The Mediterranean and its Hinterlands:

September 28-30, 2016


Université Toulouse II – Jean Jaurès





Within the research field of Humanities the Mediterranean has become a major topos. According to Fernand Braudel, the pioneer of Mediterranean studies, it is “a huge, fragmented and contradictory world which has been excessively studied by archaeologists and historians, […] a wealth of knowledge that defies any reasonable synthesis”. For this reason and, humbled by the sheer wealth of work produced by universities and institutes located on its shores, e would like to propose a conference focussed on a particular aspect of the Mediterranean world, and limited to the productions/translations of English-speaking scientists, writers, and artists.


The Mediterranean is a space best defined by its paradoxes: it is, as Yves Bonnefoy put it, “not so much a sea as a series of shores”, both a maritime and a terrestrial space, a geographic, economic and historical locus as well as a literary, pictorial and poetic landscape. As such it becomes the object of a twofold projection: that of verifiable knowledge and that of a personal and collective imaginary, both equally present in modern Western discourse. To scrutinize it is to understand how its complex modalities shape what Michel Collot calls “the spaces of the future”. How did English-speaking writers and artists define a particular mode of dwelling in the Mediterranean, a poethics of place which, in the passage from reality to its representation, transforms it into “the place of exercise of a thought within space that challenges the distinction between the res cogitans and the res extensa”? Such scrutiny cannot but lead us to question our relationship to “land” and “landscape” since, as anthropologist Tim Ingold has pointed out, what historians, geographers or artists contemplate is not so much the land itself—an abstract entity—as merely one’s own subjective environment, which Ingold defines as “the familiar domain of our dwelling”.


As the ideal locus of the projection and exploration of sensibility, the Mediterranean has been seen through the eyes of English Romantics such as Byron, Shelley, and Keats, of modern poets such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Lawrence Durrell, and of American authors as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Edith Wharton, and Ezra Pound. The ‘middle sea’ encapsulates both the here and the elsewhere, through works rooted in the tension between feelings of alienation and the search for the inner self. We may then wonder what is lost and what is gained from such a perspective on space and whether the imaginary construction of the Mediterranean brings us closer to, or further away from, its essence. Such a question entails the careful study of the various objects that underpin that vision: texts, maps, ethnological, historical, literary, poetic, fictional productions, letters and diaries, literary and photographic clichés, travel accounts of English-speaking authors who, through their sketches, botanical, zoological notes, have rebuilt the Mediterranean into an oneiric world freed from temporal or spatial boundaries.


What space, literally and metaphorically, is occupied by the islands of the Mediterranean islands? Encountered in the works of Shakespeare, Defoe or Stevenson, they may appear as detached spaces, floating lands that offer both a feeling of anchorage and a delicious sense of freedom to drift. Do we see in them escape-routes leading away from the down-to-earth, or as burrows in which to explore our innermost being?


Likewise, how are we to understand the linguistic relationships in a space characterised by crossings and encounters and where Man has always had to learn how to “speak alongside the language of others”? Thus the English-speaking poets of the Mediterranean have repeatedly translated, adapted and transformed the languages and myths of the Mediterranean Basin, privileging those inner recesses where languages meet and answer one another in a linguistic and human relationship that, although it rests on what Yves Bonnefoy calls “continuity and distance” also relentlessly questions the very nature of language. English-speaking novelists, poets and translators working their way through the various forms of translation, borrowings and exchanges might then be seen as endeavouring to “repair the disaster of Babel”. Perhaps what is at stake is not so much how to write alongside the language of others as to hear it within oneself.  To sketch out a truly poetic dwelling in the world is to enable the subject to become sharply aware of what Augustin Berque terms a “trajective” reality, “the contingent product of this co-adaptation of sensations rooted in the outer world and of the projections born inside our brain”.


Through a language that “enables the mind to cross boundaries” the literature of the English-speaking world turns the Mediterranean into the locus of an epistemological questioning which regenerates our relationship to the here and the elsewhere. Literature restores a perspective that takes into account that part of humanity which cannot be embraced by cartography alone but which geographers, in opening up their research field to phenomenology and critical geography, have progressively incorporated. Bringing together space coordinates and population displacements, and taking into account the various forms of dwelling in and crossing of space (whether real, symbolic, mythical or imaginary) geographic discourse offers a reflexion on space which, despite stable coordinates, is constantly on the move, renewing our interest in what Jean-Marc Besse terms “perceptions, representations and behaviours regarding space”.


In sum, it would seem that literature has a considerable role to play in the daily invention of what Jean-Marc Besse calls “a space of sensibility” which interrogates our being in the world and might well shape out, as it did for the refugees observed by Louis MacNeice, “the hinterland of their own future”. The Mediterranean, a cultural, ethnological, mythical crucible, appears as this common ground that defines our modernity by disturbing our relationship to space and consciousness, reversing our perspective so as to draw us into a sensitive relationship to the other, and to the world.


Proposals will take as a starting point the hypothesis that most of what animates the Mediterranean world—whether it be the real or the imaginary one—comes from the paths that lead towards and away from it. Indeed our viewpoint on such an extensively-studied area is reinvigorated if we start backwards by focusing not on the inland sea but on the hinterland, on those hazy borders that can characterize it but never delineate it. The purpose of this conference will then be to take a closer look at the routes of those who travelled to and from the Mediterranean, those who, sometimes far away from its shores, headed for an elsewhere which classical studies had rendered familiar but which nevertheless struck them as oddly alien.


This reversal of perspective follows in the wake of the poet who saw the Mediterranean as a “pays en profondeur […] sealed off like the unconscious” and whose various networks of roads and waterways unleash the wandering of the mind and of the body. At the same time as paying tribute to the work of Yves Bonnefoy, this conference will reflect upon the poetic and political relationships between the Mediterranean and its hinterland, all those non-riparian areas which serve as a point of departure for those drawn by a certain idea of the Mediterranean world, and particularly those coming from the British Isles, North America and the Commonwealth. Although the topic mainly concerns researchers in English Studies, scholars in other relevant research fields, in particular studies on Spanish- and Arabic-speaking countries, modern and classical French studies, history and geography, sociology and anthropology are very welcome to submit proposals.  


Selected papers, in English and French, will be published as a unified collection by Caliban, French Journal of English Studies.




Bibliographical references


Berque Augustin, Être humains sur la terre, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1996.

Besse Jean-Marc,« Entre géographie et paysage » in Les enjeux du paysage (see below).

bonnefoy Yves, L’Arrière-pays, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1972, 2005. Trans. Stephen Romer, Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2011.

- « Moins une mer que des rives » in L’Autre langue à portée de voix, La Librairie du XXIe siècle, 2013.

Braudel Fernand, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, 3 vols, 1949, 9e édition, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 1993.

Collot Michel (dir.), Les enjeux du paysage, Bruxelles, Editions OUSIA, 1997.

- Pour une géographie littéraire, Editions Corti, 2014.

Ingold Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London, Routledge, 2011.

MacNeice Louis, Collected Poems, 2007.



See also the Bibliographical suggestions on this website: