U Views Until the Dragon Comes: Geocriticism and the Prospects of Comparative Literature
Robert T. Tally Jr.
The spatial turn in literary and cultural studies has generated a great deal of interest in the relations among space, place, mapping and literature. This has resulted in a growing body of critical scholarship in the interdisciplinary field of spatiality studies, broadly defined so as to encompass geocriticism, geopoetics, and the spatial humanities, among other emerging critical and theoretical practices. In my Spatiality, I attempt to provide a general introduction to spatial literary studies, which undoubtedly offer innovative insights into various disciplines but which I believe will be especially valuable to comparative literature. Even more than those disciplinary fields whose focus is limited to a particular national body of writings or a single linguistic literary tradition, comparative literature has always paid close attention to those elements that spatially-oriented critics highlight in their research. Notably, the comparative study of literature requires some focus on different places, on places as different from others, as well as on different perspectives of the various sites under consideration. The intensive awareness of alterity is part of the substance of comparative literature. Unlike those fields or scholars that favor identity over alterity, as Gayatri Spivak has put it, “Comparative Literature […] goes rather toward the other” (Death of a Discipline 92). With its own conceptual grounding in a discourse of alterity, geocriticism — which I understand in a fairly wide-ranging sense to include various critical approaches to literary spatiality — is particularly well suited to the timely exploration of space and comparative literature today.
For those familiar with the term, it may seem a bit ironic to specify geocriticism as committed to alterity or otherness in the way Spivak suggests. The geocritical approach outlined by Bertrand Westphal, for example, seems to take as its point of departure an identifiable place, which can then be the subject of geocritical analysis. In Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces, Westphal insists that geocriticism involves a geocentric approach, as opposed especially to an egocentric approach. By this Westphal means that the geocritic would look at a singular geographical place, such as a city or a region, and then examine the ways in which that place has been represented in a variety of texts, which could include not only traditional works of literature, poetry or fiction, but also films, travel narratives, governmental surveys, tourist brochures, and so forth. A major benefit that Westphal sees in the geocentric approach is that, because it avoids the limited perspective of a single author or group, its multifocal perspective can yield a relatively non-biased, though inevitably incomplete, image of the place.
However, this vision of geocriticism presents a few rather serious problems, one practical and the other more theoretical, for comparative literature. First, there is the inevitable question of the corpus. How does one determine exactly which texts could, in the aggregate, reasonably constitute a meaningful body of material with which to analyze the literary representations of a given geographical site? That is, if the Paris of Honoré de Balzac is far too limited, since it relies on the perspective of an only single author or a few of his own writings, then how many authors and texts representing Paris would constitute a feasible and credible starting point for a geocritical study of the French capital? Also, the almost innumerable textual references to very well-known places like Paris would seem to render any geocritical analysis impossible. Westphal argues that the corpus would have to reach “the threshold of representativeness,” but concedes that this would be difficult to ascertain (127). A second problem with Westphal’s geocentric method is that it assumes the unproblematized identity of a “place,” without adequately taking into account the conflicting forces and views that condition the ways in which various spaces come to be recognizable as places. In his revision of the geocritical project in Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place, Eric Prieto examines the textual emergence of various types of place, including what appear to be non-places, such as improvised shantytowns or the French banlieues, along with already identified, readily recognizable topoi. By examining the ways that certain kinds of social space come into being as places for interpretation, this sort of geocriticism offers intriguing opportunities for understanding how literary representation and spatiality interconnect.
In my own view, geocriticism would have to move beyond a geocentric method, returning to philological and historical approaches that might also include examinations of single authors, texts, genres, or periods, in order to address the protean spaces of literature. But it should also be clear that the aims of geocriticism are best served by decidedly comparative literary studies, since the spaces and their representation to be geocritically analyzed are also established in their tentative but recognizable shapes through the related effects of multiple artists, languages, and historical forms.
The relations between space and literature, mapping and writing, description and narration, are as complex and numerous as they are interesting. To attempt to know a place, one maps it, but one also reads it and narrates it. In Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan has noted that a given portion of space becomes a “place” once it occasions a pause, a resting of the eyes, which — however brief — transforms it into a subject for storytelling. As one’s eyes rest upon something long enough to distinguish it from within an undifferentiated sweep of scenery, the space-turned-place takes on meanings, the traditional bailiwick of “literary art” (161–62). And, one might add, vice-versa. That is, a literary work becomes infused with the places that it explores, places that make it what it is. In fiction, particularly visible in works employing a first-person narrator or a focalized point of view, the narrator maps the spaces of the narrative while also exploring them, often forcing the reader to project his or her own “map” of the text while attempting to follow the itinerary of the narrator through this space. (One thinks of Joseph Frank’s discussion of spatial form in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but also of the spatiotemporal ramblings of Benjy or Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.) As narratives move across borders, which by their very nature they inevitably do, those spaces and places become all the more significant. Geocriticism provides a flexible critical approach to the literary cartography produced in such writings, revealing how the transnational border-crossings of comparative literature actively determine those “real-and-imagined” spaces, to use Edward W. Soja’s expression from Thirdspace, that readers encounter and explore.
Comparative literature discloses the degree to which even familiar places are made strange in the process of reading or mapping them, and the multiple and diverse points of view taken into account by any comparative study will highlight the alterity inherent in literary representation, as well as in our comportment to the world itself. As Spivak writes, “[t]o be human is to be intended toward the other. We provide for ourselves transcendental figurations of what we think is the original of this animating gift: mother, nation, god, nature. These are names of alterity, some more radical than others” (73). Through literature, we encounter this alterity, incorporating its very strangeness into who we are, but also recognizing throughout the simultaneously alluring and unsettling otherness of the places and experiences depicted. Of course, all fiction, no matter how realistic, maintains the power of estrangement that can make possible alternative prospects. But comparative literature in an age of globalization has, as its raison d’être, a commitment to difference.
As a method of examining the shifting but distinctive spaces of literature, geocriticism also takes alterity as its Ansatzpunkt. Although geocriticism may certainly focus attention on this or that particular place, or on a recognizable type of place, geocriticism does not rely upon, or even admit as possible, any stable, unchanging geographic identity. On the contrary, a geocritical approach understands and demonstrates the degree to which a given “place” is formed through the interrelations of multiple forces and representations. The mythic stability or static identity of a particular city, region, nation, or continent is belied by the diverse literary representations of such apparently identifiable geographical ensembles. Spatially-oriented approaches to comparative literature can open up new vistas, establish different vantages, and disclose alternative prospects for mapping the real-and-imagined spaces of the world in which we live. The prospects of comparative literature are, in an almost literal sense, fantastic.
Which brings me at last to my title, which I take from the final words of J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous essay on Beowulf, although I mean to use the phrase in a rather perverse manner. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien eloquently argues for the cultural significance of the medieval epic and urges readers, which he clearly imagines as strictly English readers, to see themselves in it. Unlike Greek epics or romance lays, he argues, Beowulf belongs to “our” northern heritage. Speaking to Englishmen alone, of course, Tolkien insists that the epic is part of “us”:
There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its tradition, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal — until the dragon comes. (33–4)
Tolkien was adamantly oposed to nearly all forms of cosmopolitanism, but here he unintentionally reveals the power of literature’s radical alterity to disrupt the somewhat nationalist, rather culturally isolated, and identitarian perspective the philologist tended to embrace. Not that this is Tolkien’s point, but the moment of estrangement — when the dragon comes — is what makes the literary text so valuable, and not the many moments of seeming familiarity or purported kinship. The power of literature resides in its defamiliarizing effects, in that productive alienation that makes us begin to question our own former certainties, or in the exploration of spaces hitherto unknown, spaces which we had thought homely, but which turn out to be profoundly foreign and suddenly novel.
The dragon is perhaps the very avatar of radical alterity, the creature that Tolkien saw as paradigmatically “otherworldly” (“On Fairy-Stories” 135) and Fredric Jameson identified as itself almost a differentia specifica between fantasy and science fiction (63–4). Where the dragon appears, one is irremediably in another world. And yet, in the apprehension or even just the glimpse of the fantastic otherworld, the reader encounters the spaces of the so-called real world afresh, seeing them quite differently. Leaving the genre or mode of fantasy, one recognizes that the places of one’s own homey and familiar world are transformed through the literary cartographies intended to make sense of them. The productive alterity of comparative literature makes possible hitherto undisclosed prospects, and with a geocriticism attuned to the places unexpectedly rendered visible by this experience, literary critics can begin to sketch new maps.
Frank, Joseph. The Idea of Spatial Form. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005. Print.
Prieto, Eric. Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.
Tally, Robert T., Jr. Spatiality. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 5–48. Print.
---. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 109–61. Print.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Print.
Westphal, Bertrand. Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces. Trans. Robert T. Tally Jr. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. He is the author of Poe and the Subversion of American Literature; Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom); Utopia in the Age of Globalization; Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel; Melville, Mapping and Globalization; and the forthcoming Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism. The translator of Bertrand Westphal’s Geocriticism, Tally is the editor of Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies and Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights, and he serves as the general editor of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies.