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Crossing the Beach at Taipivai: The Psychogeography of Islands
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'· /νιξ "AsweslowlyadvanceduptheBay." IllustrationbyH.MooreforHermanMelville, Typee : Life in the South Seas (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1902), 11. Crossing the Beach at Taipivai: The Psychogeography of Islands VANESSA SMITH In the opening chapter of his 199° monograph Marquesan Societies , Nicholas Thomas took issue with the ways that culture appeared to have been mapped onto nature in European writing on the Marquesas. "At this point a persisting image of Marquesan life should be mentioned and disposed of," Thomas wrote: The effects of geographical conditions have been seen by some anthropological and travel writers as crucial. Specifically, the mountainous topography, and particularly the perceived isolation of valleys and their populations, have been linked with the lack of supralocal or centralized chiefly authority of the type encountered in Tahiti or Hawaii. . . . The key issue is of the facility, or possibility, of movement between valleys, which was certainly more difficult than on islands such as Tahiti, where one could easily walk around strips of flat coastal land. But, while movement in the Marquesas was difficult because it was and is often necessary to climb 700 metres or more over ridges to cross from one valley to another, intercourse has never been impossible. ... It is understandable that European visitors should see the ESQ \V.51\ 1ST-3RD QUARTERS | 2005 205 VANESSA SMITH terrain as a spectacle, rather than a landscape for use, and that their attention should be captured by precipices and peaks. But of course the inhabitants of the islands always walked around, rather than over, these features, and the impression of ruggedness is thus misleading .1 Thomas dismisses the notion of a relationship between a rugged topography and a divided culture as extraneous: the discursive imposition of sublime-oriented visitors with no investment in the uses or the trajectories to which local people had subjected the terrain. His comments incorporate an argument about the relative values of use and exchange, eliding use with a concept of local practice, and exchange with fabulation : the drama of spectacle and its recounting in narrative. I want to take issue with this desire to dispose of the question of landscape at the outset. Despite his clear intentions otherwise, Thomas reinforces a distinction between European culture as comparativist, aestheticist, and psychologically nuanced and an island culture that is simply practice : culture in its immediate etymological sense of cultivation. If outsiders, overwhelmed by the visual, produce a sublime misreading of the landscape, locals, with their heads down on well-worn pathways , produce no synthesis, only routinized activities that inscribe familiar trajectories with quotidian certainty. Yet European texts of Marquesan encounter do not simply figure the polarized perspectives of visitors who see and natives who do. Melville's Typee and the texts upon which he draws are all clear cases in point. In Typee, the two protagonists' encounter with strenuous terrain on foot threatens to overwhelm narrative, to become the substance of narrative itself. The evidence that Robert Suggs assembles in his essay here might be adduced to refute Thomas's claim that the inhabitants of Nuku Hiva always walked "around, rather than over," the island's peaks. Although the broader literature does seem to suggest a drive toward traversal in European writing on Nuku Hiva, this can be explained without recourse to an aestheticist urge for sublime perspective. 206 CROSSING THE BEACH AT TAIPIVAI As Suggs's topographically sensitive argument makes clear, no simple set of oppositions between visitor and native will enable us to map the routes and terrains of Nuku Hiva. Rather, only a rigorous assessment of historical contexts, man-made and natural structures, and oral as well as literate traditions can begin to disclose the gaps between the events of Melville's life and the incidents of his fiction. I seek to make a brief addition to Suggs's analysis by drawing attention to another factor in the literature on Nuku Hiva: one poised somewhere between history and discourse, between map and metaphor. I have adopted the term psychogeography, with some license, to describe this approach. According to Guy-Ernest Debord, "Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of...