I am no mere sickened leaf on a dead tide. . . . All of us [werel wrecked together in a Chinatown cafe and waiting for the rising tide, another dark whim of the sea. . . . For a moment I saw them, these bloated shapes ... that marked the long wild curve of our reckless detour into the dark and milky night. Abandoned. As we were abandoned.... I fell back and found myself staring up at a gray sky, gray scudding clouds, a thick palpable reality of air in which only the barometer and a few weak signals of distress could survive. An inhuman daytime sky.... I was alone, abandoned, left behind.... And then my heart was floating in a dark sea, in my stomach the waves were commencing their dark action.... I was tossed up spent and half-naked on the invisible shore of our wandering island — old Ariel in sneakers, sprite surviving in bald-headed man of fair complexion . . . I was done with the water, the uncomfortable drift of a destructive ocean, done trying to make myself acceptable to the Old Man of the Sea. — John Hawkes, Second Skin
fter escaping the surf that has battered and nearly drowned him, Robinson Crusoe manages to drag himself ashore; and looking back at the hostile sea, he is at first carried away by joy at his good luck in escaping the fate of his shipmates. But when he turns his gaze from the sea to examine his new surroundings, he suddenly realizes that he has had, after all, "a dreadful deliverance; for I was wet, had no clothes to shift me, nor anything else either to eat or drink to comfort me, neither did I see any prospect before me, but that of perishing with hunger, or being devoures by wild beasts." Crusoe's first reaction reminds us of Dante. when, in the twentieth line of the Inferno, he likens himself to one "who with labouring breath has escaped from the waters to the shore." Dante, however, does not find himself perishing in a waste desert, for Vergil, having been sent by Beatrice, soon arrives to save him from the isolation of sin. Crusoe, too, is saved when the ship remains wedged among the rocks that had destroyed it — for his tale, like Dante's, is also one of spiritual education and consequent spiritual deliverance.1
An author, a nation, an age all define themselves by what they understand and misunderstand about their predecessors, and almost all nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers who allude to this most famous of castaways completely disregard Defoe's obvious theological emphasis, choosing instead to see Crusoe as an example of man's essential isolation. Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls uses the words of John Donne to assert the existence of communitas, but far more characteristic of Romantic and post-Romantic literature has been the assertion that life is both metaphysically and humanly islanded.
This interpretation of reality appears with particular clarity in literary allusions to Robinson Crusoe. For instance, the opening lines of Daryl Hine's "Among Islands" tells how
We are exiles everywhere we go,
Stranded upon the veranda, castaways
In the family living room, like Crusoe,
Or like Philoctetes, festering,
Having given away the Herculean bow,
With nothing to call our own except the wound.
And when Hank, the main characterof Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, realizes his situation, he concludes that he "was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on an uninhabited island, with no society but some more or less tame animals" (ch. 7). Even those who still have faith, like Mrs Gaskell, the author of North and South, see Robinson Crusoe only as an exemplar of human isolation. When Mrs Gaskell's political novel presents the industrialist Henry Thornton defining the nature of man, he naturally happens upon the image of Crusoe. According to Thornton, who in the earlier part of the novel represents unreconstructed laissez-faire capitalism in its harshest form, "gentleman" is a term that describes the human being only in relation to others,
but when we speak of him as "a man,."we consider him . . . in relation to himself — to life — to time — to eternity. A castaway, lonely as Robinson Crusoe . . . has his endurance, his strength, his faith best described by his being spoken of as "a man." [ch. 20]
Thus Thornton, who at this popint in the novel assumes that all men exist in basic isolation as social atoms, can hold that a man's social relations are trivial in comparison to the basic nature of humanity in industrial society. Characteristically, he does not seem frightened by the implications of his image of the human condition. One may add that it is no coincidence that when Georg Lukacs comes to describe man in capitalist society, he chooses the same image as the wife of the Victorian minister. For according to his "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat" the kind of human being who emerges in the industrial age "must be the individual, egotistic bourgeois isolated aritificially by capitalism . . . [with] an individual isolated consciousness à la Robinson Crusoe." The degree to which Defoe's character has become the embodiment of human isolation appears most strongly, perhaps, in the fact that when the philosopher Gilbert Ryle comes to attack what he terms the "official theory of epistemology since Descartes, he points out how mistakenly it urges the view that "the mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe" (The Concept of Mind, ch. 1).
Closely related to this characteristically modern reinterpretation of Defoe's story is the image of the island, or more properly, of an island existence. In what we may term its metaphysical form, this image conveys the belief — to use the words of Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning" — that we exist in an "island solitude, unsponsored, free,/ Of that wide water, inescapable." On the other hand, in its second major form this image emphasizes that every man is an island; or as Matthew Arnold put it:
Yes! in the sea of life enisled.
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
["Switzerland, no. 5. To Marguerite Continued"]
Both versions of the basic image achieve more than the rhetorical force of any good analogy. Both, in fact, are capable of generating an entire imaginative world, an entire metaphysic brought into being by their appearance. Although observing the existence of the image of islanded man is a worthy enough contribution to a study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century iconsography, I am far more interested in this image's essential capacity to create an imaginative universe.
