Tag Archives: nautical maps

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Plans to erect a quite cartoonish rendering of fifteen-century navigator Christopher Columbus on the banks of the Hudson River not only stripped the Genoese credited with “discovering” America of historical context: it deployed the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development constructed by Donald Trump, the property developer who would become United States President. The monumental Columbus–projected to be far larger than any statue in the Western Hemisphere–was less of an image of contact, than a heroic image of the appropriation of the New World, an odd switch in signification from the statue rising in New York harbor, holding a torch celebrating enlightenment by the global advance of Republicanism the French government in 1893, and even upstaging it with an icon of appropriation.

This Columbus, towering and monumental in relation to Manhattan, seemed almost able to assimilate the entire continent to his supremacy. The statue, never built next to Manhattan, but eventually erected on an island where Columbus set foot, appears an invitation to an exercise in masochism in the idiom of kitsch. The navigator seems far less situated in a credible historical context, than assimilated to a new mass culture of spectacle of colonization that compresses space in global space in its claims to global authority. The statue confirms the illusion of an independent actor in space, removed from any network of royal funding, international finance, the recycled image cast in Moscow dramatizes the hoary historical myth of imposing control over space single handedly–as if erasing all acknowledgement of human dignity or a colonial context.

Cristobal Colon in “The Birth of the New World” Monument in Arecibo (PR)/Lynmaris Chardon

The supremacism of Columbus’ gesture as he steers a ship on an historic rotary wheel with aplomb by one hand is an amalgam of global authority and the aesthetics of kitsch that begs for more detailed examination than it has received. Standing now at the edges of American territoriality in Puerto Rico, the monumental statue designed for the quincentenary of Columbus’ first voyage is a marginalized but potent marker of transatlantic exchange, reduced to a totem of global power and destiny.

The promised hope of placing the statue on Trump’s planned properties must have appealed to the magnate for its apparent absorption of the entire continent by a figure, gargantuan and larger than life as he sought more impressive buildings that would cement his status on an imaginary global stage. The real estate promoter, who seems to have taken it as a calling card for his own sense of personal majesty, a made-to-order monument that had, in fact, been shopped around already to American Presidents, would be welcomed onto the reclaimed land he had convinced the mayor to rezone as residential, over the objections of then-Assemblyman Jerry Nadler, not on a column, as the World’s Fair monument built to Columbus in Barcelona in 1888 of 60 meters, or the image of pillar on which Columbus stands in New York, cast in Rome for the Italian American community, hands on hip, seventy feet above the city looking to New York Harbor of 1892 where immigrant streams were arriving, but a monument that would be imposed on the far west side of Manhattan, towering above the Hudson River, hailing the land of which he assumed mastery by virtue of royal authority, an apparently freestanding statue imposing absolute mastery of space on observers, gesturing with magisterial obliviousness to his surroundings.

Of course, he looked as if he had stepped out of a comic strip, as much as a , in keeping with the cartoon-like statues of the Georgian sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, who had already accompanied Boris Yeltsin to Washington, DC to present the statue in miniature to President Bill Clinton, before Trump seems to have been offered this image that must have pleased him much as a monumental compliment on his sense of his own grandeur as a builder, a monument that he imagined might be identified with his name in the future as it dominated the skyline unlike any of the buildings he constructed or enhanced by lending his name, including Trump Tower, as a figure that, in Trump fashion, both transgressed the law and asserted it.

This Columbus was, after all, not only a kitsch figure but a father figure of the nation that Trump was being invited to assimilate to his development. As much as the notion of discovery and world-making was a Renaissance trope and trick in trade, staking claims for the Spanish King within previously uncharted territory, deploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds, the statue announces the victory of a new globalism financier by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers that aspired to total authrity. Its position materialized how the historical Columbus claimed, on October 16, 1492, that indigenous subjects would make good servants as subjects of the throne of Castile, appropriating their identity as a way o taking possession of the island of Haiti where he first disembarked, proclaiming its possession to an audience of few, “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled.” In stock phrases that vividly cemented unfurling a royal standard to the act of taking possession five renamed five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella–as an act of discovery, the statue raising one hand like Augustus over a different island seems a transnational salutation of confident appropriation, unlike any other global monument to Columbus, and far greater in size. The pedestal held a cartoonish map unscrolled at its base, atop which travel miniature ships, in an odd hybrid of the windrogse of a portolan chart, graticule of a Mercator map, and GPS screen in its current home.

What sort of map underlay its presentation to Donald J. Trump on behalf of the Russian people in 1997, in ways that unexpectedly would make the realtor a new figure on a global stage not only of real estate, but the new global networks of appropriating funds by money laundering, offshore tax evasion, as a cover for the escalation of widespread illegality in Russia of bribery, criminality, poaching, and organized crime. A decade after Trump’s first attempts to develop real estate in Moscow, and a decade before Trump began to depend on Russian and former Soviet Union financing for real estate projects in Canada and the United States, by potential money laundering, the kitschy monument Columbus offered a masquerade to grant global legitimacy to Trump and post-Soviet Russian oligarchs on a new global stage, that we can only fully appreciate today. A decade before Donald Trump, Jr. confirmed to investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets” in 2008, the statue was to arrive as Trump returned from Moscow having announced plans underway to replicate Trump Tower in Moscow, licensing his name to the renovation of the Moskva and Rossiya hotels.

Much of these transactions will long remain shadowy. But the arrival of this ostenttious monument announced Trump’s intension to expand his properties from Manhattan to a global stage, and elevate his new development as a showpiece of a global corporation.

If it is long before the Border Wall, the monument whose delivery Trump obtained quite similarly erases the experience of America’s indigenous inhabitants; its very grandiosity and spectacularity that seemed emulate Trump, if it had been made for him, rather than was, as seems to be the case, a totem that post-Soviet Russia presented to American President George H.W. Bush. Rather than suggest a voyage, or a laborious journey, the massive bronze statuary is distinguished by its immobility, rather than mobility–Columbus was a navigator, after all, and his statuary commemorates this voyage–but cast the fifteenth-century navigator in the form of a triumphal neoclassical icon of authority, on a diminished sort of ship. This imaginary Columbus, in neoclassical robes akin to the Statue of Liberty on nearby federally owned Bedloes Island, but was far removed from the romance and excitement of the voyage imagined by the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth, of adventure of the sea, if the ships were somewhat similar–

N. C. Wyeth, Beyond Uncharted Seas Columbus Finds a New World (1927)

–but rather than mastering the open seas and moving beyond charted seas, is reduced to a statement of flashy and large-limbed grandiosity, less of an adventurer than a standing figure announcing “I am here” in not a belligerent but an almost confrontational triumphal cryptic gesture.

Standing atop a pedestal that would include the map he allegedly followed, rather than mastering the elements, the figure reaches deep into a mixed bag of mythistory to declare it on the shores of the Hudson River in a place where Columbus did not, of course, ever stand, where it would have stood before setting suns, on the shores of Manhattan island. If Wyeth’s majestic illustration was made as a framable print for the National Geographic Society to sell to its members, the exclusive nature of the statue Trump believed its Georgian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, wanted installed on his newest New York development, in 1997 primarily marked his status as a developer, and ability to make a good deal with Moscow. The monument made for the presentation for the quincentennial of the “discovery” of America seemed a precedent that proclaimed the victory of the arrival of a unilineal development of a transnational economic development of real estate values, removed from any bearing on global geography, as if to celebrate a triumphal arrival of local capital.erasing all sense of cultural relativism by affirming an image of global triumph that echoed Francis Fukuyama far more than George Washington or Karl Marx. The removed kitsch of this figure of alleged patriotism provided an image of pacification of native peoples, not including any group outside of a global economy of which Trump had then. seemed emblematic.

The statuary was indeed installed in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and island that Columbus had visited, its impoverished residents of that fishing village on the outer edges of United States territoriality did not have much of a chance to resist and protest its placement, in the manner of residents of San Juan, as those of Miami Beach, Baltimore, Columbus, OH, and Ft. Lauderdale, undoubtedly taken aback by its monstrosity. Two presidents of the United States were justifiably lukewarm in accepting the gift from Moscow; the monument’s ostentatious heroism was a flat-footed poor fit with national traditions of commemorations, portraying the colonizer as a victor. But approaching Trump, during his early trips to develop Moscow properties in the mid-1990s, mirrored Trump’s attraction to both global politics and global properties in fascinating ways. A mirror for his own monumental self-esteem, the massive statue seemed to publicize the development he had planned for the Hudson River lots, a signal of his welcome of an influx of Russian funds, expanded in sales of apartments and condominiums in Trump hotels and developments from New York to Florida, if not a self-styled image of his own international goals.

This improbably towering Colossus on the Hudson, a true monument of global kitsch, would seem a Las Vegas style recycling of Augustus, an imperial gesturing to the nation as if selling an imagined vision of probity, security, and assurance, if it did not also double as a vision of globalism–one less rooted in nation, than transnatinoality, pumped up by foreign funds, rather than steering to the New World: the robed figure that Trump was keen on as taller than the Statue of Liberty would have saluted Manhattan island, in a way the actual Columbus of course never had, but revamped the austere figure of the navigator as a savior, royal emissary from afar, as a New Man for a new era, perhaps recycling Russian images of idealism as much as recuperating American ones. The rotary wheel was not only anachronistic, it suggested a smoothness of travel that is absurd, a mash-up of a yacht owner and a Roman hero who seeks little from his audience by adoring adulation.

Tsurab Tseretelli, “Birth of.the New World” (2016)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock (5736251i)
‘Birth of a New World’ sculpture by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli

The monument that was intended as an inauguration of sorts of transatlantic commerce with Russia would have marked the involvement of Trump in a corrupt network of real estate and an expansion of money laundering and international finance that have raised considerable suspicions about President Trump’s representation of national interests. And while the story of the “failed monument” which curiously traveled the world over its two decades of its apparent homelessness, before being erected in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Offshore of Puerto Rico, in a nearly deserted fishing village, where it has become a source of pride, the statue of Columbus curiously joins an also smaller Statue of Liberty, or a replica of the original, erected in 1918, in mysterious circumstances, that stands downtown. The majesty of the costly project seems to have not diminished after it circulated, seeking homes along the Eastern seaboard before an abandoned Bacardi factory, before running aground in Puerto Rico, where Columbus did set foot in November 19, 1493, on a shore filled with farmlands, and few spectators to admire it, far from San Juan, but near the statue that seems its twin.

Arecibo, PR

As if a competitor to the 1884 gift of the French Republic, in considerably rescued form in her 1918 Arecibo version, the Russian sculpture of nearly 300 feet seems to dominate the space of the lady of law: and if its itinerary that might well be mapped; its symbolics existed in a language of spectacle between Moscow, Manhattan, and The Donald.

If the story leading up to the mooring of Columbus in Puerto Rico in 2016 has been told, the resourcefulness of plans to move the monument across seas, after it was cast in Russian foundries, seems to have a shadow history in remapping global power relations. The strikingly parallel histories of the massive Columbus and the fortunes of the realtor demand to be examined as a history of aesthetics, finance, and the magnification of Trump’s unexpected political career. The aspiration to erect a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century navigator occurred two years before Trump celebrated his status in the polls for U.S. President for the Reform Party then headed by Jesse Ventura on “Larry King Live!“–announcing polls to champion his possible candidacy with false modesty. “Well, I guess the polls started it. The polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” Trump said as if he wanted to conceal his ambitions or present his election as foregone; “I don’t know, I just don’t even know. I mean, they put people’s name — they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in polls, and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .”

The turn to embrace his status as a public figure that Trump expressed as a happenstance reflection of the popular will that polls embodied–rather than a sense of public consensus or vote–is an eery aftermath to the ominous predictions that Trump had taken to forecast of impending disasters of the poorly led ship of state, no longer sufficiently respected by allies, or abroad, that had led Trump to style himself as an alternate vision of a politician, “young, dynamic, successful,” as a Democratic sponsor of his hosting of a Congressional dinner in 1987, who was, as John Kerry had praised him, “independent.”

The businessman was calling for reducing the deficit, accelerating nuclear disarmament, and expanding the financial burdens of military allies, leading him to be avidly courted by Republicans and Democrats alike by 1997 and to only surprise some by declaring “I believe that if I run for President, I’d win”–if few knew what party Trump belonged. Yet the specter of his candidacy already haunted the nation.

Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury,/December 6, 1999

The roll-out of this non-political beast, understood primarily through the lens of his own magnificence, was aptly echoed in the grandiosity of a statue of the fifteenth-century navigator who was about to be squirreled into the United States territory as a sign of his own vainglory. Promotion of Columbus promised a point of entrance for the realtor to an image of national identity, uncannily similar in nature to what he later declared in 2015, as an eagerness to defend American interests in a global market. It certainly was, promoted as the largest statue in the western hemisphere, larger not only that the iconic Statue of Liberty, given by the French government in a gesture of solidarity of Republicanism, but a monumental language perhaps both made in Moscow and pure Trump.

Did Trump’s apparent bravado, independence, and daring fit the bill for which Democrats searched as they sought someone “young and who would be good at politics but had never been especially involved in politics before,” as political parties searched for compelling figures to espouse the messages that they believed they delivered, but could be good at messaging. The search for a new image of political leadership seemed to fit Trump by 1990–even if he was presented over fifteen to twenty years later as still coming from outside politics–and made him a likely target of whose identification of himself with Columbus might be imagined, as he tried on new opportunities for self-identification as a politician that seemed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the candidacy of Bill Clinton, to be regularly arriving at his door.

In this context, the cast image of a monumental Columbus arrived. Questions rose during the Colombian quincentennial about whether the fifteenth-century navigator represented the nation of the United States. The statue designed in Moscow was not designed for Mr. Trump, but was strikingly ahistorical in its triumphal celebration of the “discovery” of the continent not only as an image of national identity, but demanding consent to an image of public authority far removed from American monuments or a tradition of political monumentality. The historical Columbus was of course with little sense to have “discovered” a new world with such a sense of recognition that the statue seems to assert; Columbus lacked this sense, either when he set of from Spain without any clear sense of what lay on the horizon, or even a clear sense of where he was, by the time he had championed the wonders of the Indies, which he believed lay in Asia, even returning from his first transatlantic voyage.

By casting the monument as a confirmation of the navigator’s role as a national figure who arrived, his right arm raised in acclamation, as if swearing fealty or in classical salutation, before the coast of the New World. The form of greeting worthy of Augustus belied that Columbus had not in fact travelled. Rather than being site specific or historic, the massive sculpture seemed a token and symbol–if not an idol–to an ideal of economic openness to international trade, a declaration of monarchical supremacy foreign to America political traditions. The multi-piece monument was a totem of economic grandeur and unbridled expenditure on funds, whose lavishness as a documentation of grandeur might obscure its role in a geopolitical chess board of global finances, that by then hinged on New York City’s financial markets. For the massive statue marked possibilities of money laundering, and foreign expropriation of wealth to offshore destinations, revealing terrifyingly modern global tentacles more than a language or intent of discovery.

The double entendre of the massive statue’s name, Birth of the New World, was inherited, but appealed, no doubt to Trump, who readily accepted the idea of promoting the monument on properties where he planned to build in 1997. He felt entitled to accept the gifted work to be erected in land he owned on the Hudson River, bought at low cost and converted to residential zoning, as an extension of his development scheme, announcing the imminent arrival of a colossal bronze Columbus, right arm raised in salutation as if hailing the New World he saw for the first time, from the Russian people.

The image of the fifteenth century navigator had been planned for the prevention to commemorate the quincentenary of the first transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, a conceit that Zurab Tsereteli had worked on in models that he had presented to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He had earlier given models to of the navigator in heroic form, and a statue of a standing Columbus he had presented to forty five meters tall, emerging in classical robes from an egg of bronze, displaying triumphantly an unscrolled map of the voyages of the three ships of his first voyage–Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–as if to herald his nautical accomplishment referenced the legend of Columbus’ demonstration of the sphericity of the earth, “Birth of the New Man” (1995), which Tseretelli also designed, ever resourceful in the needs of exportable public statuary, to be presented to Mayagüez on the occasion of the XXI Central American and Caribbean Games. (Russia also gave a copy of this statue to Spain, installed in the park of San Jeronimo, Seville, used to smuggle soft high-grade raw soft copper from Ukraine of industrial value, evading export taxes. What, this leads us to ask, did this massive tube of a hollow statue actually contain?). Financial evasion of taxes may hint at the intention of the grander statue of Columbus offered Trump, saluting the island of Manhattan as if for the first time, of which the statue of Columbus unfurling a chart seems but the first draft.

Thirty Meter tall Columbus within Forty-Five Meter Tall Egg-Shaped Bronze Lattice in Seville

If the Seville image of Columbus emerging from an egg seemed to hold a map on which the three caravels slid to the New World, opening up its lattice of ship ropes cast in the form of an egg doubled as a Beryozka doll bearing high-grade copper evading export tax, what concealed agendas and private interests were within the taller, if strikingly similar, he vehicle of goods concealed within it bronze shell, like a Beryozka doll, of this Russian connection planted on the properties of real estate but mark a startling growth of laundered funds through international banking.

If the storied if apocryphal notion that Columbus had argued for the ease of the opening of an international trade route by taking an egg and breaking its end to balance it during dinner-time debate for skeptics who challenged his conviction that the cosmographic knowledge needed for his transatlantic voyage was an act of daring diminished by all who “had wondered at it as an impossibility” before he flattened one end of the eg to make it stand on its tip, as the sixteenth-century Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni had first recounted in 1565, revealing his ingenuity before a fictitious dinner party before Spanish nobility, the egg shaped cage recalled the cosmographic invention of Columbus as an act of daring, invention, and bravura–that recycled a solution Giorgio Vasari described in 1550 of how the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi in 1418 solved the problem to build a dome of Florence’s cathedral, S. Maria del Fiore, astonishing and besting the “most ingenious craftsmen of design.”

The global traffic in bronze statues of Columbus sought to announce the opening of Russia for trade during the post-Soviet period fit a trade in the kitschy recycling legends, myths, and folk tales that Tsereteli pioneered. The Seville statue recalled the challenge of design celebrated as underlying the logic of transatlantic discovery was repeatedly staged in statues as an individual bravura act.

Trump boasted rather fulsomely, as is his won’t, about the “gift” of a statue was taller–by six feet!–than New York’s Statue of Liberty,–as if, by happenstance, to suggest its transcendence of New York’s skyline and cement his legacy as a builder beyond Trump Tower itself. The statue’s fitting size seemed specific to the New York monument, to be the largest in the western hemisphere, was not serendipitous; it seemed to match Trump’s tastes and global appetite. Over the wreckage of the rail yards, would the heralded statue boasted to Mark Singer, in a remarkably unfiltered manner, Trump argued the three hundred and eleven foot statue to development where he remained a minor partner would be on its way soon, its head already in the United States, and the body, if it remained in Moscow, where it was forged, would arrive, he claimed in deadpan, as he was “working toward that end,” “favorably disposed toward” what he described as the “huge personal honor” of erecting the monument on his private land where he wanted to sell condominiums.

The story of the “failed monument” has been told, but the gift that post-Soviet oligarchs long planned to offer as a gift to the United States, was cast by Trump as a final achievement, as if threading a needle, to the promotion of his own properties on a global scale greater than New Yorkers were accustomed to associate his brand. As the brash boy from Queens who had made good, the figure of Columbus, the scrappy sailor who had been dignified beside Trump International in Columbus Circle, which dwarfed the iconic image of Columbus since 1994. He may have even sought a new image of Columbus in 1997 to provide a model for the new symbol of his own internationalism, and international ambitions, and to mark the arrival of a new burst of financial energy to the empire of Trump Properties, and birth of Trump International–not backed by Spanish sovereigns whose emblem was on the bronze sails behind his back, but a faux national icon that concealed its own Russian backing.

Could the planned arrival of a generic piece of faux patriotic statuary also chart Trump’s persistent conflicts of interest as his first political ambitions emerged? The statue he described only as a “gift” from the Russian people to the United States that he had in 1997 boasted he had orchestrate in pursuit of real estate abroad, arrived from the very financiers of the post-soviet real estate market, and Moscow-based firm, who lured him to visit the city to attract funds to Moscow’s redevelopment. Re-imagined as a fifteenth-century navigator preposterously sailing into New York Harbor, or up the Hudson, mighty far from Columbus’ actual transatlantic route, against what any elementary school student might know of the voyages of discovery, if the statue demoted the place of the map was demoted to its base, the brazen rewriting of history was an act of kitsch few New Yorkers wanted to see: it seemed a means of simultaneously both attracting and repelling attention of observers in the gaudy monumentality in which Donald Trump had seemed to specialize.

