Throwing off the shackles of colonialism?

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Throwing off the shackles of colonialism?

Continuities and discontinuities from Daniel Defoe's literary work to Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has been widely discussed as a key example of 18th century British and – in the wider sense – European colonial writing that confirms the supremacy of Western culture while stressing transcultural desires and fears. Of particular interest is the relationship between Crusoe and Friday, which has been highlighted as a ‘paradigmatic colonial encounter’ (Said 1991). However, in some of the more contemporary ‘Robinson stories’ that follow in the footsteps of Defoe’s novel, the traditional cultural encounter between the civilized Self and the primitive Other has been omitted, and Zemeckis’s Hollywood movie Cast Away is a good example of this tendency.

Focusing on Cast Away, this study explores 1) how far the omission of this encounter leads to a break with colonial dichotomies, and 2) which aspects of colonial discourse continue to be widely disseminated via Hollywood productions. By linking psychological research with postcolonial and transcultural theory, it amends current film analysis and interpretations of contemporary “robinsonades” (e.g. Ingram 2001, Weaver-Hightower 2007 and 2006) while critically interrogating popular perspectives on transculturality and globalization (such as Welsch 1999). In particular, the essay reveals that, despite the loss of the encounter, a revision of traditional individualism and a certain dose of filmic parody, the neo-colonial capitalist identity promoted in the movie remains very much in line with Defoe’s colonial paradigm.

1. Robinson Crusoe, early ‘robinsonades’ and the teaching of colonial capitalism

Said argues that ‘the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging’ constitutes one of the main connections between culture and imperialism (1993: xiii), and one could argue that in this regard he draws quite significantly on links between military power and cultural exploitation in European colonialism that Fanon outlined well before him:

Expropriation, spoliation, raids, objective murder, are matched by the sacking of cultural patterns, or at least condition such sacking. The social panorama is destructured; values are flaunted, crushed, emptied (Fanon 1967: 33).

In this sense, Torres-Saillant summarises European literature as part of an ‘intellectual industry of the West’ (2006: 3) which has significantly contributed to the exclusion of other cultures, and Chow reminds us that for many colonized subjects ‘to globalize’ frequently means ‘to subordinate, derogate, or extinguish one’s native language, culture, and history, in order to accommodate those of the West’ (2001: 69). In the context of this wider postcolonial discussion of Western literature, it is worth remembering that the popular narrative character Robinson Crusoe has been regarded by James Joyce in his Defoe lectures as the ‘prototype’ of the British colonist: ‘The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty; the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity” (Joyce 1964: 24f.). Said regards him similarly as an expression of British eighteen century bourgeois ideology (1993: 84), and Tiffin observes an attempt at ‘”fixing” relations between Europe and its “others”, of establishing patterns of reading alterity’ that inscribe the essential, homogenous and separatist nature of that Otherness, therefore ‘naturalizing “difference” within its own cognitive codes’ (1987: 23). The story of the shipwrecked English Crusoe, who manages to cultivate a desert island, culminates in the relationship established between him and native Friday, which has been described as ‘the paradigmatic colonial encounter’ (Said 1991: 176), a view very much enhanced by Rousseau when he establishes a ‘natural’ link between childhood, education and colonialism when recommending Robinson Crusoe as the only book worth reading for a child (2007: 159). Friday is here presented as the innocent but ignorant and primitive savage who is in desperate need of patriarchal protection and guidance by the civilised European. Consequently, Crusoe teaches him ‘everything that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful’ (Defoe 2001: 222), and in so doing, imprisons him in colonial discourse, quite comparable to Prospero’s education of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and the teaching of Friday in George Conquest and Henry Spry’s pantomime Robinson Crusoe, the lad rather loose o’ and the black man called Friday, who kept his house tidy (1885). Behind this idea, one has to imagine the construct of a progressive Europe as ‘maker of history’ versus a stagnating Other, which Blaut summarises as follows:

Europe eternally advances, progresses, modernises. The rest of the world advances more sluggishly, or stagnates: it is a “traditional society”. Therefore, the world has a permanent geographical centre and permanent periphery: an Inside and an Outside. Inside leads, Outside lags. Inside innovates, Outside imitates (1993: 1).

