Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cartography as Autobiography - An Essay

An Autobiography of Imagined Territories

“What began it all was the bright bone
of a dream I could barely hold onto.”
Michael Ondaatje
Running in the Family

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.”
Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The great lie that maps cure us of is that you can separate imagination from
reality. People claim they have the math of truth, and that in it, there is no room for our dreams and creations. However, maps are like love. They take in everything, rearrange it, and then present to the world an equation that is completely unique.

This is a beautiful, difficult truth, one the painter Vermeer knew well. He repeatedly included a map of the United Netherlands in his paintings, even though the republic ceased to exist long before his last brushstroke. The map itself takes many forms. In A Girl Asleep, there is only the bottom pole and a small strip of the map’s parchment. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter shows about half of it, but the boundaries are blurred into a sea of gray and brown. About a third of a blurred map is shown in Young Woman with a Jug. In The Art of Painting, the map is whole. However, it is not only blurred, but also wrinkled and cracked. It is in Officer and Laughing Girl that we finally see it all: a whole map with the provinces of the Netherlands painted in clearly. Each of these maps is a copy from an original. They may all be different maps, but what makes their separateness disappear is that they all are tinged with Vermeer’s imagination. Vermeer was only 16 years old in 1648, the year the Netherlands was formally divided into northern and southern provinces. His art, then, may have been an attempt to reunite a divided culture. Vermeer saw a rapidly changing world outside, so he painted a more stable one inside. This may have had everything to do with his love of maps, or maybe nothing at all. It does not matter. Vermeer’s maps are like his windows. Each is a way into his home, and a way out into the world. The direction each path takes depends entirely on how you view it.

Autobiography is an unusually difficult practice to define. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it as “the story of one’s own life,” or “the art or practice of writing one’s own biography.” Of the second definition, one wonders which is it: art or practice? People love to say that art is practice, but how is that so? Practice implies frequency: a repetition of something in order to learn or make a habit of it. This seems grounded in reality. However, art implies imagination: a creation of something with a form and beauty that is distinguished from the world around it. So, if autobiography is both an art and a practice then it is not the telling of one’s life. It is a telling, a putting down of truth in the service of one’s imagination. The Hereford Map, made by one Richard of Holdingham in the late 13th century, is, among other things, a great autobiography.

Very little is known about the life of Richard of Holdingham. There was a Richard of Battle, who was a rector in Kent in 1260, and went on to be a prebend, or a cleric who received a salary from church revenues, until at least 1277. Later, from 1305 to his death in 1326, Richard of Battle was a canon of Hereford and prebendary of Norton (Harvey 9). Historian P.D.A. Harvey writes, “if Battle was his family name Holdingham might well have been where he was born or lived, and such an alternative surname would be normal at this time”(7). Indeed, there was a place named Holdingham, a village located near Lincolnshire, in England. Beyond dates and places of possible residence, there are only two other known things about Richard of Battle: he received a gift of venison in 1289 or 1290, and he paid some money to an unnamed servant (Harvey 9). This is not much of a biography, and it may be that the little that is here, is that of the wrong man. There is no way of knowing. Historians have given us the merger of Richard of Battle with Richard of Holdingham as truth. However, the only definite life of Richard of Holdingham is in the map he left behind.

The life of Richard of Holdingham must have been one of many loves. Animals, both real and imaginary, are as common as crab grass in an open field. Buildings, crudely drawn and mostly two-dimensional, are even more common. Rivers, like single strands in several great root systems, split the land into little, uneven slivers. People, many in imaginary forms, are found standing, sitting, speaking, and striking other people. These are the things of the world, and by placing them on the map, Richard of Holdingham shows his devotion. He also loves the stories, those myths that wrap around the living and give birth to all the dead before them. Historian P.D.A. Harvey writes, “The bulk of the general information on the Hereford Map comes from nine classical and later Latin authors”(42). This is a sign of Richard of Holdingham’s love of the past, its perceived greatness and continued influence over the present. Above all, though, the Hereford Map is a devotional to God. Christ, the son of God, presides at the top of the map over a court of angels. Biblical stories are scattered throughout and the map is orientated so that Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity, is in the center. This is not an accurate depiction of the world; it is a meditation on God, and the world God has created.

Three centuries later, the famous cartographer Gerardus Mercator would use a Renaissance version of this very idea, defining “atlas” as “cosmographical meditations upon the creation of the universe, and the universe as created”(Wilford 85). This definition embodies the spirit of autobiography. First, there is meditation: a human activity done in order to see beyond the visible, material world. Second, there is “the universe as created,” which signals Mercator’s desire to be accurate to reality in his maps. Since autobiography is about life it must contain both of these activities. In the case of the Hereford Map, Richard of Holdingham dispenses with visual accuracy to show a greater one: the world as it is ordered by the love of God. Here, the art of God is imagined by Richard of Holdingham and then given form. Thus, the Hereford Map does what every great autobiography attempts to do: it lifts a single view of the world out of the commonplace, and into greatness.

