Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

“What would you do,” asks a character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” “if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The question is posed to Bill Murray, and the words sum up his life – he has been sentenced, for some inexplicable reason, to relive Feb. 2, seemingly forever. The humor for the audience is that we have all felt this way, for varying reasons, probably more than once in our lives.

Several generations ago, this same sentiment was expressed by the titular hero of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Finding himself shipwrecked on an island, alone except for the occasional appearance of cannibals, Crusoe begins to take stock of what made him come to this seemingly godforsaken island. He has misspent his life, he thinks, and he can no longer run from the consequences. “Lord be my help, for I am in great distress.”

What surprised me the most in reading “Robinson Crusoe,” was how much of it was taken up with Crusoe’s declarations of piety. Early in his time on the island, Crusoe understands that, just as he is alive because of the Almighty, he has brought to the island for some unknown reason. The reason isn’t merely repentance – like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” he is being changed. Which brings me to the second great surprise in reading the book. Defoe has the difficult job of rendering Crusoe’s 26-year sojourn on the island in a way that will keep the reader interested. And he is doing this within the confines of a newly created medium.

Read Jonathan Franzen, in his 2011 essay on “Crusoe,” grief, and solitude, “Farther Away”:

“Robinson Crusoe” was the great early document of radical individualism, the story of an ordinary person’s practical and psychic survival in profound isolation. The novelistic enterprise associated with individualism—the search for meaning in realistic narrative—went on to become the culture’s dominant literary mode for the next three centuries. Crusoe’s voice can be heard in the voice of Jane Eyre, the Underground Man, the Invisible Man, and Sartre’s Roquentin. …”

"Robinson Crusoe" is escapist fiction about a man who cannot escape. What Defoe does is give Crusoe things to do, to fill time, and have him explain what he is doing, how and why. We keep reading, and we do not feel we are treading the same ground or merely filling time. We slowly see Crusoe change from the reckless ne’er-do-well adventurer of dubious morality into a hard-hewn, patient man of confident integrity. His labors are never-ending, and his mistakes are recounted so that we will share in his feeling of triumph as he learns slowly to live on his own. He decides that his is not the worst lot in the life, that he is master of the island, and sets to imposing his own order. For half of his time on the island, he grows in a budding faith. But he is still a man, conscious of his limitations.

Then comes the footprint, and the sure knowledge that he is not alone on the island. In what could be, for some, a promise of hope, Crusoe experiences a moment of profound terror. Again, Franzen, on the changing religious consciousness of Dafoe’s mother country:  

“At the same time, England was rapidly becoming more secular. Protestant theology had laid the foundations of the new economy by reimagining the social order as a collection of self-reliant individuals with a direct relationship with God, but by 1700, as the British economy thrived, it was becoming less clear that individuals needed God at all. It’s true that, as any impatient child reader can tell you, many pages of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ are devoted to its hero’s spiritual journey. Robinson finds God on the island, and he turns to Him repeatedly in moments of crisis, praying for deliverance and ecstatically thanking Him for providing the means of it. And yet, as soon as each crisis has passed, he reverts to his practical self and forgets about God; by the end of the book... To read the story of Robinson’s vacillations and forgetfulness is to see the genre of spiritual autobiography unraveling into realist fiction.”

It was Franzen’s account of reading “Crusoe,” on a desert island, while mourning his friend David Foster Wallace, that made me want to read the novel. I think Franzen overstates his case slightly on how far Crusoe strays at the end, but he is right about his vacillations. As Crusoe observes after the discovery of the footprint, all of the faith he had in God’s providence suddenly abandons him, as though God has gotten him through everything to this point only to turn His back on the castaway. But within a few pages, he is once again quoting Scripture and stating that God will help him. With the appearance of Friday, Crusoe is soon thanking God that he has been brought to the island.

The mode of the book is that this is a "true" story, and in the details Defoe makes us experience the sweat and isolation, the grinding solitude of existence. The images are so vivid that they have stayed with us for centuries since, from “Gilligan’s Island” to “Lost.” Could we survive on our own? Crusoe says no – in fact he never would have survived if not for God, and never could have made it off the island were it not for the mishaps with a mutinous crew that finally finds him. Modern sensibilities find something familiar in Crusoe, because no matter the circumstances, everyone knows loneliness, even if great crowds. The piety of the castaway may have been expected in his day, but Crusoe learns more, such as the inscrutable ways of God, which find renewal even in certain destruction:   

“how frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again from the affliction we are fallen into…

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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