1. Geopoetics and geopolitics
The term « geopolitics », of German origin, became current in Europe in the 1930’s. It was in 1936, for example, that Jacques Ancel, professor of political geography at the Institute of International Studies of the University of Paris, introduced it in France. He used it as title for « a doctrinal essay on political geography » that comprised three parts: Methods (« German geography or French geography? »), Borders (« Frontiers in time, frontiers in space »), Nation (« Territorial principle, psychological principle ? ») As an elegant French stylist, he begs pardon for the use of such pedantic vocabulary, but says he couldn’t leave to « the empty pretentions of German science » such a potentially useful term. On the other bank of the Rhine, it was on the concept of Geopolitik, a notion originally conceived by « German professors » (he’s thinking mainly of Friedrich Ratzel), but grossly simplified by Haushofer in 1926 in his Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, that hitlerian national-socialism was basing its propaganda. Ancel was out to give the term, so liable to misuse and abuse, not only more precision, but different perspectives. He considered it was absolutely necessary for France to advance onto this shifty, shifting ground. Up till then, the French nation had lived more or less in autarcy, enclosed in its identity. However fine and analytical it was, its geographic science was internal and static. The time had come for it to open out on to a space that was external and dynamic – without, however, losing its intrinsic qualities, represented, in Ancel’s eyes, by the human geography of Vidal de la Blache as laid out in his Principes de géographie humaine (Paris 1922).
For years, on the shelves of my library, Vidal de la Blache’s Principles of Human Geography has stood beside Friedrich Ratzel’s Politische Geographie (Munich, 1897), both of them close to the Géographie universelle of Élisée Reclus (Paris, 1876-1894).
There are obvious elements of geopolitics in my work. One of my recent books, Ideas of Order at Cape Wrath, is a geopolitical (geo-politico-cultural) book taking Scotland as example. A book such as The Winds of Vancouver goes from geography into geopolitics and from there into geopoetics. And there are elements, less obvious, going on between the lines as it were, in all my waybooks, as I cross cities and territories. A conversation in a restaurant, or at the roadside, an unexpected meeting, a chance remark can be more revealing of a state of things than a speech or a page of statistics.
Now to point the difference between geopolitics and geopoetics. As conceived and practised today, geopolitics studies and works at the relationship between States on the checkerboard of the world in terms of resources, markets and security. Geopoetics is concerned with the relationship between Man (but what man ? – there can be different concepts of human being, and that « being » can be worked at) and the Earth. It starts again at basis, questions the very constitution of « world » and tries to open up another world, another sense of living on earth. The one is world-management, the other is world-making.
2. Geopoetics and ecology
Lets say for a start that ecology, well understood, is included in geopoetics. In geological terms, it’s one of the superimposed layers of geopoetics. That’s the vertical perspective. As for the horizontal perspective, geopoetics is a few leagues ahead of ecology: its horizon lies further on.
Now let’s look at it all in detail.
Even if ecology is still not understood in all its amplitude, the term has become familiar as indicating preoccupation with the man-earth relationship, which is all to the good. Since its emergence well over a century ago, its field of conception and application has considerably developed, not always coherently.
At the present moment, it’s possible to distinguish three types of ecology: basic biological ecology, studied by Ernst Haeckel, that is, the relationship between organisms and their environment; the human and social ecology put forward by H. G. Wells in his Perspectives for Homo Sapiens that came out in the 1940s; and Gregory Bateson’s « ecology of mind » as expressed in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind of 1972, and his Mind and Nature of 1979, that brings in anthropology, psychiatry, genetics, aesthetics and epistemology. From having been, at its origin, a sub-section of biology, the term now covers a gathering of preoccupations with hazy borders along which often linger elements mythical, archetypal, symbolical, sacral.
What is sure is that if « the environment » (an inadequate concept, since it puts Man at the centre, « surrounded »), isn’t preserved in all its complexity, existence will have no basis, culture no grounding, and various applied practices no sense.
The question of sense, meaning, horizon, are being posed in many disciplines. Geography, for example, where one of the brutal, provocative answers to the question was: « to make war ». But what geographer nowadays is content to think in terms of military or colonialist maps? To the imperative and imperial « make war », we have seen opposed the recommendation: « Make love ». But that also has its limitations: any kind of developed existence implies more than amorosity and sentimentality. Probably the best overall answer might be: « make world ». But that is a different story, a more complex matter.
