Anyone interested in making will have a favoured piece of writing that seems to make sense of craft. And because craft is such a free-floating term, our admired text could be anything from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop to Vogel’s Net, the anthropologist Alfred Gell’s plea for the artistry of utilitarian objects.
My choice would be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. For a long time I mistakenly believed it was a children’s book, imagining it to be not so very different from Johann Wyss‘s fanciful The Swiss Family Robinson. Then I saw references to Robinson Crusoe in Karl Marx’s Capital. After that it seemed to float up everywhere – as the subject of one of Elizabeth Bishop’s finest poems, in an essay by James Joyce, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile and as an inspiration for the fantasies of Jules Verne. Is it a story of middle class values, or a pilgrim’s progress, or an introduction to economics demonstrating the difference between use-value and exchange-value? Is it a forerunner of the techno-hubris of catastrophe-led science fiction?
Virginia Woolf puzzled over the book, wondering at Defoe’s genius for making the prosaic poetic and for giving importance to apparently humble activities. ‘To dig, to bake, to plant, to build – how serious these simple occupations are; hatchets, scissors, logs, axes – how beautiful these simple objects become’ she noted. Crusoe realises that he is the only survivor when he sees some clothes and ‘two shoes that were not fellows’ washed up on the beach. They are all that remain of his shipmates. Woolf admired Defoe’s focus on the ordinary – odd shoes, a roll of lead, a dozen good knives and forks. Crusoe was stranded on a tropical island but, as Woolf points out, we get more information about ‘a plain earthenware pot’ than about ‘a background of broken mountains and tumbling oceans with stars flaming in the sky’.
Crusoe tells us that he comes from a ‘good family’ and had never worked with his hands before fetching up on his island. Now he has to become an industry of one, using whatever he manages to salvage from his wrecked ship. He begins by sheltering himself, making a turfed fence and a thatched roof. He makes a table and a chair out of salvaged planks. He has to rebuild the chair several times. He runs out of planks and makes another by cutting down a tree. He discovers that with just an axe and an adze he can extract just one plank from one tree. What would take two men with a saw half a morning takes him over a month. Despite this calculation Crusoe decides that he needs planks to make shelves and he needs shelves because he needs order. He goes on to make a folding umbrella that he can carry under his arm. Luxuries and necessities get mixed up.
He teaches himself to make baskets to store the wheat and barley that he accidentally manages to grow, basing his technique on a childhood memory of watching the basket makers in his home town. Baskets lead onto pottery. At first he makes crude sun-dried clay vessels but progresses to fired and glazed cooking pots. By his seventh year on the island he arrives at ‘an unexpected perfection in my earthenware’. His saddest exploit involves a canoe in which he hopes to escape. He fells a mighty tree and hollows it out. The task takes six months and only then does he discover that he cannot haul the boat down to the water singlehanded.
Crusoe learns that there is no point in over-production – ‘If I sowed more corn than I could eat, it must be spoiled’. Money rescued from the ship declares itself ‘nasty, sorry, useless stuff’. Apparently simple things like loaves of bread are revealed as having complicated trajectories. Singlehanded-ness – central to the story of modern craft – is played out funnily, sadly and philosophically in Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s masterpiece charms us because we are set to wondering how we would manage if everything familiar was stripped away, if craft became a dire necessity. As in no other novel, objects – a lump of beeswax, a home-made shovel and a longing for a kettle - take centre stage.