- Bending the Bars of the Meridian Cage
Éditions de Minuit
272 Pages; Print, $21.00
Theoretical provocations abound in this latest work from the French founder of geocriticism. Bertrand Westphal weaves a postcolonial, geocritical argument couched in a comparative literature approach. In a stylistic shift from the author’s previous works, here, Westphal directly addresses readers, using the familiar second person pronoun “tu,” over the formal “vous,” in the French edition. This narrative strategy creates interplay between broader questions of spatial analysis and focused, contextualized, personal reflection. Additional informal vocabulary establishes a confidential relationship between the narrator and the reader. In this way, Westphal challenges readers to consider alternatives to the predominant Eurocentric approach to literature and cartographic representations.
As Westphal’s other works, this one takes the reader on a journey. Crossing the metaphor of the Meridian Cage, the collection revisits La Fontaine, and the titles of the five chapters nod to well-known fables: The Mole, The Dragon, The Lion, The Loon, and The Squirrel. The first four chapters are thematic theoretical arguments of about 65 to 75 pages each; the last chapter, subtitled “a moral,” is significantly shorter, offering suggestions and solutions for reworking representations of the world in more open and fluid, even utopian, terms.
The opening chapter calls upon the humble mole to engage immediately the timely debate of defining what is European. Through the allegory of the Kafkian mole’s labyrinth-like burrow, Westphal explores the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of the space that lies beyond the known border. The discussion passes from moles to immigrants, with the topic of “Rough Walls” challenging the establishment of European borders, as some European Union countries (Bulgaria, Romania) remain excluded from the Schengen Area. Readers are reminded that, despite these strict limits, space can be opened up through topology, and Westphal cites the Mobius strip as an example of alternating interior and exterior spaces within the same boundary. A common boundary that must be addressed is that of “The West vs. The Rest”—readers should imagine how the center of literary attention could be shifted to include other, non-European, literary production. An anecdote about finding a copy of Appleton’s Standard Elementary Geography (1880) in a second-hand bookstore in Savannah, Georgia, is used to push the acceptance of the established “four conditions of society,” which include the civilized, barbarians, savages, and the semi-civilized. This nineteenth-century colonial approach demonstrates the lingering attitude that has led to underestimating the literary traditions of non-Western, non-core countries. The language barrier often prohibits this literature from being acknowledged, and a discussion of translating world literature follows in the third chapter. Even when words are in the same language, a change in pronunciation can be a problem: the Biblical lesson of the shibboleth is applied to link together a series of literary and artistic critiques of borders and dividing edifices. The final sections of the chapter are dedicated to defining Europe and understanding from where Europe has come and to where it is going in a post-human perspective. In the aura of the recent BREXIT vote, the questions evoked in this chapter could not be more relevant, and Westphal’s analysis demonstrates how literature and the arts have a role in working through such geopolitical interrogations.
The Dragon is the totem of the second chapter, which boldly undertakes the question of the “dead white males” literary canon. In the post-World War II context, literary criticism had to find a way to reframe literary works outside of the pre-existing, now bloodstained, hierarchy. This was a first move to bypass the canon. Forty years later, the canon reappeared, but not without receiving criticism for its lack of diversity, to which Harold Bloom’s list of 26 works bore incriminating testimony. As Westphal retraces the evolution of the Occidental cannon, he points to one explanation for its limited character: the canon relies on written texts, excluding oral...