The Thinking 

Crusoe’s Reality

December 7, 2011


KB writes:

Thanks for recommending Robinson Crusoe, I’m reading it on my iPad tonight. I’d read an abridged version of Crusoe as a schoolboy and it remained one of my favorite adventure stories. Nonetheless, its message passed over my head. Today, reading what you wrote in reference to Crusoe reached into my heart. “He did not pity himself…or lose sight of how much his own stubbornness had misled him. He came to realize that his trials were his salvation.”

I am not a housewife, simply an unmarried 25-year-old, male immigrant, now an American citizen. For almost eight years, I’ve been on my version of Crusoe’s island, cut off from society and my family. In my country, I knew the names of every family on my street. I couldn’t tell you what my next door neighbors even look like. This is mostly due to my choice, and for many years I was stubborn, full of liberal outrage and bitterness much like the Occupy Wall Street crowd. As my peers became successful I pitied myself, wallowed in self-hatred and failure until I discovered conservative politics. This is not to say that being political changed my life, rather that I found myself identifying much more with the history, ethic but most of all the vibrant zeal for life of American conservatism. I began to read American literature and American history. Though I remain an atheist, the writings of Tolkien sparked my interest in Catholicism and appreciation of beauty. I began to move away from the ugliness of Calvinist iconoclasm. [In other words, I chose Lord of the Rings over Harry Potter]

As silly as it seems, the realization that I was an American, that I had inherited 200+ years of a great civilization brought me out of my self imposed exile. I had earned my citizenship by doing nothing. A gauntlet had been thrown in front of me that it was my duty as a man to be a part of society in every way possible. Roman soldiers worked for a lifetime to earn citizenship. How dare I receive this undeserving honor and do nothing with it? I no longer wanted to be one of many non-ambitious males who have simply checked out of society. I decided to make something of myself. Much like Crusoe, I reached these conclusions in isolation, guided only through self-education and self assessment.

I’m currently in the process of finishing my education and am preparing to join the Marine Corps. For the time being I remain on my island, building up my mind and body.

 Laura writes:

Living on an island is no laughing matter, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay on Crusoe. But, it’s no crying matter either.

I hope that you are not disappointed in Crusoe the man. He reminds me somewhat of one of my neighbors who spends his free time – all of his free time — maintaining his lawn and driveway. His lawn and driveway are an entire universe, a self-created island. If you met Crusoe in person, you would probably find him dull. If he were your neighbor, he would talk about his lawn mower and not much else. Defoe’s book, which was published in 1719, is a paean to the Protestant work ethic, and for that reason a small but vocal minority of critics through the ages have hated it.

Though he has affecting moments of reflection and introspection, Crusoe attends to the practical matters of survival most of the time. As Woolf wrote in her esssay, “Robinson Crusoe,” which is in her collection of essays The Second Common Reader and can be found in the Norton critical edition:

The waves, the seamen, the sky, the ship – all are seen through those shrewd, middle-class, unimaginative eyes. There is no escaping him. Everything appears as it would appear to that naturally cautious, apprehensive, conventional, and solidly matter-of-fact intelligence. He is incapable of enthusiasm. He has a natural slight distaste for the sublimities of Nature. He expects even Providence of exaggeration…. He is forever counting his barrels, and making sensible provisions for his water supply; nor do we ever find him tripping even in a matter of detail.

This is precisely what makes the book a masterpiece. Woolf explains why:

And so by means of telling the truth undeviatingly 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. Unimpeded by comment, the story marches on with magnificent downright simplicity.

Crusoe’s “sense of reality” is as moving as his humility and perseverance.


                                                  — Comments —

Kimberly writes:

This topic has made my day! Crusoe’s reality- yes- I entirely relate. People think I’m “crazy” because my husband runs a big, exciting business that I could be involved with, and yet I stay at home, nursing my babies and teaching my toddlers. I have nothing more to tell people in our brief encounters than “Baby took his first steps the other day!” etc. They are polite and smile, but they seem to wonder how I could possibly thrive such a simple reality.  

