I’m really not happy with this one, struggled to get started, had too much to say, and my thoughts were too jumbled to express all I had to say. Were it not for the dictates of the challenge I’ve set for myself, I would have let it percolate for a few days and tried again. Sorry.
The following was cued by Robert Pogue Harrisons’s Dominion of the Dead, which itself is a meditation on Vico’s Universal History. I recommend both books, particularly the latter, which is one of those endlessly brilliant and deep works that, despite reading twice, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of.
Here’s the insight I’m working from: Place is established by human action, generally by the creation of a center and a boundary. Places are founded.* Thus, even something as ostensibly wild as the national park that lies just down the road from where I’m writing is a place, as it has been bound by human beings, on maps, with guideposts and signs, with names, and in memory.** Then, there is the wilderness which is, in contrast, no place at all. It has no center, no fixed boundary, is only loosely defined and named.
Further following Vico, the way in which a place is established is through burial, of our ancestors or some symbolic representation thereof, be it a statue or artifact that discloses the presence of the human past.*** For ancient cultures, this founding body was that of a hero or, symbolically, the traces of a god. ****
Given this, how doe we understand the repeated description of medieval missionaries going out into a wilderness, a wilderness where people are living (else it wouldn’t be very fertile ground for missionary activity, after all), and making it a garden? What does it mean if the hero wasn’t a hero, if the god is a mere idol, his marker just a rotting statue?
*And thus historical, and I want to write a lot more, but I’m trying to stay on topic here.
**There’s a lot more that could be said here, yet, as with the note above, I’m pressed for time and don’t want to get lost amidst a million digressions.
***The grave marker as the first sort of marker, and thus all posts, markers, signs, as figures of the grave.
****Do not make the mistake of thinking that the symbolic is not real.