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Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
T’sao Hsueh Ch’in, The Dream of the Red Chamber
Casanova, History of My Life



Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe is perhaps the only writer of fiction whom critics have honored by calling him a liar. He is rightly distinguished from other novelists because he is not a novelist in the usual sense of the word at all, but an utterer of false documents, a kind of literary forger. It is not true, as some modern critics have said, that he did not know what he was doing, that the novel was so primitive in his day that the dramatic and as it were, abstract, nature of the art of fiction was unknown to him. It is true that his tales are real autobiographies with imaginary narrators, as Samuel Richardson was to write novels of real letters from imaginary correspondents.

Neither writers were primitive or na´ve. The modern novel had already come into existence. Defoe had plenty of examples if he wished to take them. The art of prose fiction goes back to the beginning of literature. How many medieval romances are novels? Surely Le Morte d’Arthur is an elaborately constructed dramatic novel, even if the romances on which it is based are not admitted to the category. No. Defoe was very well aware of what he was doing. He wrote his novels like an enormously skilled criminal testifying under oath and throwing his persecutors off the track. He was a master of imaginary evidence not unlike the great detective novelists, Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, and Simenon, and he surpassed them in the verisimilitude of his testimonies. In the opening paragraph of Robinson Crusoe he begins to throw the reader off the track. There is no dramatic structural reason whatsoever why Crusoe’s father should be a naturalized German from Bremen or why his name should be Kreutznaer mispronounced. There is a structural reason — the demands of an elaborate structure of verity. So the central artistic meaning, the bull’s-eye of the esthetic impact of Defoe’s fictions, is quite different from that of “the novel as a work of art.”

Unless we are romantic adolescents or barbarians, we never think of Ivan Karamazov or Emma Bovary as real people, not anyway when we have escaped from the delusion of the hypnotism of immediate reading. Most novels provide their greatest satisfaction when they are finished and we look back over them, or rather, through them. The novel as a whole, not any character, is an artistic structure that reorganizes experience. The narratives of Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana are intended to affect us as though we had discovered them in an old trunk in the attic that had come down through the family, a bundle of papers that cracked as we opened them, written in a long out-of-date hand and tied with ribbons that disintegrated at our touch. We are supposed to be put in direct encounter with persons, a specific man, two specific women. Everything is stripped to the bare, narrative substance, and it is this that reveals the psychology or morality of the individual. The most significant details are purely objective, exterior. The interiority of the characters is revealed by their elaborately presented outside. When they talk about their own motives, their psychology, their morals, their self-analyses and self-justifications are to be read backwards, as of course is true of most people, certainly of any bundle of letters we might find in the attic. This is true even of autobiographers who are famous for their sincerity. If we believe everything that Amiel and Marie Bashkirtseff say about themselves, we are going to start off in life with misleading and sentimental ideas of human nature. It is the na´vetÚ of his critics that has led to Defoe’s reputation for superficial or nonexistent psychology.

It is very fashionable nowadays — or was at least in the heyday of the faddist exegesis of Kafka, Kierkegaard, and Henry James — all confused together as though they were one author — to write of Robinson Crusoe as though it were written by San Juan de la Cruz, an allegorical spiritual autobiography with dark nights of the soul and ladders of illumination. Defoe as a matter of fact states quite plainly that Crusoe’s vision of an avenging archangel was due to a surfeit of turtle eggs. His terrors and panics of which so much has been made are no more than would be engendered in the most normal of men by simple loneliness, and they die out as he becomes habituated to his total isolation. The psychology of a man in solitary confinement is accurate. Crusoe is afraid of what men might do to him because year after year men do nothing to him whatsoever. He is terrified by an inexplicable footprint, but master of himself when the real cannibals finally show up.

The sense of sin that haunts the early part of his narrative is no more than what would be expected of a man of his time brooding on the reasons for his predicament. As time goes on, it ceases to be a predicament. It is fruitless to search for an allegorical original sin in Crusoe’s opening pages. He says what it was. He didn’t want to go into business. He least of all wanted to be a member of the middle class, that “best of all states” in his father’s words, and he ran away to sea. “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit” — indeed. If this is original sin no boat would ever have been invented and put out to sea.

What is Robinson Crusoe about? The best way to answer is to begin with Moll Flanders, Roxana, and the stories of highwaymen and pirates. Moll and Roxana are businesswomen, a wise and a foolish whore. Like all of Defoe’s heroes except the cavalier and the explorer of Africa, their lives are dominated by money. Moll Flanders is a kind of audit, a drama of double-entry bookkeeping. Crusoe runs away from the business ethic and finds on shipboard, with its companionate isolation, and in those days its constant mortal danger, the withering of self-alienation. It never withers quite enough. The voyages end, and the cash nexus takes over. Crusoe on his island, as he says of himself, is a man without money. He has plenty, but it molds in a drawer in his cave, the most meaningless thing on his island. There is nothing to connect it to. It is cash but not a nexus. If we believe that money is the root of all evil then presumably it is the apple of original sin. Crusoe is Adam with an inedible apple. So he gradually grows back into a state of original grace.

Crusoe has been called a kind of Protestant monk, and it is true that he turns the chance of his isolation into an anchorite’s career. The story is one of spiritual realization — almost half a lifetime spent on contemplation works profound changes, whatever the subject’s religion. We can watch Crusoe become, year by year, a better, wiser man. He writes little about his interior development and when he does his vocabulary is mostly inappropriate. We see it happen behavioristically. Defoe has been accused of insensitivity because Crusoe shows little compassion for Friday or sorrow at his death. But Defoe is portraying a true-born Englishman whose vocabulary cannot cope with the deepest personal emotions if they cannot be translated into the symbolical language of Dissenting piety.

At the end of the story as it first stood we watch Crusoe grow foolish again. He is back in the world of men and their commerce. It is only when human relationships escape from commerce that the spiritual wisdom he spent so many years acquiring as a hermit has a chance to show itself. Of course he has considerable worldly wisdom, and the sequel is largely the story of a Ulysses of many devices who happened to have spent a few years by accident in a Zen monastery.

Samuel Johnson said that Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe were the only three books a mature man wished were longer. In his time he was close to being right. Robinson Crusoe may still be the greatest English novel. Surely it is written with a mastery that has never been surpassed. It is not only as convincing as real life. It is as deep and as superficial as direct experience itself. The learned but incorrigibly immature will never see in it anything but a well-written boys’ story interspersed with out-of-date moralizing, best cut out when it is published as an illustrated juvenile. Others will believe that Defoe placed himself on record just this once as an unneurotic Kierkegaard, others as a critic beforehand of Montesquieu and Rousseau; still others will see Crusoe as the archetype of Economic Man. The book is all these things and more. It is what Defoe intended, a true life narrative.



T’sao Hsueh Ch’in,
The Dream of the Red Chamber

The Chinese The Dream of the Red Chamber may well be as great a book as the Japanese The Tale of Genji. Its virtues are not as obvious. In fact, they are not obvious at all. They are the virtues that distinguish Chinese civilization from Japanese — the virtues of a vaster humanity. Both novels have a lucidity and immediacy of narrative seldom encountered in Western fiction of a serious character, but amongst us confined to cowboys, detectives, and the funny papers. Alex Comfort once compared Chinese fiction to Pepys’s Diary, “a perfectly translucent medium through which we see the characters in all their moral nudity.” The contemporary author most like a Chinese novelist is Georges Simenon. You are too busy with the story to notice psychological insight or dramatic command until a week after you have finished the book.

The plot is the familiar, recurrent one of so much great fiction, as it is a specialty of both Chinese fiction and philosophy of history — “When women rule, the house decays” — but also its contrary, a celebration of the matriarchy that underlies and sustains Chinese society. Like all great fiction, it is also the story of the immensely difficult achievement of personal integrity. The narrative works toward a transcendental meaning of life through that life itself, which so conspicuously hides all such meaning. The characters are all “fallen beings.” The hero is an unprepossessing, idle scholar-gentleman, timid, oversexed, unstable. The two young heroines are both hysterics, the villainess a stock ruthless sister-in-law. The action is confined almost entirely to the women’s quarters and consists mostly of vapors, tantrums, fugues, and quarrels. Time goes by. As in life, the characters run down, coarsen, sicken, and die. At the end everybody is worn out.

Yet Pao Yu’s meaningless life unconsciously evolves slowly toward illumination. He is a Taoist saint who doesn’t know he is one and doesn’t want to be one. Like Prince Genji, he is indifferent to and ignorant of his cosmic role. He struggles, unaware, against an embodied principle of hate. When salvation comes, it is scarcely distinguishable from its opposite. Behind commonplace life and death lurks another world which intrudes at all crucial moments, a mirror-image more real than this life, where destiny is achieved and manifest; like the dream time of the Australian aborigines where everybody is his own ancestor that lies dormant below the dust of the desert and is awakened by penances of blood and feathers.

