Islands for Introverts

by Alyssa Pelish

Crusoe cave Robinson Crusoe is notable for a lot of reasons. It was one of the first English novels. It brings up stuff like cultural relativism and morality and providence with a capital P. Marx favorably critiqued its depiction of pre-capitalist man. It can be read as a big old allegory of British colonialism. And, of course, it’s the locus classicus of desert island tropes. Yet when I finally got around to reading it this summer, it recalled to me nothing so much as the contentment I’d felt at age eight-ish, sheltering in a makeshift lean-to of blankets and card table chairs as I shined a flashlight over the pages of another, though not entirely different, book.

Reading Robinson Crusoe, I found myself happily engrossed in Crusoe’s construction of his island dwelling — how he begins to hollow out a rock aside a hill and fashions a tented enclosure from the sails of his battered ship. He recounts how, upon having carved out a cave sufficient for himself, “into this fence or fortress…I carried all my riches, all my provisions, ammunition, and stores.” Contentedly, I read as Crusoe burrowed further into his cave, carving out numerous alcoves and crannies for storage and hiding. I read as he built up a barricade of turf around the cave, as he raised rafters from wall to cave entrance, thatching them with tree boughs. And, finally, I read how, after pulling in after himself the ladder he has crafted for the entrance to his cave, he declares himself “fortified…from all the world.”

Defoe is not really an entrancing prose stylist. With a few exceptions, he is not even much for suspense. Long stretches of the book simply recount Crusoe’s efforts at homesteading on a desert island, as if he were narrating a how-to book for future castaways (e.g. “Before I set up my tent, I drew a half-circle before the hollow place, which took in about ten yards in its semi-diameter from the rock, and twenty yards in its diameter, from its beginning and ending”). The literary theorist Terry Eagleton quite truthfully notes that, in Defoe’s novels, “events are not savored for their own sake.” Indeed. Sometimes Defoe dispatches with whole years in the space of a single sentence while, say, we’re waiting for Crusoe’s crop of barley to reach maturity. And yet I very much savored the many workmanlike accounts of Crusoe burrowing further into the recesses of his cave, fashioning his tent, fortifying his ramparts of turf. How cozy, when he furnishes his cave with a lamp made from goat tallow, oakum, and a sun baked clay dish! How satisfying, when he lines his cave with planks salvaged from the ship! I recalled my own little blanket fort and flashlight, and read on.

Crusoe hut

Beneath the quilts and heavy comforters draped over a stand of card table chairs, the book I read at age eight was My Side of the Mountain. It has, over the last fifty-odd years, become something of a children’s classic. Not absolutely everyone knows it, but if you mention it to someone who has read it it, their face lights up and they melt a little, remembering. The basic premise is how this twelve-year-old boy survives quite happily on his own for a year in the Catskills. He hollows out a home in the trunk of a broad old hemlock, learns how to boil cattails and dogtooth bulbs and stew wild mussels, fashions a bed frame out of ash slats, tames a hawk and trains it to hunt for small game, and pretty much just lives independent of any other people. Apparently, the hollowed out hemlock is so impervious to the elements that the little Thoreau often sits snugly inside, crosslegged on the soft dirt floor, admiring the downpours or snowstorms that he is insulated from. His home is also admirably undetectable by outsiders. At one point in the story, he scratches out on the sheaf of birch bark that serves as his journal, “I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing I am here.”

This was hugely appealing to me. I have, no doubt, always been something of a hollower-out of self-sized spaces. As a child, I always chose the safe confines of the bottom bunk. In fact, I most preferred hiding, belly-down, beneath the bunk bed. I liked crouching beneath the rotting wood of my parents’ back deck and, from the darkness, watching a world that could not watch me. My freshman year of college, I enclosed my single my bed with strips of two-ply Hefty bags from ceiling to mattress, and felt a luxury in being obscured from my two roommates. Even now, I instinctively choose the café table that’s farthest in the corner.

I suppose, then, it’s no surprise that I derive such vicarious pleasure from reading about other people’s burrowing behavior. The confines of a self-sized space are as soothing to me, and as necessary, as Robinson Crusoe’s sheltering cave is to him. Within such confines, I can think. Outside them, I am too exposed, too unsheltered from the consciousness of the world.

