The Body and Geography

By Gillies, John | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

The Body and Geography


Gillies, John, Shakespeare Studies


TRADITIONALLY," which is to say in most times and places prior to the "New Geography" of early modern Europe, the tie between the body and geography ("description of the earth") has been primordial, intimate, and manifold. According to modern phenomenology, the body is made for earthly space, as--in an immediate sense--earthly space becomes manifest through the perceiving and feeling body. Bodies not only perceive space or things-in-space through any combination of their five senses, but their very design--their "handedness," their slightly uneven bifurcatedness--orientates or situates them qualitatively within space and fits them to manipulate things-in-space. Bipedalism not only equips the body to move through space but propels it as well.

Little wonder, then, if traditional geographies or pictures of the earth are deeply imprinted by the body. One primordial entail of the body is "the practice of dividing the circle of the horizon into four cardinal directions," which (as a historian of religion writes) "is almost universal." Only with the development of a concept of azimuth (whereby one point was fixed on the horizon) did this directional scheme become "more abstract and useful." Azimuth itself, however, is also keyed to the body; to the felt value of one direction over (and indeed against) another. East is sacralized in Jewish and Christian tradition ("and, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came by the way of the East," Numbers 2.2.3). West and north are ominous. However, as east is (roughly) the direction of the rising sun, it tended to be sacralized by other religions as well. For this reason, and because of the growing importance of Jerusalem, the Jewish (and the traditional Christian) geographies tended to be keyed to Jerusalem as to a sacred center rather than to the sacred direction. As such, they resembled other omphalos- (or navel) centered cosmographies, such as ancient Greek and Chinese. In such cosmographies, geographic boundaries are equally valorized if somewhat paradoxical. Conceding that there is indeed earth beyond the boundaries of the earth, such boundaries assert the limits of the properly human or habitable. Beyond the limits of the Greek oikumene (or "house-world") are wild beasts, monstrous bodies, impassible deserts, mountains, ocean, insufferable heat or cold. Even within the oikumene, the rooms (continents) were of variable quality. Following Herodotus, the Hippocratic treatise Airs Waters Places pronounces that Europeans "will be well nourished, of very fine physique and very tall," because Europe is "situated midway between the heat and the cold [and] is very fruitful ... very mild." Asiatics, on the other hand, are "less homogeneous ... because of the changes of the seasons and the character of the region." If human races tend to be geographically imprinted in traditional geographies, so too the geographic image--the imago mundi--fairly glows with affect. (To the Beowulf poet, the earth is "wlite-beorhtne wang, swa waeter bebugeth" or "a gleaming plain girdled with waters.") From late Roman thought (primarily Macrobius) into the Renaissance, it was commonplace to think of the world as a macrocosm in which the human body was recapitulated as microcosm. Again, the "world of earth" (Orbis Terrarum) was astrologically predicated by the environing spheres.

In all these contexts, the primary fact about early modern geography is the emptying of the body from the world picture. The so-called "New Geography" can be thought of as an amalgam of the new geographic discoveries (vast new lands and oceans) with the dramatic developments in cartographic science that had made these discoveries possible. In none of the three standard narratives of the New Geography is the body a real player. For the post-Baconian, scientistic narrative, the key development is an "objective" spatial awareness predicated on a mathematical "graticule" (keyed to itself alone) from which precisely the bodily "geography of myth and dogma" is absent. …

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