Campbell Corner Language Exchange
"Infinities of Islands":
Reconfigurations of Crusoe's Island in the Work
Bishop, Coetzee, Tournier, and Walcott
by James McCorkle
The re-visioning of Crusoe, Friday, and the island
upon which they were castaway offers a register
of the connections between postcolonialism and
postmodernism. Both involve a radical decentering
of economic, aesthetic, and political identities
and structures. Postmodernism may be posited as
the sliding chain of signifiers, where signifier
is subsumed or erased by a subsequent one, resulting
in either indeterminacy or accretive space. If
this can serve as an abbreviated description of
postmodernism, then what is most striking is the
unmarked interstices within the slide of signifiers,
the in-betweenness in the lattice-work of the
accreted space. This translational arranging,
and this diaspora of meaning, can describe postcolonialism.
Thus both postmodernism and postcolonialism reveal
temporal and spatial disjunctions which subvert
the totalizing effects of dominant metropolitan
Implicit in this brief sketch of postmodernism
and postcolonialism are oppositional and transformational
elements. Rather than defining postmodernism as
the globalization of multinational capitalism,
postmodernism is the interrogation of that imperative
culture including oppositional positions. This
process is subsumed in such a postcolonial project
perhaps best typified by Derek Walcott's poetry.
Homi Bhabha describes Derek Walcott's project
as going beyond "binaries of power in order to
reorganize our sense of the process of identification
in the negotiations of cultural politics" (233),
so as to write "a history of cultural difference
that envisages the production of difference as
the political and social definition of the historical
present" (234). Walcott's poetry registers the
history of language--its genealogy and geography--and
offers the prospect of a transforming language,
one not rejecting its histories but "turning the
right to signify into an act of cultural translation"
(234). The complex of the figures of Crusoe, Friday,
and their island provide a narrative in which,
in the works of Walcott, Elizabeth Bishop, J.
M. Coetzee, and Michel Tournier, the interstitial
condition of identity becomes the primary focus.
While Defoe's narrative was an accumulation and
writing over of previous accounts of exile fused
with Defoe's economic doctrine, the recent re-visions
of the narrative displace Defoe's interests with
a re-reading of Crusoe's position. Defoe's vision
of a cohesive, hierarchial, colonial world driven
by capitalism and theology became praxis as Defoe
was writing his narrative. We have become Crusoe,
his name is part of ours, he is the mask that
Walcott, Bishop, and Tournier assume to consider
their own identities. For Coetzee, Crusoe is the
originary but lost figure who controls the identities
of all who come into contact with him.
The materialist history that Defoe theorized
and initiated (where history and the novel, for
Defoe, emerge as discourses supplanting and complementing
each other), is not the modality these writers
explore. The perceived failure to engage history
on materially explicit terms of class, economics,
gender, or sexuality are criticisms levelled especially
at Bishop and Coetzee. The question of representation,
how identities of self and other are constituted,
do not omit or abandon history, but militate,
as Brian Macaskill writes of Coetzee, "against
facile and misleading oppositions, and not only
generates subtle and affective ways to 'do-writing',
but allows also for the activity of 'doing-listening'"
(472). Embedded in the dynamic of self and others
or their representations is the condition of listening.
Listening is the interstitial space where reception,
response and transformation are possible. The
conditions of reception are explored, theorized
and tested in the texts of Bishop, Coetzee, Tournier,
and Walcott. To listen closely opens an ethical
space and temporality. To listen implies an approach
to the other who is speaking, so that the words
become shared and dwelled in or upon. To listen
is to accumulate and accomodate histories; the
failure to listen results in entrapment within
a restrictive identity. Listening is the opening
toward interpretation and a re-vision of one's
self and one's relation to others. Elizabeth Bishop's
poem "Crusoe in England," from her final collection,
Geography III, begins with Crusoe's lament that
no one has listened thus his chronicle has been
But my poor island's still un-rediscovered,
unrenamable. None of the books has ever got it
Crusoe's island, unlike the report of an island
being born, named, and "caught on the horizon
like a fly," remains uncharted and unrecognized
except as a misidentified feature. Later Crusoe,
when introducing Friday's memory, parenthetically
remarks that "Accounts of that have everything
all wrong." What "that" refers to is left undisclosed,
necessitating that we listen carefully to Crusoe's
Crusoe serves as a mask for Bishop, who avoided
writing direct autobiographical poetry. David
Kalstone dates "Crusoe in England" as having its
inception in Brazil, reporting that in a 1965
letter to Bishop's friend, the poet and editor,
Howard Moss, the poem needed "a good dusting"
(255). It was not published, however, until 1971.
