Home/Prufrock/The Modernity of Robinson Crusoe, an American Art Pioneer, and Resurrecting James Dean

The Modernity of Robinson Crusoe, an American Art Pioneer, and Resurrecting James Dean

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Washington’s new language museum, Planet Word, will open on May 31st: “The museum will be housed in the historic Franklin School Building, built by architect Adolf Cluss in 1869. History nerds know it as the place where Alexander Graham Bell made the first-ever wireless voice transmission in 1880. Visitors to the free museum will encounter interactive galleries and exhibits themed around words, language, reading and oratory. There will be places to solve puzzles, deliver famous speeches, and sit quietly and listen to poetry.”

Mick Herron re-reads John le Carré: “Re-reading is often deemed comfort reading, and of course it can be. But books that are embedded in your history are rich in association, and picking them up often retriggers the emotions they provoked the first time, emotions allied to the feeling of being young. Comfort reading can be the most uncomfortable kind of all. I remember buying The Honourable Schoolboy at a bookshop in Newcastle that no longer exists; I remember taking it on a marathon coach journey, the length of the country; and I remember reading much of it in my first ever hammock in blistering sunshine – my first foreign holiday, not far from Nîmes. Similarly, it matters to me that my copy of Smiley’s People – a first edition given to me as a birthday gift – is identical to the one I borrowed from my local library in 1979 or 80. When I pick it up, I feel my younger self tugging at my sleeve, asking for his book back.”

Mark Halperin’s new book isn’t selling, and his publisher is blaming “cancel culture.” I don’t know about that. “When his deal was announced for How to Beat Trump: America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take, the women who accused Halperin criticized the book, and several top Democratic strategists who were quoted in it — including Barack Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod and strategist and Fox News contributor Donna Brazile — were forced to explain their participation. Halperin’s book was published Oct. 29 and sold 502 copies, according to the Associated Press.”

Remembering an American art pioneer: “The dealer Edith Gregor Halpert helped put American art on the map — and then she vanished.”

Maybe the publication of the anonymous A Warningisn’t such a big deal after all: “When the news broke last month that a senior Trump administration official had written an anonymous tell-all memoir about serving in the White House, criticism was swift, and unusually bipartisan. President Trump’s supporters dismissed the book as a likely fabrication. Some administration critics chastised the author for hiding behind anonymity, particularly in the middle of an impeachment inquiry when career government officials are testifying publicly about perceived wrongdoing, often at professional risk. On Thursday night, the critiques grew louder after The Washington Post obtained an early copy of the book, titled A Warning, and reported on its contents. Among the revelations: a discussion among senior officials who considered resigning all at once in a ‘midnight self-massacre’ as a warning to the public of the president’s erratic behavior. But with the release in recent days of damning transcripts from the impeachment inquiry, the events described in A Warning could be seen as overly general and less revelatory than those daily disclosures from Washington.”

A CGI version of James Dean will star in a new movie, and Hollywood actors are right for once: It’s a terrible idea. “The legendary James Dean, one of Hollywood’s brightest motion-picture stars of the 1950s, has been posthumously cast in Finding Jack, a Vietnam era action-drama set for 2020 . . . Directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, and their production house Magic City Films, obtained the rights to use Dean’s image from his family and will work with a couple of VFX companies to re-create ‘a realistic version of James Dean’ using ‘full body’ CGI from actual footage and photos of the Rebel Without a Cause star, the filmmakers told the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. But another actor will voice him.”

How technology is changing (and not changing) homeschooling: “If you’d like a dictionary definition, Merriam-Webster says that to homeschool is ‘to teach school subjects to one’s children at home.’ But this definition is being challenged, in large part because of new technologies that are making it increasingly simple to create virtual classrooms with endless possibilities.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Atlantis, Kirstin A. Hall writes about the modern metaphysics of Robinson Crusoe:

“When Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe three hundred years ago in 1719, it was an instant bestseller, and since that time it has not given up its hold on our imagination. The story of a man and his companion Friday, cast away on a Caribbean island, is as familiar to us as any fairy tale, even if we haven’t read the book. Like its footprint in the sand, Robinson Crusoe has left a sign on the cultural landscape, even giving its name to an entire genre known as the ‘Robinsonade’ that includes novels like Treasure IslandThe Swiss Family Robinson, and Lord of the Flies, and TV shows and films like Gilligan’s IslandCast Away, and Lost.

“So what is it about Robinson Crusoe? Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed Defoe’s castaway was representative of ‘universal humanity.’ Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the appeal of the novel lay in its power of our identification with its hero. Virginia Woolf wrote ‘there is no escaping him,’ in the same way as there is no escaping the ‘cardinal points of perspective — God, man, Nature.’ Others have explained the novel’s enduring popularity by pointing out how it sustains multiple interpretations. English professor Thomas Keymer writes that ‘the novel rewards analysis as many things — an exotic adventure story; a study of solitary consciousness; a parable of sin, atonement, and redemption; a myth of economic individualism; a displaced or encoded autobiography; an allegory of political defeat; a prophecy of imperial expansion — yet none of these explanations exhausts it.’ Robinson Crusoe is a classic because it contains multitudes.

“Early critics had also called this Rorschach-inkblot quality of the novel its “double character,” because the book appeared as multiple things at once, even embodying polarities. This double character is striking at every level of the novel. Is it, as some of its first readers wondered, fact or fiction? Is it the work of a genius or a hack? How did a novel manage to entertain everyone from children to the poor working classes to intellectual elites like Alexander Pope, Rousseau, Marx, and John Stuart Mill? As the essayist Thomas De Quincey put it in 1841, how does Defoe make his novels ‘so amusing, that girls read them for novels; and he gives them such an air of verisimilitude, that men read them for histories’? Every encounter with the novel seems as surprising and fresh as it seems familiar.

“In Robinson Crusoe, we can witness the emergence in the literary canon of the Janus-faced consciousness that is our distinctly modern way of experiencing the world. It is a way in which it is possible to look at a remarkable event sometimes as a miracle and sometimes as a natural phenomenon, to read our horoscopes while trusting medical journals, to raise children who declare allegiance both to NASA and to Gryffindor House, to believe that love has a higher, even transcendent, purpose at the same time as we believe it was naturally selected for because it is a pro-social behavior that helped our species survive. Robinson Crusoe registers that modernity is not the condition of uncertainty about whether we are enchanted or disenchanted, superstitious or scientific; it is the condition of being both.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Aniva Lighthouse

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University. Follow him on Twitter.

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