D. S. Mirsky 1937
Author: D. S. Mirsky;
First published: 1935 as an introductory note to Daniel Defore: Robinson Crusoe, Academia Publishing House;
Translated by: Anton P.
Robinson Crusoe is one of the most famous books in all European literature. But for ten people who know Robinson, hardly one knows its author. Having entered the literature for youth, this book broke away from its historical and literary environment. In addition to Robinson, three books of the 17th-18th centuries remained firmly and for a long time in children’s literature: Don Quixote, Gulliver and Munchausen. Munchausen’s fate is different from that of the other two books. Munchausen is limited to what a child’s reader can find in it. If it is read at a later age, it is only as a memory of childhood. No new horizons are opened in the second reading in the book. And accordingly, the name of the author Munchausen is unknown to anyone. Only specialist bibliographers know what his name was, when and in what language he wrote.
Don Quixote and Gulliver are read by adults quite differently from children. These books are not only the favorite books of children’s literature, but the greatest and deepest works of world literature. What children read Gulliver for, fades into the background for the adult reader. The names of Cervantes and Swift occupy a high place among a small number of the world’s greatest geniuses, and Don Quixote and Gulliver are central to their work.
Robinson is in many ways closer to Munchausen than to Don Quixote and Gulliver. Basically, its content is the same for all readers, regardless of age. Robinson’s theme is understandable to a very young consciousness in almost all its volume, without ceasing to be significant for a mature person. This topic never gets old.
Age in itself does not change much the attitude towards it. It is not so much life experience that enriches and complicates the attitude towards it, as historical understanding, the ability to see the features of a class in its “universal” content and, moreover, at a certain stage of its life. Therefore, a Soviet teenager can approach Robinson even more “in an adult way” than a bourgeois professor of literature, since he learns from childhood to see what the named professor is fenced off from by strong blinders. Robinson’s “universal” theme is a man left to himself, face to face with nature, and cut off from humanity. The first historical complication of the topic: this man grew up in a civilized society with a relatively high material culture, and he manages to save a number of tools of production and basic necessities. In addition, Robinson has some other skills and a certain level of understanding. Robinson is not a naked man on bare ground, but a fragment of a certain society, which has strayed from this society, but as a microcosm that carries it in itself.
The second historical complication: the society, of which Robinson is a microcosm, is a class society. Robinson belongs to a certain class – the bourgeoisie. Robinson is not just a man or even just a civilized man on a desert island, he is a bourgeois on a desert island. But the third complication: he is not a bourgeois in general, but a bourgeois of a certain time and nation, a certain stage in the history of his class, precisely its ascending stage.
Robinson is a man on a desert island and Robinson is a bourgeois on a desert island; here is the range of understanding allowed by the book, a range much more limited than that which is evident between the perception of Gulliver as a fairy tale about midgets and giants, and the perception of it as an extremely bitter satire on a possessive society.
Swift and Defoe were contemporaries. Their literary activity coincides in time with almost complete accuracy. The fate of their famous books turned out to be very similar. And the very books, of which one came out only seven years earlier than the other (Robinson in 1719, Gulliver in 1726), have many features of external similarity. The same fictional travels told with businesslike precision, the same exact, foreign to adornment, strictly prosaic story. But it is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than between these two books of two contemporaries. Bound by the era, they are sharply separated by their social essence. In England at that time, Swift and Defoe stood at two poles of politics, culture and social interest. In this England, which had already basically liquidated feudal relations, industrial capital was still far from economic primacy. Primary accumulation was still on the order of the day, and, accordingly, power was in the hands of the aristocracy, recipients of capitalist land rent and shareholders of monopoly companies, enriching themselves on colonial plunder and national debt.
Swift embodied in himself all the pessimism, all the malice, all the hopelessness of the old broken classes, pushed aside by capital and the new bourgeois aristocracy. With the cynicism of despair, he portrayed a new bourgeois man, and especially a new bourgeois aristocrat, in all his vile ugliness, not dreaming of either remaking or wresting the world from under his rule. But, colossally strengthened by its very impotence, malice raised him above the narrow class point of view and turned him from an exposer of bourgeois vileness into an exposer of all progressive mankind and its ideological traditions. A generation later, having fallen into the hands of the first fighters for the bourgeois – so far only cultural – revolution, Swift’s book becomes a terrible weapon in the struggle against feudalism and clericalism. A man of the old culture, he is an eminently conscious master. Everything is calculated for him.
Defoe stands on the other side of the ruling aristocracy. He is the son of the rising plebeian bourgeoisie; a plebeian, although not yet a democrat. The new aristocracy gave the rootless bourgeois the opportunity to profit as much as he wanted, but he too had to know his place and not get involved in politics. For his too zealous defense of the religious interests of his class against the aristocratic church, Defoe was shamefully punished, and this killed his political career. He benefited from the lesson.
From a principled defender of his class, he became a hired agent of aristocratic politicians. His works of art are devoid of a clear political orientation. He does not judge, he does not teach – he informs and entertains. With his social “modesty” he was typical of the bourgeois masses of his time. He is also typical of the nature of his culture. He has a lot of practical information, but his theoretical baggage is limited to Protestant theology. He knows neither classics nor salons. He writes to the utmost understanding in simple, correct, literate English and without embellishments and without pretensions to literary writing. Swift also wrote without ornaments, but for him this is a strictly calculated technique. Swift’s polished, economical language is the exact opposite of Defoe’s free, flexible, almost colloquial prose.
From a literary-historical point of view, Robinson is not Defoe’s central work. A series of novels written immediately after Robinson (in 1720-1724) gives him a higher position in the history of the European, in particular English, novel: these are milestones of great importance on the path to the creation of bourgeois realism. The greatest of these novels is Moll Flanders. From Moll Flanders, more than Robinson, one can judge Defoe’s literary qualities: his extraordinary, unbiased, naive vitality, tremendous skill in storytelling, giving the illusion of lively speech, amazing freshness and liveliness of dialogue. Defoe’s ideological naivete, so prominent in Robinson, is in Moll Flanders much more aptly used as a compositional element. At a certain stage, this ideological naivety was necessary for mastering realistic themes. It is this who allows Defoe to enter the inner world of his naively vicious and naively rational heroine without effort. Before Defoe, no one knew how to give such an impression of absolute vitality. Compared to Moll Flanders, Robinson is heavy and bookish. But if the historical and literary significance of Moll Flanders is higher than that of Robinson, then Robinson occupies in the history of the entire bourgeois culture – in the cultural “biography” of the bourgeoisie – a place to which no other Defoe book can come close.
There is a complete pattern in the fact that Robinson became a book for a young reader. This is a book of youth, the earliest youth of the bourgeoisie. It arose when this class had not yet completely freed itself from the inherited authorities, but had not yet had time to lie in attempts to prove the justice and naturalness of the orders favorable to it. In Robinson, Defoe proves nothing, never agitates. He speaks without feeling any responsibility on himself.
The reasoning with which the story is speckled cannot be reduced to any system. Robinson is a naive book, and this is a significant part of its charm.
Naivety makes Robinson a true book first and foremost. This, of course, should not be understood in a purely practical sense. Defoe was primarily a bourgeois journalist, and it has long been said about him that his main quality was the ability to “lie perfectly”. He knew perfectly well how to achieve believability. His main technique was the greatest accuracy of descriptions. What is most memorable from Robinson is precisely the accuracy and practicality of the description of work processes that make the book a kind of “entertaining physics” and especially attractive to young people.
Defoe is always accurate; but very often this accuracy is not based on any information. Robinson’s geography is pretty fantastic. The description of the African coast between Morocco and Senegal does not correspond to anything. The climate of Robinson Island, described with such scientific accuracy, is not only not the climate of the island near the mouths of the Orinoco, but in general a climate that does not exist in nature.
However, this is a trifle. The book is mostly true. Robinson’s class nature is not in the least blurred. He is bourgeois to the core. He builds his house, builds up his reserves. The only time his heart is touched by the spectacle of the surrounding nature at the thought that all this is his own. Having found money on the ship, he first with philosophical irony reflects on their uselessness in his position: “This whole pile of gold is not worth lifting it from the floor.” But this is just philosophy. “On reflection, I decided to take them with me and wrapped everything I found in a piece of canvas.” And “everything that was found” remains intact for all twenty-eight years (only – alas! – without bringing compound interest) and then, when returning to England, it turns out to be very useful.
The bourgeois nature embodied in him is still so young and close to its plebeian roots that for a whole 24 years Robinson is able to live by his sole labor. However, as soon as the opportunity arises, he becomes an exploiter: the very first person who joins him on his island, he makes his slave.
One of the most interesting aspects of Robinson is the complete lack of idealization in the character of the hero. True, he is a “virtuous” person. But his virtues are those that really distinguished the plebeian bourgeoisie of that time: prudence, moderation, piety. But he is not a hero. Defoe does not hesitate to talk about his cowardice, about his fears when savages appear or during a storm. Robinson is an ordinary person, and this appearance of an ordinary person as a hero of a work is an important moment in the history of bourgeois literature. Before Robinsonin the feudal and class-compromise literature of classicism, an ordinary person could only be a comic hero. Defoe made him a “serious” hero, and this is a very important stage on the way to the formation of the bourgeois ideology of equality and human rights. The ordinariness and unheroicity of Robinson is one of the main conditions for his great success. Each reader, putting himself in his place, could think: “And in the same conditions, I would have turned out to be the same fellow.”
But Robinson is still far from Rousseau’s “natural man”. He has no experiences other than the often practical ones brought about by the demands of his position. He lives a purely practical life and has not yet created an “inner” world for himself. This is a manifestation of his naivety, the naivety of a class that has not yet fully achieved self-consciousness. It finds vivid expression in the ideological contradictions of the book. In essence, Robinson is a hymn to the entrepreneurial spirit, courage and tenacity of the bourgeois colonialist and entrepreneur. However, this thought is not only not expressed, but it is not even consciously implied. Contrary to them, Robinson himself is not yet very free from the old guild-philistine plague. Father condemns his love of travel, and “in a difficult moment of life” begins to feel that his misfortunes are sent as punishment for disobeying his parental will and preferring adventure to virtuous living at home. Robinson’s naive inconsistency is especially evident in his attitude to religion. This attitude is a mixture of traditional respect for authority with practicality. On the one hand, it is still unknown whether God punishes for sins, on the other hand, it can be very useful as a consolation in misfortune, and on the third, when you are lucky, it is very possible that God helps, and he must be thanked for this. In one place, Robinson turns to God at the moment of the greatest danger, perceived as God’s punishment, with cries of repentance and a plea for mercy. In another, he says that “a peaceful mood of spirit is more inclined towards prayer, when we feel gratitude, love and tenderness”; that “a person who is suppressed by fear is as little disposed to a truly prayerful mood as to repentance on his deathbed.” He vacillates between the medieval religion of fear and the new bourgeois religion of consolation. On his island, he learns to rely only on himself, and thanks God only when the service is provided.
The combination of naive, uncritical acceptance of traditional mythology with also still rather naive, but typically bourgeois rationality sometimes leads Robinson to delightful innocence: for example, when he is weighing whether the devil left a human footprint on his island in order to embarrass him, and decides very seriously that every chance is against such an assumption.
The same combination can be seen in the most curious conversations between Robinson and Friday on theological topics. Friday cannot understand in any way why the almighty and all-good God needed to create the devil and start a complicated story with “redemption”. Friday’s naivety baffles the naive Robinson, and the only conclusion he can come to is that “natural light” is not enough to understand these “mysteries” and one cannot do without “divine revelation”. The step from here to skepticism and criticism is a step from a dim consciousness to a clear one. A generation later, in Voltaire’s novels, savages as naive as Friday would pose equally tricky questions, driving theologians into a dead end.
But besides naivety, Robinson has another more valuable trait of the youth of the class: vigor and vitality. Robinson is undoubtedly the most vigorous book in all bourgeois literature. This attracted the young bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century to it. The main feature of Robinson is vitality and vigor. In his desperate situation, Robinson is not discouraged. Immediately with inexhaustible energy, he begins to master his new environment. Defoe stresses that before his crash, Robinson had no practical knowledge, no technical specialty: he is a bourgeois gentleman, and only necessity makes him take up work. But he is able to tackle it. His class is still healthy and viable. It still has a great future. Robinson has no reason to die, and he does not die. Robinson’s vigor and vitality attract to him the readers of that class in which these traits are not a sign of transient youth, but an ineradicable property that he passes on to the socialist society it is creating.
The vigor of man in his struggle with nature is Robinson’s leitmotif. It is distorted in him by the ugly nature of the possessive and exploitative class, still naive and fresh when Robinson was writing, but which since then has lived to an ugly and rotten old age and has long been deprived of everything that attracts Robinson. The only heir to what was vigorous and healthy in Robinson is the proletariat building socialism. In its literary heritage, this book should not take the last place.