There have been attempts within the ecological community to get at the enlargement, the kind of expansion, I’ve just indicated. I’m thinking, for example, of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment set up in 1992 at Reno, Nevada. We also hear of « ecopoetics ». But this area has little coherence and no inner power. It brings together in a confusionist medley references to poets such as Wordsworth and Thoreau (already very different the one from the other), ecologists such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess (both half-digested), along with a little darwinism, a little taoism, a little buddhism, a little gandhiism, a little native americanism. You mix, and everybody’s happy (or tries to persuade himself/herself so). The only theory-practice that corresponds entirely to the ideas advanced, approximately, by Bateson is geopoetics. I like that phrase of his: « I’ll soon be ready for symphony and albatros. » When I came to write my « introduction to geopoetics », Le Plateau de l’Albatros, my sources for the title were entirely different, but the echo and coincidence are both pleasant and pertinent.
3. Geopoetics and literary geography
The term « literary geography » is an invention of Franco Moretti, professor of English language and comparative literature at the university of Columbia, whose book, An Atlas of the European Novel, appeared first in Italian (Turin, 1997), then in English (London, 1998), thereafter in French (Paris, 2003). The last phrase in the book tries to define the study: « A new space that gives rise to a new form which in turn gives rise to a new space. Literary geography. »
The trialectic « space, form, space » interests me. I just think that, to realize it completely, we need a lot more than « literary geography », which seems to me all too specious. Having never considered literary history as a primal discipline, I don’t expect much more from a literary geography.
But let’s proceed step by step.
Moretti’s field of research is the novel, that is, the most social form of literature. He studies it from a statistically quantitative point of view (allowing himself a little value judgement only now and then, avowing, for example, a preference for Balzac over Dickens), and in all its varieties: historical novel, regional novel, pedagogical novel (the good old German Bildungsroman), the sentimental novel, the war novel, the detective novel.
Every genre is set in the space not only suited to it, but from which, according to the thesis, it emerged (its « narrative matrix »), and all are inserted into three global socio-political-economic contexts: nation-State, city, market, these constituting the three sections of the book, each of which is abundantly illustrated with maps and tables.
Thanks to this method we can become initiated at a glance into the small homogeneous England of Jane Austen (its network of landed properties), contemplate the Highlands and Lowlands in the novels of Walter Scott (« wild spaces, semi-civilised spaces, civilised spaces »), follow the itineraries of Gil Blas in the Mediterranean, examine the geographical sites of the French novel between 1750 and 1800 (France, England, Europe, Outside Europe, Utopia), study the topography of narrative functions (spaces devoted to marriage, rape, pursuit, punishment, departures and arrivals), meditate on the social classes of London (criminal, poor, middle-class, upper-class) or the demography of Balzac’s Paris (bankers, doctors, usurers, ladies of fortune), etc., before closing our chronotopological and topochronological itinerary in book-lending libraries so as to ascertain the respective quantities of indigenous and foreign novels available on these premises between 1838 and 1861, and open up perspectives regarding the relative diffusion of British novels and French novels…
Moretti undertook all this minute research in catalogues, all this literary taxonomy, not only with the conviction that, in the contemporary situation, a historical Atlas of literature was necessary, but with the growing hope that he was going to be founding a new discipline.
