Saturday, 18 May 2019

When Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s novel of the same name discovers the footprint of a stranger on the margins of the island he considers his domain, he builds defences and prepares violence. He wants to keep for himself his table, made with his own hands, his rude bowl, likewise the project of a man who has brought to DIY the gravitas of a spiritual exercise, and his parasol, but even more he wants to keep for himself the puritanical practices of useful labour, useful thought, austerity and self-restraint - he made a very small amount of rum last for ten years! - that are both the expression and the perpetuation of his isolation. He remains resistant to all that is not him. When given the opportunity, upon a suitably disadvantaged other, he shows himself prepared to teach but not to learn. The propagation of Defoe’s novel as an English classic over the centuries has both epitomised and contributed to a particularly noxious strand of Anglo-Saxon masculinity compounded of an arrogance and a superiority complex on the one hand and a concomitant deep insecurity and fear on the other, resulting in an instinct to devise rules, build defences and prepare violence. Jack Robinson, in this quick and subtle little book, not only sketches the deleterious effect upon English society of this thread of Englishness, leading to the Brexit crisis resulting from the projection of threat onto difference, but also traces the literary offspring of Ur-Crusoe, so to call him: Robinsons in books by Franz KafkaLouis-Ferdinand CélineMuriel Spark and others, and in the films of Patrick Keillor, each either or both perpetuating or degrading the character with whom they are inescapably associated. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ remains a central topos for reactionary British nativism. It is no coincidence that, in the space of populist disaffection resulting from Conservative austerity policies, a prominent contemporary British fascist has adopted the pseudonym ‘Tommy Robinson’ in his xenophobic campaign for “respect for British heritage, values and tradition.” Robinson Crusoe, despite circumstances that make his attitudes increasingly ridiculous, cannot help but insist, with increasing violence, that he is master of ‘his’ island. Jack Robinson’s quarrel “is less with Defoe than with Crusoe and the uses which the book has been put to.” He observes that “Crusoe has amassed such gravitas - or rather, his emblematic status in British culture became so far reaching - that the natural development of his descendants was inescapably stunted.” Can this be healed? In Crusoe’s unthinking adherence to ‘heritage, values and tradition’, he is incapable of change or growth or understanding, incapable of opening himself to new experience, of accepting as an equal anyone different from himself. When Crusoe leaves the island he remains the slaver and misogynist he was when he arrived. All he has done is survived. “Defoe denies Crusoe self-doubt, which is another way of infantilising him. His blind trust in God shuts off all radical introspection.” Without that introspection there is no hope. 

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