With the death of her companion Lota de Macedo
Soares in 1967, Bishop's desire to remain in Brazil,
where she had been living for over fifteen years,
diminished and she returned permanently to the
United States. The loss of Lota was further amplified
by the loss of the houses in Ouro Preto and Petropolis,
which Bishop shared with Lota. A castaway since
her childhood, these houses represented a haven
for Bishop. The poem, narrated by a Crusoe bereft
of his island filled with singularities and his
beloved Friday, uncannily portrays Bishop's bereavements.
Bishop suggests that not to hear Crusoe's lament,
to continue to get it "all wrong," is to fail
to hear Bishop's own, albeit mediated, self-definition.
Portraying herself as Crusoe, Bishop considers
herself as an outsider: Crusoe's only home is
memory. Sexuality, too, is displaced: neither
Crusoe's nor Bishop's homosexuality is directly
expressed, instead that identity must be listened
for. This does not mean to suggest ambivalence,
but a political and social necessity, as well
as personal temperament, for discretion, and more
importantly the awareness that homosexuality is
indeed not listened for, except so as to silence.
Homosexuality remains difficult to name--accounts
always get it wrong. Bishop has seized another
text, a different history, and re-visioned it
to provide her own history of identity. It is
a Crusoe and Friday who we recognize, but who
are also re-enunciated. For Bishop as a lesbian,
a history of desire and presence must be retrieved;
failing that, one must be invented. Or more radically,
Bishop transgresses by utilizing an archetypic
narrative to open a space to listen to what has
been silenced. Bishop must cross genres and figuratively
cross-dress to disclose her identity. Boundaries
are thus revealed but also shown to be permeable
or porous. What is striking about "Crusoe in England,"
and somewhat parallel to Tournier's Vendredi ou
les limbes du Pacifique, is that it is Friday
who appears to re-vision Crusoe's sexual and spiritual
Just when I thought I couldn't stand
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
--Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.
And then one day they came and took us off.
Crusoe's interest in Friday is not proprietory,
though Bishop has indeed problematized the conditions
of desire between the European Crusoe and the
exotic, otherness of Friday. While Crusoe assumes
a paternal voice in this passage, that voice is
perhaps a variation on the voice of lament for
the loss of an intimate, for Bishop ruptures this
passage's enclosing, mirroring, coupling language
with the breaking of the idyll: "they came and
took us off." This does not resonate with rescue
or salvation but punishment or imprisonment.
Crusoe's exile in England returns him to a world
of interrogating gazes, that of Foucault's panopticon.
His artifacts are desired by a local museum, though
"How can anyone want such things," Crusoe asks,
especially since the "living soul has dribbled
away" from each object. Friday's presence suspends
the genealogy of disciplinary modalities; prior
to Friday's introduction to the poem, Crusoe describes
his recurring nightmare of "islands / stretching
away from mine, infinities / of islands, islands
spawning islands" where he had to live on each,
"registering their flora, / their fauna, their
geography." Ironically, this is the nightmare
of procreation, belonging to the same genealogy
as Crusoe's comment that both he and Friday "wanted
to propagate"--where an economy of reproduction
Crusoe, however, marks a difference in how one
constitutes oneself within sexuality, for he also
desires Friday. Desire holds aesthetic values
as well as the colonial rejection of individual
subjectivity and possible freedom. "Pretty to
watch; he had a pretty body," Crusoe remarks,
thereby combining the gaze's possession and mastery
of the body as well as aesthetic pleasure. That
these two modalities may not be exclusive reflects
a genealogy that cannot be erased from Defoe's
figure of Crusoe. Indeed, Bishop may be implicitly
scrutinizing her motives in her relationship to
Lota. To write from Crusoe's position or to ventriloquize
his voice is then to hear in her own voice the
ethos of Crusoe.
Bishop's Crusoe is determined by her own loss
and estrangement: Crusoe is appropriated figure
to convey Bishop's condition. Bishop offers a
critique of the self, as does Tournier in Vendredi
ou les limbes du Pacifique. However, there is
a crucial difference: Bishop's Crusoe expresses
desire for Friday, whereas he is not an object
of desire for Tournier's Robinson. Despite all
the roles Robinson insists on Friday performing,
Friday seemed to belong "to an entirely different
realm, wholly opposed to his master's order of
earth and husbandry" (180, 188) and as Crusoe
writes in his journal, "As to my sexuality, I
may note that at no time has Friday inspired me
with any sodomite desire" (211, 229). Eros humanizes
Bishop's Crusoe--the absenting of eros, as we
shall see, dehumanizes Tournier's figure of Crusoe.
Gilles Deleuze, writing on Tournier's novel,
distinguishes between the concrete Other, which
"designates real terms actualizing the structure
in concrete fields" and the a priori Other, which
is this structure or "the existence of the possible
in general, insofar as the possible exists only
as expressed" (318). The novel is Robinson's meditation
on a world absent of all Others; indeed, what
Tournier has indicated is the "otherwise-Other"
(319). Rather than belonging to a shared landscape
or perceptual field, Robinson lacks this structure,
with its double fold of concrete and a priori
others; instead he lives within a completely different
structure. Though Robinson exhibits no perverse
behavior--indeed he seems potently rational--Deleuze
argues Tournier has theorized, by showing, the
manifestation of perverse structure, or the principle
from which perverse behavior is actualized: "the
perverse structure may be specified as that which
is opposed to the structure-Other and takes its
While at first Robinson is discouraged by the
absence of others and how cognition and identity
seem structured by the presence of others, he
soon abandons these early speculations in favor
of what Colin Davis describes as a "poetic meditation"
and a "rejection of discursive reason and the
abnegation of selfhood" so as to "allow the genesis
of a new kind of order" (377-8). While Davis correctly
sees Robinson's ambition, at one stage of the
novel, to affect a "reversal of individuation"
and a "synthesis of consciousness and nature"
(376); the novel unfolds into a theory of the
very renunciation of nature, a removal of being
from self and the world. Thus Robinson's is a
journey into the absenting of Others, which describes,
perhaps in extremis, the colonial enterprise.
The colonial project is a perverse structure in
that it presupposes the "murder of the possible"
or commits an "Other-cide" and an "altrucide"
(320), to use Deleuze's terms. Although Deleuze
does not draw together the psychoanalytic and
the historical in this discussion of perversion,
Tournier constructs a new myth whose structure
is that of perversion which can describe colonialism.
While the absenting of the other, and thereby
the murder of the possible, is replete throughout
history, by assuming Defoe's narrative, Tournier
has placed this fiction's description of perverse
structure in a postcolonial context.
Robinson's journey is toward an undifferentiated
state where he embodies the solar myth or merges
with the surface of the sky. Robinson's journey
takes him through the elements: he is delivered
to the island over water; he moves through the
earth in all its degrees from wallowing in the
mire with the peccaries to cultivate the earth,
and to curl into the island's deep cave:
He was suspended in a happy eternity.
Speranza was a fruit ripening in the sun whose
white and naked seed, embedded in a thousand thicknesses
of skin and husk and rind bore the name Robinson.
While enmeshed in the element of the earth,
Robinson slides between the realities of the island
and phantasms, memories, and reveries. Tournier's
organic metaphor of shedding and ripening, however,
does not designate generation or fertility. Instead,
Robinson acts incestuously to drain the island
of its life:
. . . he could not conceal from himself
the fact that although his own belly might be
filled with milk and honey, Speranza herself was
being exhausted by the monstrous maternal role
he had imposed upon her. (108-9, 113)
Robinson grows more than he can consume; in
fact, he creates prohibitions against consumption.
All his activity is directed toward accumulation.
His accumulation, however, is the consumption
of the entire island, which is the primary effect
of a colonial economy. Robinson transforms his
desire. He sees himself as both the agent of monstrous
Even worse, I came near to sullying
her with my semen. What hideous ripening might
not that living seed have produced, in the dark,
vast warmth of the cave? I think of Speranza swelling
like a loaf in which the yeast is working, her
bloated body spreading of the surface of the waters,
eventually to die in disgorging some monster of
incest. (109, 114)
--and, as the outcome of that hideous coupling,
he implicitly names himself as that "monster of
incest." Increasingly, his desire and his sexual
identity becomes undifferentiated and objectless.
Desire, language, and memory are all interwoven.
As desire loses its sexual energy in its course
toward an undifferentiated condition, words and
memories lose their energy. Writing in his journal,
Robinson expresses this solar desire, which will
separate himself from the world of others:
To say that my sexual desire is no
longer directed toward the perpetuation of the
species is not enough. It no longer knows what
its purpose is! For a long time memory was sufficiently
active in me to feed my imagination with objects
of desire, non- existent though they were. But
that is over now. Memory has been sucked dry.
The creatures of my imagination are lifeless shadows.
I may speak the words, woman, breasts, thighs,
thighs parted at my desire, but they mean nothing.
Words have lost their power; they are sounds,
no more. Does this mean that desire has died in
me for lack of use? Far from it! I still feel
within me that murmur of the spring of life, but
it has become objectless. Instead of flowing submissively
along the course set for it by society, it floods
out in all directions like the rays of a star,
as though in search of a channel, the course wherein
all the waters will be joined and flow together
toward a goal. (113, 118-9)
Robinson indicates that his journey is toward
some transcendent and imperial goal. A total,
celestial unity is his aspiration; instead of
integrating or submitting his desire to the demands
of society, his desire becomes over-arching, drawing
all desire into a radiating golden flood.
Robinson is his own interrogator. As he moves
from the identification with the elemental earth,
past the violent, regurgitative fire of Friday's
inadvertent explosion of the storage cave, to
his solar or airy identification, Robinson maintains
a rigorous self-examination. Aware that a "new
man seemed to be coming to life within him, wholly
alien to the practical administrator," Robinson
realized that he "must continue his labors, while
observing in himself the symptoms of his own metamorphosis"
(119, 125). While the text is deployed as two
narratives, one the diachronic, omniscient narrator
or analyst and the other being Robinson's journals,
the increasingly synchronic trace of the analysand,
what both narratives describe is Robinson's study
of the self's relationship to itself. This examination
of one's relationship to oneself, or what Foucault
has termed ethics, seeks to reveal "how the individual
is supposed to constitute himself as a moral subject
of his own actions" (228). This shift of emphasis
from the usual understanding of the study of ethics,
does not, as Arnold Davidson notes, deny the "importance
of either the moral code or the actual behavior
of people" (228). Robinson, in committing his
"Other-cide," creates an ethics which is solely
a rapport or discourse with himself. Furthermore,
this discourse is directed increasingly toward
what Foucault has termed telos, the final aspect
of four in his study of ethics contained in his
volumes of The History of Sexuality. Here, what
is of concern is what we aspire to be or what
our desired being might be. Robinson seeks to
ascend out of himself, time, and history: in his
apostrophe to the sun, Robinson pleads,
"O Sun, deliver me from the pull of
gravity! . . . O Sun, cause me to resemble Friday.
. . . But if my aeolian comrade draws me to himself,
O Sun, is it not that he may guide me toward you?
Sun, are you pleased with me? Look at me. Is my
transformation suffciently in the manner of your
own radiance?" (202-3, 217).
Friday's presence altered the arrangement of
power. Power, particularly after the explosion,
which destroyed Robinson's reconstruction of European
social and geographical organization, shifts from
judicial, economic, and disciplinary, to that
of the aspiration for ascension and the complete
annihilation of self and other. The subjection
of Friday, although never total, disappears after
the explosion. Friday emerges, for Robinson, as
his guide. However, it would be a mistake to see
Friday as a Virgilian mentor: Friday is Robinson's
mirror insofar as Robinson constructs that mirror.
Following his own desires and the wish to enter
the world of possibility that the Whitebird offered,
Friday is separate from Robinson's aspirations.
Ironically, it is Friday who compels Robinson
to maintain his journal, fashioning quills from
albatross feathers and ink from porcupine fish.
Though writing may have seemed to have been rendered
impotent, Friday recognizes that it is Robinson's
guide toward the condition he aspires to. The
logbook is increasingly synchronic, in that history
and time fuse into a single moment; the writing
is Friday's double, for it anchors Friday's image
in Robinson's imagination as his being-to-be:
He carries his body like a sovereign
affirmation, he bears himself like a monstrance
of flesh. His animal beauty proclaims itself,
seeming to create a nothingness around it. .....
