Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2
"They Fancied Themselves Free": Exploration and Individualism
Walter Cummins (Ph.D., U of Iowa) is Professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University and editor-in-chief of The Literary Review. His recent work has appeared in Midwest Quarterly, Studies in Short Fiction, Kansas Quarterly, Fiction Review, The Panhandler, and others.
The mythology of the United States thrives on ships and journeys, Columbus and the Mayflower, the pioneers in their prairie schooners. If you had the vision and the courage to set off on a voyage of exploration, you would discover a new land and prosper. The people who mastered uncharted territory became archetypes of rugged individualism, leaving their old lives behind to challenge uncertainties in the middle of nowhere. Our schoolbook heroes are the winners, those who tamed the wilderness and became models of triumphant adventure.
Defending Columbus against the accusations of revisionist history, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. acknowledges the anguish that resulted from the coming of Europeans to the New World, but emphasizes "the great liberating ideas of individual dignity, political democracy, equality before the law, religious tolerance, cultural pluralism, artistic freedom" (29-30) that emerged from his legacy. However, the ultimate motives of Columbus the man, according to Schlesinger, were not political, economic, or religious, but rather "those primal passions of curiosity and wonder, the response to the challenge of the unknown, the need to go where none had gone before" (29).
In our folklore, the mythic adventurers are singular figures in the vastness, their crews anonymous and extraneous. Exploration is regarded as an expression of freedom and the explorer one who chooses to be a free agent. Is such freedom a path to fulfillment? Can we survive alone as small vessels on a great sea?
Robert N. Bellah and his co-authors probe the costs and the dangers of modern freedom in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Quoting Tocqueville, they emphasize the threat to people who leave home to give themselves a second birth, who believe they are self-sufficient, in full control of their destinies and beholden to no other: "Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart" (37).
The illusion of freedom and the threat of solitude are addressed in several stories, both historical and fictional, that reveal the complex consequences of the choice to remake one's life through exploration.
Among the most widely known is Robinson Crusoe, who in his folklore incarnation apart from Defoe's text, is celebrated as an explorer who overcame solitude to civilize an untamed island. However, the Crusoe of the novel emerges as a troubled man unable to enjoy freedom because he is driven by the need to create an orderly system that yields profits and he is fearful of menaces to his accumulated gains.
Conceived during a period that linked global discovery with economic expansion, Crusoe has been considered the archetypal capitalist. Like the entrepreneurs of the time, Crusoe abandoned social and economic traditions, especially those that would limit his aspirations. He left home to take risks. Shipwrecked once, undaunted, he set out to be shipwrecked again. Although he occasionally bemoaned his isolation over his many years on the island, on the whole he really enjoyed the total control of his territory's resources. Unlike Alexander Selkirk, who provided his historical model, Crusoe did not break down. On the contrary, he kept his wits about him, became a model of problem-solving, and flourished. For two decades his primary activities become accumulating his inventory of goods and intensifying his fortifications against the potential intrusion of another person. At the first sign of footsteps he is terrified, not joyous at the promise of human contact. Ultimately, Crusoe does not need anyone else, though the loyal services of Friday are a convenience.
It might be argued that Crusoe violates the capitalist model of Adam Smith because his situation is not one of free-market competition guided by the "invisible hand" to optimal use and distribution of economic resources. That may be the goal of the system. But the raw force behind the individual capitalist is victory in the marketplace, the security of monopoly. While Crusoe is literally a bean counter, each bean and seed and goat is really another symbol of his success, and he is loathe to share. He tolerates another person only as a servant, not as a democratic or even a competitive equal. In the contest of life according to the rules he has chosen to live by, Crusoe has triumphed. But he is not free.
