Spatiality: The Final Frontier?


My last post about Moretti and mapping threw up so many questions and potentialities that it seems a great pity to reduce my ensuing explorations to linearity and textuality; I ought perhaps to be mapping them instead of trying to organise them into nice paragraphs.  But this is a blog, and for the sake of the blog we must try.  Also we have only been learning about mapping, we have not actually learnt mapping tools yet.  (That is next Tuesday.  Then – fire in the hole!)

Since last week, I have been attempting to move beyond the merely spatial when it comes to mapping and literature.  There has, I thought, to be more to literary mapping than drawing red lines on a map of London to show where Clarissa Dalloway has been walking, and putting little markers where they intersect with the green lines that represent Septimus Warren Smith.  This is all very well for Digital Dalloway for Beginners, but what does it say?

While plumbing the Internet for literary mapping projects, I found one that seemed to share my concerns.  Mapping St. Petersburg is a work-in-progress project that intends to map key Petersburg texts, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – their pilot experiment – and Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg stories, which will form the basis for their next expansion.  The project creators, Sarah J. Young and John Levin, write on their homepage: ‘Literary cartography employs mapping techniques not to illustrate texts, but to interrogate them.’  (emphasis mine)  As action statements go I think this an apt one.


‘Even when considering literary models of real cities,’ write Levin and Young, ‘the mythopoetic and purely spatial aspects tend to dominate, obscuring questions about the physical environment and its translation into textual form.’  This was going in rather the opposite direction of what I was hoping – back down into real geography instead of off into the abstract – but by forcibly considering literary place against literary space (the real against the symbolic), some interesting things begin to happen.  For instance, what can be mapped?  And – more intriguingly – what cannot?

In a section called ‘Mapping Ambiguity’, Levin and Young explore instances in Crime and Punishment where they encounter difficulties mapping the text.  They divide these into three categories:

1) Locations for which two or more possible prototypes can be identified

2) Locations which are unspecified but can be determined from textual or extra-textual details

3) Spatial anomalies, where the topography described in the text is inconsistent with that of the city

From the first two points, Levin and Young draw the general observation that by using multiple prototypes for locations in his novels, Dostoyevsky is ‘multiplying or fragmenting the characters to distance the text from concrete reality and emphasize that the Petersburg of Crime and Punishment is an imagined, not a real city.’  This draws our attention to the notion of space as ‘possibility and chance’, which relates to the idea of the crossroads, a motif of the novel in its representation of choice and alternative outcomes.

The third kind of anomaly occurs once, noticeably, as the ‘only real breakdown of topographical logic’ in the novel, which paradoxically serves to generate a different kind of spatial connection between the characters Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov.  Svidrigailov alights from a carriage on the north side of the canal, and just moments later approaches the bridge from the south side, which would be physically impossible.  Levin and Young posit that this is not an error on Dostoyevsky’s part; rather, it seems that Svidrigailov has changed places mid-scene with Raskolnikov, who is on the south side of the bridge, thus spatialising the spiritual connection between them.  This is reinforced when Svidrigailov then repeats part of Raskolnikov’s walk from earlier in the novel.

Assuming an attitude of scientific inquiry, with real geography as the hypothesis and the mapped text as the experiment, then instances such as these where failure occurs can prove even more revealing than when the mapped text fits the real map. Spatial ambiguity may be a hindrance to literary cartographer, but it can also be a boon.

I think our course outline says these posts are meant to be around 250 words each.  That has not been happening.  I was hoping to also look at Barbara Hui’s Litmap and spatial networks, but we shall have to save that for the next post.

  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. David McDuff. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991. Print.
  • Levin, John and Sarah J. Young. Mapping St. Petersburg, 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

The title image is a detail from a street map art print of Moscow by artPause.
The image of a 1737 map of St. Petersburg is taken from the David Rumsey Map Collection by Cartography Associates.




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