- Geography, Geocriticism, and Geopoetics
280 Pages; Print, $24.00
Michel Collot’s Pour une géographie littéraire opens with a suggestion that readers are still more familiar with the notion of literary history than with that of literary geography. Citing a rise in the latter, mostly recent but traceable to roots in the early twentieth century, it goes on to lay out literary geography’s three strains. Geographic approaches study the spatial context in which literary works are produced. Collot links these with linguistic referents, as being concerned with literature’s connections with real places. Geocritical approaches analyze a space’s representations and significations in literature itself, and are concerned with the linguistic signified and with the construction of imaginary universes or landscapes. Finally, geopoetical approaches concentrate on the connections between literary creation and space, and on the way the form of literary works is inspired by the very spaces they describe. Geopoetics concerns itself with the signifying and with a text’s own spatiality. Collot’s work sets itself the task of differentiating the three, but also underlines how and why they are necessarily complimentary.
Collot begins by broadly sketching how we’ve arrived at the post-“spatial turn” following the late 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, but also cannot resist, in one of the volume’s most interesting chapters, an examination of earlier precursors to our own era, from Medieval authors to the “geographic determinists” of the nineteenth century. Collot traces geographic determinism, the idea that places have their own “spirits,” back to Montesquieu and Madame de Staël, but finds its zenith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He then follows the literary regionalism of Jean Charles-Brun, George Sand and Frédéric Mistral, and traces Albert Thibaudet’s and André Ferré’s “literary geography” of the 1920s-1940s. These names may not be familiar to those working outside French literature, but their Anglophone analogues will come easily to readers’s imaginations: Frederick Jackson Turner, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner or Eudora Welty. His focus is [End Page 8] less on the late twentieth-century’s “spatial counterattack” than on the centuries-long, continuous evolution of our notions of literary space.
Collot suggests the spirit of place (génie de lieu) has less to do with a place’s own inherent qualities or those projected onto it, than with its “confrontations” or juxtapositioning with other places. It’s no surprise then that while Bertrand Westphal’s geocriticism emphasizes transgressions of epistemological frontiers or borders, Collot’s geopoetics focuses instead on the relativism of entrenched oppositions. Here, transgression or overlapping carries less weight than contrast.
Moving on to “geographic approaches,” Collot relies heavily on glosses of Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and Barbara Piatti, but also touches on some of the inherent problems comparative literature and world literature have faced in representing a “spatialized history” or “temporal geography.” He hesitates to charge world literature as the academic counterpart to a world economic market. While vaguely troubled by possible links between globalizing economies and globalizing literary studies, he sees geographic approaches instead as a means of resisting literary homogenization and of preserving cultural diversity. In short, a contemporary France (indeed a contemporary Europe or America) uneasy at the adverse effects of globalization, should embrace geographic approaches as remedies, not symptoms.
Turning to geocritical approaches, Pour une géographie littéraire patiently lauds Westphal’s approach to literature, while doing an excellent job of contextualizing it within literary studies. While Westphal jumps eagerly from Plato, Aristotle or St. Augustine to the postmodern of Brian McHale, Collot does a good bit of work to fill in middle ground Westphal treats with more general gestures: the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with particular attention to non-narrative literature. A poetry specialist at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, he is also not averse to tackling Montesquieu or post-Napoleonic travel writing. Westphal’s geocriticism, he writes, moves “from the author to the place and not from the place toward the author.” While comparative imagology may...