Saturday, April 25, 2009

Quote of the Day (Daniel Defoe, on Not Knowing What We Have Till It’s Lost)

“Thus we never see the true State of our Condition, till it is illustrated to us by its Contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.”—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

In contrast to the 19th century, when it probably achieved its zenith in popularity and, I would argue, its craft, the novel in the 18th century was a genre of the hinterlands—the English countryside or, in the hands of Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, regions at the very edge of the world, where unwary travelers came into uneasy proximity to the elements, their own shifting and uncertain interior geography—and, if they were lucky, as in Crusoe’s case, God.

Defoe and Swift wrote in the midst of the heroic age of exploration and colonization, where fascination with life at the extremes of the world was at its highest. Myself, I’ve never had this particular fascination—maybe because I encounter all the extremes I could want commuting five days a week into the exotic island of Manhattan.

Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe on this date in 1719, and from the start it became popular. It was based partly on the real-life adventure of the Scot seaman Alexander Selkirk, who spent more than four years as a castaway 400 miles off the west coast of Chile, on uninhabited terrain now called Robinson Crusoe Island.

In his own way, Defoe must have felt as beleaguered and God-forsaken as Selkirk at times. In his mid-twenties, he had not only gone bankrupt when he attempted to expand his business, but had also been on the losing side when the Duke of Monmouth rebelled against King James II.

By middle age, the pamphleteer was jailed for his anonymous pamphlet The Shortest Way With Dissenters—and the only reason why he got sprung was because he agreed to become a secret agent and public propagandist for the government, providing shameless support for Scotland’s union with England.

In early 1719, Defoe came to a particularly rough patch in his life. It wasn’t only that he was hitting 60 years old—an age that then, far more so than now, leads to contemplation of imminent mortality—but that he had to pay for his daughter’s wedding. (The prospect of that, I’ve been reliably told, makes many a father long to become a castaway.) Instead of pulling a Spencer Tracy-style Father of the Bride slow burn, however, Defoe got busy, turning out his 412th publication, Robinson Crusoe.

(I know what you’re wondering: “412th? Is that a misprint?” No, believe it or not—Defoe did not fuss with twittering, Facebook, blogging or other Internet nonsense in those days.

Now, all that writing will get you called “prolific,” if people regard you as literary, like Joyce Carol Oates or Balzac, or a hack, if you’re a genre writer. For a long time, people thought of Defoe in the latter vein, as a guy who’d lucked into writing what, because it was viewed as merely an adventure story, was relegated to children’s literature. To their credit, writers like William Hazlitt and James Joyce knew better and championed it.)

To increase the verisimilitude of his account, Defoe wrote in the first person, in the voice of an ordinary man whose inner conflicts put him at a far remove from traditional epic heroes like Achilles or Odysseus. Instead of their raw courage or cunning, Crusoe only possesses endurance.

Readers approaching this as a mere adventure story, however, are likely to be surprised that its true genre is closer to the faux spiritual autobiography—and that Defoe was one of the first to play with the boundaries between fact and fiction.

By the time he had whipped out this novel (often considered the first in the English language), Defoe had crafted a tale with enduring mythic power. Its brisk sales inspired him to write two sequels before his death in 1731. Over the years, others would also find it a source of inspiration, in the form of parody (Gulliver’s Travels in print, Robinson Crusoe on Mars on film), several cinematic retellings (including a 1927 silent version and one starring Pierce Brosnan in 1997), and contemporary reimaginings (Tom Hanks’ Castaway).

Take a look at this reconsideration from the blog "Bright Lights Film", which notices how the novel creates the prototype of the white man and black sidekick. The blogger’s argument that this relationship is racist is one that can be argued with, but the essay still says much about how Robinson Crusoe still speaks to the 21st century about not only the Protestant work ethic but also loss, alienation and spiritual reintegration.

No comments: