Monday, November 19, 2012

Footprint In The Mud

     This, from Robinson Crusoe:

It happen'd one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz'd with the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition . . .

      I like the suddenness with which the author introduced that momentous scene:

     Robinson Crusoe had, by that time in the story, spent a long time on his lonely island.  With commendable thoughtfulness and energy he had already adapted himself to his circumstances; he had taken the tools that were at hand, and with ingenuity he had created a very serviceable shelter, and he had developed his own adequate, private economy.  He had truly made, we may say, a home for himself in this interesting wilderness.  Generally speaking, things were happening to Crusoe, and in his small-bounded world, pretty much as he thought they should.  And now, quite suddenly and unexpectedly . . .

     The footprint.

     Robinson Crusoe, as Daniel Defoe tells it, reacts:

I listen'd, I look'd round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing, I went up to a rising Ground to look farther, I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one, I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my Fancy; but there was no Room for that, for there was exactly the very Print of a Foot, Toes, Heel, and every Part of a Foot; how it came thither, I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering Thoughts, like a Man perfectly confus'd and out of my self, I came Home to my Fortification, not feeling, as we say, the Ground I went on, but terrify'd to the last Degree, looking behind me at every two or three Steps, mistaking every Bush and Tree, and fancying every Stump at a Distance to be a Man . . .

     This has all the makings of a Myth.  It begins with a fact -- a footprint in the mud -- that under ordinary circumstances would be common and unremarkable; but this fact is observed, it is remarkable, and thus passes into the intelligent mind of a man.

     He looks around, goes to the "rising Ground."  He looks farther, "up the Shore and down the Shore."  He sees nothing out of the ordinary, no supplementary facts or information.  He doubts himself.

     He returns to the footprint -- the fact.  There is only one there.

     But the meaning -- ah!   "Innumerable fluttering Thoughts."  He has come face to face with the Other.  Well, except that he has precisely not come face to face with anything.  Except a footprint -- a significant Fact as he knows, although he cannot yet determine its full meaning.

     I used the word "myth" a moment ago, because I think that this little scene does contain a real myth, and reveals the power and truth that can be found in some myths.  We might even name it:  "The Myth Of Solitary Discovery."  Would you agree?

     First of all, we would all acknowledge that this story is pure fiction.  The whole story, and Robinson Crusoe himself, are products of the imagination of an author, Daniel Defoe.

     But, we can argue, it is not mere fiction:  it could be true.

     But better:  it is true, and we know it to be true: as myth.  It speaks of something true of reality, perhaps even universal.  Not that we have ever been on Robinson Crusoe's island, or seen the footprint.  But we know that some people -- possibly ourselves -- have in their solitary experience stumbled across Facts, or a Fact, that has very deep significance, very deep meaning, even if they, or we, are not sure what all that meaning is.

     And that changes things.  First of all, perhaps, only in our own minds.  But suddenly Mundus -- the world -- is no longer merely mundane to us.  And it never will be, again, no matter what the doctrinaire skeptics, or the merely unenlightened, may say.

     In this way, myth can, at least, help us understand that the world is not merely mundane.  It may also help us to begin to appreciate its possible meaning.

     The Mind is a powerful thing.  So, too, is a Foot.

*       *       *

     So, too, may be one sparrow guarding its injured fellow.  So, too may be a well-placed comment!   (By the way, both of these links were accessed from somewhere around the world just today, according to my blog-statistics report.)


  1. "The Mind is a powerful thing. So, too, is a Foot."

    I loved this essay, thanks for posting.

  2. I like the distinction between truth and fact.

    A story can certainly be true without even remotely factual.