Lock up don’t shut up

“ … they locked themselves up and kept hid till the plague was over; and many families, foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad sound and well.”

(Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722)

“P. 145: Robinson Crusoe called “formulaic, repetitive, boring.” WHAT have you been smoking? BORING? You’re breaking my heart. FORMULAIC? Defoe INVENTED the formula (not the same as previous shipwreck narratives–radically different)–a formula subsequently imitated in tons of fiction. REPETITIVE? For very good & original reasons. See Defoe and Fictional Time. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five. No penance could be easier & more fun, right?”

(from Paul Alkon’s notes on the manuscript for Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder. Email correspondence, 2013)


I have been thinking a lot recently about my friend and fellow dix-huitiémiste Paul K. Alkon, who died suddenly in January. Mostly I’ve been thinking about him because he was my friend and I miss him, but I’ve also been wondering what he would have made of the current moment in which we find ourselves.

Paul had an extraordinary range of passions and fields of expertise, but one of his earliest and abiding interests was in Daniel Defoe, and Defoe’s influence on later science fiction writers. In The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), Paul shows how early nineteenth-century attempts to render “the phenomenology of apocalypse” like Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 epic poem, Le dernier homme and Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, drew upon Robinson Crusoe as a “saga of isolation” (167, 190).

Of course, it was not only Crusoe but also Defoe’s vivid portrayal of plague-ridden London in A Journal of the Plague Year that left its imprint on fictions like Shelley’s Last Man, which portrays, as Paul describes in his 2002 book, Science Fiction Before 1900, a “devastating plague set in a twenty-first century future” (25). The line of influence here is clear enough; less obvious, perhaps, is the affinity Paul observes between Defoe’s Journal and Horace Walpole’s genre-making gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), both of which Paul characterizes as experiments in historical fiction in the mode later developed by Walter Scott (25).

Paul’s discernment of something gothic in Defoe’s realism also, I think, informs his observation that it was not Defoe’s lunar voyage narratives but rather Robinson Crusoe that gave later writers a compelling account of “alien encounter” (24). As Paul writes, “the print of a man’s naked foot” in the sand that terrifies Crusoe marks the possibility of a presence that is “both human and alien (24).

Paul doesn’t describe this moment as uncanny; but, given that he discusses Crusoe as an instantiation of Darko Suvin’s concept of cognitive estrangement—an effect in which, as in the uncanny, the familiar is made strange—I think he might have allowed that part of what terrifies Crusoe about the footprint is that it is at once alien and familiar. As such, the footprint raises the possibility that the alien that produced the footprint might be Crusoe himself, who owns that he is not in his right mind but “like a man perfectly confused and out of myself … mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.” [1]

Note, by the way, here, the importance of the simile: what Crusoe admits is not that he is “out of [him]self” but that he is like “a man perfectly confused and out of [him]self.” That like is the only thing standing between Crusoe and madness, and, as such, it operates as the linguistic equivalent of the footprint, which is also a likeness, a delicate similitude that at once aligns Crusoe with and distinguishes him from the specter of the other by which he is haunted.

That iconic footprint in the sand dramatizes what I think of as being the gothic’s most unsettling twist: the barbarians are always already inside the gates. [2] I don’t mean that this idea is unsettling because of the xenophobic fear that the trope of barbarians-at-the-gates stirs up—even though, clearly, that trope is explicitly at play in Robinson Crusoe: the footprint indicates to Crusoe that a foreign other—whose barbarity is presumed—has already set foot on the island. Rather, I’m thinking of the idea that the novel also raises—both in having Crusoe express his own doubts as to his own sanity, and in having him eventually acknowledge Friday as the better Christian—that Crusoe himself is the real barbarian. And if it is Crusoe who is the barbarian who is already inside the gates, he is also a Manfred, that is, a version of Walpole’s usurping king who begins to suspect the jig is up in The Castle of Otranto.

When the barbarians are already inside the gates, the question is only how far inside (see A Stranger Calls, Us, Parasite, and any fiction featuring evil alter-egos from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onwards). This uncertainty feels particularly palpable at this moment, in which, as in Defoe’s Journal, we feel, all of us, in the impossible position of trying to escape an enemy whose presence we can’t detect until it’s too late. Tell me you don’t relate when you read this passage from Defoe’s Journal:

It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this last mentioned above had been a walking destroyer perhaps for a week or a fortnight before that; how he had ruined those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children. Yet thus certainly it was, and often has been, and I could give many particular cases where it has been so. If then the blow is thus insensibly striking—if the arrow flies thus unseen, and cannot be discovered—to what purpose are all the schemes for shutting up or removing the sick people? Those schemes cannot take place but upon those that appear to be sick, or to be infected; whereas there are among them at the same time thousands of people who seem to be well, but are all that while carrying death with them into all companies which they come into. (Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year).