Perhaps of all peoples Americans proclaim the greatest commitment to freedompersonal, political, and economic. However, according to Habits of the Heart, their understanding of the true nature of freedom is limited: Americans think "of freedom as freedom from from people who have economic power over you, from people who try to limit what you can do or say" (25). In his quest for profit, Crusoe really sought this freedom from. His seeming attainment of such freedom finally turned out to be illusory because fear for his profits made him a prisoner on the island he ruled.
Perhaps the American equivalent of Robinson Crusoe is Benjamin Franklin despite the latter's residence in a city and frequent commerce with other people. Unlike Crusoe, however, Franklin did not disappoint his father by running off to sea; in fact, he let his father choose his profession of printer and became indentured to an older brother in the trade. Yet Franklin soon quarreled with his brother, parted from his father, and ultimately abandoned his family except for a few brief visits.
Although Franklin did not explore a literal wilderness, he shares many attributes with Robinson Crusoe in leaving behind parents and cultural expectations that inhibited self-fulfillment. Crusoe is an explorer of barbarian fringes, Franklin of settled societies. But Franklin too sought new challenges for bringing order to confusion, if not untamed nature. As a young man he forsook the familiar to journey to unfamiliar placesPhiladelphia, Londonas a solitary stranger who doesn't even know the price of bread. But literally and figuratively inventive, he possessed a genius for discovering opportunities in needs and devising procedures or devices to meet them. In living a life central in deed and spirit to the creation of a new society, a new world, Franklin demonstrated the explorer's need to go where none had gone before.
Both Crusoe and Franklin plunge into unknowns that they seek to shape according to their wills, devising projects to master their environments. More fundamentally, both seek to recast the relation of the individual to his context. Adhering to certain traditional parental values, they want their setting to remain a known quality while they achieve the power to control their relationship to that setting.
Franklin's central postulate, as defined by Ormond Seavey, "is the assertion that one's life can be considerably changed by a concerted act of will" (72). Seavey notes that the Autobiography reports continual examples of such change. While change was an essential subject of Puritan autobiographies, Franklin parts from that tradition by attributing the cause of the changes to his own devices rather than divine forces. Hugh J. Dawson agrees that "Franklin's ethic was itself a break with the past" (32). Just as he broke from the confining expectations of his father, he came to believe that America must break from England. Franklin left his father behind as an important step in achieving what Seavey calls "freedom from the limitations of historical contingency" (79).
Despite the individual path he chose, Franklin replicated his father. In fact, he extended the elder Franklin's talents and virtues to new territories and, implicitly, made them national treasures. He admired his father for his ingenuity and mechanical genius, but especially because "his great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private & public Affairs." In his table talk, the man turned his children's minds "to what was good, just, & prudent in the Conduct of Life" (10-11). Crusoe, too, came to appreciate his father's "serious and excellent council" (8-9) to be content with the middle state in one's social role.
Franklin also considered himself lucky in his wife, the woman he eventually married after leaving their early courtship for his first extended visit to England and finding time to write her only one letter. Her virtues were similar to his father's, for she was "as much dispos'd to Industry & Frugality as myself. She assisted me cheerfully in my Business, folding & stitching Pamphlets, tending Shop, purchasing old Linen Rags for the Paper-makers, &c. &c." (88). At another time and in another place, she might have made an equally satisfactory helpmeet for Crusoe, a man who "had an invincible impression" that Providence would deliver him soon, but still "I went on with my husbandry, digging, planting, fencing, as usual; I gathered and cured my grapes, and did every necessary thing, as before" (225).
In his biography, Franklin of Philadelphia, Esmond Wright considers Franklin "his own creation" (9), a man who achieved "almost total freedom from his own environment" (13), "the most cosmopolitan" of the new Americans (359), at home wherever he traveled, "a citizen of the world" and "the 'new man' of the eighteenth-century dream (360).
Explorers like Crusoe and Franklin assume not only freedom from the restraints of the old environment but the ability to mold that environment to their values, to retain the shape of what was while creating something new. Perhaps more significant than the actual product of their efforts is their presumption that they possessed the power to realize their goals through exercise of their conscious wills. They never doubt the validity of their choices, never confront the question of whether conscious will can overcome the solitary heart.
