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Geography as ontology: a sense of place

Geography as Ontology

Ontology here is not to be taken as the term is used in information science, nor specifically, although closer, to how the term is used in philosophy. I have mixed the essential components inherent to geography as it relates to the sense of place, with that in ontology concerned with the nature of being as it influences knowing, what in philosophy is sometimes called ontological epistemology.

Have I lost you yet?  Don’t give up. This is actually about writing.

A critic once wrote about my novels that in the aggregate they epitomize the notion that place (literally geographical) functions like a character in the story. I don’t know what that means, although I sort of like the idea. It may or may not be the case. But while wondering about this idea, it seems actually more accurate to consider the ontological effect that place has on characters, although I’m not sure that isn’t what lies at the core of the original comment.

How is the essential being of a character — exhibited in the way he thinks, speaks, acts, reacts, etc. — determined by the place of the story, its setting? Can you leave everything about a character and plot unchanged, then alter the location, without making the entire story false, inauthentic? Change nothing but the setting: instead of Minnesota, make it Arizona; instead of France, make it Russia; instead of a tropical island, make it the Canadian wilderness. Change nothing else, only the setting.

There are writers coming quickly to mind who epitomize the sort of sense of place, the geography as ontology notion I am considering here: Annie Proulx’s haunting, brooding Newfoundland in The Shipping News, John Kennedy Toole’s whacked out New Orleans in A Confederacy of Dunces, and of course, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Lately I have been enjoying reading through Orhan Pamuk’s books; his characters could not exist without the Turkishness at the core of their being, they cannot be placed somewhere else without being destroyed.

But isn’t there another obvious question arising from any consideration of literature and place? Along with the utter determination of the being of the characters in a story, what about the author’s own place? Is there Dickens without London, Twain with the Mississippi, Pamuk without Turkey, Stegner without the American West, Tolstoy without Russia … ? Then what about authors who are themselves place-less, from whom one does not get a clear association between the writer and his place. I believe I am one of those. I was born and grew up in southern Arkansas, but I have only written one book set there, and it has not even been published. On the other hand, all of my novels are set in places where I have lived; I have never used a place that I do not know from the intimacy of daily life.

But that’s another issue.

What I am considering here is, again, geography as ontology: are character and place inextricably intertwined? That is the case I want to make.

Characters exist in a distinct milieu, and that is going to determine the nature of a character’s being within that cultural myth. When the writer’s assignment of place in a story is pure happenstance, the resulting influence is often seen producing alienated, marginalized characters. So even in that way, an inconsequential or haphazard sense of place works to determine the ontological core of the character, often resulting in something like ironic detachment or the feeling of being exiled.

What does this mean for a writer? Only this, place ought to be considered in the process of story-telling with no less importance, taking no less care, than in the development of the principal character or characters. For yes, character and place, geography as ontology, are inextricably intertwined.

The three novels in my “Hatch Trilogy” are set on a fictitious atoll in the far southern Pacific that I called Tuva, and I placed the atoll in an also fictitious chain of islands called Olowalu. Before the writing could proceed beyond the first few pages, I needed to “know” everything possible about Tuva and Olowalu. I drew a detailed map of the atoll and then located it not only within the group of islands, but that chain itself at a specific (and empty) latitude and longitude in the South Pacific. I located the main character’s house, and even made a detailed drawing of the house, inside and out. I made a street map of the island’s only village and located every building on it.

But I really didn’t make up any of that out of whole cloth. Tuva was indeed a real place, a place where I had lived for a number of years earlier in my life: the island of Hawaii.  I just shrunk it by about 90%. The village of Tuva was the real Hawaiian village of Kailua, and the map I made, the locations noted, were all from the way Kailua looked around 1968. Hatch’s shack on the beach on Tuva was an old coffee picker’s shack on the upland slopes above Kailua, where I lived for a time; I just moved it to the beach. The tropical bar in Tuva village was, though, was more of a stretch – identical in every way to the bar called Donovan’s Reef, in the John Wayne movie of the same name.

