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Even when he sails off, those who remain will follow his pioneering routines, enlarging the new tradition he left behind and remarking on the wonder of his deeds. The story is that of Robinson Crusoe, the protagonist of an early-eighteenth-century travel tale who slipped out of the emerging form of the English novel back into cultural myth.
I introduce Crusoe here for several reasons, including that he is familiar and fictional and thus provides us with all the clarity and attendant misunderstanding inherent in any model. Crusoe is an old friend to social theory, called upon to represent a pure form of individual existence outside society, as well as a key experiment in literature, marking a transition between fantastic and realistic representation.
More crucially for the ensuing discussion, the story combines key general elements—nature, technology, and colonialism—in a setting where political economy and morality weave together, where men are men without women, and where space and individual identity are most clearly aligned. Crusoe's island exile embodies improvisation beyond the limits of design, a central theme of this work.
Mundane details and final purpose fill his head as this earnest amateur finds salvation by solving problems at the edge of his experience. Still another reason to recall our man on the island can be found at a further metaphorical remove. Echoes of Crusoe's travails reverberate in stories told about knowledge and practice, including technologies and academic disciplines.
Many historical figures have occupied islands since his, moving from castaway to pioneer as they rebuild a small piece of the world in their own image. The island constitutes a space of world imagining and world building, a limited domain within which some semblance of certainty and control can be maintained. Whether literal landmass or metaphorical field of expertise, an island has clear borders and a horizon on all sides.
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Along these borders we find techniques and their limits most clearly exposed, as the certainty of systematic order confronts the possibility of other conditions and alternative solutions. In taking Crusoe as our guide we return to a state of natural artifice where the manufacture of knowledge becomes an obvious craft. Positioning this initial image of the lonely castaway in colonial history provides us with a frame against which to interpret French Guiana and the apparitions of a penal colony and space center within it. It also permits us to reflect on disciplinary boundaries, readerly expectations, and the dilemmas of anthropology in the face of modern technology and an intensifying set of worldly connections.
Thence emerged the story of Robinson, in the way a dream might occur. When this dream was published, however, all Europe realized that it had been dreaming it..
Since its introduction to the reading public in , Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner has worked its way through numerous additions, translations, and recastings, inspiring not only architects of grand theory but also small children, especially boys.
From early best-seller and example of the English novel, it has become a cultural referent and childhood classic.
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And what readers it has had! This is, after all, the only volume Rousseau would give his ideal pupil, Emile, and the work that Marx invokes in crucial and biting fashion at the beginning of Capital. While few now know that the book had sequels let alone read them , and not many recall much about its narrative beyond the protagonist's marooning on an island, that central image has reverberated far and wide: Crusoe, washed up on an unfamiliar shore, facing the world alone. Several facts are worth underlining before turning to the work itself.
First, while Robinson Crusoe can be called fiction, it was written at a moment of transition in genre and presents itself as an authentic story, striving to evoke the believable over the fantastic. As a general portrait of an era his fictional biography represents something beyond the idiosyncratic; this is the morning of the great age of sugar production, of the painful triangle between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and Defoe himself was quite interested in the colonialism of his day.
Third, the work was immensely popular at the time of its appearance and was quickly translated into other languages the first French edition appeared in , even as its themes would be reworked and rewritten across the ensuing centuries. Eventually, in a twist particularly germane to this story, it inspired Jules Verne, the French father of science fiction, who in turn served as a hero to rocketeers. Taken as a literary work, Robinson Crusoe has been read in a number of ways.
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Two of the most influential traditions are those that treat his exile on the island as a spiritual or psychological trial and those that focus on his behavior as economic man, the classic bourgeois stripped of society. Marooned on a small tropical island, his horizons limited and surrounded by exotic flora and fauna, this nontechnical man he has always traveled as a merchant must rebuild his life.
Alone for most of his years of exile, he lives with constant thoughts of elsewhere, repenting his past, dreaming of liberation, and dreading cannibals. And yet by the time he acquires his man Friday not to mention his later retinue of Spanish and English sailors he has become sovereign and—in an odd way—native, dictating not only the political terms of the island's administration but also the technical terms of its settlement. He builds himself a world, one between England and the tropics, one that bears the mark of his hand.
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Here then is our key figure. To allow him something of the fullness of history I will continue reading the fiction where he found form, noting elements that bear on our theme. Crusoe marooned is a man painfully displaced. Yet his sojourn on the uncharted isle, his furthest displacement beyond the bounds of society, in the end brings him closest to home. Once wedded to his island, he can never leave it, returning at the end of the book to inspect it again and bearing everywhere its mark on him.
For, when all is said and done, it is the central experience of his life, the one that defines him as a character. Crusoe, despite his taste for adventure, does not remain an explorer; he becomes, however unwillingly, a colonist. This condition separates his account from many earlier travel tales of adventurers and merchants, Odysseus to Sinbad.
The explorer has come to rest, and in proving himself cosmopolitan, he reworks his body and soul: the island inspires Crusoe to his closest encounter with both spiritual anguish and the material conditions of life. It is here that he who has never been a religious paragon begins again to pray, here that he who has never been a skilled worker learns, slowly and awkwardly, to husband the land and to make all he needs. Yet he takes heart in his work, in his improvements.
Defoe devotes pages to consider if occasionally in haste the technical aspects of Crusoe's struggle to reconstitute a familiar life. When the fatal footprint shatters Crusoe's sense of solitude, he finds new fears in the shape of cannibals and eventually gains a servant companion, rescued from their midst.
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Throughout he oscillates between faith and doubt, fear and hope, salvation and doom. His island is both kingdom and prison, and his presence on it reign or captivity, depending on his mood. Crusoe lands with a chest of tools as well as a rudimentary knowledge of their use. And for all that the island is exotic, an initially mysterious and threatening environment, it provides him with empty ground to claim for his own; its tropical climate supports game animals and allows the practice of agriculture.
These are things he recognizes and holds onto, tools and ways of being that he will pass on to others, first his servant Friday and then the Spaniards and English mutineers who take his place. To live on his island is to live as Crusoe, to adopt his ways and habits, as well as to walk the same ground.
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However relentlessly focused on individuality, Robinson Crusoe revolves around a discovery of social order through its lack and the necessary conditions of its reimposition. And what is this social order? Before us we have a single male, a European traveler aware of his national origin, language, and religion, categorizing others and himself, alternately certain and uncertain where sovereignty lies. He judges; he defers judgment; he calculates; he weeps. Born between high and low, he is placed by fate where he can act as both lord and bondsman.
Separated from England, detached from his plantation in Brazil, he can imagine and experience himself beyond the edge of one identity or at the center of a new one. He learns to work, even while he learns to rule. He learns old techniques, even while he confronts a new and wild land. When he does acquire a servant he names him, while renaming himself as master. Social mobility and hierarchy emerge in tandem: one commoner becomes king, and another acquires the debt of life that will make him a slave.
Furthermore, Crusoe is a man in a world of men; women hover only at the edges of his story. The island creates a gender of absence; the terrifying prospect of his independence obscures sex and sensuality, and no other flesh impedes his path to God.
For all his fear and doubt, Robinson is an eminently rational man. After binding others to his realm, Crusoe sails away again.
The order he reasserts is that of the local sovereign, redistributing property and encouraging its material enlargement, preaching self-reliance, while dividing his subjects by rank and religion. Defoe's memoir for a marooned adventurer overflows with irrepressible and singular detail. Yet it also provides us with key elements of the settler myth:.
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