Mistaking the Map for the Territory

I got a new camera a few weekends ago–the most serious camera I’ve ever owned. I didn’t get a chance to put it through its paces right away (though I’ve since found that I’m pleased so far with its compact, solid feel and its performance in low light, and after a whole day with it, I’ve found it a significant upgrade from my previous camera). As I often do with a new pursuit, especially if I have some free time but limited access to that pursuit, I read a lot about this new camera, the Micro Four Thirds system, lenses I might get, and anything else that might help orient me. In the course of my lexical wanderings, I came across this in the review of a lens of interest, discussing the notion that software correction of lens aberrations might be “cheating”:

…film camera lenses were always properly corrected optically, so surely the use of software to achieve the same effect is simply cost-cutting, and therefore somehow “cheating.”

We think this is fundamentally the wrong way to look at it. In photography, what ultimately counts is the final image – the means to get there is relatively unimportant.

To assess a photograph based on the different ways in which a camera might generate the same image rather than based on the image itself is to mistake the map for the territory, as is seeking satisfaction in reading about camera equipment rather than taking pictures. I first encountered the phrase “mistaking the map for the territory” in an academic setting, most likely graduate school, but I’ve come across it in other contexts as well, most recently in discussions of Buddhism, where it’s sometimes used as a trope suggesting the difference between generally characterized and specifically characterized phenomena. It’s based on the recognition that a map is a distortion of the territory it describes, in that it abbreviates and excludes. If it didn’t, it would be the territory itself. The map may be used to determine how best to navigate the territory, but the navigation actually occurs in the territory. A map is judged relative to the territory; the territory isn’t found complete or deficient based on the map.

This doesn’t mean that maps aren’t incredibly useful. Their compression makes them far more suitable for carrying around in a jacket pocket or glove compartment than the city of Venice of the U.S. interstate highway system would be. Yet their limitations must be understood if they’re to be used properly. We must know that one inch on the map is a mile in the territory, and that we won’t be able to see on the map what the gas station at which we’re to turn will look like. But precisely because they’re so useful and, given their abstraction, so much easier to manage, maps often come to replace in our experience the territory they’re meant to represent. If our map is good enough that the dissonance we experience as a result of treating it as the territory it represents is manageable, we may cease to engage with the territory entirely. This could lead to us following the directions provided by our GPS navigation system into a lake. Or it may lead to the worst sorts of fundamentalism.

Schools of thought, belief systems, and the like are more sophisticated maps of less tangible, but no less real, territories. Isaac Newton provided one map of the world that was suffcient to get us through the industrial revolution and to the moon. Albert Einstein provided another that proved more accurate on a smaller scale, which is taking us through and beyond the information revolution; and scientists are seeking still more precise maps. But that process will never lead to the truth, in the sense of getting beyond the map to the territory. As long as these efforts yield descriptions, they cannot be that which is described. Maps do not become the territory, so science will only ever be able to approach the truth asymptotically.

I’ve recently been reading several of Philip Roth‘s books, including the Zuckerman Bound trilogy and epilogue, The Counterlife, and The Facts. It has been fascinating to read those books in chronological order and watch Roth create Nathan Zuckerman, develop him as a character, and, at the point when he becomes more real to the author than Roth himself, flail at (and even toy with killing) him and then try to flee from him into autobiography. You can see Roth discover and revel in his power of creation, much as Cervantes did in the second half of Don Quixote, but you can also see him recoil from the abyss just beyond that creativity, of which Hamlet could have told us, had he but time. At the end of The Counterlife, Zuckerman claims, in essence, that there are only maps, or that maps are all that we might know of one another and ourselves, which for him, comes to the same thing. Roth begins his next book, the autobiographical The Facts, with a letter to Zuckerman speculating about the causes of the breakdown (or “crack-up,” as he puts it) that Roth suffered after he finished writing The Counterlife. News of that breakdown came as no surprise to me, having just finished reading it. In the course of The Facts, he fails to find a satisfying grip on himself in the allegedly straightforward realm of autobiography. He seems only to find a map of the territory of himself, leaving us with a fairly uninteresting and un-Roth-like tale. And in the letter to Roth from Zuckerman that serves as the book’s afterword, Zuckerman tells Roth as much, and it seems that Roth is hopelessly lost in his maps. I look forward to reading on through his oeuvre to find out where this leads.

