Imagined landscapes

by Terence MacNamee

Last week I wrote about the idea of reinventing the Grisons Alpine region in Switzerland as a “mountain hub”, a “third place” for stressed-out managers and computer whizzes. This might just work! Mind you, it would have nothing to do with what the Alpine landscape of the Grisons means to the natives. It represents a completely different “take” on the landscape. But then again, the Grisons locals should be used to this. For more than a century the Grisons have been associated with tourism. As well as healthy fresh air, this tourism has been associated with mountain-climbing, skiing and other such sporting activities, which the natives would never have thought of doing themselves. This tourism has resulted in a whole literature by famous German writers, who write about a Grisons of their own invention. Think of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in Davos, Hermann Hesse’s Castalia where future monks play their Glass-Bead Game, and Nietzsche’s remote lofty peaks as a backdrop to the philosophizing of Zarathustra.

This reminds one of conquest too. The conquerors of countries give names to places which are foreign to the natives. They usually know next to nothing about how the natives see their own land. Australia, to an Aboriginal, is criss-crossed by Songlines from the Dreamtime, but to an Aussie, it’s just the Outback, the GAFA, the “Great Australian F—All” . From the medieval poetry of the Dinnseanchas we have some idea of how the Irish once saw Ireland. To the English conquerors it was just a mass of incomprehensible placenames, which they laboriously anglicized, thus stripping them of their meaning, and bequeathed to the English-speaking Irish of today.

One might call this phenomenon “imagined landscapes”, by analogy with the “imagined communities” spoken of by American historian Benedict Anderson. It is the idea of a landscape that is mapped by outsiders in a certain way, but is seen by the native inhabitants in a completely different way. When the outsiders and the natives stand in the same place and look around, they see two different landscapes. In this sense, as is often said, “the map is not the territory”. But, from the time that man is around, there is never just a territory, there are maps – note the plural – and the question is, which one you use. Benedict Anderson himself pointed out that the map creates the territory of the “imagined community” (the nation) to the extent that it defines its borders.