I like K.B.’s comment, “Though I remain an atheist, the writings of Tolkien sparked my interest in Catholicism and appreciation of beauty. I began to move away from the ugliness of Calvinist iconoclasm. [In other words, I chose Lord of the Rings over Harry Potter].” 

I read several Harry Potter books as a teenager. I don’t rememeber a darn thing about them! There was no meaning, even with all the magic and so-called adventure, it was never simple enough to be important. Recently, I began reading The Hobbit, getting to know Bilbo. I decided to do this because watching The Lord of the Ringsmovies have been a consolation to me lately, just as reading Robinson Crusoe was when I read it. I feel encouraged by Frodo’s journey, by the burden he bears and the misery he faces, and with all the uncertainty of his future, all the giant odds stacked up against him. As much as I feel like Crusoe, on an island alone, making simple, ordinary things become beautiful and important, I also feel like a little hobbit, with the weight of my sins hanging around my neck, confusing me at times, and I just keep pushing forward, knowing hardly where I’m headed. I can feel everyone around me saying, “She is going to die- she is dead already! There is no hope!”, but I can’t listen to that. I have to hope against the giant odds. At least I have a Samwise (my good, dear, Catholic friend), and an Aaragon (my brave husband). If I can become as humble as a hobbit, I can make it to Mount Doom. God may have to let a little goblin bite my finger off, but He will not let me die! 

As, Samwise says, “There is good and beauty in this world, and it’s worth fighting for!” (That’s paraphrased from the movie.)  

John E. writes: 

I don’t know much about Virginia Woolf–most of what I’ve learned about her has been from your blog, especially your essay about her you posted over two years ago. In light of your thoughts there, don’t you find Woolf’s thoughts on Crusoe ironic?

Laura writes:

Yes, it is ironic. But then Woolf was willing to point out with great delicacy the luminous dimension of concrete reality and to elsewhere deny and revile it altogether. She could find significance in the fluttering of a moth on a window pane but at the same time rage that women had wasted their lives on the mundane. In her charming essay “The Death of a Moth,” she describes a moth’s last moments:

The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside, indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-colored moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

Compare her admiration for this “pure bead” of life with her description of the pathetic history of womanhood in “A Room of One’s Own” in which a woman’s trip to the market is a cheapening excursion among rumps of cattle. A woman with artistic gifts would just as soon throw herself in a river than direct her artistry to any “pure bead” of human life or Crusoe’s simple reality. This is Woolf’s description of an elderly mother in that essay. Notice the clothes in camphor, the monotony, the meaninglessness of it all:

… However, the majority of women are neither harlots or courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then? and there came to my mind’s eye one of those long streets somewhere south of the river whose infinite rows are innumerably populated. With the eye of the imagination I saw a very ancient lady crossing the street on the arm of a middle-aged woman, her daughter, perhaps, both so respectably booted and furred that their dressing in the afternoon must be a ritual, and the clothes themselves put away in cupboards with camphor, year after year, throughout the summer months. They cross the road when the lamps are being lit (for the dusk is their favorite hour), and as they must have done year after year. The elder is close on eighty …… And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of Spril 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children set to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished.No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie. (A Room of One’s Own, Harcourt, p. 89)

Laurence Butler writes:

Your post on a corrected quote from Crusoe reminded me of a recent discussion hosted at The Personalist Project on the isolation that our contemporary society and state facilitates. I liked the quote from Crusoe so much I included it at the end of the talk.
I found it to be very interesting, and figured you might as well, seeing as there are many Crusoe parallels and you love that story so well.
Wheeler McPherson writes:

Regarding KB’s stated plans to join the Marine Corps, my reaction is, “Oh, no. Please, no.”

As a once-proud veteran of the USMC, I have come to view my military alma mater with horror and disgust. This reversal is a result of the path the Corps has been on for some time now, and the path mirrors present-day American society more closely than leatherneck fans would care to admit.

I would be more than willing to present my concerns to KB, either in private email or in the public forum of your website, whichever he and/or you would prefer.




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