Maps and legends

[20 July 2009]

By Rob Horning

Recently, as I mentioned before, I re-read the novel Dune, something that felt vaguely shameful to me, so shameful that I feel compelled to mention it again here as a kind of penance. While I was quickly and compulsively working my way through Muad Dib’s rise to the godhead, I was too ashamed to take the book on the subway; instead I waited until I got home from work to furtively dive in. Not that the book itself is shameful; it’s rightly regarded as a classic. I think my shame came from how much it remind me of myself when I was 12, when I first read it, how much I was indulging a useless nostalgia, as all the innocence was gone from my reading. Whenever I felt myself getting caught up in the story, I found myself adamantly retreating to an analytical distance, seeking in some way to ironize my own engagement.

While I was reading, I found myself frequently and needlessly recurring to the near-incomprehensible map of the planet on which most of the action takes place. It’s not like the geography is confusing. But the map is more confusing than anything else, with lots of locations labeled that I don’t remember ever being mentioned in the text, with hopelessly geeky names like “the Minor Erg”. The glossary, on the other hand, is extremely useful and great for laughs, too. My favorite part is the Pale Fire style references to nonexistent reference works; e.g. the parenthetical in the entry for Krimskell fiber that reads “For a more detailed study, see Holjance Vohnbrook’s ‘The Strangler Vines of Ecaz.’ ” I think half the reason you write a science fiction book is to throw in stuff like that. And to produce appendixes that go into utterly gratuitous detail about the fictional universe you’ve invented. Reading Dune‘s appendixes made me wonder whether the novel was just an excuse to allow Herbert to publish the appendixes, which seemed to contain the quintessence of his inspiration, still crystalline and impenetrable and inaccessible. Novels like Dune tap into the primordial passion of naming things, or renaming familiar things in some made-up language, and drawing up maps for the sheer pleasure of naive cartography.

What started me thinking about this was a passage in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy—a survey of differences between oral cultures and cultures that have writing.

For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world. Only after print and the extensive experience with maps that print implemented would human beings, when they thought about the cosmos or universe or ‘world,’ think primarily of something laid out before their eyes, as in a modern printed atlas, a vast surface or assemblage of surfaces (vision presents surfaces) ready to be ‘explored.’ The ancient oral world knew few ‘explorers’, though it did know many itinerants, travelers, voyagers, adventurers, and pilgrims.

Michael Chabon’s essay about childhood in the most recent New York Review of Books touches on a similar idea. Citing the mental maps he made of his neighborhood, replete with personal landmarks unique to him, Chabon claims that “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” He connects this with maps in adventure stories:

People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

Combine with this Ong’s argument about adventurers, and you get something like this: A certain species of books, mainly attractive to young adults, seem designed to re-stage that transition from an oral-dominated world of adventure to text-dominated (i.e. mapped) world on a small scale, in the reader’s mind. An epic story unfolds on the oral-tradition model, but it’s fused to a battery of maps and glossaries and appendices that engulf the narrative and sap its power away, or at least redirects that narrative’s momentum and energy. That is to say, perhaps part of the drama of novels like Dune lies in having the adventuresome oral tradition evoked again for readers while allowing them reader to ultimately and triumphantly reject it in favor of textuality, literacy, maps, dictionaries, and so forth. We master the technologies of text as we’re reading these otherwise unnecessarily confusing books—consulting the maps and the glossary—and experience ourselves transcending the universe of the story as it unfolds. We end up feeling as though we are alongside the creator of the story, in an “adult” world of total comprehension. Then we confirm it by reading the appendix. Eventually we associate with adulthood the idea that we can do away with the fiction and just stick to the facts, presented in as bare-bones a fashion as possible so we can take in more of them. We skip right to the maps in the back; the stories just get in the way.

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