Maps are Stories; Stories are Maps


Utopia, Thomas More, 1516

by Ed Simon

The sixteenth-century humanist polymath and martyr Thomas More’s neologism “Utopia” literally translates to “No Place,” and yet the author had a detailed and concrete conception of the invented kingdom which bore that name. From the earliest edition in 1516, More commissioned engravings of his fictional island which later became shorthand for all manner of imaginary and attempted perfect societies. The 1518 edition featured an ornate woodcut of Utopia, prepared by Hans Holbein’s less-famous brother Ambrosius, and printed not in Utopia but in Basel, Switzerland. As with the cruder version, by the same artist, which accompanied the earlier edition, Holbein depicts Utopia as a crescent-moon shaped island; a bay of around eleven miles separating the two points of the land mass, which measures around a modest two-hundred miles from its farthest points. As is the standard of sixteenth-century cartographers from Mercator to Abraham Ortellius (who would also make a map of Utopia one day), Holbein added a cornucopia of ornamentation with his map of More’s island, including descriptive cartouches, a depiction of a massive ship, and drawings of its central characters – a possibly nonsense-speaking sailor named Raphael Hytholday, and More himself. And though there is no real island of Utopia, Holbein presents geographic details as though such a map would be necessary for any explorer who finds himself in a country to which one may never travel. The mighty Anydri River is sourced from a waterfall and flows south to the harbor, bisecting the magnificent capital city of Amaurotum. Despite the description of Utopia as being half-way to the recently discovered New World, Holbein depicts the polities of the island with cross-crowned steeples and medieval turrets. Cathedrals, castles, and galloons aren’t the only evocations of Europe in this imagined community, critics since the year of Utopia’s publication have noted a similarity to another imagined community of a different type; Utopia shares the same number of fifty-four administrative districts with a more familiar place called England. Utopia may mean “no place,” and yet a vocabulary of place is crucial if one is to make any sense of such an enigmatic work. As it turns out a vocabulary of place and space might be crucial if one wishes to interpret any literary work.

Utopia provides us an opportunity to think about the complex relationships between literature and space (the real, the imagined, and the in between). Something about More’s map (and the imaginary Utopian alphabet he includes alongside it) is charming in its nerdy, affected world-building. Certainly literature long before More’s Renaissance moment had used geography, spatiality, and a sense of place as central thematic concerns, but More’s map inaugurates a whole new literary relationship to spatiality. More wrote at a moment when the very idea of space itself was undergoing a revolution across geographic lines in the discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci, cosmological ones with the thought of Copernicus, and spiritually with shifting conceptions of sacred space inaugurated by Luther’s Protestant Reformation. Writing about that time period, scholar Tom Conley explained how maps radically altered peoples’ perception, explaining that “At the beginning of the fifteenth century, maps were practically non-existent, whereas only two centuries later they were the bedrock of most professions and disciplines.” Moore’s map of Utopia is neither hoax nor inaccurate account, but rather a full-throated example of spatial fictionality; one which has often been utilized by later authors to provide a particular texture of verisimilitude to their creations. Think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s doodle of Treasure Island, which inspired his own 1883 novel of the same name, or in the twentieth-century of William Faulkner’s sketches of Yoknapatawpha County, or H.P. Lovecraft’s complex geography for Arkham, Massachusetts, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s detailed maps of Middle Earth. Maps such as these, which often serve as prefatory paratext in some printings of their work, are as novels in miniature, and More was the grandfather of them all.

Literary critic Robert Tally writes that “Like the mapmaker, the writer must survey territory, determining which features of a given landscape to include, to emphasize, or to diminish; for example, some shadings may need to be darker than others, some lines bolder, and so on.” As a novel conveys its meaning through the relationship of character to narrative to rhetoric and so on, a map can also tell a story in the relationship of individual places to each other. It’s this cartographic impulse that led James Joyce to explain that “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Whether the places in novels (or maps) are real or not, spatiality is always in some sense invented, constructed, and imagined, in maps or in novels. Writer Peter Turchi succinctly made the comparison that, “To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’” Marilyn Robinson’s Iowa, Toni Morrison’s Ohio, Phillip Roth’s Newark, Salman Rushdie’s Bombay, and Alice Munro’s Canada may have their own “real world” corollaries with the actual Iowa, Ohio, Newark, Bombay, and Canada, but in another sense they are just as imagined and fantastic as Middle Earth. What Robinson’s Gilead and Tolkien’s Shire share is sense of the importance of geography. That is, both of them ask us to quarry how we orient and direct ourselves in abstract space, and in the process produce concrete places – and what role those places have in the construction of narrative. In this understanding space is itself a type of story and it is the role of the spatial critic to ask those particular questions. These particular questions acknowledge Edward Said’s observation that “none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.”

