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Puzzling Through the Wasteland: Vittoria Di Palma on her new book

Vittoria Di Palma–

When I was living in London in the early 2000s, I went to an exhibit at the British Library.  I don’t remember much about the show, nor exactly how I got my hands on one of the folders intended for members of the press, but I do know that in addition to the press release, the folder contained color photographs of a few of the exhibition’s more unusual and interesting objects.  One of them was the eighteenth-century jigsaw puzzle illustrated here.Pilgrim_crop

I carried the photograph around with me for many years.  It accompanied me from London to Houston, from Houston to New York, and eventually from New York to Los Angeles.  I didn’t know much about the puzzle, but something about its combination of map and jigsaw intrigued me.  I kept the photograph in a folder that contained a random assortment of images I liked: some were clearly related to a subject I was interested in researching or teaching, while others struck my imagination in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  The puzzle fell into the second category, and it wasn’t until I was deep into the writing of my new book Wasteland, A History that its relevance became clear.

As I began to research the early history of the term “wasteland,” I found that it first appeared in English translations of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Lives of the Saints.  In these works, sometimes the wasteland had mountains, cliffs, and caves, while at other times it was a flat expanse of sand.  At times it was described as completely barren, while at other times it was depicted as overgrown with dense woods or a tangle of thorns and brambles.  What gradually became clear was that throughout its history, wasteland has always been a category of land united not by consistent physical qualities, but rather by the kinds of emotions and actions it inspires.

When the Biblical notion of wasteland was first transferred to the English landscape, it appeared in three principal incarnations: swamp, mountain, and forest.  My book examines historical attitudes toward these three very different typologies of wasteland by identifying the common operative role of disgust.  The swampy Fen district of eastern England was condemned for its muddy waters, putrid flora, and slimy fauna, all of which consistently evoked a visceral disgust.  The mountainous landscape of Derbyshire’s Peak District, on the other hand, gave rise to an aesthetic formulation of disgust that laid the foundations for subsequent notions of the sublime.  Finally, in the case of forests, the severe deforestation caused by the growth of England’s iron industry and the upheavals of the Civil War produced a moral disgust, directed at the rapacious actions of humans rather than at the landscape itself.

What is equally interesting about the appearance of wasteland in these early Biblical contexts is that it is often used more or less interchangeably with the term “wilderness”:  Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and banished to the wasteland; the Israelites wandered in the wasteland or wilderness for forty years; and Christ spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness fasting and resisting Satan.  In the Lives of the Saints, the wilderness or wasteland is where the hermit saints go to follow in the footsteps of Christ: it is there that they fast, pray, find God, and prove their sanctity.  But whereas “wasteland” and “wilderness” are both used in the Bible to refer to desolate and barren land, “wasteland” is the preferred term for places that have been devastated by natural disaster or divine retribution.  In this way, wasteland came to have two related sets of connotations:  it was a sign of God’s wrath, and a place of salvation—it was, in fact, the place through which salvation could be won.  Thus, from the very beginning, wasteland as a term and as a category of land conjured up both the idea of punishment, and of redemption.

This idea of landscape as an instrument of both punishment and redemption is central to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Over the course of pilgrim Christian’s journey from his home in the City of Destruction to his destination in the Celestial City, his encounters with the Slough of Despond, the Wall Salvation, the Hill Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Hill Lucre, and the River of Death present difficulties that must be overcome, temptations that must be resisted, and mortal dangers that must be survived.  The landscape and its elements are consistently adversarial; the physical trials and tribulations Christian endures serve to test and, consequently, to strengthen his faith, eventually gaining him entry to the Celestial City and ensuring his salvation.

The Pilgrim’s Progress was key to translating Biblical concepts of wasteland into landscape types that would have been familiar to English eyes.  Furthermore, the British Library’s jigsaw puzzle illustrates Bunyan’s allegorical landscape by using the same cartographic conventions employed by the road books seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travellers would have used on their travels through England and Wales.  One day it suddenly became clear to me that this jigsaw puzzle encapsulated the kernel of my book’s argument: when early modern British people encountered swamps, mountains, and forests, they made sense of them according to a constellation of ideas that had been embedded in the notion of wasteland from its earliest appearance in the English language.  For them, landscape was the vehicle of a redemptive process.  Improving wasteland, by transforming fetid swamps into fields of grain, or by making a ruined forest grow thick with trees once again, was understood as a sure path to spiritual salvation.  And when, looking closer, I noticed that right in the center, surrounding the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the map featured my three principal landscape types in the guise of the “Slough of Despond,” the “Dark Mountains,” and “A Large Wood”, I also knew that the cover of my book had been found.


Vittoria Di Palma is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.  She is the author of Wasteland, A History, recently published by Yale University Press.

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