table of contents


Laura Wittman on Michel Tournier's Friday

Laura Wittman received her Ph.D. in 2001 from Yale University where she completed her dissertation in the Department of Italian Language and Literature. The title of her dissertation is “Mystics Without God: Spirituality and Form in Italian and French Modernism,” an analysis of the historical and intellectual context for the self-descriptive use of the term […]

download transcript [vtt]
This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you live from the Stanford campus.
Okay, okay.
We'll switch to English.
Why does it always have to be English?
Everywhere we go around the world,
we expect everyone to speak English.
The presumption of empire, the prerogative of empire.
We talk a lot about cultural diversity in this country,
but how about a little linguistic diversity?
You can't have multiculturalism when everything is monolingual.
Monolingualism is a death of multiculturalism,
principle number one.
It would be nice if they made foreign language acquisition mandatory in American grade school.
Not very likely.
I hear my friend she and out there saying,
"Come on Harrison, they've tried that before and you know what happened."
It's true, they have tried it before.
Back in the '30s in Texas, for example,
the state senate proposed making the study of Spanish obligatory in grade
schools across the state, but the governor, old Ma Ferguson,
would have none of it.
Not while I'm governor of this state, she said,
"If English was good enough for Jesus Christ,
it's good enough for Texas school children."
Well, a lot of people in this country are waiting breathlessly for Jesus Christ to return to earth,
but the chances are that if he did return,
he wouldn't be speaking in English, and we probably wouldn't be able to understand him.
So let's start over.
My name is Robert Harrison, and the show is called "Intitled Opinions" about life and literature,
or entitled opinions for short.
I don't know about the life and literature part actually.
I think it may be pleonastic.
Literature concerns itself with life,
and life seeps into and saturates literature.
That's my opinion, and believe it or not, it's a somewhat controversial one.
Less now, I suppose, and when I was getting my PhD in literary studies back in the '80s,
that was in the heyday of deconstruction, and Cornell University,
where I got the degree that now entitles me to my opinions,
was a bastion of deconstruction.
For many of my professors of literature, the first item of business was to disabuse students
of the naive notion that literature is about life,
that books refer to reality,
that they have something to do with experience.
No, the text refers first and foremost to itself,
to its own act of writing.
I couldn't understand for the life of me why anyone would want to believe that,
but here we go, Moby Dick is not a real whale,
it's not even the representation of a whale.
And God forbid you wonder whether Moby Dick is symbolic or allegorical,
the distinction between symbol and allegory had to be deconstructed,
and before you knew it, Moby Dick had turned into the transcendental
signifier of the text itself.
I remember an eminent deconstructor who came to Stanford not too long ago,
and gave a lecture about how the world of fiction is a world unto itself,
that his characters belong to the world of fiction alone,
and that we should not imagine that Lord Jim, for instance,
a novel by Joseph Conrad, is about honor, disgrace, fate.
No, there is nothing real or transitive about Jim.
Jim is a character in a book, and his story belongs to the self-referential world.
I couldn't resist asking the speaker what he made of Conrad's preface to Lord Jim,
where Conrad warns his readers against thinking that Jim is a merely invented character.
Conrad, in fact, assures us in his preface that Jim really did exist,
and that in an Eastern seaport, Jim walked right by him a few meters away with his downcast eyes.
But wouldn't you know it?
Conrad's preface is just part of the larger fiction, or so I was told.
I have nothing against deconstruction, and in fact there's a lot about it that I admire,
but as far as I'm concerned, if literature were not steeped in life,
and if life did not find a special kind of asylum in literature,
then there would be no compelling reason for me to read it.
That doesn't mean I think literature simply mirrors life on the contrary.
I think one of its purposes is to do justice to life.
By allowing life to reveal its hidden psychological, spiritual, social,
and even imaginative depths.
Samuel Johnson once said that if literature has a purpose,
it's to help us endure life and to help us enjoy it.
I guess I agree with that.
In any case, these are some basic opinions of mine that I wanted to throw out there
on the first installment of this literary talk show,
which hopefully will be coming to you every week here on KZSU,
now that they're out of the way, let's get started.
What I recited in French at the top of the hour was a passage
from a French novel called Vondro D. or Friday in English published in 1967 by the contemporary French novelist Michel Toutnier.
