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“An Incongruous Monster”:
Idolatrous Aesthetics in Crusoe’s China



1. Kearney points to another usage of the pun in Francis Quarles’s Shepheards Oracle, where the radical Protestant speaker Anarchus refers to the Book of Common Prayer as an “Idoll, whereunto / You bend your idle knees, as Papists doe / To their lewd Images” (91).

2. In her study of shopping culture, Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace argues that diatribes against the rise of English consumerism framed the female subject in competing, contradictory terms; she was an emblem of the transformative power of consumption, crucial to the nation’s economic health, but also susceptible to its corruptive influences. The craving for foreign goods—silks, teas, sugars, and other wares—that relied on slavery and imperialism (themselves hugely contested and controversial practices) rendered women of means gluttonous, depraved, and even complicit with the atrocities of global trade networks. But more importantly, the consuming female subject also figured in the social threat of idleness. As Kowaleski-Wallace notes of the gendered dynamics of tea-table behavior, “unlike her upper-class counterpart, the working woman was never encouraged to dally at the tea table, and she was warned against narcissistic self-display” (31). While the body of the upper-class woman “was disciplined to facilitate male pleasure; the body of the working woman was formed to labor for England” (31).

3. In an earlier work, The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705), Defoe’s narrator praises Chinese wisdom, but only to be undermined by his defunct, “ancient” perspective. Narelle Shaw explains that while the narrator in The Consolidator appears to praise Chinese learning, “Defoe himself did not actually believe the Chinese to be the inventors of gunpowder, printing, and the compass” (392). Defoe’s true attitude to China, as Shaw notes, “is substantiated by clues embedded in the Consolidator itself” (392). However, the gentle parody found in the Consolidator gives way to what Nelson and Rewa consider an “outright denunciation of sinophilia because it dangerously affected his own schemes and aspirations for the betterment of the British economy” (27). Elsewhere in the Crusoe trilogy, Defoe’s view of China also turns on the issues of manufacture, learning, and craftworks. In the Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, chinaware and the Great Wall are among the objects of scrutiny and ridicule for Crusoe. After passing the “mighty Nothing call’d a wall,” Crusoe remarks on the hordes of “lean starv’d creatures, taught nothing, and fit for nothing” (314).

4. Johnson states in the first issue of the Idler, “Perhaps man may be more properly distinguished as an idle animal; for there is no man who is not sometimes idle. It is at least a definition from which none that shall find it in this paper can be excepted; for who can be more idle than the reader of the Idler?” (3).

5. Sarah Jordan’s Anxieties of Idleness and Pierre Saint-Amand’s Pursuit of Laziness survey cultural formations of idleness as counterpoint to and constitutive of the discourse of productivity and industry. Jordan explains that the new man of industry “embodied a change from the older, aristocratic notion of masculinity,” which was characterized by sport and leisure. Saint-Amand unsettles the conventional narrative of Enlightenment progress, as he suggests that “laziness and idleness become figures of resistance within bourgeois economy.”

6. As Joseph Addison notes in Spectator 411 (June 1712), there are “but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a Relish of any Pleasures that are not Criminal.”

7. See Chen Shouyi, “Daniel Defoe, China’s Severe Critic,” which provides a useful survey of English representations of China in the period.

8. Barrow describes the shrine that Chinese sailors set aside for the needle of the ship’s compass. With changes in weather pattern, the sailors offer incense to the shrine. As Porter suggests, the violation of the “commercialist telos” of the compass, which is inscribed with astrological ideographs and seems mainly to serve as an icon, is deeply disturbing to Barrow.

9. David Porter’s article on English perceptions of Chinese commercial culture points to metaphors of blockage and circulation in many areas outside of trade. The practices of foot-binding, methods of waste management, and dearth of social spaces (such as the English coffeehouse or tavern) also expose, for Barrow and other travelers to China, a society that is constricted and stagnant. Porter also notes that Crusoe anticipates this position toward China in The Farther Adventures, in which Crusoe’s dismissal of the Great Wall renders it a monument of “hopeless resistance to the overwhelming forces of modernity” (196).

10. Ian Watt claimed that though it might seem unrealistic, Defoe’s depiction of Crusoe overturned a familiar account of solitude’s effects—deterioration and lunacy: “Defoe departs from psychological probability in order to redeem his picture of man’s inexorable solitariness… An inner voice continually suggests to us that the human isolation which individualism has fostered is painful and tends ultimately to a life of apathetic animality and mental derangement. Defoe answers confidently that it can be made the arduous prelude to the fuller realization of every individual’s potentialities” (88).

11. Mary E. Butler contends that the recurring correctives and interruptions found in Robinson Crusoe endow it with the qualities we assign to “concrete matter rather than with fiction” (77). As a result, the text “gives the illusion of improving itself even as we read” (77). She goes on to provide a comprehensive schema for moments of “rhetorical uncertainty” in Robinson Crusoe. She claims that moments of uncertainty in Crusoe’s narration aim to “claim that a subject is ineffable, to confess that a narrator cannot identify the things he speaks of, to avoid detailing a given object or event, or to confess in various ways his uncertainty about the translation of what he sees into what we read” (78).

12. David Radcliffe explains that writers began to call contemplative works “reflections” after the Restoration. Because the new generic distinctions “turned less on what stories are about than on how stories are told…one of the new tasks assigned to mental reflection was to distinguish between kinds of representation, [as] reflection became a constituent of narrative, and vice versa” (81).

13. Takau Shimada offers several possible sources for Defoe’s writing on China in the Serious Reflections; he suggests that the move to compare Chinese and Japanese idols to Greco-Roman idols was indebted to other Christian missionary writers Defoe would have read. Other titles in Defoe’s library may have included Bernhard Verenius’s Descriptio Regni Japoniae (1649), Athanase Kircher’s China illustrata (1667), and Arnoldus Montanus’s Atlas Japannensis (1670). Unlike Le Comte, Shimada suggests, these other writers made detailed descriptions of idols and are, therefore, more probable sources for Defoe (211).

14. According to Barrow, Chinese artists “exercise no judgment of their own. Every defect and blemish, original or accidental, they are sure to copy, being mere servile imitators, and not in the least feeling the force or the beauty of any specimen of the arts that may come before them; for the same person who is one day employed in copying a beautiful European print, will sit down next to a Chinese drawing replete with absurdity” (qtd. in Porter 190). The so-called lack of originality in Chinese art troubles Barrow the way poor mimesis troubles Crusoe.

15. For more insight into the role of description in visual culture, see Svetlana Alpers’ study of seventeenth-century Dutch art, The Art of Describing. In her book, the hyper-realist works of Dutch painters, such as Vermeer, privilege the attentive eyes of the artist who is entrusted with the task of faithful representation.

16. In Ends of Enlightenment, John Bender explores a set of concerns about the relationship between novels and knowledge-production in the eighteenth century. Crucially, he expands on the suggestive link between “experience” and “experiment” as related to novel reading. In French, Bender demonstrates, “a person can be expérimenté, meaning ‘one who has benefited empirically from experience.” As such, he suggests that “novel readers in the eighteenth century became expérimenté.” Such an account of the eighteenth-century novel casts Defoe’s prose as dynamic and experiential, even in its descriptive moments.


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