He smiles at me and, raising his hand in a
gesture like that of an angel in a religious
painting, points to the sky, where the southwesterly
breeze is dispersing the clouds that have accumulated
during the past several days, to restore the
untrammeled reign of the sun. (206, 221)
Writing traces Robinson's aspiration toward
a solar subjection, where total submission is
demanded the sun's "all powerful majesty," whose
"golden weight" pressed on the expanse of sea
and island (171, 181). This solar reign transforms
Robinson: the intrusive landing of the sailing
vessel Whitebird inserted Robinson into the world
of possibility and history also returned him to
his age. Its departure returns him to his solar
idyll and to his own image of himself within that
solar reign: "The glowing light clad him in an
armor of unfading youth and set upon his head
a helmet flawlessly polished and a visor with
diamond eyes" (235, 254). At this moment, Robinson
is rendered completely inhuman, he has become
a "sun-god." Writing stops at his self-imaged
ascension; with the cessation of writing comes
the ending of our listening, for we (complicitous
with the omniscient narrator or analyst) cannot
hear the inhuman Robinson. The question of listening
and writing is central to Coetzee's Foe. Here,
as in Tournier's novel, Friday is the primary
figure, around which all else is defined or seeks
definition. Friday is most often portrayed as
having an animal vitality and playfulness; in
Tournier's fiction the image of the noble savage
is completely assumed by Robinson. Tournier's
novel depicts the production of colonial identity
in terms of perversion and the economy of desire:
"It is always in relation to the place of the
Other," Bhabha writes, "that colonial desire is
articulated: the phantasmic space of possession
that one subject can singly or fixedly occupy,
and therefore permits the inversion of roles"
(44). Tournier's Robinson reads Friday much as
he reads the random passages of the bible for
self-illumination. Coetzee's Friday, however,
ironically disallows the production of identity
or it takes place only with its futility fully
evident. As Richard Begam has argued, in Foe Coetzee
"seeks to represent the unrepresented as unrepresented,
to show precisely the necessity of enabling them
to represent themselves"; in so doing, this is
"a novel whose postmodernism is ultimately pressed
into the service of its postcolonialism" (125).
In Foe, writing is depicted as a means of gaining
power, either to exert subjection or to elude
it, and thus to be able to represent one's identity.
Friday and Foe are parallel but independent figures
from whom Susan Barton seeks her own identity.
Foe occupies a position of apparent power as he
is situated in the rising dominant literary economy
of journalism and the novel. Even so, Foe is besieged
by creditors, forcing him into hiding and furtive
movements. In so portraying Foe, Coetzee has made
any salvation he could offer Barton ironic. What
Barton seeks cannot be maintained in the literary
economy Foe participates in: her narrative will
be erased for there is no means of representing
it from his position. Barton asserts that writing
requires and insists upon truth: to Captain Smith's
comment that the bookseller's (a conflation of
the author and the publisher) "trade is in books,
not in truth," Barton replies "If I cannot come
forward, as author, and swear to the truth of
my tale, what will be the worth of it? I might
as well have dreamed it in a snug bed in Chichester"
(40). Barton implicitly is caught between veracity
and art: she recognizes that her narrative, as
spoken, "passes the time well enough," but fears
"its charm will quite vanish when it is set down
baldly in print" (40).
Barton distrusts the written word. In the remarkable
exchange between Barton and Foe, she argues that
"Letters are the mirrors of words. Even when we
seem to write in silence, our writing is the manifest
of a speech spoken within ourselves or to ourselves"
(142). Foe responds that "Writing is not doomed
to be the shadow of speech" and that indeed "May
it not be that God continually writes the world,
the world and all that is in it?" (142-3). It
is that Barton insists on listening, and that
there would thus be an authentic narrative to
be recounted, that in part determines her imprisonment
to what will never be heard: her daughter's fate
and Friday's story. In turn, insisting on authentic
speech imprisons others, such as Friday, to Barton's
prescribed discipline. Of course the opposite--some
form of inauthetic speech or writing--offers no
hope. The problem lies the very positing of the
notion of authentic speech and the implicit oppositional
dynamics that term evokes.
Truth is, however, only a commodity for Barton.
The truth of Crusoe's life on the island is locked
in Friday, as is the truth of his mutilated condition.
While Barton is engaged in recovering a narrative
of the island prior to her arrival, this narrative
is analogous to the harvests of gold and souls
desired by Europeans in their conquest of the
new world. Although Barton protects Friday from
falling into the hands of slave-traders--albeit
her credulity is the cause--Friday remains in
her thrall in as much for his being her possession
as for her concern for his safety. Friday is seen
by Barton as an obdurate innocent whose origin
is simply Africa. Friday, however, holds Barton
enthralled, hence she cannot release herself from
him. Barton's reading of Friday is not sufficient;
she realizes that her representation of him remains
incomplete. Coetzee, however, suggests that no
representation can describe Friday--unless it
is Friday's own. Barton's desire for obtaining
Friday's identity amounts to her own colonization
of Friday's body and soul. Indeed, Foe reveals
this: "We deplore the barbarism of whoever maimed
him, yet have we, his later masters, not reason
to be secretly grateful? For as long as he is
dumb we can tell ourselves his desires are dark
to us, and continue to use him as we wish" (148).