The writing most susceptible to this sort of misreading is allegory. Not only is allegory, like all writing, a map, but it’s a map of a map, a generalization of a generalization. It seeks not just to compress one set of events into a tale, but to compress the common events of a whole set of possible tales into a single tale. Only gross misunderstanding and considerable suffering can come from a literal reading of something so distorted, as is demonstrated by all of the fundamentalisms with which we’re beset. I don’t know that anything beyond simple instructions can be read literally, but I’m certain that scripture, from Abrahamic to Darwinian to Freudian, cannot be. I know of no better measure of intellectual maturity than the ability to realize that insight.

Lilacs in the Waste Land

In the summer of 2000, in the midst of the bike trip that began the ongoing negotiation with emotional health in which I am still embroiled, I found myself in Århus, Denmark in the rain. Though it was early July, the rain had followed us all through Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, and continued to dog us across Denmark. This didn’t help my fragile emotional state. I had somewhat bizarrely chosen to carry the 768 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow with me in the very limited panniers in which I also had to carry two weeks of clothing and toiletries. Though I did get an odd pleasure from reading about the flights of V-2 rockets from the Low Countries toward London as I flew the opposite direction through that same airspace, it wasn’t a practical decision. The book was bulky, and it also left me with only a single option for reading, a sort of reading that demanded more attention than I generally had available (though I do fondly remember reading a section while sitting by myself in an outdoor restaurant on Ærø on one of our few sunny days). And thus in the rain in Århus, I went into an English-language bookstore looking for options. There I found editions of The Tempest and T. S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land and other poems. I skimmed “The Waste Land” and then set it aside in favor of The Tempest, and hadn’t picked it up since.

Until last week, when the BBC’s In Our Time did a program (or programme) on “The Waste Land and Modernity.” I picked the poem up again, and read quickly through it. Except for the section alluding to Dante’s Inferno, which reminded me of nothing so much as The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” and the opening images of the comforts of winter and the pains of spring, which I suspected were meant more ironically than I took them, I couldn’t make much of it. So I consulted Harold Bloom as I often do on these matters. He first has this to say of Eliot:

I set aside Eliot’s verse plays, which are scarcely stageable or readable, and his criticism, despite its historical importance. As for what would now be called his cultural criticism, I grimace and pass by. There remains his anti-Semitism, which is very winning, if you happen to be an anti-Semite; if not, not.

Having disposed of so much of Eliot’s oeuvre, he makes the helpful suggestion that Eliot’s poetry might be most profitably read as anxiously influenced by Whitman, with “The Waste Land” being particularly influenced by “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I read the Whitman poem, re-read “The Waste Land,” and I’m now listening to the BBC program (which two-thirds of the way through, hasn’t yet mentioned Whitman), and I suggest that you do the same. ‘Tis a profitable expenditure of an hour or two, and it’s all free.

Serenity Now

Last night, the night of the winter solstice, I flipped open my copy of John Ashbery‘s Notes from the Air, pretty much at random, to “And the Stars Were Shining,” which begins thus:

It was the solstice, and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog.
The stars were still out in the field,
and the child prostitutes plied their trade,
the only happy ones, having learned how unhappiness sticks
and will not risk being being traded in for a song or a balloon.
Christmas decorations were getting crumpled in offices
by staffers slumped at their video terminals,
and dismay articulated otherness in orphan asylums
where the coffee percolates eternally, and God is not light
but God, as mysterious to Himself as we are to Him.

This stanza is as apt a summary of the ambivalences and contradictions of this season as I’ve seen. In ten lines, it wraps up the innocence and enthusiasm, the commerce and cynicism, the light in darkness and resilience in adversity, and, of course, the estrangement from God. But today, on Festivus, it also occurs to me that this literate airing of grievances could, in some alternate universe, be to this holiday what “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or A Christmas Carol has been to Christmas.

