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Crusoe at the Crossroads 

Kirsten A. Hall

On Robinson Crusoe, Lost, and why we keep returning to mysterious islands where science blurs with the supernatural

Imagine you are a castaway in a strange land — shipwrecked, plane-wrecked, spaceship-wrecked, or what have you. It’s now been a few months since the crash, and in that time you’ve begun to adjust to your new surroundings, building a shelter, finding food, and meeting your basic needs, but nothing to satisfy the gnawing hunger for rescue and home. One day, you notice something different on your morning walk. You squint, leave the path, and — behold! — small green shoots of what appears to be some kind of grain breaking a previously barren patch of earth. How do you respond?

A.  You are not surprised. After all, you are a world-class botanist. You see your survival situation as less of a crisis and more of a puzzle for your high-functioning brain to solve, as you tell yourself, “I’m gonna have to science the s*** out of this.” Literally. Because not only have you tilled the soil in neat, orderly rows, sowed seeds, built your own irrigation system, and precisely calculated the yield of current and future crops, but you have also fertilized the soil with your own excrement. You are not from the deplorable herd of Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, wallowing in your own filth and ignorance. No, even your basest animal instinct glorifies your human ingenuity. You are the master, the monarch of all that lies before you, and you pursue your destiny with the scepter of Knowledge in your hand and your handmaiden Science at your side.

B.  You are astonished — so filled with wonder, in fact, that you conclude it could be nothing less than a miracle. How else could grain that you didn’t plant and that doesn’t appear to be native to this land grow except by the Hand of Heaven intervening in Creation for your benefit? God hath taken pity on this poor miserable sinner and spread “a table in the wilderness,” as He did for the Israelites. You tend to your crop, and your thankful heart sings that your exile is actually your deliverance.

C.  You are surprised but do not marvel long. Yes, you did have a pack of seeds with you and it’s possible you dropped some on the ground. Yes, it’s quite unlikely that the conditions — the season, amount of sunlight and water, soil quality — would align perfectly for the seeds to sprout. But as much as you’d like to attribute meaning to this event, you know the world is contingent and life arises randomly. Plus, even if the universe were on your side, why would it take interest in you, tiny speck that you are? Chance just happened to be in your favor this time, you lucky dog.

D.  All of the above.

If you answered A, you might be Mark Watney, the fictional astrobotanist stranded on Mars, played by Matt Damon in the 2015 film The Martian. Clearly, you are a paragon of Enlightenment optimism and Steven Pinker’s hero. If you chose B, you occupy a distinctly pre-modern, some might even say “medieval,” headspace. You show Luddite tendencies and probably have a penchant for tweed suits. If you selected C, you probably turn to evolutionary psychology, Carl Sagan, or Stephen Crane to reassure yourself when you can’t help but feel there might be something unique about the human experience.

But if you find yourself alternately optimistic about what you can achieve and disappointed in your limits and failures, if you want to believe there is something more to the universe than atoms colliding but find faith in a higher power or a transcendent reality difficult to sustain in the modern world, then you probably selected D. You are Robinson Crusoe....

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Kirsten A. Hall is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kirsten A. Hall, "Crusoe at the Crossroads," The New Atlantis, Number 59, Summer 2019, pp. 37-56.