Foe succinctly describes the cynicism of the metropolitan
ethos of the postcolonial period.
Coetzee's fiction suggests that any description
of colonial power must be cited in the immediate
locale and in the intimate relations of individuals.
Barton herself reveals this in her journal-like
letters to Foe: "To tell my story and be silent
on Friday's tongue is no betters than offering
a book for sale with pages in it quietly left
empty. Yet the only tongue that can tell Friday's
secret is the tongue he has lost!" (67). Coetzee
has placed Barton in the middle of writing; her
voice has no historical context as recognized
by the dominant culture, compared to Crusoe's
or Foe's. Nor does she have a legacy: her search
for her stolen daughter is fruitless; the child
who claims her as her mother is a chimera. There
is no writing after Barton, that is she does not
initiate or inspire a tradition; instead her discourse
disappears into the text of Crusoe's story. The
struggle for representation is a linguistic and
aesthetic one--as Foe states,
You err most tellingly in failing to
distinguish between my silences and the silences
of a being such as Friday. Friday has no command
of words and therefore no defence against being
re-shaped day by day in conformity with the desires
of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes
a cannibal; I say he is a laundryman and he becomes
a laundryman. What is the truth of Friday? You
will respond: he is neither cannibal nor laundryman,
these are mere names, they do not touch his essence,
he is a substantial body, he is himself, Friday
is Friday. But that is not so. No matter what
he is to himself (is he anything to himself?--how
can he tell us?), what he is to the world is what
I make of him. Therefore the silence of Friday
is a helpless silence. He is the child of his
silence, a child unborn, a child waiting to be
born that cannot be born. (121-22)
Foe's power is that he shapes the discourse
and forms of representation. Those accorded no
recognized place in the culture--indeed Barton
and Friday are literally transients in England--are
represented or silenced by those like Foe; their
social position is formed by the possibilities
of discourse: as those possibilities are foreclosed
and severed, they become increasingly positionless.
Thus the aesthetic discourse informs and merges
with the economic and political.
Each of these works of Coetzee, Tournier, and
Bishop is an anti-pastoral. As anti-pastorals,
the landscapes of these works are never humanized
and subdued, that is rendered into simple, peaceful
and productive gardens. Tournier's Robinson parodies
pastoral productivity in his obsessive accumulation
and prohibitions against consumption. His cultivation
of the island is disciplinarian and panoptic,
suggestive of expansionist projects. His ethical
telos is an escape from Speranza's elements of
earth and water, ascending instead into the abstracted
solar identity of air and fire. Robinson does
not so much pervert the idea of utopia but shows
the perversion inherent in utopian thinking.
In Bishop's poem, Crusoe reflects that his island
was "a sort of cloud-dump," the landscape was
pocked with "fifty-two / miserable, small volcanoes
I could climb / with a few slithery strides,"
and the "whole place hissed." Indeed, this island
is ruled by the sounds of Eden's serpent. In its
desolation, Crusoe finds it claustrophobic, his
very language is repetitive and imploding:
glittering hexagon of rollers
closing and closing in, but never quite,
glittering and glittering, though the sky
was mostly overcast.
Upon Crusoe's return to England, however, he
finds his life and England desiccated: implicit
in his lament of Friday's death is the desire
for the nostalgic return to their shared idyll.
Crusoe's brief description of Friday evokes a
pastoral innocence: "He'd pet the baby goats sometimes,
/ and race with them, or carry one around." With
Friday, the island becomes hospitable and perhaps
Edenic. Crusoe, however, is unable to break the
silence about his relationship with Friday--like
the silence surrounding their homosexual love,
the silence surrounding the island as a site of
their idyll suggests that any Edenic vision or
return is unspeakable. Bishop, furthermore does
not suggest that the labor of cultivation was
central, rather the labor of desire and love re-presented
the island to Crusoe and (Friday we are to presume).
This re-presentation shifts the defining features
of the pastoral and renders it unrepresentable.
Teresa Dovey describes Coetzee's novels as "atopias"
or drifting habitations (qtd. Barnard, 38), a
term derived from Roland Barthes, who defines
it in contrast to utopia, which is "reactive,
tactical literary, it proceeds from meaning and
governs it" (49). Bishop's and Tournier's islands
are also "atopias" in that they are unanchored
representations--their meaning drifts: the island
is never a defined topography. Human desire and
memory change that topography; yet how do we read
these topographies? The island's topography vanishes
below the sky's horizon for Tournier's Robinson.
