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 103: on being disappointed and, also, crushed

This morning I discovered a flagrant case of plagiarism, and it had nothing to do with grading.

A guy on OKCupid (pilot; profile name “smoothlandings”; nuff said) had blatantly stolen my answer to one of the several inane questions that you are supposed to answer as part of your profile.

I was simultaneously outraged and flattered. I am quite vain about my OKCupid profile. Here was proof that it was so good that other people would shamelessly steal it. Smoothlandings had pretty much copied and pasted my entire answer, word for word, without making any attempt to disguise it.

Now that’s smooooooth.

I contacted him, accusing him of profile pilfering. He immediately copped to it.

“Guilty. I have read thousands of these profiles but never anything as clever as that. The sincerest form of flattery,” he wrote.

In response to this barefaced fawning, I felt the urge rise inside me to murmur coyly, “oh, you flatter me, sir! Thousands you say? Never anything so clever?”

However, I refrained from replying at all in order to maintain my dignity.

When I went back and looked more closely at his profile, I felt disappointment as well as flattery.

I was disappointed because I would like to have discovered that the person who thought my profile was witty shared my sense of humor. Sadly this was not the case, and this led to me spiraling into a mini-crisis in which I wondered,“if he deems my wit funny enough to incorporate into his, and I deem his wit lame, ipso facto, is my wit also lame?”

Smoothlandings’ profile is a relentless stream of one-liners, doubtless plagiarized from all the women’s profiles he looks at and thinks, “hmm … that person sounds funny! She’s not dateable, obviously, but don’t mind if I do help myself to a few of her choicer bon mots!”

Some of his profile is funny, but mostly it’s just exhausting in the way that a self-styled joker will passive-aggressively hog the floor under the guise of entertaining the room.

Yes, I’m being uncharitable. But he stole my sodding profile, I’m allowed to be uncharitable. And yes, of course I sympathize with the urge to make one’s profile funny. In my case, though, my profile errs more on the side of funny peculiar than funny ha ha.

I’ll give you an example. Here is what smoothlandings lists (this is NOT the part he stole from me) under the “I spend a lot of time thinking about” heading:

I spend a lot of time thinking about:

  1. Why the word “abbreviation” is so long (five syllables) that it has its own dictionary abbreviation: “abbr”.
  2. How elevators know how to close their doors when you come running.
  3. Why the shower fixtures in every hotel are different.
  4. How Japanese restaurants get those little towels hot enough to give you third degree burns without having them catch fire.
  5. Why you’ll be with someone in a restaurant and they’ll say “Eww! This tastes DISGUSTING!” And then they’ll add “Here, try it.”

And here is mine:

 I spend a lot of time thinking about:

  1. The fact that I resent being commanded to “think outside the box” by a dating-website-profile-template. Why don’t YOU think outside the box, OKCupid algorithm? Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
  2. If an enormous plumed helmet fell out of the sky killing a person minding their own business below it, would that person really be “dashed to pieces,” as Horace Walpole expresses the fatal effect of such an event in his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto? A china cup might be “dashed to pieces”; a rock might be dashed to pieces. But wouldn’t a person, more properly speaking, be squashed, crushed, or sliced?
  3.  David Hume.
  4.  Whether I am a “new spinster” or just an old spinster.

I’m sorry smoothlandings, but I think your list is derivative subpar Seinfeld-esque observational humor. Yes, mine is smartarsey and not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t think I am everyone’s cup of tea, so I might as well be upfront about it.

Regarding item 2, I’ve become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the finer points of this conundrum recently. While I kindly spare potential suitors further meditations on this topic, I will not be so sparing of you, indulgent readers.

I’ve harbored, for a while, certain doubts about this whole death-by-enormous-helmet scenario.

Allow me to refresh your memory of the scene:

“ … what a sight for a father’s eyes! — he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.”

My doubts were twofold. (I use the past tense here, because I will be proposing, shortly, a solution to these doubts.) First of all, aerodynamically speaking, it seemed unlikely to me that an enormous helmet would land right side up. [1]

Second of all, as opposed to, say, if a meteor, grand piano, or the foot of Cupid [2] landed upon you, if an enormous helmet were to fall from the sky, right side up, there would actually be a pretty good chance that you wouldn’t be crushed by it, right? Because if it did happen to fall directly on top of you, right side up, then you might well be protected by the “casque” like dome. Moreover, in the case of this particular feather-adorned helmet, mightn’t the plumage on the top of the helmet have a speed-retarding and impact-softening effect?

There was only one thing to do in a situation such as this: ask a local physicist. So I did. And, he being an experimentalist by training, I should have predicted his answer, which was: “test it!”

And so I did.

Now, obviously this test was not strictly scientific nor can the results be necessarily extrapolated and applied to the imaginary helmet described in The Castle of Otranto because the materials, circumstances, etc. were all significantly different.

First of all, the helmet I used (borrowed from my children, natch) was plastic, not steel (as we are told the helmet in the novel is) and lacking in plumage. Secondly, it was not dropped from the heavens, but was dropped by me from various heights onto various surfaces. I dropped it a total of ten times. The first four times I dropped it from a distance of about five feet onto a wooden surface. Each time it landed wrong side up, that is to say, on its dome. It didn’t matter which way up I held it when I dropped it.

The fifth and sixth times, I dropped it from a greater height, about eight feet, onto dirt. For this portion of the experiment, the neighbor’s cat was my witness. She was riveted but also completely unhelpful. The fifth time it again fell wrong side up. But the sixth time, to my genuine surprise and delight, it landed right side up.

For the final portion of the experiment, I stepped things up a notch. I co-opted a Playmobil figure into playing the role of Conrad. I dropped the helmet from a height of about twenty feet onto a concrete surface, a surface upon which I had placed, in a standing position, my innocent victim. The first three times I dropped it from this height, not only did it land (after bouncing) wrong side up, but also I couldn’t get it to land remotely near Conrad, let alone hit him. But, AMAZINGLY, on my tenth and final attempt, this is what happened: I dropped the helmet; it landed directly, wrong side up, on Conrad, felling him immediately, and then came to rest right side up next to him. Here are some photographs showing the results of the final drop:

experiment 3

The fallen prince. R.I.P., Conrad.

experiment 2

The fallen prince in the foreground, with the ominous instrument of his death gleaming in the background.

In conclusion, judging from my experiments, I would guess that if you are hit by a falling enormous helmet, the helmet will land on you dome side up, immediately and fatally crushing you, before coming to rest, possibly but not necessarily right side up, in the near vicinity. And that scenario is quite consistent with Walpole’s description in the novel so maybe he conducted similar experiments with a papier-mâché helmet from the ramparts at Strawberry Hill, and came to the same conclusion.

Readers, I know what you’re thinking: “you should totally apply for a major grant so that you can test this out with an accurately sized custom-made helmet!!!”

Who wants to be my co PI?


[1] Now, I’m not sure that it’s stated explicitly that the helmet is right-side up, but it is implicitly the case (because the feathers are described twitching on the top of the helmet) and the few early illustrations I’ve found of this scene also depict it landing right side up.

helmet 1

This is from an 1824 edition of the novel.


Not sure of the date of this image.

[2] For the foot of Cupid, see the Monty Python opening credits.