When an untrained mind comes across the “maze” above, it may require a couple of seconds before it can decipher the “code”. The drawing, Mappa Mundi, is a highly imaginative and symbolic representation of the world as it was conceived in 1285. A quick interpretation would identify a centre (Jerusalem), bordering a dark “stain” representing the Mediterranean Sea, which contains, among other things, drawings of fish (the swordfish [rom. > peștele-sabie] symbolized by a fish with a sword strapped to its side) and even the Homerian sirens. Europe is placed in the south-western third, while Asia occupies the north-western part of the map. The red “smudge” in the north-eastern area represents, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed by now, the Red Sea. What is most interesting, though, is what lies at the margins, in the peripheral regions. One-legged people, men with no heads and with faces placed on their chests, a number of anthropomorphic representations suggesting the fact that the further we move away from the centre, the more we immerse ourselves into the uncommon, into chaos, into the unknown. The centre stands for order, light and form, while, at the periphery, weird and oddly-shaped beings roam the earth; this may as well be a “religious” perspective that could be found even in architecture (the cathedrals that bear monstrous representations on their outside walls, symbolizing the inner/outer world dichotomy, one being dominated by order, the other by chaos).
Stephen Greenblatt writes, in the Introduction of his fabulous book, Marvelous Possessions, the following:
The Europeans who ventured to the New World in the first decades after Columbus’s discovery shared a complex, well-developed, and, above all, mobile technology of power: writing, navigational instruments, ships, warhorses, attack dogs, effective armor and highly lethal weapons […] Their culture was characterized by immense confidence in its own centrality, by a political organization based on practices of command and submission, by a willingness to use coercive violence on both strangers and countrymen and by a religious ideology centered on the endlessly proliferated representation of a tortured and murdered god of love. (Greenblatt, 9)
The center vs. margin duality persists in the discourse of the first colonists. The first has to impose on the latter, Order must conquer Chaos, the strange has to be made familiar. There is no greater or more efficient weapon of conquest than discursive representation.
The second chapter brings into discussion a book most famous in its times (the 14th century), Mandeville’s Travels (by John Mandeville), an extremely popular piece of writing that was read and re-read even by explorers such as Columbus or Cortés. Although no one dared to challenge its authenticity at the moment of its writing, the book has undergone close scrutiny since then.
In general, the doubts about Mandeville’s Travels hardened either into polite suggestions of textual corruption or into direct charges of lying. These charges in turn gradually expanded from particular whoppers – the gravelly sea, the dog-headed men, the Indians whose testicles hang down on the ground, and so forth – to the content of the work as a whole. […] Mandeville concealed [his sources of inspiration] in order to claim that he himself had personally undertaken the dangerous voyages to the Middle East and Asia. (Greenblatt, 31)
Mandeville did what the Mappa Mundi had done tens of years earlier. He represented a world which he had read about (but not traveled to, apparently) using the confessions of other travelers and filled in the gaps by turning to his imagination. At that time, the book was a success. The discourse about faraway places had already taken shape within Europe’s boundaries. Consequently, when the explorers of the New World left Europe, they bore in mind some clear-cut expectations and a discourse which was lacking in signifiers (or the physical object of representation). When landing in Cuba, Columbus describes it as “the land where people are born with a tail”. Further on, Columbus writes in his log [with a blind conviction born of wish-fulfillment, as S. Greenblatt writes] that he may be near the coasts of Cipango [Japan]: “I believe that it is so according to the signs that all the Indians of these islands (because I do not understand them through speech) […] that it is the island of Cipango of which marvelous things are told” (Diario, 113). There are other marvels recorded in the travel logs as well; near Haiti, Columbus writes that he has sighted “three mermaids who came quite high out of the water”. (Greenblatt, 75) The natives also “inform” him, Columbus states, of creatures such as “one-eyed men, and others with snouts of dogs, who ate men […]”. It’s interesting to try and answer this question: how did the natives “inform” him if Columbus (as he himself states) did not understand their language? Maybe they didn’t. The discourse might have pre-dated the actual encounter.
Tzvetan Todorov mentions (in ”The Conquest of America”) H. Cortés’ desire to compare the Aztec buildings/towns with the Spanish ones, and he explains this as a cultural urge to render the unfamiliar familiar. The discourse, again, is dual in nature, but Cortés passes from repugnance to admiration and back again. The duality of representation present in both Mappa Mundi and Columbus’ logs is carried on by Cortés. For both explorers, the newly discovered people (“Indians”) are strange objects; the Spaniards even praise the life of the natives, talk about them… but never TO them. Although they are now aware that what they stumbled upon are not half-men, people with faces in their chest, plant-people, one-legged or one-eyed individuals, the discourse is constructed in the same way. The New World is still the margin, the place where strange beings roam the earth: the “Indians” are treated as beasts; they are labeled as half-men, unable to comprehend the civilized person, with its emphasis on order, with its writing or as a bearer of the godly word. The reality brought on by the discovery of these lands did not create the discourse, but the pre-existent discourse and representations gave birth to the new-found territories. Let us not forget that Europeans will soon give names to every cliff, to every pond and to every plant and animal they come across. Columbus takes some natives to Europe to teach them Spanish, the “kidnapping of language” (Greenblatt, chapter 4) being the major symbol of Europe’s attempt of conquering and possessing the margin. The “central” representations of the natives through discourse is infinitely more efficient than the sword or the musket.
Concluding, one may say that it’s not the newly discovered territories that lead to a redrawing of the map (of the Mappa Mundi), but it’s the already drawn map that overlaps the territory, and representation (through discourse) becomes the vehicle of reality.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1991
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. New York : HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1984
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York : Random House Inc., 1979
Bhabha, Homi K. Of Mimicry and Man in The Location of Culture. London : Routledge, 1994