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Robinson

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I have been fascinated for some time by the recurrence of a man. For some three hundred years he has been stepping onto pages around the world: in England, America, France there is a Robinson who appears again and again. It is unlikely to be a coincidence of name; rather a single figure who has wandered for these three centuries, gambling, drinking and stumbling into book, poem and film. This is an essay at assembling some of the information about this peculiar figure, Robinson.

He is first found on the island:

I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called ‘The Island of Despair’; all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.

The game begins. Robinson wrote this in collaboration with a Defoe of Stoke Newington, onetime brickseller and odd-job author: tales of fast women and roguish men, King-before-King horror stories about a plagues, storms and apparitions. Together, it appears, they cooked up this story of a virtuous island tenure. Easy to picture them in the upper room of a London inn – cheap candles, two chancers laughing at the absurdities to be thrown at the public.

There’s a core of truth to the thing: later evidence suggests there was once a shipwreck and an island, but the story smells off, as if they rewrote it from scratch to pick the pockets of the cits setting out to build an empire. Read the book and see how it keeps breaking down: the nude swim on which he fills his pockets, the disconnected childish narration (‘and then..’, ‘and then…’, all the way to Archangel) after he escapes from the island. If you do not wonder who this curious man is, hiding in trees, attached to the bible, fretting about cannibals; if you are not sceptical by the time you reach the bear-fighting, you ought not follow the remainder of Robinson’s adventures. The naïve are his prey.

A blind London justice of the 18th century, recording the story of a young man jailed, incidentally leaves the next record of our Robinson. There’s less complicity in this account: the Robinson we see here – criminal, gambling, living by his wits – will turn up over and over in the course of our history. This Fielding is the first to point out his physical magnetism:

There was something in the manner of Robinson which, notwithstanding the meanness of his dress, seemed to distinguish him from the crowd of wretches who swarmed in those regions.

And we also catch the first hint of his philosophical pathology:

This gentleman was what they call a freethinker; that is to say a deist; or, perhaps, an atheist, for, though he did not deny the existence of God; yet he entirely denied his providence

Remember that earlier Robinson-alias-Crusoe: forever telling himself about how well God has disposed his world, how providence has furnished him with supplies adequate to his need. The seeming-obsession may be taken for illness; really it is a poor, black sort of joke: the man who would be his own god takes pleasure in spitting at God’s plan for the world.

Note that he’s a gambler, and so one necessarily against providence (that is, determined the house shall not dictate winners). Robinson was a man fit for an age whose greatest philosopher, after looking into a void where reasons were wanting and the self split into a million unrelated moments, enjoyed retiring to backgammon.

We face then the longest silence of the record, followed by what will seem to many Robinson’s first aberration. In the middle of the 19th Century, a London journalist recorded for some while the comings and goings of a City firm, Dombey and Son. There is a brief, very surprising glimpse of Robinson. He appears for this while to be a jovial clerk, looking for advancement and politely joking with his rivals at an office party.

Is it the same Robinson? Most probably. Throughout his long life he returns to the office. Why, before each fresh adventure and depravity, do we find him counting paperclips? What is it that keeps drawing Robinson back to dull clerical work? We might guess that this is unpredictability fetishised, a dodging of providence or the cypher’s next joke, but looking at the Crusoe he created, one wonders if it isn’t a sort of desired truth or mundane ideal. The frugal, godly mariner is the Robinson Robinson would be.

He tries to be normal. Take for instance his activities during the Second World War. We might have looked for him ageing papers and moving furs in the chaos of Mitteleuropa, or cutting deals in the saloon bars of a London that had been consumed by Portobello, moved from point to point to profit by the invisible hand. Instead, he is to be found sitting in the manager’s chair of a West African bank (heartening to say he takes no pleasure in turning down loan requests from minor police officials), perhaps his most succesful clerical stint.

A resignation letter found by an English poet later in the century shows us the typical Robinsonian response to years at a desk:

Because I am done with this thing called work,
The paper clips and staples of it all…

And I am through with the business of work.
In meetings, with the minutes, I have dreamed
And doodled, drifted away then undressed
And dressed almost every single woman,
Every button, every zip and buckle

The attempts to go straight are doomed. Though he looks to have tried, the quotidian defeats him; he chooses the grand gesture, the walk out and the last-word note, rather than settling into those comfortable friendships and routines that smooth the edges of urban life. Is Robinson to be admired for his embrace of the eternal teenager?

We now return to following Robinson on his long journey. After Dickens, the next account we receive is from a Guano dealer – via two or three intermediaries – who was involved in business with our man at the end of the century:

The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive… Holy-Terror Robinson. That’s the man…“Cannibal?” — well, they used to give him the name years and years ago. You remember the story? A shipwreck on the west side of Stewart Island… The story goes that a boat of Her Majesty’s ship Wolverine found him kneeling on the kelp, naked as the day he was born, and chanting some psalm-tune or other; light snow was falling at the time.

A second shipwreck seems unlikely, to say the least; surely this is an account of the initial marooning. The dolorous emphasis on virtue and counting that afflicts his own story rings false: it is easier to imagine the abandoned man crouched and feasting on the body of a shipmate. And we look at that first story he tells again: is it an attempt to expunge some primal guilt and obliterate a monstrous anthropophagic memory?

Robinson for the first third of the last century spends his time wandering between France and America. A doctor named Bardamu struck up a friendship while both were attempting to excape the horrors of the army during the Great War. The doctor, despite a cynicism amounting to contempt for life and a unhappy attitude towards women, has a style enlivened by an honest eye and vigorous language; as such, his encounters with Robinson have a unique force.