We'll be talking about Toutnier during the next hour, so get out the freedom prize.
I have a special guest with me in the studio, her name is Laura Whitman,
and she's an assistant professor of French and Italian here at Stanford.
Laura, welcome.
Thank you.
Laura's field is 20th century French and Italian literature,
and we're going to talk with her about Toutnier's remarkable novel Friday.
But before we get down to business, Laura, can you tell us a little about yourself?
It's your second year at Stanford, I believe. How's it going so far?
Well, it's really wonderful, and I think probably what's been best about my time at Stanford is seeing how much passionate dialogue about literature
is really part of the atmosphere of being here, the opportunity to talk to people in many ways about why literature does matter to life,
why people do the work they do because it is relevant to their lives.
Yeah, and when it comes to the kind of students we have,
we're not here to flatter the Stanford students, but I've heard you tell me before that they really are eminently
teachable in this regard. Yes, they definitely are. They have a lot to say about the books they read,
and they react with a lot of imagination, which I think is an important part of reading is just bringing your own imaginative world into contact with that world that literature can offer you.
How did you end up getting a degree in literature, what essentially is devoting your life to the study and teaching of literature?
How did that happen? Was it a kind of academic interest for their life interests? Do you agree with what Samuel Johnson says that one of the purposes of literature is to help us in your life and to enjoy it?
I definitely agree. I think I definitely began to study literature for very personal reasons or began to read literature for very personal reasons when I was in a teenager.
My mother was ill with cancer for almost all of my teenage years, and it was pretty horrific really for such a young person to be looking at illness and despair and death, pretty much in the face, not for myself,
but as close as it gets otherwise, I think. And reading literature was a way for me to feel that other people had reflected on these problems and what they meant.
And I felt not only less alone, but I felt that books would help me to understand something that to me as a teenager was very incomprehensible.
And so I think to some extent books really became my companions and they also taught me the importance of compassion, of shared suffering.
So that goes to the side of Johnson saying that literature helps us to endure life.
Now in terms of enjoyment, I think I would put it even more strongly really and say that literature helps us to rejoice and to celebrate.
And in particular to relish those moments, which I hope everyone has moments when you feel that it is joyful merely to exist in some way.
And I think that beauty, the beauty that literature brings forth is refreshing in that sense. It makes life more livable.
And at its best literature brings us to compassion, but also to joy is really what I would say.
And I like what you said about compassion and shared suffering because one could say, well, you could turn to the text of philosophy in order to help you understand a situation as a one that you described.
But I think a special mark or distinction of literature that it will enable us to get into the intimate psyche of a character, for example, we're dealing with fiction.
And to actually participate in a suffering which might be imaginary or fictional, but it's very hard, I suppose, for philosophy to bring to bear a kind of opening into compassion and shared suffering, would you say?
Yes, I think so. I think philosophy can help you achieve a rational understanding, an idea-based kind of understanding, whereas I think literature helps you to put yourself in someone else's shoes really.
And in that sense, it broadens your understanding of life. I think your ability to understand what people who have very different lives from yours may be going through.
And that goes back to your notion of pluralingism. I think pluralingism is about different languages, literally, or multilingualism, but it's also about inhabiting the life of someone who lived in a different era or who is from a very different social class than you are, or a very different age. So that's a different kind of multilingualism that literature also offers.
Yeah, for sure, there's worlds that literature opens up. And I always feel sorry for people who aren't readers because they live in one world, and readers live in multiple worlds every time you open a book and read it, it really is inducting you into a world as such.
So, Laura, we're going to talk about Michel Túdene and try to bring some of these more theoretical statements to bear on one specific work of his, which is his novel Friday. But before we talk about Túdene, we know that he's a contemporary French novelist.
And one has this, there's an idea out there that the real high point for the French novel was the 19th century with Balzac and Vittódigo, Stondal and Flóbert.
But I think the 20th century in French letters is really an extraordinarily rich one, especially in the realm of the novel. I mean, it begins with a big bang with post, but you also have G, then Louis Fertínóséline,
you have the existentialists Camus and Sást, for example, to say nothing about Beckett, if you want to put Beckett along with the existentialists. He was Irish, but he was writing in French, I consider him a French writer.
And then you have the new novel also, and Blanche Show and Battei and so forth. And Michel Túdene takes his place among these August names of 20th century French fiction.
