Literary Geography? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?

“The geographical imagination is far too pervasive and important a fact of intellectual life to be left alone to geographers.”

– David Harvey, 1995: 161.

When people not in the academy ask me what my dissertation is about, I usually hum and haw and then mumble something about a literarygeographyofnaturalism. They often nod and walk away. Geographers look at me askance; literature folks presume I’m talking about how places are described in novels. I’m not, and I am. Kind of.

In The Fate of Place, his comprehensive study of the concept’s history, philosopher Edward S. Casey claims that “place brings with it the very elements sheared off in the planiformity of site: identity, character, nuance, history” (xiii). Literature, then. Literary Geography asks how these “platial” elements are “écrits, décrits, générés, inventés, déformés ou reproduits” (Brousseau 10) but also what the very fact of their being narrated reveals. Why this place and not another? Why this landscape, this country, this city, this street? “L’espace romanesque,” writes Henri Mitterand, “n’est pas un donné immédiat, un référent géographique auto-suffisant, mais une forme-sens construite, semiotisée pour les besoins de la fiction, modelée par la vision, les objectifs narratifs, l’héritage intertextuel du romancier” (18).

What Literary Geography is not is a mapping of places in literature. As least, it’s not just that. There is something to be said, however, for what we could dub “Literary GIS.” The “Literary Atlas of Europe” project currently underway at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Cartography and Geoinformation is a fascinating one, which aims to rewrite the history of literature from the point of view of its settings. The results are intriguing; the visualizations dazzle; but the interpretative work remains to be done. Mapping, like other forms of data visualization, like the Digital Humanities in general, opens up new pathways of thinking, raises different questions, allows us to look at literature from a newly discovered angle. It’s a field of potentiality, but the map is not the end result. I want to look at whys and hows. If we simply view maps as representations of space, we’ll get nowhere. But if use the data to ask new questions, if we analyze the results –– and even the mapping process itself (a map, writes JB Hartley, “can be a form of knowledge and a form of power” (278)) –– then we might get somewhere new.

In January of 2011, a literary geography program entitled “vers une géographie littéraire” and coordinated by Michel Collot and Julien Knebusch was formed as part of the “Écritures de la modernité” research cluster at Paris 3. Its aim is to think through the theoretical stakes and methodological implications of an approach to literary geography that combines geopoetics (including geophilology), geocriticism, and a “géographie de la littérature.” Unlike other geographers of literature, who have “applied” geographical methods as others would another theory in order to prove a point, Collot argues for a more phenomenological approach. In La pensée paysage he suggests that: “au lieu de projeter ses propres catégories sur un objet, une telle pensée procède de sa considération attentive” (500). It is in close reading (of texts, paratexts, maps, characters, buildings) that the potential of literary geography comes alive.

Last year, Collot published a manifesto of sorts, entitled “Pour une géographie littéraire,” in the eighth edition Fabula’s online LHT. It is this essay that has most helped me think through the implications of literary geography, and it is Collot’s tripartite structure that serves as my “methodology”:

1. “Géographie de la littérature,” focusing on the geographical, historical, social, and cultural factors that create the space in which a work of literature is produced.

2. “Géocritique,” looking at the representation of space – imaginary or real – in the text, rather than the contextual space of production. Here, he cites the work of J.-P. Richard, saying “une géocritique sensible à la dimension proprement littéraire des représentations de l’espace doit chercher comme lui à établir une correspondance entre ‘page’ et ‘paysage’.”

3. “Géopoétique,” examining the relationship between space and literary form, and considers what links literary creation to space. This is arguably the most difficult (and the most rewarding).

Novelistic space, or perhaps “narrated place,” is, then, a carefully constructed text; what it is not, however, is an unassailable monument; its borders are as porous, as open to penetration and contestation, as those of any map.

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