The medieval world was full of extraordinary life stories. Autobiography, then, might be defined as a simple breath spun into a series of fantastic sounds. In those days, it did not matter if the person doing the telling had actually lived the life: biography and autobiography were one. One day, a mouth would open in a crowd. The next day a dozen mouths would open in a dozen crowds. Eventually, a mouth could open anywhere, utter only a name, and hear a chorus of stories in response. This was the stuff of legends.

Medieval cartography was, above all else, a pilgrimage into the heart. Mapmakers took the bits of the world they knew and fashioned them into a whole they could love. They rendered everything, even the ugliest of creatures, beautiful. This was done not only out of love, but also out of a need for meaning.

As everyone knows, a pilgrimage is a long journey. When one undertakes such a journey, there is usually an end goal in mind. Often, the goal is a physical place of social and/or spiritual significance. This place embodies the meaning the pilgrim is supposed to gain during the journey. The map, then, may be seen as an end goal of the medieval cartographer’s journey. Along the way, many legends were collected, and became part of the overall meaning.

Saint Brendan was merely a man when he lived in the 6th century under the blue skies of County Galway, Ireland. As a young monk, he traipsed over green fields and rocky hills, dreaming of paradise. Later, he became an abbot, and apparently founded a monastery. Unsatisfied with his accomplishments, Brendan found a crew of sixty men, and sailed westward from Ireland in search of paradise. Five years later, he returned, and told the people of a beautiful island where the souls of blessed mortals went to rest after death. He wrote an account of the voyage, as sort of travel autobiography, in which he talked of the many other places discovered along the way. Among them was a palace where the devil appeared and an island of birds that Brendan said were fallen angels. The story as a whole shows two things: Brendan was thoroughly Christian and he knew how to tell a good story. Needless to say, it was not long before Brendan, and his voyage, became legendary.

No one knows the truth about Saint Brendan. He may or may not have made the five-year voyage. He may or may not have discovered lands that are now on the maps. Nothing he claimed to have found has ever been identified as real. However, belief in his story was widespread during the medieval period. Beginning in his native Ireland, similar stories eventually moved into the Latin, English, French, Saxon, Flemish, Welsh, Breton, and Scottish Gaelic cultures (Nelson 45). Furthermore, Saint Brendan’s Island appeared under various names, in various places, on world maps until the mid-18th century. So, although Brendan’s story was probably fictional, it would be false to say that its contents never existed. Twelve hundred years of faith in his story suggest that he, and his voyage, were real. None of it may have happened, but for centuries, all of it was true.

In a poem by Elizabeth Bishop entitled “Questions of Travel,” she asks, “Oh, must we dream our dreams / and have them, too?” Over and over again, maps have answered, “Yes!” This is a truth that even the most “scientific” of maps has accepted. We dream and then we draw. There is no way to separate the two. Just look at the legend of Prester John, another reality found on several centuries of maps.

Unlike Saint Brendan, whose legend took some time to develop, Prester John was a legend almost from the moment he appeared on the world stage. In 1122, a priest named Giovanni is said to have given Pope Calixtus II the first known account of Prester John (Nelson 45). Twenty-three years later, while making an appeal for military aid to the Pope, Bishop Hugh of Jabala reportedly called Prester John “a direct descendant of the Magi.” Furthermore, he said that Prester John’s troops had recently emerged victorious from “a most bloodthirsty battle” with the Persians, and needed help to continue the good fight (Wilford 41). Not long after this, a letter, reportedly written by Prester John, began circulating across Europe. In it, Prester John claims to “exceed in riches, virtue, and power all creatures who dwell under heaven.” He tells of seventy-two kings who “pay tribute” to him, and of his “great army,” which is ready to “wage war against and chastise the enemies of the cross” (Wilford 41). All of this captures the hearts of Europeans who, over the next three centuries, make dozens of voyages in the name of finding Prester John and his wonderful kingdom.

It is entirely possible that Prester John is solely a product of the Christian crusades. His story, for example, began appearing in the middle of the crusades, just when the fires of zealousness were beginning to fade. In addition, he was said to be the ruler of a powerful Christian kingdom in the heart of the non-Christian world. In other words, Prester John was the missing ally the crusaders needed to envelop the world in Christianity. Historians have never been able to confirm the existence of Prester John. On the maps, his kingdom spent several centuries in Asia or Africa, sometimes engulfing both, before finally disappearing altogether in the 17th century. He was thus, for several centuries, both everywhere and nowhere, a king without a kingdom. Even if he existed in some form, Prester John was, more than anything else, the autobiography of the European imagination.

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Creative Writing the Dharma by nathan thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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