Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: May, 2019

50. Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography

coverley psychogeography

While thinking and writing about Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital this week, I realized that I needed a firmer sense of exactly what psychogeography is. Good thing Merlin Coverley’s little book on the subject was on my shelf. It’s a brief but informative look at a variety of writers–Coverley is primarily concerned with literary manifestations of psychogeography, which isn’t surprising, since his 2012 book Ways of Wandering: The Writer as Walker, is also focused on literary texts. (I’ve read Ways of Wandering but because I didn’t taken notes on it, I’m going to have to read it again for this project.) I wouldn’t be surprised if, for that reason, Psychogeography were somewhat controversial among psychogeographers. That wouldn’t bother me if it were the case, because I’m not a psychogeographer and come at this subject without any preconceived ideas about what falls within the definition.

The book’s introduction rehearses Coverley’s argument in too much detail–I sense that the publisher asked for some padding to get the book to a desired length–but it does explain Coverley’s approach to psychogeography. He begins by noting that psychogeography is now a common term, frequently used, but that nobody knows exactly what it means (9). Is it a literary movement, a political strategy, a new age idea, or a set of avant-garde art practices? “The answer, of course, is that psychogeography is all of these things,” Coverley writes, “resisting definition through a shifting series of interwoven themes and constantly being reshaped by its practitioners” (10). The term originated in Paris, in the writings of the Lettrist Group, a forerunner of the Situationist International, but it was not defined clearly until 1955, when Guy Debord wrote a rather vague definition that suggested psychogeography was the effects of geographical environments on the emotions and behaviour of people (10). In other words, Coverley writes, psychogeography is “the point at which psychology and geography collide, a means of exploring the behavioural impact of urban place” (10). Since the 1950s, however, “the term has become so widely appropriated and has been used in support of such a bewildering array of ideas that it has lost much of its original significance” (10).

Coverley’s account of psychogeography doesn’t begin with Debord or the Situationists, however. He has preferred, he writes, “to ignore the Situationists’ claims for the originality of their own ideas by placing them within the wider historical context that gave rise to them” (29). He reaches back, historically, to earlier writers: Daniel Defoe, William Blake, Thomas de Quincey on the city of London; Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin on the flâneur; writers of urban gothic tales, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Machen; and the Surrealists. He also looks at the work of contemporary psychogeographers, including Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Stewart Home. Psychogeography, he argues, “may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories,” Coverley writes (11). The predominant characteristics he sees within the “mélange of ideas, events and identities” he discusses in the book include the activity of walking, in cities that are increasingly hostile to pedestrians, so that walking becomes a subversive activity (12). “Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants,” Coverley writes. “In this way the act of walking becomes bound up with psychogeography’s characteristic political opposition to authority” (12). Along with walking and political resistance, Coverley identifies “a playful sense of provocation and trickery,” “ironic humour,” a “search for new ways of apprehending our urban environment” and seeing it in a new way, a “perception of the city as a site of mystery,” and a desire “to reveal the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday” as characteristics of psychogeography (13). The sense of urban life as mysterious and unknowable leads to gothic representations of the city, but it also gives rise to an obsession with the occult, which is often allied to an antiquarianism that focuses on the city’s past (14). “As a result, much contemporary psychogeography approximates more to a form of local history than to any geographical investigation,” Coverley writes.

In the next chapter, Coverley examines those writers whom contemporary psychogeographers identify as precursors: Daniel Defoe, “whose character Robinson is a recurrent figure within the literature of psychogeography; William Blake, described by Iain Sinclair as “the ‘Godfather of Psychogeography'”; Thomas de Quincy, who was recognized by the Situationists as an influence; Robert Louis Stevenson’s urban gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Arthur Machen, another writer of the urban gothic; and Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines became “a cornerstone of the new age ‘Earth Mysteries’ school that has since provided an esoteric counterbalance to the stern revolutionary proclamations of the Situationists” (32-33). Other than a shared interest in London, all of these writers demonstrate “a wider awareness of genius loci or ‘spirit of place’ through which landscape, whether urban or rural, can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them” (33); an interest in visionary or esoteric or occult or irrational resistance to rationalism (33-34); and a desire to “expose the essence of place obscured by the flux of the everyday and highlight the threat to the identity of the city posed by the banalisation of much urban redevelopment” (34).

First, because Coverley’s discussion is organized chronologically, is Daniel Defoe. “With his twin roles as political radical and father of the London novel, Defoe is the first writer to offer a vision of London shaped according to his own peculiar imaginary topography,” Coverley argues, “and in his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe introduces a character who has haunted both the novel and the literature of psychogeography ever since” (35). That novel’s “twin motifs of the imaginary voyage and isolation” is important, but even more so is its titular character, “who encapsulates the freedom and detachment of the wanderer, the resourcefulness of the adventurer and the amorality of the survivor”–all characteristics necessary for anyone walking unfamiliar urban streets, particularly in the seventeenth century.

However, it is in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year that he can be said “to provide what is, in essence, the first psychogeographical survey of the city” (36). Both in style and content, that book “portrays the city in a manner that shares almost all the preoccupations that have come to be termed psychogeographical” (36). It brings together statistical facts, topographical details, local testimonies, and these are presented in a non-linear, digressive way that recalls the Situationists’ dérive (36). In its blend of fiction, biography, local history, and personal reminiscence, Journal of the Plague Year forms “an imaginative reworking of the city,” in which its familiar layout “is shown to be transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of the plague” (36-37). For anyone travelling in the London of the 1660s, a city without street lights or house numbers, a “mental map established through trial and error and by reading the signs that the environment displayed to you” was essential. “This alertness to topographical detail and the construction of a mental overview of the city would later form the basis of psychogeographical technique,” Coverley suggests (37). During the plague, however, the city was reshaped, as streets were deserted or blocked and buildings were marked with red crosses, signifying the presence of the disease. These changes created “a map of contamination,” making the city alien to its residents, “who had previously prided themselves upon an intimate knowledge of its secrets” (38). “This sense of the ground shifting beneath one’s feet, as the plague advances and retreats,” Coverley writes,

is mirrored in Defoe’s prose style, as a series of digressions and narrative cul-de-sacs afford the reader, both spatially and temporally, that sense of dislocation experienced by the characters. In effect, the catastrophe of the plague creates the characteristic sense of disorientation that we find in all narratives of urban catastrophe. . . . In such moments the city is momentarily made strange, defamiliarised, as its inhabitants are granted a vision of the city as it might be, as heaven or hell. (38)

Defoe’s “image of the solitary walker navigating the city and recording his impressions of it . . . dominates the tradition which he inaugurates” (39). I wonder if those who study eighteenth-century literature would agree with Coverley’s suggestion that Defoe was the first psychogeographer. It would be interesting to find out.

The next figure Coverley discusses is the poet William Blake, whose emphasis on “the imaginative reconstruction of the city” makes him one of the forebears of contemporary psychogeographers. Blake was a walker, “a wanderer whose poems describe the reality of eighteenth-century street life,” but those poems are “overlaid by his own intensely individualistic vision to create a new topography of the city,” transforming familiar landscapes into “a transcendent image of the eternal city,” which was, for Blake, Jerusalem (40). Blake’s poetry features apocalyptic imagery, since to rebuild London as the New Jerusalem means it must be destroyed. For Coverley, Blake’s “revolutionary call for the destruction of the power structures of his day” is another way he prefigures psychogeography. “Here, then, we find all the features ascribed to psychogeography today,” Coverley writes:

the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti-rational over more systematic modes of thought. (41-42)

If Defoe and Blake were theorists of psychogeography, Thomas de Quincy may be described as its first practitioner: “The drug-fuelled journeys through London of de Quincey’s youth seem to capture exactly that state of aimless drift and detached observation which were to become the hallmarks of the situationist dérive 150 years later,” Coverley writes (42). De Quincy, he continues, “is a prototype for the obsessive drifter allowing his imagination to shape and direct the perception of his environment; his purposeless drifting at odds with the commercial traffic and allying him to the invisible underclass whose movements map the chaotic and labyrinthine aspects of the city” (43). The combination of walking and observing, along with a sense of the fantastic, was influential on Poe and Baudelaire, writers who helped establish the figure of the flâneur and, through that figure, “the tradition of French avant-garde writing and theorizing that was to continue via the Surrealists to the Situationists” (44).

Robert Louis Stevenson is another important precursor of psychogeography. Contemporary psychogeographers draw on Stevenson’s gothic imagery “to symbolise the mystery beneath the apparently banal surfaces of the everyday city” (45). The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is central in formulating an “occult division between appearance and reality” that is found in later psychogeographers (45). Coverley suggests that Stevenson’s London has a twofold nature, suggested by the duality between Jekyll and Hyde (46), and that his “imaginative topography” established “an unreal but eternal landscape that colours forever our experience of the city” (47).

Like Stevenson, novelist Arthur Machen applied his sense of the fantastic to the streets of London (47-48). “For Machen, the trained eye can reveal the eternal behind the commonplace,” Coverley contends, and London gave him a means of experiencing the strangeness of the urban environment: walking (48). Machen’s representations of London are both autobiographical and imaginative (48-49); “it is in these wanderings through the city that Machen becomes a prototype for both the flâneur and today’s breed of psychogeographer” (49). Machen was a prolific writer, but in this context his books Things Near and Far and The London Adventure are the most important: they are conscious attempts at ignoring the city’s known aspects in favour of aimless wandering, driven solely by the narrator’s imagination, and they suggest “the degree to which Machen is a hybrid figure in which walking and writing merge” (49). Machen’s version of the city was a discovery of the exotic within the commonplace, of the foreign close to home (49). He frees himself from historical or geographical markers, remapping the city as he moves through it, “establishing a trajectory away from the more well-trodden centre toward the overlooked suburban quarters of the city,” which makes him a forerunner of writers like J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair (50).

Another forebear of contemporary psychogeographers is Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines shows the extent to which psychogeography has become caught up in occult, esoteric ideas, far from Debord’s original conception (51). A commercial traveller in Hertfordshire, in 1921 Watkins suddenly perceived the familiar landscape “to be covered by a vast network of straight tracks, aligned through the hills, mounds and other landmarks”–a network of lines connecting prehistoric sites (52-53). Watkins also suggested that these ley lines were connected to the locations of some London churches, making him an influence on Ackroyd and Sinclair (53). The books in which Watkins expressed these theories were rediscovered in the 1960s, and ley lines have become one of the staple ideas of New Age beliefs (I heard them discussed when I was walking in Spain) and an influence on psychogeographers interested in the occult.

The following chapter sees Coverley cross the English Channel and focus on Paris rather than London. In his telling, psychogeography is very much a tale of two cities (57). On the one hand is the dark gothic vision of London; on the other, the elegant arcades of Paris, the haunt of the flâneur. “Today the flâneur has become a somewhat overworked figure, beloved of academics and cultural commentators,” Coverley writes, “but while he (the flâneur is invariably seen as male) remains inseparable from the Paris of his day, his origins remain obscure” (57-58). Typically those origins are traced to Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” or Walter Benjamin, who analyzed the flâneur and his relationship to modernism in his (unfinished) The Arcades Project (58). But both writers took the flâneur from Poe’s short story, “The Man in the Crowd” (58). That story was the first appearance of a new urban type: “an isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city,” Coverley writes (60). This figure “heralds both the emergence of a new type of city and the passing of the old, his aimless wandering already at odds with his surroundings and his natural habitat threatened, in Paris at least, by the emergence of a more regimented topography,” as the city is redeveloped by Baron Haussmann (60-61).

In Baudelaire’s essay, the flâneur is an idealized figure in an idealized city–a figure that never actually existed, but one that is elusive, that cannot be located, although in searching for him, one begins to take on his characteristics (61-62). Like London, nineteenth-century Paris had expanded to the point where it could not be apprehended as a whole. Navigating the city thus became a skill, a secret form of knowledge available only to a few, “and in this environment the stroller is transformed into an explorer, or even a detective solving the mystery of the city streets” (62). As the city’s chaos was domesticated through redevelopment, however, the walker’s “arcane knowledge” becomes obsolete, and walking is reduced to window-shopping (62).

Benjamin, on the other hand, argues that London’s streets were too crowded for true flânerie, and that Paris and its arcades were a more suitable habitat for “the dandified stroller,” even though those sites were being destroyed by Haussmann’s redevelopment (63). Benjamin considered Poe’s character to be “a portrayal of the fate of the flâneur in the machine age,” a walker “reduced to little more than a cog in the machine, an automaton governed by the pressures of a barbaric crowd, not so much the hero of modernism as its victim” (64). The flâneur is thereby “inevitably caught up by the commercial forces that will inevitably destroy him,” and he becomes a window-shopper, which is “both the high point and the death knell for the flâneur” (64). Nevertheless, the figure of the flâneur retains its subversive age: “this insistence upon a walker’s pace questions the need for speed and circulation that the modern city promotes (yet seldom achieves). The wanderer remains essentially an outsider opposed to progress,” and “a non-paying customer” (64-65). “Ultimately, the flâneur is a composite figure,” Coverley contends: “vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller” (65). Yet, within these multiple and contradictory roles, “his predominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is his true legacy to psychogeography” (65).

As the flâneur found himself increasingly barred from the streets, he “devised new methods of travel that could be conducted from the safety of one’s armchair,” and his wandering became internalized (65-67). Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (Á Rebours), published in 1894, is one example; in that book, an aesthete discovers the advantages of mental or imaginary travel in the city (67). Other modern novels use Robinson Crusoe as a figure undertaking an imaginary journey–from Kafka’s America to Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night–and so Crusoe becomes an emblem for contemporary psychogeographers (68-70). “Robinson is a totemic figure mapping out his journey from text to text,” Coverley writes,

providing a parallel history of urban wandering as it moves from London to Paris and around the world. Here we see writ in miniature the development of psychogeography, as it mutates from detached observation to a more committed and involved practice engaged with its surroundings and increasingly determined to change them. (71-72)

The flâneur may be a male figure, but his female counterpart, the flâneuse, has a very specific role: a prostitute. Those women met their clients–including Baudelaire and Benjamin and the Surrealists–in the Paris arcades (72). “As we approach the avant-garde flowering of the inter-war period,” Coverley suggests, “the streets of Paris are increasingly characterised as an erotic location–a place to procure, seek out of simply think about sex” (72). This is where the Surrealists come into the picture: not because of their political theorizing or attempts at walking around Paris, but because in 1918 André Breton and Louis Aragorn, between them, produce a psychogeographical novel:

With their absence of plot and digressive style, Breton’s Nadja and Aragon’s Paris Peasant offer accounts of journeys conducted through the Paris streets which are governed, in varying degrees, by sexual desire, and in their aimless strolling, they provide not only a precursor to the situationist dérive but a blueprint for contemporary wanderers on the streets of London. (72-73)

Coverley doesn’t explain how two men wrote one novel with two titles–that’s a mystery that will have to be solved through research. Nevertheless, he points out that Surrealism was about the resolution of dream and reality, and that its goal was not just art, but a transformation of our experience of everyday life “with an appreciation of the marvellous” (73). Surrealism’s domain, he continues, “was the street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and change our perceptions” (73). The walker–a combination of the flâneur and Robinson Crusoe–becomes, for the Surrealists, “a figure whose journey through the streets is both directed and transformed by the dictates of these unconscious drives” (73). The Surrealist practice of automatism, giving the unconscious free reign, was used not only in automatic writing but also in walking: “The aimless drifting that was later to become the dérive was initiated here in a series of walks whose free-floating exploration of Paris” was intended to discover new places (74). However, the walks the Surrealists took together provided “rather tedious and uninspired results, and as far as walking was concerned, a lot of legwork was expended with little obvious result” (76). Coverley is therefore more interested in the writing of the Surrealists. In addition, their history as a group, including their engagement with Communism and their collapse amid infighting, suggests, to Coverley, that “the day of the apolitical and dispassionate stroller was at an end” (77). The flâneur would have to fight against the destruction of the city, and that radicalization, Coverley argues, was the birth of psychogeography (77).

Next Coverley turns to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. After the Second World War, the Surrealists had split up, and new groups began to take shape in the French avant-garde. Some of those groups came together, in 1957, as the Situationist International. Under the strict control of Debord, the Situationists produced a series of statements defining psychogeography, the dérive and the détournement, and those theoretical writings are important to contemporary psychogeography. However, it’s important to understand that psychogeography was only one of the Situationists’ tools, “one whose role was to become more oblique, as situationism moved away from the subversive practices of its unacknowledged forebears and towards the revolutionary politics with which it has since been associated” (82). Psychogeography isn’t mentioned, for example, in either of the group’s major theoretical statements, Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (82-83).

The terms dérive and psychogeography were actually coined by one of the Situationists’ predecessors, the Lettrist International (85), although they made nothing of them, other than “adolescent humour” (87). In Debord’s article “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” he provided a more rigorous approach and the first real definition of psychogeography (88-89). That definition was rather vague, as Debord admitted, and that vagueness has “allowed so many writers and movements to identify themselves and their work under this label” (89). According to Coverley,

Psychogeography becomes for Debord the point where psychology and geography collide. Gone are the romantic notions of an artistic practice; here we have an experiment to be conducted under scientific conditions and whose results are to be rigorously analysed. (89)

The emotional zones of the city were to be identified “by following the aimless stroll (dérive), the results of which may then form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a complete disregard for the traditional and habitual practices of the tourist” (90). However, as the Situationists developed, the sense of playful creativity that informs the dérive was set aside, and overt political protest took priority (91). That meant that psychogeography, the dérive, and the détournement were subordinated to the group’s political critique (92). Nevertheless, before he abandoned them, Debord did define dérive and détournement. A détournement was a subversion of existing aesthetic elements–through parody or plagiarism, for example (94). A dérive, on the other hand, was a method of psychogeographical investigation, a form of fieldwork or a way to reconnoitre the city (96-97). “The dérive takes the wander out of the realm of the disinterested spectator or artistic practitioner and places him in a subversive position as a revolutionary following a political agenda,” Coverley writes, and the dériviste‘s aim is to identify currents, points, and vortexes of psychogeographical relief (97). Debord’s writing on the dérive provide a theoretical basis for the activity, along with practical suggestions (98), but “the actual results of all these experiments are strangely absent” from the Situationists’ writings; there is little “concrete evidence of clear instances of psychogeographical activity” (99). That is surprising, since the Scots writer Alexander Trocchi, a friend of Debord’s (until he was expelled from the Situationist International), recalled “long, wonderful psychogeographical walks” in London with Debord (101). According to Coverley, Debord ultimately “came to recognise the essentially personal nature of the relationship between the individual and the city, sensing that this subjective realm was always going to remain at odds with the objective mechanisms of the psychogeographical methodology that sought to expose it” (101). I find this very strange, because there seems to be little if anything objective about the dérive as a methodology; from what I understand, it is entirely subjective. Perhaps it was that subjective nature that led Debord to abandon psychogeography in favour of what was, for him, a more objective political theorizing?

In the final chapter, Coverley turns back to contemporary psychogeographers, all of whom are English writers. Psychogeography is very popular at the moment, he notes; it “remains alert to the increasing banalisation of our urban environment that preoccupied the Situationists, and it continues to provide a political response to the perceived failures of urban governance,” but it is also a literary form based around London (111). The first contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses is the novelist J.G. Ballard, whose books explore “the behavioural impact of urban space” (112). Ballard’s writing draws on surrealist imagery and techniques, but his fiction provides “a more detailed psychogeographical map of the modern urban hinterland than any situationist survey could ever hope to replicate” (116). Ballard believes that modern life leads to a loss of emotional sensitivity, but his fiction challenges the Situationists’ belief that this loss would lead to banality; instead, he presents the non-places of contemporary suburbia “as liable not merely to provoke boredom but to result in more extreme forms of behaviour that increasingly mirror the violent and sexualised imagery that surrounds us” (116-17). “In this sense the spectacular society”–Coverley is riffing on the title of Debord’s famous book–“will, of its own accord, produce that element of unpredictable and even revolutionary behaviour that Debord himself hoped to engineer,” but for Ballard, that behaviour “will constitute a full-scale descent into savagery, sexual perversity and complete breakdown as the brand of community living engineered by the tower block or executive village dissolves into a series of individual retreats into personal obsession” (117). Unlike other contemporary psychogeographers, though, Ballard has no interest in history or literary tradition, nor does he care about “occult connectivity” or walking (118). “By dispensing with these themes,” Coverley argues,

Ballard is able to pare down his prose into a simple allegory of modern urban life that focuses solely on the relationship between individual and environment. . . . This is psychogeography rendered in its most stark and unforgiving manner, and these texts have mapped, in advance of anyone else, the layout of a future city characterised by a transient population living lives of anonymous isolation. (118)

Next up is Iain Sinclair, who is, Coverley contends, more responsible than anyone else for the current popularity of psychogeography (119). Sinclair’s complex “London Project”–made up of poems, novels, documentary studies and films–sets out to restore that city “to its dominant psychogeographical position” (119). Sinclair’s work has little connection to the Situationists, but he is “heavily indebted both to the surrealist drift of Breton and Aragon and to the visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen,” but his greatest influence is Alfred Watkins and his theory of ley lines, especially in his early writing (119). In works like the 1975 book Lud Heat, Sinclair espouses a belief that lines of force mapped between architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s remaining London churches can reveal “the true but hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions” (119). Sinclair’s writing is, Coverley suggests, a “delightful blend of paranoia, occult imagination and local London history” (120). Sinclair is a walker, too, but not a flâneur–his pedestrian activities are too directed, too focused on his task of challenging the modern city (120). Sinclair’s “peculiar form of historical and geographical research displays none of the rigour of psychogeographical theory”–as outlined by Debord, I think he means–“and is overlaid by a mixture of autobiography and literary eclecticism,” but it is politically engaged and furious about the legacy of Thatcherite redevelopment in London (121). That anger displays his debt to Aragon, Coverley suggests (121). London Orbital, which I have written about in this blog, offers Sinclair’s “own highly successful brand of psychogeography in which urban wanderer, local historian, avant-garde activist and political polemicist meet and coalesce” (122). Sinclair’s writing is so successful that “he appears to have inaugurated an entirely new genre of topographical writing centred upon London which has gone some way towards displacing Debord and situationism as the official psychogeographical brand” (122). This success “has inevitably blunted its impact, as what was once a marginal and underground activity is now offered mainstream recognition” (123). That complaint–it’s not cool any more because other people like it–is unworthy of Coverley, in my opinion, but then again, I’m a fan of Sinclair’s writing and of his psychogeographical methodology as well.

Peter Ackroyd moulds psychogeography “into a conservative and irrational model diametrically opposed in both spirit and practice to Debord’s conception,” Coverley argues. Ackroyd’s difference from Sinclair–both wrote about ley lines and Hawksmoor’s churches–is that he believes that the spatial correspondences he identifies in the city are “not only governed by historical resonances inherited from the past, but are also subject to temporal patterns through which the city may be subdivided once again,” an idea Ackroyd calls “chronological resonance” (124-25). He also believes that these resonances have “observable effects upon the behaviour of Londoners themselves” (125). Ackroyd “follows the implications of his theory to their logical, but unverifiable, conclusions, eventually moving from London to the country as a whole and identifying two opposing strands of national identity”: rational Protestantism and irrational or visionary Catholicism (125). The latter is able to reveal the city as it truly is, and enables us to recognize the magic beneath its mundane surface (126). Other Londoners who were “attuned to the revelatory vision of the city” are named “Cockney Visionaries” by Ackroyd, and among their number he includes Blake, Machen, and Sinclair (126). For Coverley, “Ackroyd’s theory grows ever more mystical and all-embracing, becoming a quest for the defining characteristics of English national identity in which the spirit of scientific inquiry is rebutted by Ackroyd’s irrational and wholly subjective sense of time and place” (126), and “his insistence that the city is eternal and illimitable,” “governed by a cyclical current that views the present merely as the past revisited,” is even more damaging to Ackroyd’s “psychogeographical credentials, at least in their situationist form” (126). That’s because Ackroyd’s cosmology obviates any call for revolutionary change; it leaves us “stranded within a kind of eternal recurrence in which the flux of the present is subsumed within a mystical sense of eternal stasis that renders all political engagement redundant” (126-27). “If psychogeography is the behavioural impact of place,” Coverley concludes, “then Ackroyd’s historic-mystical version is at odds not only with its revolutionary forbears but also, despite any superficial similarities, with the current brand favoured by Iain Sinclair and his acolytes” (127). I have little patience with mysticism, and had no idea that the author of London: The Biography, among other important books, held such–let me say it like I feel it–silly beliefs. That doesn’t mean, though, that I should ignore his writing; it could be important.

Stewart Home is the third contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses. Home was “a prime mover within the resurgence of psychogeographical and avant-garde groups in the 1990s but his relationship with those groups remains tangential and obscure,” Coverley writes, although I’m not sure what that would matter (128). Home is associated with the London Psychogeographical Association, and he is “responsible for a deluge of psychogeographical pamphlets, statements and events,” often humorous (128-29). Home “combines a peculiar blend of occultism, avant-garde theorising and radical left politics,” but he seems unable to take himself or his subject too seriously” (129). He is a provocateur, in other words, and yet, Coverley suggests, that should not obscure “the accuracy of his critical commentary upon the avant-garde movements that he has sought to revive” (131). (Coverley is clearly interested in these groups; I am not.) Because he combines humour with an awareness of psychogeography’s roots and its relationship to earlier traditions, Home “appears to have successfully wrong footed those critics unable to work out what he’s up to and unsure how to respond” (132). In other words, Coverley concludes, “Home has effectively liberated psychogeography from the constraints of any one set of practices or aims, creating a highly effective weapon in his assault upon the artistic establishment” (132-33). I’d never heard of Home before reading Coverley’s book, and I have no idea if his writing is available in North America, but I must say, after reading Coverley’s discussion, that it’s Sinclair’s work that interests me more than the others’.

“Instead of seeking to change their environment,” Coverley concludes,

psychogeographers in their contemporary incarnation seem satisfied merely to experience and record it. In this sense, psychogeography has overlooked its political and ideological roots in situationism in favour of a return to the primarily artistic concerns of earlier avant-garde and literary traditions. These authors certainly voice dissatisfaction with the political shortcomings of the present but are unable to supply any practical measures to alleviate their concerns. (136)

In that sense, they are not like Defoe, “in whom the figure of novelist, pamphleteer and radical combined to provide a lasting template for a future psychogeography in which literary endeavour and political activism are once again inseparable” (137). But what did Defoe actually accomplish politically? And what “practical measures” does Coverley think can address contemporary political problems? Why does he expect writers to provide the answers to political questions? The world is a complicated place, and who among us really understands how to address our collective challenges?

Despite Coverley’s disappointing conclusion, and his apparent belief that the Situationists accomplished something tangible, this is a useful book. I do wonder if other writers on psychogeography see historical antecedents in Defoe and Blake and de Quincey, or if they begin, simply, with the Situationists. I could find out. I also wonder if the kind of activity that falls under the rubric of psychogeography must take place in an urban environment. Couldn’t one walk and think and research the history of rural areas as well? Is that a possibility, despite the lack of attention to the world outside of Paris and London by psychogeographers? And, of course, Coverley’s list of references provides an excellent starting point for looking further into psychogeography–if that’s something I’m going to do. I’m not sure yet; I’ll need to think about it.

Work Cited

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, 2010.

——. Ways of Wandering: The Writer As Walker. Oldcastle, 2012.

49. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

living mountain

I’ve read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain before, but for pleasure. It’s a beautiful book, and a powerful evocation of a specific place: the Cairngorms, a mountain range in northern Scotland. Because I wanted to write about it in the paper I’m currently working on, I had to read it again–this time, taking careful notes. Believe me, reading Shepherd’s prose more than once is a joy, and it’s a book I will return to again and again.

The 2011 paperback edition features an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, a fine writer and, among other things, a walker, as was Shepherd. That introduction is worth discussing in detail, because Macfarlane both reads the book carefully and sensitively and places it within a specific philosophical context that I would not have considered. He begins by describing the Cairngorms (a place I’ve never been, although I’d like to go) as “Britain’s Arctic”: “a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs” (ix). Shepherd only ever lived in the village of West Cults, near the foothills of the Cairngorms, and those mountains, Macfarlane writes, “were her heartland”:

Into and out of those mountains she went in all seasons, by dawn, day, dusk and night, walking sometimes alone, and sometimes with friends, students or fellow walkers from the Deeside Field Club. Like all true mountain-lovers, she got altitude sickness if she spent too long at sea-level. (x)

Shepherd lectured in English at the College of Education at Aberdeen University and was the author of five books; The Living Mountain, her last, was written in the final years of the Second World War but not published until 1977. Its focus is on the Cairngorms, which Shepherd knew “‘deeply’ rather than ‘widely,'” according to Macfarlane: “They were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time with such concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed” (xv-xvi).

Shepherd walked and hiked and climbed in the Cairngorms for decades, and yet unlike mountaineers, who seek the summits of mountains, Shepherd walked over them with a different goal in mind. For Macfarlane, she practiced “a kind of unpious pilgrimage”:

She tramps around, over, across and into the mountain, rather than charging up it. There is an implicit humility to her repeated acts of traverse, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation of the mountaineer’s hunger for an utmost point. The pilgrim contents herself always with looking along and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto total knowledge. (xvii)

Shepherd’s “first idea,” according to Macfarlane, was her belief that a mountain has an inside: “a superbly counter-intuitive proposition, for we tend to think of mountains in terms of their exteriors—peaks, shoulders, cliffs. But Shepherd is always looking into the Cairngorm landscape, and I now find myself doing the same when I am in the massif” (xx). “Again and again,” Macfarlane writes,

her eyes pry into the luminous interior of clear-watered lochs or rivers. She dips her hand into Loch Coire an Lochaine, she walks naked into the shallows of Loch Avon, she pokes fingers down mouse holes and into the snowpack. “Into,” in The Living Mountain, is a preposition that gains—by means of repeated use—the power of a verb. She goes to the mountain searching not for the great outdoors but for profound “interiors,” deep “recesses.” (xx)

“This preoccupation with the ‘inside’ of the mountain is no conceit, Macfarlane continues; “rather, it figures the book’s attempts to achieve what she calls an ‘accession of interiority.’ For Shepherd, there was a continual traffic between the outer landscapes of the world and the inner landscapes of the spirit” (xxi).

