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Fatal Geographies


Stephen Pain

When I was studying at Herefordshire Art College I would often pop into the city cathedral and look at the medieval Mappa Mundi. This map is more of a “salvation geography” one which is not empirically correct but meant to symbolize the union of the spiritual realm and the earthly realm. Unlike our maps, the East was at the top of the map. At the centre was the spiritual and terrestrial capital of the Christian World, Jerusalem. In successive maps we find that new knowledge of the world thanks to explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and cartographers as Gerardus Mercator informed the artists, for these religious maps were above all works of art and meant to be read “spiritually.”

As the world became more known, then it was difficult to situate Paradise in a way that made sense. In the XVI century it was located at the source of the Nile. Nevertheless, there was enough belief in the old ways of looking at the world to justify the continuation of recognizable spiritual and mythical features – the science of cartography would have to wait a couple more centuries before it became more functional.

When you stand in front of the Mappa Mundi it pays to have read something about these maps and their symbolism. It is very similar to looking at an ordnance survey map and trying to figure out the code (legend) – I remember doing that in Northumberland on a school orienteering course: I looked at contours and the symbols as I tried to figure where was I?

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(from Ordnance Survey Pdf)

Both the Mappa Mundi and ordnance survey map are representations of the world, ones that help us navigate it; however the former is also a representation of a faith, a belief system which reinforces the status quo of believer and her god. When you “read” a mappa mundi you are entering another space, another “world.” In some ways our world is full of mental bubbles or umwelts. On the personal level we have mental and motor maps that help us navigate and relate to our world, such as the one cognitive scientists talk about (cf: Tolman’s “mind map”). Then there are community maps, whereby we attach meaning and significance to topography that is local. There are the ordnance survey maps and of course Google Maps which are government and corporate representations of our environment.

When I was at school I remember the old atlas had Britain in a central position and it had still many countries in pink representing the nations in the British Commonwealth. Note this business of centring the world according to the nation. China quite literally means the “Middle Kingdom.” Each tribe or nation has its own geography. Sometimes this geography is stolen. I recollect a Sri Lankan friend telling that all his nation’s geography text books had been written by the colonialists. Once Ceylon became independent it recovered its geography and became Sri Lanka. Which is correct Florence, Florenz or Firenze? The Falkland Islands are called the Malvinas by Argentina. By naming you make a claim. Imperialism was all about naming, in the same way a dog marks its territory by urinating on a tree. When you look at the Hereford Mappa Mundi you will see a wealth of detail. One does time travelling as well as wandering about in space. Felicitas Schmieder has helped us understand the method of reading these mappae mundi in her article “Geographies of Salvation: How to Read Medieval Mappae Mundi.” Peregrinations (2018).

“Since the map’s affinity to God and Creation is obvious, it should also be obvious that the mappa mundi has been “written” and must be read like the Bible and other religious texts. That is, they can be read according to the literal and spiritual sensus scripturae, or in a way that recognizes their polysemous nature, that processes them on four levels: the literal-historical, the moral-tropological, the allegorical-typological, and the anagogical-eschatological.”

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The complexity and relations in the different planes of referentiality are something akin to how we should read what I term “fatal geographies.” These are geographies that pose in a way a real existential threat to us and our planet, because they involve players who have the means to totally destroy our “worlds.” We can of course include the Western corporate geographies that have supplanted the older colonial geographies. McDonalds, Disney, Coca Cola, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al for example have their own competing geographies, their own levels. Then there is NATO and the EU etc. They all have their dangers.

But, for immediate dangers I would suggest that the three geographies and belief systems of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan represent the best examples of fatal geographies. These geographies have a telos that does not end well! Imagine placing maps on the table and they overlap. For the viewer it means nothing, but wherever they over lap represents deaths. For a better analogy in those mappae mundi that had paradise in terrestrial form, those overlaps are hells. In Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” we see his “Hitler” with a globe:

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Maps and power go together. Maybe there is a form of map mania? When we look at how two people argue over a map and directions, then consider the international disputes over territory! There are numerous territorial disputes many that have arisen from Fatal Geographies. While very rarely do ramblers in the countryside come to blows and fisticuffs over maps, there are unfortunately millions who have died over territorial disputes.

While at the University of East Anglia, my alma mater, I wrote a long essay as an undergraduate on the concept and theory of what constitutes a village. Basing my ideas upon a Polish sociologist (whose name I have sadly forgotten) and others, I concluded that until there is a threat or a natural catastrophe, a village is a collection of heterogeneous buildings. What makes a village is the common bonds between peoples and their combined reaction to say a fire or in the case of Ukraine, a war. We see courage and identification with the land and the neighbours. The same is true of quasi sovereign states such as Taiwan. Here one should apply the law of equity to territory and construct a nation status from the fact that the island has acted as a nation for a considerable period.

This is very different from forceful occupation and illegal constructions of suzerain states such as Tibet and Mongolia where the original peoples and their sovereign wills/wealth have been subsumed under imperial meta states. Resolution of disputes should not involve warfare. We are in the 21st century! Imagine neighbours arguing over a hedge and eventually arming each other! Then firing indiscriminately. It is absurd. War is absurd.

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Stephen Pain writes short stories, essays, and poetry. His writing has appeared in New Poetry, Deep South, Black Bear Review, Pen & Sword, and Kilometer Zero.

Put Us on the Map (Not that one.)

Brian's Musical Geography

Jerusalem ::: Jordi Savall

The End of the World :: Skeeter Davis

Everybody Wants To Rule The World ::: Tears For Fears

Beyond The Sea ::: Bobby Darin

Maps ::: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Kingdom Come ::: The Band

The World To Come ::: Johnny Flynn

Across The Borderline :: Ry Cooder

Jerusalema :: Master KG

When the music’s over : The Donors