If, throughout my life and work, I have chosen to concentrate so much on the Atlantic coast, it is for several reasons. First of all, I take « seaboard » to be particularly significant space. We are close there to the beginnings of life, we cannot but be aware there of primordial rhythms (tidal, meteorological). In that space, too, we have one foot, as it were, in humanity (inhabited, inscribed, coded space), the other, in the non-human cosmos (chaos-cosmos, chaosmos) — and I think it is vitally important to keep that dialogue alive. It may be for reasons similar to those I have just evoked that in a text belonging to the tradition which I perhaps bear in my bones, an old Celtic text, Imacallam in da thuarad (The Talk of the Two Scholars), we read : « The shore was always a place of predilection for the poets. » Then, in the second place, I was born and raised on that Atlantic shore of Europe, more particularly, on the West coast of Scotland, and I have its topography imprinted on my mind. I’m far from thinking that a poet’s original landscape necessarily dictates his mindscape : if his intellect be at all energetic, he may well come to decide, beyond any « homeland » fixation, that others are more interesting — but that West coast of Scotland happens in fact to be interesting, extremely so. As Humboldt points out in Cosmos, what largely started up and quickened Greek thought was the topography of Hellas : the multiplicity of headlands and islands, the profusion of creeks and bays. Well, that West Coast of Scotland with its highly irregular outline and its 500 islands has a similar kind of topography, though, up to now, one can hardly say it has given rise to a comparably complex thought (but there have been beginnings, the potentiality is always there — that is what I have been working at). Lastly, now that we are beginning to hear again of the concept « Europe », I think it will be as well for it to look to its West, not only as to a breathing space, but as the locus (topos) of forgotten movements and perhaps a new type of thought, a new sense of culture, a new sense of logos. Perhaps Europe has been too Mediterranean-oriented. But the greatest blockage does not lie there — for from the Mediterranean, one can move out into the Atlantic, as the Phœniciens did, as Pytheas did. No, the greatest blockage lies in the ideology of national(ist) identity and in the intellectual regression to culture-complexes that were productive of those identities, which may be looked to as « havens of stability » in a time of cosmopolitan confusion, but which in fact can be no more than half-way houses full of internal dispute, mere parliamentary discourse and pathetic poetics.
In terms of civilisation, the Atlantic West of Europe has been marked by two characteristics which may seem totally antinomian, but which may be intimately connected. On the one hand, there is isolation, indeed a kind of negative destiny ; on the other, the impetus towards industrialisation. Where the connection lies is, I think, in this : when you have live minds, divorced — for reasons of history and ideology — from any kind of earth-sense, they will more towards invention : industrial invention. It is a well enough known fact that the Scots were in the forefront of the industrial movement, just as it is well enough known that their discourse has tended to be marked by disputations argument (an « industrious logic », if I may say so, in place of which I would propose an erotic logic). Now, just a few weeks ago, I was in Glasgow, on Atlantic Quay, and it is a good vantage point to see just how much has changed. We are, obviously, moving out of the industrial phase of civilisation, and moving towards a preoccupation with two activities felt at present as essential : information, and culture. Frobenius, in The Destiny of Civilisations, foresaw this move some time ago. One of the theses he puts forward in that book is that, after the mechanistic conquest of the globe and the techno-economist civilisation it set up and spread, a « great turning » must occur. Since it was largely Atlantic seaboard peoples who brought about that techno-economist phase, it was there, in the first place, we would see the end of it and, perhaps, the beginnings of a « world culture » that would correspond to the world economy. What would characterize this « world-culture » would be :
1) an orchestration of all cultures, an original synthesis, and
2) the instauration of a type of thinking freed of (French) rationalism, (English) realism and (North American) materialism, a thinking that would go from « the slavery of fact » to the « freedom of the real », and that would be open to direct intuition, direct « seizures » from the outside — which would require an « oriental attitude ».
