Maps & Stories:

A Brief Meditation

by Ihab Hassan


Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.

--Charles Baudelaire




I

Maps are our supreme fictions of the world, the surveyed side of our dreams. Within every child hides the Baudelairean child, nurturing its long desire on some secret atlas or gazetteer. Stone-age hunters saw patterns in animal tracks; the first star-gazers made maps of the sky and built cities on the plains; sailors came home with salt in their beards because they could chart rocks, winds, and stars. And what if Voyager 1 disappears beyond the sun? It will still appear on some ghostly screen.

        Maps merit meditation, if only in fragments, like murmurs on a summer night, riffs on a theme. What theme? Call it the imagination of maps, their stories and histories.

II

Sometimes, as a child in Egypt, I hid in an unused, shuttered room in the house. Maps piled there on sagging wooden shelves, some torn and faded, all dusty, bearing only the fingerprints of my small hands. Looking at the maps, I felt my unhappiness recede: I was no longer here, I was there. The prevailing color on those maps was red, a kind of pink. That was the color of the British Empire, on which the sun never set. Many years later, I wondered if the fact that I speak English now, speak and count and dream in English, had something to do with those pink-colored maps in a darkened room in Egypt.

*

        Maps are power; everyone knows that. From the start, maps, especially nautical charts, have been instruments of conquest and empire. But this view is narrow. Some maps, for instance, are wholly imaginary—I'll come to that. Other maps caress the earth, stroke its contours, without asking for a reward. They are art works; they refer as much to themselves as they do to the world. That is why Christie's auctioned the first map of the globe—which one Martin Waldseemüller made in 1507—for 2 million dollars. It's a rarity, of course, but its deeper value lies elsewhere: in skill, human curiosity, respect for fact, a willingness to share.

        I know those counter-arguments about the malfeasance of power. Maps are "socially constituted images, inherently political," J. B. Harley avers in his posthumous work, The New Nature of Maps (2001). A learned cartographer, often subtle, Hartley finally surrenders to the dominant paradigm of cultural studies. But maps are not only ideological; they also obey the implacable laws of space and time. A bad map ends in a rubbish bin—or with its user at the rocky bottom of a cliff, the black bed of the sea. True, maps have intentions; they can deceive for a purpose; often, they seek to control. But they do more than that, they are more than that, as I hope gradually to show.

        (What can we make, though, of the American tourist, wealthy enough to fly First Class to Melbourne, who asked the chauffeur of his rented limousine: "How long does it take to drive from here to New Zealand?" Had he never looked at a map of the world? Were his concerns so exclusive as to preclude any need of maps? Or was he horrendously jet-lagged?)

*

        Like everything human, including history, maps have a history. But the history of maps is crowded and quirky, perhaps best conveyed in whimsical anecdotes:

Item: Maps may begin as a hypothesis and end as a measurement or an embarrassment. It was Pythagoras in the Fifth Century BC who speculated on a vast, southern land mass that must exist to balance the earth. Two thousand years later, in 1493, a German illustrator, Hartmann Schedel, drew a native Australian with feet pointing backwards—hence the name Antipodes. Three centuries after that, Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the continent—with his famous mouser, Trim the Cat—and named it Terra Australis, the Southern Land.

Item: Astronomy influenced the making of ancient maps; the known facts about heaven and earth joined hands. Thus Phoenicians, who both sailed the seas and read the skies, produced some of the earliest maps. And Chaldean astronomers, pondering the tides of the Indian Ocean, helped to chart its coasts. Egyptians painted Isis as the starry heaven, protecting dismembered Osiris, King of the Underworld, and tried to map Eternity.

Item: The material of which maps were made contributed sometimes to their loss. It is not only that some maps disintegrated with age. Quite the opposite; valuable parchment and vellum were often scraped clean for re-use. An important map that Charlemagne engraved on silver-plate disappeared, looted and no doubt melted down for ornaments of another kind. Maps recycled their images of the earth into other images.

Item: Until the twelfth century, it was dangerous for unauthorized Christians to own or draw maps; it was impious, even heretical, to probe the mysteries of the universe; you could end burning on a pyre. But in the earlier Middle Ages, Arabs and Chinese were more eager to inquire, to explore; they were friendlier than Europeans to maps. (What finally gave the West its edge? Individualism, social mobility, skepticism toward authority, naval technology, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, chance?)

Item: The Second World War proved a boon to maps. They were valued, valued and suspected, as never before. Even the secretive Portuguese and jealous Spaniards, in their heyday, did not treasure maps as much as combatants of that terrible war, who had so much to win or lose by knowing the enemy terrain. The Cold War also helped develop super-maps, transmitted instantly by spy planes and satellites, becoming eventually cybermaps. Now maps are digital codes, available on the dashboard of your car.

        The anecdotes pile up higher than the Petronas Towers, but we need to move on, through and beyond the exotic with all its colonial colorations.

*

        I said exotic but that's misleading. Maps are not only exotic or artistic objects; they are also tools of the eye and extensions of the foot—like a telescope or wheel—even when they do not serve imperial power. With them, we see and travel great distances. But that's not all either: maps are cousin to alphabets and ideograms. Think of them as a kind of kanji, a different writing, a way of making sense of the universe. Think of them as a way of communicating our sense of reality, a language all human beings can share whatever their native speech, whatever their accent and tone. Maps speak to the deaf and, through Braille, to the blind. They are semiotic structures, with a narrative and plot of their own.

*

        I should have said this earlier: there are no perfect maps. Borges knew that.

        A perfect map of Japan, say, would be Japan itself, with every millimeter of the Japanese coast represented exactly as it is on the sea-girt earth. But even as you glimpse this "map," say from a satellite called Amaterasu (the Japanese sun-goddess), the sea would have crumbled the shore, the wind would have whittled the mountains, the satellite would have swung in the sky. There are no perfect maps; for nothing remains fixed, neither in nature nor in the mind. All measurements and signs alter or fade. (Also the speed of light, also circle and square?)

*

        I should also thicken my argument, contradict it even. What do we need maps for anyway? To brag about the size of our country? There's always another country larger, another planet vaster, another star a thousand times weightier than the sun. What do we need a map for? To know where we are, find where we are going? For that, we need no map, we need only close our eyes. Or are we still looking for that sunken treasure, those gold doubloons glittering somewhere, full fathom five? For that, we may listen to Wallace Stevens's "shaken realist" who knows "How cold the vacancy / When the phantoms are gone...."

*

        Still, I understand the longing for maps. They are speculative drawings, half-imaginary things, almost, but not quite, like poems. Take that Tasman Map of Australia in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It floats in the mind though made of marble, a great mosaic on the floor. It shows a phantom continent, unfinished, lop-sided, grotesque. The Gulf of Carpentaria is an open jaw about to devour Celebes to the west; New Zealand is a stiff-nippled breast lost at sea to the east. Diagonals, equinoxes, tropics, crisscross the map, radiating from four ghostly compasses, from which spouting whales and flying angels flee.

        You can also see the map on postcards sold at the Library shop. A caption on the back of the postcard informs you that the outline is a hand-drawn map "showing the discoveries of Abel Janszoon Tasman during his voyages in 1642-3 and 1644." The caption adds:
This map, last owned by Prince Roland Bonaparte, was presented to the Mitchell Library by his heir, Princess George of Greece. Probably based on a model drawn by Tasman's chief pilot, Visscher, it shows the west coast of New Zealand...thought by biographers up until Cook's first voyage to be the west coast of the Great South Land.
        But what would you scrawl on such a card, anyway, addressed from Sydney to Milwaukee, Tokyo, or Timbuktu? Would you ponder the gleam in an old mariner's eye, the dark, shadow-play called colonialism, the geological outrage that tore Australia from Gondwanaland eons ago? Would you wonder just how those first Aborigines drifted on logs across brackish waters, and how many of their individual dreams added up to their collective myth, called the Dreaming?

