Tuesday, May 10, 2011

According to a Convert

At the beginning of the semester, I was very angry. I felt there had been a bait and switch—I had thought this craft course would be a deep study on braided essays, personal essays, switching essays, literary journalism essays. Already struggling with these forms, imagine my self-righteous frustration when our lists of essays featured autotuned music videos, documentaries, atlases, a film about a plastic bag…. The Essay and Its Forms. If that didn’t mean words on a page arranged in assorted varieties, what did the word “essay” mean? It seemed to me an empty term, a phrase for anything we’d care to apply it to. And if language were so empty, why be a writer?

Ander asked me at the beginning of the class why I was so raucously against some of the forms. He asked if it was because I felt threatened. I acknowledge that it probably was. How could the dweeby words-on-page essays I created compete with an entertaining autotuned selection or a visually stimulating atlas? I was angry at the authors of these works, indignant that they could wedge in on a genre I had such strong preconceived notions.

But then, I read. I watched. I viewed. And I learned.

The Best Essay of the Year, according to a convert.

On Form:

“The two-dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and aesthetic appropriation of the world. In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down at it like a god.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 11.

“Whether an island such as --> Easter Island (100) can be considered remote is simply a matter of perspective. Those who live there, The Rapa Nui, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, ‘The navel of the world.’ Any point on the infinite globe of the Earth can become a centre.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 14.

What’s fascinating about how Judith Schalansky puts these quotes from her introduction into conversation is that her form allows her to maintain the tension of conquested control from the outsider and subjectedness of the viewer to the land’s will throughout the remainder of her essay. A great cartographer is meant to know the land in an authoritative sense, to represent exactly what’s there while also adapting the representation to communicate to the outside reader consulting the maps. Authority and possession drips from a map (case in point: you can hold and amend a map). Every map is a repackaging of reality. Yet every map is secondary to the reality. The map may lie, but even its lies cannot change the reality of the landscape—rather, the lies can change our understanding of the landscape, leaving us in even deeper ignorance and out of a sense of control. The mapmaker seeks to dictate to the land while always being dictated to by the land.

Schanlansky holds these two characteristics of the cartographer—governor vs. subject—in hand and proves that they apply equally well to the essayist. With each island we are given two maps: one, on the recto page, to look down upon like gods. The other, on the verso page, a globe that rolls to showcase the remote island as the navel of the world. One seeks control—a top down, scaled drawing of the features of the island, named and categorized by its human conquerors. The other robs us not only of our control, but also of our perspective, showing us views of this nearly-spherical Earth that we have likely not been introduced to before. (Two-dimensional depictions of a globe rarely move away from the North-South alignment, let alone the four perpendicular compass points.) These maps dialogue with one another, allowing the reader to interrogate and reevaluate—to essay—his or her understanding of place—of any place.

The form places the material in relationship with itself—two divergent expectations of the islands upheave the perspective of the reader. The mind at work with these two perspectives must attempt and reattempt to comprehend these islands. Likewise, the mind at work with this book must attempt and reattempt to comprehend our relationship with place. If Schalansky posits anything, it is that we cannot ever be 100% governor nor 100% subject. We can never 100% know nor 100% define a place. Contradiction is inherent in the attempt. Her title for the intro is a perfect example: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” An atlas, with its perpetual pursuit of control and its perpetual insufficiency mirrors this theme. The form depicts the material in a beautiful, understated, and ever-deepening way.

On Scale:

One of the pleasing components of this book is how measured the material is treated. Each island receives the same amount of representation—every island is put into relationship with another island, every island has two individualized maps, and every island has up to one page of narrative. The consistency of this scale is satisfying as it allows us to be able to experience each island both uniquely and in relationship with the others (just as every feature of a map is both unique and in relationship with the others). Further, the god’s-view maps on the recto side of the book feature a tiny scale of 5 kilometers. Every single top-down map uses this same scale, allowing for each map to be compared to another. In this way, the consistent scale of the maps allow for all of the maps to ever be in dialogue, deepening their relationship to one another.

Yet there’s much more than visual scale in this book. The project itself is one of nuanced and balanced scale—to read any one page is to encounter the entire piece’s scale, that of a whetted appetite and satiated hunger. In these maps we find intriguing stories as well as descriptive scenes. We find gaps in our knowledge as well as facts to fill in our experience of the places.
Everything is methodical, but everything leaves us wanting more. We are subjected to the limited information provided while also given so many authoritative facts (latitude and longitude, square kilometers, historic timeline, location in relationship with other islands/places) so as to feel in command of the material. The result: the scale of this project is both minute and vast.

We meet places but we meet our imaginations here too, bridging gaps in the narratives and expanding beyond the book. Schalansky says it so well: “Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits—the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired.” I believe that we can say the same for this essay—Schalansky’s wandering mind (and our own) comes to this book with a longing that will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining. Yet Atlas of Remote Islands, with its stories and balanced scale, ever welcomes us in for more. We close the book and turn back to the opening page. There’s always something new to be discovered.

There’s much more to be said about Schalansky, but her essay is so deep, uses its form so much better than this blog post uses its own, that I’d rather just recommend going out and buying your own copy. Whether you read it for the language, form, facts, or beauty, you’ll enjoy the wandering mind ever present on the page.


  1. I agree with quite a lot of this. At first, I felt like Schalansky's book was a kind of one-trick pony, but then I started looking at it as occupying a space between literary essays, a reference book (atlas), and a book-object. It seems to occupy a lonely, vagrant space between the three. Kind of like the space that Vanessa Place's Statement of Facts occupies between poetry and legal writing or the space between poetry and the newspaper that Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather seems to occupy, though the aesthetics of all three differ.

    No less, it's also worth noting that Schalansky's maps, like the text, have an odd kind of exactness. Odd in that they're accurate but telling only to a point. The maps aren't complete topographic maps because they don't have elevation legends, and the text has an almost lyric inexactitude. The events are far from simply informational--they're processed through an often emotive tone and rather lyric diction in many places.

    As if that wasn't enough to make me convinced of the book's intelligence and poignancy, there's the fact that Schalansky designed it herself. She lets us know that she designed it, and I'm left to connect her body with the material body of the book and, in some sense, the land-forms. Though, again, the cartography is only so exact. Sure, it's at a 1:125000 scale, but the preface reminds me again and again that it's an interpretation and not even the best one available. It's a conscious choice for and use of limitation.

  2. I don't know, guys. I gotta say I am pretty disappointed that Wood's "Everything Sings" didn't win. To me, it's clearly the most groundbreaking in terms of what it is essaying- not just what can be done with maps, a la Shalansky and Solnit, but redefining what a map actually *is*. To me, that's far more revolutionary than making an aesthetically pleasing atlas with intriguing stories. Don't get me wrong, I like Shalansky's book. But as I wrote in my final critique, "I believe if we value the underlying message over the flashiness of the show, then Everything Sings will win The Essay Prize." I am disappointed that others didn't appreciate how focused Wood was on essaying something very conceptual, whereas Shalansky didn't seem to be as clear and concise in her essaying of an idea. Wood writes “It’s been claimed for centuries that atlases are works of reference where you go to find facts…Admitting that atlases were narrative- that they were texts- would force the admission that maps constituted a semiological system like those of paintings or novels or poems.” Wood tells us that maps are “involved in storytelling, they’re not compendia of facts.” I guess I couldn't see that level of self-aware essaying happening in Shalansky's book. They're related in theme, for sure. Wood just seemed to take it a step further, which is why I feel he was sort of robbed of getting our collective nod. But alas (atlas!), the people have spoken. It's been real this semester. Cheers.