Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Captain Singleton: An Epic of Mitsein?

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Captain Singleton: An Epic of Mitsein?

Article excerpt

It is only small and thinly peopled places that can be subjugated and held down in words, such as desert islands and lonely houses.

- J. M. Coetzee, Foe

Il n'y a pas de monde, il n'y a que des îles.

- Jacques Derrida, Ui Bête et le souverain


In a recent Critical Inquiry article entitled "Derrida Enisled," J. Hillis Miller reviews the career of the recently deceased French thinker and concludes that Jacques Derrida is nothing less than the Robinson Crusoe of the Continental philosophical tradition.1 Throughout his writings, and in particular in his as yet unpublished 2002-03 seminars on "The Beast and the Sovereign," which deal extensively with Daniel Defoe's first fiction, Derrida not only reflects for himself on the impossibility of Mitsein - "being-with" - but also consigns the rest of us to a similarly isolated state, as though we are all survivors of some primordial social shipwreck, each washed up, by some demonic chance, on a separate sandy shore. According to Miller,

Derrida firmly asserts that each man or woman is marooned on his or her island, enclosed in a singular world, with no isthmus, bridge, or other means of communication to the sealed worlds of others or from their worlds to mine.2

Parting company with many of his contemporaries and colleagues, from Martin Heidegger to Jacques Lacan, from Emmanuel Lévinas to Jean-Luc Nancy, each of whom theorized, albeit with varying degrees of conviction and success, the necessary opening of Dasein to Mitsein, of "being" to "being-with," "Derrida is unusual, if not unique, in explicitly denying that Dasein is Mitsein."3 Given that each of us is stranded on a mutually inaccessible island of being, Mitsein is depicted as at best an impossibility and at worst a dangerous fiction. As Derrida himself announced in The Politics of Friendship, in a passage that seems to confirm Miller's draconian narrative, "solitude is irremediable, friendship impossible."'1 On the basis of evidence such as this, it is hard not to conclude, with Miller, that in his philosophy in general and in his reading oí Robinson Crusoe in particular, Derrida offers us an unrelenting vision of the ways in which "each human being is, from the beginning to the end, enisled."5

Derrida would certainly have found ample fodder for a philosophy of irremediable solitude in Robinson Crusoe. As Ian Watt succinctly put it in The Rise of the Novel, Defoe's three-part tale, notwithstanding its occasional depiction of highly instrumentalized human relations, is "an epic of solitude." 6 Watt made the same point later in his career in similar but slightly more humorous terms, when he returned to Robinson Crusoe in Myths of Modern Individualism, summing up and dismissing the novel's take on social relations, or the lack thereof, with a characteristic flash of irony:

Robinson Crusoe, we may conclude, is, for good or for ill, the epic of the stiff upper lip. It is not a collective lip; it is, for the most part, uncritically egocentric, and it flourishes exceptionally well on a desert island.7

While the Crusoe narratives insist on a kind of primary solitude in more literal terms than any of Defoe's other fictions, moreover, for Watt, the egocentrism and stiff-upper-lippedness of Robinson Crusoe and its sequels are paradigmatic of Defoe's oeuvre as a whole. The novel's protagonist shares with Defoe's other great leading characters, especially Moll Flanders, "a restless, amoral, and strenuous individualism," an individualism that simultaneously revolutionizes literary and economic history and leaves readers distinctly uneasy, as they confront successive portraits of "man's inexorable solitude."8 Defoe's titular characters, released from conventional social ties in order single-mindedly to pursue the Holy Grail of capital accumulation, are, in Watt's at once admiring and critical account, both highly conducive to narrativization - in J. M. Coetzee's phrase, able to be "held down in words" - and vaguely monstrous. …

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