Despite my history with it, I’m actually comfortable with Christmas this year. I’m looking forward to the time off I have coming up and to seeing my family on Christmas day. Despite my ongoing medical adventures and the apparent impending collapse of Western civilization, I find myself swept up in a feeling of well-being–not that I don’t also feel anxious or overwhelmed as well. I hope you’re all facing 2009 with some of that same sense of well-being.

The Comedy of Reality

Last Sunday evening, still fretting over an apparent relapse in my ostensibly healing ear, I watched the HBO/BBC production of As You Like It. It was a wonderful choice for that moment, offering a convincing portrayal of a reality where all may be right and all difficulties may be overcome. And the center of this enchantment, its conductor, is Rosalind, who was well played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and about whom Harold Bloom offers this insight:

We cannot imagine Rosalind… in tragedy, because, as I have noted, she seems not to be subject to dramatic irony, her mastery of perspective being so absolute.

And by “dramatic irony,” Bloom means:

Shakespeare makes even Falstaff and Hamlet victims, to some degree, of dramatic irony; we are afforded a few perspectives that are not available either to the greatest of comic protagonists or to the most troubled of tragic heroes. Rosalind is unique in Shakespeare, perhaps indeed in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective that she herself does not anticipate and share.

This suggests a convergence of knowledge and bliss to which I aspire. For so much of my life, my intelligence, though often useful, has seemed to lead me away from happiness. I was first attracted to Buddhism as a practice in part because it suggests that with sufficient diligence and wisdom, we can reason our way to happiness. I can’t yet claim to have experienced this in any significant way, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s possible, and this reading of Rosalind offers further support to this view. Our lives are tragic because we haven’t attained the perspective necessary to experience the ultimate reality of life as comic. I suffer not because I know too much, but because I know too little, and the path to enlightenment runs not through the comfort of distraction or denial, but through the exertion of unflinching witness.

How to Read Thomas Pynchon

In the course of an e-mail conversation earlier this summer, I managed to convince a dear family friend (my mother’s college roommate, who bears the charming sobriquet of “Auntie Roomie”) to read some Thomas Pynchon. I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever convinced anyone to follow me down this particular rabbit hole, and I didn’t even try that hard–I wish I could remember the particular incantation that proved effective. The first thing she asked me after deciding to take up this burden was where she should start. I told her to start with The Crying of Lot 49, and have since been considering where to go from there. I think I’ve settled on the ideal path through the novels, and have embarked on it myself:

  1. The Crying of Lot 49: His second novel is the tightest (at a little over a hundred pages) and most accessible, but it still gives you a sense of the range and depth of Pynchon’s obsessions. It’s also one of only two of his novels largely set in the era during which it was written, the early 1960s in this case, and is the first of the two “Mucho” Maas novels. Having invested not too many hours in finishing this book, you’ll know for sure whether or not you’d like to continue.

  2. Vineland: A sort of sequel to The Crying of Lot 49, this is probably the least of his novels, but still quite worthy of exploration. It’s the second of the “Mucho” Maas novels, and like its predecessor, it’s set largely in the era it was written, though this time that era is the 1980s. It can also be seen as his retrospective telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four (his introduction to which is brilliant) with the unsettling twist that Big Brother proved unnecessary.

  3. Mason & Dixon: This is the chronological beginning of his alternate history (and the history of the Bodine family, which is only tangentially referred to here), though it was written late in his career. It’s a sprawling retelling of the story of the surveyors who marked the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland that came to be identified with the division between North and South. Though this wasn’t written in the era that it portrays, it reads as though it was, complete with colonial American spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It’s a masterpiece in every sense.

  4. Against the Day: His last, and longest, novel to date, this is set between the 1890s and the end of the First World War. It feels very much like a thematic summation, though read in this order, it can also be seen as setting the stage for the disintegration of civilization portrayed in the next two novels in this list (and advancing the Bodine family saga, though again only in passing). By no means universally acclaimed, it is, after a couple of readings, my favorite of his novels. It seems to me to be much more a space to be inhabited than a book to be read, and I miss it when I’m not reading it.

  5. V.: His first novel, its telling mostly brackets the Second World War, with one episode set in the Siege of Malta. It brings the Bodine family more to the fore in the person of “Pig” Bodine, who will prove to be Pynchon’s Falstaff, though more like the Merry Wives of Windsor version in this case. It’s Pynchon’s first attempt to pull together his simultaneous fascinations with high and low, American and European, civilized and barbarian, comic and tragic, romantic and classical. It ultimately succeeds, and must have seemed astonishing without knowing what would follow, but subsequent attempts have been more polished and compelling.

  6. Gravity’s Rainbow: Widely considered his defining work, it is certainly the densest and most challenging of his novels. It’s set almost entirely during the Second World War, and it leaves the reader with nothing to hold on to or believe in, fully grown and facing the abyss, but it gives us the full Henry V version of “Pig” Bodine as company and exemplar. This is the novel I read first, but if I had it to do over again, it would be where I finished.

Looking this list over, I’m left wondering what the Bodine family was up to during the nineteenth century, but given the summary nature of Against the Day and Pynchon’s advanced age, I fear we won’t find out.


I just read through Nicholson Baker‘s Human Smoke. It’s an unlikely page-turner, but it is a page-turner. It is, as its subtitle claims, an account of the beginnings of World War II and, Baker feels, the end of civilization. Many writers have assumed that civilization ended at some point in the twentieth century, and each has advanced his or her candidate moment or event. In Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (or one of his characters) suggests the beginning of World War I. But Baker seems to mean something specific by the phrase “the end of civilization.” What he draws attention to over and over again throughout the book is the way in which World War II was significantly, perhaps even primarily, fought by armed forces against civilians, starting with Great Britain’s blockade of much of continental Europe and terror bombing of German cities, continuing through Germany’s Blitz of British cities and, of course, the Holocaust, and culminating in the United States’ firebombing of Tokyo and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Baker clearly means this book to be a provocation, and he arranges his material to make his point, yet he manages to maintain an even, almost flat tone while marshaling his ultimately persuasive argument. His method is a sort of factual pointillism, stringing together short entries (most about a paragraph long, with none more than two pages) in strict chronological order, starting at the end of the nineteenth century and ending at the end of 1941. It proves addictive, pulling the reader along entry after entry. And as dry as it might sound, it conveys a disconcerting sense of immediacy and intimacy. On finishing the book, I felt sort of like I’d lived through that time (admittedly at some remove) and knew many of the central players as people I’d met, rather than as icons or historical figures. And by and large, they’re not the historical figures I expected. This is a deliberately, patiently, and persistently revisionist book. Herbert Hoover is a tireless, faintly heroic advocate for the welfare of the starving masses of Europe; Franklin Roosevelt is a Machiavellian anti-Semite; Winston Churchill is a dangerously charismatic sociopath; and Hitler, well, Hitler is still Hitler, but somehow more plausible. Having recently finished Dante‘s Inferno, I couldn’t help but picture Churchill and Hitler below us now in the ninth circle, in the ice up to their necks next to Ugolino and Ruggieri, with Churchill gnawing Hitler’s head for all eternity.

This book also suggests a different perspective from which to view our current misadventure in Iraq. From this perspective, the machinations that the Bush and Blair governments went through to get us into it, as ham-fisted as they undeniably were, were nowhere near as bloodthirsty or plainly Rube Goldbergesque as what the Churchill and Roosevelt governments went through to get us into war with Germany and Japan. The disadvantage under which our current leaders labor is the increased transparency allowed by advances in communications and related technologies. Ever since, say, Vietnam, it has been harder and harder to unify populations behind war efforts, and it has been harder and harder to conduct those efforts with the brutality that war seems to be require for success. And on the whole, that’s probably a good thing.

