Published 300 years ago, Daniel Defoe's classic story of shipwreck and survival still has much to teach us about human nature and the environment.
PARIS —The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe appeared, anonymously, in London in 1719. It was presented as an authentic memoir. Daniel Defoe's name didn't appear on the second edition either, but the work was immediately and widely successful.
For three centuries, attention has turned to various aspects of these strange and surprising adventures. And in all this time, interest has never waned. Crusoe remains an indefatigable presence. But why? And what can we make of him in the 21st century?
There are multiple reasons for the book's success, too numerous to be addressed here. Crusoe's travels and adventures are described with meticulous precision that is all the more surprising given that Defoe never actually traveled. The novel — which is supposed to describe a spiritual journey of redemption of a former slave trader who discovers his own humanity — has become an unavoidable reference is children's reading.
In addition to a comic opera by Offenbach in 1867 and a film by Buñuel in 1954, there are countless adaptations in comic books and animated films in which Crusoe plays a minor part. In literature, from the 18th century to today, a number of interpretations can be found in libraries. Among the notable variations are novels by Michel Tournier in 1967 and 1971, J.M. Coetzee in 1986, and Patrick Chamoiseau in 2012.
Crusoe became mythical early on. The work embodies, above all, the relationship humans have with their own survival. It poses, in an exemplary way, questions about relationships between culture and nature. Work, ingenuity, stubbornness, cleverness and cunning: these are the principal qualities that allow him to turn adversity to his advantage. Crusoe begins as a marooned and miserable man, alone and with no resources. But these qualities create, little by little, the prosperous master of a small earthly paradise.
At the same time, the myth embodies the triumph of hard work, the happiness of a simple life, the overcoming of adversity, and the discovery of human relationships at the very heart of their apparent absence.
Rousseau wasn't wrong. He used Robinson Crusoe as an educational tool in the third book of Emile. In his eyes, the solitary adventurer teaches that the division of labor is not an absolute constraint — a single man can accomplish very diverse tasks — and that life in the wilderness is fuller, more complete and thus truer than it is in cities.
Voltaire disagreed with this naturalistic simplicity. In his Letter to the Doctor Jean-Jacques Pansophe, in 1766, he wrote, "The true happiness of man is to live alone, to eat wild fruits, to sleep on the bare earth or in the hollow of a tree, and to never think." He advises Rousseau to have Emile read nothing but the Bible, "the excellent story of Robinson Crusoe," and his own works.
And for us? What are the lessons for tomorrow? I see two of them.
In rereading the tale of Crusoe's first days on the empty island, one should notice that he doesn't cease to recover and reuse all of the useful materials from his shipment, the remains of the shipwreck. This is a potential lesson for all given the current prognosticators of collapse and apocalypse. If our world is shipwrecked, we will initially survive by taking fragments of its tools, machines, and products, and reusing them in innovative ways.
More subtly, the deepest lesson of Crusoe is that we will never truly be alone once we have been socialized. What does he actually do in his radical isolation? He thinks with words learned from others. He acts and organizes himself using mental patterns developed in his education. He applies rules and recipes that he didn't invent but inherited.
His island is deserted, but never his brain. The ultimate lesson from this lone sailor is, in the words of the poet Henri Michaux: "One is never alone in one's skin."