Shepherd’s second idea is her refusal to privilege a single perspective. “Her own consciousness is only one among an infinite number of focal points on and in the mountain,” Macfarlane contends. “Her prose watches now from the point of view of the eagle, now from that of the walker, now from that of the creeping juniper. In this way we are brought–in her memorable phrase–to see the earth ‘as the earth must see itself'” (xxiii-xxiv). “The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else,” Macfarlane writes, “and The Living Mountain is filled–woven–with images of weaving and interconnection,” showing that the world is “an unmappable mesh of interrelations” (xxiv-xxv). The fact that this mesh is “unmappable” is vitally important. For Shepherd, “knowledge is mystery’s accomplice rather than its antagonist,” Macfarlane argues (xxvi). “What Shepherd learns–and what her book showed me–is that the true mark of long acquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge” (xxvi).

The Living Mountain‘s most radical proposition, according to Macfarlane, is Shepherd’s claim that “‘the body must be said to think'” (xxix). The book was written at the same time that Maurice Merleau-Ponty was writing The Phenomenology of Perception, in which the French philosopher

argued for the foundational role that sensory perception plays in our understanding of the world as well [as in] our reception of it. He argued that knowledge is “felt”: that our bodies think and know in ways which precede cognition (the processing of experience by our minds). Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined or “engaged.” The body “incarnates” our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposed, “embedded” in the “flesh” of the world. (xxix-xxx)

For Merleau-Ponty, body and world are “endlessly relational,” and the world is “made manifest only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions. We are all co-natural with the world and it with us, but we only ever see it partially” (xxx). There are many affinities between Shepherd’s thinking and Merleau-Ponty’s, Macfarlane argues, but more importantly, her “belief in bodily thinking” gives the book a contemporary relevance:

More and more of us live more and more separately from contact with nature. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world—its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits—as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. We are literally losing touch, becoming disembodied, more than in any previous historical period. Shepherd saw this process starting over sixty years ago, and her book is both a mourning and a warning. . . . Her book is a hymn to “living all the way through”: to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. (xxxi)

Shepherd’s book offers “a rigorous humanism, born of a phenomenology that–astonishingly–she mostly deduced by walking rather than developed by reading” (xxxii-xxxiii). The Phenomenology of Perception is on my reading list, and while I was aware of its importance before, Macfarlane’s discussion of the parallels between it and The Living Mountain makes me want to turn to it sooner rather than later.

“For Shepherd, the body thinks best when the mind stops, when it is ‘uncoupled’ from the body,” Macfarlane writes. “This is Shepherd’s revised version of Descartes cogito. I walk therefore I am. The rhythm of the pedestrian, the iamb of the ‘I am,’ the beat of the placed and lifted foot” (xxxiii). The knowledge The Living Mountain offers “arrives slantwise, from unexpected directions and quarters, and apparently limitlessly,” just like the knowledge the mountain offers” (xxxiii). “However often I read The Living Mountain, it holds astonishment for me,” Macfarlane concludes; “there is no getting accustomed to it” (xxxiv).

The Living Mountain is divided into 12 chapters; each focuses on one aspect of the Cairngorms–the geology and topography, water, frost and snow, air and light, plants, animals, human activities–but all are interconnected. The first chapter, “The Plateau,” begins with what is in many ways a summary of the book and its purpose:

Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them. (1)

Shepherd describes the Cairngorms for readers unfamiliar with them and then writes, “this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind” (1). Part of that reality is the “malady” that afflicts people like her, who are susceptible to mountains:

This bodily lightness, then, in the rarefied air, combines with the liberation of space to give mountain feyness to those who are susceptible to such a malady. For it is a malady, subverting the will and superseding the judgment: but a malady of which the afflicted will never ask to be cured. For this nonsense of physiology does not really explain it at all. . . . No, there is more in the lust for a mountain top than a perfect physiological adjustment. What more there is lies within the mountain. Something moves between me and it. Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it. (8)

The Living Mountain recounts that movement between place and mind, the interpenetration that alters the nature of both.

In the second chapter, “The Recesses,” Shepherd recollects her earlier encounters with the mountains. “At first, made to discover the tang of height, I made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses,” she writes (9). Then, she went with a man “who knew the hill better than I did then” to the Coire an Lochain, where she saw Loch Coire an Lochain, a loch whose unremarkable name–“Loch of the Corrie of the Loch, that is all” (10)–belies its remarkable character: “I put my fingers in the water and found it cold. I listened to the waterfall until I no longer heard it. I let my eyes travel from shore to shore very slowly and was amazed at the width of the water” (10). This experience changed Shepherd’s sense of how things are: “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the onlooker. This is how the earth  must see itself” (11). “So I looked slowly across the Coire Loch, and began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills,” she continues. “I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see” (11). She had a similar experience later, encountering Loch Avon, whose icy waters she waded into: “My spirit was as naked as my body,” she recalls. “It was one of the most defenceless moments of my life” (13). She sees the edge of the shelf along the shore, the dividing point between the loch’s shallows and its great depths, and is shaken: “I do not think it was the imminence of personal bodily danger that shook me,” she writes–so it was not a fear of drowning that prompted her strange response. “That first glance down had shocked me into a heightened power of myself, in which even fear became a rare exhilaration: not that it ceased to be fear, but fear itself, so impersonal, so keenly apprehended, enlarged rather than constricted the spirit,” she continues (14).

Part of the loch’s power, she continues, is its inaccessibility. “Silence belongs to it,” she writes. “If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness” (14). Listening, in the hills, is better than speaking, and having no destination, rather than heading for the mountain’s summits, is necessary if one is to understand: “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him” (15).

The third chapter, “The Group,” recounts two ideas that have persisted for Shepherd since her first experience climbing in the Cairngorms, a summit of Ben MacDhui. The first idea is the notion “that a mountain has an inside,” because at the top of Ben MacDhui was a “silent shining loch” (16). The second idea, she continues, “is of the inside of a cloud,” because a bank of cloud rolled in while she was on the mountain (17). That is not an uncommon experience in the Cairngorms, and Shepherd recollects her experiences inside clouds. “Once I was inside a cloud that gave no sensation whatever,” she remembers. “From within it, it was neither tangible nor visible, though as it approached it had looked thick and threatening” (17-18). A few times she has been able to “walk out through the top of a cloud” (18). “Once or twice I have had the luck to stand on a tip of ground and see a pearled and lustrous plain stretch out to the horizons,” she writes. “Far off, another peak lifts like a small island from the smother. It is like the morning of creation” (18).

Much of these first three chapters is about vision, about seeing the mountains from a distance, and silence. The fourth chapter, “Water,” moves from distant objects to closer ones. It begins with a return to the mountains: “So I am on the plateau again, having gone round it like a dog in circles to see if it is a good place. I think it is, and I am to stay up here for a while. . . . I can see to the ends of the earth and far up into the sky” (22). The  sense of repetition conveyed by the word “again” is important; Shepherd’s repeated encounters with this place are the precondition for her intimacy with it. “As I stand there in the silence,” she continues, “I become aware that the silence is not complete. Water is speaking. I go towards it, and almost at once the view is lost: for the plateau has its own hollows, and this one slopes widely down to one of the great inward fissures, the Garbh Coire” (22)–the source of the River Dee:

Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself. (23)

Streams and burns are everywhere on the mountain, appearing and then disappearing into the rock. “The water from the granite is cold,” Shepherd writes. “To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch. Yet there are midsummer days when even on the plateau the streams are warm enough to bathe in” (26). “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower,” she continues:

One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear my distinguish a dozen different notes at once. (26)

When in spate, the water’s force is dangerous:

For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength. I fear it as my ancestors must have feared the natural forces that they worshipped. All the mysteries are in its movement. It slips out of holes in the earth like the ancient snake. I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. . . . I cannot fathom its power. (27)

The idea that there are mysteries to this place that cannot be understood is, as Macfarlane stated in the introduction, one of the central arguments of The Living Mountain.

The next chapter, “Frost and Snow,” covers topics you would think Canadians would understand, but Shepherd has spent a lot of time observing winter on the mountain. She begins with “the struggle between frost and the force in the running water,” a struggle that “is not quickly over” (29). She once spent a day in midwinter watching burns freeze as the weather turned cold: “I had no idea how many fantastic shapes the freezing of running water took. In each whorl and spike one catches the moment of equilibrium between two elemental forces” (29). Sometimes, she notes, a third force, the wind, complicates the forms produced by the freezing water:

The ice may be crystal clear, but more probably is translucent; crimpled, cracked, or bubbled; green throughout or at the edges. Where the water comes wreathing over stones the ice is opaque, in broken circular structure. Where the water runs thinly over a line of stones right across the bed and freezes in crinkled green cascades of ice, then a dam forms further up of half frozen slush, green, though colourless if lifted out, solid at its margins, foliated, with the edges all separate, like untrimmed hand-made paper, and each edge a vivid green. (31)

“In short, there is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them,” she concludes, but she also registers her sense that descriptions of “these delicate manifestations” cannot possibly describe them adequately (30-31).

Shepherd recalls sleeping out on a mountain top in winter (like Macfarlane, who often sleeps out in winter, Shepherd has no fear of the cold):

The intense frost, the cloudless sky, the white world, the setting sun and the rising moon, as we gazed on them from the slop of Morrone, melted into a prismatic radiation of blue, helio, mauve, and rose. The full moon floated up into green light; and as the rose and violet hues spread over snow and sky, the colour seemed to live its own life, to have body and resilience, as though we were not looking at it, but were inside its substance. (29-30)

The following day, in the sunshine, the mountain was very different: “How crisp, how bright a world! but, except for the crunch of our own boots on the snow, how silent,” she writes. “But it was not an empty world. For everywhere in the snow were the tracks of birds and animals,” tracks which “give to winter hill walking a distinctive pleasure. One is companioned, though not in time” (30).

Shepherd’s attention to what happens when the burns freeze is matched by her attention  to them when they melt:

At one point . . . near the exit of a loch, the peculiar motion of the current among ice-floes has woven the thousands of floating pine-needles into compacted balls, so intricately intertwined that their symmetrical shape is permanently retained. They can be lifted out of the water and kept for years, a botanical puzzle to those who have not been told the secret of their formation. (33)

She notes the shapes formed as snow is “played with by frost and wind” (33), and the appearance of clouds that foretell the coming of snow (33), and the colours of snow falling and of the land after it has fallen, and of a snowy sky (34). The snow-covered plateau, “seen from without, while snow is taking possession, changes with every air,” she writes (34). Yet the snowy mountain is dangerous, not only because of the risk of getting lost in a storm and freezing to death, but because of the reflection of sunlight. “The winter light has not the strength to harm,” she notes, but in the spring, when the light is stronger, shat isn’t the case, and she was once left badly sunburned and snow-blind at the end of April (35-36).

Still, it is the blizzards that are the greatest danger:

I have watched, from the shoulder of Morrone, the Cairngorm mass eddy and sink and rise (as it seemed) like a tossed wreck on a yellow sea. Sky and the wrack of a precipice and overhang were confounded together. Now a spar, now a mast, just recognisable as buttress or cornice, tossed for a moment in the boiling sea of cloud. Then the sea closed on it, to open again with another glimpse of mounting spars—a shape drove its way for a moment through the smother, and was drawn under by the vicious swirl. Ashen and yellow, the sky kicked convulsively. (36)

It was not long before that storm reached the place where she stood watching: “Soon I could hardly stand erect against their force. And on the wind sailed minute thistledowns of snow, mere gossamers. Their fragility, insubstantial almost as air, presaged a weight and solidity of snow that was to lie on the land for many weeks” (37). “Blizzard is the most deadly condition of these hills,” Shepherd writes:

It is wind that is to be feared, even more than snow itself. Of the lives that have been lost in the Cairngorms while I have been frequenting them (there have been about a dozen, excepting those who have perished in plane crashes) four were lost in blizzard. Three fell from the rock—one of these a girl. One was betrayed by the ice-hard condition of a patch of snow in May, and slipped. All these were young. Two older men have gone out, and disappeared. The body of one of these was discovered two years later. (37-38)

She tells a story of two boys who foolishly headed out onto the mountain just before a blizzard hit, and who froze to death. “They committed, I suppose, an error of judgment, but I cannot judge them,” she concludes. “For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it” (39-40). The mountain has dangers, and that it is impossible to know the mountain unless one accepts them–and the possibility that one might be harmed by them.

Shepherd begins chapter six, “Air and Light,” with a discussion of the “deep and intense” shadows that the mountain’s “rarefied air” creates (41). “The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and soil,” she continues. “It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings” (41). In addition to colour, the air’s moisture can cause optical illusions–“those shifts in the apparent size, remoteness, and height in the sky of familiar hills” (42). Those illusions are “part of the horror of walking in mist on the plateau, for suddenly through a gap one sees solid ground that seems three steps away but lies in sober face beyond a 2000 foot chasm” (42). “And once in the Monadhliaths,” she writes,

on a soft spring day when the distances were hazed, valley, hills and sky all being a faintly luminous grey-blue, with no detail, I was suddenly aware of a pattern of definite white lines high above me in the sky. The pattern defined itself more clearly; it was familiar; I realised it was the pattern of the plateau edge and corries of the Cairngorms, where the unmelted snow still lay. There it hung, a snow skeleton, attached to nothing, much higher than I should have expected it to be. (42)

Rain, haze, and mist also affect how one sees. Mist is the most frightening; “when the mist thickens, one walks in a blind world,” she writes. “And that is bad: though there is a thrill in its eeriness, and a sound satisfaction in not getting lost” (44). There is beauty in the rain, she writes, but not a “sodden, sullen black rain that invades body and soul alike”; at such times, the mountain “becomes a monstrous place” (44). It is also desolate in the early spring, “when the snow is rather dirty, perished in places like a worn dress”:

But even in this scene of grey desolation, if the sun comes out and the wind rises, the eye may suddenly perceive a miracle of beauty. For on the ground the down of a ptarmigan’s breast feather has caught the sun. Light blows through it, so transparent the fugitive spindrift feather has become. It blows away and vanishes. (44-45)

On another “drab” spring day, “feeling as drab as the weather,”

I stand on a bridge above a swollen stream. And suddenly the world is made new. Submerged but erect in the margin of the stream I see a tree hung with light—a minimal tree, but exquisite, its branches delicate with globes of light that sparkle under the water. I clamber down and thrust a sacrilegious hand into the stream: I am holding a sodden and shapeless thing. I slip it again under the water and instantly again it is a tree of light. (45)

The “tree of light” turns out to be a branch of St. John’s Wort, the oily leaves of which are reflecting the light (45).

“Storm in the air wakes the hidden fires,” Shepherd writes (45). Those “hidden fires” include lightning, the aurora borealis, and “the electric flickers we call fire flauchts” (45). “Under these alien lights the mountains are remote. They withdraw in darkness” (45). That reminds Shepherd of what it’s like walking in the dark, which “can reveal new knowledge about a particular place” (46). Once, during a wartime blackout, she walked over the moor:

it amazed me to find how unfamiliar I was with that path. I had followed it times without number, yet now, when my eyes were in my feet, I did not know its bumps and holes, nor where the trickles of water crossed it, nor where it rose and fell. It astonished me that my memory was so much in the eye and so little in the feet, for I am not awkward in the dark and walk easily and happily in it. Yet here I am stumbling because the rock has made a hump in the ground. To be a blind man, I see, needs application. (46)

The more one comes to know the mountain, the more mysteries it appears to possess.

In her seventh chapter, “Life: The Plants,” Shepherd sets out to correct a misapprehension her readers might have about the mountain after reading the previous half of the book:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grow from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one. (48)

It is surprising, though, given the “terrible blasting winds,” that anything can grow on the mountain (48). “The plants of the plateau are low in stature, sitting tight to the ground with now loose ends for the wind to catch,” she writes. “They creep, either along the surface, or under it; or they anchor themselves by a heavy root massive out of all proportion to their external growth” (49-50). Lower down the slopes and on the moors is the “profuse luxuriance” of the heather (50). Walking through the heather in summer, its pollen “rises in a perfumed cloud” and

settles on one’s boots, or if one is walking barefoot, on feet and legs, yellowy-fawn in colour, silky to the touch, yet leaving a perceptible grit between the fingers. Miles of this, however, stupifies the body. Like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp edge of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of the intellect as well as the surge of emotion. (51)

The best thing about heather is the feel of it underfoot–especially when she removes her boots and walks barefoot on the mountain.

There are many smells on the mountain, but they are all of life, “plant and animal. Even the good smell of earth, one of the best smells in the world is a smell of life, because it is the activity of bacteria in it that sets up this smell” (52). She loves the odours of plants, particularly fir trees and pines, which, because “the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself”: “When the aromatic savour of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering. I draw life in through the delicate hairs of my nostrils” (52). Here is the interpenetration between Shepherd and the mountain that Macfarlane describes; Shepherd’s nostril hairs are an interior version of the pines’ needles, and the life of one enters into the life of the other. The birch trees, though, require rain to release their odour: “It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day, one can be as good as drunk with it. Acting through the sensory nerves, it confuses the higher centres; one is excited, with no cause that the wit can define” (53). The birches are loveliest when naked: “Without transfiguration, they are seen to be purple–when the sap is rising, a purple so glowing that I have caught sight of a birchwood on a hillside and for one incredulous moment thought the heather was in bloom” (53). But even more spectacular than spring is October, “the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August,” as the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs turn colour (54).

Shepherd shifts now to the effect of human activity on the forests. The great old-growth pine forest of Rothiemurchus is mostly gone, she notes, and the effects on animals, birds, and the land itself are marked (54-56). Other activities seem less catastrophic; she describes how old women use fir roots to make fire for tea (57-58), and recalls her childhood experiences of picking stag moss:

We lay on the heather and my fingers learned to feel their way along each separate trail and side branch, carefully detaching each tiny root, until we had thick bunchy pieces many yards long. It was a good art to teach a child. Though I did not know it then, I was learning my way in, through my own fingers, to the secret of growth. (58)

The mountain “never quite gives away” that secret, Shepherd writes, and although humans are “slowly learning to read it,” watching, pondering, patiently adding “fact to fact,” “[t]he more one learns of this delicate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect . . . the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery” (59).

The following chapter, “Life: Birds, Animals, Insects,” examines the other life forms on the plateau. Shepherd recalls her first visit there in summer, on a warm day, and her discovery of swifts:

Something dark swished past the side of my head at a speed that made me giddy. Hardly had I got back my balance when it came again, whistling through the windless air, which eddied around me with the motion. This time my eyes were ready, and I realised that a swift was sweeping in mighty curves over the edge of the plateau, plunging down the face of the rock and rising again like a jet of water. (60)

She is “shocked . . . with a thrill of elation. All that volley of speed, those convolutions of delight, to catch a few flies! The discrepancy between purpose and performance made me laugh aloud–a laugh that gave the feeling of release as though I had been dancing for a long time” (60). There is something erotic in that release, and in the strength of her response to these birds:

I have never felt so strongly as when watching swifts on the mountain top. Their headlong rush, each curve of which is at the same time a miracle of grace, the swishing sound of their cleavage of the air and the occasional high pitched cry that is hardly like the note of an earthly bird, seem to make visible and audible some essence of the free, wild spirit of the mountain. (61)

“Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain–eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare,” she writes. “The reason for their swiftness is severely practical: food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches may hope to survive” (64). And yet, she continues, “their grace is not necessity. Or if it is–if the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by strict adherence to the needs of function–so much the more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential” (64).

But speed is not the only characteristic of the animals and birds living on the plateau. Deer, especially, seem to have the ability to become invisible: “Indeed there are times when the earth seems to re-absorb this creature of air and light,” Shepherd writes. “Roes melt into the wood–I have stared a long time into birches where I knew a doe was standing and saw her only when at last she flicked an ear” (72). Fawns, though, lack patience, and will walk away rather than stand still (72).

Shepherd concludes the chapter with a catalogue of bird, animal, and insect life on the mountain:

Other young things–leverets in the form wrapped in silky hair–fox cubs playing in the sun in a distant fold of the hill–the fox himself with his fat red brush–the red-brown squirrel in the woods below, whacking his tail against the tree-trunk and chattering through closed lips (I think) against the intruder–gold-brown lizards and the gold-brown floss of cocoons in the heather–small golden bees and small blue butterflies–green dragon flies and emerald beetles–moths like oiled paper and moths like burnt paper–water-beetles skimming the highest tarns–small mice so rare seen but leaving a thousand tracks upon the snow–ant-heaps of birch-twigs or pine-needles (preens, in the northern world) flickering with activity when the sun shines–midges, mosquitoes, flies by the hundred thousand, adders and a rare strange slowworm–small frogs jumping like tiddly-winks–rich brown hairy caterpillars by the handful and fat green ones with blobs of amethyst, a perfect camouflage on heather–life in so many guises. (74)

Those life forms are so varied and wonderful, compared to the creatures humans value for economic reasons–sheep, deer, and Highland cattle, whose faces, Shepherd suggests, must “be the origin of the Scots conception of the Devil” (74-75). The life that exists outside of what we value, outside of what we consider to be a resource, is nearly beyond our comprehension; I think that’s the reason Shepherd relies on a catalogue to convey its variety and wonder. The range of living creatures simply outstrips her descriptive power.

The next chapter, “Man,” is about human activity on the mountains. “Up on the plateau nothing has moved for a long time,” Shepherd writes. “I have walked all day, and seen no one. I have heard no living sound. Once, in a solitary corrie, the rattle of a falling stone betrayed the passage of a line of stags. But up here, no movement, no voice. Man might be a thousand years away” (76). And yet, she continues, “as I look around me, I am touched at many points by his presence”: in cairns, paths, stepping stones across burns, bridges, “the remains of the hut where the men who made the Ordnance Survey of the eighteen-sixties lived for the whole of a season,” “in the map and compass that I carry, and in the names recorded in the map,” “in the hiding-holes of hunted men,” “in the sluices at the outflow of the lochs, the remnants of lime kilns by the burns, and the shepherds’ huts, roofless now, and the bothies of which nothing remains but a chimney-gable,” and “in the wrecked aeroplanes that lie scattered over the mountains” (76-77). The traces of human activity are everywhere on the mountain, even when it seems to be utterly devoid of people.

It is a hard life for those who live in the Cairngorms. “These crofts and farms and gamekeepers’ cottages breed men of character,” Shepherd writes. “They are individualists, gritty, tough, thrawn, intelligent, full of prejudice, with strange kinks and a salted sense of humour. Life here is hard and astringent, but it seldom kills grace in the soul” (80). The days are long, the work hard: “In these crannies of the mountains, the mode of supplying elemental needs is still low, laborious and personal” (82). Nevertheless, in “these simple acts” of drawing water, building fires, and cooking, “there is a deep pervasive satisfaction”: “Whether you give it conscious thought or not, you are touching life, and something within you knows it” (82). But before you accuse Shepherd of romanticizing a life she did not care to lead, she notes that “if I had to do these things every day and all the time I should be shutting the door on other activities and interests”–including, no doubt, exploring the mountain and writing about it–“and I can understand why the young people resent it” (82). Not all of the young want to leave, she continues: “Far from it. Some of them love these wild places with devotion and ask nothing better than to spend their lives in them” (82). But others “are restive, they resent the primitive conditions of living, despise the slow ancient ways, and think that praising them is sentimentalism. They clear out” (82).

Shepherd’s contact with those who live on the plateau has been as one of “the lovers of the hills whom they allow to share their houses,” accepting such strangers “on equal terms without ceremonial” (82-83). They accept mountain climbing and “oddities like night prowling and sleeping in the open,” but they have no tolerance for irresponsibility:

They have only condemnation for winter climbing. They know only too well how swiftly a storm can blow up out of a clear sky, how soon the dark comes down, and how terrific the force of a hurricane can be upon the plateau. . . . Yet if a man does not come back, they go out to search for him with patience, doggedness and skill, often in appalling weather conditions; and when there is no more hope of his being alive, seek persistently for the body. (84)

“These people are the bone of the mountain,” she writes, after describing and naming several whom she knows well. “As the way of life changes, and a new economy moulds their life, perhaps they too will change. Yet so long as they live a life close to their wild land, subject to its weathers, something of its own nature will permeate theirs. They will be marked men” (89). What an odd phrase to end the chapter with–“marked men”–with its (to my ear) negative connotations, its source (I think) in the story of Cain and Abel. Wasn’t Cain the first “marked man”? Why end this chapter’s evocation of those who live on the mountain with that phrase?

The following chapter thinks about sleep. It begins with a summary of Shepherd’s experience in the Cairngorms:

Well, I have discovered my mountain—its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year, I have grown in familiarity with them all. But if the whole truth of them is to be told as I have found it, I too am involved. I have been the instrument of my own discovering; and to govern the stops of the instrument needs learning too. Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies. I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountains. One of the most compelling is quiescence. (90)

“No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it,” Shepherd argues, and in sleeping on the mountain, one only “dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world” (90). She has slept on the mountain at night, and during the day (90-91). Such outdoor sleeping, she suggests, empties or uncouples the mind. “I do not ascribe sentience to the mountain; yet at no other moment am I sunk quite so deep into its life,” she writes. “I have let go my self. The experience is peculiarly precious because it is impossible to coerce” (91). The chapter ends with recollections of different experiences sleeping–or more accurately, awakening–on the mountain, in different seasons, and the strange experiences she has had waking at dawn with birds walking on her, or deer feeding nearby, experiences which leave her wondering if she dreamed them.

Chapter 11, “The Senses,” returns to the evocation of Shepherd’s various senses that has formed much of the earlier chapters. “Having disciplined mind and body to quiescence, I must discipline them also to activity,” she begins. “The senses must be used” (96). Each of the senses is a way to what the mountain has to give” (97): hearing; taste; scent; vision and touch, which “have the greatest potency for me” (97-98). Sight is clearly paramount for Shepherd: “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?–the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow; of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal; of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces” (101). “Perhaps,” she wonders,

the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuously creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence. (101-02)

But touch is, she writes, “the most intimate sense of all” (102). She uses her hands to touch the mountain, but also her feet (102-04). Some experiences of touch are so powerful that they seem to annihilate her: “This plunge into the cold water of a mountain pool seems for a brief moment to disintegrate the very self; it is not to be borne: one is lost: stricken: annihilated. Then life pours back” (104).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book’s last chapter, “Being,” picks up on the senses:

Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, livingin one sense at a time to live all the way through. (105)

When she lies on the plateau, she experiences “the total mountain”: “Slowly I have found my way in. If I had other senses, there are other things I should know” (105). “Yet,” she continues,

with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain–the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation. The many details—a stroke here, a stroke there—come for a moment into perfect focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the beginning. (105-06)

“These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood,” she writes (106). They come to her when she is waking up outdoors; when she is “gazing tranced at the running water and listening to its song”;

and most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known in the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being. . . . Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. (106)

“It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance,” she continues,

that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.

So I have found what I set out to find. I set out on my journey in pure love. (106)

She recalls her first experiences in the Cairngorms, when she was a child. “I drank and drank,” she writes. “I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms” (107). “So my journey into an experience began”–an experience of discovering “the mountain in itself,” a process that “has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the growing” (107-08). Finally, she suggests that this journey of discovery has been a kind of pilgrimage:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This has been a quite lengthy summary of a rather short book, but I think The Living Mountain deserves this kind of attention. There is so much going on in this book, so much to admire: its detailed evocation of the experiences of the five senses, particularly sight and touch; its suggestion that coming to know a place is also a process of coming to know one’s self; its description of the way walking can produce a state of trance; its loving acceptance of the mountain and all of the creatures, plant and animal and bird and insect, that make it their homes. I find myself wishing I had found, years or decades ago, a place that I might have explored in the way that Shepherd explored the Cairngorms, deeply and thoroughly and humbly–something few of us are able to do, I think, and yet another reason why The Living Mountain is so important.

Work Cited

Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2011.

48. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”

ingold temporality of the landscape

I decided to read Tim Ingold’s essay “The Temporality of the Landscape” for two reasons. First, Doreen Massey mentioned it as an example of thinking about space and temporality, and second, in my experience, I’ve always found that Ingold has interesting things to say. It’s an odd essay, though, and while I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a valuable example of phenomenological thinking about space and place.

Ingold begins by stressing what he sees as two central themes in both archaeology and anthropology:

First, human life is a process that involves the passage of time. Second, this life-process is also the process of formation of the landscapes in which people have lived. Time and landscape, then, are to my mind the essential points of topical contact between archaeology and anthropology. (152)

That contact between archaeology and anthropology is really the thing Ingold is interested in exploring. He states that his purpose in writing this essay is

to bring the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology into unison through a focus on the temporality of the landscape. . . . such a focus might enable us to move beyond the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space. (152)

Rather than those oppositions, Ingold argues that we need to adopt what he calls “a ‘dwelling perspective,’ according to which the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left something of themselves” (152). That perspective is what connects archaeology and anthropology together; anthropology, he suggests, is about “knowledge born of immediate experience,” but archaeology isn’t knowledge about people who are now dead; “the practice of archaeology is itself a form of dwelling” (152). The use of the word “dwelling” suggests that Ingold’s argument is based in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which he cites halfway through this essay (162). I really would have to re-read “Building Dwelling Thinking” if I wanted to get the most out of Ingold’s essay. 