For all their achievements and satisfactions, the Crusoe of the novel and the Franklin of the autobiography convey no real personal need for others. Crusoe finds other people, particularly Friday, means to his ends. For Franklin, people are secondary to progress, expendable if need be. Referring to the Indian weakness for alcohol, he writes, "And indeed if it be the Design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed Means" (135-136). As a military commander leading a unit against the Indians, he notes upon reaching a new campsite, "Our first Work was to bury more effectually the Dead we found there" (164). For Franklin, the corpses were primarily a litter of disorder.
Certainly, Crusoe comes to rely on the services of his Friday enough to bring him back to England, and Franklin, seemingly a much more social being, speaks of friendships, a few lasting but most sources of betrayal and disappointment. He states that he wrote the first part of his Autobiography as a message to his son, but that seems more an excuse for a public display than a gesture of intimacy. For both men, people drop in and out of their lives with hardly an emotional tremor.
As cultivators, Crusoe and Franklin are ideal technologists, for a technological perspective depends less on machinery and devices than on an approach to problem-solving. Under technology, processes are digitalized, broken down into discrete steps and defined systematically so that the procedures can be passed on to others. The goal is to devise techniques that master circumstances. For technology, next steps always exist to be taken. In this urge to progressive development, technology is wedded to capitalistic exploration. Neither can exist without a drive to more and better in the future. The system drives ahead, indifferent to the plight of all the people left behind. Perhaps Crusoe and Franklin stand out in our mythology because of they are unique in their success.
Maxine Hong Kingston dramatizes the suffering of those who fail to master the system in China Men, her recreation of her male ancestors' quests for the Gold Mountain of American abundance, their harsh journeys from ancient villages to seek wealth in a new land. By grounding their strivings in the context of an ancient culture, she offers a complex perspective on the urge to explore.
Men like her father's father, Ah Goong, left the poverty of their villages for the lure of "America. The Gold Mountain. The Beautiful Nation" (42). But the China Men who arrived in America quickly became victimized by their race and their status. In the section "The Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains," Kingston imagines the consciousness of Ah Goong as he labored to build the transcontinental railroad, pickaxing rock for months in a tunnel, dangling in a basket over a valley, shivering in ice and snow, watching men plunge to their deaths. Then when the golden spike was hammered to signal the railway's completion, Ah Goong and the other China Men were "Driven Out," scattered to other sites of toil, pursued by white demons who murdered and mutilated with impunity. Ah Goong spent weeks in hiding and finally escaped back to China on a ship from San Francisco, avoiding the fate of those captured and jailed until released as servants to the white citizens. For all his labors and for all the dangers, Ah Goong came home with only a gold ring for his wife and railroad money that she quickly spent.
Ah Goong's lot seems an illustration of Robinson Crusoe's nightmares. Rather than the solitary ruler of a private domain, the only husbander and enjoyer of its abundance, Ah Goong's journey brought him to exploitation, threat, loss, and insignificance. His story raises a fundamental question about exploration and individuality beyond the threat of solitude: In a world where thousands, if not millions, leave home to achieve personal goals of freedom and prosperity, what happens to all those who fail in the quest, all those who do not achieve individual freedom and still suffer emotional solitude?
Like slaves from Africa, the Chinese, though not literally owned as individuals, suffered the abuses of a similar racism. Kingston catalogues American laws on the status of Chinese immigrants from 1868 to 1978. The 1870 Nationality Act restricted applications for naturalization to "free whites" and "African aliens"; California regulations of 1878 forbad Chinese the right to own land or business licenses, to be hired for work, or even to testify in court. For most of the next century U.S. Supreme Court decisions > denied Chinese equal rights. It was not until 1978 that immigration quotas allowed a significant number of Chinese to enter the country. Therefore, the plight of the Chinese who ventured to the Gold Mountain forces this consideration: Is the individual political and economic freedom realized by some inseparable from the dehumanizing exploitation of many others?