This nurtures the assumption of Western superiority within which differences between other cultures are reduced or negated in the image of one single inferior Other,1 while the need for European leadership tends to be made explicit in images of a relationship between parents and children, men and women, or even master and slave – as in Robinson Crusoe.2 Long before the European-native encounter, there are, however, also other aspects that legitimate Crusoe’s imperial ambitions and they seem to have survived even in those Robinson stories which abandon the construction of a ‘willing’ native slave who subjugates and annihilates his (or her) self. A key element is, right from the start of his life on the supposedly empty island, Robinson’s capability of filling that emptiness by cultivating its nature. Thanks to the ‘tools of civilization’ he has left on his ship, he is not only able to fabricate his own house, but he learns how to domesticate animals and grow plants that are of use to him. In other words, he can convert the seemingly useless island into a useful and meaningful resource by domesticating nature to serve (his) specific purposes. As such, the first encounter between civilization and savagery is not reported in the Crusoe-Friday episode but much earlier and more in detail, when supposedly civilised Crusoe sets foot on the ‘wild’ island. The favourable conditions of the island further enhance Crusoe’s colonial desire: moved by the curiosity of discovering the unknown sides of the island he wants to fully possess, he organises several excursions and, eventually, builds other houses for a better control of the whole space.

This links back to Crusoe’s past as a successful English landowner and businessman, which he as first person narrator outlines quite early in the novel:

My goods being all English manufacture, such as cloths, stuffs, baize, and things particularly valuable and desirable in that country, I found means to sell them to a very great advantage; so that I may say I had more than four times the value of my first cargo, and was now infinitely beyond my poor neighbour – I mean in the advancement of my plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a negro slave, and an European servant also (Defoe 2001: 47).

Key to success is, both in England and on the island, Crusoe’s individualism, which reflects the values of 18th century English society and, probably even more, contemporary post-industrial cultures, a tendency that could be seen as a reason for Defoe’s unbroken popularity. Watt describes the novel very explicitly in terms of economic individualism when arguing that Crusoe reduces everything to his financial advantage (1997: 152), and Hulme supports that link in his exploration of the capitalist ‘adventurer’ (1986: 184). Admittedly, Crusoe’s individualism is not the same as the 21st century variations in contemporary Hollywood Robinson-style protagonists, and a major difference can be found in his religious attitude: unlike Noland in Cast Away and Richard in The Beach, Crusoe prays, reads the Bible and thanks God for the food he has cultivated. However, as Watt points out, his religion is certainly individualist in a Protestant sense in so far as it mirrors the believer’s concentration on God’s intentions: while the sacramental side of the church is non-existent (1997: 162), Crusoe asks for God’s support in his everyday life, and the benefits he receives – supposedly thanks to his religiousness – encourage him to instruct Friday ‘in the knowledge of the true God’ (Defoe 2001: 229).

Since its first publication in 1719 Robinson Crusoe has been translated into most written languages and reedited in different forms to address a widest possible range of readers from early childhood to adulthood, but it has also triggered an enormous amount of narrative stories that reinvent Crusoe’s adventure. As early as 1731, German novelist Johann Gottfried Schnabel coined the term ‘robinsonade’ in the preface to his own Robinson story, The Island Felsenburg (Die Insel Felsenburg 1828 [1731]), to summarise the heterogeneous group of castaway successors to Crusoe that ‘not only reproduce the narrative elements of shipwreck/misadventure and survival in a remote location, but that reiterate, amplify, or contest the major ideological formation elaborated in the original’ (O’ Malley 2007). William Rufus Chetwood’s The voyage, dangerous adventures, and the imminent escapes of Captain Richard Falconer (1720) is probably the first example of such a robinsonade, followed by the more popular The Hermit: or, the unparalleled sufferings and surprising adventures of Mr. Philip Quarll, an Englishman (1727) by Peter Longueville. During the 18th century, the spread of the robinsonade was frequently linked to their presumed ‘authenticity’, but that aspect became less important in the 19th century (O’ Malley 2007), which led to a much wider variety including work as diverse as Johann Wyss’s The Swiss family Robinson (1800), Frederick Marryat’s The Children of the new forest (1847), Robert Michael Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858), and Jules Verne’s The mysterious island (1875). Outside the mainstream robinsonade, one can find female Crusoes like Charles Dibdin's Hannah Hewitt (1792), a novel which alongside its successors in Germany, Britain, France and the Netherlands has been a focus of feminist criticism, and there are also animal stories like Ballantyne‘s Dog Crusoe: a Tale of the Western Prairies (1862). The popularity of these works has been such that quite a number made their way into films: after the first cinematic versions of the original story (Les aventures de Robinson Crusoé by Méliès 1902, Robinson Crusoe by Blom 1910, followed by Turner 1913 and Marion 1916), Christy Cabanne draws on Hannah Hewitt for the production of Miss Robinson Crusoe (1917), and Marryat’s Little Savage (1848) serves as inspiration for Carol Reed’s Mr. Midshipman Easy (1935). Several other Robinson Crusoe films follow, and there are by now more than 20 filmic versions of the original story, never mind the robinsonades.

