Mapping the Journey of Love

Through reading Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island, we can learn of a love story blossoming between two protagonists. Before introducing the theme of love, Saramago first presents a moral lesson, in that individuals who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone will discover their dreams. For instance, when the man who asked for a ship “step outside [himself],” he metaphorically enters into a dreamlike state where he journeys to the unknown, discovering his love for the cleaning lady in the process. From another perspective, the man with the ship is mapping his own life, or a reflection of his love journey. In his genius, Saramago presents the theme of love from a completely different perspective. Although one cannot argue that Saramago is a romantic based on only one novel, but by focusing more on the dialogues and the actions undertaken by the characters, he shifts our attention from their names and directs our attention to the meaning behind those actions. Indeed, while the man with the ship was initially dishearten by the lack of supplies and the unwillingness of sailors to venture into the unknown, he eventually (although accidentally) “leave the island in order to see the island.” Thus, because of his courage and patience, the man is able to venture on a journey to seek the unknown, and he ends with discovering love, which one can argue that we are often oblivious to love, despite it being in plain sight.

Saramago’s short novel would not be much of a love story if a female protagonist does not exist, and indeed, he presents us the transformation of a cleaning lady into the first mate, working together with the male protagonist. Without her, there will be no discovery of the unknown, as it was the cleaning lady that urges the man “… in order to see the island, that we can’t see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves.” Without taking the first step into the unknown, which may very well be love, the unknown cannot be known. Interestingly, the concept, there is no unknown because an unknown has to stay unknown for it to be unknown, can also be thought of in the context of a journey. In their case, the male protagonist sets out for the unknown, and he finds what was there all along- his desire for love.


Mapping and discovery through the lens of Columbus’s First Voyage

          Columbus’s First Voyage reveals the haphazardness of mapping–though it may seem to be a mathematical (or at least procedural) process, for Columbus it often occurs as a series of accidents. Columbus changes his course from the north coast of Cuba eastward to Hispaniola when the “Indians” tell him that he can find gold, pearls, and spices in “Bohio” (80). Bohio is a word referring to their huts, but Columbus misinterprets their signs, believing Bohio is an island in Hispaniola. He sets sail for this imaginary location, but ends up stuck on an island near Cuba. This small piece of Columbus’s first voyage highlights the unpredictability of the process of mapping. All it takes is a “north wind” to push the mapmaker off his intended course, inherently restructuring his map (81).
          The text also highlights the way in which discovery seems to be perpetually unreachable for Columbus. His notes at the beginning of the First Voyage describe various signs that land is near– “land-birds” and rainfall without wind, among others. Yet, land always seems to be further off than expected. Even after Columbus’s first “land sighting,” he and his men press on to realize that “what they had taken for land was no land but cloud” (47). During the initial part of this voyage, land almost loses its concreteness. When the caravels do finally reach Cuba, Columbus and his men begin their search for gold. They ask the people living on each island where they can find gold and other items they are looking for, but each time they ask, they are pointed to another island or, for example, a location “further east” (86). Thus, discovery seems to be a perpetually shifting endpoint for Columbus and his men, on an island that is always somewhere in the distance.

Entomology as Cultural and Historical Mapping in The First Voyage

 As I was reading Christopher Columbus’s The Four Voyages, I was struck by the ways in which language has evolved since the 13th century. Throughout The First Voyage, Columbus refers to seaweed as “weed” and blue-footed boobies as “boobies,” which endlessly amused my inner 12-year-old because of the contemporary colloquial meanings of those words. Out of curiosity, I searched their entomologies on Oxford English Dictionary, and I noticed that the website lays out a comprehensive history of the words’ use in chronological order. In short, the entomology is laid out like a map through the word’s history.

After we did the mapping exercise in class on Thursday, I concluded that traditional, pen-to-paper pictorial mapping gives me a very one-dimensional understanding of the places discussed in the texts (both literally and metaphorically). Verbal and entomological mapping, on the other hand, creates a multidimensional and, in my opinion, richer cultural understanding of specific places. While observing Columbus’s speech from a modern perspective, I began mulling over the conventions of formality, behavior, and morality that drove his exhibition rather than pay attention to the places he describes and began to consider how those conventions have evolved.