        It's just an archaic map on a postcard, you say? No, no, cries the ancient child in us all. It's the map where all our stories start, and if the map remains unfinished, that's because our stories never end.

*

        Maps are stories but also songs. Remember Bruce Chatwin's Songlines? Way before the Tasman Map, thousands of years earlier, Aborigines marked their continent by songlines, each designating a particular path across the land, that so-called terra nullius. The songs identified the paths, the paths charted the continent. They sang as they walked, those early natives, and as they walked they mapped the earth beneath their bare feet, not with ruler, compass, or astrolabe, not with pen, brush, or graver, but invisibly, with musical notes, the melody of a myth, a chanted fragment of the Dreaming.

*

        Maps are sometimes fictive—yes, I'll come to that—imaginary maps of imaginary voyages. These imaginary voyages were popular in Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and they persist in modern science fiction. Think of Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Raspe's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to mention only three of the most celebrated fibs.

        Admittedly, the popularity of these voyages imaginaires faded with the rise of realism and advent of naturalism. Truth and fantasy should not mix, cried the good reviewers of the nineteenth century, and history must remain factual. By all means, let poets be poets, but who needs "the useless encumbrance of a fiction which neither fascinates nor informs," asked an anonymous writer in the Quarterly Review in 1823? Thus were the lines between fact and fiction rigidly defined until the postmodern practitioners of "factifiction" blurred them. The postmodernists went further: all truth is relative, they canted—and what, any way, is a lie? (It was enough to issue a Papal encyclical against postmodernism.)

III

"There is no frigate like a book," said Emily Dickinson, sailing the chartless seas of Amherst. I want now to board two books and tack closer to my theme: Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions: the Wonder of the New World (1991) and Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific (1962, 1985). These works—one by an American, the other by an Australian scholar—reveal something intriguing about maps and narration, without specializing in cartography.

        Marvelous Possessions focuses on "wonder" in European perceptions, representations, and appropriations of the New World. As we now realize, Europe approached the rest of the world with astonishing confidence in the Age of Discovery. This illusion of superiority did not derive simply from naval power or military technology. It fed on missionary zeal, and rested on a conviction that only Christians possessed spiritual truth, a truth fortified by the capacity for reason and the achievement of literacy. Thus, for instance, in the seventeenth century, the English Protestant, Samuel Purchas referred to natives of the New World as "Brutish, Savage, and Barbarous," because they lacked—not just guns and compasses, mind you—a Christian soul and the discipline of letters.

        Maps were an aspect of literacy for Europeans; as such, they served as instruments of domination as well as organs of knowledge. But they further expressed, Greenblatt says, a sentiment of wonder—sometimes he says the marvelous—melding joy, terror, mystery, ravishment, revulsion, drawing less on reason than on unconscious desires. (Descartes considered the sentiment "a sudden surprise of the soul," and the "first of all the passions.") In any case, wonder points to everything we cannot comprehend about life.

        Despite its elusiveness—or perhaps because of it—wonder became "the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference...." Who can gainsay this claim after leafing through the travel accounts of Mandeville, Hakluyt, Jean de Léry, or Columbus himself? Who, remembering Scott Fitzgerald's lovely lines in The Great Gatsby:
For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an esthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
        But wonder, I repeat, teases the mind as well as widens the eyes. And so I ask: if wonder is the first reaction of Europeans to the Americas, aren't their maps also a statement of wonder? Or are maps the attempt to control wonder, tame the marvelous? The attempt is surely vain: at the edge of every map sits, if not terror and mystery, surprise. That is why maps and marvelous stories fit seamlessly in the European imagination, from the tenth to the twentieth century.

*

        I come to the second book, the product of a very different climate of thought, the European Enlightenment, not the Renaissance. In the eighteenth century, Captain James Cook rounded the earth and explored the Pacific three times, between 1768 and 1779, when he died with a spear in his back on a beach in Hawaii. Two days later, a kahuna, or holy man, kindly offered Cook's thigh to his successor on His Majesty's sloop, Resolution.

        Cook had initially sailed on the Endeavour, charged by the British Admiralty to explore new lands and to pursue scientific research on plants and animals, oceans and skies. His ship carried trained observers: artists, naturalists, astronomers, cartographers, as well as officers, sailors, and marines, of course. The ship's scientists expanded the knowledge of the fauna and flora of the world by a quarter of all known species; they pioneered the idea of evolutionary biodiversity; and they observed the transit of Venus, measuring longitude with new chronometers. They also brought back countless specimens, sketches, maps, diaries, and stories.

        These last helped to populate what, for a long time, was considered terra nullius, despite the fifty-thousand-years' tenure of its Aborigines. The maps and narratives served to turn Australia into a Crown Colony. Of course, as we have seen, many voyagers had preceded Cook, especially to the Americas, and their accounts of the New World deeply influenced Elizabethan literature, notably the author of The Tempest. All this is documented. Less known, perhaps, is the relation between cartography and painting, between painting and philosophical discourse—ideas of the Noble Savage, say—between maps and imaginary voyages and European self-awareness. (Witness the work of Antipodean scholars, from Bernard Smith to Paul Arthur.)

        Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific—it anticipated Edward Said's thesis of Orientalism by 16 years—sumptuously illustrates the interplay of these themes. Moreover, it shows how the most meticulous realism could not escape the habits and presumptions of European artists—especially of their engravers—who brought to their vision of the Pacific preconceptions of European villages and vales. (The eye can only see through the veil of cultural memory.) Even portraits of Polynesian natives seem to depict European courtiers and courtesans more than denizens of the South Seas.

        So what secret stories did all those early European maps of the Pacific whisper? What Western visions of Heaven or Hell, Utopia or Dystopia, did they reveal to the inner eye? What subtle justification of empire, and still subtler expression of changes in European consciousness? A full answer would overwhelm this brief meditation. But this much, I hope, is clear: maps, prints, sketches, stories, all weave a multicolored fabric in the Western mind—and not in the Western mind alone, if we are to credit Chinese and Arab travelers like Admiral Zheng He and the inveterate wanderer Ibn Battutah.

IV

We need to blood our abstractions, offer recognizable examples. But first, a general point concerning these examples.

        So far, I have adverted mainly to America and Australia, to the New World and the still Newer World. There is a reason for this geographic chauvinism. Both continents have entered the awareness of the world relatively late; and in both, nature was a preponderant fact, threatening to overwhelm a budding, transplanted civilization. In both, also, the struggle with the environment had a dangerous aspect, lacking in the life, say, of an English farmer. Unlike the Old World, the New Worlds confronted European settlers suddenly, catastrophically: neither the Puritans at Plymouth nor the convicts at Botany Bay were prepared for what they saw or later endured.

        We know that in both continents the so-called frontier had a decisive impact on the shaping of a national culture, including politics, religion, science, and all the arts. This is particularly true, I think, in North America. Hence the line of canonical works, from Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893) and Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness (1956) to Barbara Novak's Nature and Culture (1980). Though many revisionist historians and critics have qualified the classic thesis about American letters and the "construction" of nature—yes, that word again—their re-interpretations cannot alter the fatal impact of new environments on human beings.

        Here are the opening words of Kazin's A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature (1988):
From its beginning as...pure "unstoried wilderness," Nature in America has dominated the imagination of Europeans.... America was the world's myth before there was actually a place that could be called "America"; the genuine substance of that myth was not just a new continent, abundant land, but the magic of its actuality, the consummation of a dream, a second chance for mankind.
        But Kazin is no sentimentalist or mindless booster. He knows how guilt and darkness colored the American continent, how the wilderness echoed with the sound of "Doom! Doom! Doom!" as D. H. Lawrence put it in Studies in Classic American Literature.