So I mean, how do you see the larger panorama and maybe the way in which Túdene fits into it and what sort of debts he might have to his predecessors?
Well, I think one way to look at it is that the 19th century novel is perhaps most famous for still looking at the individual in terms of his relationship to society and relationship to political religious moral issues.
And by the end of the 19th century, these overarching and authoritative frameworks for understanding what life is all about are really breaking down.
And so what characterizes the 20th century novel, I think, is the individual facing a world of very fragmented values.
And this is very much how Túdene described it, that solitude is the main issue that faces the 20th century individual who wishes to understand what life is all about and who finds that there are very few outside or overarching points of reference in his search for some kind of self-understanding.
And there is definitely over the 20th century a sort of turn inward, an attempt at the individual finding meaning on his own at almost a kind of self-creation.
Yet at the same time, there's a lot of questions about whether the self is even a unified thing, whether it has any consistency through time.
And there's also a great anxiety about what kind of relationship there can be between this very isolated self and any kind of other or world that might be out there.
So I think one way to understand 20th century French fiction is as a series of explorations or responses to this question of solitude and how one makes meaning for oneself.
For example, post really, as you mentioned, opens the century with a series of novels, really that form a coherent whole, his famous remembrance of things passed as it's often translated in English, but might be better or more literally translated as searching for times or fragments of time that have been lost.
So this series of novels is literally post-exploring his own past and at the same time exploring how memory works and discovering that memory is meandering and unpredictable and unreliable.
Yet that it's in some way the only path that he can find to construct a story for himself of who he is.
So it turns out that the self is ultimately a fictional or constructed self, which is nonetheless in some way the most real self that we can have more real than any external or objective self would be.
So that's very much what post is attempting at the beginning of the century.
Yeah, and his obsession with self, I would say, is not consistent throughout this canon that we're talking about.
I think I remember a essay by Benyamino where he says that the fact that post was able to pull off a kind of novel of the self, so late in late 19th century, early 20th century.
The fact that it was so singular and exceptional shows to what degree that self that post created no longer was at home in the world or it had become an obsolete sort of self.
And you might want to talk a little bit off some of these other writers whether they reacted in that way that Benyamino was describing.
Yes, that's true post's accomplishment was in some way so great that for other writers it became the self became a far more slippery concept.
And for example, I think in G. there is a very great tension between the persona that society and in some ways the external world, but also relations with others demands.
And the celebration of a sort of immediate, a temporal sensuality that is really sort of embodied immersion in present life, which instinctively to him seems far more real than this self reflective, self conscious self that we see in post for example.
And yet in his most famous novel, The Amoralist, this immersion into the sensual world into embodied reality, although it is a great celebration at one level it also leaves him with nothing.
He sort of doesn't quite know what to do with himself, he's lost his sense of time and that is another response to that issue of solitude in the other, right, is that you without a relationship to the world you also lose your past in your future, you seem to be stuck in a permanent present.
And let's talk just one minute about the new novelists because they certainly launched a frontal attack on any kind of literature of the self, I believe, who were the new novelists and then why do we call them new or why did they call themselves new I'm not even sure they're that new.
Well, some of them are well known ones were Anna Hogre and Attelisa Hote and Michelle Buto and they are the generation of writers who began to write in the 50s so in the immediate context of right after World War two.
And they did indeed reject a literature of self exploration and they rejected psychology altogether in favor of what they described not just as an objective description of the world but rather a description of objects and their goal was through this description of objects to cause the reader to react and to form his own network of association.
And so what was new about the new novelists was definitely this turn away from psychology and this very experimental attempt to force the reader really into interpretation of objects.
So the novel would present itself almost as a room full of objects or a landscape with things in it and you were not given much of a sense of how they were to fit together as a reader you were supposed to figure that out on your own.
These objects were telling some kind of story but it was very difficult to tell what it was.
So a very difficult reading but an attempt to de-center the self that is normally in control of a text.
Right. And send the self right out there into the world of things. I think it was not Elisa Hote to mention that they had a huge debt to Alberca Moo in the stranger where instead of all this introspection, that moment where he kills the Arab is described
in terms of externalities. It's the sun, the sea, the glint of the revolver and everything takes place almost like outside on the very interfaces of the person in the world and that for them from what Natali Sowad said, marked a break away from that postian sort of introspective literature to a kind of literature of things.