Despite all their differences, most of these Robinson stories share the over-arching theme of domesticity of the ‘savage’ and ‘inferior’ Other by an assumed civilised and superior Self. Whenever that Other is brought to life, be it via a native – like Friday in Defoe’s work – or an animal like the orang-utan in The mysterious island, there is usually a teaching process involved. After all, as Blaut states: ‘Non-Europeans […] were seen […] as more or less childlike [who] could be brought to adulthood, to rationality, to modernity, through a set of learning experiences, mainly colonial’ (1993: 96). However, the Other can also simply consist of the uncultivated and ‘pre-civilised’ nature, which – in this perspective – only achieves significance with its conversion to cultivated land, meaning its value is predominantly measured in terms of its usefulness for the white and supposedly civilised European shipwrecked. The link to European colonialism is in all cases quite explicit, which can be related to the fact that most of them are from the 19th or early 20th century, when the British and French colonial empires reached their maximum expansion and, with it, comes a link to capitalist structures, because – as Mignolo convincingly elaborates3 – colonialism and the capitalism of modern history have to be regarded as mutually supportive and interdependent rather than mutually exclusive. However, at the same time, Robinson Crusoe and many other early castaway stories include critical interrogations of the patterns of thought that support the colonial and capitalist enterprises of their time, and particularly these “subtexts” – which remain largely unexplored by Joyce and Said – are further developed in late 20th and early 21st century robinsonades, including Cast Away.

2. Contemporary ‘robinsonades’

Without any doubt, WW II marks an important watershed for narrative developments in the robinsonades, as now much darker Robinson stories emerge that emphasise the brutality of colonialism and Anglo-Saxon ‘civilization’. A good example for that tendency is William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies (1954), which can be regarded as an aggressive parody of The Coral Island. Unlike the traditional success story of civilization, Golding’s work highlights the failures of a human order imposed on a deserted island by a group of British schoolboys. Written amidst fears of an impending nuclear conflict during Cold War times, the title’s reference to the Hebrew name for Satan sums up very provocatively the process of human descent into savagery by exploring how well-educated children are perfectly capable of regressing to a primitive condition when left unsupervised and guided primarily by an individual will to power and emotional ‘groupthink’. With some delay, the book became a bestseller by the early 1960s and then also formed the basis for Peter Brook’s and Harry Hook’s cinematic versions (in 1963 and 1990 respectively). More recent critical Robinson stories include Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter (1985), in which Crusoe appears as a Native American medicine woman. Apart from such ‘First World’ responses to the traditional robinsonade, there is the ‘writing back’ by authors from the former colonial ‘periphery’, such as Caribbean Derek Walcott (Pantomime 1980), Afro-Martinican Aime Césare (A Tempest 1985), South African John Maxwell Coetzee (Foe 1986) and Canadian-Cherokee Thomas King (Green Grass, Running Water 1993), to name just a few. They elaborate on key themes deriving from Robinson Crusoe, such as ethnic diversity (e.g. between Crusoe and Friday in Pantomime), racial conflict (between Prospero and his slaves Ariel and Caliban in A Tempest), language and power (via tongueless Friday and frustrated writers in Foe) and the native American search for identity (via tricksters like native American Crusoe in Green Grass, Running Water).