*

        Sketches, charts, and maps of classic American journeys abound, such as the horrendous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in search of the Northwest Passage; the journals of Richard Henry Dana, recording his experiences of two years before the mast (presumably to improve his health); or the epic trek of Francis Parkman along the Oregon Trail. But I want to view—at long last and as promised—some "imaginary maps": that is, maps in works of fiction about invented characters traveling in real or fabulous places. (Examples of the latter include sketches of Eriador, Mordor, Rhovanion, in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and of Shangri-La in James Hilton's Lost Horizon.) But since innumerable fantastic voyages and imaginary maps buckle the shelves of the word's libraries, I want to confine my view to American fiction.

        Interestingly, a literary map of Manhattan appeared in The New York Times Book Review (June 5, 2005). One of the editors, Randy Cohen, challenged readers to identify the exact spot where a favorite character in a famous fiction did or said something memorable in Manhattan. The result was a crowded, hilarious, ingenious map of "locations" appearing in such postwar novels as: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Paul Auster's Moon Palace, Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, Thomas Pynchon's V, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Mary McCarthy's The Group, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, John Cheever's Collected Stories, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. That's some city, that's some map. Who can walk past Tiffany's or the pond in Central Park without seeing it through the glaze of Holly or Holden?

        Is it all a game? Of course, but not just a game.

        First, such maps encourage us to read literary works carefully, with attention to details. (Perhaps the most exhaustive example of this eerie realism is Joyce's Dublin in Ulysses.) Details clean the doors of literary perception; they still our nattering interests; they absorb us into the texture of fiction.

        Second, such maps make the opposite point: namely, that literary works, however realistic, are still invented works, obeying the laws of both reality and the imagination. Moreover, some writers take pains to conceal the exact location of an event to heighten the emotional impact. Thus Melville omits the precise location of the faceless office building on Wall Street where Bartleby the Scrivener finally puts down his pen and turns his face to the wall.

        Third, and in tension with the first point, literary maps reveal the very personal connections some readers have with both the book they love and the place they inhabit. For instance, a reader of Paul Auster's Moon Palace glows about the neighborhood Chinese restaurant in the novel, which comforted him during lonely years.

        Fourth, and most significantly, literary maps can help us to interpret and reinterpret the works they illustrate. That brings me to Moby Dick.

V

The map I have in mind is rather modest, not a large, vellum scroll, not gaudy with colors, pictures, or weird designs. It is just an accurate, pragmatic sketch, appended to Charles Feidelson's edition of Moby Dick, which follows the path of Ishmael from New York to New Bedford, thence to Nantucket, then charts the voyage of the doomed Pequod to its foundering in the Pacific.

        Anyone who knows the novel can intuit the importance of size, distance, and empty space to Melville's dread, metaphysical adventure. Space is spiritual; space hints the ultimate void, as do those memorial tablets in the New Bedford chapel hint eternity. "What despair in those immovable inscriptions!" Ishmael exclaims. "What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities...." Each tablet is the mask of a terrifying absence, the stony face of an abyss. Key characters—Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Bulkington, even Pip—confronts that abyss, each in his way. All this Feidelson's map subliminally conveys. How?

        From the start we are told that young Ishmael has resolved to go a-whaling from Nantucket, "because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island." Not from New York or New London, not from Sag Harbor or Mystic, not even from New Bedford; no, Nantucket it must be. We glance at the map and see that the walking distance from New York to New Bedford is considerable; add to that the sailing distance on a schooner to the Island of Nantucket itself. What strange determination drives the story here, paralleling Ahab's demonic pursuit of the White Whale? And if not demonic in Ishmael or Bulkington, is not that force cognate to ancient urge, the will to endure the universe, experience it to the lees, and to "keep the open independence" of the soul in "her sea"?

