Who knew that Crusoe and Friday would be resurrected daily for service to western culture’s nefarious needs?
While we are waiting for Dreamworks’ The Legend of Bagger Vance (starring Matt Damon as a white golfer who discovers the Meaning of Life from a mysterious black caddy played by Will Smith), let’s go to the movies.
Consider the following as evidence: Men in Black, Independence Day, Jerry Maguire, Crimson Tide, 48 Hrs., Pulp Fiction, even Field of Dreams. These stories, while seemingly unconnected, answer to a common ancestry. They subscribe to a very specific perspective on the world. They are partners in a paradigm that is hidden within much of our literature and our movies. Part of a secret agenda that most of us are couriers of, that most of us subscribe to, yet one that few of us have ever noticed, a paradigm that is still evolving.
For instance, we all remember the brouhaha about whether the 1993 movie Rising Sun actually represented Japan-bashing. Yet none of us seemed to have noticed that the two male leads in that movie, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, were busy reenacting (or maybe “perpetuating” is a better word) one of the oldest fictional partnerships in our Western culture.
Englishman Connery played the part of Robinson Crusoe, while Snipes, a descendant of slaves, played his Man Friday. Not that those were their characters’ names, of course. Not that either man realized what they were reenacting, either. Nor can either man be blamed for his part in perpetuating the myth.
What Connery and Snipes were doing was battling an alien economic system in order to save the Protestant Work Ethic.
Rising Sun was just a movie, you say. Just a story being told. But a story is an artifact, a technological construct, a shell, a machine, a vehicle for an image or a meaning that’s somewhere inside. A story is also a cultural construct laden with deeply held assumptions we may not ever know we hold about the “real nature” of our society. Racism can surface in the work of a storyteller who is not even aware of it and who might even repudiate it if he noticed it. Yet, in effect, the storyteller has become a courier of culture, an unwitting pawn in a polemic.
In his 1951 essay “Robinson Crusoe as a Myth,” Ian Watt runs us through the basic
Robinson Crusoe story, which on the surface is an exotic novel of travel and adventure common in the eighteenth century. One of the things he does is reminds us that our “sense of the story” varies from the one actually written.
Robinson Crusoe, for all we think it may be, is actually a defense of Defoe’s bourgeois Protestantism, a Puritan fable that praises the middle class and its work ethic. Most importantly for Watt, Robinson Crusoe “lives in the imagination mainly as a triumph of human achievement and enterprise, and as a favorite example of the elementary processes of political economy.”
Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and, as George V. Higgins points out in his book On Writing, “thus acquired his lasting if arguable reputation as the maker of the first novel in the English language.”
Because it was the first mass-produced novel for a mass audience, Robinson Crusoe not only changed the way that stories were told, but also who told them. Tales of epic heroes were traditionally told around campfires just before the battle. Hopefully the epic hero’s courage and strength and determination would rub off on tomorrow’s cannon fodder. The epic was always told by his sidekick. “I watched him ride out among the Enemy and slaughter them like they was wheat germ!” The tale was always told in the third person.
Robinson Crusoe, however, is told in the first person. “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen who settled first at Hull.” From its opening words, the reader knows Crusoe is speaking only for himself. In its closing words, Crusoe again defines himself alone: “In this vessel, after a long voyage, I arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty-five years absent.”
Robinson Crusoe is not a classical or traditional hero. Those early heroes defended their society against outside threats, or saved those whose lives were in danger. Crusoe is no epic hero. He is a more self-centered, self-absorbed individual. He lives alone on a desert island. Only after two decades alone does Crusoe discover and rescue Man Friday. Crusoe is a survivor, of course. But he does more than survive. He continues and prospers. In solitude he struggles against all odds and succeeds! He was on the island for “twenty-eight years, two months, and nineteen days.”
Although Defoe wrote two sequels, what Western society valorizes are Crusoe’s days on the desert island with Man Friday.
Robinson Crusoe spawned Johann Wyss’s book The Swiss Family Robinson, which spawned at least three feature films of that same name, which in turn spawned television’s Lost in Space, and that in turn spawned Steven Spielberg’s Earth 2 and the 1998 big-budget feature Lost in Space, starring William Hurt, Mimi Rodgers, and Gary Oldham, which delighted in repeating the classic TV phrase “Danger, Will Robinson!”
Three dozen other Robinson Crusoe movies have been made, including a disastrous 1996 version starring Pierce Brosnan and a 1975 English version entitled The Erotic Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
In the summer of 2000, CBS TV scored a major hit, its highest summer ratings in six years, with its “reality” show Survivor, which was based on an earlier Swedish television program called Expedition Robinson. Even normally lucid critics gushed over the show, using phrases like “shared national experience” and “a pop culture phenomenon.”
And let’s not forget Gilligan, the Skipper, the Millionaire, His Wife, the Movie Star, the Professor, and Mary Ann – all on Gilligan’s Island.
Western society mythologizes those Crusoe days, retains from the story what its unconscious needs dictate, and has promptly forgotten the rest of the story.
It’s not a pretty story. It’s racist and dehumanizing.
And we still pay good money to be entertained by it every day.
As Watt notes, Robinson Crusoe was a capitalist out for adventure and exploitation who was stranded in a utopia of Protestant Ethics.
One of the crucial elements of that story that rewrote the world is how one acquires wealth. Until Crusoe, wealth was a dream peasants might have, but one they had little expectation of ever coming true. Most stories about acquiring wealth before Robinson Crusoe were stories like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or some variant of the Purse That Never Empties, or the story of Aladdin, where wealth comes from rubbing a magic lamp.
Robinson Crusoe acquired his money the hard way. He earned it! Or at least that’s how we perceive it.
In truth, Crusoe got rich by entering a natural paradise and being the sole proprietor. He does not begin from scratch. The island is rich, has no owners, and needs improvement. The shipwreck that stranded Crusoe there leaves him as the sole survivor and, more importantly, the sole owner of its treasures.
Robinson Crusoe is adventurer’s capitalism, colonial capitalism, where the message reads that where the white man goes, the wilderness surrenders its riches. Translated into our American mythology, Robinson Crusoe is the classic story of a real estate developer who builds a physical and moral replica of the world he had left behind.
Robinson Crusoe was an immensely popular story to the European colonial mentality. It went to four editions within the first four months, spawned two mediocre sequels, and then went on to be published in over 700 editions throughout Europe and America within a century. The novel has never been out of print. As Watt points out, “By the end of the nineteenth century there had appeared at least 700 editions, translations and imitations, not to mention a popular Eighteenth century pantomime, and an opera by Offenbach.”
Daniel Defoe’s story of a businessman marooned on a tropical island was an instant hit throughout England and then Europe. Thirty-five years after Robinson Crusoe was published, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of The Social Contract, claimed the novel “furnished the finest of treatises on education according to nature. My Emile shall read this book before any other; it shall for a long time be his only library, and shall always hold an honorable place.”
A hundred years after Robinson Crusoe was published, Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised its author as being far superior to Jonathan Swift. Coleridge said reading the novel “makes me forget my specific class, character, and circumstances, and raises me, while I read him, into the universal man.”
In 1836, 18 years later and on the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe said that Robinson Crusoe “has become a household thing in nearly every family in Christendom.” Poe saw how “all are affected by the potent magic of verisimilitude. Indeed the author of Crusoe must be possessed, above all other faculties, what has been termed the faculty of identification – that dominion exercised by volition over imagination, which enables the mind to lose its own in a fictitious individuality.”
Thomas Sergeant Perry wrote in 1833 that “The moral of the book (Robinson Crusoe), in short, is this: if a man in solitude, with a few scraps from the wreck and an occasional savage [my emphasis], dog and cat to help him, can lead so civilized a life, what may we not expect of good people in England with abundance about them?”
H. Rider Haggard, the author of She and King Solomon’s Mines, wrote in 1887 how proud he was that, one Sunday morning, while reading Crusoe as an eight- or nine-year-old child, he could not be forced by the combined efforts of an older sister and a governess to attend church. In 1894 Walter Raleigh wrote in The English Novel that “Robinson Crusoe typifies the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon race, and illustrates in epitome the part it has played in India and America.”
Charles Dickens was revolted by Crusoe’s treatment of Friday and women; he found the novel “dry and disagreeable,” “the only book” where “no one laughs or cries.” Karl Marx flat-out condemned it with his usual flair for hyperbole. And Mark Twain had his Connecticut Yankee announce that he was introducing Crusoean capitalism in sixth-century King Arthur’s Court. “I saw that I was just another Robinson Crusoe cast away on some uninhabitable island . . . If I wanted to make life bearable I must do as he did – invent, contrive, create, reorganize things.” The Knights of the Round Table become salesmen, while the Round Table itself becomes a corporate boardroom.
The original novel Robinson Crusoe itself doesn’t have much of a plot. What it has is episodic and governed by Chance, not Cause and Effect. It seems to have little dramatic design because events occur by chance, and not through cause and effect. There are great scenes (the “footprint,” for instance) that reverberate in the mind, but they are not by nature sequential. The novel’s special grace is that it “feels” autobiographical. That is, the book appears to be the actual ruminations, almost diary entries, of a real human being named Crusoe.
Crusoe is not a matinee heartthrob. In fact, he’s a bit of a stiff. But then he is about as social as anyone who has been marooned on a desert island for almost two dozen years. Aside from Crusoe himself, there is little character development, and the relationship Crusoe has with Man Friday has little development. How could it be otherwise? There is minimal communication between the two men, and most of that is one-sided. Man Friday stays with Crusoe only because he has to choose between hungry cannibals and Crusoe. Heraclitus once said Character is Fate. Crusoe, for all his hard work and religious attitude, is also very, very lucky.
Crusoe is an innocent. He is unaware of how his actions will reverberate through time and space. Crusoe is emblematic of success, talent, and luck. Yet the Dark Side is there. Ambition can become greed. Self-worth can become conceit.
* * *
A warrant for Daniel Defoe’s arrest was published in the London Gazette on January 10, 1702. He was described as a “middle sized, spare man, about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-colored hair, but wears wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.”
Daniel Defoe was a Dissenter. He was a Protestant who didn’t belong to the Anglican Church. That meant he was a non-conformist. Naturally, Robinson Crusoe’s pieties do reflect Defoe the Dissenter’s beliefs, and naturally these pieties, these beliefs, succeed better on a deserted island than in the mercantile chaos of eighteenth-century London. (Even a workaholic can be tempted by the pleasures of the city; it was the stodgy Germans who said, “Stadtluft macht frei”; city air makes one free to do all kinds of nasty things! This slogan actually became a medieval legal term. If a serf could manage to live within city walls for a year and a day, he was legally freed of his burdens.)
Still, Crusoe’s self-reliance and patience were models Englishmen carried as they went out to build an empire. In brief, the white man was made to dominate his surroundings, and thus he would find his own inner peace from his domination.
That “mythos” still lives, although the buckskins have been traded in for pinstripes. In retrospect, much of Crusoe’s experiences read like the job description of the high-powered, high-profiled, stress-laden positions of power in this global culture.
Crusoe’s life is the businessman’s life. At first he was only in Big Business, but with the rise of Big Government, he also entered public service. In World War II, he was a Dollar-a-Year Man. These days, now that he’s back in business, he gets paid very well indeed. He knows he earns every penny the hard way. We can see R. Crusoe being interviewed by the international media.
R. Crusoe’s job? He’s an entrepreneur. He is his own boss. Crusoe now wears – lives in – suits and ties. He is self-motivated, self-absorbed. He doesn’t decide as much as he makes decisions. He makes policy! when he makes decisions. He has responsibilities. He has a busy schedule, and he regrets he can’t be seen without an appointment. His office follows him, is always within easy reach, always knows where he is, monitors his calls. He regrets how his home life suffers. Probably regrets he’s too busy to get to church. Probably forgot a birthday recently, unless his secretary reminded him. (What would he do without his Girl Friday!) And even though he’s fabulously wealthy, fabulously successful, he still sees himself as the Common Man.
To repeat the obvious: Crusoe is the hero of the novel. But the classical hero, the traditional hero, is directly linked to his community. The hero dies for us. That’s his job. That’s why we valorize him. Robinson Crusoe is not involved in humanity. He is alone on a desert island for most of the novel. Crusoe’s goal is to leave his island. At the first opportunity, he leaves it. The Island of Despair, as he names it, is not his home. It is away from home. He is responsible to no one on the island. No higher authority, no outside authority, no one. Crusoe is responsible to no one.
“No man is an island,” John Donne orated. But the purpose of an island setting in a story is to take the characters, remove them from the Here and Now, and set them in an OtherWhen and an OtherWhere. It keeps outside influences from influencing the action.
But no man is an island.
A leader is known by his followers. Hitler couldn’t have caused the Holocaust unless his followers, all good Germans, identified with him and his authority over them and then carried out his orders.
Robinson Crusoe privileges the corporate isolate. The businessman alone, who operates within a vacuum of outside responsibilities. Without intending it, the novel privileges the entrepreneur who walks. (As a sidebar, remember how Rousseau saw the novel as a hymn to childhood, a hymn to his imaginary child Emile? In actuality, Rousseau walked out on his own children.) That’s one essential point of Robinson Crusoe. When the going gets tough, the tough bail out, leaving behind the toxic waste dumps, the devastated landscapes, the ruined lives of the indigenous peoples.
The Crusoe attitude finds its worst expression in littering and polluting. Chemical waste dumps, mining operations, logging companies, strip-mining, coal mining, toxic and other hazardous wastes – these enterprises leave the Crusoe “mythos” wide open to criticisms.
Based on the story we read in this single novel, we can see why the United States has a totally ineffectual Superfund. Our master narrative is a history of “throwaway” policies. We as a culture feel we have a right to pollute, to litter, to sail away on the very next ship.
But there is more, too. Western society has conveniently forgotten much of Robinson Crusoe’s relationship with Friday. The book is quite clear about it: Friday was Crusoe’s slave. That Crusoe was a benevolent master does not change the relationship.
As Robinson Crusoe himself tells us:
“When he espied me, he came running, and laid himself on the ground again, with all the possible signs of a humble, thankful disposition, making many antic gestures to show it. At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before, and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission possible, to let me know how much he would serve me as long as he lived. In a little time I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak to me; and first, made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I likewise taught him to say, ‘Master,’ and then let him know that was to be my name.”
As Watt notes, “Slaves, of course, were (Crusoe’s) original objective in the voyage which brought him to the island. And eventually Providence and his own exertions provide him with Man Friday, who answers his prayers by ‘swearing to be my slave forever.'”
In her 1976 essay “Ethno or Socio Poetics,” Sylvia Wynter points out a strong, and I believe accurate, explanation for the profound (and lasting) effects Crusoe’s language made on the Western imagination. She says: “By calling the Indian ‘Friday’ Crusoe negates his former name, the meaning of his former culture, its architecture of significance. With the past, the cultural world of Friday wiped out, he is reduced to his role as Crusoe’s servant.”
Not only does this metamorphosis change Friday, it changes Crusoe. “Before he had the power to name things, now he had the power to ‘name other men.'” This power comes from Crusoe’s gun. As Wynter writes: “Friday, seeing the ease with which the gun has wiped out his at once fellow / and enemy Indians . . . prays to the Gun, pleading that it does not harm him.” Wynter is right when she notes, “The gun makes Crusoe a MAN, since he owns it, and Friday a native, since he is without it. Men are masters; natives are servants.'”
I contend the myth of Crusoe has become institutionalized as the cornerstone of our Western culture. That its influences has reverberated across two and a half centuries like the tectonic ripples of a California earthquake.
The Northern European Protestants were not missionaries. Those Crusoes were not as interested in converting the heathen as the Catholics from Southern Europe were. They were more interested in living like parasites or vampires off Man Friday’s work.
The word “manumission” comes from the Latin “manumittere,” literally, “to let go from your hand, to free,” and means to liberate your slave. In the Roman Catholic countries, slaves could earn their manumission after a time. In the Protestant colonies, slaves could never earn their freedom. Only their masters could decide to free them. And no slave ever liberated himself.
The impact of Robinson Crusoe cannot be understated. He is the paradigm. He is comfortable with his god, and he exists alone, outside of any community. Crusoe has no need for a conscience because he is one with his god. They see eye to eye on all issues. He sees no alternatives, no strange gods. A jury of his peers is a dozen mirrors reflecting only him. Compassion is as absent as his community projects. His only POV on relationships is completely male-absorbed and master-slave. Women do not even exist except as property. At best they are sex objects or trophy wives.
Remember Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. “Greed is good.” Gecko is Crusoe exaggerated. Judge how he views the world. The world is composed of WASPs identical to him. Catholics and Jews and Muslims need not apply. Women are property, and men of another color are slaves.
Crusoe sees it clearly. It is a matter of power.
Imagine Robinson Crusoe as a monk with a gun. See how easy that is. We’re back at the Crusades again. We’re out plundering with a gun again. Do you hear Crusoe’s voice in President Teddy Roosevelt’s when he said we can take land away from its current residents because they had not materially improved it? Teddy Roosevelt also coined the phrase “bully pulpit.” Where does a monk with a gun stand? (Anywhere he wants?) When Jack London spoke about “the inevitable white man,” do you see Crusoe standing beside him?
Robinson Crusoe is independently wealthy, alone on his island, his enemies are cannibals of color, and he knows how to shoot a gun. Is that the American dream, or what?
* * *
If Robinson Crusoe is the paradigm of the white male real estate developer, then what of Man Friday? One notion is that the ethnic sidekick represents the weaker, darker, less respectable (or less heroic) aspect of the hero. Maybe.
I contend that when Crusoe “names” Friday, language and culture intersected, that a new language of racism was born. That Man Friday became the paradigm of the ethnic sidekick, the white male hero’s partner of color, who never gets to share in the rewards.
I contend that the paradigm I call the Ethnic Sidekick and its concomitant racism have both become an integral part of the New World, its language and its literature, an integral part of the Western perspective and an important, yet invisible, determinant in most multicultural relationships. That this racist paradigm has become institutionalized in the Western democracies, is perpetuated in both “canonized” and popular literature, and in fact, still influences most western thinking and behavior.
As soon as Crusoe put a name to the other man, Man Friday’s previous identity – all of it – disappeared, vanished, forever. Man Friday – as a nonwhite – became a parody of a white man, an apprentice white man. As he is patronized and derided by the master race’s master narrative, he is brought to more servitude and contempt. Naturally, his resentment grew.
* * *
A century after Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, the British writer Charles Dickens wrote a trifle of a book about a Crusoe-type capitalist gone compulsive, a Christmas Carol about a money-hungry man shipwrecked on a desert island of his own greed.
Am I stretching? When Ebenezer Scrooge (along with the Ghost of Christmas Past) revisits his boyhood, he spots himself as “a solitary child, neglected by his friends” reading by “a feeble fire.”
Guess what book lil’ Scrooge is reading.
“Poor Robin Crusoe.”
That makes Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and the rest of the Cratchit family a sort of lower-class (but white) Man Friday. And doesn’t that make sense?
Christmas, as we know it, is only 150 years old. Before then, it was a Christian religious holiday. Then Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to expiate his own Big Hurt. The story of a miser who sees himself for the man he really is was an instant success for the 32-year-old writer. In its first decade it outsold the Bible. It has never been out of print.
The first edition of A Christmas Carol was published December 19, 1843. It offered one new myth to the Industrial Age, and one need not be a wise man to see the book as a direct reaction to Robinson Crusoe.
Scrooge is Crusoe. Bob Cratchit is Man Friday.
Scrooge’s own nephew calls Christmas “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
The Christmas Carol
What is a “carol”? It’s a folk song, part of an oral tradition, one passed down from generation to generation. English carols didn’t appear until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Christmas carol “The First Day of Christmas” appeared before 1780 in London. It wasn’t much more than a mnemonic device to help schoolchildren learn memory skills. For that reason it was used in English classrooms for a century. Charles Dickens wanted his book to become a fixture within the meta-narrative. He was lucky; it did.
What a marvelous character is the novel! Think of Dickens’s characters with their distinctive appearances, mannerisms, gestures, speech patterns. Think of Scrooge’s trademark “Bah, humbug!” This simple chunk of dialogue is a complete dramatic performance by itself, show business at its best. How easy it is to visualize Scrooge.
Dickens never hurries his narrative “in a sort of impetuous breathless way,” as Dickens wrote to wannabe author Mrs. Brookfield. He told her to slow down her own narratives, that “the people should tell it and act it for themselves. My notion always is, that when I have made my people to play out their play, it is, as it were, their business to do it, and not mine.”
A Christmas Carol affords us several notions. One is that we all can be spiritually transformed, “converted” or “reborn,” a notion quite curious in a text that does not mention religion. Another is that the future can be rewritten.
As for the three ghosts, we need to remember that England since King Henry VIII has been one of the least, if not the least religious country in Western Europe. In a secular society that at least publicly and tacitly ignores any God, that religious “entity” known as the Immortal Soul can only be expressed as a ghost.
A Ghost can haunt us. What we repress, if it is repressed severely enough, can boomerang back on us. A Ghost is a Guilty Conscience.
The three Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future exist to confront Robinson Crusoe’s nineteenth-century English descendant with humanity’s earliest beliefs in an eternal life. To make the Crusoe “mythos,” one of the most practical ever fashioned, recognize life is transcendent.
Specifically, the three Ghosts are “needed” to appear to tell Crusoe-Scrooge that his attitudes and his actions have reverberations not just now, at this Present moment, but also they are reverberations from attitudes and actions and events that occurred years Past, and that these actions and attitudes he takes now will reverberate into the Future.
The Ghosts are a demonstration that a continuum exists, that no action does not have a prior cause or a future effect. To link Scrooge with John Donne: “No man is an island.”
Even more magically, Scrooge sees his life three-dimensionally. He sees its entire scope. He sees AS AN OUTSIDER SEES his beginnings, the middle of his life, and his final end. Much as a drowning man is said to see his entire life pass before his eyes.
Look at Robinson Crusoe at his worst. He is Scrooge, a quite remarkable miser. But listen to how the average American citizens in the 1990s might describe Crusoe’s “spiritual clones” with whom they must work. “He’ll sell you out in a minute for a better deal somewhere else.” “He’d sacrifice all of your scruples on the altar of profits.” “He’d undercut his mother.” “If he can, he will take it with him.” We despise the dark side of Scrooge that is the dark side of Crusoe.
But Scrooge also sees what happens after his death. That’s the particular horror of A Christmas Carol. That Scrooge sees the marginalized peoples of London arguing over his death clothes. One is immediately reminded how the people played dice for the clothes Jesus Christ was crucified in.
Obviously A Christmas Carol focuses on Scrooge. But there are natural variations on that theme that have become classics in their own right. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life focuses on Bob Cratchit (or rather George Bailey). John Hughes’s Home Alone focuses on that Beautiful Child Tiny Tim, also known as Kevin McAllister (played by Macaulay Culkin). The character of Scrooge is here played by two actors, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, as the Wet Bandits. (The durability of the Scrooge “mythos” made Home Alone for a few years “one of the top 3 box offices hits of all time.”) Becoming classics, they become almost indispensable parts of our Master Narrative, and thus they steer us in a direction they want us to go.
Our postmodern society is far enough away from our own pioneer days for us not to recognize the power that “mythos” had. “Robinson Crusoes – dressed entirely in buckskins” was how one St. Louis newspaper described the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, according to Marshall B. Davidson in The Drawing of America: Eyewitness to History.
Who saved Lewis and Clark’s butts in the wilderness? Their faithful Indian sidekick, Sacajewea. Boy, is she an ethnic sidekick!
A century after Defoe and less than 20 years after Lewis and Clark, the American writer James Fenimore Cooper began writing five books (The Leatherstocking Tales) about Natty Bumppo (nicknamed Hawkeye) and his faithful Indian sidekick Chingachgook. These books rapidly became the literature of the American Empire.
Hollywood has made four Mohican movies. In 1992 Michael Mann brought out his version of The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and the Native American activist Russell Means. No one noticed that Crusoe became American and Man Friday became an American Indian.
During the filming Means managed to organize the Native American extras and gain more daily pay for them. However much Means the activist succeeded, even he still never recognized how he himself was helping perpetuate the role of the ethnic sidekick.
By the way, one of Michael Mann’s two biggest successes prior was Miami Vice, which featured Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Johnson’s ethnic sidekick. Guess which actor still has the more active acting career? In 1997 Don Johnson gained his own series, Nash Bridges, on CBS; his sidekick is Cheech Marin, who was the ethnic sidekick in Kevin Costner’s Tin Cup.
Getting back to the Natty Bumppo stories, Mark Twain wrote an essay ridiculing them, then turned around and wrote a parody of Crusoe and his Ethnic Sidekick wandering in the American wilderness, this one featuring a white kid and a black slave on a raft on the Mississippi River. To see that Huckleberry Finn is a parody, one need only realize that Nigger Jim is going south with Huck to find freedom.
But the Crusoe elements are there under the surface, too. Huck, for instance, is the boss of Jackson’s island just as Crusoe is of his. “It all belonged to me, so to say.” He explores it, with both gun and tobacco pipe in hand, just like Crusoe. When Crusoe says, “I was the lord of the manor; or, if I pleased, I might call myself king or emperor over the whole country which I had possession of,” we can hear Huck’s voice like an echo across the water. Just as Crusoe can fortunately scavenge his stranded ship for supplies before it sinks, Huck too can scavenge the House of Death before it floats away downriver.
But most importantly, when Huck stumbles upon “the ashes of a camp-fire that was still smoking,” his frightened heart is in his throat, almost as much as Crusoe when he spots “the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore.” Neither gets any sleep that night. Years pass before Crusoe meets Man Friday; within an hour Huck wakes the sleeping Jim.
When we first see him, Nigger Jim, for all his freedom, comes off as little more than a “blackface” clown, the common racial stereotype of that long-ago America. He is as one-dimensional as Friday. But the secret of Huckleberry Finn is that young Huck lives with and learns from Jim and gradually discovers what Humanity is about, while Crusoe never sees Friday as anything over than a slave serendipitously acquired. Huck growls, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” and decides to “steal him out of slavery.”
Perhaps for this reason, this resolution of the Crusoe conundrum makes Huck Finn the greatest of all American novels. (According to Ernest Hemingway, all American novels stem from this book.) Because it is with the boy Huck Finn’s crisis of conscience that the Ethnic Sidekick begins to evolve away from the racist patronizing and condescension into a more unique and more powerful paradigm.
Of course Robinson Crusoe has spawned popular culture’s Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Lone Ranger is the Old West’s Robin Hood and, after his beginnings in fiction, he moved to radio, animated cartoons, a TV serial, and feature films. An essential element of the Long Ranger’s legend is Tonto, his faithful Indian sidekick. Tonto not only nurses the Lone Ranger back to health after he and the other Texas rangers have been ambushed, but he gives the Lone Ranger the old Indian silver mine for his silver bullets.
Let us also not forget that the comic book hero Green Hornet is the great-grandson of the Lone Ranger and that his sidekick Kato is Japanese, another ethnic sidekick. Even though Kato constantly mispronounces his own name, giving it a Western slant. (Think this is all ancient history and not relevant to contemporary film? Guess what sits over the horizon? Maybe starring Jet Li as Kato for $5 million, according to a recent Variety.)
* * *
The paradigm pops up in the damnedest places. In the 1942 classic movie Casablanca, Rick Blaine and his ethnic sidekick Sam find themselves stranded in North Africa. For all intents and purposes, Rick and Sam might well be stranded on a desert island. Not only are they encircled by Nazis, but Rick is described as an American who (for vaguely defined reasons) cannot go back to America.
Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a saloon owner who has opened his Cafe Americaine, and, as we know, “Everyone comes to Rick’s.” For reasons of love, Rick has made himself unapproachable, a desert island. He may be the only saloon owner in history or fiction “who never drinks with his customers.” The one man who shares any of his secrets is Sam (played by Dooley Wilson).
Rick Blaine is a classic American hero. We watch like greedy voyeurs as he walks away from the world and its troubles. We watch breathlessly how he goes through great emotional trauma and much physical danger before he decides to reenter the world and face up to its troubles. Like Crusoe, he is a businessman. Like Crusoe, he stands alone. Like Crusoe, he not only survives but thrives in a hostile place. He has a very personal code of honor and all the winds of the world cannot sway him.
His relationship to Sam is solid. Sam is not only Rick’s employee but also his closest friend, his only confidante. When the movie was released, The New York Times review of the film called Sam “Rick’s devoted friend.” When the Germans are about to occupy Paris, Sam is the only man who can get Rick back on the train at the Gare de Lyon. But when Rick gets his hands on those letters of transit that guarantee safe passage out, not once does he think of sharing one of those exit visas with the black man he arrived with. Rick may well leave Casablanca, but Sam doesn’t even merit a moment of consideration.
“He goes with the Cafe,” Rick tells Senor Ferrari, the owner of the Blue Parrot and “the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca.” Admittedly, when Ferrari hints at further illegalities, Rick insists he “doesn’t buy or sell human beings.” Still, Rick has no problem leaving Sam behind.
Consider that in the early 1940s the role of Sam was considered equal to the role of a white leading man. That the role was a breakthrough for black actors. We should remember that the only Oscar any African-American had won at this time had just gone to Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. We should perhaps remember that The Hollywood Reporter’s review of Casablanca called Sam “Rick’s faithful Negro piano player.”
Does that make Casablanca a racist movie?
* * *
Sidney Poitier would be the next African-American to win the Academy Award for his acting in Lilies of the Field. But the role he is most remembered for is as Tibbs in the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night, which won six Oscars, including one for Rod Steiger as Best Actor. What made Heat so memorable was that Poitier refuses to play the ethnic sidekick for the Chief of Police.
Many actors can have a long and prosperous career playing the ethnic sidekick. In 1989 Morgan Freeman helped Jessica Tandy win a Best Actress Oscar in Driving Miss Daisy. Two years later Freeman was Hazem the Moor, an ethnic sidekick for Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves. (Hazem at one point says: “To leave you now would be to disgrace my family, and I cannot do that.”) The following year Freeman was an ethnic sidekick in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven. In 1994 he played sidekick in The Shawshank Redemption but was nominated for Best Actor, which shows Hollywood does recognize his remarkable talents. He was the lead in Seven, but then he is a better actor than Brad Pitt.
Speaking of movies, how many Lethal Weapons have been made? Who gets higher billing? Mel Gibson or Danny Glover?
The ethnic sidekick appears in so many of our stories. Indiana Jones had his Middle Eastern buddy Sallah (played by John Rhys-Davies). On television, Bob Culp had his ethnic sidekick (Bill Cosby) in I Spy. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser has his Hawk. Magnum, P.I. had his black buddy T. C. There was an ethnic sidekick in all three Die Hard movies.
The TV series Alien Nation was one of the more comedic shows on American television. Extra-terrestrials are here on Earth! Yes! They came from Outer Space in fantastic ships . . . and yet they are still second-class citizens in our suburbia. They came as slaves. They are Instant Ethnic Sidekicks.
Speaking of outer space, let’s not forget the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In that one, a monkey played the Friday role until a Martian Friday came along, and the two of them worked in tandem to teach Crusoe what being human really means.
Speaking of teaching what being human means, there are almost 3 million copies of Theodore Taylor’s 1969 novel The Cay in print. This wonderful young adult novel, a cross between Crusoe and Huck Finn, has even spawned a sequel, the 1993 Timothy of the Cay, thanks to the 300,000 letters from fans that author Taylor received. Consider recent movies, such as The Indian in the Cupboard, Kazaam, and First Kid.
Who teaches whom the Meaning of Life? Consider Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne in the smash hit The Matrix. Consider Michael Clarke Duncan in the Stephen King-based The Green Mile, which starred Tom Hanks. Who “explains” Life After Death in the Robin Williams-Cuba Gooding, Jr. movie What Dreams May Come? What is Edward James Olmos’s relationship to Harrison Ford in Blade Runner? Who remembers the black actor who took a bullet for Nick Cage’s character in Con Air? (Answer: Mykelti Williamson)
Consider Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, Ice Cube in Three Kings, or Ving Rhames in Out of Sight. (Wasn’t it Rhames at the 1998 Golden Globe Awards who gave away his award to Jack Lemmon? Didn’t his generosity dismay you?)
Remember the stink about Jar Jar Binks in Stars Wars: Episode I? Was that computer-generated artifact a subconscious manifestation of a racist stereotype? I know I wasn’t alone when I thought so.
Yes, I am stretching by pointing out that Walt Disney, always the perfectionist, almost delayed the opening of his first Disneyland in Orange County, California, because the construction of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse fell behind schedule. But consider what that first Disneyland represented. Once again one white man’s vision “redeveloped” underutilized orange groves into a real estate treasure. Walt Disney is the classic entrepreneur, the classic real estate developer. His creation The Walt Disney Company has created for itself over the years a reputation for ruthless business practices that seem to leave those it bulldozes pissed at the Mouse.
A few years ago the Walt Disney Company had to abandon its plans for Disney’s America, a theme park it had planned for Haymarket, Virginia. Let’s sympathize with Disney for a moment. A global corporation has its own set of values and priorities, and thus would be forced to rewrite history to suit its vendors and dealers. Corporate sentimentality would overrule the harsh realities of battlefield slaughter. Corporate perspectives on history are and would be a selected history. Imagine the Lewis and Clark Raft Ride.
But Disney lost at Haymarket. It will continue its search for a new site, and it will rewrite its own version of American history. After all, this revisionism could be rewritten anywhere. It need not be exclusively in Virginia, nor does it need to be near a civil war battlefield. It could be rewritten in Iowa, for instance. Arkansas needs the money.
Location, location, location.
Rob Crusoe is always flexible when it comes to real estate.
* * *
If you were a real estate developer, where do you go when you run out of land?
If you can’t go horizontal, you go vertical.
Star Trek is a phenomenon that has resulted in four TV series, a cartoon series, nine feature films that earned over $1 billion, a tenth feature film in the works for next year, over 160 novels, 100 fan conventions a year, a half-dozen theme parks (still in the works), almost $2 billion worth of merchandising, and easily more than $1 billion worth of revenue to Paramount Communications Inc. over the last third of a century.
In Hollywood parlance, Star Trek is an evergreen asset. It never gets old and will always generate revenues. If all its sequels and spin-offs ran continuously on a single channel, it would play for over a month.
The mid-sixties were the time of the first Star Trek, where Captain James T. Kirk orated, “Space, the Final Frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its mission: to seek out new worlds. To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
You go vertical, remember.
The “mythos” of Star Trek must never be underestimated. In our postmodern semi-illiterate society, Star Trek IS our Utopian myth. While classical literature tells us that utopias never evolve and therefore are inherently stagnant, for the last 35 years Star Trek is Utopia whooshing through the galaxy at Warp Speed.
The Writers’/Directors’ Guide to Star Trek: The Next Generation tells prospective storytellers that “Our continuing characters are a kind of people that the STAR TREK audience would like to be themselves. They are not perfect, but their flaws do not include falsehood, petty jealousies and the banal hypocrisies in the Twentieth Century.”
The Guide repeats this later: “They do have human faults and weaknesses, but not as many or as severe as in our time. They have been selected for this mission because of their ability to transcend (its emphasis) their human failings. We should see in them the kind of people we aspire to be ourselves.”
Star Trek is a curiously American Utopia. One quite fitted for the 4 percent of the world’s population that calls itself the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Hungry? Hit the replicator. No money needed. Cold? Hey, the cast and crew are dressed always for room temperature. Stressed out? Go to Sick Bay. You’ll be okay. And the other 96 percent of the planet Earth?
The Writers’/Directors’ Guide states, “If you are in doubt about a scene, you can apply this simple test: ‘Would I believe this if it were occurring today on the Bridge of the Battleship Missouri?'” Star Trek is sort of like the military, but not battleship gray. The uniforms are always snug. No need to salute. No need to drop down and “give me fifty, sailor.” The Starship Enterprise is a good place to hang out, if you don’t mind hanging out in a hotel lobby. If it had more plants, you could be traveling on the Airport Hilton.
Research the etymology of the word “Enterprise.” It is less a military or political word than a corporate word. Its roots are Calvinistic. Chauvinistic. And white. Free Enterprise: that’s where the government doesn’t intervene in the free market. One of those truths we hold so dear. One of those truths Robinson Crusoe held so dear.
The Starship Enterprise is Capitalism in Space. Maybe it is true that in Space no one may hear you scream, but Crusoe’s legacy echoes everywhere.
Captain Kirk, the white man hero on the original Star Trek, still has his ethnic sidekick. Mister Spock is a part Terran and part Vulcan. In one episode of Star Trek, Chief Engineer Scotty, under the influence of an alien intelligence, calls Mister Spock a “green-blooded half-breed.” The importance of the alien influence on poor Scotty’s mind, of course, is that Scotty speaks without the civilizing superego regulating his words. It’s a Freudian slip, an unconscious truth.
The remainder of the crew were also cast in subordinate postures to the dominant white male Kirk. Sulu was a frustrated samurai (America’s old enemy), while Chekov was another defeated enemy, a Russian leftover of the Cold War. But how was the Third World represented?
Lieutenant Uhura was an African-American woman. (No black males needed to apply in those days of Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam.) Her name in Swahili meant “freedom,” for the Robinson Crusoe “mythos” could only view blacks as slaves or ex-slaves. Still, for all her freedoms, she was only a receptionist answering the phone for the Main Office. (In truth, Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, was the only regular cast member that first season without a contract. In fact, for the duration of the first Star Trek, she was also consistently paid less than any other cast member. But then she was a Girl Friday!)
Mister Spock dies in the second Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan. In a more altruistic rendering of yet another of Man Friday’s necessary demises, Spock gives up his life to save his friends and his fellow officers. “Of all the souls I have known, his was the most human,” Kirk says at Spock’s wake. (This may be a slam. Ask Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din.)
Spock lives again in the sequel, The Search for Spock, which should have had audiences booing throughout the known universe . . . except for the fact that the audience is a vampire thirsty for its favorite characters. But then Death is not Too Proud to work a deal in Hollywood . . . if the money’s right.
For the Western mind, Space is now the Final Frontier, and now the Robinson Crusoe mystique urges us “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” By implication, the Starship Enterprise is a real estate office in outer space.
To boldly go vertical: It’s our Manifest Destiny.
Too bad the sidekick always gets screwed along the way.
* * *
Ah, the Starship Enterprise . . .
According to The Writers’/Directors’ Guide to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Starship Enterprise and her mission is the only continuing character in the Star Trek television and film series.
The Writers’/Directors’ Guide is insistent that the two are one: “Please remember that a major character in STAR TREK has always been the Starship Enterprise and its mission. The ship is not just a vehicle – she is the touchstone by which all of our characters demonstrate who they are and what they’re up to in the universe.”
Obviously, the Enterprise and her mission is the American Master Story, which is always a subtle variation on America’s own sense of Manifest Destiny.
Not so obviously, that American Master Story has taken Robinson Crusoe and his Ethnic Sidekick as Captain and Crew.
The first spin-off from the classic Trek was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and with 178 episodes it ran for seven years. Captain Picard was an Englishman with a French name and a Royal Shakespearean accent, and his second-in-command Commander Riker was not called “Number Two,” but “Number One.” The rest of the crew all qualified as Ethnic Sidekicks.
In 1993 Star Trek had a second major spin-off called Deep Space Nine. Its two-hour premiere was the highest-rated show in syndication television history, eclipsing the previous record held by the two-hour premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a previous spin-off.
Avery Brooks, who played Commander Benjamin Sisko in the series, had previously played the ethnic sidekick Hawk on TV’s Spenser: For Hire series, which was based on the books by Robert B. Parker. What’s interesting is that Sisko was not a Captain of the Starship Enterprise, he was only a Commander of a Space Station protecting a wormhole on the border of the known galaxy. A wormhole is sort of an on-ramp to more distant reaches, and Sisko was little more than a security guard, a door-shaker.
Second billing belonged to Rene Auberjonois, who played “the shapeshifter Odo,” an alien being of unknown origins. Visually, Odo was a spin-off of the “morphing” techniques used in the hit movie Terminator II: Judgment Day, and his “special effects” were probably why he was created for the series. Not only was Odo a “shapeshifter,” an archetype worth studying all by itself, but any critter that could shape its shape at will certainly qualifies as the ultimate ethnic sidekick.
But Commander Sisko’s position in the Star Trek mythology was critically important. Because he wasn’t a Captain, he didn’t have a Captain’s Chair. Without that, he was just an Ethnic Sidekick. Not until 1995 did Commander Sisko finally become Captain; he was also given command of the Defiant, a prototype warship.
The Captain’s Chair goes back to the earliest days of our Western culture. We must remember that “Jesus SITS at the right hand of the Father” and the Throne of Saint Peter is the center of the Vatican’s universe. In the Middle Ages, the Bishop’s throne was called the “cathedra,” and the church that encloses it was named after the fact. Because the first universities were seminaries, the Professorships were “Chairs,” a term which still is used in much of academe.
In the 1994 Star Trek movie Generations, the seventh full-length feature film in the franchise, the final scene featured Captain Picard and his Number One Commander Riker standing amid the ruins of the Federation Starship Enterprise. Between them is the Captain’s Chair. Their reverence is noticeable.
Star Trek had a new incarnation in 1995: Star Trek: Voyager. It premiered January 16th. The Captain this time was a woman, Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew. As the first major role for a woman in the Star Trek saga, Captain Janeway was a sort of breakthrough character . . . if we can forget that she was not the Captain of an Enterprise-class Starship and that she and her crew got lost on their first mission. They were so lost that returning home would take 75 years!
She has a very ethnic crew. Her first officer was Chakotay, a Native American (played by Robert Beltran). Her security officer was Tuvok, a sort of African-Vulcan (played by Tim Russ). Her Chief Engineer was described as a half-human and half-Klingon (played by Roxann Biggs-Dawson). They were all Ethnic Sidekicks.
Voyager is scheduled to end in the Spring of 2001, and a new Star Trek series is rumored to begin, perhaps featuring Starfleet Academy and (dare we hope!) the new Enterprise.
Star Trek is a heroic space adventure. Throughout its different incarnations, the Enterprise’s basic mission has always been: To explore. And we should identify this Final Frontier with the great European Age of Discovery that started with Portugal’s Prince Henry in the fifteenth century.
As Evan S. Connell relates in A Long Desire, Prince Henry the Navigator, Prince of fifteenth century Portugal, and the man most responsible for initiating the great European voyages of discovery, was also the first to issue official slave hunting licenses to his retainers. The first one back from raiding villages along the Guinea coast wrote his liege: “And at last our Lord God, who rewards every noble act, willed that for the toil they had undergone in His service . . . they took captive of these Moors, what with men, women and children, 165, besides those who perished or were killed.”
In 1452 the Bishop of Rome spoke out and gave his official blessing in a papal bull. As Connell reminds us, “‘Dum Diversas’ authorized Portugal to attack Saracens, pagans, and unbelievers, to capture and keep all their goods, and reduce the owners to slavery.”
Eventually the English took over the slave trade. Over the last 400 years, 20 million West Africans became slaves, and most ended up in what is now the United States of America.
The Crusoe “mythos” is racist by definition. It is invidious because it is invisible and because it justifies itself. It is also eminently successful, perhaps the most successful ethic in the history of the world. The proof is trumpeted everywhere. The Crusoe “mythos” of free enterprise has driven the west’s engines of progress to phenomenal levels. The Crusoe “mythos” is self-sustaining. Even when fragmented into components, it continues its inexorable, relentless motion.
The Protestant ethic has evolved into the American mystique. It is the western “mythos,” a product of popular culture so pervasive as to be invisible, a seamless thread through our culture. A western ethic that has been steadily going global. And what we Americans call “globalization,” the other 96 percent of the world calls “American imperialism.”
Enough stuff and nonsense has been written about the Samurai Businessman to chokehold a sumo wrestler. When the old Bushido face brought shame, death and destruction in its defeat in World War Two, Japan put a new face on its samurai and set out to build a new economic empire.
Both Michael Crichton’s book Rising Sun and the 1993 movie of the same name deal head-on with the effects of Japan’s own version of Robinson Crusoe’s free enterprise. The Crusoe “mythos” has gone corporate, multinational, global. The Crusoe “mythos” has become the new Japanese “mythos.”
We must remember several other things. That the Japanese do not subscribe to the Protestant Ethic. They are not Protestant. That, regardless whether it’s located in California or Ceylon, Malaysia or Tennessee, the Japanese production facility is identical to the production facility back in the home islands. That every important position will not be filled by a local, but by a Japanese national sent out from the home islands just for this specific job position. The Japanese do not play by the same rules. Nor does any other major Asian trading partner we have. Mainland China and Singapore, for instance, are both Confucian societies. One is still nominally Communist, while the other is pure capitalism. The subcontinent of India is one of the fast growing nations; the Protestant Work Ethic will be a bust there. As the PBS documentary The Pacific Century noted, East Asia is growing twice as fast as either America or Western Europe, while 40 million citizens of the USA live below the poverty level.
Yes, Rising Sun has a message: If we do not understand the rules we play by, how can we understand their rules? But an even more important message is shrouded in fictional mists. What ultimately happens to Man Friday also has important reverberations in the post-modern global marketplace.
The basic storyline to Robinson Crusoe privileges the white entrepreneur Crusoe and denies Man Friday any chance to share in the wealth. With any story that’s part of Our Master Story, the final questions must be: Who wins? Who loses? Who gets the rewards? Who doesn’t? Will everyone share the rewards fairly?
Remember the Clinton Health Plan and consider what two major nations in the world still do not have universal coverage. South Africa is one, and the United States of America is the other.
Who has coverage in America? The wealthy, of course. Most of the middle class. The indigent poor of America have coverage. But 38 million of the working poor have none.
Health Care. We must ask who suffers. The wealthy don’t; they have health care. The working middle-class don’t suffer; they have health care. The indigent poor don’t suffer; they have health care. Who suffers? The working poor suffer. The uninsured suffer.
It is easy to forget that we are all in this republic together. Perhaps some of the resentment and frustration felt by the Man Fridays of this world can be traced back to the Crusoe “mythos.”
As Ian Watt remarks in his 1951 essay, “Robinson Crusoe as a Myth,”
“Crusoe later avoids any possible qualms about keeping Friday in servitude by the deferred altruism of a resolution ‘to do something considerable for him, if he outlived me.’ Fortunately, no such sacrifice is called for, as Friday dies at sea, faithful to the end, and rewarded only by a brief word of obituary compassion.”
Albert Camus in The Rebel commented upon this deferred altruism:
“Progress, paradoxically, can be used to justify conservatism. A draft drawn on confidence in the future, it allows the master to have a clear conscience. The slave and those whose present life is miserable and who can find no consolation in the heavens are assured that at least the future belongs to them. The future is the only kind of property that the masters willingly concede to the slaves.”
As I mentioned earlier, ethnic sidekicks generally don’t live to share the wealth.
In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumppo lived to be almost ninety years old, and even as an old man Natty was still rescuing white women (his last one from her abusive fiancée), still evading the Sioux, still able to escape both a prairie fire and a buffalo stampede. He died surrounded by his closest friends, both white and black.
However, Bumppo’s faithful Indian sidekick Chingachgook dies in Bumppo’s arms partway through the series (right after Bumppo saves him from a nasty forest fire), just as Friday dies in Crusoe’s second tale of rogue capitalist adventure. Actually, Chingachgook dies in Cooper’s first Hawkeye novel The Pioneers (1823), but like Mister Spock, he rose again from the dead for the sequels.
Oh, and yes, Man Friday does die in the sequel The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published, like its predecessor, in the same Year of Our Lord, 1719.
* * *
Robinson Crusoe “naming” Friday has another modern corollary, as Herman Wouk points out in This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life:
“Economists know that contrary to the popular impression, slaves do not work hard. A slave civilization is slow-moving and easygoing; we still have traces of one in the American South. Take away a man’s rights in himself, and he becomes dull and sluggish, wily and evasive, a master of the arts of avoiding responsibility and expending little energy. The whip is no answer to this universal human reaction.”
Despair is the absence of hope. Robinson Crusoe named his island the Island of Despair. But as Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel, “There is in fact, nothing in common between a master and a slave; it is impossible to speak and communicate with a person who is reduced to servitude.”
If the dominant culture doesn’t nurture your soul, doesn’t give you the stories that provide explanations to your cravings and questions . . . You can construct your own stories.
The legacy of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday continues to impact upon and influence events. That Crusoe-Friday “mythos” echoes, reverberates through the financial markets, the academic world, through Hollywood’s every creation, through our entire Way of Life. That there is a vast underclass cut off from the dominant culture.
A “mythos” that seems geared to keeping people of the “wrong” skin color in their place can very easily become a national policy. Some feel it already has. For too many African-Americans, both the AIDS and the crack epidemics have been deliberately and consciously manufactured by the dominant white culture as forms of genocide against African-Americans.
I myself have heard this particular story on the streets far too often to not suspect it may in fact be the dominant Point of View on the mean streets of America. And those in power positions can deny this genocide exists. But they won’t be believed by those who feel they have been and are being shafted.
* * *
Robinson Crusoe glorified the European colonizer and his point of view toward underdeveloped countries. Now, two centuries later, that POV is viewed as a villain. Many of us are appalled by those megalomaniac deeds.
As soon as Crusoe put a name to the other man, Man Friday’s previous identity – all of it – disappeared, vanished, forever. Man Friday – as a nonwhite – became a parody of a white man, an apprentice white man. As he is patronized and derided by the master race’s master narrative, he is brought to more servitude and contempt. Naturally, his resentment grew.
Robinson Crusoe helped consign all people of color into “primitives” who needed “civilizing” by white folks. It fed the patronizing attitude of the colonizers and divided the world into the haves and the have-nots.
That “master-slave” relationship created a new idolatry. The nonwhites of the world were told to put their faith in the white man and worship him. The unsubtle message of Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din: if you die for the white man, you get to go to Heaven. Gunga Din really was “a better man than” the narrator. No way in hell would a white man die for him! No way in hell.
If you feel that’s not what our Master Story still teaches, consider the Lost Battalion of Vietnam. Those 500 South Vietnamese commandos who were parachuted into the north during the 1960s and who were then immediately written off by both the US Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. The white boys said the South Vietnamese soldiers were Dead On Arrival – but over 200 survived more than two decades in prisons and resurfaced to point out the lie. The survivors have asked only for their back pay for all the years in prison. Who among us would ask for so little?
What are some other aftershocks of Crusoe? In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, the British schoolboys are stranded on a Crusoesque desert island, and they soon degenerate into a horde of murderous savages. We should remember The Lord of the Flies. Every single day, while adult Americans walk around for all intents and purposes blind as bats, our children are doing battle with the forces of Good and Evil.
In South Central Los Angeles, where a third of all the city’s homicides take place, gangbangers kill schoolchildren for not wearing the “right” colors. Right now in America, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, 25% of all black males – those between the teenagers to college-age – are in jail or under arrest.
In every ghetto, teenage boys think and act as if they were thugs and gangsters and not “the lost boys” they actually are. They think of themselves as outlaws. Too many of these boys are fathers. Meanwhile more than half of all gang murders are innocent bystanders or robbery victims.
In many of its advertisements the United States Navy takes pride that its men and women are out there defending the American Way of Life. Trust the military to be brutally pragmatic, clearly focused and precisely empowered.
Who we are is more than just a majority of dialects of the English language. Our American Way of Life is the general atmosphere we live and breathe in. It is a set of assumptions we and all our ancestors have made and do make. Our descendants will continue this practice.
Our Way of Life is not our American ideals, or the Judeo-Christian heritage, our precious political history, or any other pious phraseologies we conveniently trot out when we want to ignore the facts.
Our Way of Life is how we live every day. How we work and how we play and how we dress up and dress down. It is how we eat and what we eat and when we eat. It’s what we watch and read and talk about when we get together.
Our Way of Life started as no single individual strand of thread. Our Way of Life is a fabric woven by billions of all races and colors, deliberately if not consciously.
Our Way of Life is the American monomyth, the Master Narrative, the white folks’ way of life, the Robinson Crusoe mystique. It is Our Side of the Story over a Long Period of Time.
Our Way of Life is a Cultural Consensus. But it has a vein of racism and elitism and oppression built in that runs clear down its length from its earliest days on another continent half the world away.
Our Way of Life exerts its influence over us and undercuts our individuality. It pressures us and influences all of our choices and our opinions. We conform to it, and our unthinking loyalty makes us helpless before it.
Our Way of Life interprets the world so we don’t have to. It dictates moral and ethical principles, thus constructs a foundation to stand upon. It is the voice of the collective mind of our culture, about what that collective mind sees itself as, as where that collective mind thinks it came from, and where the collective mind wants to go next.
We speak this narrative and we behave according its underlying assumptions and assertions. We never notice this narrative, and so we never challenge it. The problem comes when we are blinded by obsolete mythologies. When what we believe in is a dangerous relic.
Naturally enough, a few of the words of Thomas Jefferson are written on the walls inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D. C. His Greatest Hits, so to speak.
My favorite Jeffersonian quotation is also on the walls inside, but it is not the one most Americans remember. It reads: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
In 1968 the Kerner Commission said there would be two Americas, one black and the other white, if racial injustices were not remedied. In 1993 the Milton S. Eisenhower Commission said these two societies within America had prevailed.
Justice is a most curious beast. Our opinions are filtered not only through our personal experiences, but they are also manipulated – programmed – by our Master Story. A white sees a black in handcuffs: he’s in handcuffs because he’s guilty. A black sees a black in handcuffs and registers: he’s in handcuffs because he is black.
We may be racists. But we do not know (i.e., recognize) how deep our prejudices run because we do not know (i.e., recognize) the power behind a Master Story steering us. We dance to the Master Story as if it were a tune. It is the background music of our lives, as well as the lives of our kith and kin.
The Master Story is based on blind faith. It’s based on not questioning who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. To recognize the symptoms is almost impossible. When you hear the bell, you are Pavlov’s dog.
Twenty centuries ago Julius Caesar groused about his “impedimenta” when he was barreling his way through Gaul back in the years before Christ. His army could march like the Dickens, but his “impedimenta” was the supply train that followed behind. “Impedimenta” slowed his army down. Our word “impediment” is baggage carried. What baggage do we carry? What slows us down? What part of our precious cultural baggage must we dump in order to survive as a nation?
* * *
Well, what do the ethnic sidekicks want? Ethnics want to share the wealth and share the power. On New Year’s Day, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army launched an assault against the government of Mexico. The Chiapas rebels claimed they were rebelling in specific against terms within NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which their government, the Canadian government and the government of the United States of America had all recently signed and which was going into effect on that day. They never said they were against it; they just didn’t want to be left out.
How many of the top 100 country clubs in America have black members – and how many “members” are there altogether? Are there any black managers in major American sports? How many? Are there any black owners of major American sport franchises? Are there any blacks (male or female) with the power to say “Yes” to a movie in Hollywood?
Is there a black vice presidential candidate for either the Democrats or the Republicans looming on the horizon? Or would a black vice president be the ultimate ethnic sidekick? Has there ever been a black candidate for president of the United States who ³could have been a contender²?
Can a black man, a man of “color” become President? The recent political saga of Colin Powell gives us a tentative “yes.” But then his parents are Jamaican immigrants, not native black American. Is there a distinction between being black and being Jamaican-born and being black and American-born? Is a distinction perceived? How else do we explain that one of The New York Times’ editorials to celebrate Powell’s achievements during the autumn of 1995 was headlined “Colin Powell’s Jamaican Journey”? How else do we explain that “Jamaican” now seems always stapled to his achievements?
Can a woman be President? Can a woman of color be President? Can a Jew? How about a Muslim?
Robinson Crusoe still enslaves us all. His racism is part of the cultural baggage we carry. It is our “impedimenta.” It is a fiction that may destroy us.
The day I began this essay in 1994 was an ordinary Wednesday; the best said about it is that it was the Wednesday after Memorial Day. And yet . . . while I wrote, CNN ran a story about the resort island of Hilton Head in South Carolina. There, the white-owned and operated golf courses are fully developed with watering systems for both sewer and irrigation, while the black islanders who lived on the island of Hilton Head long before the real estate developers came to develop it do not have any sewer facilities.
After a half-dozen years has Hilton Head experienced any changes?
Or does Crusoe still echo across the land?
Literature teaches a sense of worth. To see your own story in words is a wonderful thing. To see your own story retold is to touch your own immortality, what little of that we can get. Novels like Roots and Beloved make us all feel what slavery was like for that person.
But who defines the worth? Who computes the worth? Who knows what part of our precious Way of Life we may have to jettison in order to survive as a nation. But if we fail to analyze who we are, how we got here and where we want to go next, if we let ourselves be influenced and manipulated by self-flattery – (I will not say, “blinded by self-delusion,” but you can) – we will be helpless pawns pressured by larger forces, either more powerful individuals or social groups whose agendas, hidden and otherwise, may not be what we want – but may actually injure or kill us.
The puppet masters will have free rein.
