In the Zohar, it is said of an “old sage”, alone in his room, deep in the study of “the Law” (to vary the cultural context, we could say “the Logos” or “the Tao”), that he “keeps the universe in movement and sustains the world.”
Crazy stuff indeed. But you don’t read books like the Zohar the way you read the daily newspaper or the latest novel.
I don’t see myself as a kabbalistic “old sage” (I work out in the open field and the territory is often tough, rough, abrupt and tricky), but in these days of confinement imposed by virological plague, it’s that image that came in the first place to my mind.
Given my fundamental conception of things, why even think of writing an ad hoc text in a context where the priority is a mix of first aid and last rites, with, in between, great wads of humanitarian twaddle? My only excuse is that I’ve been expressly requested to do so by several persons whose friendship and intelligence I appreciate. Could I, in view of a future really worthwhile and possible, present, in a personal, epistolary, summary kind of way, a whole mental continent, a whole field of experience, a whole work-plan? As I’ve just indicated, this is not my usual way, my habitual tactics. That way, while opening further and further the work-field, in many directions, has been to wait for the “right moment” (in old Greek, kairos) or, while always engaged in the geo-logical depth work, to wait for nothing at all, outside individual and sporadic upwellings. History being what it is, the thinkers and poets I admire the most have always worked, as one of them said, sub specie aetermitatis.
That said, thinking of those affinitive minds I’ve just evoked, I’m going to try and meet their request.
Already in the middle of the period of confinement (lockdown), there was talk here and there of “he world after”. In the first place, that meant de-confinement, the picking up again with “normal life” (normal?). But it meant also more than that. Based on some examples of sympathy and generosity, on an upsurge of personal “creativity”, a “new world” was posited and given much lip-service.
Before going further, I propose an overall view of the present psycho-socio-political context.
First of all, in such circumstances, there is always an avalanche of hollow, grandiloquent rhetoric. To give only a few examples. In France, the President called for an “union sacrée”, and one of his ministers appealed to “the sense of History”. In Britain, the Prime Minister did a remake of Churchill’s “Blood, sweat and Tears”, but on the level of a boy-scout on a burning deck, with his “Be prepared to see your dear ones die.”
If the politicals gradually simmered down, engaged in commissary work (“Masks, masks, masks, where are you”?), the media took over. That’s where “creativity” came in, with, in the name of “culture”, a flood of commonplace, banality and inanity accompanied profusely by muzak, muzak, muzak.
To think even for a moment that anything like a live, vivifying world could emerge from all this, is, obviously enough I trust, total illusion (or smoke-screening).
That said, having received many a letter on the matter from people who’ve read some of my books, I know that many individuals decided to make use of the confinement and its unaccustomed isolation (distancing) to take stock of their lives, tally up their real ressources, think things coolly over. In one of these letters, its author tells me that, wanting to “face the virus”, he and his friends started off by recounting their daily living, in a Facebook kind of way. But that he’d quickly had enough of that, suggesting to his friends that it was time to try and “raise the tone”, get into “some big ideas”.
OK, I wrote him back, let’s do it.
In Renaissance times, there was introduced into European languages an interesting word: climacteric (from the Greek klimaktér, scale, degree). After a few secondary usages, it came to mean a period of profound, fundamental transformation. It’s just possible we could be close to such a thing today. Our historical period was based on the scientific methodology of Bacon and Descartes, progressed from there, via Leibniz and Einstein, till it reached (except of course in the case of technologues who went on with conviction as if nothing had happened) a state of total aporism. In the framework of this Open Letter, I’ll mention only one significant reference: the lecture given by Edmund Husserl to the Kulturbund in Vienna, 7th May 1935, under the title, The Crisis in Science. Husserl’s proposed solution there was “transcendental phenomenology” (which fascinated me when I got into it at the age of twenty). But later, on a final analysis, Husserl recognized that this first idea was still too close to inherited superstructures, still too involved in conceptual muddle, linguistic contortion, and still didn’t open the way to what he called, using a Biblical metaphor, the “Promised Land”.
This is where I start putting my cards (charts) on the table.
I’m going to talk about geopoetics.
To propose that something called “geopoetics” can contribute, at a given moment in History, in any way to a deep earth-movement and the opening of a world, will seem to many totally preposterous, and, if I didn’t know more and better, I’d agree with them.
The word “poetic” is hardly a powerful, im-portant term in our civilization. Its usage is either academic or, and this is infinitely more frequent, trivial. To let the notion recover all its force and direction, I’ve had to pass through other cultures, work out a type of thinking outside those bequeathed by mythology, religion and metaphysics, develop a new lexicon, a new language. It’s not a question of reaching a “promised land”. On geopoetic ground, and that’s what distinguishes it, fundamentally from the political-religious terrain, there are no promises.
As for the “geo” of this neological, absurd term (abs ordine, out of the ordinary, outside the norms), geopoetics, don’t we have already geology, geography, and even geopolitics? To add another “geo” to our epistemological repertoire, our system of knowledge, isn’t it really overdoing it, and even, in this age of interstellar projections, archaically geocentric? And if it’s a question of contact with the Earth, don’t we already have ecology for that? Unless, of course, this co-called “geopoetics” isn’t just a vaguely poetical geography or a poetry vaguely geographical (as some would have it), in other words, a little supplement, absolutely innocuous and inconsequential, to a literary space already ruined in the inside and on the outside overloaded with dross? If this were the case, we could give it its room in the catalogues and histories, like so much else (all the varieties of “culture”), and forget it.
In order to begin to have a real conception of all that is implied in geopoetics, what I propose, in this quick missive, is to examine those two terms that occupy already recognised positions in the contemporary lexicon, geopolitics and ecology, seeing them, if well understood and well developed, as usable stages on the way to a new general culture, but also, more deeply, suggesting that, if they’re going to be useful at all, geopoetics will have to be both under them and above them. In short, for a real world-culture, I’m proposing geopoetics as both foundation and outlook, groundzone and horizon.
For real insight into geopolitics, it’s necessary to go back in time, to 1897. It was in that year, in Germany, at Munich, that Friedrich Ratzel published his Politische Geographie. Some years later (1926), Ratzel’s “political geography” took on a more aggressive, in fact warmongering form, with Karl Haushofer’ magazine Zeitschrift für Geopolitik which, in the 1930s, would become part of the Nazi Party’s ideological propaganda. Aghast at this blatant abuse of a useful term, alarmed by the political prospects, Jacques Ancel, professor of “political geography” at the Institut des Hautes Etudes of the University of Paris, decided to react and protest, bringing out his Essai de géographie politique in 1936. This essay is divided, operationally, into three parts and asks several pointed questions: Methods (German geography or French geography?); Contexts (Frontiers in time, Frontiers in space); Nation (Territorial principle or psychological principle?), which were to nourish debates for decades. As practised today, geopolitics studies and manipulates the relations between States on the global checkerboard of markets, security and power. In the near future, it could and will, turn into what we might call astropolitics: a lunatic humanity on the Moon, and a technocratic rush for rare minerals on Mars. All of this within the framework of a civilisation completely devoid of any conception at all of the subtle possibiities of a substantial life, existential and intellectual, on this planet, which is the field of geopoetics.
If geopolitics aims at futuristic world-governance (or dominance), geopoetics goes back to basics and to world-founding. If geopolitics practises a calculus of strategy, geopoetics operates on what Aristotle called nous poietikos, which I translate as “poetic intelligence”.
Here, I turn to the other “common knowledge” term: ecology.
At the present moment, the intellectual tide being at a low, very low, ebb, where poetic intelligence exists only in isolated areas, ecology, some well-intentioned acts apart, is reduced, intelectually to an infantile catechism. Not so long ago, it was possible to distinguish three ecologies: biological ecology as laid down by Ernst Haeckel around 1850, which studied the relationship between organisms and their environment (I read it at the age of 14 in the west coast of Scotland); social ecology as proposed by H.G. Wells (Outlook for Homo Sapiens) in the Forties of the 20th century (which I read in Glasgow in the Fifties); and the mental ecology of Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Mind and Nature), according to which the deepest and most enlightened manifestations of the human mind are in direct contact with the non-human biocosmic multiverse (read by me at Edinburgh in the Sixties).
Which is to say that ecology was a significant passage for me on the way to geopoetics.
But I felt there was still something missing.
This “missing something” was what I apprehended in the manuscripts, such as they’ve come down to us, of the old Ionian physicists (Heraclitus, for example), or in the work of certain poets scattered over space and time (Li Po: “It’s easier to climb to heaven than to walk the Szechuan Road”), which I’d begun to experiment in a rudimentary kind of way in my childhood: that moving synthesis of sea-waves, those abrupt lines of the mountains, the changing forms of cloud – all the morphology of a physical terrain (landscape) turning into a mental terrain (mindscape) and from there into a linguistic terrain (wordscape).
When Gregory Bateson was approaching the end of his work, he felt he was on the verge of something, hoping he’d soon be ready, beyond all that was binary logic, cybernetic tautology, artificial intelligence, numeric digitalism, for what he called “the flight of the albatros”. There’s no direct connexion, but there is maybe a significant coincidence in the fact that when, looking for a title for my first book on geopoetics, and turning the globe one evening, as I often do in my Atlantic studio on Brittany’s North coast, I came acros, off the West coast of South America, an emergent submarine plateau: The Plateau of the Albatros. There I had it, my title. That first book specifically on geopoetics was followed a few years later by another, Au large de l’Histoire (Offshore of History – neither exist yet in English, but that will come), the central focus of geopoetic theory being surrounded (sometimes preceded, sometimes illustrated and developed) by a whole constellation of other books (narrative, poems) presenting the itinerary of an intellectual nomad out to try and open up a new field, a new, if one dare say so, world (without the capitals).
There, as the old Iroquois used to say, I have spoken.
I now return to my roads, paths, fields and shores.