Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No sense of place

I have recently been reading some Patricia Highsmith novels* from the 1950s and 60s. Three communication media - the old-fashioned letter, the (usually local) newspaper and the telephone - all play very significant roles in these stories. (There is also the occasional telegram - or cable - and books also appear.)

Highsmith's characters spend a large proportion of their allotted pages planning and writing letters, posting letters, organizing the material for writing more letters, waiting for letters and speculating as to why no letter has come or, more rarely, receiving a letter and analysing the contents. The local newspaper is good for keeping track of whether the body has been found or what stage the police have reached in their investigation. And the telephone looms as large as in the movies of the period.

In their way, each of these media enhances the sense of place and/or the sense of distance from other places. Even the telephone signals the sense of distance by the involvement of an operator.

Patricia Highsmith's world may not be the real world of the 1950s and 1960s - it is a slightly claustrophobic and chilling distillation of reality - but it reflects important truths about the crucial role communication technologies play in weaving a cultural milieu and defining a locality.

As traditional letters disappear from the communication landscape, as print is replaced by digital devices, and the telephone operator is remembered only in the "Operator! Operator!" of old films and TV, we are inexorably losing our sense of place.

*The blunderer, This sweet sickness, Those who walk away and The tremor of forgery.


  1. A loss of the sense of place can also be read as cultural convergence, the homogenization of mass media. On the other hand, the new media also free people separated by distance to form new associations, affinity groups based on shared interests. The more esoteric these interests, the less likely one was in olden times to find kindred spirits. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

  2. CONSVLTVS, I couldn't agree more. In some ways I regret the loss of the old media, but I see great possibilities also. Technological progress - like capitalism - could be seen as a form of creative destruction ...

  3. Mark, you've made me wonder what a sense of place is. Suppose I live all my life in place X, never travelling, never reading about other places. In that scenario, my sense of place is in some ways strong but in other ways weak. Knowing nothing different from X, perhaps I'm unable to "see" its features as well as if I had travelled and read about other places.

    One of my favourite books is called "Sense of Place", by the late admirable philosopher and geographer George Seddon. It describes a certain region, the Swan coastal plain, right down to the geological level. It's a book written by someone not from that region.

  4. I take your point, Alan. But even in the most isolated places, there has always been at least an imaginative sense of other places (often strange, wonderful, exotic) to contrast with and help define 'home'.

  5. I've never read Patricia Highsmith, but I just finished a Donna Leon novel. Crime fiction seems to be almost as much about places as about plots. Her books are set in Venice. Other examples I can think of: Tony Hillerman in the Navajo lands; Robert B. Parker in Boston; Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith in Edinburgh; Barry Maitland in London. I suppose Conan Doyle was the first to combine crime and place and plot.

  6. Alan, I am not familiar with the names you mention - except the last of course. I could mention Georges Simenon and Colin Dexter, both of whose detectives were extremely localized. The last Morse novel (The remorseful day) seemed good to me, as though the author had worked on it lovingly over a long period of time. P.D. James is another who comes to mind.

    Another thought. It's not just place that matters for authors like Simenon say (though it does and Maigret in New York was no good as I recall), but it's also the metaphysical/moral landscape they create. One is part of the other.

  7. Yes, metaphysical/moral landscape, that's a good way to put it.

    In Tony Hillerman the landscape is physically very large -- with much driving of long distances -- but the presence of sorcery and suchlike define the moral dimension.

    In Donna Leon the landscape is the narrow alleyways of Venice -- trips on the police launch are regular events -- but the moral dimension is one of political corruption.

    Both authors create morally credible heroes: one happily married with likeable teenage kids, one unable to find the right partner who will share his isolated half-Navajo half-Western life.

    One day I will get back to reading Simenon.