old, and after the age of five she never saw her mother again. As she told her first biographer, “1916. Mother became permanently insane, after several breakdowns. She lived until 1934. I’ve never concealed this, although I don’t like to make much of it. But of course it is an important fact, to me. I didn’t see her again.” Bishop was no sentimentalist. She was twenty-three when her mother died, a young woman who wrote in a notebook that she had “no right to homesickness” for there was no particular home for her to be attached to.
In 1965, Bishop first referred, in a letter, to the poem that would become “Crusoe in England.” Lota and Bishop were together for fifteen years until Lota took a fatal overdose of barbiturates on the plane from Rio to New York, where she was going to meet Bishop. Lota’s family blamed Bishop. There had been arguments, drinking, at least one affair; in other words it had been a marriage. And for Bishop, in 1967, Brazil became framed by loss. “Crusoe in England” was first published in 1971.
Before Lota’s death, Bishop received a grant she had planned to use to write a collection of prose pieces titled Brazil-Brasil: A Scrapbook. She bought a house in a seventeenth-century town, Ouro Préto, as a place to stay while Lota was working in Rio, and wrote: “I like Ouro Préto because everything there was made on the spot, by hand, of stone, iron, copper, wood—and they had to invent a lot—and everything has lasted perfectly well for almost three hundred years now—I used to think this was just sentimental of me—now I am beginning to take it more seriously.” David Kalstone writes that “Crusoe—not just as castaway, but as a type of writer—was to have played a central part in her preface to Brazil-Brasil: She had planned to talk about her maternal great-grandfather whose ship went down off Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, and about her own early wish to be a sailor.”
However, Bishop’s thinking about Crusoe began much earlier, in 1934, when she was visiting a friend on Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. “You live all the time in this Robinson Crusoe atmosphere,” Bishop wrote in her notebook at the time. “Making this do for that, and contriving, inventing.”
True Story I: My father’s family is from a mill town in Southeastern Massachusetts, and he took us back every summer to the coastline he knew. He taught me to sail, and no matter where he was between divorces, jobs and New York apartments, he always had a boat. In the Seventies he owned a small sloop with his childhood friend, Jack. The boat was named “The Tontine”, an old English word for a bet in the form of a legal agreement. The bet was that whoever died first, the other one would get the boat. Jack won the bet, but by then the “Tontine” had been up on blocks for a decade in the front yard of my old friend Peter Derbyshire. I used to think it was sentimental of Peter not to sell the boat, but, as Bishop says, “now I am beginning to take it more seriously.”
Cuttyhunk is a half-day’s sail from the harbor where we moored the Tontine. Those were the summers of Watergate and Vietnam: Dad, Jack, my older sister and me, sometimes with Peter or one of the boy cousins, would set off on a two-week cruise to Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, the chain called the Elizabeth Islands that were privately owned and deserted by all but the gulls and a few goats: Nashawena, Quick’s Hole, Penikese Island that used to be a leper colony and had a graveyard for the lepers that you could see from the water. Cuttyhunk was always the first port out and the last port back. “Let’s go to Cutty for lunch,” Dad and Jack would say, as if they were not steering their own twenty-six-foot, fiberglass boat but suggesting the idea to the captain of a liner in a film from the forties. “The Thin Man,” without the apartment, the dog or the girl.
Cuttyhunk had a tall windmill in those days that we used as a marker on the horizon when we were sailing toward it. I don’t think there was a restaurant in the small harbor town, so lunch must have been on board (we ate tuna fish and Ritz crackers. Jack had a Manhattan on the rocks). The island was first settled by the Wampanoag tribe, who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in Plymouth, and in return was forced off their land during the King Philip’s War, in 1676, when twelve Indian villages were wiped out and one out of every sixteen men of military age was killed. The Pilgrims didn’t seem to want the 550-acre island that the remaining members of the tribe escaped to off the southern coast of Cape Cod. In the eighteenth century, freed slaves found their way to Cuttyhunk and intermarried with the Wampanaug. It was an island of fishing, farming and whaling, and in 1934, still a place where Elizabeth Bishop could imagine Crusoe.
