Posts Tagged ‘Proust’

There are many books that recount the astonishing adventures of brave individuals in fabulous locations. I could not write one of those books. My adventures are not so astonishing. I am not so brave. But some of the places I have been are fabulous, and I have one thing in common with those brave authors: the urge to write something about where I have been and something about the adventures – however small they were – that I have had. No, I am not even Prufrock, let alone Prince Hamlet, but although I never saw those attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I did at least look into the night sky, and sometimes I remembered what I saw.

At least, I think I remembered what I saw. As time moves on, it is increasingly hard to be sure, and it is uncertainty that gives me confidence. Unlike the brave authors of those astonishing adventures I am only going to write about things that happened so long ago that they may as well have been forgotten by now, and if I remember them at all I will be forgiven for remembering them imprecisely.  And because these things happened so long ago, it is inevitable that they happened in places that no longer exist. Yes, Greenland is still there; Iceland, Ecuador, San Francisco, Oxford, Birmingham – they are all still on the map, of course. But what defines a place is not necessarily what you can see on a map. Marcel Proust wrote: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience”. Revisiting a road that he had known well many years before, and finding that the people he associated with it were no longer there Proust wrote: “The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered,”

Enough time has passed, and the cast of characters is sufficiently changed, that, even if you were to visit the site of one of my adventures, it would be gone, in every way but on the map.

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I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.

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When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.


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When I explain my approach to Geography I keep finding myself returning to a small set of quotations and examples that illustrate where I am coming from.

T.S.Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

from “Little Gidding”

I often say that this is the whole point of studying Geography. We explore, we learn about places, we discover new things about the world, we have experiences. And then we apply all of that experience to our own viewpoint, to what we see out of our own window. And by seeing our own place in the light of all these other things that we have discovered and explored, we can see it clearly, and know it properly, for the first time. How we understand the places with which we are familiar changes as we explore new places with which we can compare them.

But what does that exploration and discovery involve?

Marcel Proust wrote:

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe through the eyes of another, one hundred others – in seeing the hundred universes that each of them sees.

from “In Search of Lost Time”

The aim of Geography is to see more, and one way to see more is to see through different people’s eyes, to take on board their experiences, their attitudes, their viewpoints. Our aim as Geographers is to be able to see in the landscape the things that a variety of other different types of people see, and to absorb their perspectives into our own. Then, recalling Eliot, we can come back from all that exploring and better know our own place, and ourselves.

Rudyard Kipling wrote:

…what should they know of England who only England know?

from “The English Flag”

If we know only one thing, have only one opinion, see from only one point of view, how can we judge that? In class with my students I use a simple analogy to explain this point. I hold up my whiteboard marker pen: “Look at this fat pen. But how do I know to call it a fat pen if this is the only pen I’ve seen?” I take a regular biro from my pocket. “Ah, yes, that one was a fat pen.” Only when I have something to compare with can I make my evaluation. If I know only one thing, I can know nothing about it. What can I know of this pen, if this pen is the only pen I know?

So we can’t judge something without context; without comparison. We can’t evaluate our own view of the world without placing it in the context of other views. I can’t really know my own “place” until, with Eliot, I have explored others and returned. And, with Proust, my journey of discovery is an exploration not only of places, but of other points of view.

As a Geographer, then, as I set out to explore and discover (or, as we say nowadays, to “engage with”) the world around me, what is it exactly that I need to do? How do I do Total Geography? I’ll consider that in future “Total Geography” posts.

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“…getting to know Proust is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of the imagination in which one gradually feels at home…”
Richard Bales, Introduction, The Cambridge Companion to Marcel Proust.

Getting to know Physical Geography is not the acquisition of a bundle of facts, it is familiarity with a world of insight and appreciation in which one gradually feels at home. Learning Physical Geography is a bit like getting to know Proust. Or perhaps that’s just me. Richard Bales, in the chapter from which I took the quotation at the head of this post, goes on to say that getting to know Proust is “the growing realisation that humanity is subject to an enormous range of vicissitudes, but obedient also to recurrent laws. It is the recognition that life, drab though vast swathes of it may be, can be transfigured in rare moments of insight. It is above all the acknowledgement that what is humble and what is sublime cohabit in indissoluble symbiosis. For if there is just one lesson one retains from a reading of Proust it is that what seems trivial is often what is most significant and revelatory.” I need to think about this in the context of Physical Geography. Of course, getting to know anything is about becoming familiar with its world, not just about compiling the bundle of its facts. This isn’t just about Physical Geography. But it can be about Physical Geography, if Physical Geography is what you are getting to know. Subject to enormous variability but obedient to recurrent laws. The ordinary transfigured in moments of insight. The mundane and the extraordinary in indissoluble symbiosis. Yes, that’s Physical Geography. But isn’t it everything? And isn’t that the point?

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No, not that road

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Jack Kerouac here. Well, probably not much. I suppose it isn’t really a total coincidence that I called a new blog “On the road” while I had a new copy of Kerouac’s book lying around in the room, but equally there was no deliberate connection, no implication, no reference intended. I haven’t even read Kerouac yet, or at least not much of it, and from what I have read so far his road, except in the barest essentials that we all share, does not seem a lot like mine. I am wondering though, about how much of what we do is driven by things we don’t notice, and whether I would still have thought of this title for the blog if Kerouac hadn’t  crept through the corner of my eye into the corner of my subconscious? And would I be writing such long sentences if I wasn’t in the middle – or not yet even the middle but only somewhere, deep in a subordinate subclause, from where the middle is still several volumes away – of reading Proust? I am also wondering, now I’ve brought it up, about how far any of our roads are really different from anybody else’s. There are a lot of different journeys underway on the M6 tonight. It isn’t necessarily the road that defines the journey.

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