Borges and Maps

There cannot be many other one paragraph stories such as Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Of Exactitude in Science’ that have had the same impact. This story is often read as a treatise of the absurd. It is purportedly written by J.A. Suarez Miranda and is an extract from Suarez’s Travels of Praiseworthy Men, published in 1658. To demonstrate that it is an extract, it starts with an elision of three dots suggesting that much else has gone before this extract. And the opening clause ‘…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province’ introduces the reader without warning, to one of the most profound philosophical questions, the nature of representation, the correspondence of symbol to meaning, and the relationship between images and perception. In the story, the ‘Extensive maps’ were found wanting and so the Map of the Empire evolved to the same scale as the Empire itself, coinciding with it point to point. Later generations come to judge the Map far too unwieldy and impractical that they abandoned it to the elements. Finally, ‘In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography’.

There are several Borgesian tropes here: the extract is from an antique manuscript by an unknown, but by all accounts, well-travelled and erudite author. This notion of erudition and knowledge as ancient and lost is reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic. I am constantly struck by the widely held belief that, for example, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, is somehow full of ancient wisdom that is precious and true, simply on account of its antiquity. Borges often works with this error of reasoning- the more unpronounceable the name of the long dead author, the more likely it is that the knowledge in the recently discovered manuscript is valuable and incomparable.

This story works too at another level.  It is a mere 16 lines in the English translation, constructed of 4 sentences and several subclauses. So, it is a miniature piece of storytelling that recalls the miniaturists of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. It is as if Borges was saying a representation need not be large and exact to be true, indeed it can be true and perfect by being as small as this miniature story. Pamuk also investigated the difference between Ottoman Turk approaches to representation and the Venetian approach- the one aiming for a perfect ideal form and the other drawing from the imperfect but beautiful form, which is to say reality. Ottoman miniaturists were troubled by the portrayal of imperfect horses in Venetian paintings compared against the perfect, ideal horses of Ottoman miniatures. Ironically, the Ottoman miniaturists had to introduce imperfections in their paintings since only God can make perfect objects!

This story is often seen as following Lewis Caroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, in which the fictional map used a scale of a mile to a mile that was so cumbersome that it was impossible to unroll it and the citizens continued to use the country as its own map! Borges would have been amused about this idea of how one story derives from another. He wrote about this in his essay ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ where the opening paragraph read ‘I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors. At first I had considered him to be singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods’.

My real interest, though, is in the nature of representation and images. Everything that we see or perceive in the world is really being seen in the brain. The perception is only true to the degree that the representation is projected outwards and corresponds to the objects in the world. If, as sometimes happens, there is no corresponding object in the world then we are in the territory of hallucinations. Also, if the representation is corrupted for whatever reason then anomalous perceptions occur- objects that are bleached of colour (achromatopsia), objects that multiply and persist (palinopsia) or that are transformed into other objects (metamorphopsia). Borges’ concern about scale becomes intriguing in this context. What scale determines the size of the internal representation? If one were to walk round the perimeter of a room in imagination, would it take as long to do so as it does in the objective world? 

There are other intriguing matters. We only become aware of our own body’s representation in the context of some breach such as an amputation. Phantom limbs confirm that underlying our objective, material body is a representation of it, the body image/schema, which persists even when the material limb is amputated. But there are even more bizarre examples, impairment of the representation can influence the sense of vitality of a limb so that individuals can deny that a limb belongs to them, the so called alien hand syndrome, presumably because the representation is damaged. Most unusually, children who are born with no arms can experience phantom limbs that they can move.

This is where Borges’ story comes in handy as a thinking tool- imagine that the Map of the Empire is exactly the size of the Empire itself and covers it exactly. No one knows that the Map and the Empire are two distinct things, one objective in the material world and the other merely a representation. In fact, no one knows that there are two things. The truth only becomes apparent when the Map is worn out by the elements and the cracks in the Map show underneath the one corroded corner the untarnished reality of the Empire itself. Or in the event of War, the Empire’s centre is bombed but the Map remains pristine and shows how the Empire was before the War.

At this time of the year, the flowering of crocuses and snowdrops, provokes that perennial question of how such beauty is represented and coded for in the bulb. How dissimilar is the code from the manifest flower, the Map from the Empire?

Photos by Jan Oyebode

6 thoughts on “Borges and Maps

  1. I am trying to decide if I should write the paper A of the MRCPsych exams— and again I’m reminded of why I fell in love with Psychiatry in medical school, the contemplating what truly is reality— perception, perceptual sets, objectivity, subjectivity etc and how that in the Humanities, these are perennially discussed issues…
    Thanks Prof as always for this well written article.

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