Robinson Crusoe: before and after stroke

May 2014.  This is a blog written by Mark Ware and published by the Stroke Association for Action on Stroke Month 2014:

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Still from the Arts Council England funded video composition entitled, The Dog that Barked like a Bird

Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe, was published in 1719. I first read this novel in 1976. I read it again during 1999, three years after having a severe stroke at the age of 39. Before and after a stroke. The book was a good read the first time round. It turned out to be a profound read the second time. For me, Robinson Crusoe is a ‘cinematic’ novel. The pace and content of its opening scenes set up the isolation Robinson Crusoe experiences before he later discovers man Friday. Post stroke, this novel raises one question in particular that since my stroke I’ve been forced to face: ‘If you were to be stranded on an island alone in the knowledge that you might not see anyone again, stranded in a way that makes communication with anyone else impossible, what would you think, what would you say, what would you do and what would you create?’ In retrospect, I can see that before my stroke I desired to please people and sought their approval. So much so that I became very dependant upon that approval and it frequently dictated what I did and who I was.

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Mark Ware at Science Stroke Art 2014

It always puzzled me that I felt like a different person in different company. Sometimes I was entertaining and other times, extremely boring. The reason for this insecurity was simple: I had never been forced to face myself. My stroke changed all that. It violently ripped away my facade and left me with a high level of disability, both physical and cognitive. It also left me in a state of mental isolation and detachment from the people and world around me. I was no longer able to entertain (or to be boring).

During the early stages following stroke, whenever I was in public, people would avoid looking into my eyes but I would sense them watching me as I was wheeled in my wheelchair past them. I no longer knew who or what I was. A little time after being discharged from hospital I lived alone for a while and on most days I would see only two carers for 1/2 hour in the morning and 1/2 hour in the evening. The rest of the time was spent sitting in a chair on a drip-feed, unable to move, accompanied only by a cocktail of post-stroke neurological challenges.

The most difficult challenge of all was to face myself and to accept my isolation. At first I felt as though I was going mad. Then eventually, after several months (I think), I came to terms and accepted who I was. I no longer sought to be somewhere else, or to be someone else, or to impress others. I was content to be alone, to face and accept who I am. It was incredibly empowering development and even today, 18 years after my stroke, I am still empowered. This empowerment even affects my art. I no longer create art that sets out to please others. I create art that expresses how I perceive the world around me. Of course I welcome positive comments about my art, but approval no longer dictates where my art develops. I don’t know if my art is ‘good’ or not. That’s not for me to say. All that I can say is that it’s is as honest as I can make it.

‘And now being to enter into a melancholy relation of a scene of silent life, such perhaps as was never heard of in the world before, I shall take it from its beginning and continue it in its order’ – Robinson Crusoe at the true beginning of his story.