NAVIGATING CRUSOE’S VOYAGE INTO THE OBSCENE
BY: CLIFFORD HALEY
Pinpointing the origin of the novel is not as easy as people might think. The first piece of English Literature and the first novel have not been concretely determined. Scholars have argued that the novel itself is classified as its own genre, spurring the development of novel theory—a field of literary study that explores how we understand the novel and how a novel is defined 11,15. Seeing the novel as a genre expands and changes how scholars view pieces of literature as well as requiring specific criteria in order to classify works under this genre. Given Defoe’s usage of prose, individualism and realism scholars suggest that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe[i]published in 1719 is the first novel of the English canon.[ii]
Who is Robinson Crusoe?
The novel’s plot centers on Robinson Crusoe, an English landowner. Crusoe struggles to find his calling amidst his parents’ expectations. After a couple not-so-successful sailing excursions, Crusoe decides to set sail to Brazil in order to visit his newly bought plantation farms. Along the way, a nasty hurricane leaves him shipwrecked and alone on a remote island off the coast of South America. Using his wit, perseverance, faith, and aid from his loyal companion Friday, another ship rescues him from his isolation after twenty eight years of being a castaway.
The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe
The novel’s publication was a major commercial success, inspiring other authors all around the world to produce stories paralleling Defoe’s. Even in the twentieth century, Defoe’s story still influenced the writing of authors, playwrights, and musicians. Michel Gall, in particular, took the story of Crusoe and made it something completely different: pornography. Using the pen name Humphrey Richardson, Gall produced The Secret Life of Robinson Crusoe, published by Olympia Press, which provided a newly sexualized perspective of the iconic tale known by so many. Gall’s creative interpretation of Crusoe’s solitude was published during an era of strict censorship, both in America and in Britain. This begs the question: how was the novel able to be published at all?
Obscenity, Pornography, and the Law
Before exploring the novel’s publication history, it is important to understand how “obscenity” is defined and how Britain and America deemed works to be “obscene”. First off, the term “pornographic” is in reference to works that contain content that is sexually explicit3. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term pornographic did not come into use until the mid-nineteenth century, and therefore was a relatively new term to be utilized13. Obscenity, however, is a much older term that dates back to the mid sixteenth century and is not as easily defined nor is synonymous with pornography12. The central idea and aversion towards the world of obscene literature is the idea that obscene materials awaken and encourage deeply rooted sexual interests which then cause an increase the number of sexually natured crimes3. Moreover, people have also blamed obscenity as a distraction from other “real” works of literature and therefore degrade the literary standard3.
For American judicial systems, defining and identifying obscenity was crucial because it meant that such works could not be protected by the First Amendment in the Constitution6. Therefore, in the eyes of the court, literature must be of some value in order to be protected, which comes back to the same question of how do we know what is obscene and what is not6. In America, the Hicklin Test was used throughout the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century before courts started to refine the process in the 1960s6. The Hicklin Test was unlike the standards used in modern and contemporary legal systems in that it considered only isolated passages out of a work of instead of a novel in its entirety6. Through multiple legal cases in the mid 1960s, it was agreed upon that in order to deem a work obscene, it should be examined holistically and should be judged on whether it: appeals to prurient interest, is patently offensive, and/or has literary, artistic, scientific, or political value in society6.
Along the same lines, Parliament cracked down on the publication of obscenity throughout the 1950s in order to protect the youth from being exposed to “repulsive acts.”3A couple of decades later, Parliament banned the mailing of obscene publication in 1973 due to the rapid and rather ironic expansion of the pornography market3. By banning the production of obscene works of fiction in Britain, publishers in other countries could produce pornography to supply the increasing demand. This caused prices to be cheaper and the industry of the pornographic and obscene to take off (as will be discussed with Olympia Press)3. Banning the trade of obscene works of fiction allowed British authorities to control and reduce the flow of pornography into Great Britain6. Bottom line: America and Great Britain were actively against the publication of works that contained sexually explicit material, especially in the middle of the twentieth century. Publishers of these wickedly obscene works, therefore, had to be careful about publishing their explicit content.
From Obelisk to Olympia Press
As the underground pornography market expands, in comes the notorious publishing house of Obelisk Press1. Founded by World War II veteran Jake Kahane, Obelisk Press was a small publishing house that came into the scene as a loophole for all sorts of censorship issues10. Kahane was born in Massachusetts but settled down in France after marrying his wife Marcelle Girodias2. In the late 1920s, after forming a partnership with French publisher Henri Babou, Kahane sought to aid authors publish more their risqué novels since France’s censorship laws were different than in both America and in Britain14. In addition, some authors could not get away with publishing their work in their home countries or under their original publishers and henceforth sought out Obelisk Press2. Author such as D.H. Lawrence experienced copyright issues in their home countries which allowed pirated versions of their work to sell faster and at a cheaper price2. By helping writers in such dilemmas, Kahane published the works of well known authors such as James Joyce, Henry Miller, and many more2. Fortunately, the legacy Kahane built for the publishing house continued onward with his stepson, Maurice Girodias, in the 1950s and 1960s when Girodias revamped Obelisk Press into Olympia Press8.
