Monday, November 15, 2010


London on July 4, 1988 was a weird place to be an American.  Lying on my small bed in a small room at the Beach Hotel in Croydon, I felt that the disorienting experience of living out an American cliché on foreign soil is intensified when that soil is English.  Musty pages of old history textbooks wheeled past me as in a poor movie effect.  Compounding my sense of self-consciousness was my overall, gawky international naiveté, but even this was overshadowed by the news I overheard in Victoria Station soon after my arrival: Americans have shot down a Korean jet airliner.  The glances exchanged between the old chaps in the station stung genuinely, and I felt ill-at-ease, as if I a tacky, pop-up map of downtown Washington D.C. now hung implicatively around my neck; were I strolling with a red-white-and-blue sparkler in each hand I couldn’t have felt more obvious.

I was an American in an odd place, where I depended on maps to get me around, journal entries hinting at complexities of the lived experience. “Not only is it easy to lie with maps,"Mark Monmonier observes in How to Lie with Maps, published in 1991, "it’s essential":

To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality.  As a scale model, the map must use symbols that almost always are proportionally much bigger or thicker than the features they represent. To avoid hiding critical information in a fog of detail, the map must offer a selective, incomplete view of reality.  There’s no escape from the cartographic paradox: to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies.
Pre-Google Map, Monmonier asks, “What do advertising and cartography have in common?  Without doubt the best answer is their shared need to communicate a limited version of the truth. . . . the map must omit details that would confuse or distract.”  What’s a map but a larger confusion? The cartographer aims to please, but at its most efficient a map distills, supplanting summary for essence. The color green for trees.  Metaphor for earth.  Abridgment of experience, fading, nonlinear memories straightened out with straight lines.  A paper touchstone.  There it happened, and there it happened, but where did it happen? A map is immense in our cultural memory, its authority vaguely sinister.  Legend, story, popular truth, a clear photograph of the myth, creases and all.  And we believe, popularly, and hand over a reacquaintance with the myth for the myth itself. Claims on the lie of the land.

It's a kind of futile history.  Monmonier says that a map:

suppresses truth to help the user see what needs to be seen.  Reality is three-dimensional, rich in detail, and far too actual to allow a complete yet uncluttered two-dimensional graphic scale model.  Indeed, a map that did not generalize would be useless.  But the value of a map depends on how well its generalized geometry and generalized content reflect a chosen aspect of reality.
Thus the lamentable fate shared by those of us who turn to maps to give us back a sense of experience, to retell an evaporating tale; we sit bewildered like the re-materializing war veteran or the father searching longingly for a legend.  The distance between the map and the land it claims to record faithfully is both figurative and literal, as is the distance between experience and language.  What's remembered remains untranslatable, what's untranslatable remains as desire, and what we've experienced often bears little resemblance to what we see on paper.  “Vision is the intellectual sense,” says J. Douglas Porteous in Landscapes of the Mind. “It structures the universe for us, but only ‘out there’ and ‘in front.’  It is a cool detached sense, and sight alone is insufficient for a true involvement of the self with world.”


OK, the real problem: at the time I was too poor to own a camera, and anyway I believed, in a naive, urgent, stupid way, that my memories would be indelible.  I lost my city guide and map of the London Underground halfway through my ten-day visit.    

Back home in the States, I’d stare at the Rand McNally “City Flash Visitors Map of London,” puzzling to piece together the trip.  The postcard of the Underground map hanging on my refrigerator: a jungle of brightly-colored nerves.  Maps deceived.  I’d stare into a tangle of roads, highways, and subway lines, parks, squares, and lakes.  Blur.  I’m certain I walked down Kings Road, Oxford Street, strolled through St. John’s Wood, visited the Museum, wrote a postcard on Westminster Bridge, stopped in at John Keats’ house — Victorian Line to Green Park to Oxford Circus to Warren Street interchange for Northern Line at Euston to Camden Town to Chalk Farm to Belsize Park to Hampstead—but no associations of any emotional depth are forged by a study of the map, of the roads and blocks I stood on.  Decoding hopeless theory.  The praxis model no longer exists.

In London I dutifully studied my map each morning, outlining the best routes in advance.  I’d savored the visit to Keats’ house, and planned it toward the end of my visit.  But somewhere in downtown London I lost my map and guide, left it behind on the tube, or on a park bench.  I was forced to go on instinct and, though I could have easily purchased another guide, I loved the idea of getting around London — a place I’d been in for only three days — on my own, patching together a circuit through a city I didn’t know, sniffing my way toward what my imagination knew I craved.  I eventually found my way to Keats’ front door, but not before I had to prowl many blocks in conflicting directions, knowing I was near to what I wanted, purposefully ignoring as many signs as I could, coaxing the landscape itself to tilt toward me invitingly, this way or that.

"You Are Here" via Word It Archive.

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