        Again, near the start, we are told that Queegueg, at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, is "some twenty thousand miles from home, by the way of Cape Horn." How can that be? My World Atlas shows the longest distance, as the albatross flies, is only 10,000 miles between Tokyo and Rio; the circumference of the earth itself, at the equator, is 21,545 miles. I flip back to the Feidelson map. I see the looping distance around the jutting Horn, and realize that Queequeg is very far from home indeed, and that he will sail a longer distance still before he sinks into the deep.

        Is this distance a measure of the "harpooneer's" alienation, "thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter"? No, Queequeg seems "entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity," Melville remarks. Unlike Ishmael, the "savage" is centered in his universe, not the physical but the spiritual universe. No wonder Queequeg, a native of Kokovoko, comes from a place "not down in any map," Melville says, adding as an afterthought: "true places never are."

        True places, soul places, may appear on no human map; but Melville himself bids us emphatically to consult one: "Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies...." Yes, it occupies a known spot on the globe, even if it appears in a fictive voyage. The Feidelson map accepts Melville's challenge to make not only Nantucket but the whole voyage of the Pequod, and that portentous, prodigious, unspeakable creature called Moby Dick—make them all believable.

        Shrouded in mystery, magnified by superstitions, energized by legends of his "unexampled malignity," the White Whale becomes, every English major knows, the terror behind Creation—Nature, Demigorgon, Satan, God, and Mystery, all in one. But Moby Dick is also ubiquitous, "encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time," Melville notes, and not ubiquitous only, but also immortal, "for immortality is but ubiquity in time." How find him, where seek him? Is there a map of the uncharted deep that may serve mad Ahab or serve the stunned reader?

        Not really. Still, the pedagogic map shows method in Ahab's madness, and gives credence to Melville's incredible fiction. There is the Pequod grazing the Azores, at the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, sailing through the "Plate" ground, back east toward St. Helena, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, passing Java, the Philippines, all the way north into Japanese cruising waters, sharp south again and east toward Kingsmill and Fanning Islands, at the "Season-on-the-Line," as old salts say, to be stove somewhere there and sunk into the abyssal Pacific. Nothing more—erasure is our fate. Nothing except for Ishmael's story—"and I only am escaped alone to tell thee"—except for the story and a map.

        Yes, the map. Didn't Melville include in his novel an important chapter called "The Map"? Didn't Captain Ahab pore over his charts and logs every night, "threading a maze of currents and eddies," trying to realize "that monomaniac thought of his soul," by anticipating the feeding and mating habits of the sperm whale, following its "veins" in the seven seas? And didn't he raise anchor at Nantucket, timing his departure to keep his fateful appointment months, no, years hence? I repeat: the map is a hermeneutic complement, meant to unlayer the many layers of meaning in this vast, symbolic, and ultimately enigmatic fiction.

VI

The example of Moby Dick may suggest a poetics of cartography; for its mythopoeic powers touch the quick of our topic, the imagination of maps. But this is not the place for such critical elaborations, and time it is to conclude.

        My conclusion is brief. Human beings are part of the earth, the sky, the sea, and their maps are part of the mind, mind seeking its answering part in the world. Through eons, our planet has ploughed the dust of stars; we bite galaxies in an apple and drink the universe in a glass of rain. Now we speak the universe in maps.

        And so I say: maps are our second home, our home in the trillion patterns and shifting boundaries of the brain. But maps, at their vanishing margins, also hint our boundlessness. Can they finally reveal to us that there's neither here nor there?

       
Note: Feidelson's is not the only map of the Pequod voyage. A particularly colorful one, by Everett Henry (1893-1961), is in the Library of Congress. The Library also contains a valuable anthology of literary maps, titled Language of the Land (1999), edited by Martha Hopkins and Michael Buscher.

This article first appeared in The Georgia Review (Winter 2005).

Return to Ihab Hassan’s biography and index