However, rather than entering into a detailed exploration of such works, to some of which there is already an ample bibliography available, it should here be sufficient to indicate that a lot of their criticism draws on the weaknesses of Defoe’s protagonist that lead our attention to what I would call “subtexts” in Robinson Crusoe. Hulme is probably the first in elaborating in detail on the ambiguity of the decomposition mechanisms of Crusoe’s identity, a process that highlights the subversive character of the protagonist’s radical individualism vis-à-vis European colonial discourse. Clearly, Crusoe appears at the beginning of his island experience primarily as an individual ‘lacking in self-understanding, full of guilt, self-contradictory, fearful, violent’ (Hulme 1986: 215), who represents more the shipwreck of European modernity than the self-conscious colonizer he becomes under the pressure of actually facing cannibals. However, even that encounter, during which he rescues Friday, does not explain Crusoe’s psychotic fear of cannibals throughout the entire island experience, nor does it justify his immunity to the information about Carib practices provided by Friday. A culmination point of irrational fantasies is reached when Crusoe constructs a death threat out of Friday’s nostalgic look at his home island:

If Friday could get back to his own nation again, he would not only forget all his religion, but all his obligations to me; and would be forward enough to give his countrymen an account of me, and come back perhaps with a hundred or two of them, and make a feast upon me, at which he might be as merry as he used to be with those of his enemies, when they were taken in war (Defoe 2001: 236).

Considering that Friday has not given him any reason to fear disloyalty, never mind an assault, and that he has just explained to him the laws of Carib cannibalism (‘they never eat any men but such as come to fight with them, and are taken in battle’, id. 235), Crusoe’s speculations have to be categorised as part of a European psychosis vis-à-vis native American culture (Hulme 1986: 194), and – in a wider sense - as an excess of Western causality and pseudo-rationality that has been at the forefront of popular cinematic criticism of capitalism (see Rings 2002). In this context, Hulme is right in categorising Crusoe’s plans of a pre-emptive massacre of all natives as highly ‘unethical’ (1986: 195), which does not match up to the civilised self-image in British colonial discourse. In addition, one could add the protagonist’s explicit scepticism as regards capitalist excesses, which he regards early in the book as a danger for himself:

Increasing in business and in wealth, my head began to be full of projects and undertakings beyond my reach; such as are, indeed, often the ruin of the best heads in business (Defoe 2001: 48).

Considering Defoe’s personal condemnation of stock-jobbing (for this discussion see Hulme 1986: 181), there is clear evidence for a genuine interest in the establishment of a moral economy opposed to an unethical excess, which cannot be limited to the writer’s epoch but should be seen in the wider context of numerous global crisis situations that – yet again during the so called credit crunch - highlight the contemporary relevance of Robinson Crusoe.

Despite the critical acclaim of most of the more recent castaway stories mentioned above, there can be no doubt that the most popular robinsonades of the last decade are Hollywood films like Cast Away (Zemeckis 2000), The Beach (Boyle 2000), Swept Away (Ritchie 2002) and Six Days, Seven Nights (Reitman 1998), as wells as television series like Lost (Abrams et al. 2004f.) and Survivor (Parsons 2000f.). Considering their enormous impact and the dominant role of Hollywood cinema, the analysis of their discursive structures in the context of contemporary findings on robinsonades seems key for postcolonial research. In particular, it remains important to explore how far they follow the more recent critical trend outlined above or rather the colonial tendency discussed in the first section, which at the peak of the decolonization period even made its way into the realm of science fiction films (see Crusoe on Mars by Haskin 1964) and continues to inform school and university course books in contemporary Europe.4 Unfortunately, there are only very few studies that investigate continuities and discontinuities of contemporary robinsonades in a comparative manner, but – in its focus on Cast Away – this paper would like to give a modest contribution towards reducing that gap in research.

