Maps, birds and the nature of knowledge

I have just spent a few busy weeks – travelling from Lausanne to Cambridge, with a stop at Paris for a few exhausting days, spent almost entirely on paperwork and a frustrating search for a flat. My initial list of about 50 possible places became shorter by the hour.

(There was also a brief incursion into the North to give a talk at the Venerable Bede’s. This gave rise to the following question: if all I know about Durham University comes from David Lodge, can I be said to know it at all, even if it is all true?)

To my frustration, I was slighted, among others, by the owners of a furnished apartment whose number was a high power of 2 postfaced by a “bis” and whose enchanting street name involved a tomb. Now I even learn that the street used to be the cardo maximus of Lutetia. The referent was not half bad, but it will take a few days to get over the loss of the signifier.

On a related and geographically very close topic – I am all in favour of giving the names of writers to streets, but would you truly want to rely on Allée Samuel Beckett to get you home?


As I went from city to city very rapidly, they started to become superimposed in my mind: for a second after leaving my lodgings, I would be surprised at not finding myself elsewhere; walking past, say, Trinity, I would feel as in a distant dream. I find Cambridge a little difficult to grasp, in part because I feel I have to wade through other people’s Anglophilia and other people’s nostalgia.

There is also the issue of oddly displaced memories: I spent my early twenties in a place much of which had been modelled – architecturally – after different places in Cambridge and Oxford. Of course we all had the feeling of living in some sort of replica, and thus seeing the original can be both slightly confusing and somewhat underwhelming.

I have never built a mental map of Cambridge. In this visit, I have had to look up things in a map often enough that I feel as if I were ruining a puzzle by looking up the answer on the back of a book. I have mixed feelings about maps: I wonder what sort of private map – mental or otherwise – I would come up without them.

Ancient maps are not necessarily just poor attempts at modern maps. Some of them are clearly meant for a particular purpose, rather than as a true representation of shape and relative size: it is difficult to believe that, even in the 4th century, anybody well-informed enough to produce the Tabula Peutingeriana would have thought it showed shapes correctly – in its focus on the representation of routes, it seems much more akin to a map of the Tube. I see someone here agrees, but I actually thought of the simile remembering a statement in Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi, where a character explains Polynesian stick charts in a similar way.

(The stick chart shows crucial information about wave patterns, among other things.)


As our ability to construct geographically accurate maps developed – to be clear: geometrically, rather than merely topologically accurate maps – increasing such accuracy must have seemed to be the primary goal by default, and thus the renunciation of geometry in schematic Tube maps came as quite an innovation.


The kind of mental map that I am trying to construct in spite of printed maps may be only partly akin to stick charts and the Tube map, however. Both are examples of diagrams geared towards navigation. There is also such a thing as a symbolic map, representing what are felt to be the most important features of a place and the relation, with some primitive aids to navigation. I cannot think of a modern equivalent in a serious vein; perhaps Steinberg’s jocular drawing counts (together with its descendants), but it is not the sort of thing I have in mind.


During a recent conversation in London with some recently discovered cousins, the topics of birds and fascism came up. Apparently, any kind of fascism needs a big bird, be it an eagle, a falcon or a Turul. (As for condors, their most notorious role was purely nominal, but there is also a somewhat marginal recent example.)

The next question poses itself: what about a new fascist movement built around Big Bird?

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About valuevar

I am a number theorist with side interests in combinatorics and group theory.
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