I’ve always had a mistrust of cleverness.
Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to Defoe. Compared with Swift or Pope, he’s surely bush-league, but all the same I find him compelling. I’ve taken the last couple of days to read The Life and Strange Suprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
It’s so great to read books with big reputations, and come away thinking that the reputation is deserved. Sometimes it astounds me how many things I’ve read in the last five years, but what always astounds me more is how many more books I have to go. That’s one thing that has bugged me about the way literature is taught; you get a whirlwind of excerpts, mostly filtered through secondhand opinions, after which supposedly you are “well read.” It was utterly refreshing to read a classic book without having to think about a niche to carve out to write a paper in. Of course the critical faculties are never completely “off” but all the same, I read this book largely for pleasure. And it was a pleasure.
But there were echoes of other things I’d been thinking about, particularly in some of the commentary from other writers present in the Modern Library edition. James Joyce said:
Defoe was the first English author to write without imitating or adapting foreign works, to create without literary models and to infuse into the creatures of his pen a truly national spirit, to devise for himself an artistic form which is perhaps without precedent.
The same could be said of Walker Evans; there is something so American about him, though it can’t be said that he worked without models. However, part of the twist in his photographic oeuvre is that he came to purge those models. Defoe, on the other hand, seemed to work with a sense of verisimilitude that was outside the literary establishment. How can you express yourself in a way that is believable? I think that the currents of realism became atrophied after Defoe’s time, lost in a maze of literary forms. But then again, the sense of realism in Defoe is also clouded by somewhat outlandish gestures at giving his text the authority of truth. Though they directly feed the stream of documentary progress, and the problem of authorizing any text, or expression, remains. How can we know who we are, if we don’t have a source we can trust about where we’ve been?
The novel was born from biography, and autobiography, or to a large extent, just plain gossip. I really like Virginia Wolfe’s introductory essay to Crusoe. It her typical well crafted sentences, she expresses the explosion of eighteenth century prose:
A middle class had come into existence, able to read and anxious to read not only about princes and princesses, but about themselves and the details of their humdrum lives. Stretched upon a thousand pens, prose had accommodated itself to the demand; it had fitted itself to express the facts of life rather than the poetry.
Despite the fact that there are few writers that would craft the expression so well these days, much the same could be said about the cornucopia of online publishing happening now. And the problem is the same. How do you convince someone that what you are saying has value? How do you convince a public, however small, that you are a vital human being with something to say? There’s always the resort to biography, which Wolfe resists:
For the book itself remains. However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle waits in the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible, and to be reminded in the middle of this private interview that Defoe sold stockings, had brown hair, and was stood in the pillory is a distraction and a worry. Our first task is to master his perspective.
I always seem to start that way. In many cases, the problem is complex. Interpretations encrust themselves around things, and often hide the purity of thought of the work itself. Stripping away these affectations to find the core perspectives is never an easy task. Finding out why an artist chose one approach over another is always instructive.
That is, it’s instructive to me. Defoe beleaguers the reader with endless lists, much like James Agee, and I suspect that these catalogues and inventories are essential to plotting any escape. He skips the florid prose, and cuts right to the utility of every choice. And that is where he’s useful to me, as I sit in my castle, on this green land-locked island.