While contemporary society no longer promotes colonialist ideals or abides by strict moral codes, we still romanticize Columbus’s exhibition. In my mind, Columbus’s use of these now “silly” words highlights the tension between Columbus’s words and actions and modern behavioral conventions and expectations. I propose that we still sentimentalize Columbus’s actions despite our social evolution because our “modern american history” simply does not stack up to the complexity or length of European history. Thus, we linflate our historical figures, particularly the ones who link us to Europe, as an attempt to rival Europe’s historical grandeur.

The Tale of the Unknown Island Response

In his short story The Tale of the Unknown Island, Jose Saramago’s disregard for traditional grammatical conventions raises questions for me about whether or not Saramago intends for this piece to be a fairytale. Considering many contemporary fairytales are written for children, the ambiguity of Saramago’s genre raises questions regarding the story’s intended audience. His simple diction and lack of quotation marks are reminiscent of children’s writing and speech. Furthermore, the story’s small illustrations and cool-colored cover appeals to childish minds.

By not following grammatical convention, however, Saramago produces an incredibly difficult and confusing work to comprehend even for a sophisticated reader. In my opinion, punctuation serves as a map of sorts for readers, and the lack of recognizable conventions leave the reader feeling lost and confused. Thus, the readers become as map-less and directionless as the characters searching for the Unknown Island. This now raises the question of whether or not maps are always necessary. In the end of Saramago’s story, he suggests that the Man and the Woman have already come across the Unknown Island without even needing a map. I would agree with Saramago’s implied argument that maps are not always necessary; I enjoyed his tale regardless of the difficult navigation.

Maps as not Just Physical Manifestations

What I found particularly interesting about Saramago’s Tale of the Unknown Island was the love story between the man and the cleaning woman, and what that meant for the discovery of the Unknown Island in the man’s dream. What I mean about this is that I found this story ultimately a story about a “map” to one’s self in terms of desires (the man wanting the cleaning woman), fears (that the cleaning woman will leave), and goals (setting out on the journey on the boat).

In the story, we are told through the man and the king’s conversation that there can’t be an unknown island because all the known islands are found, and any unknown islands that are talked about must then be known because they are talked about (pg 12-13). When thinking about this statement when it’s first given in the story, it’s confusing but it does make sense because how can someone know and talk about something that’s unknown? As the story goes on, though, and especially by the end of the book, this statement is complicated because, sure this statement is true for landmasses, but it is not so true for a person’s mind and discovery of a true identity.

Now, if that isn’t confusing enough, I think what I mean about this is that in the story we are geared up and up for an actual journey on an actual boat. However, the man isn’t able to get a crew, and must go home to the boat empty handed to the cleaning woman by the end of the day. So, we are instead given a journey on a boat that turns into an island within the man’s mind, or more precisely, his dreams.  This shows us what the man really wants in the woman and in his journey, or rather, his life. I think, then, that this story (though I may be getting into overly sappy stuff right now) is about  a man who is discovering what he wants and how he wants to live his life through a map of his dreams.

However, since this map and this discovery is only in his dreams, and dreams are largely forgotten by the morning, the man only has an inkling of what he wants by the time he wakes up in the morning. So, in order to remember and fully realize his dream-map in life, the man and the cleaning woman, along with their boat must “finally set to sea, in search of itself” (p. 51), at the end of the book. I think that, ultimately, this book is about checking in, or journeying with  oneself, to create a map of the self, or a map of one’s life.

End super sappiness (guess that’s my mood today).


Something that really fascinated me about Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island was the king’s proclamation that “everything” had been discovered.  This is something I, too, think about as a traveler.  As much as I love traveling to exotic places like Cuba and using maps to get to Lonely Planet’s “off-the-beaten-path” destinations, I often fantasize about truly discovering a place.  That’s why I love reading about places like those holy mountains in Tibet that have literally never been climbed before.  What would it look like at the top?  Is there something capable of revolutionizing society just squirreled away on its frozen peak?  Shangri La, perhaps?  I guess I think about discovery in a rather traditional 2-D Renaissance sense; that is, I mostly dream about discovering islands, climbing mountains, and trekking in mysterious jungles.  There are still plenty of places left to explore on Earth, but they lie under the surface in deep caves and ocean vents.  For some reason this has never seemed as exciting to me, and I attribute that largely to the canonized exploration literature we are focusing on in this class.

This canon has conditioned me to think not only in a physical 2D sense, but also in culturally 2D sense.  I mean, what is the nature of discovery?  What is its definition?  If I found an island with “uncontacted natives,” am I really discovering it?  Again, there’s that corrupting Euro-centric Renaissance influence.  Depending on how we define “discover,” maybe the natives didn’t even really discover the island!  Perhaps it was a bird, a hermit crab washed up on the shore long ago.  But ok, let’s say that hypothetically everything has been discovered.  Will it stay discovered?  Imagine this: the apocalypse happens and the human race is destroyed.  Boats rust in ports, maps rot in libraries.  Knowledge of all things “known” blows away with the ash of a forgotten civilization.  Earth has been undiscovered, only for a new race to build a boat and rediscover it.

The Known and the Unknown

On the first day of class we looked at an early map that depicted the world as the explorers of the 1400s saw and knew it. North America and South America were just little slivers of land because much of it was still unexplored and ‘unknown’. Additionally, North and South America were labeled “Americas” after the explorer—Amerigo Vespucci—that discovered them. The two continents became known as North and South America because they were first mapped as such. In this way, mapping is very subjective, depending on who is creating the map and who is making it ‘known’.

This ties in with what Saramago brings up about mapping and what it means to be ‘known’. The man in his story is searching for an unknown island. However, almost every person that the man encounters tells him that there are no more unknown islands because they are all on the maps. Such statements imply that they believe that something is only ‘known’ if it is on a map. Like maps, I think that what people believe is ‘known’ is also subjective. In his dream, the man creates an island in his head that only he knows. In every person’s head there is a different conceptualization of the known and unknown things of the world, beyond strictly the physical.

Mapping Humanity

When we began the class, we explored what a “map” is. At first we deferred to our cultural understanding of a map as a physical object representative of other physical objects. Records of space and travel: reminders of what we can see. However, as we’ve read Jorge Luis Borges’s stories of Tlon and Uqbar, we’ve begun to shift more into the mindset that maps are representations of more abstract ideas—even of who we are.

The world of Tlon is constructed so that an object’s authenticity is determined by each individual’s perception. One person of Tlon may choose to see an object, and thus it is real to that individual, but another person may perceive the object differently or not at all, changing the identity of the object. In this world, there is no objective truth, and so reality is different per individual.

This starkly contrasts with our materialistic view of the world—it breaks from how we understand “the real” and how lenient we are with different viewpoints. We have general definitions of how to understand different objects; our culture thrives on categorizing everything from people to objects.

In the context of our physical and materialist society compared to that of Tlon, it is interesting to question how we think about ourselves. How do we determine what is “real” about us, and who defines what it means to be human?

Bringing this train of thought back to our study of maps, we also have discussed how maps help us understand what we see and what we think of ourselves. We use them to categorize and organize the world around us, and to record what we believe to be real and true. We talked in class about how maps can be anything—and that idea reminded me of the film Ex Machina, which explores the humanity (and essentially the reality) of a man-made, artificially intelligent being. To me, this film supports the idea that we are still mapping, or trying to map, ourselves as humans. The machine’s creator in the film must make this artificially intelligent machine using parts, essentially following directions to re-create his own perception of how humans work. Joining this idea with our discussion of subjective identity, I found it interesting to think about how and when a human replica is considered to be a real representation of a person. Could the machine be a human in the eyes of some individuals, but completely inhuman to others? What makes a person a real person? To answer that I think we’d have to have some Tlon-level idealism.

José Saramago: The Tale Of The Unknown Island

José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unkown Island has strong religious overtones and connections to the Bible.

The first one that comes to mind is the king, who can be viewed as God. Towards the beginning of the story many people ask him for favors, yet they never see him in person or speak to him directly. His will can be seen only through his bureaucracy of secretaries and the cleaning woman. The king’s bureaucracy is what the people only interact with, yet they still continue to believe and seek favors from the king. There is clearly an allegory here. I view the bureaucracy of the king similarly to the Catholic Church or some other large religious institution that people interact with to seek salvation or guidance in matters of the unknown. It is not until the man asking for the boat comes along that there is finally an actual audience with the king.

On page 12 the king tells the man that he owns all the boats, and he responds by saying, “With-out them you’re nothing, whereas, without you, they can still set sail.” The man who is responding to the king about his true ownership of all the boats is really trying to convey a message of secularization or even atheism. The idea here is that the king (God) doesn’t exist without the boats (people’s faith in God), yet these boats (people) are still able to exist without the king (God) existing. Essentially the king has so much power due to all of the boats he owns; God gets all of his power from all the minds of the people that worship him.

The last religious connection is specifically towards the story of Noah’s Ark. Towards the end of The Tale of the Unknown Island the man seems to see many different species of animals in and on the boat along with a group of women as numerous as their male counterparts who are sailors on the boat. Noah’s Ark also had this same idea of many different species of animals alongside enough humans to repopulate the earth after a flood. It is hard to tell if José Samargo was intentionally convening religious overtones in his story, but I think it is worth mentioning.

Maps as an Expression of Identity

We often think of maps as a physical representation of an area or land, and in those maps, there are features such as cities, rivers, and roads that are drawn for a specific purpose. However, we can also think of maps and the process of mapping in the context of identity. In the process of map making, the maker has countless decisions to make regarding the things she wants to put on the map, and through this process, the map acquires its own distinct identity, imparted by its creator. For instance, in Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, the author tells and illustrates the discovery of an imaginary world, Tlon, a world unlike the world we currently live in. In fact, Tlon is built upon the assumption of George Berkeley’s famous idea of immaterialism, which essentially states that the physical world is only as truthful as our own perceptions. In other words, the identity of Tlon rests upon human ideals and beliefs, while ours on the physicality of materialistic objects. Thus in Tlon, something exists because it is perceived to exist, while on Earth, something exists because of its physical properties. Seen in this light, a copper coin will always be just that in our eyes, but to the natives of Tlon, a copper coin may exist only to some. Then, the map maker who somehow manages to make a map of this seemingly incomprehensible world must also capture, no matter how slight, its immaterialistic nature. As such, another maker illustrating the map of Tlon will have a different representation of this nature. This difference in representation can also be a result of the processes of map making. Each map maker attempting to map Tlon will have a different journey, and as a result, each will impart a different identity onto the maps, because each maker perceives the world of Tlon differently. Because the world of Tlon changes according to one’s perception, and because the builders of Tlon believe in immaterialism, there is no objective reality, and thus each map will have its own identity, representing its own reality.

Another instance of where subjective idealism, or immaterialism, plays out is when Borges describes one of the imaginary languages existed in Tlon. This language, unlike English, does not have verb as its basic unit, “but the monosyballic adjective.” For instance, a Tlon native would call the moon a “round airy-light on dark” or “pale-orange-of-the-sky.” Seen in this perspective, we can call the moon in an indefinite number of ways. In a world where nouns are constantly changed and discarded, where there is no definite way to describe a physical object, there can be no objective truth. In essence, the world of Tlon resides on perceptions, and because an object can be perceived and named with numerous adjectives, Tlon constantly changes according to an individual’s perception. As a result, without objective truth, no objective reality exists.  Following this line of logic, maps made at different times and places exist as different objects, and because they are different objects, they can then acquire their own identity. This phenomenon then raises an interesting philosophical question: If physical objects can acquire their own unique identity when argued from the perspective of subjective idealism, can objects in our world (where the concept of materialism dominates) do the same, or are they just “objects?”