Friday, 13 December 2013

Castaways 14


                        “The shattered water made a misty din.
                          Great waves looked over others coming in,
                          And thought of doing something to the shore
                          That water never did to land before.”
                                               Robert Frost, Once By The Pacific

On our last day on Isla Robinson Crusoe, Robyn and I met a plant biologist named Luis, in his conservancy greenhouse. He spoke eloquently about how, out of over two hundred native species of vascular plants, found nowhere else in the world, over seventy per cent were on the endangered list. A ray of sunlight landed on an enchanting small flower, stretching strange white petals, out of a small black pot.
“Es el ultimo.” He said. The last one.
At the appointed time, we walked back past the town hall, beside the Emergencia rusted gong, suspended between its two tall metal poles, and timed an entry jump back into the open lobster boat that would take us back around the island to our return flight. As we bobbed along against the waves, one of the crew produced two large local crayfish, and two boxes for the return flight. These men had little, and we were humbled by their gift. Our old pilot greeted us as warmly, and told us how fortunate we were to have left with such a gesture. “Vamos.” He said, motioning for us to find seats, and taking his own. The same erupting cloud of blue smoke from the cowling filed the flight plan. “Tres horas. Seiscientos kilómetros. Tal vez.” Three hours. Six hundred kilometers. Maybe. The same maraschino cherries blood-stained the white bread of the ham and cheese that he handed over his shoulder on our rescue.
Our landing at Los Cerillos felt like Selkirk’s return to Largo. Robyn and I arrived rich with stories and sea plunder, and decided to head for the coastal garden town of Viña del Mar, the same afternoon. We boarded the subway to begin our journey, precariously balancing the large crates in our laps. An elderly woman took the seat beside us, on the outside of our row. The boxes jumped violently on our knees, as we left the station. She looked at us with a mixture of fear and suspicion.
“Langostas.” I said. And the tension in her face relaxed.
An hour and a bit later, we were climbing the stairs to the lobby of a seaside hotel. The concierge greeted us, and I asked him to fetch me the chef. A sturdy white stained uniform emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later. I opened a crack in one the containers to daylight, and asked him if he knew how to cook these crustáceos.
“Ciertamente, Señor.” He said, with obvious admiration for our prizes. I told him we’d be down in an hour.
Robyn and I checked into our room and showered off the Southern Sea. Refreshed, we descended to the floor-to-ceiling glass harbor vista, in the busy restaurant. We were seated at a rare window table and, as few minutes later, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, and two giant red crayfish arrived with a flourish. The clamor of all conversations around us stopped dead. Diners from other tables began pointing in our direction. One group of Santiago businessmen next to us became insistent, and asked to see the chef. He arrived in the dining room, radiating a mischievous grin, as he approached the pinstriped executives. They demanded to know why he was refusing to provide them with the same delicacies that these Gringos were enjoying.
“Son los últimos. Náufragos.” He said, shrugging his shoulders. They’re the last ones. Castaways.
On February 27, 2010, a twelve year-old girl, named Martina Maturana, finally rang the rusted gong, suspended between its two tall metal poles, on Robinson Crusoe Island. A ten foot high tsunami came along right behind it, destroying most of San Juan Bautista, killing eight of her neighbors outright, and causing eleven other to disappear. She had saved the rest with her quick actions, and compassion.

“To-day we love what to-morrow we hate; to-day we seek what to-morrow
 we shun; to-day we desire what to-morrow we fear.”
                                                                       Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

George Anson's view of Juan Fernández

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Castaways 13

Before being complicated by more complex philosophers, Alexander Selkirk’s biographer, Irish politician and Spectator founder, Richard Steele, had summarized its essential lesson. This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities.
This was a direct contradiction of the prevailing belief of the time that, without a strong central political authority to regulate the ‘state of nature,’ people would have a right, or license, to everything in the world, leading to a bellum omnium contra omnes, a ‘war of all against all.’
The theory was the brainchild of a social contract theorist, Thomas Hobbes who, also born prematurely when his mother heard of the coming invasion of the Spanish Armada, had later remarked that she ‘had given birth to twins: myself and fear.’ During his formative writing years, the English Civil War of the time, grew his fear into a forest.
Hobbes had maintained, in the doctrine he outlined in his Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, that the nature of man of the man in nature is inherently evil, and must cede rights to government as the price of peace.

‘In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit
 thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no
 navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no
 commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such
 things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no
 account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all,
 continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary,
 poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
          Chapter XII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their
          Felicity, and Misery, Leviathan

Hobbes left his last words, ‘a great leap in the dark,’ as a metaphoric legacy.
The man that helped undo his influence, had an entirely different view of natural man.
In July of 1750, the Academy of Dijon established a prize competition for anyone who could answer the question, ‘What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’ A Genevan romantic philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, submitted his Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les homes, ‘Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men,’ in which he attempts to discredit Hobbes, for taking an overly cynical view of the species.
Rousseau’s natural man possesses two essential benevolent innate characteristics- ‘amour de soi meme’ love of self, and compassion for the suffering of others. These, he maintains, are the actual properties that have preserved us through time, not a constant fear of death, which we cannot really appreciate, because it moves out of the state of nature. Like other animals, man is concerned with ‘food, a female, and sleep.’ Rousseau’s man is a ‘savage,’ self-sufficient loner, fast, strong, and capable of looking after himself. He only killed for his own self-preservation. The only qualities that distinguish him from the other natural creatures are his libre-arbitre free will, and his perfectibility to develop more sophisticated survival tactics. Rousseau maintains that it is our interaction with those of our own species which transmutes his natural self-love into a state of amour proper, a corrupted love of self deriving from a dependency on the perceptions and favors of others. This results in competition, self-comparison with others, hatred, the urge to acquire power, and a decamping from our state of nature. The true evil, of which man is capable, comes from the institution of property.

‘The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,”
 and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true
 founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders,
 from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved
 mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to
 his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you
 once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth
 itself to nobody.’

Rousseau goes on to define the origin of society as the establishment, by convention, of a moral inequality characterized by enforced differences in power and wealth. He cynically asserts that civil society is anything but, a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak, a result of our having strayed from the true nature in man.
Unfortunately for Rousseau, the judges weren’t buying it. The Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon still exists, and still offers the prize.
Our original Juan Fernández castaway seems to have inspired Defoe’s own fascinating adventure story, a template for an entire genre of literature, and an ongoing essential philosophical debate about the man of nature, and the nature of man. And still this is not his only accomplishment.
Selkirk’s decision is an embodiment of all the myth and legend and an allegory of life itself. We are all castaways, beautiful innocent natural savages marooned on our own islands of self-love, compassion, self-sufficiency, free will, and perfectibility. We are all awaiting rescue. Robinson Crusoe is not just the first story of the Southern Sea. He is the epic narrative of human experience, the heroic poem of our individual and collective existence. Everything we carry in our hearts followed his first footprint in the sand.

“But all I could make use of, was, All that was valuable. I had enough to
 eat, and to supply my Wants, and, what was all the rest to me? If I kill'd
 more Flesh than I could eat, the Dog must eat it, or the Vermin. If I
 sow'd more Corn than I could eat, it must be spoil'd. The Trees that I cut
 down, were lying to rot on the Ground. I could make no more use of
 them than for Fewel; and that I had no Occasion for, but to dress my
                                                                Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Castaways 12

             “At sea a fellow comes out. Salt water is like wine, in that respect.”
                                                                                         Herman Melville

