I have to admit, I adore being back in grad school. Most of the time I don’t see it, don’t feel it, but when I’m in class, I feel like I’m on fire. Tearing apart literature, analyzing every obscure little bit, my mind goes reeling, making connections to books I read a decade ago, favorite television shows, contemporary political issues, and Greek epics, and on, and on. It’s like being at a banquet. Not kidding. It’s just unfortunate that I have to work so hard outside class. I want to give myself over to study.
This week in my “Inventing the Novel” course, we covered Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Embarrassingly enough, I hadn’t read it before, and part of the reason the course itself is so fascinating to me is that its bridging a gap in my literary knowledge; I’m fairly well versed in French literature of the 17th and 18th century, Shakespeare and some Restoration, and of course, some of the great 19th century novels (though not all written in English – some French, and of course, tons Russian). I think Defoe’s Roxana is the only 18th century English novel I’d read before this course.
Without going into detail, Robinson Crusoe is about an Englishman who is shipwrecked on a desert Island somewhere in the West Indies, and all his trials and tribulations, from the practical elements of survival, to psychological and spiritual transcendence. It was a fun read, if not more than a bit tedious in the middle with all the God stuff which for me right now is not worth going into. Delightful are the adventures of salvaging anything and everything off a sinking ship, building a fortress, and (for me, especially) finding food.
It seems that throughout the 28 years of Crusoe’s tenure on the island, over 90% of his food was meat. He is described as going on hunting walks every morning. He must have killed hundreds of water fowl, native sorts of (who knows) chickens and geese, turtles, native goats, and who knows what else. Eventually he tames a few goats and has his own milk and fresh stash of ready-to-slaughter meat in the back yard. In the beginning the guy eats a lot of “cakes,” some sort of dried biscuit rations salvaged from the ship – which miraculously last him several years. He drinks rum (also from the ship) every once in a while. I think he salvaged a cheese or two, too. Miraculously (or perhaps not – why blame Providence for everything), he accidentally scatters a tiny bit of chicken feed while emptying a sack, and all of a sudden, he’s got some corn, barley, and even rice. Over the course of several years, he succeeds in cultivating these crops – but it takes him a while and a lot of perplexed effort to figure out how to make any sort of bread. What a weirdo.
What is shocking to me is how little of the native resources Crusoe uses. He claims he looked for cassava early on, but didn’t find any, which is utter baloney as it’s ridiculously common, THE staple of the entire region. There are lots of native fruits and veg, too, some of which are quite obviously fruit and veg – guava, heart of palm, plantains, yucca, tamarind. This of course is taking into account that Westerners hadn’t visited this island before and brought countless other fruit with them that took to the place quite well with its lush hot wet climate. And WHERE are the fish? It’s an island! The sea is teeming! Crusoe faces death from starvation while clutching his rifle, when he could be enjoying the seafood at his doorstep. Apparently the Caribbean is well-known for its lobsters. The man should literally have been able to walk out the door (or climb over the fort with his ladder), pick a couple guavas and plantains for breakfast and then walk down the beach and check some lobster traps (which he was perfectly able to concoct with the whole carpenter’s workshop he was able to remove from the ship) or he could have picked up some crabs off the beach for his dinner. I’m sure crabs must scuttle about from time to time. God!
You gotta wonder about Crusoe’s general health. He must have had dangerously high cholesterol, constipation, osteoporosis, and perhaps even colon cancer. And he lived forever! Ah well. I’ll give Defoe a break – how hard on him can I be? How little anyone knew about “the new world” way back when. At least it was a plausible adventure…not like the lovely film below: