by Paul Carter
© all rights reserved
“I escaped the Thunder, and fell into the Lightning”
George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum
Ours has been a culture that, in George Herbert’s words, has “escaped the Thunder”; or, better, turned a deaf ear to its portentous voices. The question might be, how long can it also avoid falling into the lightning. Private Marine Easty was not a good speller, so perhaps it does not signify when he reports the weather off the east coast of Australia for January 1st 1788 as “East Dark Clowdy att Night with Scaquals & Lighting”. On the other hand a habit of passing off lightning as theatrical lighting-a tendency to treat the evolving environment as foreign to our human drama-has been symptomatic: our intellectual (certainly our Edisonian) Enlightenment might be characterised as lightning’s silent arrest: short-circuiting its discharge to earth, we have made of it a permanent illumination. In any case the knowledges we have privileged, the technologies we have designed to represent them, have always assumed the linearisation of time and space, the elimination of its curvilinear and non-linear dimensions.
The opening of the woods, the clearing of the ground-these historical activities are cognate with the process of intellectual enlightenment, the ideology of progress. To remove the bushes, to render the ground as smooth as a billiard table, is to enclose the land within a permanent ring of light. The open field is a rebuke to clouds or other evidences of primitive chiaroscuro: the colonists’ eagerness to remove every vestige of vegetation cannot be explained simply as a mistaken theory of agriculture; it expresses an overwhelming need to clear away doubt-not to make the land speak in accents all its own, but to silence the whispers, the inexplicable earth and sky tremors which always seemed to accompany colonisation. Progress, it seems, is built on the ruins of process: in order to stand erect the man must, it seems, stamp the earth flat, turning it into a passive planisphere.
From the beginning as it were this ideology ran into difficulties: if movement were suspect, if stasis were king, how was the colonist, let alone the trader and the traveller, to justify his shifting for himself. He must account for it psychologically; or else ascribe it to the will of God. In any case, as Robinson Crusoe repeatedly finds, it takes him into the heart of the tempest. “All these Miscarriages,” he reflects, “were procured by my apparent obstinate adhering to my foolish inclination of wandring abroad.”And he adds, “I was born to be my own Destroyer”-a philosophy that has the advantage at least of making the storms and shipwrecks that litter his life allegorical, evidence of God’s hidden, but providentially guiding, hand. Had he remained at home, as his father bade him, nothing of this would have happened.
As an introduction to the psychology of the coloniser, Defoe’s great book remains unequalled. What Phillip and his men set about at Sydney Cove, Defoe had already imagined a century earlier: “My Thoughts were now wholly employ’d about securing my self against … Savages”-in which cause “I resolv’d to find a more healthy and more convenient Spot of Ground”. And Crusoe’s manipulation of that ground is instructive. A little plain with a rocky backdrop disclosing itself, “On the Flat of the Green, just before this hollow place” he pitches his tent: and his first act is to turn a disclosure into an enclosure: “I drew a half Circle before the hollow Place [and] pitchd two Rows of strong Stakes, driving them into the Ground …” This gives him a sense of security but, such is the paranoia at the heart of binary logic, it also creates a little theatre in which to contemplate his insecurity. The dramatic agent of this sudden new self-awareness is the storm but “I was not so much surpris’d with the Lightning as I was with a Thought which darted into my Mind as swift as the Lightning itself. O my Powder! My very Heart sunk within me, when I thought, that at one Blast all my Powder might be destroy’d …”
Defoe’s insight is to understand that the coloniser produces the country he will inhabit out of his own imagining. The coloniser is also a novelist, making the lie of the land an index of his own fears and hopes. Crusoe heeds the lightning only because it mimics the operations of his own mind. Likewise the environment only signifies insofar as it supplies him with a tabula rasa whereon he can inscribe a hemisphere with himself at its centre. Crusoe holds no dialogue with his surroundings, only with himself. His island is of his own making and is conceived concentrically as the distribution of his own interests. Its very topography answers to the hierarchic command he claims over it. Nothing here can answer back, unless it is the parrot imitating his own voice; and certainly there can be no question of entering into negotiations with the island’s other inhabitants.
The single footprint that marks the breaching of his Eden stimulates an extraordinary sequence of mental events which, taken together, are a brilliant anatomy of the colonial mentality and its images. Coming across the mark in the sand Crusoe at first stood “like one Thunder-struck”, and then “came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground …” Unable to say what the impression signifies, he is filled with fear; in which condition his fancy projects onto it every fear of his own, including the image of Satan. This train of thought in turn produces its opposite: a revival of his Christian faith.
On the single “Print” or signature of presence is built an entire system of Heaven and Hell. This is the self-absorbed madness of colonial logic, repeatedly to project onto the environment its own chimeras. This much Defoe makes brilliantly clear: but in order to achieve this clarity he has to make a remarkable assumption. The value of the footprint as a stimulus to the fancy depends in large part on its singularity. Nowhere in the narrative does Crusoe express any interest in locating the other footprints that might be logically associated with it. His own train of thought-his own wildly associative logic-depends on abstracting the print from the environment and, instead of regarding as the trace of passage, interpreting it as a supernatural sign.
That footprint, we might say, is already enclosed within the clearing of the colonial gaze. As a signature, as a sign of absence, as something standing in for something else, it is not understood in relation to the lie of the land, as a dialogue of left and right marking the ground, as a historical passage. It is denied its other foot, its sense of direction, and it is this prior bracketing of the environment, symbolised by the absence of the other footprint, that precipitates the extraordinary fantasies that afflict Robinson Crusoe. There is in other words a direct connection between the clearing of the land, and the erasure of its natural histories, and the identification of knowledge with semiosis, the science of signs. The interpretation of signs, as Christopher Columbus’s diary of his first voyage eloquently testifies, presupposes a world beyond, and its corollary, a deceptive present. It makes the breaching of the horizon natural. As for the lie of the land, unless it lies down, it signifies nothing or, worse, the mendacity of the savage mind.
What would have happened if Robinson Crusoe had found another footprint? Then he would have found another and another, and a pattern would have emerged, a track. A system of memorialisation would have come into focus, a different way of regarding the ground. He would not have needed to invent an explanation; traces, not signs, the footprints would have ceased to be enigmatic. He might have grasped that the ground he stood on vibrated to the passage of other feet, and constituted an open network of social communication. His hysteria might have died down; he might have relaxed, and instead of seeking to efface every trace of his own history on the island, he might have contemplated the arts of diplomacy. Certainly, when at last the man he had been waiting for ran towards him, their meeting would have been different: “he … kiss’d the Ground, and laid his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head … in token of swearing to be my Slave for ever.”
This attention to the ground should not be mistaken for reverence. It is because he has nowhere to stand that the fugitive kneels down. He acknowledges Crusoe as his master by making away the ground. Ceding it with a kiss, he enters into the European way of seeing things where signs operate more powerfully than substances. He submits to allowing Crusoe to be the ground and author of his own life; what he does not see, at least not yet, is that, by setting his foot on Man Friday’s head, Crusoe makes him the ground of his own mastery…
Paul Carter is an interdisciplinary scholar, writer and performance artist who is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of several books, most notably, The Road to Botany Bay. This piece is reproduced with permission from the introduction of his challenging new book, The Lie of the Land, published in March 1996 by Faber & Faber and distributed in Australia by Penguin Books.