Now, getting to Toknier, do you see him having some genealogy here and what was his relationship to the new novelists or the other writers of the 20th century in France?
Well, I actually think he certainly reacts very much against the new novelists in the sense that he returns to psychology and certainly feels that an investigation only of objects is not sufficient.
But I would say that the new novelists view of Camus is a very one-sided view in that Camus novel, the stranger is definitely often written in this external manner. However, it also explores the limits of this kind of intensely embodied experience that doesn't involve self-reflection or psychology.
I have to remember that the stranger of the novel ultimately does commit a murder. And I think Camus thought that the external life, the life of objects was just as bad as the extreme internal life or the excess of subjectivity.
And I would say that that's sort of Toknier's view as well. He in some sense, I think, does owe a debt to existentialism philosophically and to Camus perhaps in particular, in that he decides to write in a way that is accessible in some ways realistic, looking back towards the 19th century novel, in some ways, although definitely trying to render the author less visible and foreground the relationship of the novel.
And perhaps I'd say that the important innovation that he brings stylistically is really trying to create in the reader a sense of wonder. And I think to some extent he could be connected to magical realism so that he's really trying to evoke an immersion of reader in text that is a kind of immersion that's about awe.
It's about wonder, it's about being surprised.
About a few biographical facts about his life. And then I want to turn to Vontradi because I think books end up being much more interesting than this kind of narrative.
So the debts a writer has to his predecessor and so forth. Yes. But we just want to know when he was born and what is the linium in some of his career. Right. Right. Definitely.
Well, Tylenia was born in Paris in 1924. And both his father and mother were actually very interested in German literature and studied German literature.
But because of World War I his father became a music publisher. So I bring these things up because both music and Germany became very important for Tylenia later on.
He went to a number of Catholic schools, often getting into trouble, then went to the Sábán to study philosophy towards the end of World War II.
And after the war studied in Germany for about four years studied philosophy in Germany. And when he returned to France he actually failed to the state exam or actually more accurately competition to become a philosophy professor.
That sounds like we all would debt to that committee there. Yes, we probably do actually because this failure, which was not unusual. This is a very, very competitive exam for a limited number of posts.
Anyway, this failure forced him to find an alternative career, which ended up being in actually radio and television. He joined Europe number one as it was called at the time or Europe, which was initially a radio station and then also a TV station.
But what's important there was that it was really the first independent, not state run station in France. So he joined the alternative anti-establishment media instead of joining the university,
which would have been joining the establishment. And I think this probably suited his personality a lot better in reality.
Yeah, I would have become one of us instead of Michel Tuchnier. Exactly. Okay, now the novel Friday is a rewriting of the Robinson Crusoe story.
Why would an author in 1967 in France go about trying to rewrite that story with the Robinson Crusoe story that kept the
this imagination and what way does he recast it? Well, I think probably there are two things that captured his imagination on the one hand. He describes the Robinson Crusoe story as the story about solitude, right? Because Robinson is stranded on a desert island for 28 years in the original book and alone for many of those years and has to recreate a world in which to
live. So for Tuchnier, this problem of solitude was the essential modern problem and therefore Robinson who is for him, the mythical character of solitude was obviously appealing. And I think the other side of why rewrite the story in 1967 is if we think about the fact that decolonization had pretty much just happened in France, right? It's sort of over by 1962 or so, something like that.
In any case, the issue of the relationship between Western culture and non-Western cultures is a really crucial one in these years. And Tuchnier actually talked about the character of Friday.
Well, he credits Defoe with the invention of Friday, which he thinks is a marvelous invention, but he also says well, but he did not turn Friday into a myth of equal power to Robinson.
In some ways, Tuchnier's goal is to make Friday as important as Robinson in the novel. And therefore, if in the original novel, Defoe Robinson arrives on the island and ultimately imposes upon it a miniature version of Western civilization and culture, Tonya in some sense reverses this.
But Robinson is not quite able to impose his culture on this island, and nor is he completely able to turn the "savage Friday" into a "civilized man."
Or a civilized servant, yeah? Well, we should tell our listeners that the novel deviates a little bit from the original. And so far as it has third-person narration, and it also has journal entries by Robinson himself.
On hand, we're getting really into a psyche on the other hand. We have a third anonymous narrator who tells us what's taking place. And here again, the book is articulated, I think, in very definite stages.