Crusoe’s island, in Bishop’s poem, is a harsh and unsentimental place.
“Well, I had fifty-two
Miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
With a few slithery strides—
Volcanoes dead as ash heaps.”
This from the woman who had left New England to live fifteen years surrounded by the lush green of South America, and before that, Key West. Again, Crusoe’s island:
“My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters—their parched throats
were hot to the touch.
Was that why it rained so much?
And why sometimes the whole place hissed?”
There is a deep sense of alone-ness later in the poem,
“The sun set in the sea; the same odd sun
rose from the sea,
and there was one of it and one of me.”
As Woolf observed, Crusoe’s island is not one of glorious sunrises and sunsets. Completed a few years after Lota’s suicide, perhaps for Bishop this is an island of grief, a time when the tasks which are necessary for surviving the everyday become accomplishments, rather than errands. When one’s reason to live seems to turn upon the ability to get dressed and go to the grocery store. Thus the value of the “earthenware pot” that is Crusoe, according to Virginia Woolf. As Bishop says in her poem:
“I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
A miserable philosophy.”
A miserable philosophy. Paul Valéry also wrote of Crusoe. The central moment, to Valéry, being when Crusoe had achieved enough security that he had time to think:
Vacant time. Adornment.
Danger of losing his head, of losing all language.
Conflict. Tragedy. Memory. Robinson’s prayer.”
And this, from later in the piece:
“After the restoration of memories—scraps–libraries—
he finally makes his art.
Wants to kill himself, but tells himself it’s too traditional, too
like . . . and cannot even kill himself.
The idea that death should be the chief subject of reflection for the living,
and their chief care, was born with luxury—with the acquisition of
Whence this odd question: Among all the useless things, which
to give our minds to?
Robinson ends by having created his own island.”
It is the return that confounds the narrator in the final stanzas of Bishop’s poem. Is functioning all that will ever return? Bishop writes:
“Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?
My blood was full of them; my brain
Bred islands. But that archipelago
Has petered out. I’m old.
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
Surrounded by uninteresting lumber.
The knife there on the shelf—
It reeked of meaning, like a crucifix.
It lived. How many years did I
Beg it, implore it, not to break?
I knew each nick, and scratch by heart,
The bluish blade, the broken tip,
The lines of wood-grain on the handle . . .
Now it won’t look at me at all.”
Here is another list: Crusoe was twenty-eight years on his island before the pirates came. Bishop was twenty-three when her mother died and fifty-six when Lota killed herself. Daniel Foe died in Ropemaker’s Alley, London, at seventy-one.
True Story II: I was ten the summer we nearly ran aground off Cuttyhunk; young enough to imagine myself more as Jim Hawkins than Chrissy Hynde. Fog can come on quickly off Cape Cod and this was before GPS. When there is no visibility you steer by compass, but the boat can be pulled off course by changing currents, and fog transforms the quality of sound, the bell of a mid-channel marker can sound far away when it is just off the bow. I was sitting on the roof of the small cabin, trying to see the buoy that marked the entrance to Cuttyhunk Harbor, when I saw whitecaps all around us. The sound of waves breaking out in the middle of Buzzard’s Bay. There are two reefs between Cuttyhunk and the coast: “Sow and Pigs” and “Hen and Chickens.” Jack put the twenty-five-horse outboard hard into reverse and my father and I each held a boathook, straining to see the rocks below the breakers. It was the first time the Tontine felt small to me. The cockpit with the teacups rattling around, the cabin with our packs of cards, books, crackers and peanut butter, could all be swept clean so quickly.
Their deaths were still unimaginable to me.
I couldn’t get over how fast the fog came in and the reef came up.
