Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries
Edited by Pascale Guibert
Spatial Perspectives, vol. 11
Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2011
Paperback. 310 p. ISBN 978-9042032613. € 62
Reviewed by Marc Porée
École Normale Supérieure, Paris
This substantial and consistently original collection of essays revisits a crucial issue, and a fashionable one into the bargain, that of landscape. Shying away from the obvious—a characteristic feature of thecollection—, it does not waste too much time arguing that landscapes, natural or otherwise, are in fact never natural, since they are always the product of a construction, whether national, social, artistic or broadly cultural. Fully acknowledging the recent move in landscape studies towards greater theorization, “confirming the need to forge new concepts and identify the principles at work in the formation of a landscape aesthetics and its effects upon the perceiver at a given historical time” (Claire Omhovère), it envisages landscaping as an energy, a driving force, as well as a mental or theoretical object, providing considerable food for unthought-of thought. It is this rather unusual combination of an impetus on the one hand, of an idea on the other, that distinguishes Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries from similar works on the subject.
The book originates in a Conference held on the topic of “Reflective Anglophone Landscapes” at the University of Caen, in June 2007, organized by Pascale Guibert, a prominent specialist of William Wordsworth, among other things. Its 16 essays, all knowledgeable and insightful, cover a period which goes from John Locke to various contemporary literary and artistic productions, including a strong contingent of Canadian artists and writers. They benefit from the editorial expertise of Guibert, the author of “Landscapes with Figures in Wordsworth’s Prelude (1805)” (1), who proves very eager to complexify the issues rather than lamely simplify them. Her insistence on calling for a renewed and cogent approach begins with her 15 page-long “Introduction”, in which she endeavors to explain and justify her in-depth reorganization of the material. Instead of taking the easy road which would have consisted in either following the chronology or drawing the line between the articles that deal with real landscapes, true topographical entities, like Loch Lomond (charmingly revisited by Allan Ingram), the Aran Islands or Alice Springs, and those that tackle mental representations of a given cultural space, like the wilderness (Jonathan Brodo) or the desert (David Jasper), she goes for something that is infinitely more challenging, though possibly verging on the abstract at times, but one which pays off in the last analysis. In particular, it enables her to tackle in the same breath Landscape Art and the “page landscapes” (Isabelle Alphandary’s terminology) of Gertrude Stein, discussed in what reads as one of the most thought-provoking pieces of the entire collection, if only because of the highly un-mimetic character of Stein’s writing.
Guibert’s grand pattern of classification is five-fold. “De-limiting” considers examples of landscapes being drawn both outside ourselves and outside themselves, thus preventing all clear distinctions between pre-established categories of time and space. John Locke’s intensely, and exclusively, metaphorical take on landscape is the crux of this opening chapter, as evidenced by Matthieu Haumesser’s penetrating account of Lockean “preparations for landscapes”, the conclusion of which being that the human understanding cannot find anything substantial in its own internal world, hence the need to find never fully satisfying and inevitably elusive analogies in external landscapes, with a marked preference for those, like sea- or river-scapes, that reflect and are reflected. “(In)accessibility” argues in terms of opposites: a landscape will always pull toward another, will insist on undoing or un-writing a previous one, hence the tensions that arise when the inaccessible becomes accessible, or vice versa. Claire Omhovère’s fine reading of the “garrison mentality” (after Northrop Frye) at work in early perceptions of the Ur-“Canadian” landscape emphatically illustrates the need to forge fresh aesthetic responses to realities initially quite alien to European sensitivity. “Continuous Variations”, short for transhistorical perspectives, contains Jonathan Bordo’s seminal definition of the wilderness as “a landscape without a witness”, as “not a landscape at all” (p. 152) and culminates with Marjorie Vanbaelinghem’s elaborate reconstruction of the continuum of the language of (national and imperial) landscape as seen by contemporary British artists. “Fields of Being and Non-being” is reworked by Guibert so as to include Lyotard’s contention as to the necessity to see everything differently and find appropriate ways of expressing such ungraspable novelties far beyond description. It features Catherine Lanone’s remarkable recreation of the post-colonial syndrome experienced by V.S. Naipaul, for whom “ESTRANGEMENT would appear to be a precondition of landscape” (another quotation by Lyotard). It also includes David Jasper’s moving insights into the ascetic tradition which begins in the desert and seeks an equilibrium which is a perfect balance of presence and absence, as related to Heidegger’s notion of “dwelling poetically”. Jasper’s essay concludes fittingly on the effect of the desert that stretches the self to his/her physical and mental limits, as far as the non-self. “Operators”, the fifth and last section of the book, encompasses operators, dispositifs, bent on emptying, erasing, denying visibility—anti-landscapes, as it were, although they are still construed as perpetuating the landscaping continuum.
Running through all these diverse landscaping forces is a common denominator or factor, that of “displacement”: of one landscape into another, of displaced novelists and artists, leading to striking instances of derangement, paradigmatic, “figural” (à la Laurent Jenny), psychic or otherwise. Implicitly transversal too, is the presence of the map, mostly envisaged as a foil, as an agent of erasure, dispensing with so much of what makes places human and landscapes nuance-full. Explicit is the high premium deliberately put on grammar, i.e. on the -ing form present in landscaping: it is a drive which Guibert’s contributors are after, seeking modes of walking that go hand in hand with modes of writing or painting, with a modus operandi, in short. The “usual suspects” are on display: the unmappable landscapes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Richard Pedot), the “negative landscapes” of E.M. Forster and V.S. Naipaul, the “narcissistic” landscapes of Wordsworth (Aurélie Thiria-Meulemans, Laurent Folliot), but more unusual candidates feature just as prominently: Owen Sheers’ traumatic landscapes (Robert Burden), Tim Robinson’s “Deep landscapes” (Eamonn Wall), Franck Gillen’s “taskscapes” (Timothy Mason), etc. Only G.M. Hopkins’s “scapes” are conspicuously absent from the picture, which may be construed as slightly problematic when one is considering landscaping as an impetus, a rhythmically shaping force, but it will be acknowledged that the controversial Hopkinsian “inscape” has been documented and discussed so many times already, if only in Scapes, a volume recently edited by Abigail Lang and Paul Volsik (2).
Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries is a most stimulating book, offering a great variety of approaches focused on a wide range of writers. It will expand the historical and theoretical knowledge of all those with an interest in landscape and a fondness for theory. The only regret, but then one balks at the thought of voicing it publicly, is that the publishers could not find enough money to include the illustrations which quite a few papers call, nay cry out, for. At times one feels that the artists’ representations so painstakingly described, rather than shown (but we know this has a cost—aye, there’s the rub!), are in danger of being sadly lost on a reader who feels he/she is missing out on something worthwhile, in view of the absence of pictures by John Piper, Peter Lanyon, Peter Doig, Maurice Cockrill, Tom Thomson, etc., of samples of the work of the Canadian environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky, or, last but not least, of a reproduction of the wing of the famous Isenheim Altar on which Jonathan Bordo grounds his theory of the wilderness. This only applies, it will be argued, to the contributions that openly discuss the visual “artialisation” (Alain Roger) of landscape, via the semiotic tensions at work between the synthetic language of abstraction and the analytic language of representational painting (“Landscape and Abstraction in England from the 1930s to the 1950s”, by Sophie Aymes; or “Landscape as Reflection in British Contemporary Art” by Marjorie Vanbaelinghem), or via the sweepingly ambitious attempt to mediate between Grünewald, Thoreau and the Canadian Group of Seven (Bordo). But, then one is reminded that in Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), unquestionably the most reflective anglophone landscape of all times, the memories of similar “forms of beauty”, whether natural, “ideaist” or man-made, were never lost after all, since the poet’s claim, precisely, is that they “have not been (to him,) / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye” [l. 25].
But, again, such an omission should not be held against Pascale Guibert, for the fault, if fault is the right word, is not hers in the least. On the contrary, she does her very best to think—the key word throughout—her way around such hard material constraints. The cover of the book proudly displays a colour photograph by Maud Kerouredan, “Lac des Vaches (Savoie, France) Aug. 2009”. At ground level, it features a flagstone path cutting straight through an amphibious landscape of water (puddles), grass (weeds) and stone (rocks and pebbles), with soft slopes gently rising on either side and the cloud-capped Alpine range right in front; tiny figures of human beings are seen walking into the distance, away from the viewer—a visual motif ideally poised between the polarities of the “abhuman” wilderness and of “the exalted and humanly diminished hospitality of the eco-niche” (Jonathan Bordo). A sight which the reader of Reflective Landscapes of the Anglophone Countries immediately interprets as a “Symbolic Form”, in the shape, not of a Holzweg leading nowhere, but of an invitation to walk along that much-traveled road and grow with the landscape.
Indeed, egged on by so engaging an opening, the much-enriched reader feels a rewarding sense of dilation as he/she reaches the end of the book. Its perfectly staged exit coincides with Barbara Montefalcone’s discussion of the collaborative work of Robert Creely and Alex Katz, as a further testimony to the relational quality of landscape. This substantial collection of thought-provoking essays is thus rounded off in the most appropriate of ways—with a few final thoughts on Thinking (2000), a minimal joint composition, comprising a lithograph by Katz and a short poem by Creely. Thanks to such key words as “edges”, ”echoes” and “presences”, the poem, in the words of Pascale Guibert, manages to “absentify” the visible presence of landscape, while the (invisible) lithograph, it is inferred, most certainly does the very opposite, no doubt after the fashion of Wordsworth, allowing the “picture of the mind” to revive again (“Tintern Abbey”, l. 62). “Reflective” indeed…
(1) Festschrift Honouring René Gallet. LISA e-Journal VII-3 (2009).
(2) Special issue of Cahiers Charles V, Université Paris VII Denis Diderot, 2006. ISSN 0184-1025.
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