"The one book that teaches all that books can teach"
"I shall pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore I can do, or any kindness I can show to any human being let me do it now, let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
Robinson Crusoe is not simply about shipwreck, survival and rescue, but Defoe's novel also relates one man's spiritual journey in search of self and his goal of setting things right and making amends. Finding the self may take a lifetime. It took twenty-eight years on the island for Crusoe to discover more about himself, and, of course, he had to wait that number of years before he could make up for past mistakes. However, we do not have an ocean preventing us from making amends, and if only readers were to open themselves to this book, for all its clumsiness, flat style and Eurocentricity, it can, by illustrating one man's life, illuminate ours.
To begin opening ourselves we must begin to identify with Crusoe. This is not as easy as it might seem. For one thing, in my case, he is a man, and I am a woman. He lived two hundred years ago so had very different values. He was white. I am not. It is, however, necessary to push these things aside and go to the text. Look especially at instances when Crusoe is not the most politically correct of heros- -when he seems most at odds with our thinking. Consider Crusoe's treatment of Friday. Friday has no name of his own, and he, the "savage," automatically becomes a servant. Here, Crusoe is condescending and racist. Yet, when I look at my own actions towards others, I have to admit that many times they fall short of being good or just. Let us be honest, don't we all shun or dislike those not like ourselves in color, age, social standing, or religion, at some time or other?
One other important flaw--some might not call it a flaw at all--is Crusoe's bond of utility rather than bond of mutual respect that forms the basis of his friendships. Crusoe is a man that, early in the novel, is a friend when the other person can give something. This can be seen after Cruosoe's "entering into a strict friendship with this captain." The captain, "to my great misfortune" writes Crusoe, dies soon after his arrival. At first readers are a little taken aback by this and other instances of Crusoe's utilitarian attitude. But closer examination of our own personal behavior is necessary before we give up on him.
What of our own utilitarian behavior? For instance, here in college we sit beside other students for months at a time making small talk and borrowing each other's notes. But when 18th Century English is finished, the same students that depended on one another for notes and encouragement do not even say hello in the corridor! We rather turn away our eyes rather than have to bother with all that is involved in making a new friend. A real new friend. Were not, then, all those pleasantries merely for utility?
This theme of people being used simply for personal gain is interesting when we consider that Defoe had his hero denied any human contact for most of his stay on the island. And in such a manner does Crusoe rage, as we all would, at his predicament. The hero is at his lowest ebb when he realizes there are no survivors of a later shipwreck, and he let loose all of his emotions as he laments, "Oh that there had been but one! .... Oh had there been but one" (186). Now remember, this is the same man who, earlier in the novel, sold little Xury, a boy willing to give his life for Crusoe, into slavery for a few bits of silver.
So Crusoe was bad. So we are all users! We all fall short. Perhaps this is why Crusoe constantly speaks of his unworthiness. This is a man who examines himself and definitely feels he has fallen short. He constantly speaks of his "original sin." This is supposed to be the sin of disobeying his father and going to sea instead of following the relatively safe path of middle class ordinariness. Crusoe's sin of disobedience to his father is something that hangs over him for his entire stay on the island and is deeply wound up in the fiber of his spiritual questioning. But is Crusoe's sin as terrible as all that?
Perhaps we can see this disobedience towards the father as a veil for a bigger issue. Is the sin Defoe really speaking of the sin of being born human? What is described as "this propension of nature" (1) may be what is, in actuality, a description of our frail human nature. A human nature so frail that it becomes very hard to do what is right. This frail nature keeps us down in the quagmire of humanness--with our brother Crusoe. I do not think, then, that we are at liberty to point fingers at him. Instead, we should ask ourselves why is it so hard to rise above our smallness, our shallowness, and become great?
Yes. Why is it so hard to ascend to that higher level of existence? We often try to convert ourselves, like Crusoe did, to become better individuals, but as Defoe details so well in his book, we know how hard it is to truly convert. Sometimes we only pray a little, like Crusoe, when the storm threatens or the earth rumbles. Perhaps it is not possible to convert at all. One thing that must be realized is that we certainly have many opportunities in a lifetime to do so. I had an opportunity a few weeks ago and I let it pass me by.
