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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Islands and utopias, Johnson's Scotland, Crusoe with his animals and a dollop of Austen

I devoted a post to the first of four papers in this panel from the College English Association conference, on ekphrastic representations of Inkle and Yarico: here I do a quick overview of the other three fine papers.

    Utopia and Utopias

    David Macey discussed More's Utopia as having created the utopian genre. More used Plato as a model, as well as Lucian's materialist cosmology based on inversion: eg, gold and silver are used to make chamberpots, sheep attack people and ambassadors from other lands are mistaken for slaves. Macey said that More shows in his work (book II) an island with no private property, and that More critiques problems such as enclosure (which is the privatizing of the public)  but More also accepts forced labor or coercion in which the slaves work harder because they are "used to it." Macey argued this set a precedent used to justify real world exploitation of colonial people seen as "other." (Austen depicts this in Mansfield Park when it is acceptable to the two sisters, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, to overwork the poor relation Fanny, from Portsmouth, an island (!),  by having her cut roses in the hot sun, work they won't do themselves because of the heat).

Utopia is an island

Macey cited Carlo Ginzberg, Russell Jacoby, Ruth Levitas and Frederick Jameson as he traced utopias in their shift from a physically distant place to an interior space (Defoe,) then to a visualized future, and finally, in our era, to the science fiction genre in which utopias have moved to other galaxies. He urged thinking beyond dystopic/utopian dichotomies, arguing that both genres are premised on societies built on coercion and exploited labor (we can argue if that is true or not). He questioned whether dystopias are "blinkering us" or a "way of enlightenment." Macey encouraged thinking that transcends trying to create either a dystopia or utopia but instead to focus on imaginatively creating better worlds without reference to either category. This talk was valuable in the richness of its sources and in inviting argument and debate about both its premises and conclusions.

On to Johnson's Scotland

In another talk, "Visualizing Johnson's Scotland," Robert Lowe McManus used slides to help us visualize the embodied experience of Johnson's tour of Scotland in contrast to how it was caricatured in the popular press. Johnson was notorious for deriding Scotland, so when he travelled there in his 60s, the journey was widely ridiculed. McManus argued that rather than the easy time depicted in the press, Johnson scrambled up rocks, visited caves, and embraced a tough journey in difficult physical world in order to fully experience the country. At times he travelled by boat to distant areas, which was easier than overland travel, but also more dangerous. He expressed surprise at experiences of nature he had not before encountered, and was depressed by ruins he saw, understood sorrow as part of humanity, and compared the present with the loss of a greater past. He also imagined what it might be like to live on an island and visited the Isle of Skye, interesting to me both because I have been there and because Woolf set To the Lighthouse there.

Johnson toured Tobermory on the Isle of Mull in the Scottish Inner Hebrides/

Robison Crusoe and animals

  In this talk, Alan Chalmers asserted that animal studies in English literature has elevated Robinson Crusoe to greater interest.
   Enlightenment thinkers, determined to reconceptualize  human-animal relationships, challenged Descartes' reduction of animals to mindless automatons.
     Defoe offers complex and sympathetic reactions to animals,  and in Robinson Crusoe puts pressure on abstract distinctions between human and animals. In Crusoe, animal and human relationships are crucial, Chalmers says. Crusoe himself enters into relationship with animals, needing them for companionship in his isolated situation, but he also establishes an animal hierarchy based on utility.
     For Crusoe, compassion and empathy come into conflict with his desire to exploit the animals. For Crusoe, exploitation wins. (Though Chalmers did not mention this, the outcome is strikingly similar to the Inkle and Yarico story.)
   Chalmers argued that the goat in Crusoe is central to the Oedipal drama of the novel, for the goat  dies like Crusoe's father, and Crusoe actually buries the goat.
    Chalmers spoke of de Quincy writing about Crusoe, and notes that to James Joyce, Crusoe was a true symbol of British conquest. Virginia Woolf, who was sympathetic to the novel, wrote that we must see world through Defoe's ideological lens: Crusoe's island allows us to see the essential solitude of the human soul.
  As an added note, the link we can't help but see between Crusoe moving to exploit his animals and Inkle exploiting Yarico, an "alien" woman, leads once again to condemning denigrating animals and more particularly, to a condemnation of denigrating women through calling them animals names, such as pigs and cows, which at least one of our esteemed leaders has been known to do. As animals are treated with greater respect, so too women.
  I am trying to remember animals in Jane Austen's novels. Charlotte seems to find more solace in her hens than her husband, and Mrs. Norris keeps fowls for profit, naturally. Lady Bertram's pugs are as seemingly purposeless as she is. Horses provide useful services, and men, of course, hunt.

Crusoe with his animals--and Friday.


  1. Thank you for this. More has harsh punishments in his Utopia, including (in effect) enslaving people who will not give up their intense competitive aggressive norms or patriarchal rights. Unfashionable though this is, I'll say if you want a state or condition of society where the most rapacious are controlled, and norms are inculcated which are egalitarian and non-competitive, coercion is unavoidable. There is an irreducible percentage of people who will behave like pests (this is in More) and even worse a large percentage of people who might be led to admire them. Very quickly after communism fell in the Soviet Union, the place was run over by gangster types. There is one in charge right now.

    I so much appreciated the piece on Johnson. I wish I had been there. It is one of the dreams of my life to go to the Hebrides.

    I could never get myself to finish Crusoe. I did try for a paper on animals in Trollope and was dismayed to discover how indifferent to animals he was -- far worse could be said of his defense of hunting. We could excuse Austen on similar grounds - an hard view of life itself, but by the 1790s the movement for decent treatment of animals as a principle partly spread by the spread of keeping animals as pets had begun.

  2. Thanks Ellen. I think of how governments do have to be strict to establish justice or equality as a norm.

  3. I wish I could have heard the paper on Johnson. I read Boswell's book of the Scotland tour years ago. It sounds from this paper like it was quite a fascinating adventure. I am skeptical that Johnson meant what he said to deride Scotland - I think it was just his blustery way. I remember in reading his autobiography that there is speculation that he was a Jacobite and supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie at heart - people have even theorized he may have gone to Culloden to fight though I find that doubtful.

  4. Thanks Tyler. I have not read the Scotland book but may be tempted to crack it open now.