And not only is such manipulation the unfairness of strangers. The fantasy of a land of absolute plenty corrupts those left behind in the family village. The people back in Chinalike Ah Goong's wifeexpected their share of the bounty. The greed for gold substituted cupidity for caring. And those in the land of the Gold Mountain who have left others behind cannot escape by being half a world away.
Unlike Crusoe and Franklin, Kingston's China Men are incapable of denying their close ties. Their worlds are populated with ghosts of all those, living and dead, who are not there with them. "In China," she notes, "a woodcutter ghost chops eternally; people have heard chopping in the snow and in the heat" (138). She tells the story of a relation she and her siblings called Mad Sao, who was firmly Americanized, an English-speaking citizen, a World War II veteran with a ranch house, car, and four young children. Sao continually received imploring and demanding letters from the mother he had left behind in China insisting that he return to bury her, that he send money, that he sell all his possessions and even his daughters and "mail all the profits to Mother" (172). For years Sao ignored her laments of hunger and insecurity in a war-torn land. But when she died, her ghost appeared before his bed in California, haunting him with cries of "I'm hungry." Sao threw food and money that went right through her wraith. Finally, desperate, even though no one else in the family could see the ghost that blamed him for her starvation, he drew out a lump of his savings, got a visa, and bought a ticket on an ocean liner to China, his mother's ghost beside him for the entire trip. Once in his native village, he heaped food on her grave, burned money, poured wine, planted a symbolic shrub, and immediately went home on the return ship. There Sao "acted normal again, continuing his American life, and nothing like that ever happened to him again" (179).
The harrowing of Sao reveals that human attachments to people and place can also exact a loss of freedom. The living mother who wrote the demanding letters that claimed precedence over wife and children was a harpy, predatory in her selfishness. From Sao's and other stories of exploitation and betrayal in the Chinese community, Kingston makes clear that the Confucian system of relationships and responsibilities may not offer an alternative to the isolation of exploration, especially when people live in two different worlds, China and America, some in both simultaneously.
But would people have been better off if they had never submitted to the illusion that exploration will lead to freedom and fulfillment, if Crusoe had stayed with his family in Yorkshire, Franklin with his in Massachusetts, Ah Goong with his in China? Is true human freedom found in staying home amid loved ones?
In a brief section of China Men, a three-page version of a Taoist parable, Kingston explains the reason for human mortality. In the 6th or 7th century A.D., Tu Tzu-chun met a Taoist monk who tested him in a manner reminiscent of The Book of Job. First, Tu was given a series of fortunes that he finally turned to great public benefit. Then the monk made Tu swallow a pill that would cause many terrifying illusions and warned him that he was forbidden to scream or utter any sound, no matter what he endured. Despite the many great pains he witnessed and suffered, Tu kept silent. Finally reborn as a deaf-mute female, Tu married a man who threatened to smash their child's head against a rock unless Tu spoke. When Tu cried out at the child's mutilation, the illusion vanished, and he was back with the monk, who revealed that he had failed at the last step to achieving immortality. Now the human race would be mortal forever. The Taoist explained, "You overcame joy and sorrow, anger, fear, and evil desire, but not love" (121).
The power of such human love is profound; but is it a blessing or a trap? Can true human freedom exist without love? Can it exist with it? Kingston exemplifies the alternatives through examples of a man isolated in his exploration and one bound to another by a deep attachment.
In an early section of her book, she summarizes a Chinese children's tale her mother often read aloudthe story of Lo Bun Sun, a sailor, and Sing Kay Ng, the servant he eventually acquires after many years alone on a small island. Substitute Friday for Sing Kay Ng and Robinson for Lo Bun Sun. Although Kingston compresses all the events into ten pages, the effect is not unlike that of the Don Quixote chapters composed by Jorge Luis Borges' fictional Pierre Menard: despite the literal exactness, the meaning is very different.
