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?”

Borges: Identity, Objects, and Realism

In Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, the author tells of a fanciful world that he has named ‘Tlön.’ He goes into great depths telling of this world’s  languages, philosophical beliefs, and strange workings, through which he provides a convincing description of a nonexistent society. One of the more interesting observations to me was the correlation between the existence of objects and their identities and realities. Borges presents a short anecdote about discovered coins, where 9 are lost and then subsequently found and taken by three different people on three difference occasions – person Y who takes four coins, Z who takes three, and X who takes two. The story thens serves to challenge the common assumption – that each took a certain amount of the nine coins, and that after these three occasions, zero coins remained from the original sum of nine. There is no evidence in the story to suggest that these are in fact the original nine coins, and that each person took and kept different coins from the others. Borges then calls into question even the simple identity of a ‘coin.’ A coin is labelled as such because it is identical – or at least highly similar – to other coins, and so all of these objects are given the same label, or noun. Borges proposes that “if equality implies identity, one would also have to admit that the nine coins are one.” In this way, the author interestingly calls into the question common assumptions about nouns and their identities, especially as they relate to story-telling.

Borges again questions the reality of identification of objects by proposing another situation, in which two people look for a single pencil. One finds the pencil in question. The second finds another pencil and believes it to be the pencil for which he or she was searching. This, then, becomes his reality: a pencil that is no less real than what he was expecting. A question of reality then arises – if both believe the pencil to be the ‘correct’ pencil, are there now two correct pencils? Borges argues (with a sense of humor) that this means that lost objects are often duplicated.

Borges ends his story with an almost sad observation – that oftentimes, things lose their details (and eventually their reality) when they are forgotten. This echoes ideas of memory – the older a memory, the less vivid it is to the person who remembers it. How are we to know that objects are any different, if we cannot physically see that they are not indeed eroded in some way? Borges closes the story of Tlön by furthering this idea, saying “at times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.”

Saramago-The limiting nature of the map

While the map is a powerful tool that consolidates spatial knowledge into an accessible form, it often represents an incomplete picture of a geographical region. In “The Tale of the Unknown Island,” Saramago describes the limiting nature of the map–that is, despite the map’s state as a perpetually incomplete document, it is often given total authority over a space. For example, when the protagonist of the story requests a boat from the king with the goal of discovering an unknown island, the king wonders why this voyage is necessary. He tells the man, “There are no more unknown islands… They’re all on the maps” (Saramago 11). The king’s conception of the world relies solely on its representation in map form. His knowledge is confined within the bounds of the “reprint.” In this way, the map becomes a hindrance to discovery and imagination.