According to Ingold, for both anthropology (knowledge provided by “the native dweller”) and archaeology,

the landscape tells—or rather is—a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around on it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (152-53)

The methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists are different, as are the stories they tell, but “they are engaged in projects of fundamentally the same kind” (153). He gives, as an example, an imagined experienced hunter, who knows about the land and has learned about it through experience and being taught. If asked to communicate this knowledge (by an anthropologist), that hunter may do so in the form of stories. Such stories would be different from the anthropologist’s site report, Ingold notes, but

we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is on in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all. Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can “tell” is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of his audience along the same paths as his own. (153)

I might not be interested in the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, but I am interested in stories as the result of being perceptually attuned to an environment, and so, despite the disciplinary framework of Ingold’s essay, I decided to keep reading.

Ingold notes that his essay is divided into four parts. The first is a defence of his use of the term “landscape.” Landscape, he suggests, is not “land,” or “nature,” or “space” (153). The term “land,” he argues, “is a kind of lowest common denominator of the phenomenal world, inherent in every portion of the earth’s surface yet directly visible in none” (153). We can ask how much land there is, he contends, but not what that land is like (153-54). “But where land is thus quantitative and homogenous,” he continues, “the landscape is qualitative and heterogenous” (154). Landscape is what we see all around us; it is “a contoured and textured surface replete with diverse objects—living and non-living, natural and artificial” (154). “Thus,” he writes, “at any particular moment, you can ask of a landscape what it is like, but not how much of it there is” (154). 

Nor is landscape “nature.” For Ingold, “nature” is a concept “whose ontological foundation is an imagined separation between the human perceiver and the world, such that the perceiver has to reconstruct the world, in consciousness, prior to any meaningful engagement with it” (154). That separation between humans and the natural world suggests that it is “out there,” while we are “in here,” “in the intersubjective space marked out by our mental representations” (154). That dualism, he contends, leads to a conception of nature as a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing one’s surroundings—a division between inner and outer worlds that Ingold rejects: “The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order” (154). Landscape, he continues, is not identical to nature; nor is it “on the side of humanity against nature” (154). “As the familiar domain of our dwelling,” Ingold writes, landscape “is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it. Moreover, what goes for its human component goes for other components as well”—in a landscape, that is, “each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other” (154). 

Landscape isn’t space, either:  “To appreciate the contrast, we could compare the everyday project of dwelling in the world with the rather peculiar and specialized project of the surveyor or cartographer whose objective is to represent it” (154). Space, then, for Ingold, is the result of the surveyor’s measurements, which “produce a single picture which is independent of any point of observation” (154-55). In other words, space is a particular form of representation. However, Ingold shifts from a discussion of space to one of place over the course of a complicated analogy between what geographers and anthropologists mean by space, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that there is a homologous relation between thought and sound (155). “Just as the word, for Saussure, is the union of a concept with a delimited ‘chunk’ of sound,” Ingold writes, “so the place is the union of a symbolic meaning with a delimited block of the earth’s surface” (155). Place is associated with landscape in this argument, rather than with space. In its relation to place, landscape is different from space:

For a place in the landscape is not “cut out” from the whole, either on the plane of ideas or on that of material substance. Rather, each place embodies the whole at a particular nexus within it, and in this respect is different from every other. A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there—to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its particular ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. (155)

In addition, “while places have centres—indeed it would be more appropriate to say that they are centres—they have no boundaries” (155-56), a suggestion that seems to contradict Ingold’s earlier assertion that places are delimited. No feature of the landscape is, of itself, a boundary: “It can only become a boundary, or the indicator of a boundary, in relation to the activities of the people (or animals) for whom it is recognized or experienced as such” (156). “In short,” he continues, “the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit is places and journey along the paths connecting them” (156).

Ingold’s suggestion that a place is a nexus reminds me of Massey’s suggestion that places are “the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated” (71), but I think his sense of place is much closer to Yi-Fu Tuan’s than Massey’s, since he is suggesting that place is the product of a phenomenological or sensory engagement with the world, and that it is also the result of the activities of its inhabitants. Place, for Ingold, is what is known and experienced, I think, rather than, as for Massey, a location of coherence in identity formation (71). It is difficult to bring together writers working from such variant intellectual starting points, and should I try to bring Tuan and Massey together, I think I’ll discover that such a rapprochement is nearly impossible. I’m still convinced that Tuan and Massey, or for that matter Ingold and Massey, do have points of connection regarding place, but making that argument is going to be hard.

Landscape isn’t environment, either, according to Ingold. An environment is an organized system of dynamic functioning (156)—like an ecosystem—while landscape, in contrast,

puts the emphasis on form, in just the same way that the concept of the body emphasizes the form rather than the function of a living creature. Like organism and environment, body and landscape are complementary terms: each implies the other, alternately as figure and ground. The forms of the landscape are not, however, prepared in advance for creatures to occupy, nor are the bodily forms of those creatures independently sustained in and through the processual unfolding of a total field of relations that cuts across the emergent interface between organism and environment. (156)

The notion of a “processual unfolding of a total field of relations” suggests the ways that the inhabitants of a landscape, both human and nonhuman, play a role in constructing the forms of a given landscape. Landscape is about processes and relations which shape that landscape.

It doesn’t really matter to me that Ingold prefers the term “landscape” over nature or environment or land or space, but I would rather avoid it, for several reasons. I recall that, years ago, reading about landscape in course I was taking on the sublime at York University, I read an essay that argued that landscape is a visual and aesthetic term, typically modified by adjectives like “sublime” or “picturesque.” Ingold’s ekphrastic recourse to Pieter Brughel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Harvesters in the fourth section of his essay suggests, ironically, the connection between the term “landscape” and aesthetic representation. I prefer to use the term “land,” partly because that’s the term I’ve heard Indigenous people use to describe their relation to the territory where they live and work. I don’t accept Ingold’s argument that the word “land” is necessarily “quantitative and homogenous” (154); there’s no reason to assume that it cannot be “qualitative and heterogenous,” terms he applies to “landscape” (154). I understand why he avoids “nature,” a term that is a cultural category, an imagined space free of human activity—a definition that has led to Indigenous people being forced off their land to make way for national parks in this country. 

The term “environment” leads Ingold to think about life-cycles, and he wonders whether it might not be possible “to identify a corresponding cycle, or rather a series of interlocking cycles, which build themselves into the forms of the landscape, and of which the landscape may accordingly be regarded as an environment” (157). Before he can answer that question, he suggests, it’s necessary to define temporality (157). I suppose that’s because the existence of such “interlocking cycles” suggests things happening in the landscape over time. Temporality is not chronology or history; it is not “a regular system of dated time intervals, in which events are said to have taken place” (chronology), nor “any series of events which may be dated in time according to their occurrence in one or another chronological interval” (history) (157). Rather, according to Ingold, “temporality entails a perspective that contrasts radically with the one . . . that sets up history and chronology in a relation of complementary opposition” (157). Temporality is about “time immanent in the passage of events,” events which encompass patterns of “retensions from the past and protentions for the future” (157). I remember a course I took at the University of Ottawa about the connection between temporality and literary texts, and the idea that the present involves both memories of the past and anticipations of the future, an idea derived from Heidegger, has stayed with me. History and chronology, unlike temporality, treat events “as isolated happenings, succeeding one another frame by frame,” events which are “strung out in time like beads on a thread” (157). However, “temporality and historicity are not opposed but rather merge in the experience of those who, in their activities, carry forward the process of social life,” Ingold contends. “Taken together, these activities make up what I shall call the ‘taskscape’” (157). 

The taskscape is inherently temporal, and Ingold sets out to distinguish task from labour as a way of clarifying what he means by taskscape. The distinction is not unlike the one he drew between land and landscape; “labour is quantitative and homogenous, human work shorn of its particularities,” whereas tasks are “the practices of work in their concrete particulars” (158). Tasks are, he continues, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling” (158). Tasks are not, however, individualized, or suspended in a vacuum, any more than features in a landscape are: “Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (158). The taskscape, then, is inherently “qualitative and heterogenous,” as well as social (158-59). Participants in the taskscape perceive its temporality as they perform their tasks, Ingold argues. “The notion that we can stand aside and observe the passage of time is founded upon an illusion of disembodiment” (159). The taskscape, then, must be embodied, but that embodiment involves both past and present—in other words, it is temporal:

Reaching out into the taskscape, I perceive, at this moment, a particular vista of past and future; but it is a vista that is available from this moment and no other. As such, it constitutes my present, conferring upon it a unique character. Thus the present is not marked off from a past that it has replaced or a future that will, in turn, replace it; it rather gathers the past and future into itself, like refractions in a crystal ball. (159)  

“The temporality of the taskscape is social, then,” Ingold continues, “not because society provides an external frame against which particular tasks find independent measure, but because people, in the performance of their tasks, also attend to one another” (159-60).

For Ingold, “music mirrors the temporal form of the taskscape”: orchestral musicians play their instruments, attend to the conductor, and listen to the other players, all at the same time. These activities are inseparable parts of the same action (160). And music, he continues, is simpler than social life, in which “there is not just one rhythmic cycle, but a complex interweaving of very many concurrent cycles” (160). Therefore, “the forms of the taskscape, like those of music, come into being through movement” (160). Just like music, which only exists as it is being performed, the taskscape only exists “so long as people are actually engaged in the activities of dwelling” (160). But if landscape and taskscape are not to be opposed, the way nature is to culture, how are they related? How can we distinguish between them?

To answer these questions, Ingold turns to another art form: painting. Painting, he claims, is the “most natural medium for representing the forms of the landscape” (161). The work of creating a painting is subordinated to the final product, the painting itself, because (at least in Western cultures) painting is not performed; therefore, the painting itself becomes the only object of contemplation, with the labour of creating the painting hidden (161). For Ingold, a painting, like a landscape, is not given to us, “ready-made”: the landscape, he argues, is a living process, making and being made by human activity:

the landscape takes on its forms through a process of incorporation, not of inscription. That is to say, the process is not one whereby cultural design is imposed upon a naturally given substrate, as though the movement issued from the form and was completed in its concrete realization in the material. For the forms of the landscape arise alongside those of the taskscape, within the same current of activity. If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was “inscribed” in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking. (162)

Because “the activities that comprise the taskscape are unending, the landscape is never complete: neither ‘built’ nor ‘unbuilt,’ it is perpetually under construction” (162). This notion of the landscape as a work-in-progress is the reason why the “conventional dichotomy between natural and artificial (or ‘man-made’) components of the landscape is so problematic”:

Virtually by definition, an artefact is an object shaped to a pre-conceived image that motivated its construction, and it is “finished” at the point when it is brought into conformity with this image. . . . But the forms of the landscape are not pre-prepared for people to live in—not by nature nor by human hands—for it is in the very process of dwelling that these forms are constituted. (162)

This claim is interesting, but surely we can distinguish between, say, biological components of a landscape (in this province, the presence of a grassland or a forest) or geological components of a landscape (hills, valleys, glacial erratics, different soil types) and components that are clearly the result of human activity (from tipi rings and medicine wheels to fences and buildings and pumpjacks and cell towers). That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the way that biological components of a landscape are shaped by human activity—by the use of fire by Indigenous people, for example, to clear undergrowth in a forest or to renew a grassland—but it seems to me, particularly as human activity (suggested by the word Anthropocene) is destroying the biological components of the landscape, such as birds or grasslands, that we live alongside, we need to see the difference between our activity and the activity (or even work) of the nonhuman world.

The taskscape, Ingold continues, “exists not just as activity but as interactivity,” because it “must be populated with beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling” (163). This interactivity involves both humans and animals (163). It also involves what we might consider inanimate forces, because we resonate to cycles of tides, of light and dark, of vegetative growth and decay, and of seasons, resonances which are embodied, “in the sense that they are not only historically incorporated into the enduring features of the landscape but also developmentally incorporated into our very constitution as biological organisms” (163). “It would seem, then,” Ingold writes, “that the pattern of resonances that comprises the temporality of the taskscape must be expanded to embrace the totality of rhythmic phenomena, whether animate or inanimate” (163-64). If we think of the world “as a total movement of becoming which builds itself into the forms we see, and in which each form takes shape in continuous relation to those around it,” he continues, “then the distinction between the animate and the inanimate seems to dissolve,” and the world takes on the characteristics of an organism itself (164). “This means that in dwelling in the world, we do not act upon it, or do things to it,” Ingold contends; “rather we move along with it. Our actions do not transform the world, they are part and parcel of the world’s transforming itself. And that is just another way of saying that they belong in time” (164). Again, I’m not sure how, in a context where human activity is reshaping the planet—by, among other things, driving at least a million other species to extinction—that anyone could argue we aren’t doing things to the world. We are changing its climate, for instance. Okay, I can see how Ingold is arguing that our activity is not separate from the activity of other species, but really, our effect on the planet is so outsized, compared to other species, that it is different—if not in kind, then in impact. I mean, isn’t there a big difference between a tipi ring and a tar sands tailings pond?

“[I]n the final analysis,” Ingold writes, “everything is suspended in movement”: “What appear to use as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are constructed” (164). This is a point of contact between Ingold and Massey; both emphasize the importance of geological time, glacial activity, continental drift, and erosion. “[T]he rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life,” Ingold continues, “which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-processes of the world” (164). If we place “the tasks of human dwelling in their proper context within the process of becoming of the world as a whole,” he suggests, “we can do away with the dichotomy between taskscape and landscape—only, however, by recognizing the fundamental temporality of the landscape itself” (164). This statement may be the reason Massey cited this article, given her insistence on the temporality of space. It would be interesting, though, to see how she would respond to Ingold’s choice of “landscape” over “space.” 

Having defined landscape and taskspace, and having used the notion of temporality to construct a relation between them, Ingold now moves on to his conclusion, an ekphrastic discussion of Brueghel’s The Harvesters. He invites his readers to imagine themselves in the landscape depicted in the painting, watching and listening to the scene unfolding (164-66). This section of the essay is odd, but there are parts that I find useful. For instance, Ingold argues that the division between hill and valley is “not spatial or altitudinal but kinaesthetic”:

It is the movements of falling away from, and rising up towards, that specify the form of the hill; and the movements of falling away towards, and rising up from, that specify the form of the valley. Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt—they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience. (166)

This is one of the arguments I would make about walking as a way of perceiving the land: it is a kinaesthetic perception, through the activity of our muscles and joints as we climb and descend, as we experience “the contours of the landscape” with our bodies. But even standing still, the same principle applies: our eyes move, or we tilt our heads in accord with our attention, as we follow its course through the landscape (166). He notes that we move through the landscape (typically) on paths and tracks, which are “the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made . . . as they have gone about their everyday business,” imprints that reflect their “muscular consciousness,” as Gaston Bachelard would have it (there’s another book to read: The Poetics of Space). “In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations,” Ingold writes. “It is the taskscape made visible” (167). I wonder if my friend Matthew Anderson, who is so interested in historical paths in Saskatchewan, has read this article; he might find the notion that paths and trails are “the taskscape made visible” very suggestive. Ingold discusses the tree in the painting, and the field of wheat the harvesters are reaping, and the church in the background. Both the church and the tree are what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “chronotopes,” he suggests: places charged with temporality, where temporality “takes on palpable form” (169). Both the tree and the church are also subject to temporality through change: the tree grows, while the church is subject to processes of weathering and decomposition, of maintenance and repair (169-70). That is an example, I suppose, of the similarities (if not the lack of a distinction between) the natural and artificial in the landscape.

For Ingold, the landscape “is not a totality that you or anyone else can look at, it is rather the world in which we stand in taking up a point of view on our surroundings. And it is within the context of this attentive involvement in the landscape that the human imagination gets to work in fashioning ideas about it” (171). “Meaning,” he concludes,

is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we know how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. This discovery procedure, wherein objects in the landscape become clues to meaning, is what distinguishes the perspective of dwelling. (172)

Since dwelling “is fundamentally temporal, the apprehension of the landscape in the dwelling perspective must begin from a recognition of its temporality,” he continues: 

Only through such recognition, by temporalizing the landscape, can we move beyond the division that has afflicted most inquiries up to now, between the ‘scientific’ study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history.  (172)

“And no discipline is better placed to take this step than archaeology,” which is, he concludes, the study of “the temporality of the landscape” (172).

As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in creating connections between archaeology and anthropology, and I wonder if archaeologists would accept Ingold’s definition of their field of inquiry as “the temporality of the landscape.” Nevertheless, “The Temporality of the Landscape” was worth reading, even though I disagree with aspects of its argument. I particularly like the phenomenological emphasis on attending to the land, and to one’s embodied experience of land by walking in it. I also like the way that Ingold arrives at the notion that the land is spatial and temporal, although he gets there through a very different intellectual trajectory than Massey. Who knows? I might end up returning to this essay in future writing about walking and about attending to the land. 

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstader, Harper, 2013, pp. 141-60.

Ingold, Tim. “The Temporality of the Landscape.” World Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 152-74.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

I’ve meant to read Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space for quite some time now. My friend Rachelle Viader Knowles, who teaches at Coventry University, has told me that For Space was very influential on her PhD work. Also, while I’m very interested in the distinction Yi-Fu Tuan makes between space and place, I’m also aware that any such binary opposition is begging to be deconstructed, and from the title of Massey’s book, I thought that might be part of her project. If I’m going to think about space and place, I thought, I’m going to need to be aware of critiques of that opposition, and if that’s what Massey’s up to, then I would have to read her book.

Massey isn’t primarily interested in distinctions between space and place, but that doesn’t mean that her book isn’t important for my research. (Also, I had better point out at the very beginning that For Space is a complex book, and because I’m trying to follow the turns of Massey’s argument in detail, this post is going to be rather long.) Massey begins by saying that she’s been thinking about space for a long time, but in an indirect way, “through some other kind of engagement,” including “the politics of space” and “[t]he battles over globalisation,” “the engagements with ‘nature’ as I walk the hills,” and “the complexities of cities” (1)—all themes she returns to later in For Space. “It is through these persistent ruminations—that sometimes don’t seem to go anywhere and then sometimes do—that I have become convinced both that the implicit assumptions we make about space are important and that, maybe, it could be productive to think about space differen[t]ly” (1). That is precisely what For Space does: it takes on our “implicit assumptions” about space and thinks about space in a different way.

One of Massey’s primary concerns is the way we imagine space, the way we think about it. She begins with the story of the encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, when the Spanish met the Aztecs at their capital, Tenochtitlán, a story that stands in, metonymically, for the history of European exploration and colonization of the globe, a story that depended on a particular conception of space as a surface, “continuous and given,” a way of thinking about space that “differentiates”: “Hernán, active, a maker of history, journeys across this surface and finds Tenochtitlán upon it” (4). This “unthought cosmology,” Massey writes, “carries with it social and political effects” (4):

So easily this way of imagining space can lead us to conceive of other places, peoples, cultures simply as phenomena “on” this surface. It is not an innocent manoeuvre, for by this means they are deprived of histories. Immobilised, they await Cortés’ (or our, or global capital’s) arrival. They lie there, on space, without their own trajectories. Such a space makes it more difficult to see in our mind’s eye the histories the Aztecs too have been living and producing. What might it mean to reorientate this imagination, to question that habit of thinking of space as a surface? If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations of time and space? (4)

A related phenomenon is “the story of the inevitability of globalisation,” by which its proponents mean “the inevitability of that particular form of neoliberal capitalist globalisation that we are experiencing at the moment—that duplicitous combination of the glorification of the (unequally) free movement of capital on the one hand with the firm control over the movement of labour on the other,” which leads to the claim that other countries are “behind” wealthy nations and will eventually follow on the same path (4-5). This “proposition,” Massey argues, “turns geography into history, space into time,” a shift that, again, has political and social effects: other countries are imagined as if they do not have “their own trajectories, their own particular histories, and the potential for their own, perhaps different, futures. They are not recognised as coeval others. They are merely at an earlier stage in the one and only narrative it is possible to tell” (5). That “cosmology of ‘only one narrative,’” Massey writes, “obliterates the multiplicities, the contemporaneous heterogeneities of space. It reduces simultaneous existence to place in the historical queue” (5). “What if,” she asks, “we refuse to convene space into time? What if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space (literally) for a multiplicity of trajectories? What kinds of conceptualisation of time and space, and of their relation, might that give on to?” (5)

Then Massey turns to place. “In the context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonances,” she writes:

Its symbolic value is endlessly mobilised in political argument. For some it is the sphere of the everyday, of real and valued practices, the geographical source of meaning, vital to hold on to as “the global” spins its ever more powerful and alienating webs. For others, a “retreat to place” represents a protective pulling-up of drawbridges and a building of walls against the new invasions. Place, on this reading, is the locus of denial, of attempted withdrawal from invasion/difference. It is a politically conservative haven, an essentialising (and in the end unviable) basis for a response; one that fails to address the real forces at work. (5-6)

Place is, or at least it can be, about “nationalisms and territorial parochialisms characterised by claims to local specificity and by a hostility to at least some designated others” (6). Place, in contemporary terms, is the motivating force for Brexit, or for Trump’s desired border wall. And yet, is it always “a politically conservative haven”? “[W]hat of the defence of place by working-class communities in the teeth of globalisation,” she asks, “or by aboriginal groups clinging to a last bit of land?” (6). Place is ambiguous: “Horror at local exclusivities sits uneasily against support for the vulnerable struggling to defend their patch” (6). Nevertheless, there are “often shared undergirding assumptions” of place:

as closed, coherent, integrated as authentic, as “home,” a secure retreat; of space as somehow originarily regionalised, as always-already divided up. And more than that again, they institute, implicitly but held within the very discourses that they mobilise, a counterposition, sometimes even a hostility, certainly an implicit imagination of different theoretical “levels” (of the abstract versus the everyday, and so forth) between space on the one hand and place on the other. (6)

Again, Massey offers a number of questions in response to these distinctions between space and place:

What if we refuse this imagination? What then not only of the nationalisms and parochialisms which we might gladly see thereby undermined, but also of the notion of local struggles or of the defence of place more generally? And what if we refuse that distinction, all too appealing it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless)? (6)

What, indeed, would happen if we abandoned the distinction between place as meaningful and space as abstract? That is Tuan’s distinction: how else could one assert the difference between locations one knows and that have meaning, and locations one does not know or understand? 

“The imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed, the turning of space into time, the sharp separation of local place from the space out there; these are all ways of taming the challenge that the inherent spatiality of the world presents,” Massey writes (7). But, she continues, these ways of thinking about space are typically unthought or implicit (7). “One of the recurring motifs in what follows is just how little, actually, space is thought about explicitly,” she suggests (7). Nevertheless, “these implicit engagements of space feed back into and sustain wider understandings of the world”:

The trajectories of others can be immobilised while we proceed with our own; the real challenge of the contemporaneity of others can be deflected by their relegation to a past (backward, old-fashioned, archaic); the defensive enclosures of an essentialised place seem to enable a wider disengagement, and to provide a secure foundation. (8)

All of these, for Massey, are examples of failures, intentional or otherwise, of “spatial imagination” (8). They are “inadequate to the challenges of space,” incapable of understanding “its coeval multiplicities,” accepting “its radical contemporaneity,” or dealing with “its constitutive complexity” (8). This statement leads to Massey’s big question, which ends her introduction: “What happens if we try to let go of those, by now almost intuitive, understandings?” (8)

Massey’s next chapter lists three propositions regarding space, all of which follow from the questions she asks in her introduction. First, she suggests “that we recognise space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny” (9). Second, we need to understand space 

as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. (9)

Third, she suggests “that we recognise space as always under construction”:

Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (9)

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

thinking the spatial in a particular way can shake up the manner in which certain political questions are formulated, can contribute to political arguments already under way and—most deeply—can be an essential element in the imaginative structure which enables in the first place an opening up to the very sphere of the political. (9)

The “imagination of the spatial and the imagination of the political” are therefore directly connected (9-10). 

Politics, Massey writes, is “the (ever-contested) question of our being-together” (142). The claim that the spatial and the political are interrelated is an important part of Massey’s argument, and it is therefore worth unpacking. First, she argues that “understanding space as a product of interrelations chimes well with the emergence over recent years of a politics which attempts a commitment to anti-essentialism,” a politics which “takes the constitution of identities themselves and the relations through which they are constructed to be one of the central stakes of the political” (10). “Rather than accepting and working with already-constituted entities/identities,” Massey continues,

this politics lays its stress upon the relational constructedness of things (including things called political subjectivities and political constituencies). It is wary therefore about claims to authenticity based on notions of unchanging identity. Instead, it proposes a relational understanding of the world, and a politics which responds to that. (10)

Such a “politics of interrelations” mirrors Massey’s first proposition, the claim that space “is a product of interrelations”: “Space does not exist prior to identities/entities and their relations”—in fact, “identities/entities, the relations ‘between’ them, and the spatiality which is part of them, are all co-constitutive” (10). There is no simple cause and effect; all three of these things helps to create the others. However, for Massey space is the privileged term: “spatiality may also be from the beginning integral to the constitution of those identities themselves, including political subjectivities,” she contends, and “specifically spatial identities (places, nations) can equally be reconceptualised in relational terms” (10). Questions of these relations, and the ways they are negotiated, are returned to throughout For Space.

Second, Massey argues that “imagining space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity resonates with the greater emphasis which has over recent years in political discourses of the left been laid on ‘difference’ and heterogeneity” (10). This point is related to her second proposition about space: “the very possibility of any serious recognition of multiplicity and heterogeneity itself depends on a recognition of spatiality,” she suggests. “The political corollary is that a genuine, thorough, spatialisation of social theory and political thinking can force into the imagination a fuller recognition of the simultaneous coexistence of others with their own trajectories and their own stories to tell” (11). As with her first argument, this one recurs throughout For Space as well, and it is one of her primary concerns.

Third, Massey contends that “imagining space as always in process, as never a closed system, resonates with an increasingly vocal insistence within political discourses on the genuine openness of the future. It is an insistence founded in an attempt to escape the inexorability which so frequently characterises the grand narratives related by modernity” (11). Indeed, for Massey the existence of future possibilities is the basis of political activity: “only if we conceive of the future as open can we seriously accept or engage in any genuine notion of politics. Only if the future is open is there any ground for a politics which can make a difference” (11). Once again, she sees a parallel between this point and the way she conceives of space: “Not only history but also space is open” (11). Space, she writes, “is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too” (12).

Massey then pauses to register a concern about the connotations of her words; she in effect stops to define her particular use of vocabulary in the book. Her use of the terms “trajectory” and “story,” for instance, is intended to emphasize the process of change—both temporal and spatial—in a phenomenon (12). The terms “difference,” “heterogeneity,” “multiplicity,” and “plurality” are all meant to suggest “the contemporaneous existence of a plurality of trajectories; a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (12). The fact of such heterogeneities is “intrinsic to space,” Massey argues. “Romances of coherent nationhood . . . may operate on precisely such principles of constituting identity/difference,” and “such attempts at the purification of space. . . . are precisely one way of coping with its heterogeneities—its actual complexity and openness” (12). But Massey is interested in positive heterogeneity rather than negative difference, in heterogeneity as a positive alternative to essentialist arguments. That positive heterogeneity will enable one to grasp the “liveliness, the complexity and openness of the configurational itself, the positive multiplicity, which is important for an appreciation of the spatial” (12-13).

“What I’m interested in,” Massey writes, “is how we might imagine spaces for these times; how we might pursue an alternative imagination”:

What is needed, I think, is to uproot “space” from that constellation of concepts in which it has so unquestioningly so often been embedded (stasis; closure; representation) and to settle it among another set of ideas (heterogeneity; relationality; coevalness . . . liveliness indeed) where it released a more challenging political landscape. (13)

“This is a book about ordinary space,” she continues:

the space and places through which, in the negotiation of relations within multiplicities, the social is constructed. It is in that sense a modest proposal, and yet the very persistence, the apparent obviousness, of other mobilisations of “space,” point to its continuing necessity. (13)

Space, she writes, is just as lively and challenging as time, which has tended to occupy the imaginations of philosophers; space is neither dead nor fixed, and “the very enormity of its challenges has meant that the strategies for taming it have been many, varied and persistent” (14). Note Massey’s inclusion of place in this statement of her interests; she wants to consider “the real problems of thinking about, and still more of appreciating, place” (14).

The next section of For Space engages with the way our definition of space is derived from philosophy; in particular, the work of Henri Bergson; the structuralists; and the deconstructionists (primarily Jacques Derrida). Throughout this section, Massey argues that “time and space must be thought together”: “the imagination of one will have repercussions (not always followed through) for the imagination of the other,” and since “space and time are implicated in each other,” thinking them together “opens up some problems which have heretofore seemed (logically, intractably) insoluble” (18). Thinking space and time together also “has reverberations for thinking about politics and the spatial” (18). Although time and space are typically considered in opposition to each other, Massey continues, “[t]he counterpositional labelling of phenomena as temporal or spatial, and entailing all the baggage of the reduction of space to the a-political sphere of causal closure or the reactionary redoubts of established power, continues to this day” (18). Thinking about space will have effects on the way other things are thought about in philosophy:

the excavation of these problematical conceptualisations of space (as static, closed, immobile, as the opposite of time) brings to light other sets of connections, to science, writing and representation, to issues of subjectivity and its conception, in all of which implicit imaginations of space have played an important role. And these entwinings are in turn related to the fact that space has so often been excluded from, or inadequately conceptualised in relation to, and has thereby debilitated our conceptions of, politics and the political. (18-19)

Her goal, she writes, is “to liberate ‘space’ from some chains of meaning (which embed it with closure and stasis, or with science, writing and representation) and which have all but choked it to death, in order to set it into other chains (in this chapter alongside openness, and heterogeneity, and liveliness) where it can have a new and more productive life” (19).