When I read this passage, I imagine I see something of the affinity that Paul might have seen between Journal of the Plague Year and The Castle of Otranto. As portrayed in this passage, the infected person inadvertently “breath[es] death” upon his own children.” As such, Defoe’s “walking destroyer” embodies the qualities Walpole later personifies in the villainous Manfred, whose capacity for destruction surprises even himself when he mistakenly stabs and kills his own daughter. [3]

It’s a terrifying thought: not the thought that you might accidentally stab your daughter when you were actually trying to stab your daughter in law—that’s on Manfred—but rather the thought of kisses and embraces being unknowingly weaponized. I’m haunted by the idea that we might, any of us, find ourselves turned murderers through some similar act of careless negligence.

I find myself hugging and kissing my children even more frequently and tightly now, somewhat to their bemusement. They are not here this weekend, and the prospect of the days that stretch before me that won’t include any human touch is bleak—though not as bleak, I know, as the prospect facing those of you who live alone full time. But it’s that sense of anticipatory loss and isolation that I think has moved me to write and post this dispatch this weekend. I know no-one can hug me through the ether—which seems deeply unfair, by the way, since apparently the virus can transmit itself through the ether. But still, locked in as we all are, we can’t completely shut ourselves up or off.

I find myself taking comfort in Paul’s mock-stern injunction to me to revisit his 1979 book Defoe and Fictional Time: “just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five.” He was being facetious—sort of; he, after all, he had just taken the time to read, very carefully, my own book manuscript—but I also like the way his injunction imagines locking yourself away, not as a retreat from the world but rather as an act of devotion to the particular kind of intimacy that comes from reading and rereading someone else’s words.

Defoe and Fictional Time

I don’t actually own Defoe and Fictional Time, though I have read it before—sort of, meaning, I’ve read it the way I read a lot of books while writing—by browsing the index, scanning the opening chapter, and picking, gingerly, scavenger-like, through the rest. Defoe and Fictional Time is partially available on Google books, and I started reading it today—actually reading it, from the beginning. I turned eagerly to the Acknowledgements—usually my favorite part of any scholarly monograph—sure that Paul’s wit and style would be on display. But his Acknowledgements were disappointingly terse and impersonal and I felt a pang of grief that I wasn’t going to find the Paul I knew in these pages.

Nonetheless I pressed on and kept scrolling past the references and abbreviations and on to the first chapter. And then I started laughing and laughing and almost crying. And then I texted my beloved friend Emily, to whom Paul introduced me it must be 15 years ago now, because I was just pregnant with my now 14-year old son, and she immediately texted back and she and I laughed together over text.

The first sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is:


“Defoe often mentions time.”


And all of a sudden there he was: wry and deadpan and alive on the page. I’m actually crying as I type this; I think all kinds of grief: old, present, anticipatory, are becoming rolled together; but it’s OK.

The second sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is: “He makes the reader’s hours interesting.” Now I felt chastened and heard anew Paul’s indignant, “BORING? You’re breaking my heart” as defending not only Defoe’s words, but also Paul’s own words, here.

To make the reader’s hours interesting; isn’t that what we all want, as both writers and readers? We certainly have a lot of hours ahead of us now to fill even as hours are now the largest unit in which I feel confident predicting the future.

Exchanging words feels like one of the few kinds of intimacy left to us now. I’m going to keep writing in the hours and whatever-longer-units-of-time that lie ahead. I hope to keep reading too. Paul, in the person of “Paul K. Anonymous” was this blog’s most avid interlocutor. It saddens me to think that I can no longer look forward to the whimsical and witty responses he would often post in response to my posts.

Where are the bloody rest of you? Don’t tell me you don’t have time: I know you have time. It’s criminal, is what it is, the non-reciprocal nature of this blogging racket.

You’re breaking my heart.

But don’t worry; it’s not too late. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take yourself into a room, lock the door, and write and re-write your musings, carefully, four times. Make that five. And then press “send.” No penance could be easier & more fun, right?



[1] Paul might have allowed this; on the other hand Paul certainly took issue, in his notes on my manuscript, with my sometimes fast and loose invocation of the concept of estrangement: “unless distinctions of degree are made,” he scolded, “saying estrangement is inherent in the phenomenology of reading is about as useful as saying there is always weather.”

[2] It’s not clear where the phrase “barbarians at the gates” comes from; but it’s an image that Edward Gibbon invokes in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) in reference to the Goths (the northerners who overthrew the Roman empire), the OG barbarians. The sense of Goth meaning “one who behaves like a barbarian” becomes current in the eighteenth century (OED).

[3] Manfred doesn’t mean to kill Matilda; he’s just not paying attention: “I took thee for Isabella,” he explains to her. Oops!


Day 137: outrageous stimulation

The morning after the election, my Mum wrote an email to various U.S. based family members with the subject heading “Commiserations!” Her tone, frankly, was more reproachful than commiserating.

“How could your people vote for this misogynistic, lying, dangerous madman?” she demanded.

Her message ended, as if to assure each of us that she was willing, just about, not to hold us personally responsible for the U.S.’s ignominy, “we still love you all.”

Thus began a family email thread in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

Among the answers that various U.S. based family members gave in answer to my Mum’s question were “a lot of undereducated angry white people”; an emboldened alt right, and (above all), the “strange system” of the Electoral College.

Most of the family members on the thread were Muslim Bengali-Americans (though the person who commented on angry whites was white.) All who chimed in were unified in voicing shock and dismay at Trump’s victory. Yet alongside the shock and sorrow, there was also a perceptible and poignant (to me) strain of residual idealism about the U.S. “The beauty of American society is that the pendulum swings back and forth,” wrote one cousin. Even as another cousin lamented that in the wake of Trump’s election recent immigrants faced “a bleak future,” he referred to the U.S. unironically as “the land of opportunity.” Most striking, though, was the email message that another cousin forwarded from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in the spirit of a pep talk, enjoining us all to “try to follow Tim Cook’s message now.” The following message was then pasted below:


I’ve heard from many of you today about the presidential election. In a political contest where the candidates were so different and each received a similar number of popular votes, it’s inevitable that the aftermath leaves many of you with strong feelings.

We have a very diverse team of employees, including supporters of each of the candidates. Regardless of which candidate each of us supported as individuals, the only way to move forward is to move forward together. I recall something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 50 years ago: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” This advice is timeless, and a reminder that we only do great work and improve the world by moving forward.

While there is discussion today about uncertainties ahead, you can be confident that Apple’s North Star hasn’t changed. Our products connect people everywhere, and they provide the tools for our customers to do great things to improve their lives and the world at large. Our company is open to all, and we celebrate the diversity of our team here in the United States and around the world —regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship or who they love.

I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.

Let’s move forward —together!



There was something about this smugness of Cook’s message that made me want to smash all of my Apple products immediately. I didn’t do that, because then how would the children play Minecraft and how would I do anything??? Instead I channeled all my iPad-smashing energy into composing a full throttle Professor-splainy email for the family email thread. This is what I wrote:

Hi everyone,

I actually find that message from Tim Cook extremely depressing. I read what he’s saying as, “let’s get back to being productive, team. Let’s not think any more about these very real and profound societal divisions. If we can’t have national unity, at least we can have corporate unity. Go Apple!” It underscores for me that Donald Trump’s ascent is not an isolated event but symptomatic of our (and I include myself in this “our,” myself probably much more than many of the people on this list!) deeper cultural susceptibility to the mesmerizing allure of surfaces, soundbites, and the never-ending cycle of stimulation and reward that is the Siren song of our beloved electronic devices.

The very qualities that make Donald Trump a terrifying prospect as the leader of the free world are what made him (in the election campaign) so appealing to a nation that is conditioned (by the very products that a company like Apple, among others, sells us) to respond reflexively to the unpredictable reward structures that new media (much like the casinos that Trump used to run) depends upon. In a context in which the news media both reflects and perpetuates this craving for stimulation, Trump’s volatility was not a liability but an asset.

I voted for Hillary; but, honestly, I feel complicit in the rise of Trump. He is the dark, ugly side of a culture I otherwise blithely consume and participate in.

I found myself this morning thinking about Wordsworth’s preface to his collection of poems, Lyrical Ballads in 1800. He reflected there on his worry that new communication technology (he’s thinking about rapid developments in print technology) was dulling the country’s capacity to think critically:

“For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” He says that the uniformity of people’s occupations in the new industrialized economy “produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” He concludes, “When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavored to counteract it …”

His words express better than I can what I’m trying to say. I think Trump’s success is partly the result of our “thirst after outrageous stimulation”: we’d much rather, as a populace, choose someone who feeds our appetite for outrageous stimulation than be, God forbid, bored.

