I have made fire! Robinson Crusoe, Cloud Atlas and the Survival Narrative

Almost every survival narrative is an energy narrative. In order to survive we need to transfer a form of energy into one that we can consume. The first thing that Chuck Noland does in Cast Away is to try to learn to make fire. He needs it to eat and to stay warm and to signal any passing vehicles that he is there.

 

This is exactly what Robinson Crusoe does when he is shipwrecked on an island. Granted, he was shipwrecked with gun powder and that made it a lot easier for him but much of the novel focuses on his ability to cook food for himself with fire: “Having now fixed my habitation, I found it absolutely necessary to provide a place to make a fire in, and fuel to burn” (Defoe 40). Crusoe is also a very religious man and claims that he only survived on his island because of the grace of God.

In the Zachry narrative in the Cloud Atlas sextet, human beings forgot how to make fire after the fall of civilization. So the humans went to the Wise Man whom sent a crow to pick up a burning branch from a volcano. The crow carried the branch back to the humans but he was injured (or possibly killed) in the process. Meronym explains to him that this is a myth to describe how “humans got their spirit” and managed to survive the end of the world:

Back when the Fall was fallin’, humans f’got the makin’ o’ fire. Oh, diresome bad things was gettin’, yay. Come night, folks cudn’t see nothin’, come winter they cudn’t warm nothin’, come mornin’ they cudn’t roast nothin’. So the tribe went to Wise Man an’ asked, Wise Man, help us, see we f’got the makin’ o’ fire, an’, oh, woe is us an’ all. So Wise Man summ’ned Crow an’ say-soed him these words: Fly across the crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean to the Mighty Volcano, an’ on its foresty slopes, find a long stick. Pick up that stick in your beak an’ fly into that Mighty Volcano’s mouth an’ dip it in the lake o’ flames what bubble’n’spit in that fiery place. Then bring the burnin’ stick back here to Panama so humans’ll mem’ry fire once more an’ mem’ry back its makin’. Crow obeyed the Wise Man’s say-so, an’ flew over this crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean until he saw the Mighty Volcano smokin’ in the near-far. He spiraled down onto its foresty slopes, nibbed some gooseb’ries, gulped of a chilly spring, rested his tired wings a beat, then sivvied round for a long stick o’ pine. A one, a two, a three an’ up Crow flew, stick in his beak, an’ plop down the sulf’ry mouth o’ the Mighty Volcano that gutsy bird dropped, yay, swoopin’ out of his dive at the last beat, draggin’ that stick o’ pine thru the melty fire, whooo-ooo-ooosh, it flamed! Up’n’out o’ that Crow flew from the scorchin’ mouth, now flew with that burnin’ stick in his mouth, yay, toward home he headed, wings poundin’, stick burnin’, days passin’, hail slingin’, clouds black’nin’, oh, fire lickin’ up that stick, eyes smokin’, feathers crispin’, beak burnin’  …   It hurts! Crow crawed. It hurts! Now, did he drop that stick or din’t he? Do we mem’ry the makin’ o’ fire or don’t we? See now, said Meronym, riding backwards on that lead ass, it ain’t ’bout Crows or fire, it’s ’bout how we humans got our spirit. (Mitchell 284-285)

The pre-industrial revolution survival narrative exists somewhere in between the positive energy narratives found in creation myths and the negative energy narratives of industry. Humans shift from being the weaker force to being the stronger force and dominating their environment. Crusoe goes back and forth from giving thanks to God for providing him with fire and food to considering that he and his guile alone are responsible for his survival. Mitchell mirrors this idea in Cloud Atlas. Zachry is not sure whether or not a deity is responsible for post-Fall humans being able to make fire or if their will to survive was so strong that they figured it out for themselves. Chuck Noland in the post-industrial age story, Cast Away believes that he and he alone is responsible for making fire.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in these stories: life=energy, religious element, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, nomadic existence.

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