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The cartographers

small questions

This week’s small question: how far can I stretch the definition of a column before my editor stops printing me? Let’s find out. Here’s a story a stranger once told me in Lilly library. I was waiting on a surprisingly comfortable wooden bench for a librarian to see if they had any copies of a book I was interested in in the stacks, when a man in a t-shirt sat down next to me. He looked young enough to be a student, but could have been anyone, really. After a moment of polite silence, he asked me if I wanted to hear a story.  I don’t remember replying. I do remember the story:

There once was a mountain, and on it was a white tower. The mountain was the tallest in its range, and the tower’s ivory stones stretched farther still into the clear sky. From the tower, the land around the mountain revealed itself with remarkable clarity for miles in every direction. For this and other reasons, the tower had become, over the centuries, the most renowned cartography school in the land. 

In this place of excellence, two skilled mapmakers were held as the greatest practitioners to ever capture earth in ink: Eliezer and Imago, teacher and student.

Some claimed that Imago had overcome his master in his innovative projections and concise symbology. Others pointed to the near-perfect reliability of Eliezer’s hand-drawn lines on sturdy parchment and argued that he was yet unsurpassed. The cartographers paid no heed to these arguments, however, and were content to simply make their maps and enjoy each other's company. But this was not to last.

One spring day, Imago walked into his teacher’s immaculate quarters to dine with him, as was their habit. They used Eliezer’s room because Imago’s tended to be cluttered by whatever odds and ends caught his eye that week: interesting leaves, a small collection of foreign masks, musical instruments he didn’t know how to play. 

As he entered, Imago hastily hid a thoughtful expression behind his signature grin. “You look troubled, my young student,” Eliezer noticed, his serious eyes crinkling slightly. “Would an old man’s  advice be of any use to you?” 

“You know me too well, teacher.” Imago replied. “I had hoped to keep my thoughts from you until they were more ordered.”

“A noble sentiment. As I have taught you, order is the highest ideal of the mapmaker.”

“As luck would have it, that’s exactly what's been bothering me. I’ve just gotten news that there’s been a terrible accident caused by one of my maps—the recent one, of the southern coast. I’m finding myself in quite a state about it.”

“Let us try to remedy that. What precisely happened during this accident?”

“A merchant ship was trying to navigate the southern reefs. I had omitted a small outcropping of rock from the map, thinking it unimportant, and they ran aground on it. Their death is on my hands.” At this Imago looked suddenly and uncharacteristically downcast. His eyes were dark. His mouth did not smile.

“I can see that this has been wearing on your mind,” Eliezer said, gently. “But surely you know that no map of the world can be perfect. The mark of a great mapmaker is not their ability to choose what to keep, but instead their knowledge of what to let go.”

“But is our goal not perfection? Bringing order and light to a complex world?”

“Of course. But having a goal does not necessarily imply reaching one. Creating a perfect map of a world that contains the map itself is as impossible as the moon waxing larger than itself.”

Imago found himself angered by his teacher’s talk of abstract ideals in the face of the sailors’ all-too-tangible deaths. “So all this time—all these years of my youth spent in this accursed tower—it was all in pursuit of something that can never be achieved? What use is mapmaking if the best maps still kill those who trust them?” Imago’s eyes turned suddenly savage as he continued. “What use are you? An old man who calls himself a teacher but who cloisters himself away from the world he claims to bring light to?”

“Light does not lie in emotions hurled like waves on the world's apathetic shores. True light is in the joy of seeking truth even as truth eludes the seeker. True light is knowing that mapmaking is a doomed pursuit, that lines on paper can never be the equal of an unlined earth, and creating in spite of this.”

Imago looked shocked at his teacher’s words. “How can you say such things? Is the world light because those sailors died? Is the world light because can I look at these ink-stained hands and know that they are blood-stained as well? How can you ask me to search for the shape of the world when you know that I can never hope to glimpse all of its angles? If trying to understanding life will end in failure, then why should I not content myself with simply living it?

“If the price of the pursuit of harmony and truth is the knowledge of certain failure, it is a price that I gladly pay.” Eliezer countered, a subtle certainty in his voice.

“Then you are no longer any teacher of mine.” Spat Imago.

Eliezer said nothing. There was a strange, sad light in his eyes.

Imago burst from the room, and was never seen at the school again. Whisperings occasionally found their way back to the students: Imago had been sighted with tribesmen in the eastern deserts, appointed as an advisor in the king’s court, sentenced to death, attained mysterious supernatural powers. All the stories had one thing in common. It was clear that Imago had stopped trying to order the world with lines of ink, and had begun to seek his freedom within it.

Eliezer heard the stories, of course. Many expected him to be dismayed by his pupil’s transgressions, or to follow him into the world. 

Instead, he picked up pen and paper. He was making a map.

The man left without saying anything, a storybook apparition temporarily visiting my impoverished subsection of reality. Imago and Eliezer have proven more persistent. I still wonder who was right, and if it matters, and why the man told me their story, and what his answers to my questions were. The whole affair, more than anything, left me feeling lost.

Maybe I need a map.

Mihir Bellamkonda is a Trinity first-year. His column, "small questions," runs on alternate Tuesdays.