I’m no Luddite — this isn’t meant to be a rant against new technology. New technology can also be harnessed to produce activism and community and beauty. But I do want, speaking for myself, to go forward not in a spirit of togetherness but rather mindful of the way in which the rhetoric of togetherness—“Let’s move forward–together!”–can be manipulated to gloss over real divisions that need to be actively confronted, and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement can be somewhat grotesquely co-opted to encourage people to get back to the higher calling of selling iPads.

Love to all,


Today I found myself feeling uncertain about what I wrote above. After all, I adore gothic novels, the very genre that Wordsworth excoriates as symptomatic of industrialization’s vitiating effects upon the modern mind. And I feel similarly smitten by much of today’s new media. Whether it’s alternate reality games, as I’ve written about here, or the Oculus Rift, which produces as close to an experience of the Burkean sublime as anything I’ve ever experienced, I’ve found myself dazzled by the sheer exuberance and creative potential of much new media.

The hermeneutics-of-suspicion version of the connection I draw above between Trump and new media would be that gothic novels or Candy Crush (substitute your own favorite debased cultural form) condition us to be docile subjects … under the cover of fun and games they smuggle in mind-forg’d manacles. But that’s actually not the point I want to make. For my purposes the content is really beside the point. And the point is not, either, that we need critique to come to the rescue of the deluded masses and teach them how to read properly, that is, critically. No, really my point is that I think that my own brain has fundamentally changedthat starting in 2007 or thereabouts, my brain became accustomed to experiencing micro dopamine spikes with every “like” or notification or other electronic alert and that as a result I can only tolerate content that refreshes itself every minute.

I don’t think that my mind has changed, necessarily, any more than advances in print media production changed people’s brains in earlier centuries. The way it has changed is different, yes. Wordsworth’s contemporaries experienced their political lives as gothified: witness Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland’s misunderstanding in Northanger Abbey about whether “something shocking” coming “out in London” refers to political unrest or a gothic thriller. Or think of an anonymous review of Frankenstein in an 1818 edition of the Edinburgh Review, which notes that recent “events which have actually passed before our eyes” (most notably the raising of “a private adventurer to the greatest of European thrones”–sound familiar?) “have made the atmosphere of miracles that in which we most readily breathe.”

By contrast, perhaps the way we experience ourselves as political subjects in twenty-first century America is gamified rather than gothified. The atmosphere in which we most readily breathe thrums with the hum of a thousand twangling instruments; their constant murmurings keep us apprised of our progress, while their whisperings—sometimes coy, sometimes urgent—deliver tidings to our ready ears.

Brave new world, indeed.

This vision sounds deterministic—we are stuck in a game we didn’t choose to play—but there are contingencies. Even as media shapes us, the very materiality of media exerts its own agency, throwing new shapes in our path. Take paper, for example. Gothic fiction was not the only new print media form that Horace Walpole had a hand in; Walpole’s home Strawberry Hill boasted architectural innovations that famously relied upon papier-mâché, a craft that reached a height of popularity in the mid-eighteenth century, possibly because of the vast increase in paper production encouraged by the book industry.[1] “My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole quipped, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead.” [2] Both predictions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

In a glorious convergence of yesterday’s and today’s new media, this week the elder has been painstakingly creating a replica of Strawberry Hill in Minecraft. Paper castles, pixel castles: all are baseless fabrics, but no less compelling to the beholder for that. I truly don’t know how we go forward from this grim place, but building castles in the air is a way up, if not forward. The art of castle-building, Christopher Smart wrote, is “the craft of erecting baseless fabricks in the air, and peopling them with proper notional inhabitants for the employment and improvement of the understanding” (from Smart’s A New System of Castle-Building[3]. Fiction; political theory; Minecraft; paper crafts: none of these activities necessarily do anything productive; and maybe that’s the point; in a world that is so committed to measuring value based on output and feedback and data, a commitment to making something for the sake of making it: to having a vision, however modest, and executing it, feels like a small, good thing.


[1] Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi, Strawberry Hill: Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle (London: Frances Lincoln, 2011). 77.

[2] Horace Walpole, “Letter 768. To the Hon. Henry Seymour Conway,” in The Letters of Horace Walpole Fourth Earl of Orford, ed. Paget Toynbee (Oxford: Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1904), 95.

[3] I’ve only just noticed, writing this blog post, that he’s referencing The Tempest with the phrase “baseless fabricks”! Worth it alone for that!