We moved into our new parish six months ago. Usually, by this time both my husband and I have met all the sick and shut-ins. There was one lady though, Anna, whom I never went to see. One of Anna's sons killed himself, one of her daughters is a bag lady, her last daughter has Downs syndrome, and her other three children never visit her. This lady and her husband of nearly sixty years had their share of personal hardship. To add to this, Anna had advanced cancer, so never got out much. A few weeks ago Anna died.
Since the funeral, yes, everyone goes to the funeral, I have met her husband. Now that Anna is gone, he goes for long walks and dropped in one night. Through speaking with him, listening to his mourning, I have gotten to know his wife. But the guilt of never bothering to visit and get to know her, the person, is still with me. The selfish reason for not visiting her was I did not want to share in her unhappiness. I did not want the emotional burden of going to her home and sharing in her life. I did not have time to feel sad. I have enough of my own sadness, I thought.
So I missed that one chance to raise myself up--on to higher ground. This is, I am sorry to say, all too common, not only in my life, but in general. We are so busy becoming successful that it is easy to forget what is really important--people and relationships. There is only time to concentrate on the physical and neglect what is spiritual. And this is what Crusoe is all about. He shows us the race for things is not as important as a human voice or human companionship. What we have to strive at is to overcome the need to be in that race for things, that "obstinacy" of human frailty, that wants to eat, to swamp us, as the storm or wild animals want to consume Crusoe.
Those wild animals never did get Crusoe. He was, in fact very lucky. In Defoe's prodigal son parable, Crusoe might not have had his biological parents to come back and make amends to, but the old captain and the widow, with their unconditional goodness, make appropriate substitutions. And while Crusoe is on the island a small fortune accumulates, so he is well able to put things in order on his return. I know now that "providence" will not always be as kind to me. I may not get the chance, as Crusoe did, to make things right when I choose to. As the writer Stephen Grellet says, I have to do it now.
So you see, there is a lot to be learnt from Robinson Crusoe! It teaches us the basics so we do not have to spend twenty-eight years on a desert island. We learn that what really keeps us down is our human self absorption and that we have to rise above this terrible selfishness. We learn that finding the self is acknowledging our frailty and working, in spite of it, towards making our spiritual side strong. If I realize what is important in life, I know I have learnt from Crusoe's experiences and will never have to cry "Oh had there been but one ....
"...I observe that the expectation of evil is more bitter than the suffering..."(p.181).
Only after several readings of different portions of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and several attempts at drafting a different type of paper, did I finally decide upon using this particular quotation. For me the best kind of writing is the one that does itself, and this quote is the basis for that kind of writing. All I have to do is hold the pen.
My first recollection of being "locked into" fear (aside from the boogey man, ghosts and witches) was the first time I had to be absent from school for several days. I believe I was ill with a sore throat and fever. At the age of five or six, an hour often feels like a day, and a day like a week, so to be out of school for four days seemed quite a LONG time. Anyway, I remember my mother finally telling me I could go back to school the next morning. While part of me was happy and excited at the thought of seeing my friends and my teacher, the other part of me was terrified. What if when I got to my classroom no one talked to me? (because I hadn't been there). What if my teacher was mad at me? (because I hadn't been there). What if they all made fun of me? (because I hadn't been there). What if I didn't know any answers? (because I hadn't been there). I would die: I just knew I would. Well, after several hours of this kind of thinking along with the escalating of fear and anxiety that accompanied it, I really didn't have to worry about school the next day; I was making myself too sick to go back! The next morning after refusing to eat breakfast (which my mother said I was too excited to eat), I got dressed in my favorite outfit (red corduroy pants, checkered shirt- -with solid red scarf, red socks and white sneakers), and sat on the couch-waiting for my older sister, Susan, to finish getting ready to take me to school. The old fear-thoughts started again, and this time I had neither the comforts of my bedcovers nor of a day's respite. With that realization I threw up, all over myself and my chance to return to school. On the third morning that pattern failed. I really did recover, and my re-entry into first grade was in reality very pleasant. My friends crowded around me; my teacher greeted me warmly; and the most negative thing that occurred was that I forgot my milk and cookie money which I was told I could bring in the next day. This memory agrees intellectually and somatically with Crusoe's above-quoted observation.
