The Mapmaker

I re-read a short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Mapmaker” about, it seemed to be, a Chinese Emperor who had developed an interest in creating maps. He almost emptied the royal treasury in the creation of an island that would imitate the geographic features of his country, that would be updated daily in response to earthquakes or wildfires, with every miniature house being as near-perfect an imitation as could be managed. When the same Emperor said to the advisor that the next map to be made would be a life-sized representation of his own country, with each house represented by a house, and each citizen represented by a citizen…the council decided that this had gone too far, and the story hints that they assassinated the Emperor in his sleep. The new sovereign, incidentally, had no interest in cartography at all.

I wondered what would have happened had they allowed the Emperor to wake up and behold his country, with advisors also telling him that the map he sought had already been constructed while he slept, and so all he need do was behold it and compare it to itself. Such a map would be one with the territory: completely accurate, and thus completely useless. It all depended on how well an advisor could mess with the Emperor’s mind, a mind so organized that it had become a mess.


In the symbolism that I explore now, the spider’s web has grown in significance. I discovered some old notes from when the significant symbolisms were mists (perhaps in parallel with the experience of psi or subtle energy), masques and mirrors. Maps would have fit in with those just as well.

Those symbolisms didn’t exactly flow, even though I liked what they meant. It might be the difference between a gesture and true sign language, or a wordless sound and a true spoken language. Alone, a gesture or sound can convey meaning, but the underlying rules determine the language.

In his Red Book, Carl Jung wrote (translated by Sonu Shamdasani): “The ancients lived their symbols, since the world had not yet become real for them. Thus they went into the solitude of the desert to teach us that the place of the soul is a lonely desert. There they found the abundance of visions, the fruits of the desert, the wondrous flowers of the soul.”

I would have thought that the case would be the opposite, that ritual acts lived the symbols precisely because the world was real, even hyperreal, and the map would be the territory. To consider physical acts only having physical causes or consequences made a world map of the world, in the same way that the mapmaking Emperor could have if only he had thought differently.