For Bishop's Crusoe eros transforms the island
he perceived as excremental--"The island smelled
of goat and guano"--an island that spawned nightmares
of infinitely dividing, propagating islands. Eros
remains unwritable; it is the gap in Crusoe's
language or in the means Cursoe has to represent
eros outside its conventional form or its generic
In the narrative of Foe, the island was the
original prison, for Barton initially could desire
nothing but her escape from it. But in time, Barton
nostalgizes the island and desires to return for
it would, she believes, complete or fill in the
lacunae in the narrative that is otherwise silent
about Friday's mutilation. As she nostalgizes
the island and the dead Crusoe, the island reveals
that her condition of imprisonment extends from
the island and implicitly predates her arrival
on the island. Barton finds herself moving through
a series of maze-like enclosures that are architectural
in their physical and narrative structures. Encamped
in one of Foe's houses, she tells Friday that
"In Mr. Foe's house there are many mansions."
These "mansions," however, are the place for cast-offs:
"There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and
pirates and whores to join our menagerie" (77).
Barton explicitly inhabits a Foucauldian "carceral
archipelago" where punitive techniques are transported
"from the penal institution to the entire social
body" (298). Each place she has inhabited has
been a prison where she labors and is interrogated.
In her series of letters to Foe, Barton remarks
that "the life we lead grows less and less distinct
from the life we led on Cruso's island. Sometimes
I wake up not knowing where I am. The world is
full of islands, said Cruso once. His words ring
truer every day" (71).
The possibility of the garden, figured as an
Edenic site, becomes impossible in each of these
three works. Indeed, Barton, like Friday, labored
on Crusoe's barren stone terraces, which she remarked
would one day be misinterpreted as the "ruins
of a cannibal city, from the golden age of the
cannibals" (54-55). This ceaseless labor, done
only to satisfy Crusoe's belief in the eventual
arrival of salvation in the form of someone bearing
a sack of corn to sow, supplements the labor of
Friday in the ruined gardens of Foe's house. As
Friday ekes out a harvest of beans and carrots,
it might be said that he "keeps alive 'the idea
of gardening' almost by its negation: the idea
of plenty through starvation, the idea of self-affirmation
in self-erasure," as Rita Bernard writes of K
in The Life and Times of Michael K (53). If the
gardens of language, of eros, and of life are
subject of depletion and abandonment or perceived
to be barren or constitute forms of confinement
in the depictions of the island(s) in Bishop's,
Tournier's, and Coetzee's works, Walcott may offer
a differing view.
Walcott's figure of Crusoe is part of his more
embracing figure of the castaway, which includes
such characters of his as Shabine (from "The Schooner
Flight") and Omeros. Walcott's poems enact the
profound schism defining postcolonial literature:
while the poems create a new language, they also
demonstrate a profound unease with the position
of the colonial. In the poem "The Castaway," Walcott
invokes a mythic creative power:
If I listen I can hear the polyp build,
The silence thwanged by two waves of the sea.
Cracking a sea-louse, I make thunder split. (58)
The castaway, is however, condemned to solitude
so vast the building of coral reefs can be heard.
The castaway, or implicitly the colonial, is left
at the extreme periphery, longing for transport
toward the center: "The starved eye devours the
seascape for the morsel / Of a sail." The dilemma
Walcott examines is that of creating a postcolonial
voice from the traditions left by the colonial
powers. Because of circumstances of history, Walcott
does not belong expressly to the metropolitan
center, as once could argue that Tournier, Bishop,
and Coetzee do, though by increasingly lesser
While all of these writers belong very much to
the center of international literary interests
should not be overlooked, it is Walcott that is
attempting the affirming task of re-visioning
language. Whereas the narrative of Crusoe provides
the frame for the critique of the self in Bishop,
Coetzee. and Tournier, Walcott finds in the figure
of Crusoe the image of the castaway who must make
anew from the shipwrecks of cultures.
Furthermore, the island itself is the source
of language rather than a place to be drained
of resources. While the narrative of the poem
"The Castaway" depicts debilitating isolation
and the meanness of survival, the poem's language
expresses aesthetic richness, concision, and power
that transcends the narrative's expression of
Walcott's two poems that explicitly evoke Crusoe,
"Crusoe's Island" and "Crusoe's Journal," find
in Crusoe a didactic, that is instructional, figure.