Those very sorts of questions – that is the role that spatiality and geography play in their relationship to humanistic discourses – is one that has been asked in a veritable theoretical revolution over the past generation of scholarship, or as the geographer Edward Soja, one of the movements luminaries, explained there has been a “reassertion of space in critical social theory.” Broadly different though interrelated movements, such as spatial theory, geocriticism, and humanistic geography have prioritized space over time as one of the central organizing aspects of human experience. Tally provides an overview of the movement, writing about the emergence of “an increasingly spatial or geographical vocabulary in critical texts, with various forms of mapping or cartography being used to survey literary terrains, to plot narrative trajectories, to locate and explore sites, and to protect imaginary coordinates.” Like many academic revolutions the so-called “turn to space” mostly occurs outside of the public’s awareness, sequestered away in peer-reviewed journals and university departments. And also like many scholarly revolutions the brief popularized synopsis of what its influence and implications are can sound superficially obvious to those not familiar with its innovations. Of course space is important, who would think otherwise? And yet what the “turn to space” has accomplished should not be underestimated, for what spatial theory has offered the last generation of scholars is a veritable “Copernican Revolution of the Humanities,” which has aided theorists and writers in viewing cultural phenomena from novels to poetry to music to drama with an entirely different box of tools, ones that have been traditionally associated with the mapmaker rather than the literary critic. It is a revolution that has allowed scholars like Stanford English professor Franco Moretti in 1999 to produce not a history of Victorian novels, but rather an Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900. And what critics like Moretti, Tally, Bertrand Westphal and others have discovered is that when literature is removed from the confines of periodization and history, and is rather explored as a space and through space, entirely new and fascinating connections are found.

Though the spatial turn in the humanities has many different origins, the theorist and historian Michel Foucault in many ways provides a good summation of what is at stake, when at a 1967 lecture he said that “The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history… The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.” Foucault went on to explain how the experience of space in the modern world had greatly altered, due to everything from aeronautic to telecommunications technology, and indeed the shifting of how spatiality is experienced has only increased over the past five decades. In his lecture, Foucault theorizes how a true accounting of not just the contemporary world, but indeed all of human culture, must shift from the privileging of time and historicity alone to one which takes into account the myriad ways space exists. Indeed the theorist Frederic Jameson concurred, when he wrote that “Our daily life, our psychic experiences, our cultural languages, are dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time.” We have, in our world of instantaneous communication, twenty-four hour news, chain restaurants and airport terminals, become a culture that experiences space in a very different way from how we did in the past. And yet an acknowledgment of spatiality’s increasing prominence in the modern world necessarily implies that categories of space are useful to interpreting anything within the broad parameters of human culture, the central insight of the new spatially inflected criticism. From humanistic geography, to geocriticism, spatial theory and so on, lay one central understanding – that space as culturally mediated requires its own terminology separate (though related) to “objective” measurements of space. A summation could be made in John Brian Harley’s claim that “While the map is never the reality, in such ways it helps us to create a different reality.”

The history of the geographic humanities has many precedents, from the writings of some of the Prague School Russian Formalist critics of the 1920’s like Mikhail Bakhtin, to the emergence of humanistic geography as practiced by scholars like David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Edward Soja, and Yi-Fu Tuan. To this list could be added a veritable syllabus of thinkers across a wide variety of disciplines, including the philosophers Michel de Certeau and Gaston Blanchard who in the 1960’s initiated the abstract theorization of both public and private spaces, as well as philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and feminist geographers like Barbara Piatti, Gillian Rose and Massey, who have been instrumental in conceptualizing social space as a gendered concept. Add to this the already mentioned critics such as Jameson, Said, Moretti, Tally, Westphal and so on, and you begin to gain a sense of the scope and breadth of this ongoing revolution in the humanities. Arguably central to all of them is the important distinction between “space” and “place,” two simple words often used interchangeably in everyday speech. In the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s formulation, places are the particular and specific points which exist within an abstract space. Places are carved out of spaces and the former have the texture of a concrete experience while the later is more of an intellectual concept which provides the raw material in the creation of place. For Tuan, “Place is security, space is freedom.” The task of the humanistic geographer is to understand how human experience creates places out of space, or as the early twentieth-century American novelist Willa Cather poetically put it, “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”

Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, Franco Moretti, Verso, 1999

But what does this actually look like in practice? With any movement as diverse and varied as this one, there are a variety of perspectives (not all of them necessarily congruent) in terms of exploring how geography, spatiality, literature, culture, and politics all interact. We can broadly (and imperfectly) think of two different tribes composing the spatial humanities – the positivists and the theorists. These are exceedingly inexact categories that blur into one another, but broadly I think of the first as being composed of those who draw strongly from the empirical tradition of geography as a social science, and integrate the (sometimes) quantitative methodology of cartographers to diagram literature and to map literature’s affects on the world. As a movement it is perhaps best embodied by Moretti. Theorists, on the other hand, borrow more from a phenomenological inflected form of critical theory which is used to interpret both the individual and the text’s experience and construction of space as a subjective phenomenon, and as a methodology it is perhaps exemplified by Henri Lefebvre, Gaston Bachelard and de Certeau.

As concerns the positivists, Moretti is an important example, though certainly not the only one. The sorts of questions that the positivists ask about the relationship of space to culture draw heavily from geography and the empirical social sciences. I’ve already mentioned Moretti’s groundbreaking Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, and the sort of research he pioneered in that monograph is reflected by the work done at Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel. Moretti is not just fascinated by the relationship of real and imagined spaces, that is actual physical geography and how it is represented in literature, but also the movement of books, pamphlets, periodicals and so on throughout geographic regions during distinct periods of history, and how diagramming that diffusion helps us to better conceptualize literary influence. This later project is related to a methodology which Moretti has cheekily termed “distant reading,” and which refers to the massive quantitative (and inevitably digital) analysis of thousands of different texts rather than the close reading of one exemplary text. Moretti has argued that by refocusing our attention towards the larger picture of how literature operates, as opposed to only giving our attention to a few aesthetically exemplary anomalies, we can better ascertain the “laws” of literary evolution. Central to this distant reading is a comprehension of how media and texts move throughout geographic regions. And finally, Moretti’s research borrows directly from the cartographer in the charting of individual literary texts in constructing graphs, diagrams, and maps based on spatial orientations within a given text, so as to better understand how space and place mark that text.

The positivist impulse is, in part, shared by the French literary critic Bertrand Westphal whose geocriticism is similarly interested in mapping the ways in which imagined spaces are engaged in a mutually reinforcing relationship with real spaces. Westphal writes that, “Unlike most literary approaches to space… geocriticism tends to favor a geocentered approach.” Indeed Westphal’s method of criticism will often begin with a particular place rather than a text, and radiate outward to all of the fictional texts which interact with it. In this way, a place such as New York City can be understood as the competing location for different literary visions, encompassing voices as varied as Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg and so on. What geocriticism interprets here is not necessarily any given literary text, but rather New York City itself, which is understood as an over-determined collection of competing literary, cinematic, and cultural texts. Tally, who is Westphal’s English language translator, explains that “just as literature may be a means of mapping the places represented in a given literary work, the places themselves are deeply imbued with a literary history that has been transformed and determined how that places will be ‘read’ or mapped.”

Places, particularly those which we have visited through book and film more than we have in life, are permeated with a  sort of spectral presence, haunted by their replicated images and representations. Italo Calvino, the Italian post-modernist writer, understood this well when he wrote that “Before being a city of the real world, Paris for me, as for millions of other people in every country, has been a city that I have imagined through books, a city that you appropriate when you read.” The Paris of Dumas and Baudelaire and Verlaine and Sartre are in some ways more real than the “Real” Paris. Certain locations naturally intersect with a wider variety of fictional texts than others, which by necessity can alter our experience of a given place. As with Moretti, Westphal is interested in assembling an array of texts in his comprehension of spatiality as it operates overall within a given location. For the savvy tourist, Times Square will call to mind Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy or any other number of thousand cultural associations, while the Perkins Restaurant in Bethlehem Pennsylvania will intersect with literature and culture substantially less. What Westphal’s methodology does is provide a means for understanding how the accumulated cultural connotations of a given location alter our interactions with both text and place.

A map of Arkham, Massachusetts, Joseph Morales, 2006

De Certeau, by contrast, is more interested in the individual experience of space and place – particularly of urban ones. As a continental philosopher, rather than as a critic or a geographer, de Certeau is in the rhetorical and poetic tradition of great investigators of modern urban experience, particularly Walter Benjamin with his Arcades Project and his interpretation of the poet Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, that is the perambulations of the pedestrian, the stroller, the walker, the loafer, the nomad, the migrant who makes his way through the great teeming metropolises of the modern world. De Certeau’s 1980 classic The Practice of Everyday Life charts the different ways of how our subjective worlds generate a psycho-geography of experienced place. He compares how “to be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp,” where one is a “solar Eye, looking down like a god” where the height makes one an “Icarus.” This view of Manhattan from 110 stories up is to be compared with that of the “ordinary practitioners of the city” who are the walkers, “Whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” Though the objective material facts of Manhattan – it’s length, width, miles of avenues and streets, and so on – are what they are – the experience of Manhattan depends on one’s subjective experience, so that the tourist on the observation deck feels like Aquinas’ God transcending all time and space, and the pedestrian traveling through her rectilinear streets experiences New York as a “long poem of walking.” The genius of de Certeau, and Blanchard, and others, is in observing how the textures of shared space depend so much on how that space is filtered through our experience.

