Sunday, July 21, 2013

Robinson Crusoe and Limits



Very few first editions of Robinson Crusoe still exist. It was so wildly popular when it was published, that people read their copies to shreds. Here is Chesterton writing about it in Orthodoxy:
"Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck."

For Chesterton, it is the normal and the everyday that is the most exciting. The world around us is full of enchantment; it is often just that we are too dull to see it. The most everyday things or occurrences are the most exciting and romantic - it is more of a miracle when the train arrives on time, as opposed to its being late, as a character in The Man Who Was Thursday insists. Chesterton celebrates the romance of limits, of boundaries - to put it one way - "Art, like morality," he says elsewhere, "consists of drawing the line somewhere." There can be no true freedom without limits somewhere, without rules. In the chapter The Ethics Of Elfland, in Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.
The modern imagination, no doubt, would reject this kind of thinking, seeking instead infinite possibilities in ever-newer and greater horizons. But imagination is rooted in an image, as Chesterton points out. And an image is a thing which, by its nature, "has an outline and, therefore, a limit."


Robinson Crusoe, a story about a man marooned on an island, having escaped from a shipwreck, is the ultimate story about limitations. And maybe everyone in some way senses how this could actually be liberating. Maybe that is why people delight in the desert-island game of selecting which books one would take for one's self. We recognize that, in order for us to really be able to appreciate the greatest literature on earth, it would take for us to be stranded before we could actually read it. 

Ironically, Chesterton himself refused to play the desert-island game. When asked once what book he would take with him if stranded on an island, he replied, "Thomas' Practical Guide to Ship Building." Perhaps he was joking. 


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