And we're going to want to go through them maybe one by one. But first, we have a public service announcement for you. We'll be back in one minute.
Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, come on, come on, you got to take it right here. 7701. 7701. No, no, no, no, no, he's going to do it.
Lose again. This is the fifth time in the world. Oh, he's losing. You were ruined my life. And now I will ruin your life, dog. I will send you to the pound for life.
The Golden State Greyhound adoption is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization dedicated to maximizing the adoption and placement of retired, racing, greyhounds in Northern California. If you'd like to get involved with the Golden State Greyhounds, or have room for a Greyhound in your life, please visit That's
Yeah, we go from Robertson, Cruz, on his island at the Greyhound. This actually, there's a connection there because Cruz, so it does have a dog, ten in
to the nearest novel. Okay, let's go through the various stages that Robertson goes through after he's marooned on this island.
The first stage is this kind of anxious and eager attempt to find any means possible to escape from the island, right?
Absolutely. He looks out at sea and almost ignores the island that he is on altogether. His main attempt really is to build, he decides to build a ship, a ship called the escape, in fact.
And spends all of his energy doing this really at the expense of other, ensuring his own survival, right?
So he sort of eats day to day, but he doesn't really take care of himself. And it's all quite ironic because he's building this ship on the beach on the sea shore.
And it's quite large because he realizes he's going to have to go quite far on it. And when he's finished, which requires quite a lot of ingenuity, he realizes that he has no means of actually pushing this ship from the land into the water.
And this infuriates him, of course. And he realizes that he has been obsessed by this idea of escape to the extent that no other idea could enter his mind.
And I think the important thing here actually comes out even more in the French because the word for escape, if as young, also means evasion.
And Tonya definitely plays with the fact that Robinson doesn't realize that this ship is not actually an escape for him, but it is an evasion of his real situation.
Right. He's anywhere but on that island for that whole period when he's completely obsessed with being elsewhere.
But then, after this, the failure to move the boat to sea, there's this realization that he is radically shipwrecked right there, where he is in the dot of his own dasa. And if you want to speak out again, he really falls into a very aggravated depression, which takes the form of literally wallowing in the mud, in a mud pool somewhere.
And just bearing himself in the very fairness of this island.
Yes. Actually, before we get into that, I did want to mention that one of the ways in which he evades reality is that some of his companions from the shipwreck are, their bodies are still there on the ship.
And he goes to the ship and collects whatever he can salvage, but he decides that it's not possible for him to bury them, that it's too big a job.
And I think this really does indicate also his refusal to inhabit the island, right, that he doesn't want to have it be a place of burial.
So I just wanted to mention that before I get into the fact that he then, yes, he does live in this mire and literally wallowing depression.
And I wanted to actually read a little bit of an example of that.
So I'm quoting Tony describing Robinson's depression.
The surface of thick slime over which clouds of a mosquito's hovered was stirred by sluggish ripples as a small suckling pig.
Nothing of it visible but it's speckled snout, moved to attach itself to its mother's flank.
Then a human form like a statue of clay rose in its turn and made its way through the reeds.
Robinson's hands had become mere forepaws used for walking since it made him giddy to stand upright.
His state of physical weakness and the softness of sand and mud, but above all the breaking of some little spring within his soul, had let him to move only on his hands and knees.
So I won't go into what is a description of a number of pages, but what we really get a sense of is that Robinson has melted with the mud, the slime, and in fact also the excrement of animals that are parts of this.
And he really loses his humanity as we see from the fact that he no longer walks upright.
And I think what's important here is that this is a first way in which he accepts the island. He literally melts with it.
But it is a highly negative melding and perhaps the story of the book is trying to find a different way to relate to the island.
Good, so that would be stage two, the melding, and then he pulls himself up from his bootstraps and we go into a kind of third stage which is a very important one which is the stage of him deciding to take possession of the island and impose upon it an order, rational western kind of order, bring it under cultivation, domesticated as it were.
And he becomes like the figure of the colonialist in the Farflung Pacific, bringing western administration and order and even husbandry, as a cultural husbandry, onto the island.
Well, that's all true, Robert. To some extent he does become the figure of the colonialist and he titles himself, Governor.
So there are these ways in which he mirrors actually, Daphose Robinson.
