Why Place is Character

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that ‘keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next.’1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place.

So often, writers talk about creating character and creating place as if the two are completely separate enterprises – it’s that view of the character as a little ball of impulses, rolling around and bumping into things. If you subscribe to that view, place can only ever be a colourful, two-dimensional backdrop, like the plywood sky that the boat bumps into in The Truman Show. But to me, it is impossible to understand your character if you don’t understand their surroundings, since that character is an expression of the place.

In my second novel, Let Us Be True, I focused on two characters that find each other in Paris in 1958, just as the French Fourth Republic, founded after the Second World War, is in crisis. They find each other, and begin to fall in love, but neither of them knows anything about the other’s past. We know they weren’t always living in Paris. But where did they come from? Where were they during the war? And how did they end up here? Is Paris a home or a hiding place?

For each of us, understanding our place in the world – finding ourselves – is the key to escaping our present situation. What is a situation, after all, if not where we happen to be sitting?

 

First published on Nut Press

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