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“Robinson Crusoe” is an artistic propaganda

Por Eduardo Zeind Palafox , 21 enero, 2021


Eduardo Zeind Palafox 


Technique is the main concern of an artistic writer, and subject-matter is the general anguish of a propagandistic writer, says G. Orwell (1). Art is possible in quiet moral ages, he says. Propaganda, therefore, is the fruit of unquiet moral ages, in which the “whole scheme of values is constantly menaced”. Such constant moral fear transforms the literary criticism, which is “judicious, scrupulous, fair-minded”, into something impossible. Objectivity, that is, “intellectual detachment”, is the origin of the universal masterpiece.  Is the Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe a technical and objective book or is it mere English propaganda? Four thesis extracted from our propagandistic experience will test the famous book of Defoe.

1) The literary propagandist, that “poisonous viper”, puts spots above reality. The sensuous disbelief is a perennial theological and philosophical problem. The reader must remember the following biblical verses: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1: 3) and “then we will see everything with perfect clarity” (II Cor. 13: 12). Kant, for example, says that human reason, when studying metaphysical questions with physical principles, falls into “Dunkelheit” (2), which is a term related to the Latin “caligo”, in English “caliginous”, “obscure”, “dark”.

Marx says that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a volume “bathed in light”, that is, “shrouded in darkness” (3) because economists, those economic ideologists, simplify everything in it. The Encyclopedia Britannica (4) affirms that Crusoe is a “modern myth”. Myths are primitive, superstitious falseness, then, they are wild darkness. Defoe, says Meiklejohn (5), has the gift of “particularising”. The particular, the nongeneral, is darkness. Saintsbury, finally, affirms that the Crusoe is merely a “prosaic romantic scheme” (6). Mankind is more than individuals on one earth. Mankind is a “commonwealth” system that needs light.

Defoe puts spots above reality, for instance, by saying that savages are like “lions” (ch. 3). The analogy exists in the Bible, which says (Gen 49: 9): “Like a lion he crouches and lies down;/ like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?”. Crusoe can not see, with clarity, the reality, and suffers “rambling thoughts” (ch. 1). Defoe uses literary phrases like “shadow of expectation” (ch. 4) to be persuasive about the spots said. He embraces, to divide the reality, the classical struggle between “fate” and “fault” (ch. 1).

2) The literary propagandist shows an architectonic worldview. The Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that the Crusoe is a “spiritual reflection” and a list of “practical measures to survive”. Life is, in the world of Robinson Crusoe, something abstract but mechanical, measurable, architectonical. The human mind, says Kant, naturally is architectonic (7). Then, such a mind forms, with a psychology, an ontology, a cosmology and a theology, cultural systems or ideologies.

Psychology causes the next question: what am I? Robinson Crusoe faced the adventure chaos by means of “times of work” (ch. 6). The bourgeois answer is, then: I am a worker. We should remember, as Meiklejohn wrote, that Defoe was an expert in “commerce and commercial affairs”. Ontology causes the following question: what are things? The methodic use of reason transforms us, affirm Crusoe, in a “master of every mechanical art” (ch. 6). Things are, then, simple derived substances. Cosmology constitutes this interrogative: how is the world composition? The response is: it is a monistic whole whose unity is technical. Theology conforms this problem: what caused the world? Crusoe, in despair, began to be religious, and believed in the “religious foundation” (ch. 6) of all acts.

3) The literary propagandist, besides, transforms the traditional meanings of words. Ambiguity is the greatest trick of the liar. Meiklejohn, thus, described Defoe’s style in this short way: “His style is strong, homely, and vigorous, but the sentences are long, clumsy, and sometimes ungrammatical”. Metaphor (8) is a chisel of ambiguity, that is, of the syntactic and semantic games, which are grammatical spheres. Defoe speaks about the “work of Providence” (ch. 6), but never explains philosophically that term. “Providence” could signify “creator” or “architect” or “operator”. Defoe speaks about the “deepest gulf of human misery” (ch. 4). “Misery”, in the watery world, is a “gulf”, a place where the sinful is “kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea” (9). But in the Biblical world it is a “Valley of Weeping”, and in the Blakeian infernos it is a “forest of the night”. Metaphor is a pantheistic dance between the popular tongue, which comes from common sense, and the scholar language, which comes from sciences. That dance is the origin of the “absolute verosimilitude” of Defoe’s “presentations”, as Saintsbury notes.

4) The literary propagandist, finally, annihilates the conception of “I”. That the Crusoe is a “puritan spiritual autobiography”, as the Encyclopedia Britannica says, is a falseness. The “I” or “alma” or “psyche” or “anima” or “ghost” or “soul” or “Seele” is an idea based on four transcendental concepts, as Kant taught: immaterial substance, incorruptible simplicity, personal unity and possible immortality (10).

In Defoe’s fiction the ghost is material, something constituted, for example, by tongue and nationalism, which are material determinations. Friday, the savage, is not a personality, but a raw stuff configured by the English language. The innocent and romantic Friday can just give poor discourses with words as “master”, “yes”, “no” and some “names” (ch. 12). In II Corinthians (1: 17) there is the same hint: the soul or mind, when verbalizes too much, lies and is vanity. Paul says: “Do you think I am like people of the world who say `Yes´ when they really mean `No´?”.

The “I” of Crusoe, in Defoe’s plot, is corruptible because it is on the “Island of Despair” (ch. 6), that is, before a horrible dissolution of thought, before the vacuity of all argumentation, which is the form of human reason. Defoe, with a comic style, makes the originality of the human personality, that peculiar unity of experiences, an absurd. The “King”, the “Lord” (ch. 8), above the “Island of Despair” is dreaming that he rules the deserts. The concept of possibility leads us to the concept of immortality. The former concept, without experiences, leads us to the concept of infinite, which is sublime or chaotic. Crusoe, when he noticed some similar facts, some patterns, said: “I quieted my mind” because Providence has “ordered everything” (ch. 9).

In sum, the stilemas (“stilemi classici”) that Defoe has used are: a) differentiations between lions and reasons, between sciences and mechanical arts and magic, and between language and babbling, to set the old fight betwixt Barbarism and Civilization; b) psychological narrations and innocent physical descriptions to establish the aged philosophical problem of sensorial and intellectual clarity; c) struggles between the human will and the haphazard reality to evoke the profound dilemma “Fortune-Providence”. Robinson Crusoe is, overall, a conjunct of stilemas, that is, an artistic propaganda.-


(1)  See The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda, published in the Listener, April 30, 1941. I offer Spanish translation in Don Palafox: donpalafox.blogspot.com/2018/12/fronteras-del-arte-y-la-propaganda.html

(2)  See the “Preface of the First Edition” (1781) of the Critique of Pure Reason.

(3)  See The Capital, Part I, “Commodities and Money”, section 4, “The Fetishisim of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”.

(4)  See the Encyclopedia Britannica´s article, Robinson Crusoe, Novel by Defoe.

(5)  See A Brief History of the English Language, chapter VI, “The First Half of Eighteenth Century”.

(6)  See Short History of English Literature, chapter IV, “Queen Anne Prose”.

(7)  The German text says (KrV, B 502, ): “Die menschliche Vernunft ist ihrer Natur nach architektonisch, d. i. sie betrachtet alle Erkenntnisse gehörig zu einem möglichen System (…)”.

(8)  “Metaphor” is a Greek term that comes from “meta”, beyond, and from “phora”, displacement. Metaphor confuses, as Aristotle wrote (Poetics, 1457B), gender and species.

(9)  See Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, chapter 9, “The Sermon”.

(10)  See the Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, “Transcendental Dialectic” (B 402).

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