The publication of Michel Gall’s work in 1967 could not have been done without Olympia Press. Olympia Press was notoriously known during the 50s and 60s for being all too familiar with the pornographic and obscene14. Maurice Girodias began his career in publishing by utilizing his fluency in the French language to translate books from their original publication language into French or vice versa2. Though he was successful in the short term, Girodias wanted to go bigger and thus created the publishing house of Olympia Press8. Girodias first opened his press in the back of a bookshop on the streets of Paris which discretely published and sold obscene works of literature1. As the press gained more momentum, Girodias wanted to begin publishing a series of erotic novels because he believed that it appealed to anyone and everyone2. Assembling a team of authors, Girodias created the Traveler’s Companion series, known and identifiable by their simple green covers2. Girodias went on to publish raunchy works such as Nabokov’s Lolita, Henry Miller’s Sexus, Oscar Wilde’s Teleny and, of course, The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe in this series of erotica.
Although not much is known about Michel Gall[iii], it is known that he was a French journalist who was close friends with Girodias2. Born in Metz, France on July 29, 1932, Michel Gall was interested in all forms of media and entertainment, such as film, journalism, and magazine publication9. Gall worked in film before pursuing his passion for journalism9. In addition, Gall worked as a film critic for a French magazine and as a chief editor of a television magazine. A big fan of the great epics of the past, Gall had written the introduction for The Voyages of Ulysses: a photographic interpretation of Homer’s classic which was published by Macmillan just a year before he wrote his novel for Olympia Press9. Interestingly enough, Michel Gall wrote a perverse version of Homer’s Ulysses,16 called A Beside Odyssey, under the pen name “Homer & Associates” after the publication of The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe2. Clearly, the classics and epics of world literature are centric to Michel Gall’s interests and passions9.
With the aid of Olympia Press, The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe was published in 1967 as number 205 in the Traveler’s Companion series5. As mentioned before, the primary focus of this novel is not how Crusoe manages to survive alone on the isolated island, but rather how he manages to deal with the physical loneliness. To put it most plainly: Gall explores how Crusoe deals with his sexual impulses without any sort of romantic companion. The novel retains the same introduction into isolation with the shipwreck on uninhabited island, but does not include any of the original frame work. Instead of introducing Crusoe with his first seafaring voyages and parental disobedience, this novel begins with the shipwreck. What is lost with such a decision is the underlying theme of childhood rebellion and Crusoe’s tenacious urge to sail. Yet, Gall’s decision is deliberate and impactful since it clearly and quickly focuses on the primary interest of the novel: the confrontation of being alone and individual maturation thereafter.
Novel Theory Application
In order to better understand and appreciate Gall’s work as a piece of unique literature, novel theory can be applied to analyze the specific choices Gall made when creating this sexualized narrative, such as Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality4. Foucault argues that from the eighteenth to twentieth century, people were actively engaging in open conversations about sex and sexuality4. In light of the Catholic Reformation that lasted until almost the nineteenth century, society was interested in discussing and purging sinful acts such as sex4. Therefore, individuals in society actively discussed their sex lives. Additionally, Foucault explores his “repressive hypothesis” which explains how the focus of these conversations progressed from the sex lives of married couples to the sex lives of the “perverse” such as the children, the mentally ill, and the homosexual4. The explosion and shift thereafter reveal how individuals were interested in exploring sex and sexuality in alternative and albeit bashful ways. Gall’s novel was published at the end of Foucault’s described time frame which reflects how Gall might be commenting on the historical discussion of sexuality.
Interpreting the Novel
Gall follows Crusoe mostly through his dreams instead of his actions and personal reflections and explores ways in which man is more carnal than methodical. In his time on the island, Crusoe experiments with his sexuality and sexual expression via bestiality, homoeroticism, and the sexualization of native people. All the while, Crusoe experiences reoccurring visions and dreams about a seductive woman back in England, an element that was completely absent from the original text. Through his deliberate alterations, Gall reveals a different side of humanity that was not previously explored by Defoe.
