Monday, October 20, 2008

Corlis Benefideo

I reread Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" on Thursday, and it grabbed me anew by the lapels.
It's a story about a cartographer—a sort of platonic ideal of a cartographer—and writer named Corlis Benefideo. If you haven't read it before, please do. You can read it in his short story collection Light Action in the Caribbean, or pay $2100 for the limited edition by Charles Hobson (again, scroll down), or (I haven't done this but I hear his reading is great) listen to Lopez reading the story.

Go on, read it.

OK, so when I talked about the story last year on CartoTalk, I was unsure about the whole cartographer as ideal hero thing. I'm still not sure, although as Martin Gamache said on that thread, there is a part of me wants to "drink the Koolaid."

What got me this time, in a way it hadn't before, was not so much the wonderful maps Benefideo makes, as it is his revelation of the narrator's situation. From near the end of the story, Benefideo says to the narrator:

“You represent a questing but lost generation of people. I think you know what I mean. You made it clear this morning, talking nostalgically about my books, that you think an elegant order has disappeared, something that shows the way.” We were standing at the corner of the dining table with our hands on the chair backs. “It's wonderful, of course, that you brought your daughter into the conversation tonight, and certainly we're both going to have to depend on her, on her thinking. But the real question, now, is what will you do? Because you can't expect her to take up something you wish for yourself, a way of seeing the world. You send her here, if it turns out to be what she wants, but don't make the mistake of thinking you, or I or anyone, knows how the world is meant to work. The world is a miracle, unfolding in the pitch dark. We're lighting candles. Those maps—they are my candles. And I can't extinguish them for anyone.”
There's a lot packed into that paragraph, and so it's easy to gloss over in the flow of reading fiction.

Benefideo is pointing out our love for "maps the way they used to be made" and that, to the contrary, he is making them not like he was taught, but as he thinks they ought. For all the trappings of old-fashioned tools and craft, he is in fact exploring new territory.

The middle bit echoed for me the old Quaker bit, Margaret Fell quoting George Fox's preaching "What canst thou say?" Except instead of scripture it's pointing to our received knowledge othe world. It's easy and quick to gloss over this as a typical challenge to go out and do good, but it's more subtle than that.

It's a conscious rejection of the idea of "reference" which forms the backbone of the idea of cartography—the idea that there is a certain set of facts about the world that we can start with. It makes reference a much more fluid concept. That bit about lighting candles in the pitch blackness reveals Benefideo not as some sort of super-perceptual being who is expressing what he knows. He is really an explorer who knows nothing but records what he finds.

[edited 2-17-13 to update links to the story]


Anonymous said...

... so one day jim, I'll call him jim, comes in to the studio to work. jim is wealthy; has a place in north beach and another in bodega bay and spends half the year in a converted mill cottage in rural france and then usually takes a trip around the world someplace. i suppose like most people i'm just envious but anyway jim has a good life. and he does this intaglio printing that appropriates map and architecture imagery from the 19th cent. i really don't consider his work to be mapping but on with this small story. jim has shows all over with his appropriated prints in a rather predicable post-modern way. do i sound rather judgmental here ... i just want that cottage in southern france like you do, with not a financial worry ... so jim takes a break and brings over a book for me to ogle over and YUP, you guessed it .. the limited edition by hobson of "The Mappist". rather beautiful indeed. really beautiful. o my hobson has produced a gem here, and so has lopez. jim has a very nice collection of stuff like this. maybe someday he will invite me to his place in france and i can do an edition there myself. steven h.

Catherine Uible Morgan said...

I re-read this story thanks to your mentioning it again and was also struck by the quoted paragraph. My take is that we all must do what seems right to us according to our standards and although we can try to steer our children they must follow/make their own maps.

natcase said...

Catherine, that's part of it, but reread it again, and I think you'll see there's a lot more going on. Look at how the beginning relates to the end. The paragraph contains a whole lot of stuff, and it bears taking apart piece by piece.