Sep 052014
 

The literary city of Edinburgh has its own, distinctive and well known, psychological profile. The relations between its various districts reveal it, as does the array of prospects with which the inhabitant or visitor is so often greeted. Stuart Kelly, in his book Scott-Land, has put it well:

The poet Hugh MacDiarmid referred to Edinburgh as a ‘mad god’s dream’. It exemplified antisyzygy, his preferred creative term, meaning a ‘zigzag of contradictions’… The Edinburgh I walk through each day is part Piranesi, part Peter Greenaway. I can’t tire of its soaring bridges that never cross water, its Tetris blocks of Gothic tenements framed in classical Palladian arches, its tug-of-war between secret vennels and stately locked doors.

Edinburgh’s centre is riven, bifurcated: on one hand, the vertiginous, overlapping, haphazard, medieval Old Town, and on the other, the geometric, unfolded, planned, neoclassical New Town.

This profile gives the city something like its own mental world, its own personality – a complicated one, naturally enough, perhaps even one in need of analysis or treatment, but a clear character. It’s almost like you can know the place as you know a person.

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But at the same time the city has been imagined and rewritten by so many writers who have loomed almost as large in their readers’ minds as their books – Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, to name only some of the most prominent. These strong authorial personalities have drawn our attention, too, and coloured our sense of the city they animate in their writing. Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

So how good would it be if you could somehow come face to face with one of the most influential of these formative authors, whose depictions of the city established a precedent and example against which all their successors are measured? Well, a fantastic collaboration between Palimpsest, the UNESCO World City of Literature Trust and Artemis Scotland allowed us to try this experiment out before an enthusiastic audience at the Reading the City event, part of last month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

IMG_4616-800x600   Image of Sir Walther Scott's participant badge at the Book Festival

After reading some evocative extracts from works set in Edinburgh, James Robertson, one of the finest chroniclers of contemporary Scotland, had the chance to put a series of searching questions to Sir Walter Scott – who had unexpectedly returned from the beyond to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Waverley in 1814. Their exchange took in topics including the Edinburgh of Scott’s life and times, the nature of his celebrity, and (with a little poetic or historical licence) his views on the monument erected in his honour and the current debate around Scotland’s constitutional future. It was great to witness this interaction across two centuries of literary history, made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that James Robertson undertook a PhD on Scott some years ago!

Image of James Robertson interviewing "Sir Walter Scott" at the Reading the City Event.

James Robertson interviews “Sir Walter Scott” at the Reading the City Event.

Sir Walter enjoyed his time in Edinburgh so much that he’ll be returning to meet more of the city’s inhabitants and visitors at the Playfair Library in the University’s Old College during Edinburgh’s Doors Open Days on 27 and 28 September. And this time he’ll be accompanied by another of Scotland’s fine complement of nineteenth century authors, so make sure you don’t miss the chance to come face to face with a couple of the authors of this most literary of cities.

Sir Walter also took time out of his busy festival schedule to give Summerhall TV an exclusive interview on his take on modern Scotland and the upcoming Scottish Referendum:

Related resources

May 052014
 

But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue.  She was all that.

How then to map that? Mrs Dalloway’s words reflect the fact that in literary narratives the sense of where one is may seem to have little to do with physical geography. While Virginia Woolf herself argued against attempting to physically locate a place an author mentions in a novel, since she believed that ‘[a] writer’s country is a territory within his own brain’, our project is based on the idea that the act of mentioning real-world place-names is in itself significant.[1] Woolf’s own liberal use of real-world place-names, albeit used with license, undermines her claims and indicate the broader basis of literary tradition and places in the world that provide a graspable structure to the reader of a literary work. Indeed, at least in terms of the significance of places the passage in Mrs Dalloway concurs, for it continues:  ‘So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.’[2]

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At the Hestia 2 Project symposium, Telling stories with maps, we found ourselves surrounded by scholars from diverse disciplines (including archaeology, history, political ecology, geography, philology, and international law) who were encountering similar theoretical and technological issues and questions concerning exactly what one is doing when one attempts to map qualitative narratives. Considerations of what is lost in translation from narrative to map or map to narrative form recurred throughout the day. Nonetheless, as Øyvind Eide stressed, such media differences can be productive, as long as the limits of the media are acknowledged.

There are also limits caused by availability of media platforms. Agnieszka Leszczynski and Sarah Elwood explored the ways in which hegemonic narratives of spaces and places are being contested through the wider accessibility of GIS media platforms; although in closing Leszczynski noted that nonetheless the majority of such platforms were still being created by tall, white, alpha males. Akiyoshi Suzuki explored the ways in which in Haruki Murakami’s works the dead, the lost and the forgotten are evoked as underlying human relations, for example, the circuitous walk taken by Naoko and Watanabe in Norwegian Wood follows the edges of where the land meets the water in ancient maps of Japan and passes through places relating to spirits of the dead.

Ian Gregory tackled the issue of the unmentioned places in works on the Lake District, by creating maps that make visible when places are mentioned only contingently in order to represent an otherwise indistinctly identified place or path, for example, by showing the likely path taken (from x to y) or place only indirectly mentioned (near x). Their use of the Edinburgh Geoparser to study place-name collocations is confirming the opposing nature of notions of the beautiful and the sublime in Romantic sentiment, since the places to which such epithets are applied do not tend to coincide in the text and, therefore, on the map.

This relates to the question asked of us after our presentation: whether we were not concerned that we would simply be reifying existing concepts of literary Edinburgh. In fact, as we explained, part of the aim of our project is that by uncovering thousands of works that have sunk into obscurity and by tracing the narratives told of place-names in Edinburgh across time we will be able to reflect on existing critical paradigms, such as the dual nature of Edinburgh and its literature, with its old and new town, its anglification and the demotic, and its enlightenment and the repression of the religious reformation. Uta Hinrichs on our visualisation team presented some of the ways in which we hope to bring the texts to life and provide multiple perspectives on the city and its literature (on which more to follow). For the aim of Palimpsest is to provide a new means to reflect on, excavate, and – indeed – celebrate the sedimentary processes which have given our city its literary shape.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Update: A version of this post can also be read at the Hestia project blog.


[1] Virginia Woolf. 1986. Literary geography. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. A. McNeillie. Vol. I. London: Hogarth Press, 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf. Mrs Dalloway, 129.

Apr 242014
 

The Palimpsest project aims to put literature on the map. To do that, it has to find the places in text where places are named – the textual locations of spatial locations. So, in addressing the challenges, we’ve naturally been thinking about the relationships between places and names.

One particular issue we’ve discussed is how to describe a specific, rather special quality we’re looking for in literary books and chapters. For example, we want to find all and only the passages of text that are obviously about Edinburgh, and places within it. Effectively, we’re looking for texts that have a suitable density of spatial location names. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling this property “Edinburghiness”. But while this mouthful might work so long as we only want to apply our methods to the City of Edinburgh, it doesn’t generalise (to Dublin, or San Francisco, or wherever).

After some discussion, we’ve decided to go with the term “locospecific”, to denote the quality of a text which seems to be “about” a specific place, and so “locospecificity” is the property we aim to measure in candidate texts in the collections we’re analysing. In case you think this is a neologism, the term has actually been used before, with the meaning we want, by Peter Barry in his 2000 book “Contemporary British Poetry and the City”.

While on the subject of names, we’ve also been thinking about names for papers describing our project, and names for the app that we will release to let people explore literature on the map. So far, our favourite paper title is “Lat Long Lit Ling” – latitude and longitude for literary linguistics. And our favourite name for an app is “Biblioscope” – a device for seeing books in a new way. But maybe “LitLong” would link it back to the paper. Either way, we welcome alternative suggestions from all our readers. Because names do matter.

— Jon Oberlander

Mar 072014
 
Plan of Edinburgh from 1631

Looking out at seascapes and hill ranges, a castle perched on a rocky outcrop leads down through labyrinthine closes and wynds to orderly Georgian squares and gardens. Wandering in this city, suddenly you may find yourself on a street that tunnels under another street above, while buildings pass upward across the horizontal levels of the city. Such disorientating alternations of heights and depths, Coleridge on first viewing described as ‘a section of a wasp’s nest’, and as like ‘a city looked at in the polish’d back of a Brobdignag Spoon, held lengthways – so enormously stretched-up are the Houses!’ Edinburgh’s distinctive cityscape has formed over the centuries a literary panorama of equally complex and intricate layers.

What’s in a name? Waverley, the Canongate, the long-gone Tolbooth and Luckenbooths, the New Town: each place name is a portal that calls forth layers of accumulated meaning, as every further reference draws on and diverges from its established coordinates in the fictional and historical works of our literary panorama. Our project is developing methods and resources in order to geo-reference place names in literary works, such as streets or buildings, local areas, or vernacular terms (e.g. “Auld Toon”). We will then examine the contexts and associations around these place names. We will provide an interactive website that will enable other people to explore the dimensions of literary Edinburgh through geo-located extracts of literary works dating from the early modern period to the twentieth century, either while traversing the city streets or from afar via a virtual representation of the city.

Palimpsest is an AHRC-funded project, which involves a collaboration between literary scholars, computer scientists working on text mining, and information visualisation scholars. Our name for the project, Palimpsest, evokes the multi-layered poetic, remembered and imagined city that we aim to reveal. There will also be a number of guest blogs and events along the way that will call on the creative impulses of today’s inhabitants or visitors of the city, with writing and storytelling competitions on ‘The Burgh’. To follow our story of discovering the city’s literary panorama, you need only find your way back here and watch as it materializes before you.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Edenburck in Schottl map (1631) © National Library of Scotland (http://maps.nls.uk)