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Cartographic Craftsmanship, or the Social Life of Maps

When he left Lisbon in 1502, the secret agent Alberto Cantino found a way of smuggling an elegant planisphere when he left Portugal for Ferrara, probably rolled up in his suitcase, that evaded the censors of that day’s TSA. Perhaps he rolled it up his sleeve. For the planisphere–a representation of the entire surface of the world–contained relatively classified information about the discoveries in the New World of import to the Portuguese that Cantino seems to have gleaned from mapmakers in Lisbon while he was visiting, and is the first chart to show the coast of Brazil and islands known as Fortunate, and the clear path around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean:  he hoped that it was “in such high quality . . . and drawn in a manner that pleases your Excellency [è di tal sorte, e spero che tal manera piacerà a V. Exa],” suggesting the care with which the Este spy had procured the nautical chart.  I’ve discussed the aura of maps and charts in an earlier post; the delicate greens and red, and delineated shores, conjure the removed oceans with an aura of announcement, fitting new knowledge into a basic schema defined by lines of latitudes, not present in charts, as well as rhumb lines for nautical guidelines, whose points of reference were defined by a compass rose from which they radiated:

Cantino Map

The astounding accuracy of many of the coasts of this chart profited from a long tradition and protocol of nautical charting, with a peculiar manner of noting nautical expanse.  The chart reveals the discoveries of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a nautical explorer, who Cantino probably did not know.   Cabral had recently returned to Lisbon, and when Cantino arrived there, with the pretense of seeking to trade horses for the Este court, he must have sought him out on his secret mission to procure maps of the discoveries for the Este family.  The map might have copied the secret master-map the Portuguese maintained, or Padrão Real, of Portuguese discoveries; they were magnified unintentionally beautiful “Carta de navigar per le Isole novam trovate in le parte di India” which misidentified its subject, but provided the first geographic knowledge of Brazil.  But it clearly either superimposed or referenced the directional wind-roses of nautical charting, ostensibly for reading orientating directions at sea, although perhaps as befits a planisphere of the entire earth, is constructed about two “focal circles” of thirty-two points each:


The planisphere arrived in Italy as a sort of wonder of mapping multiple forms of knowledge, as well as a synthesis of expanse.  The recent 1494 Treaty noted as bisecting the Brazilian coast, had given part of the landmass known now as South America to the Portuguese monarchy which the map shows as the most exotic area it depicted–the map seems to trumpet the luxury of an area that the Portugese sovereign Jaoa II had concealed from Ferdinand I.

Isole Fortunate

How did it speak to its new audience?  The craftsmanship of an unknown Portuguese painter or cartographer may be surprising given the high stakes of its procurement from a government particularly secretive about recent discoveries in the New World.  The geographer and historian of maps George Kish described an early fifteenth-century contract for the depiction of a portolan chart, a genre of coastal mapping that developed in Europe in the early fourteenth century, that specified the involvement of both painters and mappers; the partnership seemed natural in so valuable a creation as a map or portolan chart: the hide on which it was drawn was itself grounds for the further investment in pigments and decorative motifs, as in the illustration of inhabitants of Sierra Leone.  Part of this was also because of the riches that these maps suggest in far-off lands, and part because the tradition of nautical charts was only to mention the names of ports that dot the regions’ shores, rather than their interiors–which remain blank:  other terrestrial place are limited to Jerusalem and the ports of departure and arrival, and space expanded over the seas rather than the terrestrial expanse they enclosed.



The protocols of charting are unclear, as is their orienting function.  The use of these protocols in drafting the Cantino chart may have shifted as charts gained a display value of their own and adressed audiences distinct from the commercial trading houses who earlier seem to have kept them.  Although  associated with nautical routes, charts gained a distinct display value as audiences sought to process discoveries for audiences less familiar with nautical travel, or with commercial exchanges over oceans.  In the sixteenth century, as Angelo Frabeto has shown, nautical charts gained a popularity and interest in Italian courts of central Italian courts in the mostly landlocked Romagna, near Ferrara.  The already fanciful components of nautical charting expanded in these charts, which were less dense and stark than predecessors, and suggest an early tradition of combining artifice and cartography that predate printed maps.  The map Cantino brought contained a specific treasure-chest of disjointed bits of information and lore, discontinuous but joined by being enclosed in the velvet case constituted by the map itself, from the mountains of northern Africa to the birds of Sierra Leone, and the image of the city of Jerusalem, all shown without particular care for scale.


Affrica and castles in Guinea

The genre suggests not a limited ability to consider other expanses, so much as a disinterest in picturing them.  The manuscript reproduction of these charts reflected an interest in the most recent ‘news,’ and the colored vellum  charted voyages that were not made, much as, ahistorically recalling the later uncanny adoption  the motif of the ‘wind-rose’ that defined orientations of travel or the winds, Joseph Cornell’s “Object (Roses des vents)” (1942-53); Cornell placed fragments of a map of the remote Great Australian Bight amidst shrunken coastlines that Cornell had never seen, planets that were as far away, and emblems of imaginary voyages, and the compasses that might take him there:

Rose des Vents


As Cornell’s box, the fragments of green shoreline in Brazil in Cantino’s map assemble the scattered expanse over which the Portuguese had travelled in a semblance of unity–the unity of an expanding expanse.  Whereas the fragility of all worldly phenomena–as of the crafted miniature of the universe’s expanse–a subject that was thematized in Cornell’s perverse if beautiful boxes, the fragmentary pieces of lunar or terrestrial maps serve as pivots of perspectives of viewers, as well as a nostalgia for the aspirations toward total visual knowledge that echo Cornell’s childhood and adult consumption of engravings in nineteenth century books of science.

