Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Penguin London. First published 1719. F; 9/12.

I can see and feel (almost smell) the cellophane-glossy 1950s children’s abridged illustrated edition Mum or Dad used to read to us. I see the adventure pictures of Friday, canoes, stockade and not-quite-naked cannibals as if they were right in front of my cherubic face, all gone now nearly 60 years.

Franzen mentioned the story-telling in this old fundamental novel in his essay anthology Farther Away, and once on a kick I rarely let go. So I bought the book.

I found it easy not to be put off by the archaic language, religious sentiments, and racism. The famously innovative (okay, in some ways probably over-rated. How the hell do you judge somebody from the 18th century by our standards?) raconteur made me admire and identify with his imaginary terrified isolated and finally successful self. In a reader’s fantasy I too would have seen to my security to the point of quadruple protection, risked everything to get precious supplies off the doomed ship, and (oh yeah) masterfully manipulated using my firearms the lowlife bastard mutineers so I could get back to England and enjoy the wealth that was so honorably and kindly husbanded for me.

Once you grow up identifying with Robinson Crusoe means having to think about being alone. All alone. It’s a dove-in-hand gentle metonymy left by somebody who had a great idea, but no idea what he was doing, 300 years ago.

So from our context (which Defoe couldn’t have imagined) the existential isolation may look very different than it did to him. I’m reminded of my 60s-70s English lit zeitgeist where Northrop Frye et al helped us to get that we see Defoe (Blake, Da Vinci, Haydn, Courvoisier etc etc) as he has been canonized dozens of times and covered with a hundred onionskins of foregone conclusions. We have our sense of his character’s isolation, his author’s isolation idea, and everyone’s reading of that isolation by incompatible point of view. The point of view is individual and so the message of all the point-of-view sages is the same as the scared man on the island: nobody else sees it quite my way.

God grant me the wisdom not to get lost in some recursive labyrinth here. You’ve still got to walk that LonesomeValley. ??8.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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