Here Be Dragons

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

I really want to love the book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. The idea of a kid cartographer genius is great – and the author includes maps in each page’s margin (see my first post about it here.) Yet the voicing of the child genius feels unbelievable to me most of the time. Still, the writing is lovely and I keep coming across beautiful passages like this one:

I firmly believed that drafting maps erased many of the unwarranted beliefs of a child. Something about measuring the distance between here and there cast off the mystery of what lay between…the number one rule of cartographia was that if you could not observe a phenomenon, you were not allowed to depict it on your parchment. Many of my forebears, however, including Mr. Lewis, Mr. Clark, and even Mr. George Washington (the cartographer-turned-president who could not tell a lie but could certainly draw a lie), perhaps because they were born into a world of great uncertainty, had violated this rule quite blatantly by imagining all sorts of false geographies in the territory just beyond the next mountain. A river clear to the Pacific, the Rockies merely a thin line of foothills – it was so tempting to graft our desires and fears onto the blank spaces of our maps. “Here be dragons,” the cartographers of old wrote in the empty abyss just beyond the reaches of their pen lines.

I love this. How often do we try to name our fears and desires without knowing them, to define a space simply by what we want without taking the hard road of discovery or learning to dwell for a time in the tension of uncertainty? I do think this is one value of art – that creating becomes a process where we explore those unknown areas within ourselves and come to a place where we can map the journey truthfully. Without dragons.

Artist Susan Stockwell uses this symbolism of maps quite literally in her paper dresses. For her exhibit at the New York City Art Gallery, she’s made Victorian-era-inspired dresses out of historic maps from the 1870s, pairing both a lost fashion and a lost view of a much-changed world. In her work, Susan explores ecology, geography, and global trade, and she uses and recreates maps in ways that challenge what we know or think we know about our world.

Kurt Vonnegut used another type of map to show how closely we stick to the familiar in our storytelling. He broke down the arc of stories into 3 main patterns, mapping them on an x and y axis (or rather a G-I axis on the B-E continuum). He has this comedic dry humor so evident in his writing but which I was surprised to find exists in his presentation as well. (I tend to think most writers are awkward in real life. This may just be derived from personal experience…)

And really, I couldn’t let this post go by without a song by Maps & Atlases (so appropriate, right?). But I think “Solid Ground” fits this theme too. The lyrics, “in winter decay / when hopes and plans seem all but gone / you have found a way / to make me seem like almost drawn,” echoes how we’re so often on the abyss until we step back, wait, then draw past those boundaries with new found knowledge.


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