It was the first story of the Southern Sea.
On 25 April 1719, just over a decade after Selkirk’s rescue, and a year before his death off the African coast, an English merchant, political prisoner, and spy published the first edition of his tale about a marooned sailor, surviving by the goatskin of his wits on a deserted Caribbean island. Daniel Defoe lived in an era when British booksellers, who carried the titles of controversial writers, were hung in public. But this book, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates, created an eternal myth, a legend so real that, to this day, there are some Tobago islanders, who proudly proclaim one of the world’s most famous fictional characters as an ancestor.
Robinson Crusoe was the first true English novel. Chock full of sailing ships and stormy seas and exotic desert islands, and muskets and wild boars and cannibals, it set the standard for every adventure story that followed.
Far more than exuberant action thriller, set in a faraway locale, Robinson Crusoe was the symbolic narrative of a lone man’s ability to face the ultimate tests of nature, and emerge triumphant over hardship and adversity. Some felt that it was a Christian allegory for the development of civilization. James Joyce described Defoe’s protagonist as ‘the true prototype of the British colonist.’ His enduring faith and steadfastness helped establish and promulgate the myth of colonial supremacy. Robert Louis Stevenson’s assessment of the footprint scene as ‘the most unforgettable in English literature,’ confirmed Friday’s rescue from his cannibal pursuers as the precedential paradigm of the White Man’s Burden. But those grandiose insights and claims still understated the larger significance of the legend that Defoe had created.
In 1731, a decade after Selkirk’s death, and another before Defoe’s, a German writer named Johann Gottfried Schnabel, in the preface of his work Die Insel Felsenburg, The Island Stronghold, coined a term that would become emblematic for the spawn of imitations that would define a renegade literary genre. Robinsonade.
In the classic robinsonade, the hero is suddenly isolated from the comforts of civilization, usually shipwrecked or marooned on a secluded island, often located in the Pacific, tropical, uninhabited and usually uncharted. He must improvise to become self-sufficient from the limited resources at hand. At its essence, the robinsonade is a Man versus Nature conflict, a solitary statement of survivalism.
The infinite number of potential storyline combinations and permutations, are tempered by thematic elements common to them all. There is always isolation, be it on a desert island, a virgin planet, a Lost World, or any other sufficiently remote wild wilderness. The principle characters are making a new beginning. There are encounters with natives, hostile or helpful, which leads to a commentary on the essence of society, and the construction of a new one, for better or worse, depending on the skill level of the castaway. A difficult ordeal, involving conflict, is required for character development, as typifies every hero quest. Elements of technological change and economic advancement, in the context of the assumed innate antagonism of nature, are important. The solitude had to lead back to society, or the ordeal would have no meaning. The natural world in which the castaway found himself could only take one of two forms, nice or nasty.
Thomas More had depicted nature as idyllic, and the Utopian robinsonades range from ingenious recreations of society’s comforts, as in Swiss Family Robinson, to more questionably humorous forms, like Gilligan’s Island. The two other iconic real-life desert island paradise robinsonades arrived on Pitcairn with the Bounty mutineers, and with New Zealander Tom Neale’s An Island to Oneself, the autobiography of his sixteen years on Anchorage Island, in the Suwarrow atoll. Western literature, with its monotheistic estrangement from, and inherent antagonism to, the natural world, has many more dystopian representations of robinsonades as less escapism than requiring escape. Defoe portrayed Crusoe’s remote island as unforgiving and sparse, his Bible-reading, superior cultured, principle character managing to prevail in conflicts with heathens, and survive the elements, by virtue of his virtue.

                             “I am monarch of all I survey,

                             My right there is none to dispute;
                              From the centre all round to the sea,

                             I am lord of the fowl and the brute.”
                                       William Cowper, The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk

Other wild wildernesses are hostile pits of savagery, and the castaways undergo feral regression, best represented in Fielding’s Lord of the Flies, Garland’s The Beach, or a dozen other works of especially United States origin. The Americans are rather more utopian about the powers of human achievement, and definitely more dystopian about the friendliness of nature. They have a special affinity for post-apocalyptic fantasy, in no small measure because they live so removed from Mother Earth, having historically used the U.S. Cavalry and the Army corps of engineers to move her out of the way of their pursuit of progress. The illusion of a secure existence off The Road, in a gated community theme park, is preferable to the reality of sharing their lives with the creepy crawlies, and an armed and paranoid populace. They can watch the latest episode of Survivor from their condo couch comfort, and leave the bugs to the Starship Troopers.
But even the beautifully seductive literary genre of the robinsonade, and the salts it precipitates, sells the significance of Robinson Crusoe short of a bigger impact.
In his quest for survival, the robinsonade castaway not only becomes a perfect study about the man of nature, but the nature of man.