I decided to explore my neighbourhood a little last weekend, and I started my walk by entering into the heart of a dense and dark forest. I let myself wander and get lost, walking round in circles, not paying attention to which direction I was going. I did stick to footpaths, though, so I knew I would emerge somewhere into the civilized world, eventually. I had not taken my phone or a paper map, but somehow after a few hours of meandering I emerged into a road that turned out to be the one leading to my building. I experienced a similar sensation of being lost and loving it on a trip to Venice, when I was navigating the dense network of its countless streets, which twist and turn unexpectedly filling the explorer with a constant sense of bewilderment, exhilaration and sensual pleasure of permanent dizziness. The very shape of the map of Venice is meaningful and stirs imagination, as Tiziano Scarpa described beautifully in his book Venice is a Fish:
Venice is a fish. Just look at it on a map. It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. … Venice has always existed as you see it today… It’s been sailing since the dawn of time; it’s put in at every port, it’s rubbed against every shore, quay and landing-stage: Middle Eastern pearls, transparent Phoenician sand, Greek seashells, Byzantine seaweed all accreted on its scales. But one day it felt all the weight of those scales, those fragments and splinters that had permanently accumulated on its skin… It decided to climb once and for all into one of the most northerly and sheltered inlets of the Mediterranean, and rest there.”
Map of Venice, The Vatican Museum, Hall of Maps
I strongly believe it can be refreshing not to know where one is going. “Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster,” as Saul Bellow once said. I listened to a lecture of James Hillman recently, in which he lamented over our modern tendency to lose touch with the earth and the ground. Our feet are getting lighter and lighter; we demand the quickest possible access, focusing on the destination and never on the journey. Also, Hillman said, we are obsessed with getting a bird’s eye view of our current location; this is why we love to climb hills, towers and other observation points. Listening to this, I was thinking of the philosopher’s Korzybski’s famous aphorism: “The map is not the territory.” Images are not reality, symbols are not what they symbolize. “This is not a pipe” is a painting by Renè Magritte. You cannot stuff this pipe:
I think that writers, artists, psychotherapists and all those whose daily lives revolve around concepts and symbols would be wise to regularly renew their contact with the earth instead of getting lost in the endless symbolic loop. I think it is wise to lose the map from time to time. This is quite hard for me because I have a passion for maps, especially old ones. For me they have a reality of their own, unconnected to the territory. Old maps are like exquisite paintings: their beauty exceeds their practical purpose.
Caverio map of the world (1505)
I always suspected that my love of maps was connected to both my love of books and my love of symbols. When looking at a map one gets the illusion of having control of the whole territory: time and distance do not matter anymore; our imagination can take us anywhere within seconds. Symbolic thinking means being able to see the connections that we had not noticed before: as a result a holistic view emerges and we are able to notice patterns and regularities. Maps are directly related to symbolization: psychologists often talk about mapping out the human psyche. They love to put labels on certain behaviours, which may be a dangerous practice if taken too far because it may lead to freezing a human life into concepts. Conceptual maps may explain and illuminate problems, but they do not automatically take them away.
An artistic rendering of an astrological chart, image via http://www.behance.net/gallery/Astrological-Birthchart-Paintings/2060922
I think astrological charts can also be compared to maps. A natal chart shows symbolically what an individual can become, what potential his or her psyche holds. Not all potentials manifest; sometimes we insist on living in one corner of the map and do not dare explore further. A natal chart is a blueprint for exploration. A good astrological reading is oriented towards our unfulfilled potential. We are not victims or prisoners of our past patterns and conditionings. A map of our personal symbols in the form of a natal chart can guide us towards the blank, unexplored areas of our psyche, the life unlived. Our own mental maps are so often limited and fragmentary. In medieval maps blank spaces were filled with phantasmagorical drawings – of dragons, sea serpents and other freakish creatures. They showed the inner truth of the psyche. The dragons may have disappeared from the public sphere but they are alive and well on the maps of our inner lives.
This post is particularly inspired by a great book I have read recently called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, written by Peter Turchi. I loved it for many reasons, not least for its visual merits: beautiful maps featured all over the text. The author asserts at the beginning: “To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’”
Ancient maps were not created for practical purposes as we see them today; as a matter of fact, the earliest maps in many cultures were created and passed on orally. For Native Americans, for example, the stories were vitally connected to natural features of the earth, and for Australian Aboriginals, the land was traversed by songlines or Dreaming Tracks, thus described by another author, Bruce Chatwin in his novel The Songlines:
“…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.”
Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and thus singing the world into existence. The first maps were always gifts of imagination.
I see symbolism as a gift of meaning and not something that would make me blind to my raw existence. I acknowledge that life is ultimately a voyage into the unknown and any meaningful order would always compete with chaos. I also acknowledge the warning of a short story “On Exactitude of Science,” in which Borges describes a one-to-one map as utterly useless:
…the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars…”
Nevertheless, my instinct and my whole being draws me more to symbols, archetypes, images than the so called hard reality. One is not supposed to fight the instinct: that would be an anti-life stance, wouldn’t it?