« It is difficult to read the archives of the earth »
(Journal of the navigator Lapérouse, 1778)



One of the Pacific’s island arcs runs from Halmaheira, south of the Philippines, up to the Kamchatka, via the Pescadores, Taiwan, Okinawa, the Ryukyu and Hokkaido. Volcanic, these islands are part of what has been called the Pacific Ocean’s ancient « fire belt ».

This was more or less the line Lapérouse followed when he left Manilla in April 1787, making for the coast of Tartary and the obscure regions of the North-West Pacific. It was an important stage in his expedition (an expedition I’m reading as mind-journey), not only because of the cartographic confusion that prevailed in this part of the world, but because it was the only region that had « escaped the tireless energy of Captain Cook ». Lapérouse was keen not only to make a map, but to make his mark.

So, up by Formosa as it was called at that time went the voyage, then past the tip of Korea, into the Sea of Japan : « We come at last into the Sea of Japan and sail along the coast of China. » The going wasn’t easy, the coasts being constantly wrapped in fog, making map-making impossible, with the occasional storm (what the Journal calls a « crisis of nature ») worrying Lapérouse as a promise of more to come — he had a lot of work to do, and he didn’t have that much time : « It was important for us to be out of the Japan Seas before the month of June, a time of tempests and typhoons that make that area the most dangerous in the world. »


He continues sailing northward through the fogs (« fogs as thick and long-lasting as anything to be found on the coast of Labrador », he says), waiting for a light-up, and sometimes getting it : « It’s only in misty regions such as these, but then only rarely, that one can see horizons of such a great extent, as though with those moments of extreme clarity nature wished to compensate for the almost everlasting obscurity which prevails in these parts. »

While measuring latitude and longitude as well as he can, taking soundings, he sees « five groups of rocks with a great quantity of birds flying about them », then a Japanese junk with twenty of a crew all dressed in blue and « a little white flag with words written on it vertically. »

He would have liked to spend a lot more time hugging the coast of Japan, but time is pressing and he has a wider « field of discovery » waiting for him.

At 44 degrees latitude, he comes to what the geographers had called the « Straits of Tessoy ». But Lapérouse finds that the geography is all to hell :

« Those geographers who on the basis of the reports made by Father des Anges and a handful of Japanese maps had traced the outline of the straits and determined the limits of Yeso and the Company Land, had so disfigured the geography of this part of Asia that it was absolutely necessary to put an end to so much useless discussion with a few unquestionable facts. »

Landing on the coast, Lapérouse and his men see deer and bears feeding quietly on the shore, and find little baskets made of birch bark (« exactly like those of the Indians of Canada ») and snow-shoes. No one to talk to and get information from, so Lapérouse calls the place Bears’ Bay, and moves on. At other places, they fish, either in the sea or in rivers, finding it so easy that the fish, in abundance (« cod, gurnard, trout, salmon, herring, plaice ») have « only to hop from the water into our pots ». Birds, they find, are rarer in these parts, but they do get glimpses of « crows, doves, partridges, wagtails, swallows, fly-catchers, albatrosses, gulls, puffins, bitterns and duck », Lapérouse noting that birds you usually see in bands « under happier skies », live here alone, on the pinnacles of lonely rocks.

When they do come to meet people, those of the Amur River country or Ainu of Sakhaline and Yezo, they ask them to make maps (is Yezo an island or a peninsula ?), and they draw up lists of words : tebaira (the wind), oroa (the cold), hourarahaûne (clouds), mâchi (gull), toukochiche (salmon). Lapérouse observes that the islanders have no sense, when drawing, of a change of direction and lay out their coast in one continuous line. He takes a liking to the Ainu, even though they know how to drive a hard bargain, saying that they’re polite, gentle and intelligent, maybe more intelligent than any nation in Europe — which is a high compliment coming from Lapérouse, who was far from sharing the ideology of the Noble Savage. He appreciates their knowledge of plants, notes signs of some kind of bear ceremony (« a circle of 15 or 20 posts each one surmounted by the skull of a bear »), admires dresses made of salmon-skin every bit as fine as silk, and gets the impression that they live an anarchistic life (which, « given their gentle manners and their respect for age, is no inconvenience. »)

« It is very difficult », notes Lapérouse in his Journal (entry of August 1787) « to learn how to investigate and read the archives of the world. » With that phrase, he was summing up not only his researches in the North Pacific, but his whole expedition, and the search for knowledge in general. As is well enough known, Lapérouse’s expedition ended in total disaster at Vanikoro. But the Journal — because Lapérouse (running the risk that lesser minds would exploit it for their own little purposes) sent it back to Paris bit by bit — survives. And it is a monument. Or better than that : the map of a mind in movement.




