Wait, They Don’t Love You Like I Love You (An Eventual Book Review)

December 14, 2007

People have always made maps, and probably always bemoaned their limits. In S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night the author-narrator argues against the literal, rational interpretation of space:

I put on my hat and said, ‘Father in heaven, how much does a man know what is near and what is far?’ ‘What do you mean: How does a man know?’ said Erela. ‘Whatever is near is near, and whatever is far is far.’
‘Is that something you have learned from geography?’ said I, jesting. ‘First, replied Erela, ‘this is something every intelligent person knows by himself. And second, anyone who studies geography no longer has any doubts as to these concepts.’ ‘Geography,’ said I to her, ‘is androgynous.’

For Agnon, returning to the place of his birth, a place destroyed in World War I, destroyed by shifting political regimes and imperial ambitions (Allegiance to a state impossible to tell), geography is not a fixed concept, but one as fluid as life. This is a man who lived in cosmic time and cosmic space; everything defined by the year 70 ce and the exile from Jerusalem. Ordinary geography could never hope to capture his mythic sensibilities. Or, the masterful poem, “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” [—and not simply by the fact that this shading of/forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,/the gloom of cypresses,/is what I wish to prove.] by Eavan Boland which yearns to uncover the social history of changing geographical representations, and the hidden cost of lives in the change from arable to barren.

Yet the need to understand our physical space has never been in doubt, and visual representations provide an artistic representation of our minds, and how we understand the world.

ecardtransitmaps.jpg

This whimsical map of a “world metro” system may not be geographically accurate, but it does capture certain truths about world population, global flows, and metro distribution.

There is a similar need to visualize fictional space. Kevin Lynch argued in his classic, The Image of the City, that a major contributor to a city’s beauty is its legibility, “the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern.” Even the dystopian Dark City in Dark City has a visual representation of its madness: the subway map that, read with its paratexts (schedules), visually represents the impossibility of ever leaving the city, of ever making it to Shell Beach.

I’ve always wanted to map Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, to see if I could make a coherent picture out of the irrational descriptions of space in the novel. But even if the task is impossible, we would learn from the impossibility: the visual image that resulted would map the chaos of the character’s mind, giving it a certain beauty.

This need to map exists in the Creative Mind (endorsed by Barry Zito!) as well as the analytic. Peter Turchi‘s beautiful 2004 book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, argues for cartography as a figure of literary production. Along the way, Turchi gives many excellent readings of literature, maps, paintings, and ephemera. Highly recommended.

Lastly, the imaginative power of the map, and the objects of it figures, are one of the many themes of the excellent The Great Society Subway: a History of the Washington Metro by Zachary Shrag. Shrag uses the Metro as a synecdoche for 30+ years of Washington political and social history, seeing in its architecture and service the goals of generations of politicians, and Kennedy/Johnson’s will to make a new and better America. A brilliant and fascinating account, full of wonderful anecdotes.

The map may be limited, but not the cartographic imagination.

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