Massey then turns to the idea that there is an association, in philosophy, between “the spatial and the fixation of meaning,” or between spatiality and representation” (20). She is interested in philosophers who imply “another understanding of what space might be,” although “none of them pause very long either explicitly to develop this alternative or to explore the curious fact that this other (and more mobile, flexible, open, lively) view of space stands in such flat opposition to their equally certain association of representation with space” (20). One of those philosophers is Henri Bergson, whose concern was with temporality and duration, the experience of time and ways to resist “the evisceration of its internal continuity, flow and movement” (20). Bergson makes a distinction—as does Gilles Deleuze—“between discrete difference/multiplicity (which refers to extended magnitudes and distinct entities, the realm of diversity) and continuous difference/multiplicity (which refers to intensities, and to evolution rather than succession” (21). These terms are important, because they inform much of Massey’s argument, and she returns to them again and again. Discrete difference/multiplicity, she continues, “is divided up, a dimension of separation,” whereas continuous difference/multiplicity “is a continuum, a multiplicity of fusion” (21). Bergson and Deleuze, she writes, are trying “to instate the significance, indeed the philosophical primacy, of the second (continuous) form of difference over the first (the discrete) form” (21). At stake is “the genuine openness of history, of the future,” which is also central to Massey’s argument.

However, Bergson was interested in time rather than space; in fact, he devalued and subordinated space, in part by associating it with representation, which deprived space of dynamism and counterposed it radically to time (21). In his argument, space comes to be associated negatively against time, as a lack of movement and duration (22). But Massey asks why space must lack duration: “A dynamic simultaneity would be a conception quite different from a frozen instant” (23). Eventually, she continues, Bergson came to recognize “duration in external things,” and “thus the interpenetration, though not the equivalence, of space and time” (24). That notion is, she writes, “what I am calling space as the dimension of multiple trajectories, a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Space is the dimension of a multiplicity of durations” (24). The problem, however, is that “the old chain of meaning—space-representation-stasis—continues to wield its power” (24). Ernesto Laclau and Michel de Certeau both see space in this way, as representation and therefore stasis and ideological closure (24-25). “It is a remarkably pervasive and unquestioned assumption, and it does indeed have an intuitive obviousness,” Massey writes. “But as already indicated perhaps this equation of representation and spatialisation is not something which should be taken for granted” (26). Indeed, her purpose in this book is “to build an argument which will come to a very different conclusion” (26).

There are two propositions in this claim about space, Massey suggests: “first, the argument that representation necessarily fixes, and therefore deadens and detracts from, the flow of life; and second, that the product of this process of deadening is space” (26). She doesn’t entirely disagree with the first proposition, but believes that the equivalence the second makes between space and representation is baseless” (26-27). Representation, she argues, does fix and stabilize, but what it fixes and stabilizes is both history and geography, or “space-time” (27). “It would be better to recognise that ‘society’ is both temporal and spatial, and to drop entirely that definition of representation as space,” she writes, because representation is both spatial and temporal (27). Moreover, while “it is easy to see how representation can be understood as a form of spatialisation”—her example is a map—that map, as a representation of space, is not the territory itself, because “a territory is integrally spatio-temporal” (27-28). Here I found myself recalling Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about an empire whose cartographers made a life-sized map of the empire’s territory, which was, of course, useless: its “Tattered Ruins” are now “inhabited by Animals and Beggars,” and “in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” (Borges).

The argument that space is representation has two consequences, according to Massey. First, there is a crisis of representation, since representation is constitutive rather than mimetic; and second, “that space itself, the space of the world, far from being equivalent to representation, must be unrepresentable in that latter, mimetic sense” (28). She notes that in the work of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, there is no “tripartite division between reality, representation and subjectivity”:

Here what we might have called representation is no longer a process of fixing, but an element in a continuous production; a part of it all, and itself constantly becoming. This is a position which rejects a strict separation between world and text and which understands scientific activity as being just that—an activity, a practice, an embedded engagement in the world of which it is a part. Not representation but experimentation. (28)

“As the text has been destabilised in literary theory so space might be destabilised in geography (and indeed in wider social theory),” Massey suggests (28-29). However, the issue is complex:

if scientific/intellectual activity is indeed to be understood as an active and productive engagement in/of the world it is none the less a particular kind of practice, a specific form of engagement/production in which it is hard to deny (to absolve ourselves from the responsibility for?) any element of representation . . . even if it is, quite certainly, productive and experimental rather than simply mimetic, and an embodied knowledge rather than a mediation. It does not, however, have to be conceived of as producing a space, nor its characteristics carried over to inflect our implicit imaginations of space. For to do so is to rob space of those characteristics of freedom (Bergson), dislocation (Laclau), and surprise (de Certeau) which are essential to open it up to the political.” (29)

The problem is that space is in general perceived as “somehow a lesser dimension than time: one with less gravitas and magnificence, it is the material/phenomenal rather than the abstract; it is being rather than becoming and so forth; and it is feminine rather than masculine” (29). Space, in other words, is the “subordinated category,” defined by its lack of temporality and therefore of secondary importance (29).

That is the binary opposition that Massey’s critique of philosophy sets out to deconstruct: space versus time. She points out that space is often seen as conquering time:

the supposedly weaker term of a dualism obliterates the positive characteristics of the stronger one, the privileged signifier. And it does this through the conflation of the spatial with representation. Space conquers time by being set up as the representation of history/life/the real world. On this reading space is an order imposed upon the inherent life of the real. (Spatial) order obliterates (temporal) dislocation. Spatial immobility quietens temporal becoming. (30)

The result, Massey writes, is “the most dismal of pyrrhic victories. For in the very moment of its conquering triumph ‘space’ is reduced to stasis. The very life, and certainly the politics, are taken out of it (30). Her ambition is to return the life and the politics to the concept of space.

Next, Massey takes a look at the way the structuralists imagined space. “Through many twentieth-century debates in philosophy and social theory runs the idea that spatial framing is a way of containing the temporal,” she writes. “For a moment, you hold the world still. And in this moment you can analyse the structure” (36):

You hold the world still in order to look at it in cross-section. It seems a small, and perhaps even an intuitively obvious, gesture, yet it has a multitude of resonances and implications. It connects with ideas of structure and system, of distance and the all-seeing eye, of totality and completeness, of the relation between synchrony and space. And . . . the assumptions which may lie within it and the logics to which it can give rise run off in a whole range of problematical directions. (36)

Structuralism, which aimed to analyze structures, seemed to focus on space, rather than time, because it was in a struggle against historical narratives; it was “in part an attempt to escape precisely that convening of geography and history” (36). To effect that escape, structuralism “turned to the concepts of structure, space and synchrony. Instead of narrative, structure; instead of diachrony, synchrony; instead of time, space” (37). Nevertheless, structuralism “left a legacy of . . . taken-for-granted assumptions” about space, Massey contends, “which have continued to this day to bedevil debate” (37).

Once again, concepts were mistranslated into notions of time and space, according to Massey. The structuralists equated their atemporal assumptions with space; if those structures weren’t temporal, they had to be spatial. Structure and process were thus understood as space and time, and space became the “absolute negation” of time (37). Chains of meaning were thereby established “between narrative/temporality/diachrony on the one hand and structure/spatiality/synchrony on the other” (37). But, Massey asks, are synchronic structures actually spatial?

The argument in some ways parallels that about representation. The “synchronic structures” of the structuralists were analytical schema devised for understanding a society, myth, or language. Structuralism goes further, then, than simply “holding the world still.” . . . Moreover, the (implicit) reason that these analytical structures were dubbed spatial is precisely that they are established as a-temporal, as the opposite of temporality, and therefore without time, and therefore without space. It is, primarily, a negative definition. In the logic of this reasoning space is assumed to be both the opposite of time and without temporality. Once again . . . space is rendered as the sphere of stasis and fixity. It is a conceptualisation of space which, once again, is really a residualisation and derives from an assumption: that space is opposed to time and lacking in temporality. Thought of like this, “space” really would be the realm of closure and that in turn would render it the realm of the impossibility of the new and therefore of the political. (37-38)

Space becomes synonymous with “synchronic closure,” Massey continues, and “such structures rob the objects to which they refer of their inherent dynamism,” eliminating the possibility of real change (38). In addition,

the conceptual synchronies of structuralism are relations imagined in a highly particular way. Above all, they are characterised by relations between their constituent elements such that they for a completely interlocked system. They are closed systems. It is this aspect of the conceptualisation—in combination with a-temporality—which does the most damage. For the stasis of closed systems robs “relational construction” of the anti-essentialism to which it is often claimed to lead. And the closure itself robs “the spatial” . . . of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities; its openness and its condition of always being made. It is this crucial characteristic of “the spatial” which constitutes it as one of the vital moments in the production of those dislocations which are necessary to the existence of the political (and indeed the temporal). (39)

Many of structuralism’s “framing conceptualisations” continue to influence intellectual arguments today, Massey notes, although poststructuralism, she contends, has the potential to imbue those structures with temporality and crack them open “to reveal the existence of other voices” (42). Her examples are the writings of Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. However, the work of these philosophers does not fully grasp the potential of a temporalized spatiality: “The broad conceptual thrust is to open up the structures of our imagination to temporality. . . . Yet in the midst of this invigorating concern with time neither author engages in any fundamental critique of the associated terminologies, and concepts, of space” (47). 

Nevertheless, the writing of Laclau and Mouffe, and de Certeau, does point towards “the interconnectedness of conceptualisations of space and conceptualisations of time,” Massey writes. “Imagining one in a particular way should, at least ‘logically,’ imply a particular way of thinking about the other,” because although they are not identical, “they are integral to each other” (47). “At a minimum,” Massey continues, “for time to be open, space must be in some sense open too. The non-recognition of the simultaneity of openended multiplicities that is the spatial can vitiate the project of opening up temporality” (48). “Levering space out of this immobilising chain of connotations both potentially contributes to the dislocations necessary for the existence of the political,” Massey concludes, “and opens space itself to more adequate political address” (48).

Not all poststructuralist writing suggests that the spatial is also the immobilized, but much of it does suggest that time is more valuable, rich, and dialectical than space (49). Nevertheless, Massey argues, space is temporalized in deconstruction, in theory if not always in practice, and poststructuralism “could very easily be spatial” (49-50). Nevertheless, there is “a residual but persistent ‘horizontality’” about deconstruction “which makes it difficult for it to handle . . . a spatiality which is fully integral within space-time” (50). That “emphasis on horizontality can be interpreted as . . . a turn towards spatiality and a spatiality, what’s more, which is open and differentiated” (50-51). However, Massey sees in deconstruction “too much emphasis on the purely horizontal and too little recognition of the multiple trajectories of which that ‘horizontality’ is the momentary, passing, result” (51). In addition, Derrida’s way of conceiving heterogeneity suggests “internal disruption and incoherence rather than . . . positive multiplicity,” which is both politically disabling and a problem for a rethinking of the spatial” (51). For Massey, deconstruction “is not enough to achieve that necessary transcribing of space from the chain stasis/representation/closure into an association with openness/unrepresentability/external multiplicity” (54). 

The purpose of this review of various philosophical definitions of space, Massey writes, is “to point to the problematic repercussions of some associations and to emphasise the potential of alternative views. The hope is to contribute to a process of liberating space from its old chain of meaning and to associate it with a different one in which it might have, in particular, more political potential” (55). I haven’t read Bergson, and its been years since I tackled either the structuralists or Derrida, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Massey’s discussions of their work. I find myself having to take her response to these philosophers on faith. When she moves to her own arguments about space, however, I find myself on somewhat firmer ground; at least, I can follow her argument without wondering if I should stop and go and read Bergson or Derrida instead. According to Massey, her argument is that space is “an open ongoing production”:

As well as injecting temporality into the spatial this also reinvigorates its aspect of discrete multiplicity; for while the closed system is the foundation for the singular universal, opening that up makes room for a genuine multiplicity of trajectories, and thus potentially of voices. It also posits a positive discrete multiplicity against an imagination of space as the product of negative spacing, through the abjection of the other. (55)

“[N]either time nor space is reducible to the other; they are distinct,” she continues. “They are, however, co-implicated. On the side of space, there is the integral temporality of a dynamic simultaneity. On the side of time, there is the necessary production of change through practices of interrelation” (55). This co-implication is no doubt the reason she sometimes refers to “space-time.” “Conceptualising space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics,” she contends. (Yes, her argument, at least they way I am presenting it, is repetitive; but I would argue that it becomes more clear through repetition, or at least that was my experience of it.) “If time unfolds as change then space unfolds as interaction,” Massey argues. For that reason, she describes space as “the social dimension,” as well as “the sphere of the continuous production and reconfiguration of heterogeneity in all its forms—diversity, subordination, conflicting interests” (61). Massey’s goal, she continues, is to develop “a relational politics for a relational space” (61).

Next, Massey turns to the current interest in “the spatialisation of social theory,” using “the postcolonial concern to rework the sociological debates over the nature of modernity and its relation to globalisation” as an example (62). “The implications of spatialising/globalising the story of modernity are profound,” she writes. “The most obvious effect, which has been the main intent, is to rework modernity away from being the unfolding, internal story of Europe alone. The aim has been precisely to decentre Europe” (62-63). Along with the decentring of Europe’s trajectory, it needs to be recognized as only one of the histories being made at that time (63):

Once understood as more than the history of Europe’s own adventures, it is possible to appreciate how the previous way of telling the story (with Europe at its centre) was powered by the way in which the process was experienced within Europe; told through the experience of exploration outward from Europe; told from the point of view of Europe as the protagonist. Spatialising that story enables an understanding of its positionality, its geographical embeddedness; an understanding of the spatiality of the production of knowledge itself. (63)

Indeed, “retelling the story of modernity through spatialisation/globalisation exposed modernity’s preconditions in and effects of violence, racism and oppression” (63). Modernity established “a particular power/knowledge relation which was mirrored in a geography that was also a geography of power,” Massey continues. Postcolonial critique has exposed that geography and therefore has undermined that power/knowledge relation (64). Spatializing the story of modernity has not left its story the same (64). 

One of the outcomes of modernity was “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” Massey writes. One characteristic of that understanding was a particular conception of place, in which cultures and nations and local communities were “all imagined as having an integral relation to bounded spaces, internally coherent and differentiated from each other by separation” (64). Those bounded spaces became identified as places, and place came to be defined as bounded space, with its own “internally generated authenticities” which were “defined by their difference form other places which lay outside, beyond their borders” (64). “It was,” Massey continues,

a way of imagining space—a geographical imagination—integral to what was to become a project for organising global space. It was through that imagination of space as (necessarily, by its very nature) divided/regionalised that the . . . project of the generalisation across the globe of the nation-state form could be legitimated as progress, as “natural.” And it continues to reverberate today. (64-65)

Today, this sense of place operates as an imaginary past, a nostalgia for something that never existed, and as a response to globalization “which consists of retreating into its supposed opposite: nationalisms and parochialisms and localisms of all sorts” (65).

The story about space that is told by this particular notion of place is “a way of taming the spatial,” Massey suggests, “a representation of space, a particular form of ordering and organising space which refused (refuses) to acknowledge its multiplicities, its fractures and its dynamism” (65). “It is a stabilisation of the inherent instabilities and creativities of space; a way of coming to terms with the great ‘out there.’ It is this concept of space which provides the basis for the supposed coherence, stability and authenticity to which there is such frequent appeal in discourses of parochialism and nationalism” (65). It is also the starting point for the conceptualization of space in the social sciences: “an imagination of space as already divided-up, of places which are already separated and bounded” (65). And that, Massey contends, is a big problem:

The modern, territorial, conceptualisation of space understands geographical difference as being constituted primarily through isolation and separation. Geographical variation is preconstituted. First the differences between places exist, and then those different places come into contact. (68)

This essentialist version of space

runs clearly against the injunction that space be thought of as an emergent product of relations, including those relations which establish boundaries, and where “place” in consequence is necessarily meeting place, where the “difference” of a place must be conceptualised more in the ineffable sense of the constant emergence of uniqueness out of (and within) the specific constellations of interrelations within which that place is set . . . and of what is made of that constellation. (68)

That latter version of place “as process, as the constant production of the new,” as “neither an essentialised emergence from an origin nor the product of a spacing in the sense of expulsion or attempted purifiation,” “indicates the dubiousness of that duality—so popular and so persistent—between space and place” (68). Here we see one aspect of Massey’s critique of the distinction between space and place; although I’m not sure that it is completely accurate, I am going to have to take it into account when I write about place.

There is, however, a version of place that Massey finds useful, one that recognizes spatiality’s inherent multiplicity and heterogeneity and coevalness:

“Recognising spatiality” involves (could involve) recognising coevalness, the existence of trajectories which have at least some degree of autonomy from each other (which are not simply alignable into one linear story). . . . On this reading, the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives. Places, rather than being locations of coherence, become the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated and thus integral to the generation of novelty. The spatial in its role of bringing distinct temporalities into new configurations sets off new social processes. And in turn, this emphasises the nature of narratives, of time itself, as being not about the folding of some internalised story (some already-established identities)—the self-producing story of Europe—but about interaction and the process of the constitution of identities—the reformulated notion of (the multiplicities of) colonisation. (71)

There is a place for place in Massey’s theory, then: it could function as a meeting point for “previously unrelated” trajectories and narratives. 

However, Massey isn’t just disagreeing with human geographers who privilege place over space; she is also disagreeing with those who claim that we live in a world “which is purely spatial,” “a depthless horizontality of immediate connections” (76). That depthlessness is atemporal, which means that, in this way of thinking, history is unthinkable (76). “Just as time cannot adequately be conceptualised without a recognition of the (spatial) multiplicities through which it is generated,” Massey writes,

so space cannot adequately be imagined as the stasis of a depthless, totally interconnected, instantaneity. Any assumption of a closed instantaneity not only denies space this essential character of itself constantly becoming, it also denies time its own possibility of complexity/multiplicity. (76-77)

That assumption would also leave no opening for politics, because it posits a closed system composed, ironically, of apparently open connections (77). 

That idea of “depthless horizontality” is, for Massey, related to the notion of globalization as “a world of flows” (81)—at least, I think it is the theoretical enabling of globalization’s more concrete activities. Like modernity’s notion of progress, globalization presents itself as inevitable, another “grand narrative” with enormous implications, including the idea that everyone will eventually become the same (82). This “aspatial view of globalisation” occludes the potential differences in the trajectories of different spaces” (82). It tells “a tale with a single trajectory,” and the “openness of the future which is in part a consequence of the multiplicities of the spatial is reined in,” so that different spaces have no space in which to tell different stories or to follow another path (82). “The convening of contemporaneous geographical differences into temporal sequence, this turning it into a story of ‘catching up,’” Massey argues, “occludes present-day relations and practices and their relentless production, within current rounds of capitalist globalisation, of increasing inequality” (82). These tales of inevitability, she continues,

require dynamics which are beyond intervention. They need an external agent, a deus ex machina. The unquestioned motors of “globalisation’s” historicising of the world’s geographical inequalities are, in various mixtures, the economy and technology. By this means, a further political result is achieved: the removal of the economic and the technological from political consideration. The only political questions become ones concerning our subsequent adaptation to their inevitability. (82-83)

Neoliberal, capitalist globalization, led by transnational corporations, is taken to be the only possible form of globalization:

Objections to this particular globalisation are persistently met with the derisive riposte that “the world will inevitably become more interconnected.” Capitalist globalisation is equated with globalisation tout court, a discursive manoeuvre which at a stroke obscures the possibility of seeing alternative forms. (83)

This particular form of globalization is taken as inevitable—but Massey’s argument suggests that other forms are possible, if we were only free to imagine them (83).

This way of thinking enables the imposition of structural adjustment programs on the global South and the enforcement of export orientations on countries over local consumption; in the global North, it “becomes the basis for decisions precisely to implement it” because it is “represented as ineluctable—a force in the face of which we must adapt or be cast into oblivion” (83-84). Meanwhile, however, “some of the most powerful agencies in the world are utterly intent on its production” (84). “This vision of global space,” Massey writes,

is not so much a description of how the world is, as an image in which the world is being made. Just as in the case of modernity, here we have a powerful imaginative geography. It is a very different imagination: instead of space divided-up and bounded here is a vision of space as barrier-less and open. But both of them function as images in which the world is made. Both of them are imaginative geographies which legitimise their own production. (84)

“[T]he very fact that some are striving so hard” to make the world globalized “is evidence of the project’s incompletion,” Massey continues (84). But more than that:

There are multiple trajectories/temporalities here. Once again, as in the case of modernity, this is a geographical imagination which ignores the structured divides, the necessary ruptures and inequalities, the exclusions, on which the successful prosecution of the project itself depends A further effect of the temporal convening of spatial difference here again becomes evident. So long as inequality is read in terms of stages of advance and backwardness not only are alternative stories disallowed but also the fact of the production of poverty and polarisation within and through “globalisation” itself can be erased from view. (84)

Once again, Massey suggests, we see “a geographical imagination which ignores its own real spatiality” (84).

With its emphasis on free trade of goods and the mobility of capital, on the one hand, and on strict controls on immigration, on the other, globalization offers us “two apparently self-evident truths, a geography of borderlessness and mobility, and a geography of border discipline,” Massey suggests (86):

No matter that they contradict each other; because it works. And it “works” for a whole set of reasons. First, because each self-evident truth is presented separately. But second, because while neither imagination in its pure form is possible (neither a space hermetically closed into territories nor a space composed solely of flows) what is really needed politically is for this tension to be negotiated explicitly and in each specific situation. . . . Each “pure” imagination on its own tames the spatial. It is their negotiation which brings the question (rights of movement/rights of containment) into politics. The appeal to an imagination of pure boundedness or pure flow as self-evident foundation is neither possible in principle nor open to political debate. (86)

It is, she continues, a “double imaginary, in the very fact of its doubleness, of the freedom of space on the one hand and the ‘right to one’s own place’ on the other,” and it “works in favour of the already-powerful,” who can move anywhere they please while protecting their own homes, while “the poor and the unskilled from the so-called margins of this world are both instructed to open up their borders and welcome the West’s invasion in whatever form it comes, and told to stay where they are” (86-87).

None of this is news, of course. Nor is the argument, which is borne out in news stories about populism every day, that

the discourse of globalisation as free movement is fuelling the “archaic” (but not) sentiments of parochialism, nationalism and the exclusion of those who are different. 

Today’s hegemonic story of globalisation, then, relates a globalisation of a very particular form. And integral to its achievement is the mobilisation of powerful (inconsistent, falsely self-evident, never universalisable—but powerful) imaginations of space. (87)

What is new, however, is the suggestion that “powerful . . . imaginations of space” are behind globalization’s ideological hegemony. Globalization, Massey argues, “convenes spatial difference into temporal sequence, and thereby denies the possibility of multiple trajectories; the future is not held open” (87). Instead of openness,

[i]t installs an understanding of space, the “space of flows,” which, just like the space of places in modernity, is deployed (when needed) as a legitimation for its own production and which pretends to a universality which anyway in practice it systematically denies. For, in fact, in the context of and as part of this “globalisation” new enclosures are right now being erected. (87)

[T]his imagination of globalisation is resolutely unaware of its own speaking position: neoliberal to be sure, but also more generally Western in its locatedness” (87-88). It is also not spatialized (88):

really “spatialising globalisation” means recognising crucial characteristics of the spatial: its multiplicity, its openness, the fact that it is not reducible to “a surface,” its integral relation with temporality. The a-spatial view of globalisation, like the old story of modernity, obliterates the spatial into the temporal and in that very move also impoverishes the temporal (there is only one story to tell). The multiplicity of the spatial is a precondition for the temporal: and the multiplicities of the two together can be a condition for the openness of the future. (88-89)

“If space is genuinely the sphere of multiplicity, if it is the realm of multiple trajectories,” Massey continues,

then there will be multiplicities too of imaginations, theorisations, understandings, meanings. Any “simultaneity” of stories-so-far will be a distinct simultaneity from a particular vantage point. If the repression of the spatial under modernity was bound up with the establishment of foundational universals, so the recognition of the multiplicities of the spatial both challenges that and understands universals as spatio-temporally specific positions. An adequate recognition of coevalness demands acceptance that one is being observed/theorised/evaluated in return and potentially in different terms. . . . Recognition of radical contemporaneity has to include recognition of the existence of those limits too. (89)

Globalization, in its neoliberal form, then, represses the spatial, because it refuses multiplicity and heterogeneity. It is singular and it recognizes no limits—certainly not those demanded by an “adequate recognition of coevalness.” 

“The confusions that exist within current imaginations of the time-spaces of globalisation,” Massey writes, “are, perhaps, at their most acute (and, ironically, least noticed) in the easy coexistence of the view that this is the age of the spatial with the contradictory, but equally accepted, notion that this is the age in which space will finally . . . be annihilated by time” (90). These propositions are obviously at odds with one another, but nonetheless they are related:

On the one hand, more and more “spatial” connections, and over longer distances, are involved in the construction and understanding and impact of any place or economy or culture and of everyday life and actions. There is more “space” in our lives, and it takes less time. On the other hand, this very speed with which “we” can now cross space (by air, on screen, though cultural flows) would seem to imply that space doesn’t matter any more; that speed-up has conquered distance. Precisely the same phenomenon seems to be leading to the conclusion both that space has now won out to the detriment of any ability to appreciate temporality (the complaint of depthlessness) and that time has annihilated space. Neither view is tenable as it stands. (90)

Massey suggests that rather than annihilating space, the increase in speed is simply reducing time, and that, more importantly, “space is not anyway reducible to distance” (90-91). Time and space are mutually implicated, she argues, so how could one annihilate the other? In any case, “[a]s long as there is multiplicity there will be space,” because space “is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities” (91). “Given that,” she continues,

the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by “the communications revolution” and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations. (91)

Moreover, cyberspace will never take over from physical space. For one thing, mobility and fixity, she writes, “presuppose each other” (95). For another, “[t]he impetus to motion and mobility, for a space of flows, can only be achieved through the construction of (temporary, provisional) stabilisations” that are the result of negotiations “between conflicting tendencies” (95). Besides, cyberspace has material necessities which root it in physical space (96-97).

Next, Massey turns to potential theoretical underpinnings for the struggle against globalization. Valuing the local over the global is not going to work, in her view:

Different places occupy distinct positions within the wider power-geometries of the global. In consequence, both the possibilities of intervention (the degree of purchase upon), and the nature of the potential political relationship to (including the degree and nature of responsibility for) will also vary. It is no accident that much of the literature concerning the defence of place has come from, or been about, either the South or, for instance, deindustrialising places in the North. From such a perspective, capitalist globalisation does indeed seem to arrive as a threatening external force. But in other places it may well be that a particular construction of place is not politically defensible as part of a politics against neoliberal globalisation—and this is not because of the impracticality of such a strategy but because the construction of that place, the webs of power-relations through which it is constructed, and the way its resources are mobilised, are precisely what must be challenged. (102)

What is needed is “a local politics that took seriously the relational construction of space and place,” which would “be highly differentiated through the vastly unequal articulation of those relations,” she writes. “The local relation to the global will vary and in consequence so will the coordinates of any local politics of challenging globalisation” (102).

Massey then returns to maps as representations of space. Maps suggest, she writes, that space is a surface, “the sphere of a completed horizontality” (106-07), which is impossible, since space is “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity, constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations” (107). “Loose ends and ongoing stories are real challenges to cartography,” she writes (107). However, there are attempts at representing space that seek to rupture the map’s contention that space is a completed whole, a surface. “Situationist cartographies, while still attempting to picture the universe, map that universe as one which is not a single order,” she notes (109). Such cartographies set out “to disorient, to defamiliarise, to provoke a view from an unaccustomed angle” (109). Other art projects have tried to puncture the apparently smooth surface of space, such as Clive van den Berg’s art events, which “aim to disrupt the complacent surface of white South Africa with reminders of the history on which it is based”; Iain Sinclair’s “dérives through eastern London,” which “evoke, through the surface, pasts (and presents) not usually noticed; and Anne McClintock’s “provocative notion of ‘anachronistic space’—a permanently anterior time within the space of the modern” (117). I know Sinclair’s work, but not van den Berg’s or McClintock’s; I am going to have to learn more about them.

Travel, Massey suggests, is another way of altering space. When you take the train somewhere, “[y]ou are part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links which is an element in the constitution of you yourself,” as well as the locations where your journey begins and ends: “You are not just travelling through space or across it, you are altering it a little. Space and place emerge through active material practices” (118). Massey acknowledges that it is impossible to recognize all of the stories existing at the same time as your journey, but she suggests that recognizing the possibility of simultaneous stories, “the imaginative opening up of space,” can enable one “to retain at least some sense of contemporaneous multiple becomings” (120). 

Such a recognition would be useful in a recognition of the fatuousness and futility of nostalgia or any desire to return to a point of origin:

the truth is that you can never simply “go back,” to home or to anywhere else. When you get “there” the place will have moved on just as you yourself have changed. And this of course is the point. For to open up “space” to this kind of imagination means thinking time and space as mutually imbricated and thinking both of them as the product of interrelations. You can’t go back in space-time. To think that you can is to deprive others of their ongoing independent stories. . . . You can’t hold places still. What you can do is meet up with others, catch up with where another’s history has got to “now,” but where that “now” . . . is itself constituted by nothing more than—precisely—that meeting-up (again). (124-25)

The one-way directionality of space-time is the reason Massey likes to use the word “trajectory,” with its connotations of movement in one direction only. More importantly, we see here Massey’s insistence that spaces are in motion even as we are in motion. I find myself wondering about how this discussion of travel might illuminate my ideas about walking, even my ideas about place itself.

In the next chapter, Massey returns to her discussion of place, and the way that abandoning a notion of space as a surface will affect one’s view of place as well:

If space is rather a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space. Their character will be a product of these intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnection and the relations not established, the exclusions. All this contributes to the specificity of place. (130)

Places are not points or areas on maps; rather, they are “integrations of space and time” (130). They are, in other words, “spatio-temporal events” (130). “This is an understanding of space—as open (‘a global sense of place’), as woven together out of ongoing stories, as a moment within power-geometries, as a particular constellation within the wider topographies of space, as in process, as unfinished business” (131). Massey’s example of place as a spatio-temporal event is Skiddaw, a mountain in the Lakes District of northern England. Because of continental drift, the mountain’s geological history,

the rocks of Skiddaw are immigrant rocks, just passing through here, like my sister and me only rather more slowly, and changing all the while. Places as heterogenous associations. If we can’t go “back” home, in the sense that it will have moved on from where we left it, then more more, and in the same sense, can we, on a weekend in the country, go back to nature. It too is moving on. (137)

Geological time is of a different scale than human time, of course, but Massey insists, “quite passionately,” on the idea that

what is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or of the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman. This in no way denies a sense of wonder: what could be more stirring than walking the high fells in the knowledge of the history and the geography that has made them here today. 

This is the event of place. (140)

Place is constantly changing (140-41): it is an event, it is “the simple sense of the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing. This is place as open and as internally multiple. Not capturable as a slice through time in the sense of an essential action. Not intrinsically coherent” (141). In fact, she continues, place “is simply a coming together of trajectories”:

But it is a uniqueness, and a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations. Attempts to write about the uniqueness of place have sometimes been castigated for depoliticisation. Uniqueness meant that one could not reach for the eternal rules. But “politics” in part precisely lies in not being able to reach for that kind of rule; a world which demands the ethics and the responsibility of facing up to the event; where the situation is unprecedented and the future is open. Place is an event in that sense too. (141)

For Massey, reconceptualizing place in this way generates “a different set of political questions”:

There can be no assumption of pre-given coherence, or of community or collective identity. Rather, the throwntogetherness of place demands negotiation. In sharp contrast to the view of place as settled and pre-given, with a coherence only to be disturbed by “external” forces, places as presented here in a sense necessitate invention; they pose a challenge. They implicate us, perforce, in the lives of human others, and in our relations with nonhumans they ask how we shall respond to our temporary meeting-up with these particular rocks and stones and trees. They require that, in one way or another, we confront the challenge of the negotiation of multiplicity. The sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot (even should you want to, and this itself should in no way be presumed) “purify” spaces/places. In this throwntogetherness what are at issue are the terms of engagement of those trajectories (both “social” and “natural”), those stories-so-far, within (and not only within) that conjuncturality. (142)

I could be completely wrong, but I’m not convinced that Massey’s version of place can’t be reconciled with Tuan’s. After all, there is a sense of process in his notion of place, a sense that one comes to understand place over time. I am going to have to think about this question very carefully over the coming days.

Massey’s notion of place is not dissimilar to her notion of politics; both are about the negotiation of relations. She wants to argue, she writes, 

for a politics, perhaps better an angle of vision on politics, which can open itself up in this way to an appreciation of the spatial and the engagements it challenges us to. That is to say, less a politics dominated by a framing imagination of linear progression (and certainly not singular linear progression), and more a politics of the negotiation of relations, configurations; one which lays an emphasis on . . . practices of relationality, a recognition of implication, and a modesty of judgement in the fact of the inevitability of specificity. (147)

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

is the constant and conflictual process of the constitution of the social, both human and nonhuman. Such a view does not eliminate an impetus to forward movement, but it does enrich it with a recognition that movement be itself produced through attention to configurations; it is out of them that new heterogeneities, and new configurations, will be conjured. This is a temporality which is not linear, nor singular, nor pregiven; but it is integral to the spatial. It is a politics which pays attention to the fact that entities and identities (be they places, or political constituencies, or mountains) are collectively produced through practices which form relations; and it is on those practices and relations that politics must be focused. But this also means insisting on space as the sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction. It means not falling back into those strategies of evasion which fail to face up full on to the challenge of space. (147-48)

She tells a story about a large glacial erratic found in the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, and the way that this rock became an icon of openness to the world outside the city, because it was, itself, from somewhere else (149-51). The point of this story is, as with the story about Skiddaw, that even the rocks are moving; no place, no space, is stable or fixed if the rocks and the ground beneath our feet are mobile.

Like the meaning of the Hamburg erratic, the meanings of places, and spaces, must be negotiated. Public spaces are one example: “The very fact that they are necessarily negotiated, sometimes riven with antagonism, always contoured through the playing out of unequal social relations, is what renders them genuinely public” (153). More ordinary places, “temporary constellations of trajectories,” or “events which are places,” also “require negotiation” (153):

The daily negotiation and contestation of a place does not require . . . the conscious collective contestation of its identity (however temporarily established) nor are there the mechanisms for it. But insofar as they “work” at all places are still not-inconsiderable collective achievements. They are formed through a myriad of practices of quotidian negotiation and contestations; practices, moreover, through which the constituent “identities” are also themselves moulded. Place, in other words does—as many argue—change us, not through some visceral belonging (some barely changing rootedness, as so many would have it) but through the practising of place, the negotiation of intersecting trajectories; place as an arena where negotiation is forced upon us. (154)

This is true of both urban and rural places; the countryside is just as prone to change and disturbance as the city, although “reimagining countryside/Nature is more challenging still than responding to the changing spatiality (customarily figured as predominantly human) of the urban” (160). She notes the “biotic impact” of colonization—something that is inscribed on the land here in Saskatchewan, where an ecosystem has been almost entirely destroyed since the 1880s—a destruction that is ongoing—in order to establish a modern economy based on agriculture, at first, and then resource extraction (mining and oil production). But “negotiation” might be the wrong word to use to describe the effect of colonization on Indigenous peoples here; although treaties were negotiated, essential aspects of those treaties were, Sheldon Krasowski argues, kept hidden by the government negotiators. The land remains Indigenous, Krasowski contends, and so “contestation,” rather than negotiation, might be a more appropriate term to use in this part of the world. (Several months ago, I blogged about Krasowski’s book on treaties in western Canada here.)

“A relational politics of place,” Massey writes, “involves both the inevitable negotiations presented by throwntogetherness” (181). At the same time, “a global sense of places evokes another geography of politics too: that which looks outwards to address the wider spatialities of the relations of their construction. It raises the question of a politics of connectivity” (181). The local is in a relation to the global, and therefore “each local struggle is already a relational achievement, drawing from both within and beyond ‘the local,’ and is internally multiple” (182). The potential is “for the movement beyond the local to be rather one of extension and meeting along lines of constructed equivalence with elements of the internal multiplicities of other local struggles,” Massey continues:

The building of such equivalences is itself a process, a negotiation, an engagement of political practices and imaginations in which ground is sought through which the local struggles can construct common cause against a (now differently constructed) antagonist. And the ground will itself be new; politics will change in the process. Moreover, within that process—precisely through the negotiation of a connection and the constitution of a common antagonist—the identities of the constituent local struggles are themselves subject to further change. (182)

“[R]ather than providing a template of answers,” Massey argues, this notion of local struggles “forces the posing of questions about each specific situation” (182). The politics that would result from this sense of the relation between local and global struggles would be integrally and significantly spatial:

The differential placing of local struggles within the complex power-geometry of spatial relations is a key element in the formation of their political identities and politics. In turn, political activity reshapes both identities and spatial relations. Space, as relational and as the sphere of multiplicity, is both an essential part of the character of, and perpetually reconfigured through, political engagement. And the way in which that spatiality is imagined by the participants is also crucial. The closure of identity in a territorialised space of bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing radical politics. (183)

Nevertheless, the “prevailing attitude towards place” works against that kind of political engagement, Massey claims:

Spatial imaginaries both in hegemonic and counter-hegemonic political discourses, and in academic writing, hold it back. Of prime importance here is the persistent counterposition of space and place, and it is bound up with a parallel counterposition between global and local. . . . Over and over again, the counterposition of local and global resonates with an equation of the local with realness, with local place as earthly and meaningful, standing in opposition to a presumed abstraction of global space. It is a political imaginary which, in a range of formulations, has a powerful counterpart in reams of academic literature. (183)

Included among the “reams of academic literature” is Tuan, whose claim that space is more abstract than space, and that place is more meaningful than space, is held up by Massey as an example of the wrong way to approach definitions of these terms (183). Such a division, she writes, “rests upon a problematical geographical imagination”:

To begin with, it is to confound categories. The couplets local/global and place/space do not map on to that of concrete/abstract. The global is just as concrete as is the local place. If space is really to be thought relationally then it is no more than the sum of our relations and interconnections, and the lack of them; it too is utterly “concrete.” (184)

Such a division is also bound up with “that dualism between Emotion (place/local) and Reason (space/global)” (184). For Massey,

[a]n understanding of the world in terms of relationality, a world in which the local and the global really are “mutually constituted,” renders untenable these kinds of separation. The “lived reality of our daily lives” is utterly dispersed, unlocalised, in its sources and in its repercussions. The degree of dispersion, the stretching, may vary dramatically between social groups, but the point is that the geography will not be simply territorial. . . . In such approaches words such as “real,” “everyday,” “lived,” “grounded” are constantly deployed and bound together; they intend to invoke security, and implicitly—as a structural necessity of the discourse—they counterpose themselves to a wider “space” which must be abstract, ungrounded, universal, even threatening. Once again the similarity between the conception of information as disembodied and of globalisation as some kind of other realm, always somewhere else, is potent. . . . It is a dangerous basis for a politics. One cannot seriously posit space as the outside of place as lived, or simply equate “the everyday” with the local. If we really think space relationally, then it is the sum of all our connections, and in that sense utterly grounded, and those connections may go round the world. (184-85)

“My argument is not that place is not concrete, grounded, real, lived, etc.,” Massey writes. “It is that space is too” (185). So Massey would vehemently disagree with my sense that her argument and Tuan’s are not so far apart. However, I wonder if a careful reading of Tuan’s book on space and place might not find points of connection. It might be worth at least attempting to see if there is any possible rapprochement between these two versions of space and place—and if there isn’t, then I will have to take note of Massey’s arguments here.

One related concern Massey has is our tendency to connect our ethical imaginations to the local rather than the global. Does ethical concern have to be connected to place? she asks. “Does it have to be territorial at all? Perhaps it is not ‘place’ that is missing, but grounded, practised, connectedness” (187). “A full recognition of the characteristics of space also entails the positive interconnectivity, the nature of the constitutive relationality, of this approach,” she argues:

this is a relational ontology which avoids the pitfalls both of classical individualism and of communitarian organicism; just so a full recognition of space involves the rejection both of any notion of authentic self-constituting territories/places and of the closed connectivities of structuralism as spatial (and thus evokes space as always relational and always open, being made) and implies the same structure of the possibility of politics. (189)

Such an approach to understanding the social, the individual, and the political, Massey continues,

itself implies and requires both a strong dimension of spatiality and the conceptualisation of that spatiality in a particular way. At one level this is to rehearse again the fact that any notion of sociability, in its sparest form simply multiplicity, is to imply a dimension of spatiality. This is obvious, but since it usually remains implicit (if even that), its implications are rarely drawn out. The very acknowledgement of our constitutive interrelatedness implies a spatiality; and that in turn implies that the nature of that spatiality should be a crucial avenue of enquiry and political engagement. Further, this kind of interconnectedness which stresses the imaginative awareness of others, evokes the outwardlookingness of a spatial imagination. . . . In other words, to push the point further, the full recognition of contemporaneity implies a spatiality which is a multiplicity of stories-so-far. Space as coeval becomings. Or again, an understanding of the social and the political which avoids both classical individualism and communitarian organicism absolutely requires its constitution through a spatio-temporality which is open, through an open-ended temporality which itself necessarily requires a spatiality that is both multiple and not closed, one which is always in the process of construction. Any politics which acknowledges the openness of the future (otherwise there could be no realm of the political) entails a radically open time-space, a space which is always being made. (189)

To be honest, I’m not sure this version of an ethics of connection is likely to outweigh the draw of the local and parochial. Maybe it should, but it seems too abstract, as compared to the call of communities close to home, however imagined those communities might be.

Massey’s concluding paragraph brings together space, place, and time in a way that relates all three to her argument about ethics and connection:

Space is as much a challenge as is time. Neither space nor place can provide a haven from the world. If time presents us with the opportunities of change and (as some would see it) the terror of death, then space presents us with the social in the widest sense: the challenge of our constitutive interrelatedness—and thus our collective implication in the outcomes of that interrelatedness; the radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman; and the ongoing and ever-specific project of the practices through which that sociability is to be configured. (195)

This argument describes what ought to be, but it does not describe what is: we might be interrelated with a “radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman,” but it seems that selfishness and selfcentredness and parochialisms of all kinds have the upper hand at the moment, and I see nothing in Massey’s argument that would help us to turn that situation around. It is simply too abstract to appeal to most people, I am afraid.

Nevertheless, For Space is an important book, and I am happy to have another definition of place, aside from Tuan’s, to draw upon. If nothing else, I know one of the main arguments against Tuan’s conceptions of space and place, and knowing those arguments, I can build a defence of my use of Tuan—because, despite Massey’s objections, I do think there is something useful in his argument. I like Massey’s definition of politics, and her commitment to openendedness and her abhorrence of closure, and I like the way she brings the spatial and the temporal together. Her discussion of postcolonialism and multiple narratives is also important for my work. I have to say, though, that because For Space is a challenging book, I will probably have to reread it to truly understand Massey’s arguments. That’s fine; reading is (always) rereading. This (lengthy) summary is only my first attempt at understanding her ideas; at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to try again.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Borges.pdf.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.

46. Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely, eds., Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing

pilgrimage in practice

I think I’ve written here about the advice I’ve received from my supervisors about this project. They tell me I should be “skinning” the books I read: reading the introduction and the conclusion and skimming the chapters in between, looking for anything relevant to my project. I’m usually reluctant to do that, because you never know if you’ll miss something that might turn out to be important, but this book, a collection of essays on pilgrimage originally given as papers at the 2014 Sacred Journeys conference at Mansfield College, Oxford, was a prime candidate. Not because the essays are uninteresting–no, that’s not the case at all. Had I time, I would love to read about the experience of twelfth-century pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or the explorer (not the actor) Richard Burton’s journey to Mecca in disguise, or pilgrimages in South Africa’s Eastern Free State, or Jerusalem as a contested (to put it mildly) pilgrimage site. But I don’t have time, honestly, and this volume contains an essay that is very close to my research: Matthew R. Anderson’s “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” a paper anticipating the 350-kilometre NWMP Trail walk, from Wood Mountain Historic Post to Fort Walsh in southwestern Saskatchewan, that took place in the summer of 2015. I’ve written about Matthew R. Anderson here before, too; he’s the friend who sent me a pile of essays about pilgrimage. Although I didn’t participate in the NWMP Trail walk, Matthew and I were part of the group that walked from Swift Current, Saskatchewan north to Battleford in 2017, and from Mortlach, Saskatchewan, south to the cathedral in Gravelbourg in 2018. Matthew’s essay–because I know Matthew, I’m going to refer to him by his given name, rather than by his surname–casts an important light on the work I plan to do, and for that reason I was very happy I read it.

First, though, I read the book’s introduction, written by its editors: Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely. They begin with a sense of the range of activities that are collected together under the rubric of “pilgrimage.” “Pilgrimages are some of the most ancient practices of humankind and are associated with a great variety of religious, spiritual and secular traditions” (ix). They clearly disagree with Peter Jan Margry’s argument that secular pilgrimage is an oxymoron (14). In addition, they give a sense of the range of activity that can be considered pilgrimage: “330 million people embark on traditional pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India, Japan and Spain” every year, they write, and “one-third of all international travellers are on some form of pilgrimage or spiritual tradition” (ix). Given this level of activity, “the taken-for-granted parameters around which the subject of pilgrimage was ensconced have come under scrutiny,” they write. “Can anyone say what pilgrimage, in its essence, is?” (ix). Their answer is no. While traditional definitions encompass sites such as Lourdes, Mecca, and the Japanese temple island of Shikoku, there are many other practices that could be considered to be pilgrimages (ix). The scope of pilgrimage leads McIntosh, Quinn, and Keely to ask a number of important questions: “Can ‘pilgrims’ be categorized, pigeonholed or deemed distinct from others who journey ‘for a purpose’? Can a distinction be drawn between the sacred and the secular?” (ix). “What is ‘pilgrim behaviour’? Can it be distinguished and quantified in meaningful ways?” (ix). The purpose of the anthology they have put together is, they write, “to explore some of the knotty questions confronting scholars of pilgrimage” by “inviting those from a vast array of disciplines who, it was hoped, would deal with the experiential, practical, historical, psychological and phenomenological aspects of pilgrimage” (x). The multiplicity of approaches reflects the fact that “the ground has shifted from unity to diversity” (xi). There are many approaches to pilgrimage studies, and many ideas of what pilgrimage as a phenomenon is, and that is reflected in the papers collected in this volume (xi). I find the editors’ openness to a variety of approaches to pilgrimage, and a variety of definitions of the phenomenon, refreshing; that openness reflects Simon Coleman’s contention that there is no point in making “dogmatic assertions” about what pilgrimage is or isn’t (364).

Matthew’s paper on the NWMP Trail pilgrimage begins with his discovery of the Trail’s history. NWMP stands for “North West Mounted Police,” the precursors of the RCMP, Canada’s national police force, and the trail ran from Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills to an NWMP post at Wood Mountain. The trail, Matthew writes, was “crucial to the historical and political developments that forever shaped both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada”:

It constitutes one branch of Canada’s own “trail of tears.” Along this path and others, thousands of starving Indigenous peoples were evicted from the very lands that some groups had only recently signed treaties for, and sent to walk helplessly towards security and food that were promised by Her Majesty’s Government, but that rarely materialized. (149)

“It was along this path,” he continues,

that the fate of Sitting Bull and his warriors, of a collapsing natural resource, of the Métis hunting economy, of the national boundaries of North America, and of a 1000-mile-wide natural ecosystem based on the prairie bison was decided. The NWMP Trail was a route of heroism and a path of ignominy, a place touted in parliamentary debate as destined for a bright future and one of the very real routes for a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing. (149)

Because of the NWMP Trail’s importance, he decided to organize (along with Hugh Henry, a naturalist and historian living in Swift Current) a walking pilgrimage along the trail. This paper reflects Matthew’s thinking about the walk before it took place; it would be interesting to read his reflections on the experience.

The draw of the NWMP Trail was not only historical. The walk also offered an opportunity to encounter the land in an intimate way; walking, Matthew writes, “allows a slower and more nuanced view of what is in fact a nuanced landscape” (150). That’s very true, particularly on native grassland, where one’s attention is divided between the grand sweep of the horizon and the plants and grasses one is walking through. There are many other attractions to the trail: “In short, walking this trail satisfies the historian interested a truer picture of the past, but it also intrigues the nature lover, storyteller, amateur geologist, documentary maker, cultural critic and political junkie” (150). It also would engage anyone with a sense of the land as sacred, something the previous inhabitants of the Cypress Hills–the Cree, Nakoda, and Saulteaux people–believed, and a central idea for the pilgrimage.

The emphasis of this pilgrimage, as with other walking pilgrimages, would be the journey, the path walked, rather than the destination–an emphasis that is characteristic of contemporary walking pilgrimages, Matthew writes. “[T]he slow and careful transformative experience afforded by walking pilgrimage seems ideal to the study and experience of the Trail,” he suggests, noting that

a trail by its nature emphasizes terrain, a sweep of land rather than a spot. Historically, it was the land, its grasses and coulees, its hawk and deer and elk and bear, its creeks and rivers and sloughs, its disappearing bison and its promise for cattle and crops, that were at issue for hunter, trader, smuggler, soldier, warrior, politician and surveyor. (151)

Again, one of the central goals of the NWMP Trail walk was to experience the land in a direct and intimate way, through “the body of the pilgrim” (151). “For a pilgrimage about land to be effective,” Matthew writes, the land must speak and be listened to. It will speak slowly, through soil, stone and grass, and through all those other aesthetic and physical factors that prairie naturalist Trevor Herriot calls ‘the givens of place'” (151). The reference here is to Herriot’s book The Road is How, which I wrote about in this blog some time ago. “[W]alking will allow for a sustained and close contact with the land, with its flora and fauna, its landscape and what could perhaps be called its ‘footscape,’ that no other form of mobility across the prairies can give,” Matthew writes (155). The possibilities that walking offers for encountering the land is an important part of my research, and I agree that it probably offers the best compromise between mobility and an experience of place we have. At the same time, as I’ve written elsewhere, “The more slowly you go, the more you apprehend. And yet, according to that logic, the best thing to do would be to stop” (129). That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with Matthew about the power of walking as a way of experiencing land; it’s just that, in my own experience, it’s possible to get caught up in the rhythm of walking, or the interior meditations it provokes, and end up ignoring the territory through which one is walking. Perhaps that doesn’t mean one’s body isn’t experiencing the land–the hills one ascends or descends, or the feeling of sun or wind on one’s skin–but it may mean that one isn’t entirely aware of those experiences.

Matthew is also interested in the idea of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and descendants of settlers, and that idea animates his hopes for the walk. He refers to the Two-Row Wampum as a metaphor of partnership between Indigenous peoples and settlers: according to the Two-Row Wampum’s symbolism, each group travels separately but in parallel, “in a spirit of mutual respect” (151). His hope was that the walk would articulate the spirit of that metaphor. Such an articulation would not be easy:

Of course, it is one thing for a descendant of settlers such as myself to hear the challenge to journey in this way, and quite another actually to identify a path and begin to walk with the intent of emphasizing, among other things, the repressed history of one’s ancestors’ dealings with others. (151-52)

He notes that other walks are made in Canada: Indigenous political marches to Ottawa or to provincial capitals that focus on issues of injustice, and there are many of those, as I  have learned in my own research; and a few non-Indigenous pilgrimages, typically associated with Roman Catholic shrines. However, “there has never been a specifically designed Canadian pilgrimage with the goal or re-walking, and therefore retelling, contested history. That is, there has never been a ‘Settler’ pilgrimage, at least not on this scale, in Canada” (152). As a pilgrimage characterized by unsettling and truth-telling, the NWMP Trail would require “intentional personal decolonization” and “an ongoing questioning on the part of Settler pilgrims of unconscious attitudes and privilege, including academic assumptions” (152).

Like most writers on pilgrimage, Matthew turns to the Victor and Edith Turner and their book, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. Everyone who writes about pilgrimage responds to the Turners; I have to read that book. Matthew suggests that their work on the subject “overstated the positive aspects of pilgrimage, and yet their work points to the possibilities, at least, that pilgrimage offers for a certain rethinking, recasting and reliving of existing social and political structures necessary to the Indigenous-Settler relationship” (152). Those possibilities are the reason he thinks of the walk as a pilgrimage, rather than a hike. But there is another reason to consider the walk a pilgrimage:

While it may not be a fixed ritual, simply walking the prairie landscape for any distance, and almost singularly unusual activity, is extraordinary, and is widely perceived as such in the public mind. Rural Saskatchewan is normally a space approached by machine and understood in terms, not of land, but of vectors: (i) working on the fields; (ii) driving through on the way somewhere else; and (iii) watching for crops or cattle from within the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned or heated vehicle. Walking 350 km across land that is rarely walked turns the distance covered into a liminal space, with the usual potential of a liminal space for the upsetting and recasting of values. (152)

That transformation, that “upsetting and recasting of values,” is an important aspect of walking pilgrimages, as Nancy Louise Frey suggests in her book on the Camino de Santiago, which I wrote about this week.

The connection between this walk and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and settlers is such an important aspect of this pilgrimage that Matthew returns to it in more detail. “To walk a pilgrimage while paying specific attention to Indigenous history and to contemporary Indigenous concerns, then, can be one way for non-Indigenous people to ‘attune’ themselves to a world normally neglected” (152). In addition,

There is an embodied aspect to walking pilgrimage that opens the pilgrim to a reconsideration of history and of the historical and cultural ‘other’ . . . and it is for this reason that walking pilgrimage seems so suited to a reclaiming of the NWMP Trail and a rethinking of the complex and difficult historical place of the Trail in Canadian history and contemporary Indigenous-Settler relations. My expectation is that the physical demands of the walk, and differing evaluations of its place in history, cannot help but occasion some conflict as the pilgrim group encounters First Nations individuals, Métis community leaders, ranchers, farmers and townspeople, with these groups often overlapping. (152-53)

He suggests that Ian McIntosh’s discussion of reconciliation in Australia can help to suggest a way forward for Canadians. McIntosh writes of the importance of “visioning,” imagining a reconciled future, and “backcasting,” working back from that imagined future to concrete steps one might take in the present to effect it. Both visioning and backcasting are future-oriented (153). However, looking to the future can only happen in Canada “after a basic precondition that is addressed by the NWMP Trail pilgrimage” (153): settlers need to know and understand the truth of our history. Matthew writes,

Awareness of the present condition of First Nations must come hand in hand with at least some awareness of the history that created the conditions in which so many Indigenous groups now live. In a situation where many Indigenous people know our shared history only too well, and many Settlers not at all, there is little doubt as to who must do the “moving.” Walking is one way to put feet to our growing awareness. (153)

Walking the NWMP Trail is “a gesture that may become an event; whatever importance it will have comes from the raising of awareness, especially among Settler groups in Saskatchewan and beyond” (153). For that reason, it would be important to tell the story of the pilgrimage (153). Descendants of settlers need to understand that the myth that the settlement of the Canadian west was kinder and gentler than the American version “ignores those government-approved policies of starvation and removal that did in fact take place” (158).

Given the strangeness of walking in Saskatchewan, that story might well find an audience:

Almost no one walks on the Canadian prairie. That is, no one walks unless they walk to or from a vehicle, they are in trouble, or they are too young or too poor to have a car or truck. In many cases, walking in rural Saskatchewan may denote low social status. It is certainly an unexpected sight. In the southern Saskatchewan countryside, a lone walker will not simply be stared at. In areas where one can spend hours without any sign of human activity on the horizon, hikers are as likely as not to encounter well-meaning good Samaritans, stopping their pick-up trucks to ask how they might help. (153)

As I learned walking to Wood Mountain last summer, these comments are absolutely true. To choose to walk here is to choose marginality, even if one is (like me) clearly a member of a privileged group (a white man). Still, Matthew continues, even if no one walks in this land anymore, people once did: First Nations peoples, European explorers, and homesteaders (154). “In terms of human history, it was not that long ago, on the Great Plains, when there was a relationship between the human body and the land, between muscles and distance, a relationship that has disappeared only in the last three-quarters of a century,” Matthew writes (154). “The decline of foot traffic on the prairies seems natural, even inevitable,” but it’s a recent phenomenon, caused by the rapid and widespread adoption of mechanized transportation and the rapid depopulation of the Canadian west. The weather–the heat and cold; thunderstorms, hailstorms, and snowstorms–also makes the prairies “not conducive to walking” (154). All of these conditions make a pilgrimage across Saskatchewan “particularly unusual” (154). It’s important to remember, though, that the use of the NWMP Trail by earlier walkers was much more difficult; they had no support vehicles, mobile phones, or farmers or ranchers to call upon for help (154).

Walkers are exposed on the prairie landscape. They are “often the only noticeable vertical line in a landscape of horizontals,” and that visibility (and their marginality) make them objects of “curiosity and even suspicion” (155). That too is a connection between walking on the prairies and pilgrimage. After all, in Europe, pilgrimage has a history as a subversive activity, something outside of official church structures, and shrines were often places where populist and uncontrolled ideas were spread (155). The pilgrimage along the NWMP Trail would be subversive in its own way, because although the trail is a public trust, it runs across private land. “[P]erhaps the most radical aspect of the NWMP Trail pilgrimage will be the walking itself,” Matthew writes (155), because farmers and ranchers are protective of their property, and there is no culture or history of public access to private land for recreation in Canada. “While we will make every effort . . . to respect landowners’ rights and wishes concerning the crossing of their property,” he continues, “such a walk by its nature makes certain implicit claims about private land and public access” (155). The multiple political aspects of the walk would be intertwined in practice: “the historical recollection of the political injustices to First Nations and Métis”; “the issue of public knowledge of, and access to, a trail which now exists largely on private lands”; and “the fate of the grasslands of the northern Great Plains, an endangered ecosystem that may only be saved if there is enough public awareness of its richness as a cultural treasure and its potential loss” (155).

“Pilgrimage is movement, and it takes its roots from the fact that all movements are transformative,” Matthew writes (159). “What the paradigm of pilgrimage can offer to Settler-Indigenous relations in Canada is a hopeful, but still open question,” he continues, but he hopes that the pilgrimage will function as a search for reconciliation, both personal and societal (159). The NWMP Trail walk would be a “dark pilgrimage”:

an attempt to address a lack of knowledge of a history whose full complexity has perhaps been forgotten in part for its shamefulness. In its public access and its naturalist dimensions, the trek also raises awareness of a common patrimony that is, as it once was, again under threat from sometimes distant economic interests. (159)

It is time for what Paulette Regan, in her book Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, calls “re-storying,” Matthew concludes, and this walking pilgrimage will be one of the ways to accomplish that “re-storying” (159).

There are many parallels between Matthew’s project and my own, although given the difficulties of planning a long walk on private land, I will probably end up walking primarily on secondary roads. However, we are both interested in walking as a way of apprehending land, and in walking as a gesture towards reconciliation. That is, assuming reconciliation is even possible: there have been too many disappointments since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report in 2015 for me to have much faith that descendants of settlers will find it in themselves to address Canada’s ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. There are differences as well; my project is rooted in the history of Treaty 4, for instance. But the similarities between our projects are important, and I hope an opportunity to read Matthew’s reflections on how the NWMP Trail walk worked in practice will present itself.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew R. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth.” Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing. Edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E. Moore Quinn, and Vivienne Keely, CABI, 2018, pp. 148-63.

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

McIntosh, Ian S., E. Moore Quinn and Vivienne Keely, eds. Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation and Healing, CABI, 2018.

McIntosh, Ian S. “Reconciliation: You’ve Got to be Dreaming.” Conflict Resolution Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2014, pp. 55-81.

Regan, Paulette. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. UBC Press, 2010.

Wilson, Ken. “Wood Mountain Walk: Afterthoughts on a Pilgrimage for Andrew Suknaski.”International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 123-34. https://arrow.dit.ie/ijrtp/vol7/iss1/13.

 

45. Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago

pilgrim stories

I’ve been surprised to learn, over the course of my reading in the last couple of weeks, that the Camino de Santiago is not considered a typical pilgrimage. Peter Jan Margry, for instance, argues that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and  “[i]t is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” he suggests (26). For Margry, the point of pilgrimage is to be present at a sacred site, rather than in the movement (walking, usually, in the case of the pilgrimage to Santiago) towards that site, which would seem to exclude the Camino from his definition of pilgrimage (35-36). Not everyone would agree with Margry; Simon Coleman, for example, suggests that

The bodily and temporal modes involved in slow, effortful travel appear to subvert the rushing, mechanized world of the present, allowing space a kind of victory over time and helping to produce a sense of contact with the past. If the contemporary world appears to be about the compression of time and space, pilgrims to Compostela are entering a kind of sacred decompression chamber. (“From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem” 66)

Ian Reader, for his part, acknowledges that in some pilgrimages, the focus is on the journey to the sacred site, rather than the sacred site itself (23-24), although he also notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). The question of the relationship between the Camino de Santiago and pilgrimage is an important one for me, because the pilgrimage to Santiago is the only one in which I have participated in a serious manner, and it it is outside the mainstream of pilgrimage, then clearly I have based my understanding of what pilgrimage is on a misunderstanding.

In hopes of resolving the question of how the Camino de Santiago is connected to the notion of pilgrimage, I turned to Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic account of pilgrims walking to Santiago, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Frey is clear at the beginning of her book that the pilgrimage to Santiago is complex, in terms of the motivations of its participants, and unusual in its emphasis on movement rather than being present at a sacred site. Frey writes,

When faced with the complexity of the contemporary Camino, the categories ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ seem to lose meaning. Usually the words, especially in English, are associated with a religious journey, faith, or devout seekers. . . . Although the Santiago pilgrimage has a religious foundation based in Catholic doctrine regarding sin, its remission and salvation, in its contemporary permutation these religious elements endure, but they also share the same stage with transcendent spirituality, tourism, physical adventure, nostalgia, a place to grieve, and esoteric initiation. The Camino can be (among many other things) a union with nature, a vacation, an escape from the drudgery of the everyday, a spiritual path to the self and humankind, a social reunion, or a personal testing ground. It is “done” and “made” as a pilgrimage, but what does that mean now? The glue that holds these disparate elements together seems to be the shared journey, the Camino de Santiago. (4-5)

The emphasis on that “shared journey” is what separates the Camino from Marian pilgrimage centres in Europe, where the emphasis is on being at the sacred shrine:

The emphasis placed on the journey and how one reaches the shrine at Santiago struck me as marking an important difference between other popular western European pilgrimage centers such as Fátima in Portugal or Lourdes in France. With those other centers, whose devotion is centered on the Virgin Mary by a Catholic majority, the pilgrims’ essential ritual acts occur within the bounded sacred space of the shrine. The pilgrims’ mode of transport, or way of arriving, at the shrine is usually secondary or irrelevant. It surprised me that unlike the pilgrims at Fátima or Lourdes, these white, urban, European, middle-class men and women made the pilgrimage—from a week to a month—on foot, bicycle, and horse. Rather than a healing shrine of short-term visits, the contemporary Santiago pilgrimage is not confined to the city itself but consists of a long, physical and often internal (spiritual, personal, religious) journey. In many cases making the pilgrimage becomes for participants one of the most important experiences of their lives. Pilgrims want to feel and live the road step by step (or pedal after pedal). Non-Catholics, agnostics, atheists, and even seekers of esoteric knowledge go side by side with Catholics and Protestants.” (7)

Walking and cycling pilgrims, Frey notes, make up a minority of those who visit the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many of those who travel by bus or plane or automobile are motivated by their religious faith and a desire to be near the relics of St. James (18). For example, during the 1993 Holy Year, only 100,000 out of the six to eight million visitors to Santiago de Compostela walked or cycled the required distances (100 kilometres for walkers, 200 kilometres for cyclists) to receive a Compostela on arrival (22). (Those distances were established arbitrarily by the Church in the 1980s, and they “represent an idea of pilgrimage based on suffering and sacrifice” [22].) The fact that most of those who visit the shrine to St. James in Santiago de Compostela do not walk or cycle would seem to suggest a similarity between the cathedral in Santiago and other Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe, but Frey points out further differences:

The majority of the Marian-centered shrines (Lourdes in France, Fátima in Portugal, and Medjugorje in Bosnia) are based on miracles or apparitions (Church-confirmed earthly visitations of the Virgin Mary to a seer or seers) that occurred after 1850. The pilgrimage to Santiago is based on a tradition said to reach back to the foundation of Christianity. (7-8)

The historical roots of the Santiago pilgrimage, Frey argues, are very important; those who walk or cycle to Santiago become “part of an informal society whose membership goes back a thousand years and includes such notables as Charlemagne, Saint Francis of Assisi, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain” (7). In any case, the Camino de Santiago has become known as a walking or cycling journey since the 1980s, rather than a straightforward visit to a shrine, despite the fact that most of those who visit the shrine use motorized travel of some kind.

Unlike Margry, Frey accepts the idea of secular and even metaphorical pilgrimages (15), and what interests her in the Camino de Santiago is the variety of motivations, opinions, and experiences of those who walk or cycle to Santiago to Compostela. “Walkers and cyclists see a world of difference between pilgrims who travel under their own power and those who use some other form of transport to get to Santiago,” she writes (18), noting that walkers and cyclists typically consider those who go by bus, for example, to be tourists rather than pilgrims because they “do not understand what it means to be connected to the road and . . . to go the ‘human speed’” (18). “Pilgrims use their bodies and the ways they move to make a statement about themselves and their society,” Frey contends. “One’s movements and ways of traveling the Camino contribute to its consecration or desecration as a sacred space. Cars and buses (in the walkers’ view) tarnish the essence of the road” (18). The “sacred space” of the Camino, for walkers and cyclists, is the path they take, rather than or along with the shrine to St. James represented by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

There are subdivisions among pilgrims. Aside from the division between those who walk and those who cycle (which Frey discusses at length), there are also full-time, part-time, and weekend pilgrims (20). Full-time pilgrims, the majority, begin at one point on the route and travel to Santiago de Compostela without stopping (20). Part-time pilgrims make short-term trips, typically lasting one or two weeks, and it may therefore take them a number of years to get to Santiago. Usually part-time pilgrims are prevented by time constraints from making the continuous journey, although “some, believing that pilgrimage is a process that requires the passage of time to bear the fruit of insight, choose to make the journey in stages” (20). Weekend pilgrims—and this is a group I had never heard of before—“are usually members of associations dedicated to the pilgrimage and its routes which organize walking excursions on various Jacobean paths. A portion of the Camino is selected, and the participants drive or are bused to the starting point and then walk the section” (20). Arriving in Santiago de Compostela would not be an important motivation for weekend pilgrims.

Those who walk or cycle, and those who drive or are bused, rarely understand each others’ motivations, Frey writes:

Pilgrimage, like all human movement, is patterned according to societal norms, lifestyles, class values, fashion, and cultural ideals. The questions become how and why certain modes of transport are used, what they mean to those who use them, and who the people are who use them. 

Foot and cycle pilgrims tend to call those who go by bus and car tourists, and themselves, pilgrims. To be labeled a tourist is pejorative and to be avoided. . . . The term “pilgrimage” signifies a religious journey made out of faith or devotion. Bus and foot or bicycle pilgrims also make the journey for a wide assortment of religious, cultural, sport, and personal reasons. Among both groups there are individuals who go to Santiago for strictly religious reasons, but the vast majority have multiple reasons for getting to Santiago. Therefore, when bus pilgrims are labeled ‘tourists’ by foot or bicycle pilgrims it is not a pejorative statement about their motives but about their movement choices. Tourists, understood to be frivolous, superficial people, travel en masse by bus, car, or plane. Pilgrims, understood to be genuine, authentic, serious people, walk and cycle. (26-27)

The distinction between pilgrim and tourist, as Simon Coleman has pointed out, is complex (“Accidental Pilgrims” 72), but Frey is interested in the distinctions that foot and cycle pilgrims make, and they (as I did on the Camino) overwhelmingly reject out-of-hand any notion that pilgrims can take a bus all the way to Santiago de Compostela and still be considered peregrinos.  (The Spanish word for pilgrim is universally adopted, in my experence, by those who walk or cycle to Santiago de Compostela, and since it’s a lot less awkward than the circumlocutions I have been using, I’ll refer to walkers and cyclists as peregrinos from now on.) 

As Frey notes, the motivations of peregrinos are bound up in their choice of mode of transportation:

It is not just devotion (an instrumental purpose) that drives pilgrims to walk and cycle to Santiago, but in choosing to go in a nonmodern way pilgrims make statements (expressive and communicative purposes) about their society and their values. Broadly speaking, these values include an appreciation of nature and physical effort, a rejection of materialism, an interest in or a nostalgia for the past (especially the medieval), a search for inner meaning, an attraction to meaningful human relationships, and solitude. (27)

Unlike Margry, Frey acknowledges that the pilgrimage peregrinos make is not necessarily religious or sacred in nature:

Becoming a pilgrim to Santiago does not necessarily mean making a religious journey, but it does often signify for cyclists and walkers an inner and an outer journey, a means of finding transformation. Some pilgrims with to give their leisure time meaning, to take a much-needed break from the rat race, and they are attracted to the possibility of adventure, of finding a link to the past and a way to connect meaningfully with themselves, others, and the land, to feel their bodies, and to use all of their senses, to see every blade of grass rather than pass rapidly through a meaningless countryside, to live with less, to relax for a while. They want a space to pray, think, or meditate. From the perspective of the road these things seem impossible to attain from behind the window in the air-conditioned bus. (27-28)

Here, Frey touches on the aspect of walking long distances—whether those walks are considered pilgrimages or not doesn’t matter: such walks offer an opportunity, at least in theory, to have an intimate experience with the land that is not possible with motorized transportation. Whether that theoretical intimacy is borne out in practice is the purpose of the conference paper I will be writing next week.

Frey notes—correctly, I think—that for peregrinos the goal is the road, rather than the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and that many peregrinos lack religious motivations:

The underlying assumption among most people who know nothing about the modern pilgrimage is that the goal is Santiago and that religious devotion motivates the journey. The goal, however, is often the road itself, not the city. Unlike many pilgrims to Marian shrines, those who walk and cycle to Santiago often are not motivated by the pains of the suffering body but the pains of the suffering soul. (45)

I’m not sure the distinction Frey is making here, between pilgrims to Marian shrines and pilgrims walking the Camino, can be supported with evidence; after all, her ethnographic work was with peregrinos rather than those who visit Marian shrines, some of whom might be hoping to find some relief from “the pains of the suffering soul.” Nevertheless, Frey contends that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela typically has internal, emotional or spiritual motivations, rather than physical ones:

The pilgrimage does not begin with the first step or ride down the trail. Pilgrims begin to shape their journeys well before they leave the front door. The physical movement of arriving at the Camino is anticipated by some kind of internal movement—a decision, an impulse, an unexpected prompting, a long-held desire finally realized, a promise seeking fulfillment, a hope for change. The internal space is in some way already in flux before the journey begins—anticipatory, eager, confused, exhausted, open. (47)

That was certainly my experience before I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela: I felt strangely called to make that journey (I know that language is religious and I am not, but that’s the only way I can describe the feeling I had). I was hoping for some kind of change, and thought that a month of walking might give me the time to figure out what form that change might take. In that way, I was very much like the peregrinos Frey interviews for this book.

The meanings of the pilgrimage, Frey suggests, “emerge through interaction with others, the road, and reflection” (64), and “the majority of the participants make the pilgrimage because it is the process, not the arrival at the goal, that is most significant in the experience” (64). Each peregrino experiences the journey in an individual way. One woman told Frey about her encounters with the land: the skies, plants, flowers, trees, colours, and birds filled her with joy (71). Other peregrinos report have a different sense of time compared to their normal lives: “Some describe beginning of the journey at a rapid pace and then slowing down, realizing that there is no rush to get to any particular place” (73). Peregrinos “become aware of their bodies, and in becoming attuned to different rhythms, some begin to guide their movements by them” (73). Some “report experiencing a strong sense of the ‘here and now,’” an “‘out of time’ quality” which “exists in sharp contrast to normal life, which is programmed by work, societal norms, and the daily planner” (73). That is true, to an extent, but in my experience the tendency of peregrinos to rely on guidebooks to the Camino—particularly, for English speakers, John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago—often means peregrinos feel obliged to reach specific destinations each day, and the fear of not having a bed often compels peregrinos to hurry, particularly in the afternoon. In addition, as Frey points out, many pilgrims have a fixed amount of time in which to complete the journey, and they may also feel pressure to get to Santiago de Compostela by a certain date (73).

Moving slowly and getting into the rhythm of a different form of travel “can also affect one’s sense of place and experience of the natural landscapes,” Frey suggests (74). One pilgrim, for example, told Frey that being in place, rather than passing through what seemed to be meaningless space (note the echoes of Yi-Fu Tuan’s argument here; he is cited in Frey’s footnotes) was 

directly linked to a growing awareness of his senses. It is his “being” in the world that is different too: he feels each step, is aware of himself in the new places and how he affects and is affected by those steps. The discovery of this sensation of place is in part based on how he moves, what he perceives, and what he touches. The roads are not just flat or bumpy, the hills green, or the birds singing. While walking it is possible to see individual blades of grass, feel every stone in the road (maybe painfully), and note how the senses are heightened. (75)

“Landscape, then, is not just a neutral backdrop but a multidimensional concept related to the understanding of space and movement and the creation of stories meaningful to the pilgrim,” Frey continues (75). One form taken by such stories—or perhaps one mnemonic device that assists with their recall—is the credencial, or credential, in which peregrinos collect stamps that will prove to the authorities in Santiago de Compostela that they made the journey under their own power:

As the pilgrim journeys over the vaguely conceptualized Camino the steps and encounters are like the stamps in the credential: at first there is a blank, structural frame, which is then filled slowly, day by day. A pause, a thought, a stamp, a cup of coffee becomes part of a memory, and the vaguely conceived-of whole—the Camino—takes on a new set of meanings. At journey’s end the spaces have been filled and marked with personal experiences. (75)

“The Camino, which begins as an abstract space, comes to be an accumulation of internalized places made up of stories, sensations, and changes in perception,” Frey writes (87). What had been undifferentiated space, then, becomes a series of places defined by the peregrinos’ experience rather than, as Tuan suggests, places where they stopped, however briefly. Place, then, is linked to mobility through walking, in a way that works against Tuan’s distinction between space (seen as mobility) and place (seen as stasis).

Those who repeat the pilgrimage experience often “express concern about losing the novelty of the unknown spaces, creating routine,” through that repetition; however, many of those repeat peregrinos discover “that the landscape is not the only knowable space or variable; each time the encounters with people, the self, seasons, refuges, and companions are different” (75). This point is significant; I’ve been thinking that the only way to understand space as place is through repeated engagements with the same location, but I hadn’t thought about the way that, for some pilgrims, “the novelty of unknown spaces” is part of the Camino’s draw—and that’s surprising, because that novelty is one of the things I have enjoyed, on the Camino de Santiago and during other walks I have made since then. 

Frey quotes Thomas Merton’s suggestion that people make two journeys, an inner one and an outer one, and she notes that many peregrinos experience some form of inner journey on the Camino (79). Some report feelings of a loss of self or the creation of a greater self in the environment, or of losing a sense of where one’s own body ends and the other begins (79). “Time appears to stop,” she writes, “the world becomes whole, and you know that you are connected to something much greater and inchoate” (79). Often such experiences or feelings are interpreted by peregrinos in religious terms (79). Some pilgrims sense the presence of those who walked the Camino before them: “The common human experience of walking gives one the sense of a shared journey” (82). Others report “that long-forgotten memories surface”:

memories of family members and friends, childhood places, secrets or painful circumstances. These new perceptions often take people to internal places not before visited. The days consist of many hours of walking and cycling. In these long moments, which may be experienced alone or in the companionship of other pilgrims, people are confronted with empty time, a concept distant from the lives of most of these urban dwellers. Into these quiet moments may spill unexplained tears. (83)

Such “outpourings,” Frey continues, are often described as “cathartic,” and “the catalyst that sets them in motion often mysterious to the pilgrim” (83). That catalyst “may be spatial (having distance, perspective, and free time), personal (another pilgrim), or experiential (walking in the meseta)” (83). (The meseta is the high, arid, flat plain that constitutes the middle third of the territory through which the Camino Francés runs.) Pilgrims report having strange dreams and becoming more aware of their own mortality (83). They may discover “hitherto unknown personal potential, experience a reorientation of values, have new visions of the self and others, and develop road maps for present and future actions,” Frey writes (87). Even though there are experiences of levity and play, those times do not detract “from what can be a profound spiritual experience or a reflective time” (92). They become “just another aspect of the journey” (92).

Frey notes that peregrinos experience both communitas and contestation on their journeys. “Through knowing one another in adverse circumstances and relying on others to help get through the fatigue of the day or the confusion of limited language,” she writes, “feelings of communitas (community) and a heightened sense of generosity emerge” (92). Many pilgrims also value the connections they make with people from different cultures, nations, classes, or age groups (93). Frustrations do occur, however, and friendships can be strained:

Sometimes the friction is caused by the different rhythms or a physical problem, which causes one of the companions to make a choice: continue his or her own way or wait with the friend. Existing friendships may suffer from the expanding sense of self, different rhythms, renovation, and experimentation that are common on the way. Paths begin to diverge, leading to a temporary rupture or misunderstanding. (94)

Walking pilgrims often resent the cyclists who speed past them, and for all I know cyclists may resent the pedestrians who block the path; no one likes those who get up early and make noise or shine lights around thoughtlessly in the dormitorio; and those who snore are sometimes reviled. “Nonetheless, through sharing a communal dinner and the day’s stories, curing blisters, or giving massages,” Frey writes, “there is generally a high level of congeniality among pilgrims, even under difficult circumstances” (96). Because “the Camino exists outside of normal time in neutral and inspiring places, where stress is reduced to a minimum,” she continues, “pilgrims open up internally and externally to those around them” (101).

How different is the Camino from other long-distance walking journeys, however? According to Frey, such journeys provide opportunities for “similar types of personal discoveries and triumphs and the use of the road as a metaphor for life” (102). But, she continues, there are important differences:

The Camino is unique, however, for its religious and historical traditions, the presence of nonpilgrims who encourage the journey, the pilgrim’s passport and the collection of stamps, its one-way nature, and its network of refuges and hospitaleros. One is not just a walker but a pilgrim to Santiago. (102)

“Pilgrims experience a powerful feeling of being guided toward a goal, of having a sense of direction, and of knowing where one is going that is not so clear in daily life,” Frey writes. “Each day is an act of accomplishment toward a stated goal in which everything seems to be going the pilgrim’s way” (103). I’m not sure that walkers on other long-distance paths, such as the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, don’t have the same sense of a goal, or that everything goes the pilgrim’s way; I’m sure that some days, some peregrinos think that nothing is going their way at all. I would argue, in fact, that the relative ease of the Camino is one of the main differences between it and the Appalachian Trail (or similar hiking routes). After all, there’s no need to carry a tent or much food (beyond snacks or a lunch). Packs are therefore lighter—perhaps 10 kilograms rather than 20, which is a big difference—and days usually end with a shower and a change of clothes and a meal that typically includes a cheap bottle of vino tinto. I’m not saying that the Camino is easy, but it might not be as difficult as other long-distance walks. That comparative lack of difficulty might enable more people to participate.

There are challenges on the Camino, of course—blisters, injuries, getting lost—and overcoming them often gives pilgrims the sense that they are capable of dealing with the unexpected. As a result, they “acquire greater self-confidence, and have the sense of being more compassionate, generous, open-minded, and accepting of hardship,” Frey points out. “These experiences are part of how pilgrims explain how the Camino works on them to produce meaning and transformation” (105). Pilgrims interpret the pain and fatigue of their journeys differently: for some these are vestiges of the medieval Camino; for others, especially practicing Catholics, they are opportunities for penitence or sacrifice; for still others, pain and fatigue are gifts that bring greater insight (109). “For nonreligious pilgrims, the pain and fatigue are part of the challenge that must be overcome,” Frey suggests. “Testing one’s limits to feel one’s body is sufficient for many pilgrims. . . . Overcoming pain when it seems impossible to continue leads to a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, a better knowledge of and respect for one’s body, and a way of feeling alive” (110-11). Peregrinos often report greater body confidence and feelings of empowerment through physical struggle, along with losing weight and feeling stronger, which can boost their morale (112). They don’t just notice their increasing fitness, however; as norms of cleanliness or appearance become less important compared to normal life, they often joke about smelling bad (112). “The body and the sensations it opens the pilgrim up to become new unexplored territory,” Frey writes (112). Some peregrinos are not able to overcome pain or injury; Frey estimates that 20 per cent of those who begin the Camino in Roncesvalles do not complete the journey for a variety of reasons (114). 

For many peregrinos, the Camino becomes an opportunity for solitude and independence (117). “Overcoming a fear of being alone can lead one to personal understanding and change the Camino from an uncertain adventure to a more broadly conceived journey of self-exploration,” Frey suggests (117). “During the long stretches of continuous movement, which may be painful, boring, or exhilarating, the pilgrim also fills the time in novel or infrequently practices ways—thinking, praying, meditating, singing” (118). For some, the walk is a ludic or playful experience; others find themselves lost in the rhythm of walking; some experience existential questions (118). At the same time, Frey writes,

In this environment, in which new doors to the self are opened on personal, spiritual, and social levels and the pilgrims experiment with emerging parts of their identities, a sense of danger or guilt may also surface. These reactions frequently occur when one’s image of what a pilgrim’s behavior “ought to be” while making the Camino conflicts with the reality of the experience. (124)

Questions of authenticity, which on the Camino often mean the genuine nature of the experience, are one aspect of the pilgrimage, as John Eade and Michael Sallnow argue, a space of competing discourses (126). Conflicts “over what is an is not ‘pilgrimlike’” are frequently rooted in struggles for power, personal debates about the pilgrimage’s meaning, and claims to authority—particularly over questions of authenticity (126). In other words, “[a]lthough there is communitas, rifts exist” (129). “Without realizing it,” Frey continues,

pilgrims make sweeping judgments about others and at the same time put themselves into a category that claims to hold a “truth” about the Camino. The authentic says “We are all pilgrims,” but at the same time it is clear that “some are better pilgrims than others.” For some, being an authentic pilgrim raises one’s status instead of serving as an equalizer. (129)

“Distance from modern technology plays a crucial role in determining authenticity,” she continues. “Walkers reign supreme for their independence, physical effort, and slow pace” (131). In addition, I would, that sometimes those who have left cameras or smartphones behind sometimes consider themselves more authentic than those who take photographs or ask for the wifi password when they stop at a bar for coffee.

Questions of authenticity are important as vehicles of interpreting experience, Frey suggests:

Although authenticity is believed to reside in the past, pilgrims find their own meanings through identification, questioning, and reflecting on the image of the authentic pilgrim. The Camino has become a space in which meanings emerge for the individual who can play with identity, search the soul, find the past, create friendships, engage in serious religious or personal reflection, or simply have a good time. Pilgrims often find something essential (authentic) within themselves or others. The point is not that there is no authentic pilgrim but that there are many authenticities. Each person creates his or her personally meaningful experience. (136)

I wonder if this focus on authenticity isn’t another way in which the Camino differs from other long-distance hiking trails. Do hikers ask whether they are authentic hikers? I don’t really know the answer to that question—it’s another issue that requires research—but I would bet they don’t. I could be wrong, though.

As a form of transportation in modern, middle-class European or American life, Frey notes, walking is “essentially obsolete”:

It is the rare individual who commutes to work on foot. Walking is usually linked with leisure. What pilgrims often do not realize is that their venturing out to discover something true about themselves and the world has a long history in Christian and Western philosophy centered on the debate over whether the locus of change is found in stasis or mobility. (131-32)

I ought to familiarize myself with that debate, but Frey’s footnote here is uncharacteristically vague—perhaps because she is an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Still, she suggests, peregrinos who are uninterested in questions of authenticity tend to be those who are experienced travellers or long-distance walkers. “In other journeys they have experienced the pains and disorientation of solitude, the joys of stunning natural beauty, and the experience of living with little,” she writes. “The Camino is just one more such path” (135-36). Some of those experienced walkers are unmoved by the Camino; for them, it’s just another long walk (136). 

Although the peregrino’s focus might be on the journey, at some point he or she is likely to arrive in Santiago de Compostela:

While Santiago is an obvious geographic goal, it is not necessarily the end of the interior journey. Journey’s end and the pilgrim’s goal should not be conflated. The multitextured quality of endings is visible in the closure of the physical journey and the turn toward home. The pilgrimage does not simply end with the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago but is a process that often begins well before the pilgrim reaches the city’s gates and is prolonged indefinitely as the pilgrim continues to interpret in daily life the experiences he or she lived while making the way. (138)

Often peregrinos feel a sense of arrival long before they reach Santiago de Compostela; their sense of time changes, becoming a countdown of the days left in the journey, and as they enter Galicia, the geography and weather changes (139). “A common sensation that pilgrims experience in the last portion of their journey is ambivalence,” Frey contends:

The end of the long physical, personal, and often spiritual journey is tangible. Each pilgrim’s journey has a different rhythm. One may arrive strong and powerful on a physical level—feeling new muscles, trust in knowing one’s limits, wearing the pack like a second skin—yet feel totally unprepared on a spiritual or personal level to reach Santiago. Awareness of this process often presents itself only in the return home. (144)

“Reaching Santiago often comes as an unpleasant surprise as the joy of discovery comes to a sudden halt,” she continues (146). Others who have been “seeking yet not discovering” may experience a sense of crisis “because the Camino has not opened them to what they hoped to receive” (146). “As a goal,” Frey writes,

Santiago is both a physical place and an abstract idea; an imagined vessel into which pilgrims may have poured hopes and dreams. As a place and an abstraction it can be attained by movement away form the starting point and mediated by pauses or rests. Reaching the physical goal does not necessarily entail a parallel arrival of other goals—spiritual enlightenment, a decision made—as is clear from pilgrims’ stories of arrival in the city. For some, the end in Santiago marks the beginning of a new journey. For others, it is a great letdown or simply a stopover point. Several of the salient issues at play in the end of the pilgrimage are reassessment of the journey’s meaning, search for closure, dialogue with the past, contemplation of the future, symbolic death of the self, and preparation for the return home. Just as pilgrims must draw the physical portion to a close at some point, the arrival in Santiago marks a geographic end, even if it is not the ultimate goal in an abstract way. (254-55)

The pilgrim, she concludes, still needs to find his or her way home, the journey that completes the experience (255).

Most pilgrims arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the rites they perform “rarely occur in solitude” because “[t]he cathedral is an important attraction for nonpilgrims, who also attend the Pilgrim’s Mass and engage in the same ritual actions as the pilgrims themselves” (158). For many peregrinos, both religious and nonreligious, 

the Pilgrim’s Mass serves as an essential rite of closure, a moment to contemplate what has come before and what lies ahead, to celebrate the Eucharist at the feet of the apostle, to rest at the long-awaited goal, and to languish in the joy of arrival. The Mass also serves a crucial social function: it is a common point of reunion and departure for groups of pilgrims that may have formed along the way. The Mass is personal yet communal. It is one more time to share together, an often cathartic experience and moment of closure. (159)

Receiving the Compostela is another rite of closure, although pilgrims report that it is often ambivalent or anticlimactic as well (159-62). Frey emphasizes the idea that the arrival in Santiago de Compostela can be disappointing, although not everyone is going to have that experience. My arrival was emotionally powerful, although after resting for a couple of days I was eager to begin walking again, partly because I wasn’t comfortable with the transition from peregrino to tourist, an experience that is not uncommon, as Frey points out (162-63). “By taking off the backpack and putting down the staff, walking into the streets of Santiago one is no longer a pilgrim as on the road,” Frey writes, and pilgrims often find themselves “engaging in activities involving consumption,” purchasing souvenirs, visiting monuments, and eating and drinking (perhaps to excess) (165-66).

In Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos go through a range of emotions, from joy to sadness (163). They often report experiencing a flood of memories about the journey (164). Part of the challenge lies in the shock the body experiences on arriving in Santiago de Compostela: “After growing accustomed to walking or cycling for five to eight hours a day,” Frey notes, “the sudden change produces a shock to the body now inhibited from maintaining its daily rhythm” (164). “The city is a point of supersaturation,” Frey writes. “Pilgrims begin to shed their months of experience, leaving a wake of uncertainty, joy, pain, and discovery. Eventually the break is made and the pilgrim puts away the scallop shell, packs the bag and staff, and makes the turn that ends the physical journey and returns home” (169).

Frey suggests that some peregrinos may have trouble letting go of the experience (164), as I suppose I did, although I had planned all along to continue walking to Finisterre, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast that is another ending to the pilgrimage, and after that, to Muxia, another village some 30 kilometres north of Finisterre. These journeys are discouraged by the church, Frey points out, although the Galician government encourages them (171). “The internal journey that did not find its end in Santiago may be resolved at Finisterre,” she writes:

It may give pilgrims additional time to reflect on the pilgrimage’s conclusion and the return home. It may also be a way to keep walking, a way to keep searching and possibly avoid resolution, a way to smooth a potentially difficult transition, a way to end a pilgrimage of initiation through confrontation with the natural elements. (176)

I got sick in Finisterre—a 24-hour virus of some kind—and as a result I found the walk to Muxia very difficult. I remember feeling that I had walked far enough, and that it was now time to stop. Being exhausted from both the walk and the illness contributed to that sense of conclusion. They helped me realize that the experience had come to an end.