“With some polytropic characters it is possible that there is no real self behind the shifting masks, or that the real self lies exactly there, in the moving surfaces and not beneath. It’s possible there are beings with no way of their own, only the many ways of their shifting skin and changing contexts.” –Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde
I grew up surrounded by tricksters, and perhaps I am a trickster myself. Most of the adults around me were artists, writers, musicians; people in the business of metamorphosis. In New York in the 1970’s, transformation was the greatest trick of all and many of the people I grew up around succeeded at this, or died in the attempt. I am not being dramatic; several of them pushed their bodies over the boundary of the living with undeniable willingness. Suicide was a familiar to my friends and me. The first time I had sex with a girl I was in the seventh grade. We were fooling around, drunk, the night before, and breakfast was hung over and awkward. Her kitchen window faced the back of her building, and there was a lower roof adjacent to the building just behind. It was a black tar-paper roof that could have been used as a patio if anyone had bothered to put chairs or tables out there. We didn’t see the body hit, but we both heard something and looked up from the table to see a woman spread out. A lavender nightgown had somehow stayed down, mostly covering her in flight, so she looked wrongly asleep more than anything. My friend’s mother watched with us as the police and medical people arrived, and then we were sent to school as usual. Now, it seems a little odd that I was staying over and getting drunk with my friend on a school night, but none of it seemed odd at the time. The suicide was less disturbing than the physical effects of my first real hangover (I had to leave geography class and go throw up in the bathroom), or that’s what I thought at the time. Sex and death and crossing borders holding onto both was all that we ever saw. Our parents and their friends were really, really good at it.
If I could speak to my father I would tell him to come home now. The land of the dead is no place for him. Unlike so many of the parents my father always came home. He transformed too; he mythologized his childhood of fallen gentry in a broken mill town. He took the only road out of Fall River (which now calls itself “The Scholarship City”) up to Harvard and from there to Paris on a Fulbright, and then always, always New York. He transformed himself with smarts, humor, an alchemical charm and that fast way of talking with almost no Massachusetts accent at all. But he was a true New Englander in that he never stopped working. He was working in Paris when he died. Now he needs to come back to New York, to his girlfriend, to my sisters, and most of all to me. He still needs to finish his book.
I will go below and sing him back from ash and bone. I will not make the mistake of looking back.
I still wear his coat when I am afraid.
Mourning Labor: Funeral Gifts:
“The coffin was placed on a bier outside the door. One of the deceased’s relatives would then distribute bread and cheese to the poor, taking care to hand these gifts over the coffin. Sometimes the bread or cheese had a piece of money inside it. In expectation of the gift, the poor would have earlier gathered flowers and herbs to grace the coffin.”—- The Gift, Lewis Hyde.
I am both the relative and “the poor” waiting on the other side of the coffin.
I am looking for a gateway through this, and I’ll try every opening I can find.
Hole: I am in a taxi heading uptown and he’s got his hand under my skirt, under my panties and inside my hole. There are lots of potholes on Sixth Avenue, and this makes it all unexpected, when he will push harder inside, when he will keep doing exactly what I want him to be doing. This taxi ride is taking a long time, but I don’t think it will be long enough. Long enough would be forever. No talking, his mouth on my mouth, on my neck, and my eyes wide open at the late night city behind his back. There is a hotel room waiting for us and I walk ahead of him into the marble lobby. He’ll pay the fare and follow me inside. There is an elevator man because this is such a very fancy hotel, and neither of us can look at each other. I can smell his fingers from here. Once inside the hotel room we act like famished people because that’s exactly what we are. We’ve known each other for a long time. My marriage is over and it had nothing to do with him. His marriage is intact and it has nothing to do with me. We are simply meeting in a circle bound by these entryways nobody can speak about, better not to try. We are here to slake each other, to wound each other, and then to walk away.
Crusoe: There is, in the end, a return, even if it is delivered by “pyrates.” How long it takes to return depends upon the castaway.
There is a clarity to loss, to deep grief. Everyone advises you not to make big decisions, but decisions have never been so easy. Why not? There is the absolutely pure perspective of death which makes things clear at last. Your own death, for example, has never seemed so close. It is Bishop who wrote (in Geography III) that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
Well, maybe. There is no choice about any of this.
“So there he is, ROBINSON, on his cubic island.
Night falls. The tenderest blue is on the glass
Of high windows.
People the shadows and the Mouth.
Even the most urgent work yields to the dying day.
And what she, the other, imagines is an intimate clamor
that is not the clamor of the city.
Alone, Not-Alone: ROBINSON.”
Reprinted with permission from Fiction Magazine (c) 2009.