Certainly, he quickly realized that such Atlases already existed. I’ll name only a few: A Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe (London, 1910), Guide littéraire de la France (Paris, 1964), Literary Atlas and Gazetteer of the British Isles (New York, 1979), Atlas zur deutschen Literatur (Munich, 1983), The Atlas of Literature (London, 1996). But according to Moretti, the maps contained in these works had a purely decorative function, whereas his were significant and food for thought. He’s a bit unfair to those predecessors – when I was a student I worked with the Bartholomew of 1910, and read with interest David Daiches’ Literary Landscapes – and he’s apparently unaware of other comparable works to which his objection does not apply. But, my criticism of his enterprise being based on other grounds to which I’ll come, I won’t quarrel with him on that score. I’m willing to concede that Moretti’s maps and diagrams do provide interesting and useful information. To trace the cartography of Dickens’ London novels from the West End and Mayfair to the East End and the docks of Ratcliffe and Rotherhithe, where it all gets lost in a labyrinth of lanes and a foggy nothingness is not only pleasant, but revelatory. The same thing goes for the no-man’s-land of the bridges over the Seine in Balzac. And if the statistics make for boring reading, it’s not entirely useless to have concrete proof of the intellectual provincialisation and the cultural degradation of England as from the end of the eighteenth century. Studying the catalogues of English libraries, Moretti was able to descry an increasing hostility to anything « foreign ». In 1869, the big London library, Mudie’s, had no books of Voltaire, Diderot, Balzac or Pushkin. Alongside this increasing intellectual xenophobia went the establishment of a canon (that is, the ossified form of an impoverished intellectual, literary and cultural milieu) marked, in the nineteenth century and after, by historicism, sentimental moralism and infantilism, in sort, a series of models whose common denominator ws situated very low on the mental scale. Of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf was to declare that it was « one of the very few English novels written for the adult mind ». This statement is echoed by Moretti himself, who, despite the crushing boredom of his task, keeps a sense of humour, when he says: « British adults read David Copperfield, and it serves them right. »
On the final score, Moretti’s sociocultural cartography shows up a literary scene marked by the marketing of standardized commonplace.
One might think of course that a lucid, critical mind would have no need of such a « method of research » (the map as analytical tool) to arrive at the same conclusion, regarding the British or other precincts. But if it makes things clearer for some, so much the better. And, as I’ve already said, I’m by no means averse to the use of maps and diagrams as accompaniment to thought and discourse.
I even said, without making it a cause for reproach (nobody can be aware of everything), that I know of and have used, atlases that lie outside Moretti’s grasp. I’m thinking principally of a book I bought at a second-hand bookstall in Glasgow when I was still a schoolboy, which has been in my library since, as an integral part of my intellectual background. This book is The Personality of Britain (1932) by Cyril Fox, director of the National Museum of Wales. It is full of maps and diagrams, one of which particularly attracted and interested me. It shows a cultural migration departing from Asia Minor, crossing the Mediterranean, before arriving at the archipelago of Northern Scotland. We have there another conception, an image of Britain other than the one traditionally and commonly held. It’s from this culture-space that The Book of Kells emerged. And throughout British literature, one finds, from time to time, a resurgence of this archaic source. I'm thinking of Charles Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta). John Cowper Powys (Obstinate Cymric), Hugh MacDiarmid (Stony Limits). I myself am probably also a case in point.
But before penetrating further into this landscape-mindscape, let’s come back to Moretti.
If he chose to study the novel, it was, as aforesaid, because it’s the form that is the most revelatory of a state of society at any given time. But if we want to go further, and I see signs in Moretti of such a desire, if one wants to open up another intellectual context, another cultural space, eventually not only another but a different state of society, then the need for a type of writing other than that of the novel becomes evident.
For several reasons, of which I’ll line up here two or three.
a) Like the drama, like all systems of simplified communication, the novel is based on a binary logic, a model that is oppositional, antithetical, agonistic and antagonistic. And this systematics is acted out in an ultra-conditioned context: the world of money, the world of war, the world of journalism, etc., etc., all kinds of closed, agitated worlds (all the more agitated the more closed they are).
b) The structural logic just evoked, with its various mechanisms, can be extended to space as a whole. Cities, says Moretti, can be « very random environments », but the novel protects its readers from this randomness by reducing it to the proportions of a plot. The novel is a security system, a cataplasm for the psyche, a plaster for the mind, intellectual comfort guaranteed. In his Nation and nationalism, Gellner says it’s a symbolic form that is the refuge of many other symbolic conventionalisms. Moretti wonders if, when all’s told, the narrativity of the novel isn’t anything more than disguised religion – another opium of the people, shall we say.
c) If the novel reduces randomness (even the picaresque novel sticks to closed circuits), it also reduces polyphony, polysemics, cosmology. The psychoanalyst Francesco Orlando speaks of « a low degree of figurality », and for Moretti, the novels of Dickens lack « gravitational force ».
How much I agree. But the question remains: how to go farther, how to open up a larger space, with other forces, other forms?