Fall 2000’s Queer Films
Gay werewolves, the Marquis De Sade, and a mean one-legged nun: The tortured queens and killer dykes of yesteryear make way for more rarified queer types this season.
Queer and queerish films have come increasingly de rigeur in the modern cinema landscape, with a subsequent broadening of the types of queers portrayed. The day of the vampire lesbian and the queer psycho killer isn’t exactly dead, but such beloved stereotypes are more likely to be celebrated or camped-up than vilified as in the past. In this post-everything world, gay werewolves, respectable dykes, macho dancers, teenage girl boxers, and even cock-sucking auteurs have found a happier existence in film than they might in the Real World. The boundaries are sufficiently blurred that some of these characters are not precisely queer but queer-coded, welcomed as their own by both gay and straight audiences.
The fall movie scene looks to be richly queer, with the above-mentioned group sharing cinematic space with such icons of homo life as the Marquis de Sade, William Burroughs, San Francisco lap dancers, and that timeless troop, cutthroat-competitive poodle queens. (Playdates may change; check your local listings. And of course some of these films will appear only in major cities.)
Not surprisingly, since men still rule the roost, there appear to be more male-oriented features than female in this season’s gay-la offerings. The first, opening Sept. 8, is François Ozon’s Falling Drops on Burning Rocks, an adaptation of a Fassbinder play that he either forgot or purposely shelved, apparently because it involved an affair he had as a young man with an older queen. Discovered after his death, the play makes a dandy claustrophobic chamber piece, with a winsome trick slowly, viciously disabused of every ideal by a predatory old (50, that is) queen. You don’t have to be a Fassbinder freak to appreciate this film’s black vision of a world of homo hunters and hunted.
Jon Shear’s Urbania, opening September 15, is a queer odyssey through Manhattan with tormented Charlie (Dan Futterman) avenging a friend’s fagbashing. Flashbacks and forwards and a gritty view of New York City as a Boschian nightmare give this dire, violent story poetic resonance. Also scheduled for that day is the premiere of the real-life nightmare of Paragraph 175. This doc by San Franciscans Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman somehow managed to unearth queers who survived the Nazi death camps, along the way limning the gruesome history of homos living under that particular reign of terror.
Also due for revival this fall is William Friedkin’s seminal glop ‘n’ gorefest The Exorcist. The draw here is an additional 15 minutes of footage, though it’s not clear if this consists of anything more than different angles of projectile vomiting by that zany hellspawn Linda Blair. The film is of course must viewing for queers in its skewering of mainstream straight religion. Perhaps a matinee of that barf-o-rama could followed by an evening with Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, opening the same week. Guest’s Waiting for Guffman impressed many viewers with its slashing satire of a dinner theater company, and this time Guest sweetly assaults another treasure of lowbrow American culture: the dog show. Among the crazed entrants: two spoiled Shih Tzus, “Miss Agnes” and “Tyrone,” and a pampered poodle, “Rhapsody in White,” owned by a New York queen and his hairdresser boyfriend, the latter played by the always welcome Michael McKean.
More fun in this vein arrives with Paddy Breathnach’s Blow Dry. This time the subject is a national hairdressing competition in a small English town. Alan Rickman plays an old-school hairdresser vs. his ex-wife, played by Natasha Richardson, who’s drifted into dykedom. This comedy, directed by the guy who gave us The Full Monty, features the rarely sighted male morgue beautician.
Opening September 29 is Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight. Not strictly queer, it’s nonetheless of interest as a rare glimpse at the professional and romantic travails of a teenage girl boxer (played by Michelle Rodriguez). Advance buzz is hot for what sounds like a Rocky for babydykes, and featherweight or feather-brained, it sounds like something worth working up a sweat over. Robert Lee King’s Psycho Beach Party has made waves on the queer film festival circuit, and promises at least diversion with its campy sendup of ‘60s slasher films. Watch for Charles “Lesbian Vampires of Sodom” Busch as “Captain Monica Stark.”
“Gay vampire” is practically a redundancy, but gay werewolves haven’t fared as well. These beasts have usually been resolutely hetero. Making up for that is Will Gould’s The Wolves of Kromer, opening October 20. This parable of homosexuality focuses on anti-social, “amoral” lycanthropes pursued by a murderous mob (Christians, no doubt) in an English village. The thought of male werewolf couples fucking each other’s brains out at bonfire parties, then running off to fleece the straight villagers, sounds like sweet revenge indeed.
Also in October (opening the 6th) is Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club, whose coy tagline is “The shortest distance between friends isn’t always a straight line.” This queer version of Diner – or Friends, or any number of ensemble-based TV shows or movies – updates the Boys in the Band model by having its queens prattle about Ricky Martin, Janet Jackson, and John-Boy Walton instead of Judy and Bette. The studio is hoping for a crossover hit: a recent Wall Street Journal article quoted director Berlanti as saying “I’d love for this to be the first film with all gay characters not to be in the ‘gay’ section at Blockbuster.” Perhaps prayer will help the director realize this dubious dream.
Pithier thrills can be had from Julia Query and Vicky Funari’s Live Nude Girls Unite!, also opening around the 6th. This bracing doc tracks a strike by lap dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady club as they try to unionize. The women are passionate, intelligent, and articulate; maybe this will be the film that finally ends the notion that women who work in the sex industry are all coked-out morons too dumb to get any other kind of work. Not to insult our many friends who are coked-out morons.
November’s homo highlight, at least as of this writing, is yet another of those overcooked Filipino sweatfests about macho dancers and their sad little lives. Burlesk King is by the late Lino Brocka’s heir apparent Mel Chionglo, and stars fetching Rodel Velayo as a young American-Filipino who arrives in Manila to find his abusive father and avenge his mother’s death. Expect the usual bump ‘n grind follies, with fleshy bodies undulating under tacky colored lights, along with a soupcon of social commentary.
December finds us in territory at once quirkier and more familiar. Gary Walkow’s Beat examines the inner workings of Ginsberg, Burroughs, his target-practice wife, and various hangers-on during an early ‘50s trek through Mexico. Anyone expecting a hot Beat fuck will be disappointed; there’s little more than one uncomfortable scene between two of the Beatsters. If the film is as accurate as it would have us believe, these Beats weren’t quite the giddy libertines they claimed to be. Fading queer auteur Gus Van Sant weighs in with Finding Forrester, a buddy movie that will no doubt have plenty of homoerotic touches. The buddies in question are mentor Sean Connery, playing a reclusive author, and Jamal Wallace, a black athlete studying at an all-white prep school; they meet on the Internet. Hmmm… reclusive author “mentors” a hunky jock, they meet on the Internet. Forget subtext; this sounds like a full-blown faggot melodrama.
Also in December is Philip Kaufman’s Quills, a period drama about everyone’s favorite historical pervert, the Marquis de Sade. Geoffrey Rush plays de Sade and prissy Joaquin Phoenix prances through the part of a wacky priest. Not to spoil, but the film does answer the question of what to do when you’re in prison and deprived of pen and paper – how about red wine and a chicken leg? Gus Van Sant is also allegedly working on a film about the His Wickedness, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, but no details yet.
More queer history is mined in December by Shadow of the Vampire, E. Elias Merhige’s fictionalized look at the filming of the silent horror film Nosferatu, by notorious queer director F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich). Willem Dafoe plays the creepy-looking star “Max Schreck” and it’s a question whether he’s really a vampire. Murnau’s death is part of Hollywood’s legend; supposedly he died in a car wreck caused by blowing his chauffer. With luck, Shadow of the Vampire will meticulously re-create this scene with lingering close-ups.
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys isn’t due on screens until early 2001, but with a title like that and the presence of Jodie Foster in bride-o’-Christ drag, it’s too good to resist at least mentioning. Incredibly, Foster turned down the remake of Silence of the Lambs because the story was too ridiculous but accepted Altar Boys. According to press notes, a bunch of 8th-grade southern Catholic boys get caught drawing dirty comics about priests and nuns. When the school inexplicably insists they be punished, the little brats vow revenge against the “mean one-legged nun,” Sister Ascension (Foster), in charge. Hunky Vincent D’Onofrio adds inevitable queer spice as the coach of a boys’ soccer league, but Foster deserves camp canonization not only for playing what sounds like one of the most outlandish cinematic creations in recent memory, but also for thoughtfully introducing a new kind of queer icon for jaded viewers to worship.