What all advocates of the spatial humanities share, whether theorists, positivists, or the vast majority who borrow from both, is a sense of what the British novelist D.H. Lawrence called “the spirit of place.” In his under read 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, he wrote with quasi-mystical ardor that “Every continent has its own great spirit of place…Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like.” Don’t let the rhetoric of magical flim-flam obfuscate what is a crucial point, and one which Enlightenment Cartesianism ignores, with its undifferentiated abstract space as a simple tabula rasa upon which the action of narrative occurs, for “the spirit of place is a great reality.” Consider the anatomization of this spirit of place:

-Saul Bellow’s creation Augie March was famously an “American, Chicago born.” The titular hero of The Adventures of Augie March was of “that somber city” which Bellow had adopted in youth as his own. And as Augie is a creation of that city, so certainly is that novel a child of Chicago as well, with its long-blocks radiating east towards the coast of that massive lake with its tides, a flat, rectilinear place that Carl Sandburg celebrated as that “broad-shouldered city,” the stalwart grey American Midwestern metropolis with all of its beautifully ungraceful thick-necked obstinacy. Chicago is a city that takes forever to walk through, blocks in their imposing length borrowing a bit of the sublimity of those imposingly flat windswept prairies that were their once before – before Americans decided to transform space into place.

-Move seven-hundred-and-eleven miles to the east, and think of young Holden Caulfield who snuck back on a train through the marshes of Connecticut, and absconded a few illicit days in New York City. Think of J.D. Salinger’s evocations of seedy midcentury Gotham, the veritable archetype of what an American city looks and feels likes in all of its squalor and elegance, a city of electronic neon, of streets marked in glorious Cartesian regularity, a dense, dizzying concrete labyrinth only interrupted by the green fecundity of Central Park where Holden watches the merry go round and wonders where the ducks go when the lagoon freezes over. New York is a city defined by crowded landmarks – the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty – and by avenues so iconic and so overwhelmingly represented in popular culture that a map of the city strikes the willing and hungry émigré as birthright (even if said émigré is from Dubuque).

-Los Angeles, some two-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty-five miles to the west, is of course, like all places, defined by its space, but its definition is very different from New York’s. Most Americans, indeed most people, have a rough idea of New York’s geography, even if their map is largely fantasy. But Los Angeles with its mysterious valleys and its desert mountains is structured in a totally different way, not a crowded grid laid out upon that fresh, green breast of the New World that was that ancient Dutch island, but rather a messy, clogged, smoggy, hot, horizontal sprawl. If New York is a city that was built up, then Los Angeles is a city that was built out, and it’s reflected in its literature as surely as Chicago made March and Manhattan made Caulfield. March’s city was one of factories and hog butcheries, Caulfield’s one of Madison Avenue stateliness and Broadway marquees lights, and Raymond Chandler’s L.A. gives us hardboiled alcoholic detective Philip Marlowe thinking about “a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.” The sort of Los Angeles night where it’s so hot you can “even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

How can one deny Chicago, New York, Los Angeles their individual spirits of place? Think of stately federal Washington with her occult circles and low neo-classical buildings, all marble and late-afternoon shadow conducive to the espionage novel; or of confusing cow-pathed colonial Boston whose geography is shibboleth for the entrenched local; or the river-cut valleys and paper-street stairs snaking up mountains in Pittsburgh; or San Francisco’s vertical streets and cobble-stones and morning fog. The charts and grids of Cartesian spatiality may have it that space and place are simply coordinates in a system, but Lawrence’s “spirit of place” understands that older, perhaps pagan, wisdom – that locations are in some sense imbued with a collected detritus that makes them very much vital. Spatial humanities, in appropriating that which is useful from the social sciences, provides a vocabulary for reading space as fully as criticism interprets a text. Tally writes that “To draw a map is to tell a story, in many ways, and vice versa.” The spatial humanities provide us with maps to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Utopia (among others), which in their own way are equally real and fictitious places.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a specialist on the religion and literature of the seventeenth-century. A regular contributor to a number of sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.