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Robinson Crusoe: an Autistic Fantasy With Universal Appeal

The genius of Defoe’s novel lies in its fusion of autistic fact and fantasy.

Robinson Crusoe is one of the first, most famous, most influential, and most widely translated of books, which today is available in every written language, including Latin, classical Greek, Chinese, Hindi, Coptic, Inuit, Moari, and Esparanto. Indeed, it has also been one of the most imitated of all stories, and in so many different ways—there is even an operetta by Offenbach—that the term Robinsonade has been coined to describe this genre of fiction.

Most people would not immediately associate Robinson Crusoe with autism—not for example in the way in which they would Mark Haddon’s multiple-award winning work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Christopher Boone, the 15-year old autistic hero of that book, remarks that one of his favourite dreams, both waking and sleeping, is that “nearly everyone on earth is dead.” Consequently,

I can go anywhere in the world and I know that no one is going to talk to me or touch me or ask me a question. But if I don’t want to go anywhere I don’t have to, and I can stay at home and eat broccoli and oranges and liquorice laces all the time, or I can play computer games for a whole week…

Of course, this is an author’s attempt to describe the world of a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, but many on the autistic spectrum will recognize this fantasy or something very like it as one of theirs. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that Robinson Crusoe features essentially the same scenario of solitary survival: rather than everyone else being removed, as in Christopher Boone’s fantasy, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on a seemingly uninhabited island, but the effect is the same.

Robinson Crusoe reflects that “I have been in all my Circumstances a Memento to those who are touched with the general Plague of Mankind, whence, for ought I know, one half of their Miseries flow…” Tony Attwood, a leading authority on Asperger’s syndrome, suggests a means by which a child with Asperger’s can indeed be isolated from the general Plague of Mankind—or what I would call mentalism:

If you are a parent, take your child with Asperger’s syndrome to his or her bedroom. Leave the child alone in the bedroom and close the door behind you as you walk out of the room. The signs of Asperger’s syndrome in your son or daughter have now disappeared. (p. 55)

Robinson Crusoe was written by Daniel Defoe (ca. 1660-1731) and is based on the real-life experiences of Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish mariner who was marooned for 4 years and 4 months on the island of Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández archipelago off the Pacific coast of South America in 1704. In 1782 William Cowper wrote a poem inspired by Selkirk’s story which opens with the famous words "I am monarch of all that I survey," but goes on to ask, "Oh, solitude! where are the charms / That sages have seen in thy face?" "Better dwell in the midst of alarms," concludes the poet, "Than reign in this horrible place."

The remaining stanzas add more of the same, but anyone who reads Robinson Crusoe without preconceptions cannot help but be struck by the fact that the novel contains little or nothing of the kind of distress and despair at being isolated suggested by these lines. On the contrary, Crusoe himself remarks that

it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken Solitary Condition that it was probable I should ever have been in any Particular State in the World; and with this Thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this Place.

Indeed, a phobic attitude to other human beings pervades the story, epitomized in Crusoe being “terrify’d to the last Degree” at finding a solitary foot-print in the sand; and throughout the book expressions of regret at the loss of social contact by the hero are rare and perfunctory. Instead, most of the account of Crusoe’s stay on his island is concerned entirely with his adaptation to the physical environment. The psychological, mental aspect is almost totally ignored. As such, this narrative of isolation in a strange landscape stands in stark contrast not only to Cowper’s poem, but also to that found in Samuel Butler’s late nineteenth-century novel, Erewhon, where the narrator constantly stresses his feelings of loneliness, distress, and craving for human contact after only a day or two of isolation.

The accounts that have come down to us of Alexander Selkirk suggest that Defoe may have taken the autistic aspect of his hero’s character from Crusoe’s real-life original. Far from seeing his island home in Cowper’s words as a “horrible place,” Richard Steele, writing in the periodical, The Englishman, in 1713, observes that Selkirk in fact “frequently bewailed his Return to the World, which could not, as he said, with all its Enjoyments, restore to him the Tranquillity of his Solitude.” He quotes Selkirk remarking that “I am now worth 800 pounds”—a considerable sum at the time—“but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.” And Captain Woodes Rogers, who rescued him, relates that Selkirk had certainly acquired one classic autistic symptom as a result of his solitary exile in the form of a severe language impairment: “At his first coming on board us, he had so much as forgot his Language for want of Use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seem’d to speak his words by halves.”

Contemporaries described Selkirk as having a “strong, cheerful seriousness in his look and a certain disregard to the ordinary things about him as if he had been sunk in thought,” and report him as “an unsociable, odd kind of man.” Indeed, a modern biographer portrays him as “selfish, egotistical, self-opinionated and ever-ready to pick a fight.” The same author adds that Selkirk was “also undoubtedly brave albeit in a foolhardy way,” and “an excellent navigator on whose abilities world-ranging captains and their officers (…) were happy to depend.” Fearlessness is often found in autistics, navigational expertise is a quintessential mechanistic one, and it is a fact that, far from being shipwrecked on his island, Selkirk was put ashore there at his own demand following serious disagreements with the captain of his ship about her sea-worthiness. Indeed, he probably owed his life to such candid insubordination, since the vessel did in fact founder soon after with the loss of many lives. And as I have pointed out before, whistle-blowing is yet another common trait found in high-functioning autistics.

If Defoe portrayed an autistic fantasy of isolation to striking effect in Robinson Crusoe, his original may have been much more than simply master of all he surveyed. Selkirk almost certainly valued his quarantine from the general Plague of Mankind thanks to his pre-existing autistic proclivities, which Defoe picked up from him along with much of the rest of the story. Indeed, this may be the secret of the book's sensational success. According to the diametric model of the mind, there is something of a Robinson Crusoe/Alexander Selkirk in all of us: an autistic side that sometimes relishes solitude, and occasionally revels in fantasies of freedom from other people like that so brilliantly portrayed by Defoe in this classic novel.