Reviewed in 1997
Tom Conley's work has been something that I have wanted to get around to for some time, and then his Self-Made Map (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, l996) was on a sale table at a conference, so I bought it and carried it over here, to Panat. The reading has proved to be an immense disappointment. The author manipulates various major texts, visual and written with the heavy tools of various critical perspectives, pedantically summarized in the Introduction. The self-made Conley looms over every page, and I regret to say it, but I cannot find a very original mind at work here. In most instances, as with Cropper and Dempsey, when writing about a book in a field not my own, the sheer erudition gives me pause; when I can't follow, I still believe there is something there that is worthwhile. Conley's is not a particularly erudite book.
This is not history, nor literature, nor literary history, nor literary geography. It is not literary criticism either, there's simply too much derivativeness and disjuncture for it to be that. Major literary critics, and here Barthes will be my favorite example, illuminate every text they discuss; their selves are always present as well, but thanks to the originality of their minds, 'other' cultural subjects prevail over the critics' presence. In Conley this transcendent feature of criticism, the subsuming of the self, is not achieved. The joy of interpreting geographic images, title pages, and written texts is obvious to all of us, and Conley lets us know his at some points. The frankly visual, and the textual 'description' of geographies are all quite obvious, but when texts that contain only geographic metaphor at the most are put along side these, strong thematic and analytical categories supported by close reading can hold them together. The self-Conley is not sufficient for the task.
Conley never tries to elucidate the historical specificities of geography in the l6th-l7th centuries. There are occasional aperçus of interest, notably on geography on naming, but if an overarching structure could have held all this together, that structure might have been a rigorously followed ontology in all its forms. Humanistic, general Christian and the artisanal, particularly printing, could be used to pull all this together, but this does not happen. Tom Conley continually refers to 'national' aspects from his sources, without really ever asking whether or not this word accurately conveys sixteenth century thought about the realm, the countries, the cities, and the monarchy. It is not whether the word was 'available' or not, but whether or not it is the word which conveys the meaning that the geographers who made the first printed maps of France had in mind. What are the differences between the conquered subject, and the born subject? Such phrases as 'the nation at large' (p. 222) may well be profoundly anachronistic. Late in the book, and where there is so little attempt to distinguish metaphor from description, there is suddenly a recognition that the 'highly abstract idea of the French nation' (p. 249) merits some thought, and as a thing, a becoming over the centuries.
On the surface of it Conley seems to want to incorporate or at least collect the thoughts of many other scholars and critics. He is careful to cite his thoughts when he borrows, but the result is really still only Conley's construction, because the whole does not carry enough meaning from the sources. There would seem to be a reluctance to explore formally influences from antique or Renaissance Italian texts, though there are allusions to these, and some are welcome. Many scholars go on about Bodin's theory of climate without recognizing Aristotle's importance for the subject, but Conley does, to his credit. We already know a lot about antique origins, hence I do not quibble about their occasional absences here. There are also interesting allusions to the culture of the impresa, that is the culture of the self incorporated into objects and signs, but these are not pulled together in a coherent interpretation.
When I read Conley's translation of Montaigne's phrase, 'le malheur est de les dire curieusement' as 'the ill fortune is in uttering them in an overly mannered style' (p. 259), I know I am not strong enough in French to do more than wonder about just how Montaigne was thinking about curiosity at that time, and then I thought of G. Defaux's book on the subject, checked the bibliography, and did not find it. So be it. That's really not a problem, then I noticed no Defaux at all, nor Compagnon, nor Fumaroli, nor Gutwirth (excellent on les coches). The book thus reveals something about the boundary between history of literature, and criticism. There are scholars such as Rigolot who are cited, as they navigate in both worlds. One sees only the topsails on the horizon of Margolin's and Céard's works, not the great ships that constitute their major works.
I shall not inventory the islands in the book where I wrote 'yuck' in the margins as a result of reading silly deconstructionist puns. I prefer instead to stress some points that I learned. For example, the pages on Bouguereau's project may well contribute to the history of cartography, as Conley lost himself in his subject. There is also the interesting idea of unity created from copying diverse works, they thus become more similar, a refreshing reverse from the transcription error that produces still another great branch on a textual tree of some ancient text.
I have learned about my limits of understanding in a deep sense literary scholarship as self- fashioning. As I write this I feel unfair to Greenblatt, but then bildung somehow became an unknown cultural fact for Americanists who study literature, which is to not reduce Greenblatt's work to merely that. Conley's book will become completely unreadable in another l0-l5 years.