Please imagine that you are sitting in a classroom in Greenland, a country that has been radically changing in size and shape since the invention of standardized world maps. Gustavus Mercator's map of 1569, the first complete spherical projection on to a flat surface, and still the most used map in the world, shows Greenland as being nine times larger than South America. On the Van der Grinten projection--the Mercator map's successor--used by the National Geographical Society until 1988, Greenland is 554% larger than actual size. On the Robinson projection of the world, currently in use, it is now only 160% larger than it should be. As you look around the classroom you can see that the pale yellow walls are bare except for three objects: a four-color map of the world labeled in Swedish, using the Van der Grinten projection; a round 24-hour clock with black Arabic numerals on a white face; and a blackboard with the letters of the English alphabet in upper and lower case, neatly painted by hand in script at the top.
The map of space is familiar in its wild variations, maniacally divided into hundreds of different zones, classified by climate, topography & political affiliation. The ancient battlefields of 100 ideologies, 1,000 tyrants, mark the ever-changing borders of nations. It is a map of the past. Two thirds of the map is empty--water in frozen and liquid form. In these areas we have always found ourselves in transition or in stasis; space that is too fluid, or not fluid enough, so we leave it blank.
The map of time is completely without differentiation, divided into identical fixed moments that robotically repeat themselves over and over again. The map of space is full. The map of time is empty. The clock does not have sections for despair or love, the passions that discipline our hours. Happiness does not have it's share of time--ochre archipelagos, speckling purple-blue oceans of sorrow. Care is not etched in the dark blue districts of memory. The conical geography of time, the future unknown, the past a labyrinth of contradictions remains unmapped. Time is also both too fluid and too frozen; always moving on and always returning on itself. Faced with this contradiction, our powers of description have failed us. We map only the present; the passing seconds, minutes, hours.
The map of language is a tool kit, each letter having a use, a purpose. Together they are a labile map, forming to the mouth and from the mouth--so to the hand. This map is neither full nor empty, its components orbit each other. The parts are useless without the whole, but together, they are builders, workers, soldiers and propaganda-makers. Happy moons around a useful star. The maps reflect their makers. We desire space. We fear time. We are happy when we are working together, despairing when we are alone. The maps should be inextricably bound together--time is meaningless without space, language exists only in time, but they have long ago been separated by a cultural act of will. In Persia, the measurement of distance was once the 'parasang': a day's walk, at your own pace. Now, it is the mile, the same distance at any pace. But of course we know that the maps, the measurements and the mileage cannot shield us from the truth. We can always be found. Above us, inside us and around us, other, greater atlases, map and unmap us at every moment. This is Greenland's message to every border post. You are provisional, the frontier you guard can disappear at a moment's notice, on the whim of a distant and imperial cartographer.
Please continue to imagine that you are still in the classroom, looking up at the ceiling. Far above you in the darkness above the atmosphere, is another map not of human devising. Set against a rigging of glittering abstractions, a fretwork of scattered memories, is a firmament of unforged angels. We have, in our usual way, named them all. A giant serpent with a lamb standing on its back meets you first. Next to them stand some other peculiar characters: a turbaned man; a crowned, seated woman; a giraffe; a naked woman in chains; a large fish; an enormous black bear; a tree with two crowns on its branches; a pair of twins; a white bull; a small, friendly dog; a mustachioed man, running to fat, dressed as if for an antique war; and a unicorn close to another, larger, less friendly dog. On the other side of the world, the cast of characters continues: a white winged horse; a fully rigged sailing ship, possibly a galleon; a peacock; a chameleon; a giant bee; a toucan, a floating triangle; a wreath, a flaming altar, a river, a cockerel, a burning cross, a phoenix, a giant sea monster, various species of fish and birds, a man with the body of a horse, a goat with the body of a fish, a leopard and a young man holding the severed head of a woman whose hair is made of snakes. In the spaces between them are still more figures, filling up the darkness, the negative space. The black constellations : the hanged man, the Golem, the pentacle, the axe, the flower and the fruit, the burning book and the shattered globe, the wish and the manticore. The shattered tower, the devil and the golden ring. They are all up there, our gods and nightmares, turning and turning as the celestial map, the astronomical clock, marks off the passing of time and the making of space.
Please remain seated. Look at your hands, your skin. Look closer at the ridges, the channels, the pores and scars, the landscape of experience. You are a walking continent , unfurled like a sail. As you are looking at your hands, one of your citizens, too small for your eyes, is fleeing for it's life. A brown and white egg shape with no discernible head or tail, desperately escaping across your surface, anchored only by thousands of tiny hooks. Behind it staggers it's pursuer with the eager air of a debt collector. This one resembles the insides of a human being, disemboweled, dipped in amber and then reassembled in the wrong order, six scaled legs drunkenly carrying a semi-transparent sac, where dark green and brown forms can be seen, squirming against an infinitely complex web. Bobbing on it's head, tipped like the crown of a demented potentate, rides a violet & green helical cone. A tiny, flea-like extension from the rider burrows into the yielding skin of it's victim, scrabbling and scratching. The pieces come away in a hundred bloody places, falling like autumn leaves, on to the furrowed landscape of your skin.
There is an identical master map inside every cell of skin, of your entire body. But every cell looks and behaves uniquely. They are all reading different parts of the map. Deep inside you, another unknown and agile geography is constantly unfolding. Towers of gray flesh with balustrades and filaments growing from them, reach out to other towers, never quite touching. Between them, where the spokes almost touch, there is an occasional flash of luminous green light. Fevered motion surrounds the artifacts of an ancient and malevolent ceremony. Dark purple-red dome shaped lobes, glistening as they turn to conceal the soft secrets beneath . They swell, filling with blood as they pulse against the webs drifting across them in a knotted embroidery of abomination. Jet black ridged turrets of velvety smooth material, arranged in the millions inside a giant bowl , aim at a giant lens floating far above them. The lens twists softly in the air, adjusting it's shape. Around it, bridges laminated from layer upon layer of bony material, ridged and channeled, are suspended in an arched and heaving chamber.
And inside every atom, another, final map , the mirror of the celestial map turning far above. At first you can see nothing, then a subtle flickering , half in, half out of existence. A sudden cooling in the firmament, as fugitive heels are snagged and angels tamed. Wings of fire are extinguished, frozen and limned in ice. From seven heavens to seven crystals. Tiled across an invisible grid, geometric shapes are laid out, iron red polyhedrons, sulfurous yellow dodecahedrons, sky blue icosahedrons, ringed with coils of gold. Hunched within each flashing polygon, a shape can dimly be made out. A two headed lion, a swan, a serpent, . A hooded hierophant and a man with the head of a lion. A creature covered in eyes, burning with a scarlet flame ; six wings beating at it's back, brandishing a flaming sword. An old man, crowned as a king, with a raven perched on his hand.
The angels sleep, geometry veiled in frozen smoke. Their outlines are blurry with nacreous light, as radiant spokes of blue and white energy flare briefly between them, forming wheels, chariots, gyroscopes of power. They burn with a heatless, silent flame, electrons skipping from ring to golden ring, as far above them, their counterparts turn time into space.