Going home is another difficult transition. It raises important questions about “how the pilgrimage endures, if it does, and how the experiences are interwoven into daily life, influencing future actions and ways of being” (179). On what level does the peregrino change, if at all? Is the change personal, spiritual, creative, or physical? “What has been acquired through the pilgrimage needs to be renegotiated into daily life,” Frey writes:

Sometimes the experience of the pilgrimage results in changes in occupational or marital status, the pursuit of creative personal projects, the discovery of prayer, an emphasis on maintaining friendships or an identity developed in the way, or an enduring memory such as a lovely walk taken in Spain. (179)

Pilgrims are sometimes encouraged to talk about their experiences when they return home, but what they share, Frey suggests, “is selective and interpretive”:

In the retellings meanings of the journey continue to emerge and the adventure grows as the pilgrim edits and elaborates on the journey’s stories. The returnee may realize only in the retelling that she is or was a pilgrim and the secular journey a pilgrimage. Retelling plays an important part in the return, whereby one is able to reinterpret, process the experiences, and create oneself as pilgrim at the same time. In this way the reactions of family and friends often help the pilgrim put the Camino into context through the acts of narration and fielding questions. (186)

Some former peregrinos report losing their sense of direction or purpose when they get home (188-89). Sometimes feelings of stagnation or disorientation are “influenced by the inability to translate the Camino’s experiences into everyday life,” or the fact that “[v]alues garnered or clarified while in the Camino may not be compatible with a work or personal environment” (190). “The sharp contrast between the easy flow, purposefulness, healthy lifestyle, and directionality found and often lived on the Camino can in the long-term postexperience give way to feelings of failure when it seems that it is difficult to maintain these ‘lessons’ or ways of living in one’s own life,” Frey points out (192). On the other hand, “another outcome of the pilgrims’ interactions with the Camino that continues to work in their daily lives is a sense of personal empowerment acquired through the way” (192). “Perhaps even more profound is the sense of the ‘potential me’ the Camino reveals on the return home” (193). The experience of overcoming pain and fear and testing one’s limits often leads to feelings of groundedness and strength in daily life (193). “For most,” Frey writes, “the reality is that the Camino helps to open doors but that the individual must choose to walk through them to be transformed in some way. Pilgrimage does not ‘make one’ a better person. Personal change is often a long-term process of trial and error” (198).

“As a memory the Camino exists on at least two levels,” Frey contends: “that which is shared and re-created for an audience and that which exists privately for the pilgrim, the place that is revisited and remembered, bringing back the journey’s discoveries” (199). The Camino may not only consist of memories, however, According to Frey,

 Finding silence and peace in solitude, living and appreciating the moment, and making life less complicated are all ways that participants try to bring the Camino as pilgrimage home. Feeling oneself a pilgrim through personal and social encounters during the journey also marks the experience in the memory of the postpilgrim as more than a holiday adventure. It is described as an internal experience rather than an external one. (203)

“Postpilgrims,” Frey writes, “want to continue journeying, believing that a vital part of their identities is as pilgrims on the Camino” (203). I wonder if that belief leads some to repeat the experience. I haven’t been able to return to Spain to walk—I haven’t had the time or the money to do so—but I’d like to. I suppose I’m a repeat pilgrim who has yet to make the journey again.

Frey also touches on something Tuan writes about: the notion that the longest journeys lead to the most powerful experiences:

within the culture of the Camino there exists the commonly held idea that the longer the journey, the greater its impact on the individual’s life. It is generally those who make the longest journeys who support the idea of time/distance relationships, an idea that is further strengthened by the current ideal of authenticity. (214)

Frey’s research, however, suggests that “what appears to be more important is what the pilgrim brings to the Camino (state of mind, motivation) and how the Camino is remembered and acted on in the postexperience” (214). She refers to Tuan’s suggestion that while sometimes an intimate encounter with place is the result of a lengthy experience with that location, sometimes (Tuan’s metaphor is love at first sight) that intimacy can develop immediately (214). “A week on the Camino may immediately and radically shake some pilgrims’ sense of reality on the road and at home,” Frey writes. “For others, a journey of four months may produce infinite opportunity for meditation and reflection yet confusion and aimlessness back home” (214).

Frey’s conclusion summarizes her arguments. She notes that throughout the book, she has argued “that through movement pilgrims make statements about themselves and society” (218). One such statement is a belief in the power of contact, and that belief is one point of difference between the Camino de Santiago and European Marian pilgrimages:

In the implicit, and often explicit, critique of modern society there is a concomitant valorization of “contact,” felt to be either lost or hard to achieve in a fast-paced world characterized by mass communication and an apparently increased callousness toward human life on political and social levels. These types of contact are varied: with people, with the road, with the past, with nature, with the self, with silence and solitude, with less, with the spiritual and the religious. At the heart of this desire for contact is often an unspoken lack that pushes the person out of home and on to the road. On some level a wish for transformation—perhaps of both the self and society—or at least clarity and insight exists. For these reasons I call the modern pilgrimage a journey of the suffering soul rather than a journey of the suffering body, as journeys to popular Catholic shrines associated with miraculous cures, such as Lourdes, might be characterized. (219)

Another point of difference is the way that these contacts and transformations are “made fundamentally through the body and its movement through time and space”:

the truth of the way is felt on the road. The pilgrim’s body is not only a conduit of knowledge but also a medium of communication, a means to connect and make contact with others, the self, the past and the future, nature. The body can also be used as an agent of social change (“cause pilgrims”), as a way to protest the fast-paced, disheartening aspects of modern society, and as a way to peacefully ask for change. Pilgrims are noticed, and on some level may want to be noticed: perhaps they are making a cry for help, a show of grief, a testament of faith, a plea against resignation and personal and social stagnation, a statement about an alternative way of living, or a public protest. In this way pilgrims not only pray with their feet but also speak with or through their feet or their bicycles. (219-20)

The body’s movement also constructs the meaning of the peregrinos’ journeys:

Throughout the journey pilgrims are confronted with personal, physical, and mental challenges as well as unexpected acts of kindness and patience. Pilgrims encounter new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling and perceiving the world and often develop surprising friendships. Each day’s journey becomes filled with anecdotes and stories that become models for future action. Pain and the limitless horizon may lead one to a greater sense of humility. Being invited into someone’s home may serve as a lesson in generosity and lead to a greater faith in humanity. Receiving unexpected gifts can lead to one’s own desire to give. Being unable to sleep because of thirty snoring people reminds another of the ludic. Feeling God’s presence in the sunset over the sea brings another closer to his religion. Surviving a difficult day lost can bring greater self-reliance or the knowledge that there are not accidents. Singing at the top of one’s lungs in the middle of the meseta may give another a sense of freedom and wild abandon. Sleeping on the floor reminds another of how easy it is to live with less. Making new friends gives another a feeling of sociability and belonging. Each story becomes part of the pilgrim’s journey which can later simply be recalled or applied to another life situation. (220)

“Feelings of one’s potential and a sense of renewal can also emerge during the pilgrimage and at the same time reveal more clearly the everyday lacks that pilgrims suffer,” Frey writes. The interpretation of such experiences as meaningful “sometimes leads to feelings of physical, spiritual, personal, and social renewal—which is why some pilgrims call it the therapy route” (221).

As a result of these feelings and experiences on the pilgrimage, “these new visions of the self and others,” 

pilgrims often express the desire to make a decision, to take action, or to be less materialist, to be more generous with others, to bring decisions—to quit a job, to change careers, to move, or to alter a relationship. The confidence and strength that come while walking and cycling lead many to bring these feelings back to daily life. (221)

“Others experience disappointment,” Frey acknowledges, “but few feel unmoved:

Instead of transformation and clarity, more questions than answers arise. For some, the Camino simply provides good memories and a sense of accomplishment, which can be sufficient. Others are haunted by the inability to make it to Santiago or to find solutions, for examples, to personal crises, social failure, or unexplained pain. Some come to the Camino believing that the ‘therapy route’ will give them the quick fix or the spiritual insight they crave yet feel frustrated when it seems that only others end up with the solutions. Some accept the lack of discovery as ‘not being their time’ and repeat to find what is missing, or they may reject the Camino itself. (221)

For many, she continues,

the pilgrimage appears to be a continuous process, at least on the level of memory, if not of action. The arrival in Santiago marks the beginning of the next phase: the pilgrim’s translation of the stories to home life, which may seem as difficult or as unlikely as the legend of the apostle’s own translation. How does one bring together two distinct realities, life on and life off the road? The challenge is complicated by how the inner journey appears actually to be a series of inner journeys. Pilgrims may feel exhilarated on a physical level yet not feel that their spiritual questions have been resolved. Or perhaps the journey was meant to be a time of personal reflection on a love relationship, and instead of greater clarification the pilgrim felt distracted by body pains, a resurgence of unpleasant childhood memories, or an unanticipated spiritual awakening. (224)

“The simple pairing of an inner and an outer journey,” Frey continues, “is too narrow a metaphor to understand contemporary pilgrims’ experiences” (224).

“The modern pilgrimage to Santiago is ecumenical, even though its symbols and infrastructure have a distinct religious history and meaning,” Frey writes (228). “In what appears to be a desacralization of pilgrimage by alternative and competing interpretations,” she writes, 

many, especially the religiously devout, fear the loss of its essence: faith, belief, community, communion, and religious and spiritual sentiment. In general the proliferation of individualized spiritualities is interpreted as the rejection of religion and, by analogy, the loss of community and a sign of further social fracture. Yet is appears to be more accurate to say that for participants faith and belief actively life and grow in the contemporary pilgrimage. (228-29)

Like Coleman, Frey accepts the idea that pilgrimage—at least, this particular example of pilgrimage—is complex and multivalent, best approached as “a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action” (“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage” 363), unlike Margry, who sets out to establish clearly defined boundaries for this phenomenon. But, more importantly, Frey is interested in the Camino’s potential to effect personal transformations in its participants:

Many, at least temporarily, taste something different but are unable or unwilling to integrate the Camino reality as a deep, personal, structural change. The simple act of making the decision to go and follow through with a dream may be sufficient and the greatest achievement. Most pilgrims, however, find that deep personal transformation occurs over time through action and reflection, that the Camino may have provided the catalyst, but they work to integrate the Camino and daily reality. In a sense one chooses to be changed. (230-31)

As a case-study, and one involving a phenomenon I have experienced, I found Frey’s book useful, even illuminating. I was particularly interested in her suggestion that walking can be a way to experience the land. She contends, several times, that it is a way to “see individual blades of grass” (75), and while I think the relationship between mobility and place is more complex, I think there is some truth to this claim. At the same time, her emphasis on the importance of constructing stories about the experience of the Camino is important, particularly as a way to engage with the territory through which one walks as place. I am also convinced by the argument that long-distance walks can lead to personal change. I was changed by my experience on the Camino, and the walking projects I’ve engaged with since then, particularly Muscle and Bone, my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario, have led to further changes. I’ve been warned about the subjective nature of such feelings of transformation, but I think they are true, and I think they are powerful. In any case, I’m glad I read Frey’s book—particularly since it’s the first time in quite a while that I tackled something that was actually on my reading list! In other news, it’s time I revised that list. Perhaps I’ll spend some time on that after I write my conference paper.

Works Cited

Brierley, John. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. 16th edition, Camino Guides, 2019.

Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.

——.Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

——. “From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: Movement, (Virtual) Landscapes and Pilgrimage.” Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Edited by Simon Coleman and John Eade, Routledge, 2004, pp. 45-68.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2015.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.

44. Peter Jan Margry, “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?”

margry shrines and pilgrimage

Peter Jan Margry’s take on pilgrimage is very different than Simon Coleman’s, whose work I spent the weekend reading. Margry begins this essay, an introduction to his anthology of essays by a variety of scholars, entitled Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, with the suggestion that the term “pilgrimage” needs to be re-evaluated and redefined, because despite all of the research into the topic over the past decades, “[t]here are still plenty of open questions, and distinct perspectives and schools of thought still exist” (13). Margry clearly wants there to be one perspective, one school of thought on the topic of pilgrimage, which puts his position quite far from Coleman’s contention that fuzziness in definitions of pilgrimage is inevitable (Coleman 364). Margry may be seeking for a unity of perspective that is impossible to achieve, but in this essay he makes an attempt at constructing a clear definition of pilgrimage that avoids Coleman’s notion of fuzziness and distinguishes what is a pilgrimage from what is not.

According to Margry, the authors whose work he has assembled are interested in “contemporary special locations and memorial sites and graves of special individuals in order to determine whether apparently secular visits to these sites and adoration or veneration of them has a religious dimension or may even be religiously motivated and—if this is the case—whether it is in fact appropriate to refer to these visits as pilgrimages” (13). The intention of the book, Margry writes, is “to define the distinction between secular and religious pilgrimage more precisely” (13-14). That’s not quite correct, however, because Margry immediately makes his central claim: “it is contra-productive to use the concept of pilgrimage as a combination term for both secular and religious phenomena, thereby turning it into much too broad a concept. The term secular pilgrimage which is bandied about so much today actually contains two contradictory concepts and is therefore an oxymoron or contradiction in terms” (14). In other words, a pilgrimage is not a pilgrimage if it is secular; it must be religious. The apparently secular instances the authors collected in this book discuss—the case studies here range from Deborah Puccio-Den’s discussion of the tree that memorializes the assassinated Italian anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, to the journeys people make to the village in Croatia where the former Yugoslavian leader Josef Broz Tito was born, to veneration of the grave sites of popular musicians (the Hungarian singer Jimmy Zámbó, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and Jim Morrison), to the memorial to American long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine in Eugene, Oregon, and the cancer forest in Flevoland, Netherlands—must therefore be redefined as religious, because, for Margry, a pilgrimage must be defined as a religious event. In that sense, Margry’s argument might appear to be close to Coleman’s, since Coleman describes pilgrimages as “sacred travel” (364), but I don’t see anything of Margry’s determination to come up with a singular definition of pilgrimage in Coleman’s writing on the subject.

Why has the definition of pilgrimage broadened to include—wrongly, for Margry—secular concepts? Part of the blame rests with the media, which has, since the 1980s, used the term frequently (and, I would assume, sloppily) (17). As a result,

the concept of pilgrimage has become embedded in common parlance, all the more because the massive “subjective” turn in Western society meant that basically everyone could decide for themselves what they regarded as a pilgrimage destination, and sanctity or sacrality could be attributed to anyone or anything. (17)

The term “pilgrimage” could therefore “be applied in a society where mass culture and personality cults such as those associated with film and rock stars, sports celebrities and royalty took on an increasingly important role, and media coverage followed the trend” (17). As a result, “[a]ny place where people met occasionally or en masse to pay their respects to a special deceased person soon came to be referred to as a ‘place of pilgrimage,’ although it was not clear what this actually meant” (17-18). Margry uses the term “mass culture” a number of times in his essay, and the echoes of the Frankfurt School’s rather dismissive take on popular culture strike me as important in his argument. There is, it seems, a truth about pilgrimage, which is sullied by mass media and mass culture, and that is, for me, a rather surprising perspective for an ethnologist to take. Perhaps that’s because his academic training was in history, rather than anthropology, although I could be wrong.

In any case, Margry doubts whether those who visit “the house where Shakespeare was born, the military Yser Pilgrimage in Flanders, a papal Mass in Rome, the D-Day beaches in Normandy, the Abbey Road zebra crossing, the World Youth Days, personal journeys, Disney World, or shopping malls can really be categorized as pilgrims” (18). There is, he admits, a “civil religion” element in commemorations of war dead or visits to the homes or graves of national heroes, or to famous battlefields (18). But today, “[i]t is mainly pop music and the rise of fan culture which stimulated their own culture of visits to the graves of rock stars and icons” (18). Graceland is the most famous example, but there are many others (18). “However,” Margry writes, “it is certainly not clear how attributions of holiness to the last resting places of music stars in general should be interpreted” (18-19). Secular pilgrimages may not convert musicians’ graves into pilgrimage sites, although “the visual and material culture associated with these graves does in fact seem to connect them with cults and pilgrimage” (19). Nevertheless, Margry wonders whether that connection is true: “Is it a matter of individuals visiting a grave or have the locations acquired lasting and universal sacred significance?” (19). The word “universal” is also used several times in this essay; Margry is searching for a definition of pilgrimage that will hold true across times and cultures (after all, that’s what “universal” means). I doubt that search for a universal truth of pilgrimage is likely to be successful. In any case, Margry doubts that the graves of famous musicians can be easily defined as pilgrimage sites. “At most of the sites,” he writes, “the meanings attributed by the visitors to the individual and the individual’s grave are confused or contradictory” (19). That suggestion comes from his ethnographic field work among people visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but I would think that visitors to sites that are more easily defined as pilgrimage sites would also be confused or contradictory. When I visited the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, where relics of three saints, including St. Jean de Brebeuf, are housed, I was merely curious. I was no pilgrim, in that instance, merely a tourist, but there I was, at a site others would consider sacred. Isn’t that likely to be the case for any such site? It will be considered by sacred by some, but not by others. How could it be otherwise?

Margry doesn’t like the way some researchers use the term “pilgrimage” metaphorically, and he cites Alan Morinis’s interest in allegorical or metaphorical pilgrimage, as well as his suggestion, in the introduction to his anthology Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, that “[o]ne who journeys to a place of importance to himself alone may also be a pilgrim” (Morinis 4), for particular scorn:

No matter how titillating it may be to thought processes and the imagination to combine these apparently similar phenomena, constantly linking them to each other does not seem to have provided any essentially deeper insights into the ‘traditional’ pilgrimage; in fact, its main result has been to increase the confusion surrounding the concept. (20)

Margry notes that “in recent decades the question of what the term pilgrimage means exactly and what should be regarded as the criteria for a pilgrimage has only become more complicated” (20). This complication “applies even more strongly to what is referred to as ‘secular pilgrimage’—a term consisting of two concepts which are troublesome to define and difficult to unite” (20). In order to “deconstruct” the concept of secular pilgrimage, Margry writes, “we need to evaluate the main academic research themes relating to the constitutive elements of pilgrimage” (20). That evaluation will enable Margry to define what pilgrimage is and what it is not.

The first theme Margry considers is the relationship between the individual and the group, and the possible interference between these two categories during a pilgrimage (20). He begins this discussion with Victor and Edith Turner’s suggestion that pilgrimage creates an alternative social structure because it develops a new community of pilgrims (21). “The liminal and transitional character of pilgrimage temporarily eliminates the pilgrim’s normal situation and status,” Margry writes, “and in consequence spontaneous, egalitarian ties are created which Turner refers to as the group experience or ‘communitas’” (21). This claim, however, is not always borne out by ethnographic studies, and if there is no communitas, what is there? “Undeniably, during a pilgrimage there are various important group connections and forms of sociability,” Margry states, but although in Christian culture “pilgrimage has collective elements which are identity-forming or demonstrative in character, in essence it is more individual than is often thought” (21). Here he cites, approvingly, Morinis’s suggestion that pilgrimage is an individual, personal affair, rather than a social one (Morinis 8). “To an increasing extent it is a personal journey, which is undertaken collectively when there is no alternative,” Margry writes (22). I’m not sure what the phrase “[t]o an increasing extent means in that sentence; is Margry arguing that pilgrimages across history are becoming more and more individual, rather than collective? He contends that pilgrimages are “personal visits, with strictly personal intentions towards the cult object” (23). That is one of the findings from his study of visitors to the grave of Jim Morrison; those who travelled there in groups turned out not to be among those with religious motivations for their visit, as compared to those who travelled there alone (23).

The second theme is movement versus place (23). “Movement is an inherent part of pilgrimage,” Margry writes. “But at the same time the pilgrimage site is fixed in space” (23). “This is why it is important for the theoretical discussion about the primary aspect of pilgrimage to continue: should the focus be on location and locality, with the sacred site as the ultimate goal, or should it be on the journey and being on the way?” he asks (23). For Margry, the shrine is, in the Christian pilgrimage tradition, clearly more significant than the journey; the cult object is associated with a specific location which “gives shape to the sacred, both physically and intangibly,” and since sanctity is attributed to that object, it is also attributed to the object’s environment, which becomes “a space where the pilgrim expects salvation, healing and solace, or hopes to effect a cure” (24). “The fact that things have changed is due to a development in which the pilgrimage journey has also become an end in itself,” which is the case in the contemporary interest in walking pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. “Whereas before the mid-twentieth century the cathedral of Santiago was the pilgrimage destination in the classical sense,” Margry contends,

it is now largely the other way around: the pilgrimage in the sense of a spiritual journey has become the rationale. Santiago has been discovered and reinvented by spiritual seekers and lovers of cultural history and tranquility. For many walkers the journey along the camino, or the ‘transit’ as I would call it, has become an individual rite of passage. (24)

The media and politics have played a role in this change:

Without the lengthy and wide media coverage of this ancient pilgrimage and the cultural politics of Spain, the transition from a destination-oriented pilgrimage to seeing the journey as a pilgrimage in itself would not have been so universal. It was due to this process that “transit” pilgrimage made its appearance in the west. Transit pilgrimage does not really have a beginning or an end, or at any rate they are not relevant. Moving, walking, the accessibility and freedom of the ritual, being in nature, and tranquility are all elements which have contributed to its success. (24)

“For many walkers,” Margry notes, “the shrine in Compostela is now so far removed from their new experiential worlds that when they arrive there they are disillusioned” (25). The Catholic church has also played a role in this change; since the 1970s, it has emphasized the journey more than “the cult object” (26). However, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and its existence suggests that there is more than one kind of Christian pilgrimage (26). “It is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” Margry concludes (26).

The third theme Margry discusses is the connection between tourism and pilgrimage (28). He notes that many researchers see similarities between tourism and pilgrimage, and that tourism is part of the motivation of pilgrims, a fact confirmed by ethnographic data (28-29). However, he contends that “the main goals are the sacred, the religious, the cultus object; without them, there is no pilgrimage” (29). Tourism would be, for an authentic pilgrim, a secondary motive (29). But if the only motive is tourism, “then there is no question of pilgrimage; the journey is for tourism or other motives” (29). Of course, people pay visit pilgrimage sites as tourists, without any religious motivitation—like me at the Martyrs’ Shrine—although they may be affected by the sacred place nonetheless (29). (Or, I have to point out, they may not.) Nevertheless, tourism and pilgrimage are not interchangeable: “Intersections between the two only come to the fore when tourists allow themselves to be carried away—intentionally or unintentionally—by the sacred experiences of the shrine or the pilgrimage” (29). That is the case even when the shrine is not conventionally religious. “The grave locations of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison are both tourist attractions where mass tourism is manifestly present,” Margry writes. “However, apparently visits to Graceland and Père Lachaise are stratified and contested” (29). From his own research, Margry has learned that “the religious factor” is present at Morrison’s grave, and the narratives offered by his fans “are distinct from those of the tourist masses” (29). I find myself wondering how these notions of stratification and contestation fit with Margry’s desire for a universal definition of pilgrimage. Perhaps he would argue that the apparently inauthentic “tourist masses” are on the wrong side of that contest, while the authentic pilgrims are on the right side? I’m not sure.

The fourth theme is the distinction between the secular and the religious (30). “No matter how complex and stratified pilgrimage may be, not all phenomena related to travel and veneration can simply be included in the concept,” Margry writes (30). There is an analytical need to distinguish between different behaviours (30). “Not surprisingly,” he continues, 

use of the oxymoronic concept of “secular religion” leads to constant epistemological confusion. Practically all studies which work with this concept fail to reveal what they actually mean by it. Moreover, because of its vagueness, it stimulates over-interpretation, tending either toward the secular or toward the religious. (30)

“The obfuscating effect becomes even stronger if the concept is also used in a metaphorical sense,” he continues (30). Margry wants the term “pilgrimage” used literally and carefully, and never metaphorically; otherwise, the concept becomes too confused and undefined.

“If one assumes that the religious dimension or motivation is a constitutive element of pilgrimage,” Margry continues, “then the next question is whether the ‘secular,’ modern and non-confessional shrines and pilgrimages, outside of the traditional (Christian) pilgrimage culture, do in fact have a religious dimension” (30). To answer that question, those “special places and their associated veneration” need to be approached on their own terms as much as possible, apart from institutionalized religions, to determine whether forms of religious devotion can be discovered at those sites (30). In fact, Margry wants to exclude “the epithet ‘secular’” from the discussion of what happens at those “special places” (30). While he agrees that “the boundaries between the religious and the secular are highly artificial and permeable,” he contends that “we still have to make the distinction,” because otherwise we lose any sense of the difference between the religious and the secular (31). “In short, the existing view that the sacred and the profane are not two separate worlds but are closely connected with each other has led mainly to further blurring of the boundaries,” and he calls for “a more precise distinction between the secular and the religious in relation to pilgrimage on the basis of ethnographic research” (31-32). That research, it seems, will uncover the motivations of those who visit “non-confessional shrines,” and whether those motivations are secular or religious in nature.

Margry’s fifth theme is ethnography and analysis (32). “In their external appearances, visits to graves, shrines and special places display parallels in rituality, materiality or (religious) vocabulary, but these say little about their religious meaning,” he writes (32). This statement leads to several important questions:

As religious experiences or impressions are difficult to pin down, how can religiosity—the condition of being religious—be identified? How does it manifest itself, and what exactly does religiosity consist of? Is it purely a belief in supernatural powers or a transcendental reality? (32)

The answers to those questions constitute Margry’s definition of religion:

As religion is seen here as a human, culturally determined activity, it makes sense to reflect on what people may possibly expect from religion. Here we must consider elements such as finding meaning in life, membership of a living community and identification with its deceased members, safety and security, strength and support, comfort and hope, and healing and resolution, but also the expression of gratitude and possibly the expectation or hope of salvation and eternal life after death. (32)

Religiosity, he continues, is not only about “having certain ideas, expectations, motives or feelings inside one’s head,” but also about “the articulation of actions and practices” (32). “It is in behaviors and rituals and through the attribution of meaning to material culture that religion can manifest itself most clearly, while as a rule its most precise expression is through oral or written communication or information about its content,” he writes (32-33). “However, in practice it still proves difficult to identify the religious element unequivocally in the course of research. There are often several religious narratives that unfold simultaneously or are intertwined with each other” (33).

Motives are central to Margry’s sense of what is religious and what is not. He suggests that “pilgrimage expresses the efforts the individual has to make to give meaning and direction to his or her existence,” according to ethnographic data (33). “Where the traditional religious contexts are no longer present or functioning, or are barely so, significant existential insecurities can develop, and people will look for alternatives,” he writes (34). This explains why new “expressions of of religiosity” take shape, including those that take shape around non-confessional shrines and similar sites (33).

“Because of the falsification or inadequacy of pilgrimage concepts, the understanding that pilgrimage has different meanings for different pilgrims and the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the phenomenon,” he concludes, “it remains difficult to formulate a general definition of the term ‘pilgrimage’” (35). Nevertheless, Margry sets out to construct such a definition. First, movement is not the central focus in pilgrimage, he argues: “for pilgrims the essence of a pilgrimage is to approach the sacred, to enter it, to experience, to draw near, to touch, to make it their own, and if possible to hold onto it for their everyday lives” (35-36). Walking pilgrimages, like the one that leads to Santiago de Compostela, would seem to be excluded from this definition. Margry approves of the definition of pilgrimage developed by a team of Dutch researchers (he was part of that group): 

Pilgrimage was defined in advance as a journey undertaken by individuals or groups, based on a religious or spiritual inspiration, to a place that is regarded as more sacred or salutary than the environment of everyday life, to seek a transcendental encounter with a specific cult object, for the purpose of acquiring spiritual, emotional or physical healing or benefit. A pilgrimage must therefore entail interaction between the sacred or the religious, an element of personal transition and the existence of a cult object. Without these objects, there is no pilgrimage; there is thus an essential distinction between pilgrimage and “secular pilgrimage” . . . in that pilgrimage has a transformative potential to give meaning to life, healing, etc. (36)

But nonreligious events, objects, or sites also have transformative potential to give meaning to life or to heal. Margry’s argument, it seems to me, can only make room for “secular pilgrimage” by claiming that what appears to be secular is actually religious. So the shrines and journeys that are discussed in this book, while ostensibly secular, will have to become religious (through analysis) in order for his argument to hold water. The confusion he abhors, then, becomes a foundational part of his argument.

For me, Coleman’s theoretical openness is far more congenial than Margry’s tightly controlled, even monological definition. I mean, any definition of pilgrimage that downplays the importance of the Camino de Santiago, as Margry’s argument attempts to do, is one I can’t get behind. Nevertheless, it’s been a valuable read, if only to see yet another version of pilgrimage, and to come to an understanding of the kind of push-back my paper’s argument might occasion. Better to know and be prepared than to remain ignorant!

Works Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.

Morinis, Alan. “Introduction.” Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. Edited by Alan Morinis. Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 1-28.

43. Simon Coleman, “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond”

do you believe in pilgrimage

“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation, and Beyond,” by Simon Coleman–another in the bunch Matthew Anderson sent my way–presents an intellectual rapprochement between two texts on pilgrimage that are typically considered to be completely at odds with each other: Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, a 1978 study by Victor and Edith Turner; and Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, a 1991 anthology of essays edited by John Eade and Michael Sallnow. I’ve read neither of these works–I’m waiting by the mailbox for them to arrive–and that’s unfortunate, because they are clearly the most important works on pilgrimage, given the way that every scholar seems to refer back to them, and because when I finally do get a chance to dig into them, I’m going to be influenced by Coleman’s powerful argument.

