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  • Dysplacement and Southern History
  • Barbara J. Fields (bio)

Toward the beginning of his extraordinary book, a boeing 747 pilot (and former historian-in-training) introduces the term place lag, a counterpart to jet lag. Pilots rarely experience jet lag, Mark Vanhoenacker maintains, because they keep their watches and cell phones, as well as their schedules of eating and sleeping, attuned to the home time zone. They experience place lag regularly. If place lag were a term in common use, he reflects, “the next time I walked down a street in Tokyo and a van blaring political announcements for a municipal election went past, or I stood in a food market in São Paulo and saw a dozen fruits I did not know how to name or eat, or the skies opened in Lagos and I saw rain the likes of which I would never see in Massachusetts, I could blink and say to my companion, who would nod and smile in recognition: ‘I have place lag.’” In what must count as heresy for an airline pilot, he suggests that some cities “should never be joined by a nonstop flight” because they are “so different in sensibility, culture, and history.”1

Vanhoenacker defines place lag as “the imaginative drag that results . . . from the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our airplanes.”2 Novelists and other fiction writers understand that deep old sense and the need of human beings for it. A story would be “unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else,” Eudora Welty insisted in her celebrated essay about place in fiction, even while she rejected the concept of “‘regional’ writing.” “The very notion of moving a novel brings ruder havoc to the mind and affections than would a century’s alteration in its time.” While it is a commonplace that the Mississippi River is a [End Page 7] main character in Huckleberry Finn, that does not mean that Mark Twain was a regional writer or a purveyor of local color. Twain would probably have agreed with Eudora Welty in dismissing regional as an outsider’s careless and condescending term.3 William Faulkner once remarked, “I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me”—a startling claim, on the surface. What he meant was that what is important in human history, being universal, may be written about any place. But, in order to write about any other place, he would need to know that other place—its people, its landscape, its history—as well as he knew the South, since he did not “have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time.”4

Not long after I read Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, I learned from my sister that the French language has a word—dépaysement—for place lag. John Crowe Ransom could have been speaking of place lag when he identified nostalgia as “the complaint of human nature . . . when it is plucked up by the roots from the place of its origin and transplanted in foreign soil, or even left dangling in the air.” But he was speaking of something beyond place lag when he attributed to the voice of progress the advice, “Do not allow yourself to feel homesick; form no such powerful attachments that you will feel a pain in cutting them loose; prepare your spirit to be always on the move.”5 He was speaking (though without using the term) of dysplacement, the subject of the present meditation.

Place lag or dépaysement is an individual sense of disorientation at being removed from familiar or home country. Dysplacement—the prefix signifies “faulty,” “difficult,” “abnormal,” or “bad,” as in dyspepsia, dyslexia, or dystopia—is the destruction of place itself: the loss of a sense of identification with other persons through a shared connection to a geographical place. When dysplacement sets in, “[t]he conception of a place lodged in time and space, in which people share many of the same things, remember the same things,” loses purchase, [End Page 8] leaving in its wake a “country of exiles,” in William...


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pp. 7-26
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