Oct 19 2016

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”


Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]


Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]


Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]


Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.



[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.

Sep 6 2016

Advice for Voters: Politics in Fugue Form



In a democracy, the prisoners pick their wardens. While we are told this is an important election for Americans, the old standbys of political philosophy appear to not be as effective as once before. For example, Texas, recently voted for a multiple-alleged criminal to oversee and uphold the laws of the state.

Perhaps we should turn away (at least temporarily) from the usual suspects, away from Philadelphia 1787, away from the idolatry of forefathers and their slave exemptions. But then who will counsel meager citizen me? Who can help me choose the best politician—the best person to make me do what I don’t want to do?

I will try to find my answer by listening to a fugue, that is, “the orderly and varied reiteration of the same ‘subject’.”[1] I will harken to points and counterpoints.


Caesar: “All folks strive toward freedom while despising all forms of slavery.”[2]

Machiavelli: “Citizens of a republic want only not to be oppressed … only its nobles want to oppress others.”[3]

Vico: “If people were left to pursue their private interests, they would live in solitude like wild beasts….  We defend our natural liberty most fiercely to preserve the goods most essential to our survival. By contrast, we submit to the chains of civil servitude to obtain external goods which are not necessary to life. [4]


Burke: “Liberty, when men [and women] act in bodies, is power…. In all bodies, those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow… In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.”[5]

Anscombe: “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.[6] This is why ‘possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.’[7] So to attain your goal, you’ve got to give up what you’ve already got.”


Rawls: “To be at liberty and free from oppression is, in some sense, to be disinterested, and therefore detached, as it is written: ‘one feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested’.”[8]

Searle: “Roughly speaking, power is the ability to make people do something whether they want to do it or not.”[9]

Wilkerson: “The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘You have to stoop to conquer’.” [10]



[1] Lewis, C. S. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 61. Compare Lewis later: “The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one,” (64). And compare C. S. Peirce:

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis [its own kind]. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. No. 2. 1868. 140–57.)

And compare Paul Valéry:

Do not search for ‘truth’*—But seek to develop those forces which make and unmake truths. Seek to think of a greater number of simultaneous things,—to think longer and more rigorously of the same one—to catch yourself in the very act—to suspend your hesitations,—to give new momentum to what is clogged up. Suggest co-ordinations to yourself. Try out your ideas as functions and means…. [Editor’s note:] *Cf. the later comment of 1940, ‘I am searching for the truth of thought and not for truth by thought.’ Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912, I 12, IV, 783.) [pp. 264-65] and (C, XXIV, 168) [p. 617])

[2] Caesar, Gallic War, III, x.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe, IX.

[4] Vico, The Third New Science, “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2 and I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109.

[5] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Anscombe, G. E. M. “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. p. 131.

[7] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 82.

[8] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Revised Edition.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1999. § 3, p. 12.

[9] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology. NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p.104.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 117.

Jun 10 2016

But Myths Are Contagious

bookbread typewriter

But Myths Are Contagious

Consider some unthing truly believed—I mean a myth. Consider how the consequences of one individual believing in a myth affect everyone else who happens to encounter that believing individual.

Then think about how everyone else’s awareness of that individual’s belief in the myth further perpetuates, spreads the myth.

Even for nonbelievers, myths are contagious––because nonbelievers remain susceptible to encountering knowledge of, attention to, awareness of myths they don’t believe in.

Now consider the myth of nostalgia: “the ole time religion,” Springsteen’s “glory days,” the search for lost time. Yet one can argue against all that crap, as a character does in a scene from Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1918):

“My Lord!” Kinney groaned, half in earnest. “Old times starting all over again! My Lord!”

“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”

And he vanished in such a manner that he seemed already to have begun dancing.[i]

Yes, the old times are no more. Times and habits change so fast, and we adapt so quickly to them, that we forget all that went on before—even though some of what went on before still goes on now. For old habits leave traces of themselves behind. They leave skidmarks and footprints of previous passages.[ii]

While the old habit said: “To protect the weak, we must first enslave them,”[iii] and the new diagnosis for overcoming the old habit is: “When we should still be growing children, we are already little men,”[iv] some, nonetheless, say humans are beasts; and children, insects. Now folks have trained many beasts of pleasure and disciplined many children of burden, but whoever dared to condition an insect?[v]

To pursue only your own interest is to be a beast.  To pursue only the interest of others is to be an insect, to be a hive-minded colonist.[vi] You may fight to survive and serve for leisure,[vii] yet only the acknowledgement of the absolute unknown (or what used to be called “kneeling before religion”) can put you on an even keel.[viii]



[i] Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons VI, 98. See also Paul Valéry:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible. (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].)

[ii] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 98; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UP. 2002. II, viii, [¶ 90] p. 66.

[iii] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857.

[iv] Thoreau, Henry. Walking – Lecture at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851.”

[v] Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. “Introduction,” by Malcom Cowley. NY: Viking. 1960. “[II] Hands” 12; Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. I, p. 16.

[vi] Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2.

[vii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109. Compare Henry Miller:

It’s hard to know, when you’re in such a jam, which is worse—not having a place to sleep or not having a place to work. Even if it’s not a masterpiece you’re doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy. (Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. II, p. 32.)

And compare Anthony Burgess:

Party names mean nothing. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be prodded, prodded––. (A Clockwork Orange. London: William Heinemann. 1962. III, v.)

[viii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xxxi, [¶ 177], p. 87. See also Lewis’s Elmer Gantry:

There was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up. (Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. I, p. 17.)