The Map is not the Territory
Why have just one title when you could have two? Marina Warner is in that exalted position, having become a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2015 for services to literature, and being Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. (She resigned her professorship at the University of Essex in 2014, criticising the ‘for-profit business model’ developing in UK universities.) Oh, and in 2017 she became the first female president of the Royal Society of Literature, founded in 1820.
I have always been something of a fan, having seen her on various arts programmes over the years, and her 1994 Reith lectures were entrancing. Where Jonathan Sumption last year spoke down to us from a great height, Marina Warner led us on a thrilling journey of discovery, examining current moral panics and popular sentiment by reaching deep into myth and fable for their sources.
Her frame of reference seems limitless, ranging from classic texts to video games and world cultures. Among her many awards she can count the Sheikh Zayed Award for Arab culture in non-Arabic language for Stranger Magic, her book on the Arabian Nights stories.
All this explains why, when I saw that she would be delivering one of the lectures to celebrate 100 years since Birkbeck became an integral part of the University of London (a union fiercely resisted by many at the University in 1920), I was quick off the mark in booking a ticket.
And just as well, since the Clore Lecture Theatre was packed with people eager to hear Warner speak on ‘The Map Is Not the Territory’, demonstrating through extraordinarily diverse examples that maps are so much more than a two-dimensional depiction of place. A key aspect of this is that the naming of places is a powerful weapon both of colonisation – as illustrated in Brian Friel’s play Translations – and of reclaiming place. This can result in some startling juxtapositions, as I know from travelling along a deserted highway in Australia and coming across a hamlet called Wandsworth!
Warner focused on several examples of women’s creative engagement with map-making and using the naming of place to stake a claim on locations:
Pioneering educator Emma Willard developed what we would now call ‘infographics’, such as the map of time depicted in her ‘Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire’ (1836).
British artist Layla Curtis, in her 2005 hand-collaged ‘NewcastleGateshead’ map, reimagined the conurbation with place names from a number of other countries.
French feminist group Nous Toutes have been literally reclaiming the streets by flyposting them with the names of female achievers; they also renamed the Rue de la Paix ‘Rue Anonyme’, in memory of all the women killed by their partners.
We ended up in Sicily, where Warner is working with the enlightened mayor of Palermo on projects to integrate migrants and displaced people through stories and myth, with a recent focus on the Genius of Palermo, an ancient symbol of the city represented in several monuments: a patron deity suckling a serpent. Over the years this figure has held many meanings, but now we must surely see it as symbolising the degree to which the city nurtures strangers.
Warner’s work offers an elegant demonstration of the power of stories and myth to transform a potentially hostile environment into one that welcomes incomers with friendly curiosity – and convincing proof of the use of art and culture in a European context to bring solid, practical benefits to people’s lives.