The application of this quotation is not limited in my experience to my early youth. I have been "locked into" fear and acted in direct opposition to it many a time and more often than not been surprised and rewarded by the results. My marital separation and subsequent divorce was such an experience. At the time of my separation, my son, Terence, was five years old (one of the first full-day kindergartners) and my daughter, Maryellen, was two and a half (a terrible toddler). While there had been arguments and cold-war silences and an ever- growing accumulation of heart hurts, major disappointments, and financial failures, there was also a desperate desire to keep the marriage together.
We sought help through our minister and a marriage counselor. After several months of couple therapy, I realized that the only recourse was an end to the marriage. I was terrified. Wanting my freedom was one thing. Breaking up a home and taking the responsibility for raising two children alone was another. All the horror stories I had heard about `single parent' households flooded my head. Terence became a tragic juvenile statistic and Maryellen an unwed mother at best. These were two of my more positive visions of the future. How would I support them? Would we lose the house? I thought we would drown in my inadequacy. Only through listening to my own voice, sharing with friends and family and accepting their help and guidance was I able to act on what I knew to be the best for me, my children and even for my ex-husband. The night he came and packed his clothes to move into his parent's home came and went. I remember sitting on my couch after he had left with his father, saying to myself, "so this is it. Two children and seven years later, this is it." That was the deepest moment of sorrow I had and almost the last. I can suggest the significance of my loss of Billy by saying that the only time I noticed he was gone was when I set one less place at the supper table. In fact, life without Billy was delightfully unrestrained. We all ate together (no more arguments across the table); I had no more five-thirty deadlines; the bills were paid (unlike before); and there was much more laughter in our house. I joined Terence in attending school. I began taking college courses at Kingsborough with Maryellen attending the daycare center there. And even surviving turned out to flow more easily than I had feared. I was able to keep the house (through financial help from friends). The kids saw their father on weekends (much like before), and I was able to fill my time with my own pleasures. My decision to end my marriage opened the door for the life I enjoy today.
Fear, or the expectation of failure or defeat does not guarantee its own fruition; non-action, tunnel vision, loss of choices or options do. The worst kind of decision is one made by indecision. Where there is faith, choice or hope, there is an alternative.
Perhaps it is no more than the accumulation of years, the simple passage of time that accounts for the recent turn in my thoughts towards the manner in which the events of my life have occurred and brought me to what I politely call "the current state." After all, when those accumulated years require the placement of a number with (to my thinking) the heft of a 29 in front of them to be described, and there is (again, to my thinking) so little to show in the way of accomplishment for so great a span of time, well, a fellow can't help but begin to wonder "how?" or, more to the point, "why?" These recent thoughts of mine dovetail nicely with one of the themes in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy: the randomness of life. Although an acceptance of the randomness of life may seem somewhat frightening at first, with all it portends for the futility of human planning. I think the opposite case is more frightening still. Personally I would hate to think that the sequence of events that have led me to the current state have happened by design. That, trust me, is the truly frightening thought.
Sterne highlights the theme of the randomness of life by exposing the ridiculous extent to which events can be linked by cause and effect. For example, the flattening of Tristram's nose can be traced back in an almost straight line from the end of Dr. Slop's forceps to the marriage articles between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy. The articles stated that Mrs. Shandy should be permitted, when pregnant, to lay in (if she chose) in London. This right, however, would become void if she should cause Mr. Shandy to go to the expense of a journey to London without her being pregnant. Unfortunately she takes such a trip and, as a result, is obliged to lay in at home during her pregnancy with Tristram. When her time comes, Dr. Slop is called in and, consequently, Tristram's nose becomes caught in the doctor's forceps and is flattened.
Tristram, therefore, sees the weight of the marriage articles as falling directly upon him. This judgment may appear absurd as the connection between the articles and the nose is somewhat tenuous, but I can understand it. My very existence can be traced to a no less tenuous circumstance. It seems my parents met during the summer at the beach. What if it had rained that day? What If my father had gone to another beach? It would seem that my presence on the planet can be accounted for by the lack of rain on a summer day some thirty-odd years ago and on the result of a debate among my father's friends on the relative merits of Coney Island and Riis Park.