One reason, surely, that this literary commonplace can thus function is that it centres on a moment of recognition and is commonly employed to convey the experience of such a moment which marks a break with one's past experience. A new life, however perilous and lonely, begins at the moment of recognition. Sometimes, as in Conrad,' Nostromo, the recognition is too much to be borne. In that novel, Decoud
found himself solitary on the beach, like a man in a dream . . . [amid] the black wastes of sky and sea around the islet. . . . He died from solitude, the enemy known to but few on this earth, and whom only the simplest of us are fit to with stand. . . . Solitude from mere outward condition of existence becomes very swiftly a state of soul. . . . After three days of waiting for the sight of some human face, Decoud caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. . . . The brilliant Martin Decoud . . . disappeared without a trace, swallowed up in the immense indifference of things. [pt 3, ch. 10]
Some like Decoud perish; others, like Stevens, Ruskin, and Arnold, try to make an accommodation.
The way nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors have chosen to interpret Defoe's character reveals the great extent to which the situation of the castaway has impressed itself upon the modern imagination. Clearly, there have been many like Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym whose "visions were of shipwreck and famine . . . of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown" (ch.2). Baudelaire, for insunce, ends "Le Cygne" thinking "aux matelots oublies dans une ile" while the hero of Tennyson's Maud compares himself to a "Shipwrecked man on a coast/ Of ancient fable and fear." George Eliot's Felix Holt describes Annette, Esther Lyon." mother, as such a castaway "on a remote island where she had been saved from wreck."(ch. 6), while Dickens describes Arthur Clenham in Little Dorrit in much the same terms with his love "like Roblnson Crusoe's money; exchangeable with no one, lying idle in the dark to rust, until he poured it out for Little Dorrit" (bk II, ch. 13). And Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is seen wlth Sonia "mournful and dejected, as though they had been cast up by the tempest all alone on some deserted shore" (Pt V, Ch. 4).]
Thomas Stothard. Robinson Crusoe discovers Friday's footprint — evidence of another human presence. Note the implications of discovering the presence of another human being on an island or territory that a European believed uninhabited.
A twentieth-century writer who has made his poetic accommodation with this sense of being in the world is the contemporary Australian poet A. D. Hope, who rings many changes on the image — or rather situation — of islanded man. This recognition of one's existence as a castaway occurs in "Man Friday," Hope's continuation of Robinson Crusoe. According to his version, Crusoe, saved by his God, "Took into exile Friday and the bird."
Friday, the dark Caribbean man,
Picture his situation if you can:
The gentle savage, taught to speak and pray,
On England's Desert Island cast away,
No godlike Crusoe issuing from his cave,
Comes with his thunderstick to slay and save;
Instead from caves to stone, as thick as trees,
More dreadful than ten thousand savages, . . .
The pale-eyed English swarm to joke and stare,
With endless questions round him crowd and press
Curious to see and touch his loneliness.
In this new situation "mere ingenuity," such as had saved Crusoe, is useless, and "As Crusoe made his clothes, so he no less,/ Must labour to invent his nakedness." But memories and imagination cannot prevail, and when he and Crusoe visit the shore, Friday follows the prints made by an unshod foot into the surf. When Crusoe comes upon the body later he "never guessed" that "Friday had been rescued and gone home."
Hope himself makes his own human accommodation to Australia,
. . . a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
For turning from "the lush jungle of modern thought" the poet prefers "the Arabian desert of the human mind." since from "that waste" springs a "scarlet" more intense than in supposedly more habitable situations. Hope, as poet, likes his particular island.
The image of the island existence, and its related image of the shipwreck, runs all through Hope's fine poetry, appearing variously in "Heldensagen," Observation Car," "The Death of the Bird," and, of course, "The Wandering Islands." In this last poem Hope develops the poetic commonplace that we are all islands which Matthew Arnold employed with such conspicuous mediocrity. He tells us in the opening lines that
You cannot build bridges between the wandering islands;
The Mind has no neighbours, and the unteachable heart
Announces its armistice time after time, but spends
Its love to draw them closer and closer apart.
These islands are not on the charts, they wander "A refuge only for the shipwrecked sailor." At times two islands — two human beings come together in an instant of love:
. . . the castaway hails the castaway,
But the sounds perish in that earthquake shock.
And then, in the crash of ruined cliffs, the smother
And swirl of foam, the wandering islands part.
But all that one mind ever knows of another,
Or breaks the long isolation of the heart,
Was in that instant.
The shipwrecked sailor senses
His own despair in a retreating face.
Around him he hears in the huge monotonous voices
Of wave and wind: "The Rescue will not take place."
The grimness of the recognition may momentarily obscure one of the most important qualities of Hope's poetry — his sense of comedy, his sharp wit, his laugh whenever things get too grim to be taken any other way. In fact, what makes Hope's poetry so successful, particularly in his use of this image of islanded human existence, is that it simultaneously creates this imaginative universe and comments upon it ironically. One thing that such a recognition about Hope's verse serves to emphasize is that any one image must be taken in context, for only when we perceive how it functions in its own poetic setting, thus generating a rhetoric, tone, and imaginative world, can we hope to make a truly useful iconology.
Last modified 15 July 2007