As already remarked, Moretti himself feels this desire, this need. He ends up in his study by dismissing the novel as « an intermediate form between the old and the new, a form that creates a symbolic compromise between the enchanted topography of the magic tale and the indifferent world of modern science, between a new geography we can’t ignore and an inherited narrative matrix we can’t forget. » What he finally comes up against is a flagrant lack of « morphological invention », an indictment close to that of the Scandinavian critic Gunnar Myrdal, who speaks of « the development of underdevelopment ». The conclusions and the diagnoses are there. But the questions remain and Moretti piles them up. How does a narrative form t ake shape, and how does it sooner or later harden into sclerosis? How does a convention change, if it ever does, maybe a moment just comes when it collapses?
And, then, after the questions (the questioning also can go on forever, this is the credo, the pastime, of so many middle-range intellectuals), comes the bit.
To answer such questions, says Moretti (I still give him the floor), we need not only another study, but another method: « The quantitative method has outrun its usefulness. » It must give place to a « morphological analysis ». And Moretti begins to foresee « a change of paradigm », an « impossible programme », « the opening of a new horizon ».
I need not stress how much these propositions concur with my own proposals. It’s the sense of all my work over the past years.
It’s the field of geopoetics.
4. Geopoetics and geophilosophy
Before entering into the specific relationship between geopoetics and geophilosophy, a few words are called for concerning the general relationship between poetics and philosophy.
It’s a generally accepted notion that if you want to « think » in a consequential way, it’s to philosophy you must turn, since the philosopher is supposed to be the titled representative of thought, while poetry is relegated to feeling, fantasy, the imaginary. To adhere to this common notion is to be totally ignorant not only of the poetic work done over the last hundred years or so, but of certain innovative developments within philosophy.
Within the domain of philosophy, to a secular criticism of all that is sophistry and philosophantism (by far what one meets up with most in the profession) has been added, in philosophy’s most advanced and out-lying fields, a criticism of philosophy itself. It began with Nietzsche who, at a certain decisive moment, said he was a poet « at the limits of that word » (he had no great admiration for the conventional conception of poetry, nor for most poets). And this tendency was developed by Heidegger who proposes that if one wishes to start really thinking again, it’s necessary to « get out of philosophy » and who prefers to dialogue with poets such as Hölderlin or Rilke rather than with his philosophical colleagues. To move further back in time, more than one Frenchman with a knowledge of Descartes restricted to school cartesianism, will no doubt be surprised to hear our philosopher declare, in his Olympica, that « deep thought occurs rather in the writings of poets than in those of philosophers ».
Now let’s look into the philosophico-geopoetic field.
I may as well make it clear from the start. I’ve never found the concept of « geophilosophy » put forward in 1991 by Deleuze and Guattari in their book What is philosophy? (Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?) very interesting. I’m using the word « interesting » there in a strong sense. When I say I don’t find geophilosophy very interesting, it’s in relation to what excites most my mind, what I consider most necessary. The great mass of what is called « philosophy », « art », « culture » doesn’t interest me at all. Let’s put it this way: my feeling is that Deleuze and Guattari put up « geophilosophy » in order to get a foot in an emergent field if not to occupy it, but that I find it interesting enough to comment on it, especially in a context that situates geopoetics with regard to other recent « geos ».
The idea of geophilosophy is the theme of a twenty-five page essay in a book of two hundred pages where the main theme is the trilogy concept-percept-affect, in short, a definition of philosophy with regard to art and religion. In my reading of the geophilosophical context, the key-phrase, around which everything turns, but which in the mass of philosophizing discourse can go entirely unseen, is this: « What we lack is a terrain and a project ». After centuries of Western thought, there’s no lack of concept, but « we don’t know where to put them », because we were « dragged off track by Christian transcendence. »
The first pages of the essay are devoted to ancient Greece as the site par excellence of philosophy. If the first philosophers were strangers from Asia (it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who invented the term), exiled from what Deleuze and Guattari can, with very rare exceptions, see only in the imposing, imperialist shape of « oriental despotism » (the existence of which no one will deny), it was Plato who, in an aristo-democratic Greek milieu, inaugurated philosophy. It has even been said, not without justification, that philosophizing since then consists of foot page notes to the Platonic text.
