Dubious Cartography

As a kid, I spent an unhealthy number of hours in the company of the National Geographic World Atlas. And when maps of the real world, for whatever reason, failed to inspire, I charted out imaginary worlds in pencil on sheet after sheet of paper, taping them together like tiles in a mosaic that often grew to cover my entire bedroom floor. Each of my dreamed-up worlds came with a private narrative. Sometimes these found their way into written form. More often I was satisfied with the story as I’d drawn it.

A map is an abstract model of the world, a representation of reality. Even the most precise and appealing map is therefore essentially false: it can never actually be what it represents. At most it achieves an approximate truth, inasmuch as it accurately describes the relationships it depicts according to its own particular rules. But every map, regardless of accuracy, is an attempt to say something about reality; which is another way of saying that every map is a story – told in a particular way.

We might just as well say that every story is a map – drawn, if you will, in a particular way. Stories -like maps- are concerned with real objects (physical or intellectual), their characteristics, behaviors, the distances or obstacles that separate them from other objects, and what happens when two or more of these objects collide. The stories we tell, to ourselves and others, and whether couched in terms of personal experience, philosophy or tradition, are all maps of one sort or another, all designed to say something about reality, to render it intelligible through abstraction.

The need for maps is sometimes felt as a weakness.  If it’s true that only hesitant, uncertain creatures need maps, then human beings are a sorry bunch. Unable to feel quite well until we have the What, Whence and Wherefore of All Things, we are in agonies to learn how X results in Y; why four and four is never nine; why love should be so difficult, why happiness so rare; what it is, or Who, that holds all things in being – and what it is, and why, to die. So, we draw our maps and tell our stories until we feel better. We flatten life into abstraction in order to resolve its three-dimensional complications.

But though we are practiced cartographers, we’re purblind. Habit is no substitute for skill, and the fact is that our maps are not often very good. They tend to be sloppy, inaccurate, in constant need of revision. Which, frankly, is precisely why we took up the trade in the first place: we make maps because we don’t see things well, but want to see them better. We tend to forget this. We forget our dim-sightedness and flatter ourselves with the notion that, despite the flaws apparent in others’ maps, ours make for perfectly reliable descriptions of the world. When someone else’s map differs from our own, we take it as an opportunity for judgment. We’re so used to the cataracts that obscure our own field of vision, we imagine they’re simply part of the landscape.

On the other hand, accuracy in maps is overrated. Perfect fidelity imposes its own problems.  Even the most perceptive and skilled cartographer will run up against that variation of Bonini’s Paradox according to which the more perfectly a map represents the complex systems it is intended to explain, the less intelligible it becomes. (Paul Valery had the same basic idea when he wrote that “Everything simple is false. Everything complex is unusable.”) Absolute accuracy in a map is undesirable; or, if desired, its achievement would be self-defeating. To borrow an image from Borges, one could paper over the entire world in a 1/1-scale atlas, but what would be the point? It’s the same whether we’re talking about maps in terms of visual charts or in terms of stories: If we saw well enough to make truly accurate, truly representative maps of reality, we wouldn’t need maps in the first place.

But we do need maps, sometimes desperately. And we are going to keep making them, consciously or unconsciously. The difficulty is finding courage enough to admit when our maps fail. Only the most intrepid cartographer sets aside the parchment and abandons himself to terra incognita; only the most diligent finds solace in the idea that disillusionment is no mortal danger but merely a difficult sort of grace.

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