It was the eighteenth century that saw the first European expeditions round the world, those of Cook, that of Lapérouse — great suprapolitical circumnavigations, with geographers, ethnologists, natural historians, philosophers and writers following in their wake. The eighteenth century : an age of clear-cut argument, before the nineteenth century’s thunder and lightning clouds, and the twentieth’s informational confusion (veiling all too often utter deadness of soul and barrenness of mind).

It’s an age in which fullness of matter combines with lines of intelligence to create live thought, expressed principally in the form of essays, from Hume’s Essay on human Understanding to Fabre’s Essai sur la théorie des torrents. How much more exciting and stimulating than the novels of Tom, Dick and Harry (and Jane, and Evelyne, and Susan) that were to encumber Europe in the two centuries following !

The main question in the air was the question of order.

On the one hand, there were the partisans of perfect order and design, represented, say, by Burnet’s Sacred theory of the Earth, Süssmilch’s Die Göttliche Ordnung, De Pluche’s Spectacle de la nature, Nieuwentijdt’s The Religious Philosopher or Leibniz throughout his multiple and fascinating works. On the other hand, not Voltaire, whose criticism of Leibniz is no more than journalistic jibing, but, say d’Holbach, who says that it’s in his imagination that man finds the model of order, and, even more radically perhaps, who asks : « What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the universe ? » Hume is wary of any would-be complete cosmogonies, loathes all talk of « perfect worlds » (in the art of « world-making » he sees rather a process, always continuing, of trial and error) and bides by the notion that nature contains « an infinite number of springs and principles ».

For anyone trying to live a full and living life, with as few preconceptions as possible, and at the same time no facile resignation, no merely flippant scepticism, the « true logic », as Leibniz calls it, probably implies the sense of a moving mind-world, with a sensation of more or less distant harmony and wholeness, but also a readiness to accept breaks, interruptions, fractures. And the last word of wisdom concerning man’s relation to the universe probably comes from Herder, in his Anthropogeographie : « The whole living creation is closely interrelated, and one should act prudently in altering this interdependence. »

Lapérouse’s Journal is part integral of this type of literature, and he was very much concerned with its fate.

First of all, he was fully aware of its value as a contribution to geography. He had determined points that would clear up a lot of confusion and uncertainty, making it impossible for « cabinet geographers » to fantasize and draw up facile systems. Lapérouse, like Cook, who had also been keen to get « out there », had a loathing for those system-makers who sit at home and fit reality into their concepts : « As a traveller, I bring back facts, I lay out differences. » He even goes so far as to say that work such as his, fundamental field-work, will put an end to geography as a science and as a subject of debate, leaving room for something else : « It seems safe to announce that the moment has come when all the obscurities that have attached themselves to particular voyages will be removed. The art of navigation has made enough progress these last few years as not to be stopped by this or that obstacle. Very soon, geography will no longer be a science, because the spirit of dispute and criticism will have become obsolete once all the main points have been given exact latitudes and longitudes, and when all the peoples of the earth know the precise extent of the lands they inhabit and the seas that surround them. »

So much for science, and the possibility of another approach to space.

But there’s also a literary question.




In the edition (1797) of Lapérouse’s Journal revised by Milet-Mureau, concerning a stream of Sakhaline, we read that it was « replete with salmon ». If, however, we refer to Lapérouse’s original text as published in 1885 at the Imprimerie Nationale (editors John Dunmore and Maurice de Brossard), we see that in the navigator’s mind, the stream in question was « paved with salmon », a much bolder expression. It’s only one example among many. I’m interested here in the spontaneous writing of a curious, live and exploring mind, outside any canons of taste, outside any literary orthodoxy.

« I could have entrusted the composition of my journal to some man of letters », says Lapérouse in his Preface. « In this way, it would have been written in a purer style, and it would have been spattered with reflections I’d never have thought of. But that would have meant presenting myself with a mask, and I’ve preferred natural traits, whatever they may be. Reading the last two Voyages of Captain Cook, I’ve often regretted that for the first he borrowed a stranger’s pen. His descriptions of the customs, manners and arts of the various peoples have always seemed to me completely satisfactory, and the accounts of his navigation have always given me the revealing detail I was looking for as a guide to my own. This is the kind of thing that an editor won’t respect : for the sake of harmony of phrase, he’ll sacrifice the very word a mariner wants. Besides, in this kind of reading, one likes to put oneself in the place of the traveller, whereas all we get with every line is an actor playing his part, no doubt with greater elegance and with finer manners, but totally incapable of giving us the real thing. The various chapters are not composed according to the rhythm of the voyaging, the sailing plans are presented in a uniform way, whereas when you are engaged in a vast space comprising the two hemispheres they are bound to give rise to a thousand variations. We miss the instability that comes from the slightest change in circumstance. The man of letters ends up by effacing the traveller completely. » (My emphasis.)

Let’s get this quite clear. Lapérouse was by no means against a certain cleaning-up of his manuscript : he complains that in the absence of a secretary he had to depend on a series of more or less competent copyists, hence the sometimes shaky spelling and weird punctuation. And he would have been grateful for someone to remove the occasional clumsiness on his part — he says he has a lot to learn about writing. But what he wants is the real, revealing word, that may sound barbarous to an elegant ear, as well as a certain roughness of phrasing. What he most emphatically doesn’t want is the reduction of a multiple text full of keenly perceived but not necessarily convergent detail to the neat plot and the ironed-out exposition of an « interesting novel ». He wants no uniformisation of the various plans, be they of sailing, thinking or writing.

In short, with Lapérouse’s Journal, we’re confronted with a question of poetics.

Let’s go into all this a little farther.

A century after Lapérouse, in 1890, Anton Chekhov, a successful author with several plays and a host of short stories to his credit, left for the island of Sakhaline, just across the Lapérouse Straits. He intended to live for a while on his « isle bound by salty fog », at the far edge of the Russian Empire, and write a book different from any he’d ever tried his hand at before : a socio-ethno-geo-poetico-meteorological kind of book… To prepare himself for this unusual task, he, the elegant man of letters, had turned himself into « an erudite monster », piling up all the information he could get his hands on in the bookshops and libraries of Moscow and St Petersburg. Once on the island, with more and more direct information coming at him, he was confronted by problems of form : how to bring together all this heterogeneous material, what kind of shape to give it ? And then, in touch with the island’s situation, structure and atmosphere, he was aware of changes in his mentality : « Here we are at the edge of the Pacific ocean […]. Over there, in the distance, lies the coast of America […]. To the left, across the fog, one can just make out the headlands of Sakhaline […]. To the right, a stretch of cliffs[…]. And all around, not a living soul, not a bird, not a fly. On these coasts, one is seized, not by thoughts but by meditations. It’s frightening, but at the same time enticing. I’d like to stay here, just watching the monotonous waves and listening to their roaring. »

There’s the beginning of a « non-literary » literature. How to designate it ? The usual categories : « travel », « adventure », « exoticism » are not only obviously inadequate, in the most interesting cases, they’re pitifully inept. Chekhov’s Island (I’m only taking it as an example, not as a model) comes across as a mass of oceanic prose in which facts, sensations and documents knock together like flotsam and jetsam. Melville did something of the same with Moby Dick. And Joyce, if he had lived, after Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, would have written an ocean-book, a kind of maximum opus marinum.

Just as for the Greeks Okeanos surrounded the earth, this literature — outer rim literature — I am trying to speak about is mentally situated at the extreme edge of our culture and its physical movement consists in an attempt to « approach» the earth in a new way, get in touch with the universe by means of a multiple and simultaneous attentiveness (faster and finer than mere juxtaposition) whose logic, erotic and erratic, has little to do with the logics practised habitually.

For this outer rim literature, most criticism is inadequate. Few critics, whether they go by taste or by (literary) science are aware of this area and this movement. Melville in his time said there were only five real critics in America, and several of them were asleep. The situation has hardly improved.

Roland Barthes, in France, had the intuition of this thing. After demonstrating, in the Zero Degree of Writing, that our « good » literature is irremediably classicist, in the Empire of Signs, he speaks of a « dream » : to know a foreign (and hence strange) language, and yet not understand it, to learn the systematics of the inconceivable, to undo reality by means of new combinations, new syntaxes, to discover new positions of the subject, to displace one’s topology. Some chapter in Sapir or Whorf concerning Chinook, Nootka or Hope, some chapter in Granet concerning Chinese, some remark made by a friend concerning Japanese can open up integral novelty which some modern texts give a sense of, but no novel. Texts such as these allow us to see a landscape which our habitual language (the one we own) could never guess at or discover.

Lapérouse spoke about the end of geography, that is, of a time when cartography would no longer be a problem. He was certainly a bit premature there, for even in the simple scientific sense of geography (measuring and situating) there is no doubt still a great deal to be done.

Then, geography can advance, there can be other geographies.

And there can be what I have begun to think of as geopoetics.

Kenneth WHITE