Walcott writes in "Crusoe's Journals," that
from this house
that faces nothing but the sea, his journals
assume a household use;
we learn to shape from them, where nothing was
the language of a race (94)
While Walcott sees the postcolonial writer as
forming new languages, Walcott also does not fail
to consider the ironic reversals in this absorption
of past dominant cultures into a new culture,
into good Fridays who recite His praise,
parroting our master's
style and voice, we make his language ours,
we learn with him to eat the flesh of Christ.
It is this absorption of voices and styles,
of languages and cultures, that marks the translational
and transnational postcolonial vision that is
Walcott's. Nothing loses its history; thus irony
coincides with a language of transformation.
Walcott insists on the primacy of human community.
That Coetzee cannot represent the possibility
of a just and shared human community (that Friday
is mute) implies the significance and necessity
of such a community. That Bishop does not find
for Crusoe the words to express eros again suggests
the necessity of forming the means to share in
eros. Tournier's Robinson turns away from the
shared space of community, transfiguring himself
into a golden but frightening abstraction. Walcott
celebrates human presence, but sees in art only
the most limited ways of expressing it, as at
the close of "Crusoe's Island":
Now Friday's progeny,
The brood of Crusoe's slave,
Black little girls in pink
Walk in their air of glory
Beside a breaking wave;
Below their feet the surf
Hisses like tambourines.
At dusk, when they return
For vespers, every dress
Touched by the sun will burn
A seraph's, an angel's,
And nothing I can learn
From art or loneliness
Can bless them as the bell's
Transfiguring tongue can bless. (72)
Rather than portraying the postcolonial condition
in terms of subversion and transgression, Walcott
establishes the right to signify and the right
to one's presentness. Human community, where there
is a solidarity among ethnicities, is the postcolonial
desire, as suggested in such poems of Walcott's
as "Names" or "The Schooner Flight" or Omeros.
Against this vision of community is Crusoe's fate,
where isolation--that of the castaway, elite,
or the separatist-- "sent him howling for a human
voice / ... / his own brain rotting from the guilt
/ Of heaven without his kind" (69).
If Coetzee presents the difficulty--if not impossibility--to
present the colonial other and instead focuses
upon the mutilation of the other, then Walcott
offers a the voice of that other. Tournier presents
a radical theory of the abnegation of self and
other, where the world collapses into a single
spatial and temporal point. Robinson has radically
misread Friday, hence Friday flees. Bishop offers
a differing view of Crusoe: her poem must be read
transgressively so as to reveal its commentary
on sexuality and desire. Like Walcott, she finds
in Crusoe's narrative a way of questioning herself.
Yet, her Crusoe cannot find a language to express
himself openly; only Walcott begins an exultation,
for as he writes in The Antilles, the writer "finds
himself a witness to the early morning of a culture
that is defining itself, branch by branch, leaf
by leaf. . . . This is the benediction that is
celebrated, a fresh language and a fresh people,
and this is the frightening duty owed."
Note 1) Ian Glenn
(in his "Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and the
Politics of Interpretation." South Atlantic
Quarterly. 93, 1 (1994): 11-32.) offers a
clear description of Coetzee's position within
South African literary and academic circles, his
international position, and his social position,
all of which place him as an outsider.
Barnard, Rita. "Dream Topographies: J. M. Coetzee
and the South African Pastoral." South Atlantic
Quarterly 93, 1 (1994): 33- 58.
Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland
Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York:
Hill and Wang, 1977.
Begam, Richard. "Silence and Mut(e)ilation:
White Writing in J. M. Coetzee's Foe." South
Atlantic Quarterly 93, 1 (1994): 111-30.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture.
London: Routledge, 1994.
Bishop, Elizabeth. Geography III. New
York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976.
Coetzee, J. M. Foe. New York: Viking,
Davis, Colin. "Michel Tournier's Vendredi ou
les limbes du Pacifique: A Novel of Beginnings."
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Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense.
Ed. Constantin V. Boundas. Trans. Mark Lester.
New York: Columbia UP, 1990.
Davidson, Arnold. "Archaeology, Genealogy, Ethics."
Foucault: A Critical Reader. Ed. David
Couzens Hoy. New York: Blackwell, 1986. 221-233.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish:
The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage,
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth
Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell.
New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.
Macaskill, Brian. "Charting J. M. Coetzee's
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Tournier, Michel. Friday. Trans. Norman
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_________. Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique.
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Walcott, Derek. Collected Poems: 1948-1984.
New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.
__________. The Antilles: Fragments of Epic
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