Bringing Dante to the Beach

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Bertrand Westphal, The Plausible World: A Geocritical Approach to Space, Place, and Maps,  Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Bertrand Westphal, Le monde plausible : Espace, lieu, carte, Les Editions de Minuit, 2011.

A modern composer wrote an opera titled Einstein on the Beach. Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, published Kafka on the Shore, in 2002. The modern philosopher also goes to the beach, walks on the seashore, and wonders. Is there something beyond the horizon? How can one respond to its call, to its promise? According to Bertrand Westphal, these questions are thoroughly modern. They mark the West’s entry into modernity, which he sees as the beginning of a catastrophe of immense proportions. In his reconstruction of the Western gaze from the seashore, the horizon begets dreams of cupidity, and cupidity begets the violence of conquests. « From the moment one started to consider the fabulous horizon seen from a beach, one began to turn a page in the great book of the history of mentalities. » The view of the horizon as seen from a beach has a different effect on the postmodern philosopher. It evokes literary texts, theoretical considerations, and intertextuality. The call of the open sea prompted the author to come back to a task he had left unfinished and to offer a second book of geocriticism, a method of literary analysis that takes the study of geographic space as its core practice.

A book of geocriticism

What is geocriticism? And what brings the literary critic to the beach? The answer to that second question is easy. Upon completing his previous book, Bertrand Westphal thought he had said all he had to say about space and its literary uses. He then responded to an invitation to spend a six-month sabbatical at the University of Valencia, one of Spain’s oldest universities, conveniently located on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula, with some of Europe’s most beautiful sandy beaches. Being an academic and a literary critic, Westphal didn’t only work on his suntan. He brought Dante to the beach, and meditated on the Supreme Poet’s consideration of seashores and horizon lines. He also visited medieval cathedrals and Roman villas, scrutinized Portulan charts and other navigational maps kept in university libraries, and read or reread texts ancient and modern. He then concluded he had enough material for a new book, and this is how The Plausible World was conceived.

But this is a book of literary criticism, not of balneal metaphysics. Geocriticism is based on three theoretical concepts: spatio-temporality, referentiality, and transgressivity. The idea that space and time form a continuum (space-time) is a tenet of modern physics. In the field of literary theory, geocriticism is an interdisciplinary method of literary analysis that focuses not only on such temporal data as relations between the life and times of the author (as in biographical criticism), the history of the text (as in textual criticism), or the story (as studied by narratology), but also on spatial data. The text refers to a geographical space that can be found in reality, but also in the realm of the imaginary. Indeed, the distinction between real and imaginary space is not clear-cut, and a locality transposed into literature (such as Italo Svevo’s Trieste, or Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon) irrevocably marks our perception of reality with a literary component. Lastly, Westphal affirms the transgressive nature of geocriticism by drawing on postmodern authors (Deleuze and Guattari, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben) and by referring to texts and events outside the Western canon.


As Westphal reminds us, maps were not always oriented toward the north. The medieval « T-O » maps had two rivers forming a T separating three continents disposed in a circle, with the Orient as the upper half-circle and Jerusalem in the middle. The Tabula Peutingeriana, drawn in the fourth century, described the Roman Empire as projected on a scroll and insisted on roads and toponymy. Such maps were meant to be read aloud and memorized, not just looked at and referred to. The Chinese pictured the world as a square or a rectangle, not a circle. Arab mapmakers such as al-Idrissi, author of a 1154 world map, would put the south on top and the Mecca at the center. It is only in the eighteenth century that the northern orientation of world maps was definitively confirmed. And only in recent decades did modern world maps based on new projection techniques replace the Mercator projection, in which Greenland was larger than Africa, Scandinavia as big as the Indian subcontinent, and with Europe and North America forming the dominant land mass.

Cultural analysis of geography often refers to the « Omphalos syndrome », the propensity of peoples and nations to put themselves at the center of the known world. This syndrome manifests itself both in the drawing of maps, with the North on top and the dominant polity at the center, and in the planning of cities, where a central milestone often imitates the Omphalos that the Greeks put near the Oracle in Delphi and that they saw as the center of the world. Geography is a political science, and maps reflect a worldview or philosophy as much as actual knowledge and scientific imaging. Westphal tracks the utterances of the Omphalos in Greek mythology and history, highlighting the fact that the world’s umbilicus is often slightly decentered from its central position in ancient texts, from Homer to Plutarch. In modern maps as well, there is always a blurring of fixed boundaries and stable meanings. Maps are texts, and as Derrida has taught us, texts are fraught with ambiguities and contradictions. Like in deconstruction, there is always a margin for interpretation. One cannot settle an argument with maps; if anything, drawing maps generates new claims and rivalries.

Greek myths

Very often, geographical knowledge did not originate in travels and observation, but in myth and religion. Our geography is still steeped in Greek myths. Heroes of Greek mythology gave their names to continents (Europe, Asia, Oceania), to oceans (the Atlantic) or to vast landmasses (Amazonia). The Argonauts’ travels, or Ulysses’ odyssey, have shaped our sense of space and our expectation of an unknown world lying beyond the horizon. Before explorers pushed the boundaries of the known world to its limits, it was not the geographical position of a location that would determine its place on the map, but its importance and meaning in biblical or classical texts. Some cities, like Babylon, were put haphazardly on the map because their existence had been recorded in the Scriptures. Other places were pure fictions, like the fantastic chimeras and imaginary beasts that adorned the margins of ancient maps: land and cities without mooring or attachment, that nevertheless survived as floating signifiers on various parts of the geographical imagination.

Such was the island of Tabropane that was rumored since Alexander’s conquests to lie south of the Indian subcontinent and that mapmakers situated in various locations before the island of Ceylon, or modern Sri Lanka, was actually located. It was a place that existed only in literature. For Petrarch, Tabropane was the name of an ideal polity where the king was chosen on the basis of his virtue, not according to blood ties. In Cervantes’ Don Quichotte, the glorious Hidalgo watches on the horizon the armies of prince Alifanfaron from Trabopane fighting against the king of Garamantes. Some people located Tabropane near Babylon, others in India, others yet in Sumatra. Another geographical fiction was the kingdom of Prester John, which fueled the imagination of generations of crusaders and adventurers. The space of imagination was projected onto the geographical map. The existence of Australia (the possibility of an island) was conjectured long before it was discovered. Fiction was ahead of reality, and explorers merely confirmed what poets had been dreaming all along.

Filling the blanks

The description of the last virgin lands and the filling of blanks on the map marked the entry into a finite world, the culmination of a process that started with the Renaissance and the discovery of the New World. Westphal uses the expression « métrise du monde » to refer both to the world’s mastery (maîtrise) through exploration and conquest and its scaling (based on geometry) along lines and parallels, latitudes and longitudes. Maps and mapmaking were an instrument of the colonial intrusion. Again, the « Omphalos syndrome » operated in full swing. Lands occupied from times immemorial were « discovered » and colonized, borders were drawn and toponyms imposed. « How many civilizations and peoples disappeared from the map solely to satisfy the Omphalos syndrome that plagues the West, » writes Westphal emphatically.

Although Westphal quotes many authors, from Paul Zumthor to Augustin Berque, from Michel Serres to Guattari and Deleuze, perhaps the writer who exerted the strongest influence on his writing was the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Westphal borrows from him a taste for metaphors, a wide range of references that include Church fathers as well as medieval thinkers from the Muslim world, and references to ancient myths that help him decipher our present. Most of all, he takes from Agamben an apocalyptic view of modernity that uses hyperbolic rhetoric and messianic tones to herald the end of history and the blurring of moral categories. Whereas Agamben sees bare life and the state of exception as culminating in totalitarianism and the Nazi camps, Westphal goes back to the origins of modern times and sees in colonization (starting with the Canary islands in 1402) the crucible in which our present originated (« without colonialism, there is no modernity »). This cataclysmic eschatology is sketched right from the opening of the book, in an introduction that mixes allusions to Nietzsche (human, too human; the eternal feminine) and quotations from Adorno. It is pursued with frequent references to Dante’s inferno, which can be read as an apt metaphor of our descent into modernity.


In this context, references to beach tourism and to other elements of popular culture (soccer; movies; contemporary fictions) do not depart from this post-apocalyptic vision, but add to it a postmodern ring that squares well with the author’s professed relativism (« Reality and fiction, objectivity and imagination, are relative notions. As relative as viewpoints »). Indeed, as Westphal underscores, maps and map-making are in vogue in contemporary texts, and they provide a postmodern metaphor attuned to our times of geopolitical anxieties and bordered identities. From cognitive maps to roadmaps, maps are all over the map, and they also feature prominently in contemporary classic novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon or Béa González’s Mapmakers’ Opera. Westphal contributes to what he refers to as « postcolonial literature », for which maps and the drawing of borders is an existential issue. His many references to non-Western geographers and explorers, from the Malinke emperor Abou Bakari II to the Chinese admiral Zheng He, also serve to contest the primacy of the West in our conceptions of literary space.

Catégories : Book reviews