Before I let the topic of noses get away, I would like to say something on the subject. I have a bump on my nose. I suppose I noticed it as long as 10 years ago although it is only in the past five years or so that I have become truly conscious of its existence. My father has recently taken an interest and has asked me what object did I walk into or have fall upon the bridge of my nose to account for the presence of so pronounced a bump. When I confess that I do not remember any incident which could possibly account for the bump, I usually follow it up with the query, "But Dad, tell the truth, wasn't it (the bump) always there?" His response never wavers, "No. no. When you were a child you had a beautiful, straight nose�are you sure you didn't hit something?"
One may wonder what the point of all this is and, to be honest, I am not sure. Except for this: Tristram seems to believe that the poor quality of his nose has had a negative impact on his life and I am not sure that he is far off the mark. For although I cannot pinpoint in history the moment in which my nose acquired its present dimensions (like Tristram can), I do know that it is something that I have only noticed within the past 10 years; that is, roughly since my graduation from high school. Since it is these past 10 years with which I am less than enamored and since I did have a relatively pleasant childhood, I cannot rule out the possibility that the shape of one's nose does indeed have a direct bearing on the quality of one's life.
Another example of the randomness of life in Tristram Shandy is the manner in which Tristram acquires his name. Through a combination of the faulty memory of Susannah, the difficulty of some buttonholes on Mr. Shandy's breeches and the obstinate insistence of a curate (who just happens to be named Tristram himself), the name is bestowed and made permanent. I have not bothered to hide my dissatisfaction with the position in life with which I find myself currently confronted and so I shall address that presently.
Why is it that my contemporaries are marching forward in the world clutching their degrees ("with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto") while I, on the cusp of 30years of age, am still an undergraduate? The reason is no more complicated than this: I did not want to be an accountant. Since it will not require an excessive I.Q. on the part of the reader to understand the logic inherent in the reason I have given,I shall move along.
I am not completely dissatisfied with my life. One of the happiest moments of the past ten years was my marriage some two and one-half years ago. Yet when you read of how trivial an occurrence it was that has accounted for this happiness you will surely shudder. It was in ninth grade biology that our teacher threw out for our consideration a statistic, namely this: that the vast majority of us would eventually marry people who lived within a five mile radius of us. My friend Donald, next to whom I sat, and I exchanged looks of a highly dubious cast being, as we were, not entirely unacquainted with the sort of girls who lived within a five mile radius. But to get on with my story.
My wife and I grew up in the same town and, though aware of each other's existence, were not friends until our senior year in high school and then for no other reason than this: I changed the route I took when walking home from school. After years of walking along Main Street to Smith Avenue and then down Smith to our house on the corner of Maple Street, I changed my routine to taking the earlier turn on Ocean Avenue, taking Ocean down to Maple and then walking along Maple to Smith Avenue and home. My wife walked home via Ocean and, without belaboring it, we began walking together, became friends, were dating two years later and were married over two years ago. So you see, the foundation of my marriage (and happiness) rests on no more than a desire for a change of scenery some 12 years ago. By the way, Donald also married a girl from home. In fact, our weddings were a mere two weeks apart!
There is one question that is not adequately addressed in Tristram Shandy and that is whether or not Tristram would change, if he could, anything in the past. Although I am not entirely pleased with where I am currently, I would have to answer that question with a "no." Life is, to a large extent, random. Were I to change some past event there is no telling what unwanted consequences it might have on subsequent events and thus on my life as a whole. Since I would not risk the loss of many happy times and good friends to the vagaries of cause and effect, I must conclude that for all its (however unpleasant) randomness, my life up to now has turned out rather well.