Both novels focus on man outside the realms of society, but in Gall’s adaptation, Crusoe welcomes the lack of civilization as a way of exploring himself unencumbered by societal standards instead of recreating a society of his own. A great example of Crusoe’s ability to satisfy himself shamelessly is his relationship with Friday. In both novels, Friday is the submissive, servant-like companion of Crusoe. In the Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, however, the submissiveness is taken to another level; Friday is also sexually submissive to Crusoe. Gall’s engagement with this particular dynamic does two things: it reveals how a man can explore his sexuality more freely outside the strict standards of society and emphasizes the strong love between these two men. The former effect proposes the idea that sexuality should be explored and celebrated without judgement. Crusoe, alone on this island, exercises his freedom from the criticism of his society by engaging with his sexuality. In turn, Crusoe develops a love, passion, and respect for his companion, Friday, on a much deeper level than in the original text. Although the love comes from sex, it still highlights the formation of human connection that is essential to Defoe’s story. The sexual relationship is albeit very different, but essentially representing the same theme, just from a unique perspective.
The Impact of the Novel
Although Gall’s novel may sound completely different from Defoe’s original story, this novel does touch on both the themes of creating society and the needs of the individual. Though not at all explored in the original tale, sexuality of the human race is something innate and primal—which is likely to surface when outside the realms of societal standards. Therefore, this “dirty book” is hitting on the similar theme of man without society but from an entirely different angle. Such a perspective provides insight and further exploration into what exactly an individual needs in society both physically and psychologically.
Looking at The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe in comparison to the original story provides a sense of how readers and writers have interpreted and engaged with the text in light of a more modernized society. By comparing this adaptation to the original text, readers and scholars can begin exploring the question of what does sexualizing do to the original story? Does the sexualization of Crusoe and/or Friday ruin the story or augment it? Furthermore, analyzing the sexualization of Crusoe and Friday’s relationship raises questions about racial interactions and power dynamics. Does their sexual relationship increase Crusoe’s seniority and dominance over Friday or does the romance it level the roles of power by equalizing the two of them? Such questions provide a richer and deeper analysis of Defoe’s novel as we progress to a more modernized and highly advanced society. Though some might see Gall’s work as pornographic obscenity, it actually reveals how a single story has more than one perspective.
1. DC, Georgia. “Maurice Girdoias & Olympia Press”, March 11, 2016, https://bookblast.com/blog/spotlight-maurice-girodias-olympia-press-indie-publishers-remembered/.
2. De St. Jorre, John, and John De St. Jorre 1936. Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and its Writers. Random House, New York, 1996.
3. Dhavan, Rajeev, and Christie Davies. Censorship and Obscenity. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, N.J, 1978.
4. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Second Volume. Vintage Books, New York, 1990.
5. Gall, Michel. The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe. vol. no. 205.; no. 205, Traveller’s Companion in Association with the Olympia Press, Paris, New York, 1967.
6. Jasper, Margaret C. The Law of Obscenity and Pornography. Oceana, New York, 2009.
7. Jorre, John d. S. “The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press.”Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, vol. 33, no. 2, 1995, pp. 223.
8. Kamiya, Gary. “Lust in the Dust Jackets.”, September 29, 1996, http://www.salon.com/1996/09/29/olympia/.
9. Lessing, Erich, et al. The Voyages of Ulysses: A Photographic Interpretation of Homer’s Classic. Herder, Freiburg, 1965.
10. Mallon, Thomas. “Plain Old Dirty Books.”, June 9, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/09/books/plain-old-dirty-books.html.
11. McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md, 2002.
12. Oxford, English D. “”Obscenity, N.”.”, a, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/129826?redirectedFrom=obscenity.
13. Oxford, English D. “”Pornographic, Adj.”.”, b, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/148011?redirectedFrom=pornographic.
14. Reinhart, Patrick. “The Olympia Press.”, 2019, http://www.tomthebookguy.com/2017/03/the-olympia-press/#.XOL4wy2ZNhG.
15. Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1957.
16. Williams, Gerald (., translator, Homer, and Homer & Associates. A Bedside Odyssey. vol. TC-206; no. 206., The Traveller’s Companion, Inc., in association with the Olympia Press, New York City, N.Y, 1967.
[i]The actual title of the book in its primary publication is: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates
[ii]See Watt and McKeon for scholarly input on the origins of the novel
[iii]The information regarding Michel Gall was obtained from two small paragraphs proceeding his introduction to the book regarding the Voyage of Ulysses (See Lessing et al).
The feature image was illustrated by Thomas Stothard in the Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, London: 1820. Published by Daniel Brass Rare Books.
About the Author
Cliff Haley is a rising Junior at Duke University, majoring in English with a minor in Chemistry. Cliff completed his research regarding Robinson Crusoe through the Story+ summer program offered by the John Hope Franklin Institute of Humanities.