When I described to a friend of mine my pleasure in all these accounts of tree-hollowing and cave-carving, he responded by asking me something about The Tempest. Another tale of castaways. “Do you think,” he asked me, “that Prospero practiced magic before he got to the island?” “Of course not,” I said. It was not entirely clear to me why he was asking. In fact, it took me a bit of time to work out the significance of my certainty.

The thing is, while we don’t have the pleasure of watching Prospero carve out his cell from the rocks of the island, the island is as solidly his as the one that Robinson Crusoe inhabits for 28 years. The sovereignty that slipped through his fingers back in Milan is never in question on this island. As to why, there’s a suggestion that Prospero himself is inclined toward self-sized spaces — that he has a tendency toward introversion that cost him his dukedom, sequestered as he always was, in the library, “rapt in secret studies.” “My library,” he tells Miranda, “was dukedom large enough.” But evidently, he has made this island his and, in doing so, has unpacked his books in plain sight. Undoubtedly, the isolating circumference of the island is what allows his powers of magic to surface in full. “I am…master of a full poor cell,” he says, but there is no doubt that his cell, his private study, has come to encompass the entirety of the island.

MSoM tree

In each of these stories of self-reliance, the self-sized space that is initially carved out — be it cave, tree hollow, or cell — eventually extends to the whole of the island. That is, in each instance, the castaway traces his outline in what is otherwise vastly indifferent, impersonal space. He burrows inward. But, in time, each castaway effectively unpacks his library and comes to practice magic upon the entirety of the island. The kid in the hemlock trunk ventures farther afield to hunt bigger game. Robinson Crusoe sows fields of corn and barley and puts out goats to pasture. The whole of the island, then, becomes the burrower’s self-sized space, as cozy and secure as a hollowed-out hemlock trunk. This is, I think, a major reason why such narratives are so appealing to inveterate burrowers like me.

Some people, I understand, feel at home wherever they go. They fluidly and fully occupy space from one stride to another on a downtown sidewalk. Some people comfortably inhabit whole continents. For these expansive types, the self can span acres and hectares. It can fling its arms across wide avenues and happily establish itself in the center of an otherwise empty stage. I, on the other hand, could chronicle my life thus far in terms of truly self-sized spaces. Tree houses. Train compartments. The space just behind the top of the narrow staircase in my grandfather’s old house. Café corner tables. Beds lodged in corners of a succession of studio apartments. Remote library carrels.

The introvert, Jung explains in his essay “Psychological Types,” can’t find a foothold in the objects outside herself. Jung, whom we have to thank for the term, named it quite aptly. That is, the introvert’s world is founded on folding inward. Unlike the classic extrovert, who “denies himself in his complete dispersion among objects” (and here I envision the extrovert as a sort of babbling brook frothing happily over each and every boulder in its social course), the introvert “will follow his ideas…inwardly, not outwardly.” The thing is, introverts feel as if they’re slowly ceasing to exist in any substantive way when all their mental energy is spread thinly across the surface of sociability. This, at least in my experience, is why they need to retreat. To draw an outline of themselves and then recover their internal monologue. In this respect, Jung seems to get it right when he observes that “introverted thinking arrives at the evidence of its own subjective being.” While the introvert can certainly make forays into the broad and unsheltered social landscape, she really must eventually retreat into an alcove large enough for a single consciousness alone, in order to, yes, collect the evidence of her own subjective being. Otherwise she may cease to exist. Think of Crusoe without his cave during the rainy season.

And this is why there’s so much pleasure for the introvert in reading of Crusoe and the kid of My Side of the Mountain. There is first, of course, the soothing recognition of the self-sized spaces our heroes initially hollow out. But then, there is a satisfaction, a kind of wish fulfillment, in observing the gradual expansion of that self-sized space — so that Crusoe’s domain, and that of the kid on the mountain, begins to extend far beyond cave or hemlock trunk. These characters begins to fill their respective islands in a way that’s still totally equivalent to the subjectively, inwardly focused behavior of introverts — but, magically almost, they manage to retain that quality even as their self-sized space encompasses the world outside it.

And the introvert, in reading these stories, can occupy a world in which she gets to eat her cake in solitude and have it at the party, too.