Friday, March 25, 2011

Bill Bell's essay "Selkirk's silence"

In his TLS March 18 2011 Commentary piece, Bill Bell explains the vast institutional apparatus established by the early nineteenth century--supported by religious interests, government agencies and philanthropic organizations--whose sole purpose was to instruct and enlighten the British colonial reader. He disagrees, however, with postcolonial critics like Elleke Boehmer who argues that the British Empire was "essentially a homogeneous textual exercise" [Bell's words]. Instead, he points to the subtle but significance resistance put up by individual colonial readers writing in their journals or putting together their libraries.

He quotes Nicholas Jose writing on the presence of highbrow literary texts in the Australian bush library at Borroloola in the late nineteenth century:

The library encapsulates both a time and a place. It demonstrates the ties that bound the British Empire and the English-speaking world together. . . . I thought of the books as physical objects, and the journey of those productions of ink, paper, stitching and glue across the seas to a fate of tropical humidity and desiccating sun and vermiculation, where they surely appeared both familiar and strange, as message sticks to be deciphered, deconstructed, digested and dissolved.

The key here is "both familiar and strange." To focus solely on the familiarity of these texts is to forget the dislocation experienced by colonial reader. To emphasize on the texts' strangeness merely is to ignore "the ties that bound." The experience is, instead, both familiar and strange. Bill Bell's description of the abandonment and rescue of Alexander Selkirk, the man on whom Defoe based Crusoe, also gives me an idea for re-writing my poem "Friday Speaks," a response to Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England." Here is Bell's description:

When a British privateer put in at Juan Fernandez Island in September 1704, neither the captain nor the young crewman whom he was soon to maroon there could have anticipated the far-reaching implications of his action. Following a dispute between the two men, Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor and fugitive from the law, was abandoned against his protestations on the edge of the known world where he would languish in isolation for the next four years.

Contrary to later fictionalized accounts, there is evidence to suggest that before long Selkirk's sojourn on the island degenerated into squalor. So complete was his degradation, observes one recent commentator, that Selkirk was soon copulating with the island's wild goats and defecating where he stood. Four years of brutalization would take its toll in other ways: the captain who found him in January of 1709 reported that Selkirk had lost the power of speech, traumatized into silence. Having "so much forgot his Language for want of Use", wrote Woodes Rogers, "we could scarce understand him, for he seem'd to speak his words by halves". Speechless, unshaven and unwashed, Selkirk's appearance so confused the sailors who found him that they mistook him for a rare hybrid species, and most probably a cannibal.

The brutalized Selkirk, nearly reduced to an animal. is missing from Defoe's tale, and therefore from subsequent uses of Defoe, such as Bishop's poem. My idea is to put him back into the story, the unspeakable reality behind the articulate fictions of Crusoe and Friday.

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