As Kingston explains, Lo Bun Sun was "alone, son and grandson, himself all the generations" (226). Like Crusoe, he spurned his father's advice, abandoned his family, and set out on perilous journeys. Even after returning to his native land many years later, marrying at age 60, and fathering two sons, as soon as his wife died he went to sea with Sing Kay Ng for many more adventures. For Lo Bun Sun, the challenge of new lands is more compelling than family ties. In a traditional culture like China's, choosing to forsake one's village and one's ancestors is a much greater cultural aberration than it was in Crusoe's England. Sing Kay Ng is a very different man. Twice in the story, he is reunited with his father in joyous embraces, literally kissing and hugging him. Father and son clearly love one another even after many years of separation. Although Defoe includes scenes of Friday and his father, their lives are ancillary to Crusoe's. Kingston's retelling accentuates their importance. The example of loving Sing Kay Ng might seem to represent an antidote to achieving Lo Bun Sun's abandonment of family and tradition. In love of father, Sing Kay Ng is deeply bound to another. However, the contrast may be deceptive. Family love may not fulfill human freedom.
While Lo Bun Sun exemplifies detachment from others, Sing Kay Ng, despite his deep and animated love for his father, is a cannibal. Rescued by Lo Bun Sun and his gun from those who have brought him to the island to be eaten, he wishes to feast on the flesh of his now dead enemies, stopped only by the horrified Lo Bun Sun. Finally, Sing Kay Ng falls victim to a scheme of the pragmatic man he serves. Soon after the kissing and dancing of his second reunion with his beloved father, their island is attacked by a thousand canoes. Lo Bun Sun orders Sing Nay Ng to negotiate with the attackers in their own language, but "Three hundred arrows flew at him, and Sing Kay Ng was killed" (233). One possible moral of this tale: talk is useless in an eat or be eaten world.
Another lesson is the flaw of assuming that family love resolves the limitations of self-contained individualism. Admirable a son as Sing Kay Ng may be, that virtue is worthless in the hostile environment of a wider world. Habits of the Heart sees the American retreat into family as fulfilling one of Tocqueville's negative prophecies:
But often the limit of their [Americans'] serious altruism is the family circle. Thus the tendency of our individualism to dispose "each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends," that so worried Tocqueville, indeed seems to be coming true. "Taking care of one's own" is an admirable motive. But when it combines with suspicion of, and withdrawal from, the public world, it is one of the conditions of despotism Tocqueville feared. (112)
In the last long section of China Men, Kingston writes of "The Brother in Vietnam." The situation of this younger brother is based on multiple ironies. He is a teacher dedicated to remediation of those at the bottom of the educational system, and he is opposed to the war, even considering flight to Canada before finally enlisting in the U.S. Navy. He is also an Oriental returning to the area of his ancestors, at one point serving in Taiwan and visiting Hong Kong. Seeking relatives in Hong Kong, he searches diligently but cannot find the dwellings with their street numbers; all he can do is leave gifts outside anonymous doors. Indifferent to food from the time he entered the war, finally back home in the United States, the brother still eats only out of duty:
Three years after his return, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. For a time longer than that, the things people did seemed to have no value; nobody else saw this. But his appetite did gradually increase. He had survived the Vietnam war. He had not gotten killed, and he had not killed anyone. (304)
In the brother's world, where family offers no solace, surviving and not killing appears to be the most we can hope for. In this existential vision of the human condition, material success and individual fulfillment are empty abstractions, meaningless as goals.
But can we survive alone, withdrawing and denying appetite until we are able to make a separate peace with our isolated existences in a predatory environment? Crusoe killed and Franklin justified killing without a qualm, neither questioning the necessity or the right to eliminate others for self-preservation in Crusoe's case and for an abstract goal of progress in Franklin's. For them, as for most of humanity, it's a matter of kill to survive. Life or death struggle with an enemy is the ultimate competition.
