FOR over three centuries, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has engaged some of the most influential literary and philosophical minds. At the same time, few other fictional texts have provoked so many idiosyncratic readings. J.M. Coetzee, who attempted himself to rewrite the classic, thought about the many ways that Defoe’s book had been encountered over the generations. Coetzee has the castaway describe his readers as a cannibal horde, waiting for an opportunity to consume him, gnawing at ‘the very substance of truth.’
One of the most influential early attempts to tame Robinson Crusoe is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile; ou de l’Education, his 1762 work on model education. Rousseau recommended the novel as the exemplary text for his hothouse pupil for whom it would constitute ‘his whole library’. Divested of its ‘irrelevant matter’, according to Rousseau it would furnish his pupil with a fund of literary material, ‘both for work and play.’ As an emblem of the solitary life, the novel would teach the child independence of mind and self-reliance. Thus would Émile be encouraged to dress and act, to imagine himself, as Robinson Crusoe, but only after the abridged narrative was ‘disencumbered of all its rigmarole’. More crucially, it would be stripped of its religious content.
Rousseau intended to adapt the novel in line with this prescription but never did. It was left to one of his German admirers, Joachim Campe, to fulfil the ambition in his Robinson der Jüngere (1779-80). In accordance with Rousseau’s prescription Campe was to render the novel down to what he saw as its narrative essentials, at the same time supplementing the story with many pedagogical lessons for his child readers, not least to correct one of the central problems for educators, namely Robinson’s disobedience to his parents. While there is no indication that Defoe intended it as such, through the influence of Rousseau and his best-selling German disciple the novel had, by the early nineteenth century, achieved European-wide status as a children’s classic.
Marx’s Pocket Watch
Compelling as it remained for educators, the novel was soon finding favour with social commentators, many reducing it to a tale about Protestant self-reliance and the rewards of labour. ‘Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists,’ remarked Marx in Das Kapital, ‘let us take a look at him on his island’. What results is one of the most willful readings of the novel, Marx’s forceful rendering of Crusoe as homo economicus causing him to employ strategies of both supplementation and redaction. Like Rousseau, Marx relegated the significance of the religious content, divesting it of the providentialism that drives the narrative: ‘Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.’ So central had Crusoe’s piety been to Defoe’s intentions that it is difficult to imagine what kind of work Marx might have been imagining. Transforming Crusoe into a model capitalist, Marx’s Crusoe is portrayed as an early devotee time-and-motion studies:
This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him.
Defoe may have had Crusoe rescue many items from the wreck but a watch and ledger book that Marx finds were not among them. Could Marx have misread it? Was he relying on a liberal adaptation, or simply a bad translation? Did he just make up Crusoe’s inventory to suit his argument? Either way, Marx’s whole understanding of Crusoe as an emblem of modern industrial man was founded on textual details that were not included by Defoe. Thereafter Marx goes on to rewrite the story of the solitary castaway fighting for personal survival in favour of a community of social beings
carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.
Thus it was that Marx presented 1860s audiences with yet another radical reinvention of Crusoe, and one bearing little resemblance to the original.
While Rousseau, Marx, and others may have taken extreme liberties with the story, censoring and supplementing the text in ways that suited their purposes, one of the most unfortunate nineteenth-century readings was to be found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s praise for the novel in 1830, in which he offered fulsome evidence for Defoe’s stylistic brilliance. In the passage that describes Crusoe’s indecision about the rescue of money from the sinking ship, Coleridge transcribes his remark as follows: ‘However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvas’, a passage that Coleridge judged ‘worthy of Shakespeare; and yet the simple semi-colon after it, the instant passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself.’ The fact was that this exquisite punctuational detail did not appear in the text until almost a century after the original, introduced by an anonymous compositor as he prepared Charles Whittingham’s 1812 edition for the press, on which Coleridge was relying. As Irving Rothman concludes, Coleridge may have ‘appreciated Defoe’s . . . powers as a narrative artist’, but unfortunately ‘he just did not have the best text available to him when he read Robinson Crusoe.’ Coleridge’s glaring error is only the tip of a hermeneutic iceberg that has been haunted for generations by the bibliographical instability of its object of study.
Difficult as the novel is, perhaps the most strange and surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe are therefore to be found in the many postumous lives of the text. That there should have been so many idiosyncratic and at times wilful readings over the generations should not surprise us. It is a complex narrative, composed of a multitude of generic forms. Virginia Woolf, an admirer, suggested as much when she reflected how its readers, in seeking a key to its multivalence, often found themselves reducing it to what they believed were its bare essentials. For all its brilliance, the novel was for Woolf still fraught with unresolved hermeneutic mysteries: ‘However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books,’ this otherwise confident reader confesses that ultimately ‘a lonely battle waits us at the end.’