In Robinson Crusoe, we can witness the emergence in the literary canon of the Janus-faced consciousness that is our distinctly modern way of experiencing the world. It is a way in which it is possible to look at a remarkable event sometimes as a miracle and sometimes as a natural phenomenon, to read our horoscopes while trusting medical journals, to raise children who declare allegiance both to NASA and to Gryffindor House, to believe that love has a higher, even transcendent, purpose at the same time as we believe it was naturally selected for because it is a pro-social behavior that helped our species survive. Robinson Crusoe registers that modernity is not the condition of uncertainty about whether we are enchanted or disenchanted, superstitious or scientific; it is the condition of being both.
In his book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor describes the “cross-pressures” of modernity, the way many of us experience the world as a tug of war between conflicting belief systems. Some of us “want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant,” yet we “feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of a self-transformation beyond the everyday.” Think of Victorian humanists like George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, or anyone who grew up in a Christian family and now attends services only at Christmas, out of nostalgia or family tradition. Others opt for faith, yet remain “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”
Whatever we profess to believe, we all share an experience that is structured by scientific, materialistic concepts, encouraging us to sense that we occupy a natural, this-worldly realm, rather than a supernatural, transcendent one. Taylor calls this naturalistic realm the “immanent frame.” Imagine it as like living in a house. For those who live strictly in the immanent frame — think of Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris — the doors and windows are shut. This world is all we have; there is nothing more. Others are open to peering out the windows. Many more still are caught at the threshold and unsure whether to keep the door open or closed. These opposing pulls are the “cross-pressures” of modernity. For Taylor, this also describes most religious believers today: in the modern age, “the struggle for belief is never definitively won.”
Robinson Crusoe falls squarely in the middle of a long tradition of castaway stories in which the struggle for survival becomes a stand-in for the struggle for belief. But it may be the first to capture what it is like to feel “some of the force of each opposing position,” as Taylor describes the cross-pressures. As we will see, Defoe’s novel can be read in part as a response to the utopian vision of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), a story about a remote society that has brought empirical science and revealed religion into harmony. In turn, the hit TV series Lost can be read as our era’s mysterian, angst-ridden response to the epistemic problem raised by Defoe. Situated in this way, Robinson Crusoe can be seen as a crucial stage in the emergence of the modern double consciousness — the point when a union between the natural and the transcendent could no longer be taken for granted, but perpetual and global conflict did not yet seem inevitable.
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