reading time 6 minutes
Tobago, the island that is said to be the model for the book
© Francisco van Jole
Some indomitable desires are at the same time the greatest horrors. Heaven, for example, is one of them, as far as I know. It sounds like a great destination at first, but when you think about it, it is an eternal bliss from which there is no escape. It seems like hell to me. Nevertheless, for many it seems to be something to live up to. They adapt their behavior and follow the strangest rules in hopes of qualifying for a ticket.
Another scary wish is, in my opinion, somewhat more realistic: to end up alone on a desert island. This used to be a symbol of horrific loneliness, but is now increasingly seen as a radical liberation from all the obligations that chain us. Hell becomes heaven, who would have ever believed.
The idea is based on a novel: Robinson Crusoe. Everyone knows the story, but who has ever read the book? Like many, I read a greatly simplified and abridged version as a child. I decided to read the book now, not just because it’s a classic, but because I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism lately.
Robinson Crusoe – oddly enough often pronounced as Crusoe in Holland – is the first novel written in the first person. Daniel Defoe published the story in 1719 with the addition ‘written by himself’. Many people thought it was a nonfiction and that Crusoe really did exist. It is suspected that the Christian book is based on a much older Islamic story that appeared in an English translation more than ten years earlier.
The full title reads: “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived twenty-eight years, all alone on an uninhabited island off the coast of America, near the mouth of the great river Oroonoque; After being was thrown ashore by shipwreck, in which all men perished except himself. With an account of how he was finally so strangely delivered by the Pirates. Write yourself. ” Not only is the title itself a short story, but much of the plot is also given away. It’s similar to 18th century clickbait.
I read the book in a translation by Cees Buddingh, the legendary poet from Dordrecht, who became world famous with this:
very little tribute to the cutest
I looked at the street
and tom heinz can:
I was thinking about you:
Now that I am reading it again, I wonder if the approximately sixty year old poem is still understood today. Heinz is now better known for ketchup than for the advertising slogan 57 variants. Which, by the way, never really existed. Heinz thought it was a catchy way to promote his company. But if you do not know the slogan, the tender meaning of the poem disappears.
The devastating effect of time has less impact on Robinson Crusoe. However, the book is understood differently over time. When it appeared, it was essentially a religious book. Crusoe lands on the island after breaking a promise to God and there, thrown back on himself, he discovers the power of faith. This is obvious, because if you have no one to talk to, God is an ideal interlocutor.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau later praised the book because it deals with the relationship between man and nature. As a result, the lake was seen as a return to nature history that supported his revolutionary ideas.
In the 20th century, history became a kind of bible to slow down and free itself from the rat race. Reality TV then put an end to the idea that you should be alone about it with Expedition Robinson. The comfortable man sets everything according to his will.
It may be the spirit of the times, but I did not really take lessons in individualism or the feeling of being away from the crowds. After all, he has to work hard to stay alive. On the other hand, while reading the book, I came to see the book more and more as an insight into a colonizer’s world of thought. For Crusoe, the world is divided into Christians and the rest, where everything naturally belongs to the first group. The further away from Christianity, the fewer rights. At some point, it will also gnaw at Crusoe. He sees that there is an unfair situation and is looking for an explanation. He invents it himself: they, all the peoples who are considered inferior, must have sinned in the past. They are now being punished for that.
It is a way of thinking that is still on the rise: the victim himself is guilty as soon as it becomes clear that victimization stems from inequality. Whether it is women who are being harassed or refugees who are banned. The victims did it themselves. Only luck seekers by accident. To strengthen that judgment in the book, colored people are invariably portrayed as monsters. Crusoe’s biggest fear is that he will be eaten by them.
Racism, as it is increasingly emphasized today, is inextricably linked to colonialism. That’s the credentials for it. It is a concept that has penetrated deep into society. So deep we are not even aware of it. The prime minister, who is now on the verge of breaking the record in plush sticks, was convicted by a judge in 2007 of inciting discrimination before taking office. And see what his policies later led to. He also proved to be a repeat offender. Yet he is hardly remembered. Thus, Defoe’s book is permeated by racism, which was an essential part of imperialism. But that’s not what it’s about. Except once.
This is not to say that the person Robinson Crusoe is a fierce cruelty. On the contrary, he cares about others. But the feeling of superiority is always leading in this. He sees himself as king. The companion to a nearby island, which at one point joins him, and is called Friday, he naturally considers his subject, his servant. Friday, it will not surprise you, in the book is all gratitude. Without his master he would not be anywhere, the book makes clear. This is how colonialism was always sold: as salvation.
Incidentally, Crusoe ends up on the island due to a shipwreck while on his way to the African coast because he wanted to make a fortune on the slave trade. One does not think further about slavery. It is a matter of course. He himself was held captive for some time on the Moroccan coast by a local ruler after another shipwreck. But that practice did not have the corporate character of the colonial version. Just as the Holocaust differs from other massacres in its industrial approach. At the same time, Crusoe speaks shamefully over the Spanish genocide of the indigenous people of South America. Humans can be proud to be thinking beings, but logic is rarely a driving factor in the path of history.
Robinson Crusoe is a fairy tale novel and easily written. As is often the case with old books, the story sometimes blows a little. But I learned other unexpected things from it. For example, the now highly acclaimed shipping industry had a very bad name at the time. Crusoe’s father strongly opposes his plan to sail. There were only two groups of people going to sea. Those who had lost ground and had nothing left to lose. And adventurers who would make a quick buck. These are the ones we owe to the division of the world as it still is. The book also helps to understand the world better in that regard. Although it was not written with that intention 400 years ago.