Genji is a mystical Buddhist work. The Dream of the Red Chamber is Taoist; its principle of salvation is inaction — wu’wei: the strength of the still keystone in the arch; the water wandering amongst mountains, seeking its own level, eventually wearing away the highest peaks. The talisman of Pao Yu’s integrity is the uncut stone of precious jade with which he is born, which he loses and finds again at the brink of death. Pao Yu’s father, Chi Cheng, the embodiment of patriarchal legalism, presides over the waking world with iron rigor and unrelenting contempt for his son and all his ways; but the dramatic pivots of the novel are a series of dreams, apparitions of the true world in which doubled images of the girls who love and hate Pao Yu function as moral determinants, presided over by the great matriarch, the grandmother of the family.

It is the metaphysical modesty of Taoism that gives The Dream of the Red Chamber its style, that modesty which is the necessary ingredient of the very greatest style in any art. The most profound human relationships; the deepest psychological insights; the most intense drama; the revelation of the moral universe in trivial human action, in the simple narrative of ordinary happenings — greatness of heart, magnanimity (“human-heartedness” is the Chinese term) is the substance from which the narrative is carved.

Reading The Tale of Genji, you are always conscious of the ethereal refinement of the characters, the profundity of the issues, the skill of the author. In Red Chamber you are conscious only of what is happening. Lady Murasaki’s Japanese courtiers seldom eat or drink, and never move their bowels. The Dream of the Red Chamber is haunted by the faint odor of night soil from which a hundred flowers spring.

When you first read about all these people with strange names doing curious things in an exotic setting, you get lost. Then gradually the sheer human mass of Chinese fiction, a mass whose components are all highly individuated, envelops and entrances you. You realize yourself as part of a universe of human beings endless as the dust of nebulae visible in the Mount Palomar telescope, and you are left with the significance of a human kinship powerful as flowing water and standing stone.

From the date of writing, the mid-eighteenth century, until our time, The Dream of the Red Chamber was anonymous. In 1921, Hu Shih, after immense research, ascribed the first eighty chapters to T’sao Hsueh Ch’in and the remaining forty chapters to Kao Ngoh, one of the editors of the 1791 edition. Evidence later discovered would indicate that Kao himself had worked from first drafts by T’sao.

Hu Shih believed the novel to be autobiographical, but it is significant that until the twentieth century no one bothered to disturb its anonymity. Like Gothic cathedrals, which sufficient research can usually demonstrate were built by somebody, the great Chinese fictions are more anonymous and communal than The Iliad. The Chin P’ing Mei (Golden Lotus), The Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers), The Romance of Three Kingdoms are end products of the accretion of hundreds of tales by street-corner storytellers, and their luxuriance of natural growth is characteristic of the Chinese novel even today.

* * *

If completely translated, The Dream of the Red Chamber would require about a million words. The European versions are all drastic abridgments. Bancroft Joly’s version (Kelly and Walsh, Hong Kong, 1892-93), two large volumes, was only the first third of the original. Chi Chen Wang’s (Routledge, London, 1929) was drastically cut, simplified, and secularized until not much more than a Balzacian domestic epic remained. The English of Florence and Isabel McHugh, from the German of Franz Kuhn (Pantheon, New York, 1958), preserves the Taoist otherworldly emphasis which surely was all-important to the author. Chi Chen Wang’s (Twayne, New York, 1958; Anchor Books paperback, 1958) is a new translation greatly expanded and improved and, so to speak, desecularized.

[NOTE: The Dream of the Red Chamber has now been translated complete under the alternative title “The Story of the Stone” (Penguin, 5 volumes). That version is highly recommended. See also Rexroth’s essay The Chinese Classic Novel.]



Casanova, History of My Life

Purity, simplicity, definition, impact — these qualities of Homer are those of Casanova too. In addition, he has a special talent for giving the impression of complete candor. Only when we escape from the swiftness of his narrative and recollect his adventures in tranquillity do we ever suspect that he is not telling the strict truth. Candor is the essence of the art of autobiography. Proust, Pepys, Rousseau, Madame Rolland, Saint Augustine and Henry Adams — as long as we are carried along we cannot help believing them.

The greatest of adventurers in an age of adventurers, from Catherine and Frederick to Saint-Germain and Mirabeau, from throne rooms to brothels, Casanova is the most credible of a century of incroyables. Perhaps there is a deeper social kinship to Homer. The breakup of feudalism, the loss of Christian belief, the accelerating economic change created a social chaos in the eighteenth century like a barbarian invasion. The new classes and their parasites were predators in a Viking age of satin breeches and powdered hair — an age of transformation, a Heroic Age, the ideal environment for those blessed with inordinate love of life, for the superlatively healthy amoral animals who gamble away earldoms and seduce countesses and chambermaids and all in the same night, as the Berserkers burned monasteries and raped nuns. Casanova is natural man living at the highest pitch, loving a life made of nothing whatever but a leonine physiology and the wits of a fox — a self-made man.

People have argued about the transition from “shame culture” to “guilt culture” during the Heroic Age. Casanova is a freebooter to whom these terms are meaningless. With its hundreds of sexual capers, his narrative has no prurience whatsoever and no monotony. It has no malevolence, either, and Casanova’s Italianate vengeances are without petty malice. He is always being ruined by his na´ve good nature. He falls in love with adventuresses more unscrupulous than himself who tease him with sisterly kisses and beggar him betimes. He falls for the most hackneyed confidence games, if only they involve a pretty woman. He hoodwinks an old codger with a magic conjuration to raise an imaginary treasure. Instead, he raises a terrifying lightning storm and cowers within his own magic circle, praying for mercy. Always in his love affairs he seeks first the pleasure, sexual and otherwise, of the girl. This talent made him adored in a brutal time by countless women of all ages and conditions from Moscow to Portugal.

Sometimes his giddiness pays. Down to his last three gold coins, headed east in Poland into the unknown, he tips a waitress with the lot and immediately establishes his credit as a prodigal millionaire. Most gamblers are like arsonists — addicted to the exquisite, guilty thrills of tempting destruction. Casanova gambled as children gambol, for the pure love of the great chance of living.

Whatever Casanova does, he assumes responsibility for consequences in the act of doing. So he never looks back on his life with regret, except for one moment of irresponsible gossip which damaged the career of a man who was hardly a friend — and the abiding regret that it is all over. “When I was young I was very fond of sailor’s hardtack. I had thirty-two beautiful teeth. Now I have only two left and can no longer enjoy it.” Conscience, even introspective curiosity, are foreign to Casanova. Nonetheless, the long tale is told with a scarcely audible but persistent note of melancholy. Men who live like Casanova are seldom interested in themselves; their egocentricity does not give them time for egotism. Neither was Casanova, probably, until old age and loneliness came over him — once the king of bohemians, exiled to a castle in Bohemia.

Time and its ruining passage color all the book. His sense of his own imminent death lurks in the dark background of every brilliantly lit lusty and bawdy tableau. After all, Casanova’s memoirs are not a diary but an aged man’s memories of his youth. Saint Augustine’s Confessions are the confession of the betrayal of his own youth because he was in love with eternity. Casanova was passionately in love with a perishing present that long since had perished. The gavel of mortality raps steadily and beats out a moral judgment of life — the most fundamental judgment, the judgment of the amoral.

Cellini is an immoral healthy animal, and disagreeable because actually sick in some irrelevant way. Restif de la Bretonne is a moral imbecile. Casanova is a man without interiority except for a profound awareness of the vanity of human wishes. Proust seeks for the meaning of time. Casanova knows it has none. Since this is one of the major conclusions that wisdom can form from the facts of existence, the book has a peculiar naked profundity certainly lacking in those other adventurers, Cellini and Restif. Havelock Ellis said of him that he was the consummate master of the dignified narration of undignified experience.

It is the wisdom of the doomed flesh that is responsible for Casanova’s redeeming dignity. He has equals but no superiors in the art of direct factual narrative. Chinese adventure novels and the greatest modern detective stories do not surpass him. From the very beginning, the simple facts of his childhood and youth roll along like the wheels of an express train. The narrative carries all before it and carries the most indifferent reader with it. This is action writing at the highest pitch — preemptory story-telling.

When we pause for breath, we notice other qualities that Casanova shares with detective stories. We feel that we are always skirting the edges of a mystery. Something seems to be going on that we are not being told about. This isn’t true; it is a tone, which is due to the fact that Casanova was at the very center of the mystifying occult Freemasonry of the mid-eighteenth century with its mixture of eroticism, mathematics, deism, and international espionage. Unlike Saint-Germain, who pretended to be immortal, to speak all languages, and to have unlimited wealth; unlike Cagliostro, whose speculations must have astonished him whenever they accidentally escaped from total charlatanism, Casanova had no need to pretend. His life was illuminated by the glamour of liberated sensual devotion — the mystery of flesh and blood and nerves and bones in action.

The most mysterious thing about this apparition is that it comes out of nowhere and returns to nothing. The loving human body hurtles through time like a thrown battle-axe. “Eminently rapid, plain, direct in thought, expression, syntax, words, matter, ideas,” said Arnold of Homer, “and eminently noble.” Everyone would agree that all these terms apply to Casanova, except the last, which many would change to “eminently ignoble.” Is this true? One meaning of the word “noble” is “descended from the chiefs of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, or Burgundians.” It is this blood relation to the epic hero which distinguishes Casanova from the other rascals of literature.

[NOTE: The best edition of Casanova’s memoirs is the one translated by Willard Trask (6 volumes). —KK]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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