For Nietzsche, what we lack since Plato, something absolutely essential, is « a faster wing beat across larger spaces » (The Birth of Philosophy). I need not insist on the importance that phrase had for me.
But let’s come back for the moment to Deleuze and Guattari.
After the Greek milieu, they pass in review the French, English and German contexts – if they pay no attention to Italy and Spain, it’s because in their eyes these countries have never yet broken their ties with Catholicism. France is the country of reflexion and reasoning: « The French are like landed gentry whose capital is the cogito ». Germany is the land of a lost Absolute, to be rewon by conquest. As for England, it’s « moving, marshy ground »: in place of thought, the English have habits, in the place of concepts, conventions.
This is amusing, and well said. On the same lines, we could do the rounds of the world. We’d be doing geophilosophy. But we’d always be moving in the middle-range of the milieu. We’d never get near the fundamental question concerning a possible plane of immanence.
It’s this question that Deleuze and Guattari tried to handle in Mille Plateaux (« A Thousand Plateaux »), via, on the one hand, an analysis of capitalism, which, at its limits, destroys all milieux, and an exploration of schizophrenia considered as potentially opening a new mind-space. But that frantic movement in a conceptual (politico-analytical) war-machine across a thousand plateaux, if it went through interesting passages here and there, never got anywhere near a new plane of immanence.
The final stages of deleuzo-guattarian thought (geophilosophy included) are very, almost painfully, revealing from this point of view.
Already in What is Philosophy?, in the last pages of the essay on geophilosophy, which was more an intermediary gambit rather than any real advance in thought, one can read: « Thought itself is sometimes closer to a dying animal than to a living man. » And the appeal to « a future shape of things », « a new land and a people that doesn’t yet exist », « the constitution of a land and a people correlative to creation », is pathetic. The pathos is even clearer in two other of the later books, Deleuze’s Critique et Clinique (« Clinical Criticism ») and Guattari’s Cartographies schizo-analytiques (« Schizoanalytical Cartography »). In Deleuze’s book, you see him trying to palliate the pathos with a series of belleslettristic essays on « Literature and Life », « Alice in Wonderland », « Four poetic formulae that sum up the philosophy of Kant », etc. As for Guattari, he indulges in a lush type of sentimental utopianism, envisageing « an environment of gentleness and devotion », « a world of creative enchantments ».
To enter now into geopoetic territory, after the thousand plateaux and their platitudinous fall, I move up now on to the plateau of the Engadin, for another meeting with Nietzsche.
It was in a Nietzschean context that I first made acquaintance with Gilles Deleuze. I’m thinking of his essay « Pensée nomade » (« Nomadic Thought »), published in the collective, post-colloquium volume: Nietzsche aujourd’hui (« Nietzsche Today »), Paris, 1973. There you can come across phrases such as these: « The aim of marxism and psychoanalysis, the two fundamental bureaucracies of our culture, is to recode what on the horizon is decoding all the time. Nietzsche’s concern isn’t there at all, on the contrary. His problem lies elsewhere. Passing through all codes, those of the past, the present, or the future, what he’s out to do is to give a sense of something that can’t be coded and never will be »; « Nietzsche founds thought, and writing, on an immediate relationship to the outside. Now, to branch thought on to the outside, that, literarily, is what philosophers have never done, even when they were talking politics, even when they talked about footpaths and fresh air »; « I know what I’m saying is a bit confused, it’s just a feeling I have, a hypothesis, concerning the originality of those Nietzschean texts »; « There’s a movement there, a drifting, a drift, let’s say a deterritorialisation. »
Such phrases spoke to me directly, acutely. I had ideas in my head about a new type of writing, a new type of book. I had one in progress entitled Travels in the Drifting Dawn, as well as a book of essays, The Movement Outwards. And I was engaged in one of those massive French State theses on a theme that had been with me since my early student days, even schooldays: nomadism, specifically intellectual nomadism.
It was evident that we shared a certain terrain. Which was why Deleuze was invited to be on the jury of my thesis and accepted. I describe that « thesis defence » as well as its aftermath (the oblique presentation of my work in Mille Plateaux) in my book Dialogue avec Deleuze.
It’s possible that if Deleuze had stayed in his « originary » (post-Nietzschean) stage, instead of plunging into « capitalism and schizophrenia », he might have developed a completely different field. What’s sure is that if one goes through all of Deleuze’s writings, it’s possible to see here and there elements close to geopoetics: « Subject and object give a very poor approach to thought. Thought isn’t a line stretched between subject and object, nor is it a revolving of the one around the other, it takes place in a relationship to terrain and territory. » It’s from such a relationship that geopoetics emerges, not as some « nature poetry » or some vaguely poetic ecology, as some would have it for their mental comfort, but a type of thought, a non-methodical method of writing, a manner of being in the world, and the possible basis of a culture.
5. Geopoetics and geocriticism
From time to time, in the history of literature, a need is felt to renew literary criticism, to give it a new basis and a new impulsion.
If there have always been critics, criticism as a discipline hardly existed before the nineteenth century. A typological list could line up various methodologies: idealist, absolutist, deterministic, positivist, impressionist, marxist, psychoanalytical, etc. When I was a student at Glasgow University, I got my hands on two books that attempted to provide an overview of the question: Critical Approaches to Literature by David Daiches (1956) and Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Daiches divides his study into three sections: « The Philosophical Enquiry » (from Plato to T.S. Eliot via Aristotle), « Practical Criticism » (criticism as a profession with its means and methods), and « Literary Criticism and Related Disciplines » (Freud, Jung, Marx). Frye for his part divides his book into four sections: « Historical Criticism – Theory of Modes », « Ethical Criticism – Theory of Symbols », « Archetypal Criticism – Theory of Myths », « Rhetorical Criticism – Theory of Genres ». I can’t say this reading excited my mind, but it revealed the structures I would have to deal with.
If I let my mind dwell on « modern literary criticism », only a few names turn up in the front line, either for their weight or their acuity: Sainte-Beuve (for whom Baudelaire’s work was a strange kiosque in some Kamchatka), Hippolyte Taine with his long-lasting « race, milieu, moment », Roland Barthes with his « zero degree of writing »… If I’m quoting only French examples, it’s no doubt because it’s in France that critical thought has been most developed. In England, one thinks of Coleridge, but in the conventional English milieu, he is considered a monstrous anomaly, a poet who, under German influence (Kant, Schelling) wasted his time trying to think things out instead of just writing more pomes. At the present moment, there is, with very few exceptions, no real criticism in the public sphere, only chitchat.
A priori, therefore, any attempt to resuscitate and revitalize literary criticism, give it some intellectual energy, could only attract my attention, maybe even arouse my interest.
I first heard of geocriticism when a correspondent sent me the collective volume produced after a colloquium on geocriticism that had taken place at the university of Limoges. During that colloquium, geopoetics had also been approached, but in such a stupid and ill-informed way that I won’t waste time on the « criticism » displayed. For my part, in order to take a scrupulous presentation of geocriticism, I got hold of Bertrand Westphal’s La géocritique – réel, fiction, espace (« Geocriticism – reality, fiction, space »), and read it through thoroughly – a rather boring undertaking, the text being pedagogically ultra-repetitive.
From a stylistic point of view, Westphal’s book hesitates between an orthodox university conceptualism and the desire to operate within a heterogeneity he calls « postmodern ». It is divided into five chapters, the function of the first three – « Spatio-temporality », « Transgressivity », « Referentiality » – being to prepare the context for the arrival of the fourth, « Elements of geocriticism », which is followed by a last section, « Readability », which treats of the applicability of the concept to social reality. The repressed formalist is at pains to state from the start that the heterogeneity he practices is not the sign of any structural weakness on his part, or a lack of methodology, but stems from a determination to take into account « all the dynamics » of contemporary space. He allows himself here a reference which, he says, is « perhaps more poetic » : in his Intercales, Leon Battista Alberti (fifteenth century) called the little states that then constituted Italy naviculae (little boats). We are invited by Westphal to enter into a navicular space.
If the approach to this space is termed « geocentric », it’s in opposition to all pre-postmodernist literature, to all pre-geocritical criticism, these being, according to Westphal, « ego-centred »: it was the writer who was « the centre of attraction and attention ». In place of « the individual point of view », geo-criticism substitutes a geo-social point of view. Every author is situated « within a network which is finally reduced to one precise marker ».
An example: The Alexandria Quartet. Instead of focussing attention on Lawrence Durrell, « a British author writing narratives whose action is situated in a place called Alexandria », in geocriticism the accent will be on a study of Alexandria itself. With Alexandria as « common denominator », up alongside Durrell will be set the French traveller Volney, the Greek poet Cavafis, the Greek novelist Stratis Tsirkas, the Copt writer Edwar al-Kharrat. « In short, we go from the writer to the place and not from the place to the writer, following a complex chronology and adopting various points of view. » In this way, not only is « space freed from the single, isolated view », but it is transformed into « a focal point, a home », which makes it « all the more human ».
After Alexandria, on the geocritic programme, will come Paris, London, Berlin, Budapest… and then to cities will be added regions: Sicily, Galicia, Bukovina… To the regions, continents and generic spaces: islands, peninsulas, archipelagos, mountains, deserts, rivers, seas, lakes… And then there are all those imaginary places: Ruritania, Poldevia, whatever… And in the near future, intersidereal spaces: « A geocritical study of Mars and the Moon is quite conceivable », says Westphal, adding, with a ponderous attempt at wit, that for an enterprise such as this we’ll have to wait for « the first texts written on green Martian paper » and « the first films shot aboard flying saucers ».
A first survey of geocriticism can only leave one with the impression that all we can expect from it is, not only a series of thick anthologies without ontology, but a vast multimedia edifice of cultural tourism. All the more so because, in the last pages of his book, speaking of « the applicability of literature », its contact with the real, « the interface between text and world », between « fictional narrative » and « performative narrativity », it’s tourism that Westphal brings forward as an example: « Tourism is certainly an industry, but it is also a dream nourished by fiction. »
At this point, I might have felt justified in dropping Westphal and geocriticism entirely, but I decided to give it and him another chance, see if in all this mix of pretention, pomposity and triviality, there might nonetheless be something interesting.
The best place to put in practice this intellectual generosity, it appeared to me, was the book’s second chapter, on « Transgressivity ». « To speak of spaces of transgression », says Westphal, « is no simple matter. » With that general statement I can easily agree. But let’s see how he goes about it.
He begins by quoting François Hartog’s Le Miroir d’Hérodote (« The Mirror of Herodotus »), a book I read, with much interest, at the beginning of the 1980’s: « To transgress is to go out from one’s “own” place in order to enter a foreign space. » Further, it means seeing, understanding, living « what goes on beyond the threshold », the threshold in question being understood « either as a limes, a barrier, or as a limen, a porous frontier that can be crossed ». Hartog then goes on to enlarge still more the sense of the term: « Spatial transgression is also transgression of divine space, hence an aggression of the gods. » This is where Westphal sidles in with his own interpretation: « The interval between action and transgression is narrow. In the work of Deleuze and Guattari, this interval has a name: the epistratum, the margin of tolerated deviance. » He then goes on to evoke the laying out of a « beach of intimity » beyond the barrier. Rather than the epistratum of Deleuze and Guattari, my own reference in this context would be the epistrategy of the Thebaid, situated between Panopolis and the first cataract, so named by Strabo. And why speak of a « beach of intimacy »? I’ve spoken myself of an « eschatological beach », going back for « eschatology » (understood usually only in religious terms) to the Greek eschatia (« distant from the centre », « at the end of the world »), « extreme situation ») that one can find in Homer, Hesiod and Pindar.
There is, then, a certain terrain common to Westphal and myself, an interest in place, the attraction to a certain undefined space. But there’s a difference in optics and in poetics. And the difference becomes more and more obvious. The optic of Westphal, of geocriticism, is predominantly social, sociological.
At the « frontier » of geocriticism, Westphal situates all that constitutes, over against hegemonic authority and the monology of a code, a « sidestep » (sic: like so many contemporary French intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, Westphal has a penchant for anglo-saxon terms). The result is a massive pile-up in which communitarian niches lie alongside Foucault’s intimate little « heterotopias », where discourse on sexual postures (« gender studies ») mingles with ethnic, ethno-cultural, post-colonial discourse (« declinations of difference »), the whole caboodle subsumed under the hold-all term of « third space » picked up from Homi Bhabha by Edward Soja as an area of « integral fusion ».
It is with deep-felt relief, and maybe with the vague hope still of finding something else that one leaves those second zone agglomerations, that proliferation of examples and sub-examples, where art is represented by a novel in which the text revolves round an O (« female sex, menstrual cycle, cosmic revolution », we are told) and enter into the space opened up by some first-rate minds that also turn up, fugitively, in these pages: Ovid, Brandan, Dante, all of them part integral of my own concerns, cogitations and compositions.
Let’s begin with Dante, whose infernal limbo is, as Westphal says well enough, « a place inhabited by the great transgressors of the mind ». However, instead of analyzing the nature of the transgression performed by those minds, instead of analyzing Dante’s own transgressivity, as does Mandelstam in his essay on Dante (Dante seen, not as « poet » in the banal sense of the word, not as « producer of images », but as « a strategist of mutation »), Westphal, faithful to his principle of eliminating individuals or authors, and proceeding by series, immediately brings in Michel Tournier’s novel Vendredi, ou les Limbes du Pacifique (« Friday, or the Limbo of the Pacific »), from which he extracts the banal sociological theme of the One and the Other, slipping in a little post-colonial touch about this one and this other « who alternate and hybridize ». Continuing his series, he might have gone on to Antonin Artaud’s L’Ombilic des limbes, marked by a more intense radicality. But let’s stick to the island of Robinson Crusoë, Juan Fernandez (place of exile, outside literature, of the Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk). In What is philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari refer to the novel, seeing in the encounter between the island and the solitary « the expression of a possible world in a perceptive field ». There’s an interesting phrase, that points in the direction of all my work and evokes the field of geopoetics. But look what Westphal makes of it. It all gets reduced to that aforementioned « thirdspace » which « emerges as the territory sheds its frightful potential, its medusa-like power ». The relationship between force and form, the emergence of a world in the powerful sense of that word, is totally lost.
After Dante Westphal turns to another figure close to me, St Brendan (for reasons peculiar to me, I prefer to say Brandan – the two spellings are possible), the sixth century Irish navigator. What does Westphal do in his company? First of all he displays some primary school erudition about TO maps and the fantasticality of the Middle Ages: « The seas and the oceans, that encircled labile lands, were full of marine monsters. » And instead of showing what there was of outrageous transgressivity (from a Roman point of view) in pelagianism, he’s content to signpost the travels of our space-runner with the injunctions of the religious canon and the images of the liturgical calendar. The poem I wrote, « Brandan’s Last Voyage », which brings in a great deal of historical information in the bygoing, pushes things much further, from physical space out, opening the mind instead of, once again, enclosing it in the sociocultural.
With Westphal’s reading of Ovid, we find, at last, a little sign of something else, almost geopoetic. Once more, he begins by laying out some primary information about Ovid’s exile at Tomi: « Relegated to Tomi, on the shores of the Pontus Euxinus, our Black Sea, […] Tomi was for him and the Romans in general the edge of the world, ultima tellus ». Thereafter, he tries to enter into the space, the territory, the place: « When he examined the world of the Dacians and the Sauromati, “barbarians” whose language he had learned, and maybe the shore opposite the Danube, he was laying eyes on the nothingness of Scythia. Porous, the limen was the border opening on to some new unknown, a potential opening, not a closure. Perhaps Ovid turned the limes, the limit of the empire, into a limen. Perhaps, but we do not know. » Of course, we don’t know. But non-knowledge can put an edge to knowledge, and this kind of non-knowledge can be the occasion for some hypothetical projection, in the company of Ovid and beyond him. With a great deal of Ovidian studies behind me, that’s what I tried to do in my Ovidian poem, Ovid’s Testament, which advances, transgressively, into that unknown ground, into that Scythian nothingness, in order to open up possible existential perspectives.
There is little basic ground and very little perspectivity in geocriticism. What claimed to be « a crossroads of creative potential » turns out to be no more than an intermediary olla podrida.
Extracts from Panorama géopoétique,
interviews with Kenneth White conducted by Régis Poulet,
Bambois, Éditions de la Revue des Ressources, online.