Whatever one thinks of Frobenius’ analysis and programme (I myself find much of it extremely interesting), what is certain is that, in the context I saw myself involved in, while information kept being piled up (but with no adequate poetics to give it shape, scape), while cultural manifestations continued, indeed multiplied (it’s a biological phenomenon : as extinction threatens, there occurs an agitational flurry), there was little or nothing in them that could with any justification be described as fundamental or foundational. Every nation, every « cultural community », continued to persuade itself that it had worthy representatives and that something, if not important at least respectable, was going on, but the background was hollow.
This brings me to the notion of « negative destiny ». I’ve already used it with regard to the Atlantic West, as culture-area, and I’ll be speaking again in those terms shortly. But before coming back to that general landscape-mindscape, I’d like to use the term « negative destiny » with regard to my own itinerary, not to say « career » or « destiny », seen as an attempt to get back beyond that hollowness. At one point in that itinerary, after publishing three books in London (the last of which was entitled The Most Difficult Area), aware not only of the narrowness of perspective and the lack of ground, but of the first signs of what I felt as a culture-circus, I decided to break with the cultural context that was, nationally and socially, « mine » — let’s say, British, or rather, English, with a Scottish coloration and tonality — and move into a negativity. This decision coincided with a move away from the Scoto-British context and an installation in the Atlantic Pyrenees. Concerned in this essay with lines and topography, so in this essay, I shall forego socio-personal detail, but let me just say that for nine years after leaving Britain in 1967, I maintained a literary silence, publishing nothing, concerned with that « negativity » I have just mentioned, trying to work myself back into a ground. This went along with an exploration, or rather, an experience, of the atlantic seaboard of South-West France, from say, the Basque country up to the marshes of Poitou. It is a land lying between sea anf forest : a sequence of cliffs, dunes, fens, islands and pools. The noises one hears are the breaking of waves, the soughing of wind in pinetrees, the clean cry of a gull in blue emptiness…
But perhaps I should begin with a window — a geographical and philosophical window — in Pau. From my study window, I could see a great length of the Pyrenean chain, in front of me the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, the last great granit peak before the chain tails off to the West, towards the Pic d’Anie, on the edge of the Basque country, the Mont Orhy and la Rhune. The geographer I most read at that time, indeed the second tome of his Géographie Universelle had been a vademecum with me for years, was Elisée Reclus (anarchist as well as geographer, like Kropotkine — and the combination intrigued me), who, as chance would have it, was raised only a few miles from Pau, in Orthez. I remember reading a phrase of his with a little jolt of recognition : « On many a peak of the Western chain one might imagine oneself in rainy Scotland ». I remember asking myself too if there was any linguistic connection between the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees and the Aran Isles of Ireland (and the Arran in sight of which I had been raised on the West coast of Scotland). I liked Reclus’ evocations of the glaciers and torrents of the mountains, then of the iron-red sandstone of the Landes where, at one time (early 19th century) land was so cheap it was measured for sale by the length a voice could carry (I liked that association of voice and territory). I liked also what he had to say about the « hydrographic complex » of the Atlantic coast, and about « singing fish » at the mouth of the Garonne, anciently called Garumna and Garunda (I loved old names, toponymies and etymologies). It was in his pages too I first heard of the ferociously independent « nine peoples » of the South-West, distinct from Gaul — and later saw the stone at Hasparren that marked this separation. I liked too his evocation of the Basques as adventurers and irreductibles, who had discovered the New World long before Columbus : « In the Basque country, they say it was a man named Echaïd who discovered the New World. » I had the vague sensation of being in an area that Europe and history had lost sight of, but which had retained connections with an archaic past and from there had sprung towards a world to come, an area of strong geographical realities, going from dark, stark rock to spaces of light.
Although, in my University studies, I had opted for modern languages as against the classics (in which a Professor of Humanities, seeing the Latin I wrote, had wanted me to specialize), I still had a kind of abstract hankering for a universal language, which had of course at one time in Europe been represented by Latin. That is why, in addition to simply contemplating pages of mathematics (Poincaré, Riemann…), or again pages of Sanskrit (I spent at least one Summer writing devanagari script in the sand of the Landes, thinking of Sanskrit as sand-script), I began to read up all the Latin poets who had had some connection with that territory.