The Cantino map expanded the protocols of nautical charting, which it combined with other forms of mapping to offer a range of curiosities couched in the surface of the map, together with convention from nautical charting of coloring the Red Sea red, or painting an exotic bestiary of parrots on Brazil’s verdant shore, and locating, crisply,  the islands’ shores themselves– although the eager cartographer magnified their own coastlines out of scale and proportions, despite his inclusion of a line of longitude and bar of scale.


Cantino selection

The expansion of a tradition of nautical charting to a hybrid form distinguishes the Cantino map, which faced a very different audience of readers once this ostensible copy of a secret map reached Italian shores.  The Este family  interest in this chart lay in how it revealed far-off lands that associated with ocean travel by the Portuguese, who had mapped islands in the Pacific beyond Cape Verde and the Azores in the early fifteenth century. When Cantino smuggled the chart to Ferrara in 1502, he saw it as completing the mission on which Ercole had sent him to procure secret information about “the new islands” discovered by the Portuguese, and the result of his discussions with several Portuguese explorers who had traveled to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia.  It was copied into new engraved maps of the Americas, and provided a protoype for the printed 1516 Carta Nautica.

The map centrally communicated, from the Portuguese perspective, the legitimacy of possessions in the New World, demaracted at the boundary line adjudicated and confirmed at Tordesillas, which leads one to imagine it derived from a seat of central authority.  Two disembodied bars of scale on the map’s surface suggest the measurement of terrestrial inter-relations, and its preparation for careful scrutiny of a studied eye.

Isole Fortunate

The Cantino map hence played with the protocols of charting.  Rather than insist on uniform coloration of the ocean, to prevent obscuring rhumb lines, but to maintain its elegance, as the cartographer colored certain regions a light green, by confining the blue paint to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and unbounded Caspian sea, the map combined a pictorial artifice with the practice of charting or representing oceanic space–the Mediterranean had its own portolan chart, and perhaps didn’t demand that its expanse be represented in a similar style.  The combination of artifice and nautical protocols exemplifies the huge expansion of the purview, as well as containing the first news of the Brazil in Italy, which was soon diffused in other charts and maps.

The Cantino chart might be measured against the sort of artifice in earlier fifteenth century charts, popular chartings of the Portuguese voyages to the African coast.  The chart that arrived in Ferrara from Seville dramatically expanded the purview,  toponomy, and perspective of nautical charts the Este  knew, to be sure, such as Grazioso Benincasa’s detailed 1494 mapping of the African shore:



Benincasa’s 1482 nautical chart densely collated costal ports but adopted the similar carefree style of decoration–probably the work of a painter–to the mythical monarchs that inhabit an imagined uncharted terrestrial expanse.  The image seems more fanciful, and designed with the desire to appeal to audiences by its  and was the culmination of a series of portolan charts and nautical atlases of the prolific Anconitan mapmaker, following his study of Mediterranean cities that from the 1460s to included western African ports, as well as mythical islands, and dense textual legends of geographic information.  Inland areas are blankly traversed by the same rhumb lines, which echo compass lines, and the truth-claims were much more limited, and land-masses probably entrusted to painters with limited first-hand knowledge of the region.  Benincasa’s chart colors the Red Sea red , too, following a tradition of charts, and Jerusalem and several biblical cities in iconic miniature.

The Cantino map offered a new way of reading the map–one which mimimized these curiosities.  For one, the thick and prominent line of longitude in the “Cantino” map has received significant attention, together with its depiction of the Fortunate Islands, Antilles, and Azores, for this defines and demarcated the new region of sovereign possession.


Line from Tordesillas and parrots



The changed social life of these maps suggests new uses of the map as a field for understanding space–perhaps less ready to note fanciful riverine paths and foreign sovereigns or kingdoms, and more to conform to criteria of inclusion.  If one considers the new circumstances of reading the portolan that arrived in Ferrara, and its use to imagine and consider space, we might offer a reading revealing more than the differences in place-names it includes, or the conventions of mapping.  Although the format of mapping seems the same, the “manner” and “quality” of the map addressed a different sort of audience, despite the common origins of its prototypes.

The aura of the map was not limited to its conventions.  The material objects of wonder from the New World that populated the Cantino map are most striking, however, in how they illustrate an early interest in items of exchange.  The unity of the portolan chart is very different, of course, because it includes the Fortunate Islands of the sovereign of Castille, as well as the Brazilian shore, and a chunk of its richly green interior, cut off from the unknown mainland and in Portuguese possession, as if to show off the charmed jewel of the new lands that the chart encompassed.  The chart’s inclusion of a disconnected shoreline of Brazil assembles a makeshift sense of unity by noting the broken fragment of the New World to the lower left, foregrounding it as both a sort of promises of new riches, and a means to stake possession of a territory by no means yet entirely concrete, the feathers of whose birds might be better known than any other aspect of the chart.

Parrots in Brazil

The chart was kept in the Este library in Modena, but stolen when anti-Austrian Modenese looted the palace in 1859.  The map remained temporarily lost, before being found later that year in curious circumstances of re-use as the folding screen or door in a sausage store or butcher shop.  (Some portolan charts became book-covers; others were cut into strips as bookmarks or otherwise recycled.)  The Cantino planisphere, reused as a screen, was temporarily stripped of its attraction as a promise of new possessions.

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Filed under cartographic accuracy, Joseph Cornell, Mapping the New World, Nautical Charts

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

image.png .

We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data