The Geography of You, Reader

Unsurprisingly, I think a lot about destinations. A lot about geography. This comes naturally to a traveler; and for a long time I identified as a traveler. In even the slightest of caged-in moments, I still do.

Some of this came swelling up my stomach recently as I read W.S. Merwin’s lines: ““we travel far and fast/and as we pass through we forget/where we have been”

These lines pained me in a small way; thinking that the destinations of the past might not have the hold they once did. That travel is tied to a being-present(ness) and it becomes a series of moments that center around the current.

Anyway, it got me thinking about destinations, like I said.

And all of this got me thinking about another time, one from earlier this year. It was in a moment where I had a fleeting obsession with my own geography. Of my very particular geography. And it happened in Bali, in March.

It happened in Bali because while in Bali, amid doing the things one normally does in paradise, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Why I made this decision, I don’t know, but since I didn’t find any bookstores flying from Manila into Bali (late at night) this book was what I was going to read at my villa—or on the beach—for the next 4 days. And that I did.

While reading, a gulf occurred to me. A rather meaningful one too, or at least I thought so at the time. Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a vet returning home to the South, sometime in the early part of last century.

Through the story, he takes his disenfranchisement with certain cores of Catholicism to bat—by way of oratory and persuasion on the less intelligent. As it unwinds, it drives him to murder. In between all of that is a slew of creepy characters, copycats, and more Biblical allusions than one could mark properly in marginalia.

For me, it’s not O’Connor’s best, but O’Connor’s best is some of the best there is. But this isn’t a book review. So here’s why all of this matters.

Wise Blood is dark, ominous, and foreboding. There’s not a happy step in it. And I read this in perfect 89º weather, with a pool, the ocean, fresh fruit, yoga, beautiful people, you name it. Paradise.

Even more, Bali isn’t just all aesthetics. It itself has religious roots, though far from the ones Hazel clobbers with his sloppy proclamations. It is the Hindu foothold of Southeast Asia; a place whose beauty is owed to the various gods, whose rice paddies are in pious symmetry. The landscape a sort of prayer, or ode, of its own.

This was odd enough to be remarkable (at least to me, which is why I’m writing this at all). Why so? Because it left me with a central question: the criteria for any good literary essay. And the question is this: what does the reader’s geography mean to a story?

So let’s start here: I don’t have the answer. And I don’t expect to find one in the next few hundred words, either. But let’s see where we get.

Undeniably, we’re colored by our landscape. Our moods, our smiles, our tone are all affected by the seasons and the views we’re in at any moment. Wallpaper matters, you know. And I’m confident the same can be said for any reader. Even the best reader, so absorbed and engrossed in some text, is textured by setting. Think of any time your room is too warm, too cold, or too loud. These change you as a reader.

So we know there’s an effect. The question is on the magnitude of the shading.

And so I’m looking for the longball here. I’m thinking about the effect of opposites; reading something totally antithetical to surrounding. And it’s not the actually effects of my surrounding worth examining here, it’s the geography of place. I can’t change the settings on Bali like I could on my air conditioning.

First, my thoughts are on the escapability of your two worlds. A book is easily escaped, at least tangibly, simply by closing it. You have, then, no access to anything further, and all that you could bring up are (a) already read pages, based on your memory, or (b) a memory of your feelings while reading the preceding pages.

Your limited in your geography in a similar fashion. You see what your eyes see. You feel what your heart feels; warmed by sunlight, calmed by the tide, or disturbed by something jarring. You can know more by hearing about a place, but cannot go beyond knowledge—into experience—until your senses grab hold of your surrounding.

So we have equalization there—in one’s exploration of each of these facets.

In the comparison of physical geography and literary geography, one of these is easily defeated, however. The world of a book ends in totality when that book is closed; even really if you’ve kept it in your mind. It exists only in the worlds on the page—while the real world one occupies is created based on the five (or more, definitely more) senses. One would need to lock oneself in a room with no windows and walls of concrete to escape ones real geographical surroundings—and even if one did, that stale room would then become one’s geography. You cannot escape place. You can likely escape words (can you language?), and certainly someone else’s.

One last point is about contributors. We can say that, with varying degrees of effect, an author is affected by her geography. More suitable critics than I can pick where those effects take part in one’s story. But the author does not know the readers’ geographies; and cannot predict. This puts one at a disadvantage if we can assume, and I think we can, that a reader’s geography plays some part in the experiential part of being an audience.

The author can provide instructions on reading, which may mitigate this mystery. We see this in music sometimes (the Stones’ Let It Bleed came with the very specific instructions of “Play this LOUD”, for example) but it’s not often, it holds no guarantee of instruction following. AND it might impose a limitation in story that many authors are not interested in.

Going back to Wise Blood, I cannot imagine O’Connor penning these words on a beach, and likely can’t imagine her imagining her reader reading her words on one. We know, from its history, that part of it was written in Iowa, part in New York, and others in other inland places of high Americana. No Bali listed on that part—nothing foreign, no Indian Ocean tide. The terrains seem light years apart.

I think this is where the geography question gets most interesting. It’s intriguing to me to think about reading southern catholic gothic (some call this the “grotesque” in O’Connor’s works) in one of Earth’s most beautiful places. It’s even more bewildering to think of O’Connor trying to hold the idea of her book being read one day in such a diametrically opposed setting. That for me holds the most substance.

For now, I think that’s where I can take this. I’d add in an urge to any reader to reflect on their environment. Where are you reading this now? How is that changing your reading of even this? On the other side, authors must somehow come to grips with the mystery of what any future readers setting will (not might) be; and then somehow sacrifice some truth of their story to the whims of geography.

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