Albert Camusfor whom death is humanity's principal enemyoffers an alternative to withdrawal or killing in The Plague, a novel in which exploration is precluded by quarantine, entrapment in a diseased city. The choice offered by Camus isn't between disengagement and not killing; we can cooperate to resist the death of others, resisting even when we are helpless to prevent it. His characters in that novel, like Rambert the journalist who elects to fight the pestilence rather than escape to his beloved in another city, are able to put aside individual or family love for a broader commitment. They choose human interaction over self-interest. However, that choice emerges as a lesson of painful experience, not an immediate instinct.
The people of Oran's initial reaction to the plague is denial: "They fancied themselves free" (Camus 35). Even when they can no longer deny the fact of plague, they respond in isolation: "The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal" (Camus 70). Like both loveless Lo Bun Sun and loving Sing Kay Ng, they lived very constrained lives, focused on self or connection to a few others.
In these limitations, they are typical. Through the voice of Rieux, his narrator, Camus says: "On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness" (120-121).
Finally, in the novel, clear-sightedness prevails. The people of Oran come to understand that fighting the plague, "to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying," was a common duty: "There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical" (122). Yet what is logical is not natural. Death is the fact of nature, and the decision to oppose it collectively is a human determination. But Rieux is committed to "fighting against creation as he found it" (116).
Lo Bun Sun, Crusoe, and Franklin also are fighting against creation as they found it by boarding crafts to set off on journeys, by cultivating plants and animals, by printing books and discovering electricity. Perhaps all human activity is ultimately artificial, and the choice to be made is one of constraints and contexts, defining the true goal of the struggle. Habits of the Heart warns of making the wrong choice: "Finally, we are not simply ends in ourselves, either as individuals or as a society. We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price. If we are not to have a self that hangs in the void, slowly twisting in the wind, these are issues we cannot ignore" (84). For the authors of that study, the answer is Tocqueville's standard of associational life, "what we would call, in the full sense of the word, community" (153).
Now, nearing the 21st century, we must ask if traditional individualism can provide social order in a world where five billion people have increased expectations. With centralized tyranny removed, nations have fragmented into enclaves and neighbors have unleashed bombardments with weapons much more deadly than the arrows that killed Sing Kay Ng. Refugees abound. The impulse of nations is to seal them off at the borders. No longer do explorers, those who leave home for freedom, enjoy the seemingly limitless options of a Crusoe or Franklin, new places that promise rewards for uprooting. Habits of the Heart emphasizes the crisis that results from destroying what its authors call social ecology:
"Modernity has had . . . destructive consequences for social ecology. . . . And social ecology is damaged not only by war, genocide, and political repression. It is also damaged by the destruction of the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them frightened and alone. It has been evident for some time that unless we begin to repair the damage to our social ecology, we will destroy ourselves long before natural ecological disaster has time to be realized." (284)
Camus and Tocqueville call for a commitment to mutual dependence. For both writers that is an imperative if humans are to oppose the many destructive forces that threaten us all. If we heed them, today's need is for a broader lovea kind of caringthat transcends the individual and the family and the nation. In this new confrontation with creation as we find it, it won't be enough to survive and not kill. Instead of the Taoist opposition of love and immortality, the only alternative may be love or perish.
Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Stuart Gilbert, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960.
Dawson, Hugh J. "Fathers and Sons: Franklin's 'Memoirs' as Myth and Metaphor." Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Melvin H. Buxbaum. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: New American Library, 1961.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Penguin Books, 1986.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Seavey, Ormond. "Benjamin Franklin and D.H. Lawrence as Conflicting Modes of Consciousness." Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Melvin H. Buxbaum. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987.
Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. "Was America a Mistake?" The Atlantic September 1992: 16-30.
Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadephia. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.