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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, July 16, 2018


At the end of ROBINSON, CRUSADER OF MEDIOCRITY PT. 1, I explained my reason for considering Defoe's protagonist a representation of a mediocre nature:

I’ve often disagreed with the Mickey Marxists who want to see imperialism in every story that stars a straight white male, or fails to portray people of color as they want to see themselves. But I must admit that the CRUSOE novels exhibit a chauvinism so extreme that authors like Haggard, Doyle and Kipling look like models of liberalism by comparison. Defoe allows Crusoe a few moments of cultural relativism—he admits that the Spanish committed many atrocities against the natives of the New World—but at base, the author wants to give his audience a picture of the world as one where nothing, not even a mass slaughter, seriously challenges any preconceptions.

It's Crusoe's inability to be changed by his experience that informs my perception of him as something akin to one of Nietzsche's bugaboos in THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA.

Zarathustra, speaking largely in a series of quasi-poetic, incantatory aphorisms, rails against all sorts of metaphorical evils that represented the mediocrity of Europeans, calling them things like "the small men," "the Ultimate Man," "the fleas," and "the tarantulas."-- COURAGE OVER FEAR.
So, even though I criticized Crusoe for his un-knightly behavior and his excessive piety, his inability to change is his least attractive aspect. Other demiheroes of the same era, such as Fielding's Tom Jones, still do not strike me as being as "flea-like" as Robinson Crusoe.

And yet, I must admit that even though there are no "free spirits," no Ubermenschen, in the world of ROBINSON CRUSOE, it's arguable that a liberal interpretation of Nietzchean philosophy might find a place where knights and fleas reinforce one another.

In my philosophical examination of the 2004 cartoon-film THE INCREDIBLES, I said:

...the question remains: why would it have been bad, to have a world in which everyone had artificial super-powers? The answer may lie in the philosophical ruminations of Nietzsche, even if Bird never read him. Nietzsche's ideal of his Ubermensch is not covalent with any version of the superhero, with one exception. the motivation of magnanimity. The Nietzschean "superman" is magnanimous because he has so much more "spirit" than common people. Superheroes generally don't show as much contempt for the rabble as Nietzsche did, but there's still a sense that superheroes are frequently magnanimous for similar reasons. But even here, there's a crucial difference. Mister Incredible enjoys getting praise and plaudits for his super-deeds, but his deeds primarily spring from empathy: from the realization that ordinary people need his help. Syndrome has no motivation beyond lionization, and so it's easy for him to restructure the world so that it reflects his own mediocrity. Once everyone has access to artificially-enhanced superpowers, will anyone feel any need to feel empathy for those weaker than themselves?

I provided an "ethic of the combative" in COURAGE OVER FEAR, which took a quasi-Hegelian view of the process by which humankind comes to judge life by the value of courage rather than that of fear. Nevertheless, the combative hero, whether he wears a knight's armor or a super-crusader's  leotards, needs the "common people." The hero's spirit is greater than that of the flea, and in many respects the hero can only be challenged by an enemy of some sort, while the flea can do nothing but seek to undermine the ideals of the hero, which is the initial setup for THE INCREDIBLES. However, in ZARATHUSTRA Nietzsche adjures the "warrior" to "be proud of your enemies," for the enemy makes it possible for the warrior to exert his full strength. The "fleas" cannot be a part of such a struggle. However, they are in modern terms the "lesser selves" from which the "greater selves" are constructed, and this means that they are factors which the hero must overcome in himself. Mister Incredible, in order to show true magnanimity and truly forgive the "fleas," must continue saving the common people even when they seek to outlaw his activities.

Nietzsche's critique of "slave morality" is flawed by his attempt to reject every aspect of that morality, rather than merely its most extreme manifestations. Much of that morality is informed by self-interest, like that of the citizens who sue Mister Incredible for false damages, but self-interest appears in a more benign form, as when Bob and Helen Parr attempt to give up being superheroes to raise their children in peace. Nietzsche's ability to set down his philosophy in his leisure, rather than being forced to work for his daily bread, was only possible because he received a pension from the University of Basel, which was, like any business concern, primarily concerned with perpetuating its own existence. Thus, since even Nietzsche had a "lesser self"-- for instance, the early part of him that aspired to religious service-- his system is flawed in failing to realize how the ethics of the "fleas" supplies a challenge to the hero, even if it is not the same sort of challenge supplied by an "enemy."

The 17th and 18th centuries supplied Daniel Defoe with his intellectual formative influences, and these periods were aligned with the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." Literature had by and large turned away from stories of epic heroism, though there were hearkenings of another revolution in the late 18th century, with the development of Gothic fiction and re-interpretations of pagan fantasy, as seen in James McPherson's "Ossian" poems, which became widely popular in Europe before readers learned that the poems were not genuine Gaelic myth-tales.

Defoe's Crusoe is never able to be a "hero" in the Nietzschean sense. But I deem that his contribution to the history of the popular adventure-story is not unlike the contribution that the "lesser man" makes to the evolution of the "greater man:" a necessary step, rather than an end in itself.

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