We live in a populated world. The stubbornness of this fact might serve to explain the romance of the figure of the castaway — Robinson Crusoe makes his camp and finally manages to sit down to The Bible. Far from the shipping lanes across which enterprising young men play out their commercial careers, Robinson has found the peace and quiet requisite to complete an honest-to-God reading project. Pensively, Robinson scratches his nose and turns page after page. With him, the desert island reading list is born.
The desert island has ever since served as a storehouse for timeless classics and unqualified masterpieces. Wherever a personal canon is being constructed, whenever a group of new hires lamely describes the motions of an HR-mandated “Getting to Know You” exercise, a few more volumes crop up on the desert island’s white sand shore. The desert island is a dream of timelessness itself. A desert island book is not durable in time. Rather, a desert island book exists at once outside and miraculously for all time. It seems by now time to think and defend the fact that, as dreams go, the desert island is not particularly worth its trouble — no matter how seductive the forever abiding book seems at first blush.
It’s more than an adolescent idea. The counter-factual that the desert island reading list poses involves us in is a landscape in which cursory and directed, creative and faithful readings come to be folded into the same experience, now muddled and gray. The desert island’s question is speculative in the worst sense. The world it invokes gets us nowhere. Unrealizable sure, but it’s not even revelatory on its own terms as an exercise for thought. When we try to flip through any one of the beached volumes lining the desert island’s shore, we find that its pages have been bleached by sun and surf.
We must have known something was up when we relegated the desert island reading list to speed dating profiles and the kind of phoned-in interview questions most subjects are smart enough to resent. So domesticated, the ways in which the desert island comes to color our thought and experience of art become subterranean. It’s embarrassing to lead with a list of all-time favorites, but this embarrassment is given the lie when at last it comes out that almost every single one of us keeps and fussily organizes exactly such a list. If not books, then movies or albums. However differently prioritized, rankings abound. And while in the course of day-to-day reading we can compare one thing to another endlessly and so reproduce in miniature that inexhaustible variety which great art can sometimes approach as an index, the whole point of the desert island reading list is that it renders such comparisons terminable. Pare down. Top 10. Such are the imperatives of the desert island.
What all of this looks to harbor is a troubled depth-metaphor. The desert island reading list takes as matter of course the idea that rumination on a favorite book in perpetuity is going to yield some more perfect, comprehensive reading on the far end of a lifetime. The desert island reading list tacitly holds that each pass through a novel is, strictly, going to be increasingly revelatory. But in order for such an idea to be seriously entertained, the work itself is going to have to exist somewhere apart from its instances. The work itself will have to exist, at once cohesively and ethereally, somewhere never given to or exhausted by my reading as it’s undertaken anywhere apart from a desert island. To read (for example) Robinson Crusoe in such a way, we’ll need to believe that there is such a thing as a self-consistent Robinson Crusoe, a Robinson Crusoe that can be more or less perfectly realized whenever we sit down to it. Deep down, as the desert island would have us hold, there is a Robinson Crusoe of greatest effective reach — a Robinson Crusoe that has an inextricable determinative hold on each and every occasion some enterprising undergraduate or old hand critic has a go at the classic. On reflection, it seems that a serious commitment to the idea of art’s timelessness could be defending little else. And our desert island Robinson Crusoe, so considered, is going to take the better remainder of a natural existence to unearth. So it’s possible that the stakes here exceed the reach of a mere pet peeve.
With the desert island, we’re no longer in the space of generative readings, and in turn a reading which uncritically invokes the experiment becomes strictly joyless. To illustrate the point of joylessness with a short example: in a 2012 interview with the website Big Think, Jonathan Franzen answers the desert island question by saying that he would take a Russian dictionary and Russian-language version of War and Peace with him to his desert island in order to teach himself an on-the-hoof reading Russian. Let’s set aside the fact that Franzen produces perfectly serviceable if antiquated social novels on the one end and ignore as well his status as go-to Web 2.0 whipping boy on the other. Following his avowed interest in the phenomenology of digital experience, we can bracket intentional involvement with Franzen himself and dodge his problems just as he dodges the question on Mallory Ortberg in the second of the above links in order to establish his strange, word-a-day interest in the term “phenomenology.”
Let’s just look at the desert island. In Franzen’s illustrative case, even gaming the idea of the desert island yields workhorse thinking. The weight of carrying out a reading to the power of forever can only conjure thoughts of comprehensivity, thoughts of finally being able to assimilate a work once and for all, without excess or remainder. Would it really be so different if Franzen had chosen War and Peace in a language that he has already mastered? Chosen an English-language Anna Karenina? A German Kreutzer Sonata?