There was, for example, Ausonius, writing from Burdigalia (Bordeaux) to his friend Theon, who lived in a reed-roofed hut on the Medoc promontory : « What are you doing at this moment, poet of the ends of the earth, you who plough a beach and farm the sands, where Ocean reaches its limit and the sun sets ? » It was not so difficult, by extrapolation, to imagine the question addressed to myself… Then there was Festus Avienus, the author of that fascinating geographical poem, Ora Maritima, which I translated as Shores of the West. Avienus had acess to information even Herodotus of Halicarnassus knew nothing of, and his poem not only gives us a description of European lands washed by the Atlantic, from Spain to Scotland, but offers intriguing glimpses into the multiple and migratory origins of the Spaniards, Portuguese, French, Germans and Danes. Starting out from the Columns of Hercules at the mouth of the Mediterranean, Avienus moves up via Moon Island, the Galactic Gulf, Promontorium Sacrum, the Pelagian islands and Cape Venus, to the North shores called Oestrymnis, then comes back to the Columns, follows the shores of Spain and Catalonia : Cape Venus (another one), Palus Immensus, the island of Gymnesia (Majorca), Tarraco, Callipolis (Barcelona) to the Pyrenees, and from the Pyrenees, via Candidum Promontorium and the delta of the Rhodanus, to Marseilles, where the poem, originally intended to go as far as the Black Sea, stops abruptly. We learn among other things that it was the Tartessins, in the regions of Cadix, who made, or who came to make, the tin trips to Cornwall for the Phoenicians ; we learn of early Celtic presence in Britain and of the marine nature of the culture. But above all we have a sense of delving into the archives of the world, following out the lines of little known coasts, receiving some kind of initiation into thalasso-theory (Berthelot in his commentary of the 1930s speaks of « the logic of Atlantic navigation ») and oceano-poetics, at least as experienced by a 4th century Roman. And then, still keeping to the poets, there was Seneca of Spain, representing the farthest horizon as it were, with that strangely illuminated oceanic prophecy we find in the Medea :
— « no Thule the ultimate Thule. » This was fourteen centuries before Columbus set sail from Palos… Seneca the Cantabrian I loved, not only for his « new world » vision, not only for his exile (time, space, and silence !) but for his « nature questions » (Naturales quaestiones) and for his style : that fast interchange betgween speaker and speaker called stichomythia. I experience most discourse as too heavy and too slow, and conceive of poetry as, along with other things, fast thinking.
If there were ancient poets, there were also ancient geographers : Strabo, Ptolemy, Pomponius Mela. In his Description of the Earth, Mela says that from Hispania the coast first of all follows a straight line then takes a great curve to the West. And that indeed is how it is, from Biarritz to the Point de Graves, then from Royan up to Brittany. Strabo, for his part, in the Geographia, speaks of « the paroceanic region of Aquitania » — and the phrase delighted me. While Ptolemy (Treatise on Geography) describing « the Aquitanic ocean », dwells on the changing line between earth and sea (i.e. the non-Mediterranean phenomenon of tides). Why waste time on ancient cartographies such as these which, compared with modern work in this field, are, to say the least, anything but exact ? Well, for the reason already evoked : that there we have a sense of initial exploration, of tentative progression — which is what gives a parallel to the working of the mind. Then, for their simplicity. In all the 700 kilometres of territory between Spain and Brittany, Ptolemy mentions only six rivers, four harbours and four promontories. Yet we do not feel this as reductive. On the contrary, the very paucity of the locations gives us a sense of great misty, wavering space : they are like haiku in (Buddhist) emptiness. And let me say right away that I did not neglect modern maps — photographic documents, such as those aerial photographs showing the halibut and floundery shapes of submarine sands. Anything that would give me an augmented sense of the lie of the land (littoral morphology), and of sensitive movement along it, I worked with.
