Can one desire foreign islands and ‘the other’ without falling into the trap of exoticism? Michel Tournier’s 1967 novel Vendredi (Friday) offers a timely reminder that a politically progressive sexualisation of otherness is not only possible but can be useful.
The immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote offered two competing island fantasies: on the one side, the image of an ex-colonial power fending off an influx of foreigners, and on the other, that of the urban elites horrified by the referendum result, who called for London to be turned into an independent city state — an isle within an isle. The currently voguish insights of Walter Benjamin — that an attempt to distinguish the civilised from the barbaric is itself an act of barbarism — and Gayatri Spivak — ‘learn your privilege as your loss’ — could apply equally to both types of British islander. Both tribes have narrow and exclusive concepts of the civilised and each fails to listen to others — whether through xenophobia, snobbery or both. Yet if these intolerances are founded in insecurity, criticism following the lines of Benjamin and Spivak will only lead to more defensiveness, more entrenched oppositions. Perversely, I instead turn to a reference both rarefied and European: Tournier’s Vendredi. His reimagining of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe circumnavigates the bitterness of argument and instead follows the route of inducement.
This Robinson moves from trying to escape the island to trying to impose an administrative order upon it and Man Friday. But as his Anglo administration fails, Robinson realises not only its insufficiency and barbarism, but also the seductive power of undoing his identity and beliefs. He says no to mastery and enslavement, including as the slave of ones own system. Avoiding the pretensions of knowing the other and learning from the ‘noble savage’, Robinson learns instead that systems of thought have to be continually remade in a world of chance, and that this can lead to an erotic encounter with the self: where Robinson masturbates a garden of mandrakes grow, alternative possible selves, others originating within himself. If only the faltering Brexit negotiators, nostalgic colonialists and despairing cosmopolitans, could learn the intoxicating potential of letting go.
Originally published in Failed States issue no.1: island, September 2017. Image: L0008133 Hortus Sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images firstname.lastname@example.org http://wellcomeimages.org Hortus Sanitatis: plants, male mandrake. Woodcut Ortus sanitatis Published: 1491 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Paul Clinton is a writer, curator and editor based in London