3. Cast Away: throwing off the shackles of colonialism?

3.1 Preliminary remarks

Robert Zemeckis, previously well known for comedies like Used cars, thrillers like What lies beneath and the blockbuster Forrest Gump, for which he already teamed up with Hollywood star Tom Hanks, directs with Cast Away an adventure story that – according to this study – contains key aspects of a ‘bravura critique of the new world order’ (Cooper 2001: 18) within its re-construction of a popular ‘fantasy of the United States as an anticolonial world power’ (Weaver-Hightower 2007: 212). In other words, it certainly offers more than a re-edition of contemporary US governmental discourse, which implies that Weaver-Hightowers statements regarding the reflection of US self-imagery in the film have to be revised with particular focus on the negative portrayal of capitalist time pressures in the film. For this purpose, a range of capitalist critics such as Weber (2003, 1991), Hall (1983) and Adam (2002) are brought into the debate. Also, Ingram’s psychological perspective on volleyball Wilson, the new Robinson’s companion, helps to amend Weaver-Hightower’s overall excellent interpretation of Cast Away. On the other hand, Cooper’s presentation of the film as a US world order critique needs to be interrogated by exposing the limits of a Hollywood film that – in its efforts to entertain – does not wish to break with contemporary principles of consumerism and/or alienate its target audience.

Cast Away returns to the three-fold structure of the original Robinson story, meaning the well known island experience which is framed by insights into the protagonist’s life before his shipwreck and then, towards the end, his surprising rescue that brings him back ‘home’. A key part of this narrative frame is taken up by the less original Hollywood romance between ‘modern Crusoe’ Chuck Noland (alias Hanks) and his girlfriend Kelly, a relationship that has led to a lot of negative critique – be it because of Helen Hunt’s acting, which certainly does not reach Hanks’s performance, or – maybe more importantly – due to the ‘tedium and predictability of the love story’ (Ingram 2001a: 625).

Like Defoe’s Crusoe, Zemeckis’s Noland could be regarded as a stereotypical business man of his time, but capitalism has developed from the early 18th century to the beginning of the 21st, and so it is no surprise that there are significant differences between the two protagonists. If the exact quantification of goods, generated income and even people (cannibals) killed, was characteristic of Crusoe’s note taking, FedEx engineer Noland seems to have gone a significant step further with his obsessive quantification of time. Not by coincidence Levy summarizes him as an individual whose pre-island life is ‘run with the precision of a Swiss watch’ (2000: 21), and Noland is indeed proud to efficiently deliver – as the FedEx slogan suggests: ‘the world on time’. This symbolic culmination of Benjamin Franklin’s famous slogan ‘time is money’ marks not only the protagonist’s business life, in which he loves to give extra tuition to new FedEx employees in post-Soviet Russia, but also his private affairs: there is simply not the time for a full Christmas dinner, never mind for getting engaged to his girlfriend Kelly.

In this context, it appears as some kind of higher justice that his plane crashes during the business trip which took him away from Kelly. Noland is - like Crusoe – the only survivor from that accident, and his landing on a deserted island means first and foremost the end of his business life that was so important to him. Symbolically, this is highlighted by the destiny of his pocket watch and his beeper: neither is working anymore, and the watch – his Christmas present from Kelly – serves from now on only one purpose which is reminding him of her. Instead of further adherence to Western-style monochronic time (see Hall 1983: 41), of which he seemed to be master and slave at the same time, his life on the island is now governed by spontaneously changing weather conditions, tides and seasons. Unlike Crusoe, he is not in the fortunate position of benefitting from the cargo of a whole ship, including tools and weapons, but has to rely on the content of some FedEx packages that the tides bring ashore, among them volleyball Wilson that has been highlighted as key partner for stabilizing the castaway’s psyche (Ingram 2001b: 311). Between the fear of starving to death, fruitless attempts at an escape and total desperation about the senselessness of his new life, Noland comes close to suicide, but he finally manages to overcome the huge waves that stopped him from leaving the island and – after several days at sea – a cargo ship takes him on board.

When he finally comes ‘home’, it is primarily to realize that he cannot simply go back to his previous life and correct his mistakes: Kelly has in the meantime married another man and has had a daughter by him. The film ends with Noland standing on the same cross-road where the film began, just that this time the viewer is not confronted with a punctual FedEx delivery to a farm somewhere in Texas but with a man who has just returned a FedEx package to the sender with more than 1500 days delay (his time on the island). There is some hope that Noland will be able to start a new life with another girlfriend, possibly the woman from the very beginning of the movie who owns a nearby ranch and has just given him some orientation on the cross-road. It remains, however, unclear how far that new life will be different from his old one.

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