The gifts of massive statuary designed by Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor with an active trading of public sculptures in Moscow, had become a sort of stock trade in monuments as gifts of state in the post-Soviet era. Highly generic in form, vaguely stripped of history, and persistently monumental, the monuments Tseretelli crafted were somehow a search for a new level of kitsch to respond to the kitsch of Soviet monumentalism, stripping figures from historical context and monumentalizing their grader. The gifting of monuments of Columbus to Mayagüez, Seville and–it was hoped–New York provided a celebration of a spirit discovery that were anonymously funded, but launched in a spree of international trading as Russia sought to open corridors of foreign trade, and Trump’s investment of Donald Trump in Moscow.

Trump announced the arrival of the hundred and ten meter bronze statue, including base as the result of his close ties to Russian elites–less as an image of American patriotism, than a means to dignify in the most opulent manner possible his most recent Manhattan property development. Did he intent it to replace the The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Just in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City–as if to brand the statue that was located on his properties as an icon of its aspirations to an actual globalism, and as if a statue could bolster its claims to internationality by virtue of a monumental map.

Six Foot 1997 Model of Zurab Tsereteli’s Birth of the New World”

Was the figure of the fifteenth century navigator consisting of over 2,500 pieces of steel and bronze were more of a token or a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt–even as Trump accepted it eagerly to promote his buoyant reemergence on a global stage, having cleverly disburdened himself of abundant financial debt? Or would it conceal the greater debts that his involvement with Russian backers, canny on playing the fulsome developer for all he was worth, would itself conceal? The inflation of this “gift” of bronze that was in itself valued–or Trump boasted it was valued–as containing $40 million of raw bronze alone would be evidence of his success at the mythic “art of the deal,” if the construction of deal–and the deal that it meant for American tax payers, or for the tax board–have been rarely scrutinized. If the statue given to Seville was found to be a way of smuggling high-grade copper out of the country tax-free, was the image of Columbus something of a Trojan horse, as much as the boondoggle it is usually portrayed to be.

The idea of the arrival of the massive statuary that seemed a big win-win certainly left Trump in the mood for levity. At a time when he was ready to open his own private Club, the renamed and rebranded Mar-a-Lago, the figure of Columbus seemed a new validation of his global esteem, and gave him a sense of legitimacy, after the failure of his Atlantic City casinos, built for $1.2 billion, as a gaudily orientalist “Eight Wonder of the World” in 1990, whose “opulence” and “size” of its three casinos he boasted would make it “the most successful hotel anywhere in the world” went underwater after it failed to generate the needed $1.3 million daily to break even in overhead costs.

The addition of a statue of Columbus would seem not only emulate one of the lost seven wonders of the world, erected in Rhodes as the tallest statue of the ancient world, but would be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Would the figure of Columbus moreover offer the developer, in a true win-win, the desired logo for branding Trump International. It might have rebranded Trump in American politics, with Russian sponsorship, at a cost with which the nation has been saddled.

Trump on Links at Recently Opened Private Club, Mar-a-Lago, 1997/Max Vadukul

The ties of the realtor who had been interested in shifting his game from Atlantic City, after the failure of a large Casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, went under, led him to set sights on more majestic and still more mythic goals of worldly grandeur, and why would not Columbus fit the bill? The authoritarian statue certainly suggests a newfound proximity to post-soviet Russian funders, as the global financial game that Trump orchestrated seem to grow in its disconnect from America, and its concentration on the fabrication of an ideal America, with little correspondence to the actual nation and its interests. Although Trump asserts never to have had or sought or even want assistance from Russia in his Presidential campaign in increasingly strident tones, the attempt to persuade New York City to relocate a monumental bronze glorifying the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus suggests otherwise.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, globalized economy, national monuments

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:

800px-Compass_grid_Cantino_planisphere_(1502)

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.

180px-Compass_rose_Cantino.svg

 

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:

800px-Grazioso_Benincasa._Biblioteca_Universitaria,_Bolonia.1482

 

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 narrated search for the whale Moby Dick takes readers almost vertiginously off the known map, 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 map, in the  apparently unreliable narrative on a quest for Moby-Dick to 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, or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft.

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael describes the mysterious origins of the real cannibal Queequeg in Moby Dick, who he calls “George Washington cannibalisticslly developed.   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure held by being “off” the map.  The 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.

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.    

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