Once those place details became set and inculcated, the characters began their growth toward becoming real, as influenced by the intimacy of detail of where their story was located geographically. Much of coming to understand the character Hatch results from that shack on the beach, the utter isolation of the atoll, his pathological demand for privacy reflected in the out-of-the-wayness of where he lived. Had I used the real Hawaii, the real Kailua, Hatch would have been an entirely different character. This can be seen clearly in a later book, The Common Bond, where the main character, Morgan Cary, is who Hatch would have been if the books of the Hatch Trilogy had been set in the actual Kailua, instead of re-imagined as an isolated atoll in the empty southern Pacific. Both characters, Frank Hatcher and Morgan Cary, were the only way their geography allowed them to be.

I think we all are.

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3 replies »

  1. My vagabond rootlessness I’ll take up in a new post.

    The Arkansas book is the one before the one I’m working on now. After finishing and reading through it again, I began to understand that the unsettled feeling I had about it was due to a critical mistake made from the start: I wrote it in the 1st person voice and it should have been 3rd. So after finishing Only Love, the momentum of which ought not be broken, I will go back and write the Arkansas book again from the beginning.

    Thanks for your comment, Rose.

  2. I agree with you and it’s good to see a post on this. Here’s a corollary however:

    Consider the fiction on the Internet (which you don’t, I know). Most of what I read online does not have a sense of place. This occurs in non-Internet fiction as well, but the prevalence of it in the online world is startling.

    If place is evoked in a text online, it’s most often as nostalgia, or a sense where a character reflects on what/who/where shaped them. There’s more than a hint of determinism in this reverie as well, as if place dictates instead of influences. It becomes easy to see things in terms of spheres of power as opposed to symbiosis when place is a foreign concept to you or when disconnectedness is the norm. On the Internet, where we increasingly spend most of our time, there is no place. Distance is so compressed as to be abolished. But rather than inspiring some unified field of experience in which we’re all connected gaily in our living like some hippy-trippy commune, we instead imagine an impenetrable space between us even though we’ve been crammed together digitally.

    The Internet is like being in a crowded elevator. One might think people would be brought closer together, but that rarely happens. To lose that tickle of Texas grass on your calves or that foggy pressure of a thunderous rainforest waterfall means that we, and our characters in fiction, lose large portions of self.

    There is less character in online fiction because that fullness found on a page with a character in a place in dialog or action is replaced most often with a person representing an idea, not a thing or a place, just a thought, something insubstantial like a huff of breath on cold glass. Increasingly, this is how we are outside of the Internet as well. Our friends are our conceptions of our friends as realized through text messages, emails, Facebook status updates.

    Data. We are becoming data.

    Life is very much as Baudrillard said it was. Simulated existence. When I realize how much of my hope and desire is tied up into pages that exist as a Word document on a computer that I email to agents with great hope, I get a little sick because none of it is real in a concrete sense. It’s not real in the same way a woman sobbing on your couch is real, nor is it substantive in the way that watching a gooey and blue baby take its first breath is solid, undeniable, and factual.

    So, yes, place is a necessary component of fiction. To remove it results in a sort of horrible stasis, a sort of bubble that the text has to struggle out of to reach the reader and connect.

    • If you have done your job, and I have no reason to suspect that you have not, then the words on the page are indeed real for the reader; you can make a woman sob on your sofa with words on the page, if you have that eye and if you work on it. A reader sobbing or laughing out loud because of how you put words on the page is certainly real to that reader.

      I don’t know if we still are (in fact, I believe we are not) the sort of human animal who acquires both understanding and enlightenment (or knowing) from our stories, but the task of the story-teller is to tap into that human flow of knowing and being in such a way that the words on the page are as real as anything else of the time we live through.

      Even the amateurs who do it badly tell stories to one another as a means of connecting the threads of human life to each other. If that ends, we will be warm-bloodied robots.

      We do not live by lists of facts, by accumulating data.

      This post is a start at looking at the idea of place as an irreplaceable element of character, both on pages and strutting around the planet. You are right; I don’t have to read much fiction on the Internet (well, none, to be truthful) to see its result outside of Cyberspace. Facebook is how we are replacing character and geographical ontology. It is the epitome, the non plus ultra, of the sterility that is replacing human vitality. The classic example of this is the frank debasement of the word friend.

      I refuse to participate in Facebook’s sterilizing the human experience. Even if it might be a pretty good marketing tool.