Cartography 3: Three Of Hearts
On Pictures, Words, and Feelings
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
Naturally I experience no joy in writing this book, seen as an undertaking in which I must remain close to the words and sentences I have heard. Occasionally I have resorted to italics. Not because I wish to point out a double meaning to the reader and so draw him into my confidence-- irony, pathos and nostalgia are something I have always rejected. But simply because these particular words and sentences define the nature and limits of the world where my father lived and which I too shared. It was a world in which language was the very expression of reality. - Annie Ernaux, “A Man’s Place”
Two-point perspective is an illustrative technique used to model a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane, often a piece of paper or screen. It uses parallel lines to represent an image as it converges towards a central point, where distortion is most minimized, and as the image recedes towards two vanishing points, where distortion is most amplified. This practice is most often used to model buildings or interiors, material realities, and creates a focal point by illustrating a physical representation edge-on, where most of the image can be seen from the imaginary vantage point.
Distortion is the heart of representation. Even a camera, with its focal length, creates some level of transformation when it captures an image; certain pieces of the foreground are clearer than those in the background, the angle can flatten or round the image. Videos can only hold the frame of their image, and are subject to the same problems. Photographers and videographers spend millions a year as an industry to hire color-graders to tamper with the hues in a series of images to capture not the most accurate image, but the most representational image.
Color itself is perhaps the most obvious example of distortion and representation. There’s the infamous linguistic problem where William Gladstone, in his 1856 Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age took apart the entirety of Homer’s works to notice a particular absence: the absence of the color blue. Instead, the problem became encapsulated in the phrase οἶνοψ πόντος, often translated as “wine-dark sea”. Gladstone developed his own theories (that the Greeks were colorblind) which lead to him being mocked, but also in turn gave rise to an entire field of study around how colors arise in languages around the world, and how communities will necessarily prioritize the colors and descriptions that are most helpful to their day to day life. None of this affects the scientific fact that each color we see is a specific wavelength of light, a physical reality, or that even the rod and cone receptors in our eyes can be tricked by color proximity or contrast, or that there are bands of visible light available to other creatures on this planet that we will never see or know. While we are arguing if the dress is white and gold or black and blue, reindeer, dogs, cats, pigs, ferrets, cows, and many other mammals are instead using their ultraviolet vision to color their world.
To create our 2-point perspective as a society, where two individuals are the points of most extreme poles of distortion and the real world is the point of least distortion, to represent and talk about that real world, we have come to rely on language. The subjective and objective experience come together where we create words, where we can point at an object and use the same signifier to describe the signified. It doesn’t matter if we see different greens; we both lay in the grass, feel the wind whipping through our hair in the bright spring and we agree, all the world is green.
Science, the new nobility! Progress. The world moves!… And why shouldn’t it?
We have visions of numbers. We are moving toward the Spirit. What I say is oracular and absolutely right. I understand, and not knowing how to express myself without pagan words, I would rather remain silent. -Arthur Rimbaud, A Season In Hell
But the consensus of abstract experience is decidedly different than laying in the sun on the first warm and breezy day. No person has claim over the interiority of another person; no sufficient denial exists when someone comes home one day and tells you, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” We can try to point to physical realities, actual acts: we traveled together. We shared our first kiss in a churchyard where we swore it was going to be forever. We traded traumas like tokens in the dead of night to deepen our understanding. These material acts should have welded our interior existences to one another forever in some way, and in some ways, you will find those strands of another person alloyed into your soul when the light shines on you at the proper wavelength. You will see those bright copper glints out of the corner of your eye until the day you die.
I rarely cared if I was liked, or prioritized, until those parts of my life became so intolerable that I had to adapt and adopt various schemes to ingratiate myself. I became charming to deflect criticism. I became confident to outpace critique. I became knowledgeable to use information like a bludgeon in my hands against everyone else. Above all, I became perceptive to read the moments of people, where their eyes glazed over or they turned half an inch away from me and I could reach into my bag of tricks and become something else in response.
But only on a few occasions did I feel, truly feel, understood.
It was a rarity given to few, people I felt I shared enough in common with that the distortional representations of our lives were minimized. We had arrived at similar conclusions independently, we had pursued similar goals and secrets, and through similar crucibles emerged as antennae receiving similar signals that direct our lives. In an act of narcissism, I pursued my mirrors because the first person to misunderstand me was myself. I thought that chasing those like me would illuminate some hidden part I had missed, some key into my interior labyrinth would appear, and I could understand both myself and the world by arriving at the agreed-upon point of reality.
I chased and held lovers under full moons in graveyards. I studied hours of natal charts with people looking for some material reality in the stars that would expand into their interiors. I accepted invitations to shows because I trusted the taste of friends and I would assault enemies that were never mine, because if you hate them, I must hate them too. My love was your love, my hate was your hate, and each betrayal felt like my own betrayal.
And so I learned to fear being misunderstood, deeper than I wanted to be loved. I could live with being an archetype, so long as my place and experience was easily accessible to the broader world. If my interior could only ever be my own personal vanishing point, then I would guard it jealously and seek consensus instead of fighting for my personal justice. I could handle the compression; I had known nothing else.
The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. -Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
As I got older, though, and I saw people I loved, the reflections of myself, take their own shape and make their own lives. I often didn’t understand them, but they were happy. I attended weddings. I didn’t attend others. I spoke at weddings. I was silent at many more. I went to funerals and memorials and watched the way life has its own inevitable representations for us: our traditions, the distortions of our culture where society is formed and performed in ritual across our daily lives. I knew that even though we might never understand one another the way we once did, for a variety of reasons, we could converge at the point of least distortion, the point of fear of the future giving way to hope and joy and grief and despair.
It didn’t matter if our interior lives processed these feelings differently on most occasions. My feelings of gratitude and love at being included were as strong as many others, and I didn’t feel the need to crack the sky with my emotions. I could see that my enjoyment at a wedding, my dancing, was no different than my friend’s over the top tear-shedding or drunkenness. My grief in solitude, my devotions to memory were no more special than more extravagant displays and expressions of public bereavement.
Even the distance that exists between people, the experience of the same event that generates completely distinct responses, punishes me in no way. I like spending my holidays alone with one or two friends in lieu of a family. I don’t prefer one strain to another, as Frank says, and I want my heart to be open. But the hearts of others, no matter how much access I may want, will always remain locked away in their own vanishing point. That vanishing point may harm me at times; it may inflict pain, and distress, and I may wish for a ground for common understanding.
But I would only be lying to myself. The point where two sets of parallel lines converge is as much an anchor as the point where they intersect another pair, and all we ever see of our interior lives when we meet another is not a mirror, but the third anchor, the flat edge of representation of least distortion. The razor of images splits open our interiors in flashes, and just as quickly recedes back from a brief moment of understanding, back into the wine-dark vanishing point where all things coalesce.
As I write, I try to steer a middle course between rehabilitating a lifestyle generally considered to be inferior, and denouncing the feelings of estrangement it brings with it… Consequently, I would like to convey both the happiness and the alienation we felt. Instead, it seems I am constantly wavering between the two. Annie Ernaux, “A Man’s Place”