Coleman begins with the Turners, particularly their notion of communitas as a theoretical construct which “described the individual pilgrim’s temporary transition away from mundane structures and social interdependence into a looser commonality of feeling with fellow visitors” (355). That idea, he writes, “clearly drew on metaphors of liminality within rites of passage,” which it also was “the result of voluntary rather than societally enforced removal from the everyday world” (355-56). There have been many critiques of the Turners (356-57), but the most powerful has been the challenge Eade and Sallnow made “to the anti-structure hypothesis” of the Turners, and the “new, general approach to the anthropological study of (Christian) pilgrimage” articulated by Eade and Sallnow. The critique Eade and Sallnow made of the notion of communitas was powerful: communitas “failed to take account of the mundane conflicts inherent in pilgrimage” (357). Eade and Sallnow saw communitas “as just one idealizing discourse about pilgrimage rather than an empirical description of it” (357). Pilgrimage, in their conception, is “a capacious arena capable of accommodating many competing religious and secular discourses” (357). In addition, it’s important to examine “historically and culturally specific instances” of pilgrimage rather than trying to understand it “as a universal or homogenous phenomenon” (357). “The Turnerian image of pilgrimage appears to have been shattered” by the anthology Eade and Sallnow edited, Coleman writes, but he continues, “in this article I want to suggest that we run the risk of devaluing the work of both the Turners and Eade and Sallnow in viewing our theoretical options in this way”–that is, as a contrast between communitas and “contestation” (357).

Coleman’s paper has three goals. First, he intends “to assess briefly why there has been a recent efflorescence of anthropological studies of pilgrimage” (357). Second, he wants “to demonstrate that the arguments of Image and Pilgrimage and of Contesting the Sacred are in certain respects not all that far apart”–indeed, he hopes “to show that they reveal some striking theoretical similarities, once a nuanced view of their respective approaches is taken” (357-58). Finally, he seeks “to consider some of the future directions for an anthropology of pilgrimage” (358).

So, why has there been an increase in studies of pilgrimage? One reason is that both pilgrimage and tourism “have become metaphors for a world on the move” (358). Coleman notes that James Clifford, to take one example, argues that “the notion of pilgrimage is of particular use as a comparative term in contemporary ethnographic writing since (despite its sacred associations) it includes a broad range of western and non-western experience and is less class- and gender-based than ‘travel'” (358). Clifford’s use of “pilgrimage,” Coleman continues, “relates to a broader project of exploring how practices of displacement are not incidental to, but actually constitutive of, cultural meanings in a world that is constantly ‘en route,’ made up not of autonomous socio-cultural wholes but complex, interactive conjunctures” (358).

Next, Coleman thinks through the nuances of the communitas and “contestation” paradigms. He notes that the examples Eade and Sallnow present suggest that “the degree of overt conflict at any given site may vary” (359). “Just as the Turnerian argument about communitas was rejected by scholars who went looking for it and could not find it in a way that they found ethnographically convincing,” he writes, “so the contestation paradigm could potentially be challenged by a simplistic reading that looks for it at a given site and instead finds a predominance of apparent harmony” (359). “In my view,” he states, “it is far more useful to regard contestation as an umbrella-term for multiple if shared orientations, and then to start refining its meaning” (359). For example, the various Jerusalems “criss-crossed by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant evangelical Christians” suggests sometimes contention for “ideological hegemony,” but also sometimes it suggests an agreement to “simply look (and walk) past each other in embodied confirmation of discrepant imaginaries which have been pre-formed at home” (359). Sometimes, he continues, “individuals or groups take account of but do not necessarily specifically interact with each other” (359). “It becomes possible,” then, “to see how the juxtaposition of varied interpretations and practices need not be regarded as, by definition, reflecting overt struggles for hegemony in restricted cultural and geographical space” (359). Chapters in Eade and Sallnow “emphasize conflict and discrepancy at the shrine-level,” Coleman notes, “but retain the right to depict coherent, shared structures of meaning within specific communities of interpretation” (360). At the same time, their book also suggests “the possibility of a kind of communitas within contestation, or more accurately the existence of (relative) fixities of meaning that correlate with socially discrete units” (360).

“Just as contestation is more complex than it might at first appear,” Coleman continues, “so the apparent whole deconstruction of universalist narratives”–a reference to the Turners–“deserves to be examined more closely” (360). “[D]espite their deconstructive tendencies,” Coleman writes, “Eade and Sallnow do depict pilgrimage shrines as having a kind of ‘essential’ character and function: precisely that of containing and objectifying multiple discourses. Perhaps other institutions do this as well, but we are given to assume that major shrines must do so” (360). Eade and Sallnow’s work needs to be read carefully, Coleman argues, “rather than plundered by those looking for an off-the-shelf, easy-to-use theoretical tool with which to ‘analyse’ pilgrimage” (361). But the same is true of the Turners’ work; it is “more complex, and in my view richer, than it is sometimes given credit for,” Coleman contends (361). Communitas, for example, is “a multi-faceted paradigm, with the ideal and spontaneous manifestation of ‘existential’ communitas usually going way to ‘normative,’ systematized forms at particular shrines” (361). Communitas is also easily compromised by social structure, “with its associated divisions and pragmatic accommodations” (361).

In fact, Coleman suggests, there are important similarities between the Turners and Eade and Sallnow: “The idea of a shrine accommodating a multiplicity of discourses is not so far from the Turnerian notion that dominant symbols contain within them a fan of meanings” (361). In addition, both are aware of “the possibilities of dynamic tension between official and lay or popular views” (361). Both use similar dominant theoretical metaphors as well (361). “[W]e do the authors and ourselves a disservice if we see their work as one-dimensional and entirely mutually antagonistic,” Coleman claims. “Neither communitas nor contestation should themselves be fetishized in order to produce neatly symmetrical anthropological theory, made up of views that appear to constitute a simply binary opposition” (361).

“So does pilgrimage remain a useful analytical concept?” Coleman asks. He notes that there has been a lot of ethnographical work done on a variety of different pilgrimages, and that there are many different definitions of the the term “pilgrimage” that have been generated as a result. However, Coleman continues,

It seems to me that it is important that people continue to try to define what they mean by ‘pilgrimage,’ but I am not convinced that the content of any single definition matters very much. I mean here that we should always be made aware of what a given author thinks he or she is talking about , but should not assume that over time we shall collectively achieve an ever more precise and universally applicable set of criteria with which finally to pin down ‘the’ activity of pilgrimage. (362)

The idea of pilgrimage has changed over time, for example, “as systems of transport, articulations of spirituality, secular ideologies, forms of syncretism and so on are transformed” (362). Scholars should be aware that they “are always performing a definitional balancing act, that we are suggesting comparisons that can never be seen as all-encompassing or as emerging ‘naturally’ from the data” (363). In addition, Coleman writes, it’s important

that we do not fall into the trap of confining our work to a pilgrimage ghetto, a theoretical cul-de-sac where it is assumed that the only relevant points of debate relate to other studies that purport to focus on pilgrimage. . . . Sacred travel frequently overlaps with tourism, trade, migration, expressions of nationalism, creations of diasporas, imagining communities . . . this list could go on, too. The point is that we must not adopt the rather western habit of treating the category of religion, and everything associated with it, as ideally an autonomous, isolated realm of human activity, and therefore as an autonomous, isolated realm of anthropological theorizing. (363)

One topic he omits from this list is art. Can pilgrimage overlap with forms of art or performance? Possibly. Why not?

“Why should we assume that pilgrimage must be ‘about’ any one thing, whether it be heightened conflict or the heightened absence of it?” Coleman asks.

The logic of my argument leads me to conclude that the most valuable work in this area is that which looks outward, making points about human behaviour through using ‘pilgrimage’ as a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action. (363)

He cites examples of work on pilgrimage that can stimulate our intellectual imaginations, and concludes,

Pilgrimage as a religious activity still provides meaningful places for people to visit, while as (fuzzy) object of academic discourse it continues to offer significant room for anthropological theorizing. In delimiting an area of research for ourselves, we should not allow such ethnographically rich spaces to become prisons of limited comparison. Belief in the worth of studying pilgrimage can become self-defeating if it turns into dogmatic assertions of what sacred travel must, or must not, contain. (364)

Three things come out of this article for me. The first is that I’m not likely to discover a generally approved definition of pilgrimage against which I can measure my walking practice. The second is that if I’m going to understand the history of scholarship on pilgrimage, I’m going to have to read the Turners’ book and Eade and Sallnow’s anthology. Finally, I’m going to have to read more about non-sacred or secular pilgrimages. Luckily, there’s an article on that topic sitting on my desk! But my crash course in the anthropology of pilgrimage will have to conclude soon, because it’s almost time to start writing my paper for the Sacred Journeys conference in Ireland.

Works Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

42. Simon Coleman, “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe”

accidental pilgrims

In the group of essays recently sent my way by Matthew Anderson were a couple by Simon Coleman. You may recall him as the co-editor of Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion, the anthology of essays on pilgrimage and motion I read last week. He is, Matthew tells me, a very influential writer on pilgrimage and currently the Chancellor Jackman Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. In this article, Coleman begins with a funny anecdote about supporters of the far-right political party UKIP mistaking Westminster Cathedral for a mosque. Coleman enjoys the joke, but he draws a serious conclusion from it: religious spaces are “deeply ambiguous” (72). “Capacious and complex buildings such as Westminster Cathedral–simultaneously a tourist site, the mother church for English and Welsh Catholicism, and a shrine housing saints’ relics–operate in a multicultural, multi religious milieu,” he writes. For that reason, “it cannot be assumed that regular citizens will have any idea how to read their architectural or liturgical signs in ways that art and ecclesiastical authorities would recognize as accurate” (72). I am embarrassed to admit that I’m one of those people who struggles to understand cathedrals; pretty much all I know came from the guided audio-tour I rented when I walked around in the cathedral in León, Spain, although I always visit cathedrals when I’m in Europe. There aren’t many ancient cathedrals in Canada, after all, and the stonework and architecture and engineering in cathedrals are pretty remarkable. Despite my lack of knowledge, though, I’d like to think I could distinguish between a cathedral and a mosque!

Religious tourism–pilgrimage by another name–is big business, Coleman points out. In Europe, it generates $18 billion in economic activity every year, and some 300 million people travel to a religious site in that continent. However, “we clearly need a more precise idea of how people understand (and misunderstand) these shrines and other religious spaces, just as close ethnographic observation is likely to imply that we should be wary of making sharp distinctions between pilgrims and tourists” (72). That caution is repeated throughout what I’ve been reading, and I would agree that the division isn’t clear-cut. When I walked the Camino Francés, I considered other walkers (and, grudgingly, cyclists) to be pilgrims, while those who flew to Santiago de Compostela were mere tourists. I’m sure that’s not an uncommon division for walkers on the Camino to make. However, when I got to Santiago de Compostela and rested for a few days, I felt myself becoming a tourist. My clothes were clean, I wasn’t walking (well, except here and there around the city), and I was taking in the sites and even buying souvenirs (tasteful ones, of course). It wasn’t until I started walking again, to Finisterre and then Muxia, that I reclaimed my identity as a pilgrim. My point is that the two apparently opposed identities are actually rather fluid, although given the powerful effect the walk had on me, I wonder what people who fly directly to that city and take a cab to the cathedral actually get from the experience. Something, I’m sure, or they wouldn’t do it. But what?

In any case, Coleman states his main argument very clearly in this essay:

we need a much more subtle and multifaceted appreciation of how much pilgrimage and tourism to Christian sites interact with other forms of mobility. In particular, the latter might include streams of migration that have, for instance, long marked–and made–the European cultural landscape and that are currently producing a crisis of identity. (72)

The travel Coleman traces in this paper “must be seen as complex, combining a mixture of motives and influences, both planned and unplanned” (72), and his intent is “to highlight and explore such complexity by demonstrating how religious tourism exists alongside, and indeed often intersects with, other forms of mobility, particularly though not exclusively in major, urban, religious contexts” (72).

Coleman distinguishes between tourism and pilgrimage: “it is conventional to see tourism as an exercise of leisure and free time or as an expression of preference,” he writes. “By contrast, pilgrimage carries connotations of subjecting oneself to the rigors and disciplines of religious regimes of authority, tracing routes formed by the sacred landscapes of a given tradition” (72). If this definition of pilgrimage is accurate, then the walks I make in Canada are not pilgrimages, because they are idiosyncratic, not subject to any discipline at all, and not part of any tradition at all. I might be appropriating the form of pilgrimage, but if that definition holds, I couldn’t be inventing pilgrimages of my own.

Migration, he continues, is different from either tourism or pilgrimage: it “ranges from the strategic progress of economic entrepreneurs to the forced mobilities of refugees, but is normally perceived as a very different activity than those other two forms of movement” (73). That’s very true, and I often think of how my walking is privileged in comparison to those who walk to Europe from Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, or even those who walk across the Canadian border in inadequate clothing in winter. That sense of privilege is one of the reasons I’m not interested in the European Peace Walk, which follows a route from Budapest to Trieste. While wealthy tourists (or pilgrims) are encouraged to walk in Austria and Croatia and Slovenia, penniless migrants are held in camps and behind fenced borders patrolled by soldiers and dogs. I couldn’t accept facing, or flaunting, my privilege as the holder of a Canadian passport in that way. It would make me sick.

So, tourism, pilgrimage, and migration are typically considered to be separate things. “I wish to question such assumptions,” Coleman writes, “by indicating how tourism, pilgrimage, and migration can merge and intersect in unexpected, accidental ways, prompting negotiations over forms of access and exclusion at different scales and contexts of operation, from those of the local shrine to those at the borders of the nation-state” (73). One way to examine those intersections is through the cathedral, which, “as it currently functions in European urban space, may provide a laboratory for the burgeoning if ambiguous forms of pilgrimage and religious tourism that we are seeing in many parts of the continent” by “providing both spectacular public architecture and multivalent, capacious spaces, in which numerous roles can be enacted serially or simultaneously” (74), such as in my own experience in Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral “provides the perfect place for what I call ‘accidental pilgrims’–travelers whose relationship to Christianity is often unclear, or whose roles even within the same journey may shift between that of pilgrim, tourist, and migrant” (74). Pilgrimage in these terms,” he writes, “is just one more element of a more complex mixture of identities and mobilities within the moral geography of Europe” (74).

Coleman offers examples of situations where emigrants return home from their adopted countries for their summer holidays, a time that coincides with annual celebrations or festivals (75). One such site is the pilgrimage shrine of Medjugorge, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which attracts visitors with a variety of motivations, from Europe and elsewhere, combining pilgrimage, tourism, and visits to the “home” country (75-76).

The increasing number of people who travel to Christian shrines, festivals, journeys, and heritage attractions in Europe, fascinates Coleman. “Such developments have occurred at a time when activities at the congregational level have often declined,” he writes. “More visiting does not mean an increased interest in religion per se, but it does expose people to religious themes and activities in a vicarious sense” (76). The Camino de Santiago is a prime example and a successful model, in terms of the numbers of visitors or pilgrims who participate, and Coleman notes that it is being emulated by pilgrimages elsewhere in the world (76-77). “Arguably, this tale of success for the Santiago pilgrimage has emerged not only form mixing religion and heritage, but also from fostering flexibility and ambiguity of engagement,” he writes (77). Travellers can walk, cycle, or drive; some see themselves as Christians, others as being more broadly spiritual, and still others (like me) have no faith at all (77). The Camino de Santiago welcomes them all.

From here, Coleman shifts to a discussion of–what else?–the work of Victor and Edith Turner, particularly their notions of liminal space, set apart from everyday space, and communitas, in which “everyday statuses were temporarily stripped away, allowing pilgrims to bond with each other directly, without intervening hierarchies” (78). I have to say that I experienced both of those on the Camino Francés, although that doesn’t mean that there weren’t conflicts along the path as well, particularly between walkers and (grumble grumble) cyclists. However, as Coleman points out,

Subsequent scholarship has often criticized this picture of pilgrimage, with some justification, as being overly idealized and ignoring the conflicting interests among pilgrims, as well as potential clashes between those who administer and those who attend sites. However, critics have also oversimplified the picture of pilgrimage provided by the Turners. The latter understood, for instance, that some of the same impulses that had promoted contemporary pilgrimage were also behind the growth of tourism, given the democratization of mobility and the growth of leisure time in many parts of the world. In addition, they argued that pilgrimage was a phenomenon that could be understood in relation to much larger historical trends. . . . Thus they indicated that pilgrimage has long been associated with forms of mobility that have not been exclusively religious, and indeed that it must be seen as an intrinsic part of the wider political economy of historical, as well as contemporary, periods in the West. (78)

He re-emphasizes the notion that pilgrim and tourist are shifting and connected identities: “both of these roles involve the person shifting between structured and unstructured activity, temporality, and experience” (79). In fact, he continues, “sometimes the division of roles and types of experience can actually be split three ways between pilgrim, tourist, and migrant” (79). In addition, the “structural divisions” of “forms of spatial practice” between “liminal and non-liminal, sacred and secular, cannot be maintained” (79). “As a consequence, it is useful to try to understand pilgrimage shrines through theoretical perspectives that are not drawn from the analysis of religion per se” (79). The urban cathedral, then, is “not only a place of worship, but also . . . a place that enables urban movement through the forms of flexibility (and accidental confluences) that I have been emphasizing,” Coleman writes (79).

Coleman turns to the work of cultural geographers Karen Franck and Quentin Stevens, who write about tight versus loose spaces in cities (79). Tight spaces are defined by surveillance and constraining behavioural norms, whereas loose spaces provide opportunities for exploration, discovery, and unregulated, spontaneous, and even risky behaviour (79). “Loose spaces allow for the chance encounter or spontaneous event,” Coleman writes, “and are most likely to emerge in cities, where free access to a variety of public open spaces combines with anonymity among strangers, diversity of persons, and fluidity of meaning” (79). Loose spaces, he continues, “express well the tensions and complexities around and within cathedrals–and some other shrines–as multipurpose spaces of behavioural fragmentation, translation, adjacency, and articulation” (79). Cathedrals combine flexibility and rigidity, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes serially. A mass might be happening, for instance, while tourists wander around listening (like me) to the guided audio-tour. “Pilgrimage in this kind of space,” Coleman concludes,

is not confined to the set-apart zone of the liminal and it is not isolated from other activities. Nor is the pilgrimage-tourism spectrum the only relevant behavioural and motivation index along which movement to and within cathedrals should be measured, given the salience of other forms of mobility, including migration. Thus Christian shrines are not irrelevant to a continent that is often simplistically labeled secular, nor is their influence only religious or confined merely to the diversions of heritage tourism. They can still rouse passion—often because of, rather than in spite of, their ideological and ritual ambiguities. (80)

I’m sure that Coleman’s take on cathedrals is accurate, although in walking pilgrimages, as I have experienced them, the destination is often less important than the journey. Even if some of the walks I have made shouldn’t be considered pilgrimages–and I’m still thinking about what the connection between walking and pilgrimage might be–often my arrival at the destination has been an anticlimax. When I reached the mouth of the Grand River when I walked through the Haldimand Tract, I found myself on a private beach lined with cottages. It was important to finish the walk, and I was happy, but the contours of the place of my arrival weren’t that important. Arriving at the cathedral in Bath, the terminus of the Cotswolds Way, was also less important than the journey there. The same goes for my arrival in Wood Mountain last summer. On the other hand, I was quite moved when I reached Santiago de Compostela. Perhaps it was the length of the latter journey, and its emotional and physical difficulty, that made my arrival so powerful? At the same time, though, I have to admit that getting to Santiago de Compostela was much less affecting than the long walk I had just completed.

I’m sure it wasn’t Coleman’s intent, but his essay has left me wondering about destinations and journeys, and about what a pilgrimage is or might be. That definition is important, but the more I read, and the more perspectives on the question I encounter, the less clear the definition becomes. Pilgrimage is a contested term, and the definition Coleman offers at the beginning of this paper, one I would have been happy to settle for, turns out to be one he calls into question in his argument. Perhaps I should abandon the notion of pilgrimage altogether when I think about my walks, especially the ones I make in Saskatchewan, but at the same time there is some kind of relationship. Those walks enable me to experience, in a limited way, what some would describe as the sacredness of the land, and that might be their connection to pilgrimage. I’m still not sure. At this point, I don’t have to be.

Work Cited

Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.

41. Michael Agnew, “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims”

agnew lourdes cover

Michael Agnew’s article is one of the essays on pilgrimage my friend Matthew Anderson sent me last week. As I read these essays, I am gaining a sense of the contours of the field of the anthropology of pilgrimage, and that’s the purpose of this research: to come to some definition of pilgrimage that satisfies me, for the time being, and to determine how my own walks are similar to and different from pilgrimages. Since I walked the Camino Francés in Spain in 2013, I’ve thought about other walks I’ve made as pilgrimages, but that may or may not be the best way to think about them. Gaining a clearer sense of what counts as a pilgrimage in the academic literature is important if I’m going to be able to sort this question out.

Agnew begins by referencing work by James Clifford on mobility as “constitutive of cultural meanings in and of themselves, and not merely a supplement, a transfer or an extension of these cultural meanings” (517). Travel or mobility, he continues, is not secondary to dwelling, for Clifford, and dwelling itself is not merely the ground from which travel occurs (517). The opposition between mobility and dwelling that concerns Clifford is clearly related to Yi-Fu Tuan’s opposition between space and place, and so it would probably be a good idea to track down the texts Agnew cites here: Clifford’s essay “Travelling Cultures,” which is in an anthology on cultural studies I think I have at home, and his 1997 book, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. I found this starting point interesting, because Agnew is actually interested in two places: the pilgrims’ homes in the UK, and Lourdes. The actual process of moving from one place to another is ignored, perhaps because it is less interesting than the pilgrims’ experiences in either place.

After that theoretical introduction, Agnew explains that his interest is in “the process of conceptual ‘home-making’ that is initiated by repeat visitors to religious shrines” (517)–particularly by repeat visitors to Lourdes in France. “I suggest that in the experience of serial pilgrims to Lourdes, that is, pilgrims who return to Lourdes each summer and in some cases several times a year as a habitual element of their lived faith,”

an existential state or physical site of dwelling is not only no longer the fixed, bounded space from which one departs and returns. It is also carried with the traveller to their destination, the destination is carried physically and cognitively back to their typical place of residence, and the destination itself may also be a secondary if not primary idealized site of dwelling in the truest sense. (517)

According to Agnew, “individual pilgrims can and do perceive and interact with them”–that is, the shrines that are their destinations–“as a ‘home away from home,’ a ‘second home,’ or in some instances their one true home, the one place in the world where they are at peace with themselves, where they belong” (517-18). “[T]he boundaries once erected between the home of the pilgrim and the away of the religious shrine are disrupted by the often habitual and indeed addictive nature of pilgrimage, ritual cross-currents continuously flowing and binding together ‘home’ and ‘away'” (518). I know people who have made multiple pilgrimages (in Spain, France, Portugal, and Japan), and although I wouldn’t describe their experiences as reflecting an addiction or a habit, I would acknowledge that there is something about a walking pilgrimage, its relative balance between exertion and comfort, and between new experiences and repeated ones, and even its potential for spiritual experiences, however those experiences are defined or understood, that makes it the kind of activity many people would like to repeat. I’d like to return to Spain to walk someday, not necessarily on the Camino Francés, but perhaps on one of the other routes to Santiago de Compostela. First, though, I need to finish this degree.

Next, Agnew refers to Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson, who write about “perceptions of home in a world of movement, a concept that is increasingly subject to a great deal of flux and yet nevertheless still holds a significant store of nostalgic resonance in an otherwise dispersed and fragmented world” (518). Therefore, Rapport and Dawson argue, we need to shift our thinking from places to spaces (518). A sense of home as a community in microcosm is, they argue, “anachronistic” and “not reflecting a world of contemporary movement”; for that reason, they contend that we need a mobile conception of home (518). Home, they continue, is a resilient concept, and people don’t necessarily fix their identities to places (518). I’m more interested in place, myself, but I probably should take a look at their 1998 book, Migrants of Identity: Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement, if only as an example of the kind of argument that values a postmodern consideration of fragmentation and movement.

Agnew notes that home and movement are important concepts in the study of tourism as well. John Urry, for instance, writes that the appeal of leisure travel rests in a desire to leave home and “revel in an unfamiliar locale’ (518). The differences between the familiar and the faraway produce liminal zones, according to Urry, and the places visited by tourists need to be distinguished in some way from their regular homes (518). “Holidays for Urry are less about reinforcing collective memories and experiences and instead find their basis in the pleasure that comes from out-of-the-ordinary experiences,” Agnew writes (518-19). However, Agnew also notes that Edward Bruner problematizes “this binary between the ordinary and extraordinary/home and away that Urry sees as the hallmark of the appeal of tourism” (519). Bruner’s examples include package tours, in which hotels or resorts become temporary homes for groups of tourists, and he suggests that tourists typically experience a sense of home created by the tourism industry. Tourists expect to experience some things that are familiar to them; they want the comforts of home and to interact with people like themselves (519). Despite Bruner’s deconstruction of Urry’s distinction between familiar home and unfamiliar destination, Urry’s argument still has some merit; I remember reading an early edition of the book Agnew refers to when I was studying the travel writing of James De Mille at York University.

From there, Agnew turns (as most writers on pilgrimage seem to do) to Victor and Edith Turner and their writing on pilgrimage. The point of pilgrimage, as Agnew summarizes their argument, is to go to a far away holy place which is approved by others (the church hierarchy, for example). It’s a collective goal, then, rather than an individualistic or idiosyncratic one (520). However, Agnew argues, the Turners’ perspective “does not capture the full range of pilgrim experience, particularly that of serial pilgrims” (520). For Agnew, the more important writings on pilgrimage are to be found in John Eade and Michael Sallnow’s anthology Contesting the Sacred, which scrutinizes the Turners’ conceptualizations of pilgrimage, particularly the notion that pilgrimage fosters communitas (520).

Another critic of the Turners is Erik Cohen, who contends that they were too focused on Christian pilgrimages, and ignored examples from other religions where religious and political centres were fused, and where the pilgrimage centre is not a centre “out there” somewhere, but the centre of the world itself (520). I don’t understand Cohen’s argument, but then again, I haven’t read it. Another text to add to my “maybe” list!

Agnew cites Simon Coleman’s understanding of Walsingham in the UK as “a sort of second home for habitual pilgrims” which derives its meaning from its exceptional quality as well as its familiarity (521). He suggests that other studies of pilgrimage, such as Thomas Tweed’s Our Lady in Exile, an ethnography of Cuban-American Catholics and their relation to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, and Zlatko Skrbis’s research on Croatian immigrants in Australia and their connections to the Marian apparition shrine at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, bear out Coleman’s argument in different ways (521-22).

After this literature review, Agnew turns to his own ethnographic study of UK pilgrims who make repeated visits to Lourdes. People go to Lourdes for different reasons. The sick, elderly, and disabled hope for a dramatic cure; others volunteer as caregivers for pilgrims who need assistance (523). Returning pilgrims conceive of Lourdes “as a place set apart from quotidian life as the ideal, while still remaining intimately familiar and safe” (523). They value the sense of community they find there, which they see as an experience of “the Christian love command, fully realized in a unique and highly charged environment” (524). Lourdes also provides them with an opportunity to enact their faith in an embodied manner (524).

The emphasis here on community recalls the Turners’ term, communitas, which Agnew defines as “the dissolution of social structures and boundaries and the formation of spontaneous and immediate personal relations,” an experience evoked by many pilgrims to Lourdes (525). Perhaps it’s because of communitas that so many Lourdes pilgrims describe their pilgrimages as addictive experiences, and Lourdes itself as a place they feel compelled to return to (525). Nancy Frey, in her writing on pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and Ian Reader, in his writing on walking pilgrims on the Japanese island of Shikoku, both recognize that for some pilgrims, the state of being transient becomes, ironically, a permanent state, a new way of being at home in the world (526-27). I met people like that on the Camino Francés: they simply didn’t want to lose the intensity of their Camino experience, and so they scratched out a living working in hostels or albergues and walking here and there along the pilgrimage route.

Lourdes pilgrims feel at home there, particularly in the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared (527). Touching the rock in the grotto is a tactile, grounded experience, premised on the shrine’s fixity, Agnew suggests. “[T]he appeal of a fixed, grounded place clearly still holds,” he admits, despite his argument that “travel and movement inform processes of home-making for Lourdes pilgrims” (528-29). “Indeed,” he writes, “it is the conception of these spaces as established and rigid that likely inspires movement to them in the first place” (529).

Lourdes home-making, Agnew continues, is a “reciprocal, back-and-forth loop” (529). It’s not enough to remain in Lourdes; rather, “some element of the experience, some reminder, some touchstone had to be brought back home with them”–the pilgrims–“to England” (529). They build replicas of the Lourdes grotto, or put statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in their homes (529-30). Some take water from Lourdes home and use it “both as a sort of morning cleanser and as a spiritual aid” (532). Many pilgrims value the sense of community at Lourdes, and describe the UK as cold and unfamiliar by comparison, and as a way of maintaining a connection to Lourdes, they participate in reunion masses for pilgrims in the UK (532).

“The centre may still indeed be out there on the geographical and cognitive margins, as Turner posits, but particularly for serial pilgrims returning to Lourdes, it is also intimately familiar, a storehouse for memories of pilgrimages past, and a site for continued spiritual refreshment,” Agnew concludes (533). I can’t speak to the experience of Lourdes, but I would suggest that repeated experiences of any space–at least, any space of any complexity or richness–are likely to turn it into place, as it becomes a known and familiar quantity, something of which the individual develops a deep and intimate knowledge. So it’s not surprising that serial pilgrims to Lourdes develop a sense of the shrine as “intimately familiar.” How could it be otherwise?

I’m not sure that Agnew’s essay has much bearing on my own research, but it adds to my understanding of pilgrimage, and as I suggested at the beginning of this post, I need to know about pilgrimage if I’m to understand how (or even whether) my walking practice is related to that phenomenon. So, for that reason, Agnew’s essay was a worthwhile read.

Work Cited

Agnew, Michael. “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims.” Studies in Religion vol. 44, no. 4, 2015, pp. 516-35. DOI: 10.1177/0008429815596001.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.