Which is to say that Robinson Crusoe’s found piety is neither personal nor accidental. It is given to the desert island scenario itself.
What the desert island reading list ultimately amounts to is a view-from-nowhere, a timeless expanse against which the media object is flattened so as to betray the manner in which artworks and pop culture actually exist for their enthusiasts. What the desert island looks to undo is the fact that the partiality and interruptions which accompany my reading anywhere other than a desert island are entirely operative. They are constitutive features well before, somewhere in the long march of the desert island’s concept, they come to be construed as bugs. As Gilles Deleuze says in “Desert Islands” of the Robinson Crusoe who has foreclosed upon the desert island’s creative, mythic potential in anemically reproducing the forms and figures of bourgeois life: any healthy reader would sooner dream of seeing him eaten.
The desert island reading list is a place of purchase from which to think the value of literature as something static and determinate. It is a survey of a world beyond history, one in which things will always be as they are. And so considered, the elevation of a book to the status of “all-time” anything undoes the same constitutive tension that renders picking up a book on a rainy afternoon worthwhile in the first place. Namely: The fact that it is situationally involved. Elizabeth Grosz — in Chaos, Territory, Art, an astounding account of the work of art as located first of all within nature and history (and following the terminology suggestively proffered in A Thousand Plateaus) — characterizes this situational involvement as the artwork’s “plane of composition.”
The plane of composition is the space that the artwork claims as its right, transfiguring the social and material forces out of which art and literature are hewn, achieving a difference in quality without ever effecting a clean break. The welter of techniques, schools, and mediums that offer themselves historically to aesthetic treatment serve to elaborate and define this plane, and it is by virtue of its plane of composition that the artwork comes to assume its social place. The fact that literature is in no instance for the monadic desert island dweller, that art is never made with the dubiously romantic figure of a man alone in mind, is more than mere happenstance (and the invariably masculinist orientation of the castaway figure is in the same way no accident). Rather, the fact that our world is a populous one is the load-bearing presupposition of all art, and this by virtue of the space in which art is as such comprised.
The above-outlined formulation of the desert island reading list comes to stand in the way of reclamatory readings that would begin from the temporary and changeable nature of social involvement. Whether Harold Bloom or witless listicle purveyor, the arts administrators rattling off such ranked canons come to stand in the way of any reading that would sidestep such a totemic chest-beating. And so the most fundamental problem encountered with this kind of criticism isn’t endemic grade inflation, it’s that such a plug-and-chug heuristic as grades could come to be attractive in the first place. What we come finally to deal with in the desert island reading list is the status of “all-time classics” as such — and what the thinking that takes place in the vicinity of all-time classics works, conscious or not, to exclude. It seems now that what the major occlusion in the desert island’s account of the book obviates is the fact that we’re always reading timeless classics in time, at both first blush and final instance. There is a lifespan even to classics, as they exist personally as well as publically, and sacralizing a book as timeless is as sure a way to undue its magic as any other. Art’s time and its social imbrication serve as the twin motors that make it work at all.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopic scenarios in like manner often deal with artworks that situate themselves over and against time, art that supposedly persists qua art despite the fact that the social conditions of its production and legibility have been altogether eroded. Few movies detailing life beyond the destruction of the world as we’ve known it can run their course without a scene in which the protagonist chances upon some dog-eared novel or classic film, witness to a time in which such things still make sense. The feeling provoked is strangely one of both solace and estrangement, a feeling sustained in the recognition of the intimate within the alien. WALL-E watching Hello, Dolly! is both a meta-referential nod and a genre staple.
The dystopian register achieves the same place in our imagination by means of extrapolation from time that the desert island accomplishes through geography. And in such situations, we’re dealing with a similar interrogation of aesthetic experience.
A Clockwork Orange explicitly thematizes this interplay between art and the advance of time in its fraught treatment of the works of Beethoven as experienced from the perspective of wrecked consciousness. In both Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s novel, the examination offered represents a complication of the desert island trope—insofar as what the desert island institutes is a serious commitment to art’s timelessness.
For the unfamiliar: convicted of the murder of a wealthy woman, the story’s young protagonist Alex is submitted to a course in aversion therapy in which he is given a drug that produces feelings of nausea and dread as he is tied down and shown a succession of violent images. In a near-final bout of treatment, a clip of footage is displayed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as accompaniment, rendering Alex unable to hear one of his favorite pieces of music without excruciatingly attendant psychic and somatic pain. The world-building backdrop of all of this is a dystopic near-future — harlequin youth gangs spar with an unraveling welfare state that operates in a too-familiar register between open cynicism and tenuous legitimacy.