But I think there are also subtle ways in which Dornier shows that he is already somehow beginning to develop a different relationship to the island.
And I would say that for example, when it comes to cultivation, the cultivation of the island, when it comes to how he creates a religious order there, practice and ritual seem to become more important than production and possession.
So he does things for themselves rather than for a specific future or accumulation or a bit of both, right?
He's in between, he's sort of learning something new.
I know what those passages that you're referring to and I agree to a certain extent.
However, he also needs a project in order to keep his own sanity, avoid going that.
And he throws himself into the projects, whether it's building fences, recovering all the treasures and utilities that he needs from the ship,
surveying the land and the island, creating the fields and domestication.
And as long as he's living in that project, he's feeling that he's being productive and there's labor.
You're right, that there's no real utilitarian purpose at the end of it.
He doesn't need the food that he's cultivating for eating.
He has plenty from the fish and so forth.
But it is really to preserve a state of mind, which is one of being projected into one's labor.
And one could say that he is completely absorbed in his projects.
And this in a mode, you know, to any study philosophy and Germany at a time when existentialism, hide a gary and we could say,
his absorption in his project as governor of the island is also another form of evasion.
At least I would throw that out of evading the fact that everything about his circumstance has divorced him irreducibly from the world that he's left behind.
So this frenetic attempt to recreate that world, I think, is also subtended by a lingering form of denial.
I agree that there definitely is an element of denial.
On the other hand, it helps him get over his depression.
And I would say also that there are moments when he realizes that it's a form of denial and finds alternatives.
And one of them that is really remarkable is a moment when he lives inside this,
actually he uses this cave to keep all of his most important supplies in.
He discovers that the cave has a very deep, deep crevice at the bottom of it.
And essentially decides that he wants to turn off time, right?
He's going to stop the way he's clocked.
And he's going to live in this deep crevice inside the island.
And literally it's a sort of return to the womb in which he sees the island as his mother.
And wants to achieve this moment of symbiosis with the island, sort of complete identification.
And that's very different from the order and cultivation that he practices outside of the cave, one might say.
Sure. And after this return to the womb, where the island becoming a mother,
then becomes really like a wife.
No, he becomes the husbandman.
That would be the cultivating side, I suppose,
where he even speaks of her in matrimonial terms.
Right? He does make the island his lover as well.
And this leads to a reflection on how desire needs some kind of embodiment.
And I think by desire to uni means not only specifically sexual desire,
but really the desire for connection to an external other.
So the return to the womb is desire for a very primeval desire to be connected to the mother,
making the island a lover is a more obvious form of desire.
And after this attempt to make the island his lover really doesn't quite work either,
he begins to realize that he's in a position of having a desire that has no purpose
or that hasn't quite found its purpose yet.
Good. And when Laura says that he turns the island into his lover,
we should tell our listeners that this actually has a literal correlate.
He actually insominates the ground with his own seed and...
And mandrake's grow.
Mandrake's grow, yes exactly.
Okay, and then the real big moment in the novel,
the turning point is the arrival of Friday.
What changes when Friday arrives on the scene?
Well, initially, not too much in the sense that Robinson decides to educate Friday
and initially perceives him as rather less than human,
somewhat of an animal, certainly in need of...
husbandry, what might say, he needs to have an order imposed on him.
And Friday reacts to this.
Initially he seems to accept it, but in fact, there are more and more small ways
in which he subverts it, and in particular his laughter.
Whenever Friday doesn't understand what Robinson wants him to do, he laughs.
And Tonya described not in this book, but elsewhere he really described laughter
as an eruption of the absolute into everyday life.
And he described black laughter as a sort of destructive eruption,
a way in which this absolute destroys all your assumptions.
But he also claimed that there is, after that, a form of white laughter,
which is a form of joy or of jubilation.
Does he doesn't mean this racially, does he?
No, not at all. Not at all. I think he needs them.
I mean, Friday being black, and the black laughter.
Well, I think he's... it's because he begins with black humor,
which he sees as destructive, and then he wants to talk about a white humor,
which I think he would say is more salvational.
And then there's a big moment when Friday goes into the cave,
and where all the provisions are stored, and there's gunpowder,
and all that, and there's a huge explosion.
By accident, he just explodes the whole thing.
And everything that Robinson has built over the years really crumbles before his eyes.