For me reading Jane Eyre was no mere intellectual exercise; it was an experience which served to reflect a mirror-image of what I am. Jane's rainbows and cobwebs are mine; we are one. I think that she would be as engrossed in reading an account of my life as I was in reading hers. I see her reading Linda Levy on a stormy night, covers up to her chin, with candlelight flickering and wind whistling across the heath. I read hers tucked into bed, as wind rattled the windows and bellowed through the caverns of Trump Village. Every page of Jane Eyre seemed to uncover another similarity between us. One passage was particularly meaningful to me because I found it to be a melding of several characteristics:
No reflection was to be allowed now; not one glance was to be cast back; not even one forward. Not one thought was to be given either to the past or future. The first was a page so heavenly sweet--so deadly sad--that to read one line of it would dissolve my courage and break down my energy (p. 323).Here we see Jane as romantic, moral, passionate, vulnerable and highly principled. pr> My past grinds at my guts, but I realize now that I couldn't have done otherwisee taking into account my romantic and moral inclinations, my passions, my vulnerability and high principles. Jane was tormented by her choices for the same reasons. Jacques Brel said, "Perhaps we feel too much and maybe that's the crime, perhaps we pray too much and there isn't any shrine..." But that's cynical, and defensive and incurable romantics like Jane and me would argue vehemently with Mr. Brel's lyric. To me (and probably to Jane) without passion and the Quest, life is a living death; without the willingness to do, to try and perhaps, to fail, we are automatons.
Philosophers and psychologists tell us that we do what we do because of what we are. As kindred spirits, Jane and I would find ourselves in emotional and ethical quandaries and flight would be the only choice. It is a flight fueled by principles.
Flight was Jane's only alternative when St. John Rivers proposed. He didn't seek marriage on the basis of love, but as a device to woo her into becoming a fellow-missionary. She was appalled by this bloodless, lifeless request. She could envision going with him, single, as a co-worker, but St. John felt that marriage was a `must' for propriety's sake and could not be moved on this point. Jane found it necessary to run from St. John, a man of reason, and track down Mr. Rochester, a man of passion.
I, too, had to run. I was married to a man I didn't love or respect. My husband was cold and rational, I was the antithesis. My reason for marrying wasn't greed, but my insecurity, a negative self-image and a desire to please him and my parents. As I grew stronger in myself, I couldn't tolerate the marriage any longer. I was selling out on my dreams if I continued to live with a man for whom I felt no romantic love, a man who in no way lived up to my 'ideal.' I gave up many things: comfort, security, the worship of my husband (in his cold, self-contained way) and set out to seek my fortune. At my side was my two-year old child. I was guided by my determination and my newly-acquired principles of respect and self love.
Very such in love with Mr. Rochester, Jane accepted sadism, neglect, sarcasm and almost anything he chose to inflict because she was insecure, previously unloved, unworldly and romantic. Even when there was a mutuality of feeling, the relationship was unequal. Growth was needed on both sides. She ran away from Thornfield because she discovered, on the day of her wedding, that Mr. Rochester was already married. She acted quickly, took nothing with her and was willing to endure any hardship to resist temptation. Jane was very moral and very romantic. The quality of her love would be altered, sullied if she remained. In flight her principles overshadowed her passions.
During my odyssey, my romantic experiences paralleled Jane's. I encountered the `White Knight' and he was everything to me that Rochester was to Jane; but he was more sensitive, less abusive. He loved me; I worshipped him. He was music, poetry, light, air. I couldn't get enough of him. I wanted more, then I wanted forever. He could have complied; he was a man motivated by love and principles. His principles weren't nine and we eventually clashed over them. For him, being the step-father of an autistic child would require too much energy and provide too little reward. He wanted an unencumbered wife who could provide his with a child of his own and he wanted to seek his `ideal' while continuing with me (as a cushion against the pain of separation, I suppose). I was as appalled as Jane was when Mr. Rochester asked her to be his mistress. How could this man, my 'White Knight,' who claimed to love me totally and wholeheartedly, turn his back on Forever? Doesn't a lover accept everything climb--the highest mountain, etc.?
Devastated and outraged, I had to run, to hide, to seek safety and oblivion both. I had to insulate myself from blinding, excruciating pain. My love was being trampled, made ugly. The running away was mental: I withdrew from life, friends, works and, especially, love; I contemplated suicide. The pain, emptiness and feeling of betrayal were as real as the emotions that took Jane on her journey through the moors. Still, I had to end the relationship, regardless of the consequences. In the final analysis, I made the only decision I could abide. In Jane's flight as in mine, we were tempted to remain. If we weren't, there'd be no urgency.
Though we were sorely tempted to stay and savor the wine, we feared that the vintage would soon turn to vinegar. Flight, for us, was the only option. Compromise on love is unacceptable--for love is the sum of who we are, what we give and what we get in return and can only endure in its highest, purest form: a love based on mutuality, self-respect, sacrifice, equality, direction and growth. I couldn't have done otherwise�nor could Jane Eyre.
Emily Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets. I love her poems because of the pain and sorrow they contain to which I can easily relate. She often writes of funerals and death. I myself have watched too many friends die and have wondered why God would let this happen. At every funeral, some well meaning mourner would say--,"The Lord called him" or "She's with Jesus now." My gut reaction was always, "Bullshit." Then Emily Dickinson's poem "My Life Closed Twice Before its Close" would come to mind, especially the last two lines--,"Parting is all we know of Heaven and all we need of hell." More than anything I've ever heard those lines summarize the doubts I've had about an afterlife and the pain of those left behind.
My friend Molly Moynahan, recently wrote a novel and titled it Parting is all We Know of Heaven. The book opens with Dickinson's poem in its entirety. It is the story of a young woman whose life is destroyed by grief following her sister's death. I too have been at the point where grief combined with my own stupidity (drugs and alcohol) almost destroyed my life.
My best friend since childhood killed herself by eating 56 valium pills. Her suicide note said that she was too ashamed of herself to face her family anymore. Her parents didn't even bother to come to her funeral. We had to take up a collection in the bar to bury her. Two weeks later another good friend choked to death on his own vomit. His three year old daughter found him the next morning. I was overwhelmed with guilt when I realized I had been drinking with him the night before. To this day when I see his wife and children at the supermarket, I can't look them in the face. Within the next two months I lost three other friends to a drunk driving accident and one to AIDS.
In my stupidity, I didn't think to question the kind of lives my friends and I were leading; instead I dove deeper into the world of cocaine to make myself feel better and to hide from the reality of the death that was all around me. However, it wasn't only me. Every time one of my friends would die, the whole crowd of us would greatly increase our drug and alcohol intake. This would inevitably lead to the death of another one of us and so the cycle continued.
None of us believed in heaven, but we all knew the private hell of being left behind on this earth to suffer. The dead were at least at peace in their little cushioned boxes. The rest of us had to keep living and wondering who would be next. I believe in hell on earth and during the last two and a half years that I have been straight, I've come to appreciate this even more.
I don't keep the same friends that I used to. I can't if I want to remain sane, but I often see members of my old crowd around the neighborhood and in the bar on dart night. I see them sitting in front of the post office drinking beers when they should be working or going to school or taking care of their children. I see them coming home when I leave my house in the morning. I see them coming out of the bathroom in the bar with cocaine still clinging to their nostrils and I wonder who will be next.
There was another death a week ago Sunday--a heart attack caused by an overdose of cocaine. A twenty-eight year old woman should not die of a heart attack. Heart attacks are for old men. I didn't go to the funeral. I was afraid that I might have turned into one of those "She's with Jesus" people, and I know that that is probably one of the least comforting things one can say to a grieving husband and children. I also felt that I didn't deserve to be among the mourners. They were all mourning for themselves as well as for Michelle. In the back of each of their minds, they were all wondering if they would be next.
One day we discussed in class the tradition among New England Puritans of looking in the face of the dead and reading their emotions to determine whether or not they were going to heaven. I've thought about this a lot since I've found God and I hope that it isn't true. Everyone I've known has died a horrible death. They were all cut down in the prime of their lives--face down in their own vomit, on the cold, dirty floor of a bathroom, decapitated in a car wreck, in a crowded AIDS ward in a city hospital. None of them had a chance to make their peace with God or with themselves for that matter. I'm sure none of them died looking content or peaceful but terrified and at best surprised. Therefore I would like to believe that hell is all that has gone on here in this life and that after the parting there is a heaven where those who suffered on earth are given a second chance.
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