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In Our Time newsletter: Robinson Crusoe

Thursday 22 December 2011, 17:21

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Robinson Crusoe. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

Crusoe

Hello

I'm sitting in my house at dawn on December 21st, the day before the last live programme of In Our Time which we'll follow with a recorded programme to go out at the end of December, so that we can all ease off for a few days' holiday over Christmas and the New Year.

I've looked out on Hampstead Heath, at the dawn. You remember at school when you read about "rosy-fingered dawn" - well, the rosy fingers are at work just over the East End of London this morning. There's, as Wordsworth said, a tranquillity over the city at a time like this, which is as profound as anything you experience in the country.

In fact, one of the things that's changed in my life over the last few years is the discovery that city walking, i.e. London walking, mainly, can be as intriguing and satisfying as walking in Cumbria. Well, not quite, come to think of it. I'm off up there for a holiday and I know that when I get on the fells there will be nothing like it. Nevertheless, it's not a bad runner-up, this city walking. The life of the flaneur.

I'm writing this today because logistically it is impossible for Ingrid and myself to get our act together tomorrow, to get out two newsletters to get to you.

Robinson Crusoe tomorrow. Curious to read it again. How long it takes before Friday appears! How much intense observation and knowledge there is about the art of survival. It could be a Super Scout survival book.

I wonder if Baden-Powell ever read it?

It's far better than Scouting for Boys (not, frankly, that I remember very much about Scouting for Boys sixty years on). Where did Defoe get all that information from? He was a most extraordinary man, publishing his first novel at the age of fifty-nine. It's so full of possible interpretations. Rather like the lady who saw Hamlet and said it was full of quotations. There's the master/slave aspect, there's the cannibalism, there's the conversion to Christianity, there are the adventures and the idea of adventure, there's the notion of the entrepreneur... No wonder it has gone on parallel lines as a discussion document about the history of this country over the last three hundred years, and as a popular favourite into children's books and even unto pantomime.

And then the recorded programme is on macromolecules. I'm very, very pleased that it is recorded! Chemistry was always a bit of a mystery. But I'll be surrounded, as usual, by three experts who will be (touch wood) generous and keen to impart their knowledge to you.

The following week there'll be a programme every morning, Monday to Friday, from about nine o'clock, on 'The Written World'. This is what I've been making with the producer Tom Morris over the last few months.

It is the most extraordinary story. We start at five and a half thousand years ago with cuneiform clay tablets and bring it up to a mention of Kindle. One of the most extraordinary things about it is that every significant artefact on that long journey from the beginning of writing to the present day can be found in this country, in the quite astounding collections at the British Museum, the British Library, at Cambridge, in the Durham Cathedral Library and in private collections.

So that's us. I hope you're all well. Thanks very much for your support this year and I hope that we will meet again in 2012.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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    Comment number 1.

    During comments on Robinson Crusoe's resourcefulness in adversity I was reminded of Benvenuto Cellini's expert manipulation of materials while sustaining a Christian faith alongside a belief in the influence of the stars on one's destiny. I think Cellini would be a worthy topic for In our time.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    As a prototype of the early novel,Robinson Crusoe shows truth to individual experience: a sequence of episodes held together because it happens to one person,with a central character so convincing and set in so solid and specific a world,Defoe is credited with being the 1st writer of realistic fiction.The novel form showed the importance of individual experience,reality discovered through the senses.The story is based squarely upon the true account of Alexander Selkirk who went to sea.Due to this imaginative reworking of essential material it gives the work its realism.Defoe kept closely to the actual facts,stimulating his talent for minute and accumulative detail.As a psychological study in isolation it may not seem convincing,but as the novel was then in its infancy,RC owes more to the previous literary pedigree of Puritan spiritual autobiographies and allegories like Bunyan’s Grace Abounding.A certain Tim Cruso was a fellow dissenter with whom he went to school,who wrote religious pamphlets.It is a perfect amalgam of the specific and the general.The narrative interest combines the adventure story(eg the footprint in the sand) and the exotic fascination with travel literature,human behaviour under conditions of difficulty and pressure.

    Crusoe’s survival and his enterprising behaviour are seen as expressions of Defoe’s own belief in the mercantilist mentality of the expanding British Empire,the marooned Crusoe manufacturing his clothes and educating Man Friday being emblematic of the superiority of the civilized man and the nature of the noble savage.Crusoe’s island sojourn is viewed as a period of spiritual gestation and rebirth.This early novel arose out of moralistic intent.Defoe had wrapped up his own life in the emblematic life of Robinson Crusoe.The power and popularity of the novel comes from (i) its truthfulness,the magic of verisimilitude;(ii)the ventriloquism of the author which induces identification with the lonely castaway, the idea of man in a state of perfect isolation.

    To quote Wyndam Lewis:"I have a pen that silently goes,
    without more fuss than Dryden or Defoe".

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    From here in Wisconsin...

    having read a chapbook

    Robin Crusoe your discussion

    related the outline of the full story

    so very interesting...

    strong germanic expression

    of Defoe

    where

    Defoe and the hugely successful

    american plantation owners

    could well recover from shame and guilt

    like in the story of Crusoe...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Just recently, read the book and I was quite surprised how easily flowed. It has a lot of symbolism and metaphors abound.

    Again, hardly any mention of Crusoe enslavement by the Moroccan slavers who raided up and down the West European coast even capturing and carting off the whole town of Baltimore in Ireland; possibly an indirect cause of the English Civil Wars as King Charles wanted to have a navy to stop these malicious attack on his nations.
    Western European was only copying the great Northern Africa states of their time.

    In some ways the story is an internal journey and not a physical journey as we see with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

 

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