Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

"I Was Myself an Eye-Witness": Disaster Discourse and the Eighteenth-Century English Scientific Mind in Daniel Defoe's the Storm

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

"I Was Myself an Eye-Witness": Disaster Discourse and the Eighteenth-Century English Scientific Mind in Daniel Defoe's the Storm

Article excerpt

Disasters, either in the form of natural calamities or contagious epidemics, form shared memories for survivors that, when recorded, arouse sympathy. Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731) was among the first to develop a narrative technique designed to portray calamities and their aftermath. (1) Responding to a massive storm that assaulted the British Isles in 1703 with an attempt to record the loss and suffering that the nation and her people had sustained, Defoe, in the sense of "the proper Duty of an Historian" (Storm 4), completed his first full-length work The Storm in 1704, a few months after the disaster struck.

The storm that attacked the south of England and Wales in the late November of 1703 remains the worst hurricane that the nation has ever experienced. In a public proclamation made in December of the same year, Queen Anne (1665-1714) indicated the blast to be "a Calamity so Dreadful and Astonishing, that the like hath not been Seen or Felt, in the Memory of any Person Living in this our Kingdom" (qtd. in Hamblyn x). Having never encountered a disaster of such severity, England confronted unprecedented havoc, as about eight thousand people perished and one fifth of the navy was lost in this catastrophe. In order to pass the memory of it to posterity, Defoe advertised in the London Gazette to collect faithful accounts of the storm and regarded himself as the "Editor" of the book, trying to piece together crude information from the letters of credible people throughout the country. Authenticity is his main concern. Defoe emphasizes in "The Preface" to The Storm, "I have not undertaken this Work without the serious Consideration of what I owe to Truth, and to Posterity; nor without a Sence of the extraordinary Variety and Novelty of the Relation" (Storm 5). He condemns falsification because "Looseness of the Pen has confounded History and Fable from the beginning of both" and "the Fondness of telling a strange Story ... has dwindled a great many valuable Pieces of ancient History into mere Romance" (Storm 5). The ambition to record history is tangible, as Defoe claims The Storm as a record rather than a fiction.

Whether or not Defoe is a responsible editor deserves further discussion, and the way that he manipulates the raw materials as the sources of his information determines the authenticity of his collection. Composed mainly of letters from persons all over England, The Storm as a historical record attempts to provide the reader with detailed and valid information related to the catastrophe. However, as Defoe admits that some tales adopted are beyond the "real Extent" (Storm 64), the boundary between history and fiction appears blurred. In addition, the emphasis on the empirical experiences of the letter contributors as the foundation of the text is a reflection of English ways of thinking in the late seventeenth, and throughout the eighteenth centuries. To Defoe, to explore the truth is a pursuit of knowledge, as he proclaims in The Compleat English Gentleman (1729): "Upon the whole, the study of science is the original of learning; the word imports it. 'Tis the search after knowledge" (211). (2) In this paper, the literary attributes and scientific spirit presented in The Storm will be the cores for discussion. Drawing upon the theories of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), I will also examine how Defoe conforms to the scientific ethos of the time in this narrative.

I. Legacy of Francis Bacon and the Modern Concept of Natural Philosophy

In his writing of a modern concept of natural philosophy, to which we now refer as science, Francis Bacon claims to form a system in the pursuit of knowledge to supersede Aristotle's syllogism. Availing himself of Aristotle's earlier work on logic, Organon (or Instrument for Rational Thinking), Bacon published The New Organon (Novum Organum) in 1620, for the purpose of rectifying the "contaminated and corrupted" opinions "in the school of Aristotle by logic, in the school of Plato by natural theology" (New Organon 79). …

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