And yet, rather than falling into a despair about that,
it seems that by this time, Robinson has already learned enough from Friday
to be rather sanguine about that, and just move on.
And so we enter in this subsequent stage in the narration.
We do.
We really, I think the explosion can be seen as a moment of initiation or a destruction that is prelude to rebirth.
And to some extent, we have to wonder whether it's entirely an intentional on Friday's part, right?
He seems to have a certain glee at what is happening.
And it's true.
It's surprising that Robinson actually accepts it almost as a liberation,
that he no longer has to struggle to create order and to recreate a world
that doesn't really belong on the island.
And what happens most importantly after the explosion is that Robinson's begins to watch how Friday lives,
rather than trying to make him live in a certain way.
And Friday teaches him, one could say, a sort of lesson in life via his hunting of a fierce,
aged male goat that is inhebits the island that Friday decides is a worthy adversary.
So he hunts this goat.
And in fact, almost loses his life in what is almost hand-to-hand combat with the goat.
And he does finally win and decides to turn the goats' hide into a kite that will fly into the air.
And he uses his skull and his innards to create a harp that the wind plays, an alien harp.
And he explains to Robinson that he is going to make undor this goat, which he has named,
that he is going to make undor fly and sing.
And so in some sense, it really is a symbolic overcoming of death, right?
undor dies, but Friday teaches Robinson the way in which death is part of a cycle of life and rebirth.
Yeah, I love the way the elements come into play in this novel as a whole.
Robinson's allegiance is completely to the earth.
And he sees Spédans, the name of the island, as a mother, as a lover, and completely devoted.
And with Friday, there is a different principle that is introduced there, and that is the principle of the air.
He is an aerial spirit, as Todniak calls him.
He, his laughter, has this lightness about it.
His transfiguration of the ram, which is the most earthly kind of animal you can imagine, and turning undor into something that both flies and sings through the wind that blows through its skull,
is a transfiguration of the earth into the element of air.
And this is something that brings, I think, a conversion in Robinson's whole sort of disposition towards the elements,
and he starts looking to the sky for the first time away from the earth.
I mean, he doesn't abandon his allegiance to the earth, but somehow now, with Friday having initiated him into the aerial principle, as it were,
He has a new cognizance of the sun, and also the sacrality of the sun.
He definitely does.
And I think what's going on there is what Todniak calls learning to become elemental, or finding the part of oneself that is connected to the elements.
And what's important there is that at the very beginning of the novel, we see Robinson wants to initially, I think, see nature as an object.
And in a second phase, he actually personifies the island as we saw, so he then sees nature as a subject, which is a form of progress.
And yet, what he learns here, finally, is not to make it either object or subject, but to transform himself to recognize the elemental elements, the presence of the elements in himself.
So I think that's what's going on there when he acquires the spirit of fire. Todniak said that really, earth is what the old Robinson is like at the beginning of the novel.
And in his encounter with Friday, who is the spirit of air, he learns to become a spirit of fire, which would be the most creative element, I think.
I was reading where he says, "Earth plus air equals sun to rest your crew so plus Friday equals the solar crew so."
Yes, exactly.
And this lesson of being in his body in a very different way now than when he arrived, which is a lesson he owes really to Friday to a great extent.
It leads to even what he calls his sex-relitez-soleur.
What does he mean by this solar sexuality?
Well, I'd like to read you a brief quote about that actually that comes from the very end of the novel when he's describing what it might be, and at the same time describing Friday.
This comes actually shortly after the quote you read at the very beginning where he celebrates Friday's beauty.
So this is what he writes. Here he comes. He's talking about Friday.
"Shall I ever learn to walk with his natural majesty? Do I sound absurd if I say that he seems clothed by his nakedness?
He carries his body like a sovereign affirmation. He bears himself like a monstrous of flesh.
And a little bit later he adds that by watching Friday's beauty and his majesty, what he discovers is not a kind of love that has to do with sexuality, but what he describes as,
and I quote again, "a soft jubilation which exalts and pervades me from head to foot so long as the sun-god bathes me in his rays."
So there's really this almost mystical contemplation that he achieves at the end of the book, both watching Friday and also looking at the natural world,
which is not, I would say, an identification. It's not the kind of identity with the island that leads him to see it as a mother, but it's rather a relationship, I think, of intimacy with the living world, which means, by intimacy, I mean that he accepts his own difference from nature, which means his own consciousness, his own ability to think and reflect and construct and have projects.
And yet at the same time, his closeness to nature, so his being caught up in the cycle of birth and death and of the transformation of the elements of one into the other.
Would you agree with me that this is a lesson, whatever Robinson learns by the end, is not one that we in the West can just teach ourselves, but that it has to come from outside of the West, and that somehow the novel Friday is also a call
to his own society to maybe modify its attitudes towards non-Western cultures and see what we might be able to learn about being in our bodies in a different way, being in the world in a different way, and this elemental allegiance that you were talking about earlier, that maybe we're talking here about a call for a reverse colonisation.
Yeah, I think that's true, Robert. I think he's really suggesting that it's not some innate problem with Western Westerners, but that in fact he's suggesting that Western society has, for so many centuries now, really been focused on ordering the natural world and perhaps on separating the individual from nature, so that we've lost our ability for this element of the world.
This is a very visceral sense, I think, in the case of Friday, and certainly the novel suggests that we, as a culture at least, that we will need contact with cultures that live their relationship to nature differently in order to be able to modify our own, and perhaps to see nature in a very different way.
I think Tonya would call it in a more mystical as well as a more sacred way, so there's definitely a reverse colonization going on there.
Now, we're not going to give away the end of the novel for all our listeners who might have been intrigued enough by it to want to go and read it themselves, and all I can promise you is that it has a very, very surprising ending, and we're not giving away that ending by saying that basically Friday, when a ship arrives on the island, finally, after all these years, it's another Western, it's a sailing ship, and Friday is so taken.
Being an aerial spirit with the whole notion of a sailing ship, and the rigging and all that stuff, that he ends up being seduced by the promise of departure, and he does take off, leaving Robinson back there on his island where Robinson decides to stay on, and then Friday takes off, and that's okay, because I think Robinson has come to terms with himself.
I'm wondering if there's not in that moment some pointing to the way in which the first world, the Western world, has this perhaps even false or lure to the non-Westerner, and draws him into, especially his gadgetry and its technology and so forth.
I think there definitely is, and a way that that becomes clear is that at one point Tonya was writing about this novel, and he said that if he had not felt this was two grandiose adjuster, that he wished he could dedicate this novel to all of the non-Westerners who lived in France, and were very much the basis of its economy, and very much a silent basis.
I think he really saw them as perhaps in some ways seduced by the West, and yet unable to bring their own culture to the West because they were silenced.
And I think his novel does try to, I think he would not make this statement, I think he would have thought this was too much, but he definitely is trying to give them some kind of voice or at least to give non-Western culture some kind of relationship to French culture that is positive rather than just being silenced.
Yeah, for sure. We're talking with Laura Whitman, going to wrap up the hour shortly, but this novel Friday is one that we both, I think, have a particular sort of enthusiasm for, and we're not the only ones, I know a lot of people who are enthralled by the narrative, and you say to yourself it first, why would I want to read a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, but it turns out to be something that is very compelling, and it brings me to Tonya, I think it was his first novel, wasn't it?
It was, yeah.
It was his first novel, this is amazing because he seems to have been born full-blown already as a kind of master storyteller and prober of human psychology, and already some of the main themes that characterizes later work, which I think you're right is how to arrive at a point where the world and the natural world especially can be resacralized in such a way that we live in it in a way that is a very important way to be able to be able to live in it.
In a different mode, that all these themes seem to be already present here in the first novel of Friday.
So before we leave the air, Laura, do you want to tell us what you're going to be teaching this year in a case there's some students out there who want to take some of your classes?
Sure, sure. Very much in brief. I'm going to be teaching a course on poetry and politics and French and Italian literature, so it's really looking at poets who had political opinions, sometimes we're involved in politics, and
Does this influence their poetry writing? And I'm teaching a course on the theater of the absurd, so very much mostly French theater a little bit of Italian, but very much of these existential questions and a course on Italian cinema.
So that's basically my main courses and I'm also teaching Honors College, which is a course for seniors who are writing honors these things.
That's great. Good luck with those courses. Thank you Robert.
We've been talking with Laura Whitman and titled opinions. Here at KZSU Stanford will be joining you in a couple of weeks, I hope. Have a good evening.