Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Daniel Defoe and Abandoned Life

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Daniel Defoe and Abandoned Life

Article excerpt

One of the most iconic scenes in the most reprinted and widely circulated novel in the history of English literature is Robinson Crusoe deliberating upon the value of the assorted currency he discovers in the locker of his wrecked slave ship: (1)

I smil'd to my self at the Sight of this money, O Drug! Said I aloud,
what art thou good for, Thou art not worth to me. no not the taking off
of the Ground, one of those Knives is worth all this Heap, I have no
Manner of use for thee, e'en remain where thou art, and go to the
Bottom as a Creature whose Life is not worth saving. However, upon
Second Thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of
canvas, I began to think about making another raft. (91)

Ever since Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised these lines as "[w]orthy of Shakespeare" for their ostensible irony (294), (2) the locker scene has occupied a distinctive place in commentaries of Defoe's work, one recent critic noting that "there has been enough subsequent discussion of the passage to make it perhaps the principal critical crux of the novel" (Keane 111). And yet, when Ian Watt accused Coleridge of "seeing too much" in his praises, countering that any irony was purely unintentional, the result of Defoe's "extreme insouciance" in modulating between the roles of novelist and economic publicist (119), his words had the unintended effect of displacing scholarly focus away from the scene's literary language for the next half century. Despite its notoriety, then, Crusoe's bout with the coins has never been read very closely, and the key figure upon which the force of his decision turns--the ominous "Creature whose Life is not worth saving"--has escaped critical commentary entirely. What happens, then, when we take this absence as an occasion to clarify the historical relationship between this fantasy of abandonment and the broader socioeconomic issues underwriting the scene?

This essay traces the movements of abandoned life--life deemed "not worth saving"--as it persists in various guises throughout Robinson Crusoe (1719) and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) in an effort to locate this figure at the very center of Defoe's political imagination, a claim that entails a corresponding reconceptualization of the political imagination of the novel form itself. (3) Eighteenth-century scholars have long held that novelistic discourse develops within a positive feedback loop with the social and commercial institutions comprising the birth of civil society. And yet, few have pursued the connection between the unique mode of referentiality that novels invented (an orientation toward what Henry Fielding called "not men but manners; not an individual but a species" [128]) and the unique mode of governance that modern nation-states required (an orientation toward what Michel Foucault called "not man-as-body but... man-as-species" [Society 242]). If novels, according to James Thompson, "play a crucial role in the process by which early modern subjects come to imagine themselves, their lives, and what was to become of them" (12), then my claim here is that a primary aspect of this socialization is the recognition that one's "self is always infiltrated by a life that is not proper to it--a species life that traverses the body politic and exposes the individual to the perpetual threat of abandonment in being deemed "not worth saving." (4) What is at stake in the above passage, and what 1 will argue Defoe's fictions consistently stage through the tropological cipher of abandoned life, is the historical problem posed by the state's emergent biopolitical need to measure, evaluate, and administer the new epistemological object of life itself. Before turning our attention back to the figure of the drowning "Creature," then, I want to briefly reconstruct the critical narrative surrounding the locker scene to account for this detail's conspicuous omission, and to explain its significance for resituating Defoe within the "rise of the novel" tradition more broadly. …

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