A lot of work has been done on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in relationship to its colonial and postcolonial positions. Edward Said said of Robinson Crusoe that he is the perfect example of the historical colonial invader who ‘rules and reclaims for Christianity and England…[and] is enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion’. What rarely seems the focus of criticism these days is Crusoe’s solitude and his earthly release from it. In JM Coetzee’s Foe, the rewrite of the Crusoe tale, he leaves out (strangely considering his own position on animals) Crusoe’s love for animals. There is no mention of Cruso’s (the spelling changes in Coetzee) cats, his goats, his faithful dog and of course his parrot, Pol. These are surely all part of Crusoe’s attempt to outstare the solitude on his ‘Island of Despair’.
Crusoe, by his own confessions, attempts to cover up his feelings towards his depression and anxieties. At the root of this insincerity is the written confession. For confession in its more natural form is something performed amongst more than just the self. Unlike writing, confessions are rarely authored monologues (monologic). The I (the confessee) is on most occasions confronted by the other (the confessor). But written confessions have no counterpoint. They are authored, singular positions. They are accountable to no one. By their nature they refuse the other. As such their truth should be questioned. As Nietzsche suggested, art and writing is as much the concealment of the truth, as it is its exposition. The written confession rejects Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea that truth can only be held between the ‘I’ and ‘the other’, that truth is never a resource held in the mind or speech of one person. Truth is, as he put it, ‘dialogical’.
Many people, not least JM Coetzee, found that Rousseau’s written confessions were compromised by self-interest and self-deception. No doubt this was because Rousseau emphatically refused the other. ‘No one,’ he states, ‘knows me except I myself. I see that people who live most intimately with me do not know me, and that they attribute most of my actions, for good or ill, to motives quite different from those that have produced them.’ I have little doubt that in this formulation there is something of the contemporary approach to identity politics. You, the other, cannot question my position. It is mine, and no one else can know it but me. My culture is beyond reproach simply because it is mine and no other’s. Identity politics is a refusal of the other. It is an assertion of the I. Crusoe too is involved in these kinds of self-deluding and deceiving confessions. They too attempt to author rather than include. Although there are moments where the I (the author of the confession) and the other (the I that is the author of his diary) reveal something quite different.
One example of this is the two accounts of Crusoe’s landing on his uninhabited island (one Christian, the other not). The:
I walked upon the shore, lifting my hands, and my whole being, as I may say, wrapt in the contemplation of my deliverance, making a thousand gestures and motions which I cannot describe reflecting upon all my comrades that were drowned, and that there should not be one soul saved but myself; for as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap and two shoes that were not fellows.
is contrasted with:
Sept. the 30th. After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, the great quantity salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.
There the ‘I’ confronting ‘the other ‘(or the ‘dialogical’ truth) becomes clear. That is, how truly solitude and fear affect him.
Another moment occurs when Crusoe’s own authored ‘I’ and confessional ‘other’ meet:
I was awaked out of my sleep, Crusoe says, by a voice calling me by my name several times, “Robin, Robin, Robin Crusoe: poor Robin Crusoe! Where are you, Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?
The voice as we discover is that of Poll, his parrot. It is Pol who must – because he will not – relay Crusoe’s words. Here the reader realises the emptiness and despair of his life. But here one also becomes aware of the nature of his written confession. That is the one self (the author) can only declare a self-deceptive ‘I’ to the reader, while the other self (the person) can confess his misery only to his parrot. Despite all that has been said of his master and servant relationship to Friday, it is only on Friday’s appearance that Crusoe becomes properly human. For Crusoe, admits that ‘the pleasantest year of all the life I led in this place’ was when ‘Friday began to talk’. My reading is that Crusoe, at this moment, finds love and a life of consolation. As he states, Friday proves to be ‘faithful’, ‘loving’ and ‘sincere’. And it is Friday’s presence and warmth that eases his sense of despair.