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Mapping Literature

Anders Engberg-Pedersen writes about what influenced him to begin working on Literature and Cartography: Theories, Histories, Genres, a collection of essays on the relationship of texts and maps, and the mappability of literature, examined from Homer to Houellebecq. 

This book began deep in the bowels of the Berlin State Library. This was before the old Stabi, as it is usually known, was renovated, and students and professors had to circumnavigate the buckets that had been strategically placed by caring librarians to catch the droplets of water that fell some 20-25 feet from the leaking roof in the otherwise impressive hallway. Already before I made my way up the stairs to the military maps in the cartography section, I was reminded of how WWII had left such long-lasting scars on the urban topography of Berlin.

The Pisan Chart (1290), the oldest known nautical map, depicts the coasts and ports along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. A successor to the periplous, it served as a navigational tool.At the time I was working on my dissertation—an intellectual history of war and chance during the Napoleonic Wars. Obsessed with the map as a strategic tool of war, Napoleon’s efforts at procuring ever more maps of Europe had spurred the other leading European nations to develop their own cartographic weapons of war. And the Berlin State Library holds a large collection of the Prussian military maps of the period.

One map in particular had piqued my interest. Or, I should say, a collection of map fragments. A librarian I had met at a conference led me to an uncatalogued folder that contained 86 fragile maps lying helter-skelter in seeming random order. It turned out to be topographical sketches that had been drawn hastily on the spot, sometimes at night, sometimes under enemy fire, by topographical engineers during Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1812. Many of them were smaller than my palm, torn at the edges, the locations of roads and bridges clearly approximations only. Yet at the time, these seemingly worthless scraps of paper meant everything. In the surrounding darkness of the vast expanses of Russia these sketches constituted tiny rays of light that gave them some kind of answer to the pressing question: where in the world are we?

I had just been reading Stendhal’s famous depiction of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. Like the topographers advancing on Moscow, Fabrice, Stendhal’s inebriated hero, has great difficulty orienting himself in the space of war. He cannot distinguish friend from foe, he lacks an overview of the battlefield, and often the thick smoke prevents him from seeing anything at all. Adopting Fabrice’s point of view and following his random movements across the battlefield, Stendhal’s narrative traces a fragmented and dizzying topography.

The similarities between the sketches in the Berlin library and Stendhal’s literary representation of war were fascinating, but they also raised a number of general questions: how do literary space and cartographic projections compare? How have fictional texts dealt with the strategic, epistemological, and ideological functions of maps? How do words and images interact in texts and on maps? How do we mentally map the space of a novel? And might literature in a fundamental way be unmappable?

A digital mapping of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “Tender is the Night” (1934), including settings (in orange) and projected places (in violet). The bigger the label and the symbol the more important is the setting or the projected space. © Barbara Piatti/Anne-Kathrin Weber-Reuschel.In the past decades a number scholars have begun asking similar questions. They have done so in a number of insightful articles, special issues, monographs, and at various conferences around the globe. Yet, there wasn’t a common point of reference that might provide us with a more systematic overview of the field. And thus, among the sketches and buckets in the old Stabi, the idea for Literature and Cartography: Theories, Histories, Genres was born.

It is perhaps no surprise that cartography has come to fascinate scholars of literature in recent years. Today the confluence of globalization and digitization has enabled the rise of a cartographic culture in which maps of all sorts pervade our everyday lives: geographical maps of our immediate surroundings, polling maps, political maps, military maps of distant conflicts, or thematic maps of illnesses, crime, and real estate. Reaching into our pocket we have available at our fingertips a large and varied atlas of all sorts of phenomena. And without knowing it we ourselves generate maps and become maps when the data of our travels, purchases, and work habits are collected and visualized via GIS on the very maps that are then presented to our view. Or, precisely, are kept out of sight.

Against that background authors and scholars have begun to examine the map as an epistemological, political, and aesthetic object. In recent years widely read authors such as Judith Schalansky, Daniel Kehlmann, and Michel Houellebecq have dealt explicitly with the map as a central literary motif, and among literary scholars there is great interest in cartography also within the Digital Humanities. Collaborating with tech-savvy computer scientists, literary scholars make use of digital maps as a tool to gain new insights into the geography, plot structure, and genre developments of literature.

Of course, the connections between literature and cartography have a much deeper history. The book therefore includes a series of key historical moments. The literary space, for example, that Odysseus’ fictional travels outline in Homer’s great epic, has been traced back to Phoenician sailing manuals, so-called periploi. They served first and foremost as navigational tools, but they also became an archive of potential travels and narratives. Thus, the Odyssey emerged as an imaginary development of an ancient geographical document. Conversely, texts have served as the basis for the production of cartographic material. In the Renaissance, topographical maps had become more accurate, but cartographic dreams often outstripped the mapmakers’ knowledge and technical expertise. In the absence of solid geographical facts, they would rely on a large cartographical archive that included travel accounts and fictional tales when making their maps.

The map of the meandering plot in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.Such mutual support is no guarantee, however. Literature and cartography often challenge and interfere with each other. Their family resemblances are not always those between brother and sister but between estrangedRobert Louis Stevenson’s map of Treasure Island. Several years after his novel appeared, Stevenson famously described the role of the map in the creation of the text: “as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.” cousins. When Laurence Sterne, for example, in his famous novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has his protagonist draw a map of the digressive course of the plot in the first four volumes, his cartographic satire puts on display the incongruity between the singularity of an unforeseeable narrative’s chaotic movements and the abstract, static order of conventional cartography. And this incongruity raises a number of questions. For what makes Sterne’s plot map a map? The authority of the signature? The fact that the narrator insists that it is a map? And what do the axes indicate? Geographical or emotional movements, or both? How does the plot of the novel deviate from its cartographic representation? Or is it simply impossible to visualize plot meaningfully in two dimensions as Sterne’s satire seems to suggest? A hundred years later, Robert Louis Stevenson famously developed the narrative of Treasure Island from a map, but Herman Melville in Moby-Dick claimed that the home of Queequeg, the imaginary island of Rokovoko, was not down on any map because, as he insisted, ”true places never are.”

As the book shows, literary texts from Homer to Houellebecq productively engage these tensions between literature and cartography. Not only do they include fascinating maps of all sorts, they also reflect on these maps and examine carefully how they represent the world, what they include, what they at pains to leave out, along with the various scientific, religious, colonial, military, and philosophical contexts in which they are put to use. I wish I could have included many other themes, topics, and genres, but just as a map must have a border so a text must have an end. I hope you will enjoy immersing yourself in the maps and texts and losing yourself in their cartographic imaginaries, but also that you will emerge slightly less discombobulated than Fabrice on the battlefield of Waterloo.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.