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The Wanderer and his Charts

Essays on cultural Renewal
Edinburgh, Polygon, 2004.

Author’s Foreword

     For an overall sense of the context in which I work, it is useful to go back to Toynbee’s Study of History, where, in the section “The Prospects of the Western Civilization” he alludes to wanderers in the Western wilderness and to Western navigators steering a course through difficult straits, trying to make their way into open waters, an open world.
     In more abstract terms, Toynbee wonders if it may be possible to open up a “post-modern” space (the word, later so much abused, originates in these pages), beyond the slump into which civilization has fallen, beyond all the ad hoc socio-political remedies, and beyond all the material piled and piling up in the name of “creativity” and “culture”, most of which is no more than a mirroring of the rundown situation.
     Toynbee himself winds up, religiously, with a franciscan brand of spirituality. I was not attracted to any such harbour.
     I kept outside, with the calling of the navigator-wanderer, the terrain of the difficult territory, and a sense of ongoing itinerary. The intellectual nomad (the term used, in passing, by Spengler in his Decline of the West, and whose scope I was to develop), is engaged, outside the glitzy or glaury compound of late modernity, in an area of complex co-ordinates. He is trying to move out of pathological psycho-history, along uncoded paths, into fresh existential, intellectual, poetic space.
     The initial part of this book lays out the theory of intellectual nomadism, as I began to conceive of it in Glasgow, engrossed there in multiple investigations of the latter stages of Western metaphysics and the farther reaches of poetics with, as examples alongside me, the itineraries of Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Ezra Pound.
     Thereafter, the book moves over to the Continent, into an experience of place represented (always in conjunction with my original territory, Scotland) in the first instance by the mountain area of the Pyrenees and, later, the sea coast of Brittany. The readings and the soundings (via cartography, meteorology, biology and other such methodologies) of these places, open out on to a space which it is difficult to define, but the approach to which I came to call geopoetics.
     Finally, in the third section of the book, after a summing up of the whole itinerary, geopoetics is presented and proposed, from various angles, as a viable cultural project.
     The texts, written at various times whenever I felt the need to get my bearings, are essays, that is, as I see the form, attempts at fast, clear, cogent thinking. Live thought is erratic and erotic in its nature, full of tentative exploration and existential energy, and the essay-form proceeds by a series of intellectual sensations and logical leaps. Poetic thought is more dynamic than philosophy. I have worn my pants out on the benches of philosophy in Scotland, Germany and France, but the first philosopher who meant anything to me, Friedrich Nietzsche, announced a new type of philosopher, the artist-philosopher (the poet-thinker, thinker-poet) trying to evolve in a space that had largely been left out when official philosophy began.
     What this book presents are fields of vagrant thought with maybe, here and there, something of what Kant calls “vagabond beauty”. This thought is always connected to sensed space, a lived existence, and tries to be in constant association with poetic force.

Is Kenneth White the most significant Scottish thinker and writer of our time ? On the strength of his new book of essays, The Wanderer and his Charts, the answer is an emphatic yes. His thought and writing provide the most in-depth, ground-breaking and vital prognosis for existential and cultural renewal we have. […] His field of reference is vast, extending from philosophy through science to visual art and music, absorbing a spectrum of world cultures, […] to “recover lost lines, open a new world field, with renewed means of expression”.
     Norman Bissell, The Scotsman

Last Thursday, that professional exile, writer, and philosopher, Kenneth White, came to town to deliver the Consignia Literary Lecture* at the book festival.
Impish, delighting in wordplay, provocative, and deeply thoughtful, his 80-minute performance should have been a “must do” for anyone interested in what we might make of our little county. It was fittingly symbolic that not a single member of our governing parties bothered to attend.
Some of White’s passions – such as that for his own invented geopoetics – are not easy to undestand. But his views of the nature and place of identity and culture, alongside politics and economics in a developed democracy, and the way in which we might aspire to have a developed electorate, deserve very serious consideration by those who aspire to govern, or who are actually doing it.
A thinker of White’s calibre is rare in Scotland, and the chance to experience such intellectual energy was nothing short of inspirational.
     Michael Russel, The Herald

* “The Re-mapping of Scotland”, published separately by Edbookfesteditions (Edinburgh) in 2001, and included subsequently in this book.

“A regrounded education system is absolutely essential”, said writer Kenneth White in his brilliant Consignia Lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival last month. What did he mean ?
For White, modernity is finished. That means “the end of the age of mastery of man over nature”, which started with Descartes but has dwindled into platitude and inanity (the mass media) punctuated by moments of catastrophe (Auschwitz, Chernobyl). This is, fundamentally, a problem of culture : the way the human being relates to the earth and thereby "makes a world".
     Tony McManus, Times Educational Supplement

Geopoetics : Place, Culture, World * is a useful introduction to White’s ideas. In it he gives a shorthand account of the progress of Western civilisation, likening it to seven stages of a motorway running from Plato to the “contemporary situation” of “mediocracy triumphant”. He is very good at describing the failures of previous ideologies, and our present dumbed-down culture as “a hollowness, filled with more and more images, more and more noise”. […] There is no question that any search for a new way of describing, and of living in, the world, the cosmos, will strike a deep resonance with those of us scunnered with today’s mass-trash culture.
     James Robertson, The Herald

* An essay published as a booklet by Alba Editions (Glasgow) in 2003, also included in this book.