Reading John Ashbery

I’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses three times, and after the third reading, I was even able to offer independently formed (if perhaps not original) ideas and opinions about it. I write this not to brag (there are, after all, those who have been able to offer independently formed and startlingly original ideas and opinions about it after only one reading), but to claim that I can at least manage a common reader’s grappling with difficult literature. I can be dogged and have even seen my doggedness rewarded. I can read without needing to know what the writer means, what happened, or what the point is. I can appreciate aesthetics on their own terms, without being improved by the experience. But I still have no idea how to read John Ashbery.

For reasons that I’d be hard pressed to identify, let alone justify, I’ve been drawn to read John Ashbery’s poetry. I have over a dozen of his books at this point, and I get every new one as it’s published. I flip through them, read a few poems, am overcome with the feeling a small child might have watching his first Catholic Mass, that unverifiable intuition that something profound but ineffable is happening, and set it aside for a later that never seems to come. Prose has always resonated more deeply with me than poetry. If language is a map of experience, I’m more comfortable when the experience, however indirectly and elaborately it might be mapped, is more objective. But poetry is often less to do with the depth of the experience mapped or the degree to which the experience is conveyed by its map, and more to do with the aesthetics of the map for its own sake. Especially in the last century or so, poetry tends to map more subjective experience, even the experience of mapping. But even considering all of those possibilities, it’s still hard to know quite what Ashbery is up to.

In a recent attempt to revisit this question, I read Helen Vendler‘s Invisible Listeners, which discusses the ways in which the lyrics of George Herbert, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery seek to portray and even create an intimacy with one who isn’t present. It’s a fascinating and well-argued thesis that seems to offer more to understanding Herbert (with whom I wasn’t familiar, but about whom I’m now curious) and Whitman than Ashbery. But in the conclusion of her chapter on Ashbery, she offers this: “For Ashbery, one of the dilemmas of [the late twentieth-century] social order as he encountered it in youth was the quarrel among his painter-friends between figurative realism and abstract expressionism (corresponding to the quarrel between mimesis and surrealism in poetry).” Though not central to her discussion, I found this suggestion extremely helpful.

When read aloud, most of Ashbery’s poems sound superficially like prose or speech. They have familiar, even comfortable tones, rhythms, and structures. They tend not to use arcane words or unusual phrasings, and often use commonplace idioms and sayings. In that sense, they’re figurative realism—they look like familiar maps. But read more closely, what seemed familiar becomes disorienting. The familiar words, phrases, idioms, and sayings don’t quite come together into something we can recognize. And in that sense, his poems are abstract expressionism—though well rendered, they’re not maps of any actual experience. This is nicely illustrated by the first two stanzas of his “Cantilever“:

I knew we should have stopped back there
by the pudding station
but the pudding people were so—well—
full of themselves.

The Sphinx didn’t want us to come this far
even though we answered her questions
and threw in a bonus answer: “As honey is to the jaguar.”

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by reading any of these images as metaphors for something else. I don’t think that pudding is, say, oil, and this poem is somehow an explication of the Middle East. As convincing as it is as a map, I don’t think it describes to us some as yet unexplored realm of our experience—I don’t think it’s a map of any experience at all. The first time I read this poem, I spent the next day or so trying to form a question whose answer would be “As honey is to the jaguar,” and I failed. I think that this poem is best appreciated as a map of itself, or metaphor for itself. That’s the best I can do with this or any other Ashbery poem.

They Did It Again

The Interdependence Project has posted the second issue of their dharma arts magazine, Sentient City, and once again they’ve published one of my essays. This one is called “What Should I Be When I Grow Up?” It’s a consideration of management as a mystical practice, and unlike the previous essay of mine they published, it isn’t just cobbled together from items I’d already posted here.

In this issue, Sentient City was unable to accommodate some kinds of formatting, including hyperlinks, without which I can no longer write. I strongly encourage you to read the essay, if you read it, at Sentient City (mostly because there’s so much other good stuff there to investigate), but if after having read it there you’d like to dig deeper into any of the ideas, I’ve posted a version with hyperlinks.