So, moving West from Pau («good Friday, riding West » — a phrase, I think, of John Donne’s), and then up along the celtogalatian coast : Biarritz (with a visit to the Musée de la Mer, for its exhibits of birds and its information on whales), Capbreton, the Etang de Léon (with its Courant d’Huchet like a miniature Mississippi), Mimizan, Biscarosse, almost lost in the sands (a 17th map : « De sous ces Dunes il y avait une Paroisse qui est à présent couverte de Sables »), Arcachon, Lacanau, Montalivet, the Pointe de Graves, the Cordouan lighthouse (like a white exclamation-mark out there in the mist !), La Tremblade with its piles of oyster shells, Rochefort, Oléron, the Pertuis d’Antioche, the Ile de Ré with its Whale Point (la Pointe des Baleines), la Rochelle with its museum of the Americas.
I spoke earlier of a window (in Pau) that was not only geographical, but philosophical. The notion of a « philosophical window » is, of course, Hölderlin’s, or at least derived from him (the famous letter to Böhlendorff of 1802 : «… das philosophische Licht um mein Finster »). Hölderlin I had studied in Glasgow, and again in Munich, long before I went to live in the South-West of France, and it is one of those coincidences and connections I mentioned earlier that I should have come up with him again in Bordeaux, where he was preceptor for a year, where (more precisely, at Lormont) he was « struck by Apollo », and which inspired one of his finest and most significant poems, Andenken, which, again, I translated :
Two principal ideas I had retained from Hölderlin were what he called « the free use of the national », and then the sense of being the first to start something new since the Greeks. And the geopoetical nature of his work is obvious enough, if only his preoccupation with rivers such as the Rhein, the Main and the Donau — though there was also Greece as mind-land, and the New World vision of the poem « Columbus ».
But it was not so much Hölderlin I read in Pau, but (again and once more — after Glasgow, initial reading, and Munich, deepened reading) Nietzsche and with him, Heidegger. Nietzsche’s name I’d always read as a kind of epitome of his thinking : first a negation (niet), then an explosion, a deployment of energy (zsche). It’s one of those personal readings one does not bring out willingly in public — something like a little private joke. It was with no little surprise I saw this fun-phonetical reading of Nietzsche’s name aired on the very first page of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, the book of his lectures on Nietzschean thought given in Freiburg from 1936 to 1940. These were fatal years and anything concerning them almost taboo. It’s this taboo, the unwillingness to see the Nietzsche-Heidegger complex as anything other than dangerous and downright damnable, that is largely responsible for the superficiality of European thought in the post-war years and the general thinness of the culture. Let’s try and look at the area from a little higher up than the perspectives of the national-socialist aftermath. Obviously, I won’t be going into all this in detail here. Within the context I’m trying to open, I’ll only insist on what I took, and take, to be the essential, culled from a whole series of books with bleached covers and sand between the pages.
By 1887, when he drew up a programme for what he saw as the final stages of his life-thought, Nietzsche was well into his self-imposed exile or, since that is all too pathetic a word, let’s say, into the isolation he’d felt necessary for his work — an isolation inexorably turning into an alienation («the desert is growing around me »). This « exit » and the subsequent explorations he’d described in The Wanderer and his Shadow : « So, ill, but determined to be my own doctor, I forced myself into a climate of the soul such as I had not yet experienced. I went abroad, into foreign lands, eager to approach what was strange to me… It was a long wandering, made up of research and transformation, a disgust with all heavy affirmations and negations, a ceaseless urge to move on. I adopted also a diet and a discipline that would enable the mind to travel far, fly high and always be ready for new flights. » The vocabulary is lyrical, unwonted in a philosopher — but Nietzsche was already the artist -philosopher, a new anthropological type. Hegel, with the encyclopedia of world-history laid out before him, had said that art was no longer the highest manifestation of the intelligence, no longer a driving force in culture. That most art is decidedly not the highest manifestation of the intelligence is something Nietzsche would have no difficulty agreeing with — his numerous criticisms of « poets » and « poetry » are there as witness. As to « driving force » (within a historical context), it was nothing like that Nietzsche looked for in art, but the phenomenon of transparency : « The phenomenon of the artist is the most transparent. » And this itself could be true, in any strong sense (we are not talking about public confessions), only in the case of the artist who had gone not only to the limits of (Western) thought but to the limits of himself (at one point Nietzsche described himself as « a poet — at the limits of the word »). Nietzsche’s whole life-work can be seen as a transition to transparency. He had worked his way through Western philosophy. He had seen first of all the phenomenon of nihilism (life no value, being no meaning), resulting from the emptying out of metaphysics. Instead of revelling in that nihilism (or playing about in it), which a lot of art was going to do, or taking it as a basis for some kind of historical Blitzkrieg (which a certain politics was going to do), he’d tried to work back through metaphysics in order to open up another mindscape, in which there would be no « beyond » (Platonism), no « heaven » (Christianity), but a fidelity to the earth. It was, I felt, that « fidelity to the earth » which had not been given the time to get worked out fully. Instead, owing perhaps to personal exacerbation and exasperation, Nietzsche had stopped at the « will to power » and the Ubermensch, which seemed to me still « all too human ». In his book Beyond Good and Evil, he had drawn up a list of « situations » that had very much attracted my attention and excited my interest : « Around the hero, everything becomes tragedy ; around the half-god, everything becomes satire ; around the god, everything becomes world. » The language, again, is too lyrical-metaphorical for my taste. But if for « god », we substitute « great poetic (or poïetic) thought », we could say that it was that Nietzsche did not get through to. He moves between satire and tragedy, part « semi-god » (antiChrist), part ontological hero (like Melville). « World » remained on the horizon, a « new world », of which, of course, the New World of socio-political terminology was (as Melville, who lived in it, also knew) only a caricature. I also had very much that idea of « world » in view. But I was in no rush. I preferred atopia to utopia. What I retained from Nietzsche, in addition to his culture-analysis, was an aesthetics, summed up in one phrase : « a sense of what is lasting, and few means » («in der Dauer des Langen und Wenigen »). That did not mean, or did not necessarily mean, minimal art (though that could also be practised : I’m thinking again of haiku), but it did mean fidelity to the earth, an attention to minims, the move towards transparency, and an art in which the means are not over-elaborate, not over-obvious. What counted primarily was not « craft » (that can be practised on all kinds of secondary bases), but a path, a wayfaring into primal space. This brings me to Heidegger, who takes over where Nietzsche broke off.
Moving out and down from Western metaphysics (and hence, a posteriori, from European ideology), Heidegger begins (by means of a « beginning thought », anfängliches Denken) to explore « more original districts ». Those may have particular names (such as Black Forest), but, fundamentally and globally, I’d like to call them Westland, a land where « es west », where « there is being », a « being » deeper than anything envisaged or experienced in ontology. In these districts, following « paths that led nowhere » (Holzwege), Heidegger meets up with poets — poets such as Hölderlin (was bleibt, stiften die Dichter : « only poetry exists on lasting ground ») and Rilke (lauter Raum reissend von weit herein : « pure space rushing in from afar »). If, for a start, he welcomed this encounter as the occasion of a fertile dialogue, seeing poetry and philosophy as two neighbouring but separate peaks, he gradually came to see a closer connection, if not an identification. This movement in his thought can be seen most clearly and most succinctly in that little book written in 1947, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens («from the experience of thought » — let’s not forget that in the German Erfahrung, there’s fahren, travel). At one point in that book, he says that there are three dangers for thought : philosophical production (what goes on in the « philosophical industry ») ; thought itself (the network of « innate ideas ») ; and, lastly, « the song of the poet ». This latter danger is the least of the dangers, is indeed a salutory danger — but it is still a danger. Only a few pages later, however, in that selfsame little book, a kind of opusculum obscurum (almost an example of trobar clus), he is writing this :
It can take a lot of culture-analysis, a lot of philosophizing, to get to this point, to this head-land (if I may say so), but once there, the place does not call for philosophy, it calls for a deepening of the experience, followed by a deployment. And this is where Heidegger is very close to certain aspects of Far Eastern, notably Buddhist thought.
Nietzsche had been as much anti-Buddhist as he had been anti-Christian — mainly because his knowledge of Buddhism came through Schopenhauer, which made him see it only in terms of quietism (a cessation of suffering). As such, it could only be a half-way house, a sanatorium, and hence a hindrance to the intensification of life he was out for. That a great deal of Budddhism is this, I think no one who knows the least about it would deny. But it is not all that. Over the centuries, its dialectics deepened. It was said, for example, that if detachment was necessary to avoid suffering, enlightenment meant the capacity to detach one’s-self from detachment. Likewise, nirvana (cooling out — like swimming in nothingness) and samsara (performing the round of daily existence) were seen less and less to be separate. The process does not perhaps intensify life (there is no doubt too much feverish heat in Nietzsche), but it augments it, it spaces it out. This is what Heidegger realized when he came across the writings of Daisetz Suzuki on Zen Buddhism. Seen from this comparative point of view, his work appears like a search for « the original face ». And if he had known the book Shashekishu («Collection of sand and stones »), written by Ichien Muju inthe XIIIth century, he would have seen there the coming-together of philosophy (butsudo — « the way of Buddha ») and poetry (kado) that was taking place in his own work. We can see it actually happening in that little book From the Experience of Thought, where so many of his notes are next door to haiku. In fact, I amused myself at one point (it was not merely an amusement) by translating them into haiku-form :
After this moment devoted to the topology of being, let us continue our deployment, our poetico-topographical peregrination, our investigation of atlantic ontology.
We were standing there at La Rochelle, in front of the Museum of the Americas. All this South-West coast has always been in close touch with the New World. Right up from the grottos of Isturitz, with their marvellous intertwinings of salmon and deer, among all those fringe-peoples and ghost-folk of mixed (Celto-Iberian, etc.) identities : oyster-gobbers, tin-beaters, resin-gatherers, there have always been searchers and finders, travellers following strange roads — the megalith road, then the tin road, then the sea-road to new-found-lands. Wasn’t Labrador originally Le Labourd ? Didn’t Jean Sébastien El Cano sail with Magellan and come back having gone wide-eyed round the world ? Didn’t the first of all troubadours emerge from here : Guillaume IX of Aquitania with his amor lontana ? And think of all those baroque visionaries and alumbrados. Think of Jean-sans-Terre, last son of Alienor of Aquitaine. Of Champlain from Brouage. Of the Jesuits (how many of them Basque !) in America. Of the pirate Jean Laffitte of Dax, cruising in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Lower Mississippi, coming to finance the printing of Marx’s Communist Manifesto… New worlds. Hadn’t Pope Innocent III dreamt of moving the Holy Roman Empire over to the Atlantic — to create a Holy Oceanic Empire ? But at bottom there could be neither holiness nor empire in these finisterras, in these multiple puntas arenas. Only ghost lands, empty lands, over them that wild cry of the Basques, the irrintzina, that high, raucous cry that fills the emptiness and goes tearing the space on the horizon before ending in a kind of sinister laugh like, as Loti says, the laughter of a madman…
At the end of metaphysics, faithful to the earth, trying to follow out a path, it was the notion of « world » that obsessed me : « new world ». With America as reference, as the most recent (failed) attempt. A great interest in it, especially in its beginnings, and in upsurges of the primal thing here and there, but no desire to get mixed up in the United States, get lost in the noisy fairground, get stuck in the sentimental-moralistic sludge. It was here, at the edge of Europe, that the real contours of a new « new world » were likely to be found. And, hadn’t my own native landscape, Caledonia, constituted the Western Frontier of the Roman Empire ?
I’d been living ten years in the South-West before I started going back to Scotland. I’d left it with the notions of « difficult area » and « white world ». The first of these terms meant the kind of working-out I’ve just evoked via Nietzsche and Heidegger. The second had gone through several avatars. At first, it had indicated simply a sensuous field, based on the series of « whitenesses » that had caught my attention : quartz, pebbles, birch bark, gull wings, breaking waves… This had lead me into the hyperborean world of shamanism… Then I’d found out that at the centre of Celtic culture there was an area named in Gaelic finn mag, in Brythonic, gwenved : white field, white world… Then in my studies of Buddhism, I’d come across the definition of supreme identity (or supreme being, non-identity) : « a white heron in the mist »… «White world » was also connected with Nietzsche’s idea of art as total transparency… When I started going back to Scotland, it was with all these notions in mind but, while keeping them as mental backdrop, with the desire to follow out lines, to lay out topographies, to write landscape-mindscape.
It was evident to me that, within the British context, the largest, most complete and most composed mind was, not Yeats, not MacDiarmid (however much I might be interested in parts of their work), but T.S. Eliot. Certainly I couldn’t accept his Christian solution to the culture-crisis, but his Wasteland challenged anyone to find other ways out. Where I picked up from him was that injunction at the end of « Cape Ann », one of the series of Landscapes : « Resign this land at the end, resigh it to its true owner, the tough one, the sea-gull, the palaver is finished. » So, I had T.S. Eliot in mind, but also, like anyone interested in « scape », Gerard Manley Hopkins. No one had a finer sense of wilderness than this Jesuit («I desire the wilderness » ; « Where is the wildness of the wilderness ? »). Inspired (like the early Heidegger) by Duns Scot, « of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller », Hopkins, with his notions of inscape and instress (the latter intended to actualize the natural inscape in the mind of the listener) had worked out a powerful poetics that interested me more in theory than in practise. In practise, I felt too much the intrusion of theology and a linguistic excess, almost a linguistic glut. In 1881, Hopkins was working at St Joseph’s church in Glasgow. It was in that year, during a trip to the Highlands, that he wrote the poem « Inversnaid » :
This is a better poem than Eliot’s « Rannoch » (another of the Landscapes), which gets bogged down in history, it is, especially in the last stanza, one of Hopkins’ strongest programmatic statements, for once, too, the text is free of theology (though Despair comes in with a moral heaviness). But one could well do without the metaphor of the horse and the « groins » of the braes, and the versification, like the language, was too obvious. I wanted something more discrete than this. Something closer to prose. I wanted the prose of the earth — not history, or excited lyricism. I am trying to indicate the approach to what I was going to call « atlantic poetics », « open world poetics », « geopoetics ». But let us follow the topography.
In the beginning, child and adolescent, my topographical area had been a few square miles on the West coast of Scotland : the foreshore and back-country of an Ayrshire village, of which I knew every rock and ridge, every clump of birch or pine — with the island of Arran, an epitome of the whole of Scottish topography, on the horizon. But when I began coming back to Scotland, while not forgetting that early landscape, what attracted me most was that line of mountain, Drumalban, running from the Firth of Clyde right up to Cape Wrath, which is in fact the main topographical feature of Scotland. Bede, in his Historia, calls it the dorsum Britanniae, the back-bone of Britain, and Fordun, in the Scotichronicon, speaks of « high mountains stretching through the midst of the country, as do the tall Alps in Europe… snow lying on them… boulders torn off beetling crags… deep hollows. » It is an area of gulches and gullies, of high snowy corries (Coire An t-Sneachda), and of plateaus like Rannoch Moor where you can have the feeling that the Ice Age just stopped yesterday, leaving everything in a strange light and a tense, expectant kind of silence. In that word Drumalban, you have the early name of Scotland : Alba. The etymology is disputed. Some say it is connected with the Latin word albus, white. Others say it is from the root you find in Alp, meaning height. Let us combine both derivations and call it « the high, white country ».
It seems incredible that the theory of glaciation only came to the fore about 150 years ago, with Agassiz. But not so long ago, there were intelligent people convinced that the world was created (by God) in the year 4004 B.C… And it’s only recently that concepts such as continental drift have come into our ken. Which would suggest that there are plenty of other concepts to be discovered, farther and deeper readings of the topographical text to be made.
While walking the coast, while moving among the mountains, with eye open for the flight of a ptarmigan, or a glint of sunlight on a loch, I was reading all the pertinent books I could get my hands on, looking both for information and for elements of a writing. The blue booklets of the British Regional Geology were constant companions : « The islands and promontories along the Western seaboard of Scotland are noted for records of intense and prolonged igneous activity during early Tertiary times. At that period, some forty million years ago, volcanic plateaus forming part of a continental region must have extended continuously along the Western coast » (Tertiary Volcanic Districts, 1935). I read MacCulloch (A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, 1814), Hugh Miller (The Old Red Sandstone, 1841), Archibald Geikie (The Scenery of Scotland, 1865), James Geikie (The Great Ice Age, 1873), Heddge (Geognosy and Mineralogy of Scotland, 1884), up to Craig (The Geology of Scotland, 1965), Sissons (The Evolution of Scotland’s Scenery, 1967), and many others. I read also older, and often more extravagant books, such as Giraldus Cambrensis’ Topographia Hiberniae, that talks of « Gurguintius » (sounds like Gargantua) bringing « Basclenses » (i.e., Basques) from Spain to Ireland, or again, Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1716), where you have descriptions like that of « Arran-Isle, its Etymology, Mountains, Bays, Earth, Stones, River, Air » and where Martin says in his Preface : « There’s a great Change in the Humour of the World, and by consequence in the ways of Writing. » And it’s true that a great change was taking place back there in the 18th century, with its awakened interest in nature and in « natural philosophy » (think of Buffon). But it had not been developed. No adequate global theory had emerged from its premises, little writing that was adequate « prose of the earth ».
What I liked about Martin was his sheer delight in piling up facts : « There is… there is… there is… » What I liked about MacDiarmid was his willingness to bring into his text great wads of information, but you could hardly be satisfied with his methods of holding it all together : « As also », « Even as »… What I liked about the scientific texts I read was the comprehension they provided of forces and forms, of networks and complex interactions, but the writing was so often inadequate if not clumsy, and a dimension always seemed to be missing — which is why, in the last chapters of some scientific books, there would be some mention of poetry ; which is why some scientists maintain some kind of theology. All this information had to be integrated at a higher and/or deeper level. While walking the coast, while moving in the mountains, I was trying to work out a method, a methodology, which is to say (always breaking up the concepts, bringing them down to basics and primals) a hodos (path, way) and a logos (way of thinking, way of wording). A method and a poetics…
Since I settled in Brittany some years ago, on a coast marked by what in geology is called a « centred complex », the work has been going on, perhaps in an even more concentrated way. When I say « work », I always have two images, two models in mind. One is that of a coral reef : growing, in silence and obscurity, then emerging. The other is that of a glacier. A glacier is a very interesting phenomenon : it shapes and writes the landscape (read « mindscape »). It accumulates at a centre, and moves out from there, taking its time, slow but sure. It has its own motive power, its own intrinsic energy, but it also uses all kinds of materials : the underside of an ice-sheet, the part that actually does the work, while the upper surface reflects the sky, is like a sheet of great-grained sandpaper. It leaves erratics in its tracks — you can find Scandinavian rock in Scotland, and Scottish rock in the Azores. It advances, then retreates, then advances again…
The working has meant, as always, « walking the coast » — that coastline that goes, say, from Penmarc’h up to the Abers country, and from there all along the North coast of Brittany to the Ile de Bréhat ; or, more circumscribedly, more succinctly, simply along the old coastguard path that skirts Lannion Bay. Within the study (the « atelier atlantique »), in addition to continued readings in the bio-, geo- and cosmo- sciences, linguistics and philosophy, it has meant particular preoccupation with writers whom I consider as « Atlantic poets » : Fernando Pessoa, Saint-John Perse, the MacDiarmid of the « raised beach » and, « across the water », Charles Olson — as well as, of course, my own writing, via poem, way-book and essay, round the notion of « world ».
Within recent years, there has been much talk of a European region called the Atlantic Arc. This talk has gone on, up till now, only in economic terms, hardly cultural and even less intellectual ones — but it could happen (from that « arc », an arrow, indications to a new world…). Living right at the centre of that arc, I consider my position as in some sense strategic, at least symbolically so. Then too, these last few years, there has been a great deal of interest in the dialectics of order and disorder, regularity and irregularity (I am thinking for example of Thom’s theory of catastrophe), and in all kinds of « complex frontiers » (there I am thinking of Mandelbrot’s fractalism — one of the early questions of which was : « What is the length of the Breton coast ? »). As one who for long years has described his sense of things as « chaoticist », I can only feel this mathematical work as water to my mill — or rather to my glacier.
So, I keep walking the long coast, with all kinds of work in progress, making for a livelier and more enlightened world.