The value of Symphony No. 9 is in play, a question of whether or not the thing itself can withstand the kind of historical accident that Alex’s behavioral overhaul poses. And if an accident incurred in the advance of historical time can so seriously change the experience of art, it begins to look like art’s substantiality is in like manner challenged. Further, Burgess and Kubrick each expertly tease out the covert commitment that an intellectual defense of High Art involves, not the least of which being the chauvinism such a position has as its final recourse. The treatment of art offered in both instances of the story interestingly situates artwork in the site of a fundamental tension, inimical to the desert island ideal. All of which has immense consequences for our tacit idea of what art is, what it can and should be doing.
Symphony No. 9 exists properly in the story as the site of a specific affective and perceptive experience. That the symphony can cohere in such a way even from Alex’s carnivalesque and violent purchase on his world is a particularly revelatory scandal, giving the music of Beethoven its obscene site. And that the symphony can — even from such a situation — be pushed into the status of mere din gives it its fragility. Here, aesthetic experience and abjection both play in the interstice in which the unknown is dynamically fitted with the familiar. So considered, from the aesthetic resonance of Burgess’s vision follows the understanding that the delicate nature of a cultural object is ultimately coincident with its value, standing as obverse to reverse. It looks to follow as well, from the story’s dystopic end, that this fact is highly equivocal, the political concept it yields highly dubious. The tacit concept of art at work in Burgess’s extra-moral parable is that art and culture maintain themselves in tension with their undoing, with undifferentiated noise and indifferent violence.
At the risk of dispensing defanged homilies, our moment seems as good a time as any to rigorously think the specific nature of art that prevents it from assuming the status of undeciphered Linear A.
It’s possible, in the end, that the problem isn’t the desert island at all. Maybe something terrible has happened along the way. It’s no problem for the island, after all, if Robinson should meet with catastrophe. If the desert island is the evaluative ground against which we can compare the specificity and magnitude of one book against another, the stultifying face of the desert island reading list represents a sabotage of the island itself. Like any cognitive makeshift, the desert island is fine if the movement it produces gets you there, but you’re bound for shipwreck as soon as you start believing in it. No desert island does not mean, after all, no evaluative frameworks. The claim instead is that “all-time” evaluation and priority that the desert island invokes cannot, without critical intervention, account for the necessarily provisional nature of all such evaluations. And further, that the provisional is not compromising, but constitutive.
Perhaps we can imagine alternative Robinsons. In his A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem provides reviews for non-existent books. It’s a kind of vehicle for one-off premise-heavy ideas — one of which, Les Robinsonades, figures a psychological and paradoxically sociological treatment of the Robinson Crusoe story. As Lem has it:
This is the social life of Robinson Crusoe, his social-welfare work, his arduous, hard, and overcrowded existence, for what is dealt with here is the sociology of isolation—the mass culture of an unpopulated island that, by the end of the novel, is packed solid.
The Robinson Crusoe detailed here alone on the desert island, produces for himself a fantastic population — the psychic investment of which becomes as real as his involvement beforehand in any other. Left alone, this protagonist (taking Robinson Crusoe as his assumed name) dreams island companions, and becomes by the end involved with their vicissitudes as a matter of life and death. What Lem discovers and unpacks is the indelibly social nature of the human animal even as it is on display in a limit case. Because it seems the final point illustrated in the review-story is that Lem’s Robinson Crusoe is fundamentally the compromise between himself and those involvements to which he can never be finally reconciled.
Lem’s desert island is exemplary of a special way of thinking solitude — and, for our purposes here, an instance as to why the reader should not try clumsily to work her way out of the loneliness to which literature seems in moments of weakness to be given, never bypass this tension by fashioning for herself a purportedly universal judgment. Rather, solitude is in every instance already circumvented by the very social nature of art. Which is to say that we cannot be the pious, singular, and self-consistent Robinson Crusoe of Defoe, dispensing as he does all-time appraisals as to what his island is and means. Because what any desert island book worth the name is going to teach us is that we are already in constant negotiation with even what is most familiar, standing as Lem’s desert island “mass culture” to even ourselves.
Drew Dickerson is a writer living in Chicago. He has written previously at The Onion and ClickHole, and his fiction has appeared at The Fanzine and Queen Mob’s Tea House.
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