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The Mediterranean as a geopolitical and geopoetic border region: possible worlds beyond the border in fiction

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The Mediterranean constitutes the southern border of Europe. While tourists can cross it without even realizing its existence, this border tends to exclude all those who seek to transgress it from the South as migrants. This ‘semi-permeability’ of the border results from a global rearrangement of space which, while making borders disappear in one part of the world, is, at the same time, obliged to reconstruct new ones somewhere else. This geopolitical spatial logic determines the existence and the thinking of the traveller: whereas the tourist enjoys total liberty allowing him to fully realize his desire for travel, the reality, dreams and souvenirs of the migrant are permanently affected by the idea of the border. Literature allows us to juxtapose the different itineries of the tourist and the migrant in one and the same—geopoetic—space. I try to reconstruct this doubly encoded literary topography by analysing two novels—Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Partir (Folio, Paris, 2006) and Michel Houellebecq’s Plateforme (Flammarion, Paris, 2001).

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  1. See Jacques Rancière (among others) who states: “La Méditerranée (…) est une parce qu’elle est telle qu’elle a été écrite. Le cœur monochrome qui fait battre la Méditerranée comme nouveau sujet de l’histoire est un cœur d’écriture.” (Rancière 1992, p. 157)

  2. Thierry Fabre, for example, writes: “[La] notion de frontière est très importante dans la construction des représentations de la Méditerranée.” (Fabre 2000, p. 39) Lucien Febvre examines “la notion de frontière” more closely in Febvre (1962).

  3. “The limit and transgression depend on each other: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows.” (Foucault 1977, p. 34).

  4. Most of the information on the history of discourse about the Mediterranean is taken from the work of Thierry Fabre as well as the overview by Jean Carpentier and François Lebrun (Fabre 2000; Carpentier and Lebrun 2001). Just like Paul Gilroy (in The Black Atlantic), Iain Chambers recently described the Mediterranean as a postcolonial cultural space (Chambers 2008); his description of the multicultural hybridity which he believes can be found here is, however, influenced in parts by a rather naive exoticism.

  5. For more on the idea of ‘geopoetics’ see Urban (2012). Michel Onfray has also written about the “poetics of geography” (Onfray 2007), while Niels Werber deals with the “geopolitics of literature” (Werber 2007) and Bertrand Westphal makes a “géocritique” of literature (Westphal 2007).

  6. In Chap. 4 of The Man Without Qualities, he writes: “Wenn es aber Wirklichkeitssinn gibt, und niemand wird bezweifeln, dass er seine Daseinsberechtigung hat, dann muss es auch etwas geben, das man Möglichkeitssinn nennen kann. Wer ihn besitzt, sagt beispielsweise nicht: Hier ist dies oder das geschehen, wird geschehen, muss geschehen; sondern er erfindet: Hier könnte, sollte oder müsste geschehen. (…) So ließe sich der Möglichkeitssinn geradezu als die Fähigkeit definieren, alles, was ebenso gut sein könnte, zu denken und das, was ist, nicht wichtiger zu nehmen als das, was nicht ist.” (Musil 1930, p. 16).

  7. Marc Augé also states: “L’écart est chaque jour plus grand entre la représentation d’une globalité sans frontières qui permettrait aux biens, aux hommes, aux images et aux messages de circuler sans limitation et la réalité d’une planète divisée, fragmentée, où les divisions déniées par l’idéologie du système se retrouvent au cœur même de ce système.” He concludes that “il nous faut donc aujourd’hui repenser la frontière, cette réalité sans cesse déniée et réaffirmée. Le fait est qu’elle se réaffirme souvent sous des formes durcies qui fonctionnent comme des interdits et entraînent des exclusions.” (Augé 2009, pp. 13–14; p. 15)

  8. “Transgression implies that the limit is always at work.” (Derrida 2004, p. 10)

  9. See, among others, Burghardt (2001), Schwelien (2004) and Blanchard (2007).

  10. From this perspective, the emphatic vision of the Mediterranean formulated by Georges Duby appears particularly cynical: “Quand nous rêvons d’accomplissement humain, de la fierté et du bonheur d’être homme, notre regard se tourne vers la Méditerranée.” (Duby 1986, p. 194) Directing our eyes towards the Mediterranean, we notice above all the amount of Africans dying whilst trying to cross the sea, fleeing from a world in which they can no longer live.

  11. Marc Augé also describes this antagonism: “Notre époque est caractérisée par un contraste saisissant et tragique car les touristes se rendent volontiers dans les pays d’où les émigrants partent dans des conditions difficiles et parfois au péril de leur vie. Ces deux mouvements de sens contraire sont l’un des symboles possibles de la globalisation libérale dont on sait bien qu’elle ne facilite pas également toutes les formes de circulation.” (Augé 2009, p. 60)

  12. For example, the titles of both the 2007 film by Gerardo Olivares and the novel by Ben Jelloun to be discussed below (Ben Jelloun 2006).

  13. When mentioning this subject one must refer to the essay written by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1958, still relevant these days, in which the author analyses tourism as an enterprise which is itself ‘industrialised’ these days although it was invented to satisfy the romantic desire to flee the industrial world for a world of ‘nature’ and ‘history’ (Enzensberger 1958). From a sociological point of view, see also the Encyclopedia of Tourism (Jafari 2000).

  14. This is a quite strong generalisation which would have to be differenciated—and has been differenciated in studies such as James Buzards The tourist gaze (Buzard 1990) and the following publications by John Urry (i.e. Urry and Larsen 2011). Urry and Larsen state: “There is no single tourist gaze as such.” (ibid., p. 2) Tourist gaze is never the same—because it depends on different personal experencies; what you see depends on what you already know—it brings you back to yourself: “Gazing at particular sights is conditioned by personal experiences and memories and framed by rules and styles as well as by circulating images and texts of this and other places.” (ibid.)

  15. For more on the link between literature and tourism, see also Strelka (1971), Wolfzettel (1984) and Buzard (1993).

  16. Cf. Fabre (2000, pp. 117–141, “La Méditerranée, politique et stratégique”).

  17. “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-texte].” (Derrida 1976, p. 158)

  18. Thus, we cannot get out of the ‘texte’—nor the ‘texte Méditerranée’: To discover the Mediterranean means to perceive it through a thick layer of texts: “Aujourd’hui, tout véritable Ulysse doit (…) s’aventurer dans sa bibliothèque autant ou même d’avantage que parmi des îles perdues.” (Magris 1992, p. 9) Michel de Certeau, in his article titled “Ecrire la mer”, also insists upon the fact that we are talking about “des découvertes faites à partir et à l’intérieur d’une mémoire” which is made through “le travail de la fiction à l’intérieur d’une bibliothèque.” (de Certeau 1977, p. III) “Au commencement, il y a le graphe en qui se replie une navigation passée-perdue et dont le roman va déplier le secret en une variante nouvelle. (…) Le narrateur écrit à côté du voyageur, qui suit un écrit, qui lui-même trace d’autres voyages.” (ibid.: IV)

  19. The theory of fiction (Pavel, Schaeffer 1999; Lavocat 2005, 2010) adheres to a notion of ‘reality’ which is itself not perceived as a problem, thus making it extremely problematic: The ‘evidence’ of ‘facticity’ is a construction which should be analysed rather than reproduced in order to be able to distinguish ‘fiction’ from it more easily. Also, the idea of an anthropologically based narrative need, whatever it might be, does not contribute to the analysis of the discourses and devices of power, which—as an ‘inter-discourse’ (Jürgen Link)—include fiction. Instead of this, the German-Italian sociologist Elena Esposito shows to what extent the hypothesis of a probable reality is in itself mere fiction [“Die Fiktion der wahrscheinlichen Realität.” (Esposito 2007); s. also the analyses in Safir (2009)]. However, this is not the place to develop the theoretical argument which would be necessary to better grasp the ideological issues of the question.

  20. During the last few years, the subject of migration at the exterior borders of Europe in the Mediterranean has been extremely present in various narrative media: In 1999, the Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine spoke in his novel Cannibales of African migrants risking their lives in pateras, primitive wooden rowing boats, in order to seek a world beyond the Mediterranean, in Europe, where they believed they would be able to lead a respectable life free from violence and poverty (Binebine 1999). In his film, 14 kilómetros of 2007, Spanish director Gerardo Olivares follows the journey of two migrants from Mali who finally manage to arrive in Spain after having been subjected to exploitation and violence during the journey across the Sahara and while waiting for the crossing at Tangier. However, the most unique approach to the migration issue is currently due to the medium of graphic novel—from a political as well as aesthetic point of view: Gipi, an artist from the Ivory Coast, created a short picture-story entitled Le drame marocain, Belgian Philippe Stassen did the same in his comic report Les visiteurs de Gibraltar, and American Joe Sacco depicted the migration of the African Indésirables coming to Malta, which featured as a short series in Courrier International in summer 2010.

  21. The subject of transgression in a certain way internalises the border and therefore the difference; the ‘other’ can only be seized in this way—as a part of the self. The subject of transgression changes, it becomes different and, at the time, affects the ‘other’; this is why it can never arrive in the space of the other, and nor can it return to the space of the self. This is the experience which Azel undergoes when he leaves, ‘en partant’.

  22. Not to mention Mme Bovary who also had difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction. Thanks to Françoise Lavocat who reminded me of this in Séoul.

  23. See authors such as Alex Garland (The Beach), Christian Kracht (Ferien für immer, Der gelbe Bleistift) and Rafael Chirbes (Mediterráneos, 1997), as well as several young directors, including Christophe Honoré who placed the intrigue of a novel by Georges Bataille (Ma mère) in a stressful tourist context. All of these tales depict a world which has become inhabitable for the local population and for the tourists themselves—an über-capitalist world ruled by shopping centres, prostitution and the coexistence of a local Mafia-run economy and unresolved social tensions.


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Great thanks to Philippa Criddle who translated my French text into comprehensible English.

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Urban, U. The Mediterranean as a geopolitical and geopoetic border region: possible worlds beyond the border in fiction. Neohelicon 40, 417–429 (2013).

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