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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Real Places

Last week, The Atlantic ran a really interesting article about what constitutes the "real" version of a place. This got me thinking about the classic moment in Jorge Luis Borges' On Exactitude in Science when the cartographers of an empire become so obsessed with creating the perfect map that they end up making a map with a one-to-one ratio.

"In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters.

In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; and in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography."

This quote, as well as the general idea of there being a difference between the map and the territory, is used exstensively in Infinite Jest as well as several other works of fiction. In fact, it seems obsession over the meaning of place is a bit of a postmodern fixation. And it should be, because place is so important to good fiction. Understanding a place, revealing a place, capturing the essence of a place.

But what do these ideas mean? Or is the idea of place essentially meaningless? Is place nothing more than a series of unquantifiable associations that build on each other to give us the sense of somewhere?

Lane Wallace in her article attempts to analyze these questions, though it seems to me that they need to be answered on an individual level, by each writer as they try to capture the scenery and atmosphere around their characters. Still, the article is helpful and well worth reading.

You can read it here.