After the first wartime meeting – ‘his voice was different from ours, sadder, which made him sound nicer’ – he slips in and out of the life of Bardamu, appearing unexpectedly in Africa, a ghostly presence a few steps ahead of the chronicler when he’s shipped to an American blue-collar hell. The Robinson he meets is always failing, getting sicker: sometimes he’s a symptom more than a person, a phantom for the psychopathologists to study; at other times he’s just the man in the street, fink more than bully, the weakling scraping around in the mud for a few coppers. When an absurd and sordid attempted murder goes wrong and leaves Robinson blind, we have a perhaps more honest look at his beginnings

When he was 11, his parents had apprenticed him to a high-class shoemaker. One day he delivered a pair of shoes, and she invited him to share a pleasure which up until then he had only known in his imagination… Especially the lady’s chemise, all of chiffon, had had a phenomenal effect on him. 30 years later he remembered that chemise in every detail. The lady swishing through her apartment full of cushions and fringed portières, her pink and perfumed flesh, had given young Robinson food for interminable and despairing comparisons to last him the rest of his life.

Despair – the keynote of Robinson.

Bardamu reports the death of Robinson (his corpse ‘like a stranger in the room, someone who had come from a horrible country and you wouldn’t have dared speak to), but this must be metaphor. He returns to Africa next, for his bank job, and then after the war heads to America once again. An itinerant painter and poet, Weldon Kees, has left a number of verse portraits of the mid-century Robinson.

Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Playing cards, observing elephants in the park, sobbing in bed: the Robinson that Kees met is curiously quiet, as though worn away by a melancholy, leaving but his ‘sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf’. Yes, the gambling, drink and philandering attend, as they always do, but there’s little of the manipulator, blackmailer, fraudster and cannibal.

Now for one of the most curious episodes of Robinson’s long life. A plane crash in the early fifties left three survivors on a largely barren island. These three (a blackmailer, a curious Catholic widow and a Dutchman) there encountered Robinson, living as a recluse for much of the year, only having for company a small child he’d adopted. Confusion and coincidence dominate the events on the island, especially after Robinson fakes his own murder.

Rejecting all the human comforts that religion offers, he instead hides from contact, redemption and proividence. This is the Robinson who knows that he is tangled up in fate, who feels that god has planned each of his steps: ‘yet he entirely denied his providence’. The comment by the narrator following a dispute over her Rosary is telling:

It struck me for the first time that he was not simply attempting to make small difficulties, or to exercise his authority on the island simply from a need for power, but that he was constitutionally afraid of any material manifestation of grace

It is hard to make out precisely what happens through the peculiar journal that records this encounter with Robinson: the author is lost in her own thoughts, scratching at bad men back home and drawn by desires which she is unwilling to acknowledge; but Robinson, hiding in a cave and watching a drama play out among plane crash survivors, may here think himself a god; he certainly acts as something other than a man.

The next time we meet Robinson he has abandoned the monastic existence; in fact he has abandoned virtue altogether. Robinson has always been seen consorting with low types: his natural companion, we suspect, is De Quincey’s Anne, just as his natural locale is De Quincey’s Soho. This bohemian archipelago is where we find him next, assaying his talent for corruption. He is, in this incarnation, something between a pornographer and an artist: a manipulator cajoling reluctant ingenues into a performance that will draw men into the darkness. Tipping over into violence and losing himself in baroque pharmaceutical arrangements, the man is at most chaotic in these London days. A different sort of cannibal, and as the director of these films, a new sort of God. It is hard to tell if he’s in control at this time: it is the ambiguous display of master and servant. Is that the boot of vice resting on Robinson’s neck, or Robinson’s black-gloved hand clutching the lash that scourges luxury’s pale back?

Finally, it is cheering to report a sort of redemption. Robinson has most recently been seen acting as a kind of tour guide to a British documentary maker, Patrick Keiller. It would appear that the wild years are behind him: this is an expansive Robinson, fascinated by life. To see a man who we assumed lost to the human race take a journey to which the heart and eye can assent with joy, to see him discovering comfort and delight in the phenomenal world, the buildings of London or the line of the coast, this is nearly enough to make one believe redemption is possible. Robinson, rather than being the masked man, secretive, sly and twisted, that we’ve grown used to, is instead a salutary dispenser of facts, relentlessly theorising and coming back to those earlier vagabonds, Rimbaud and Verlaine, as he ponders on London and the country. Though prone to depression and incidents of conspiratorial mania – which of us would not be with his history? – there is some respite from his darkness to be found here.

His second journey, incidentally, is inspired by a work of Defoe; a charming tribute to that first collaborator.

There are few conclusions I can draw. Is he like Dante’s Ulysses, the brave adventurer who peers over the lip of the world? Is he just a fraud who’s stumbled into history, a startled Roman tough with a walk-on part in a Caravaggio theophany? Or is he a something more serious, the last man capable of despair? That first glimpse of a perfect woman that Bardamu reports: is his afterlife a postscript to revelation, a disgust at the unreachable divine? Providence and grace rejected, vice embraced: is he merely an old-fashioned sort of sinner? Questions multiply and answers melt into air.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Walsh is the author of The Midnight Bell, where this essay was first published, and formerly wrote for the London News Review Books Diary. He recently published his thesis, entitled ‘Our Lineal Descents and Clans’: John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern and the 1690s’.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 17th, 2007.