November 6th, 2010

Whale fluke

Words for the edge of the world (therealljidol Week 1: Here There Be Dragons)

Columbus guessed wrong. He sailed west with inaccurate estimates of how big the Earth is, estimates off by thousands of miles, thinking the land he’d reach was going to be India. Land was there, as he’d assumed; scholars knew enough that they knew if you kept sailing in one direction you’d hit land eventually. Sailors needed some reassuring thoughts. It’s why they saw mermaids. But imagining that a body of water could be as huge as the Pacific? Or that there’d be two whole continents in the way heading west towards it? Though people did generally accept back then that Earth was round (turns out Washington Irving steered us wrong in the early 19th century on that account), the sheer size of that ocean, and of the world in general, took a long time for much of humanity to grasp. Polynesians knew it, at least part of it, but they were in the middle of tens of thousands of square miles of water and their knowledge stayed in one particular -- and particularly large, yet still isolated -- chunk of the world.

Did Polynesians have an equivalent of “Here There Be Dragons”?

That phrase came from an era when we, to borrow the admittedly terrific terms from the (to me) admittedly maddening Donald Rumsfeld, had “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” in fantastic amounts. For far different reasons than today, the world was a big, scary place. The rules the Europeans knew, or that the South Americans knew, or that southern Africans knew, or that the eastern Asians knew, didn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the globe. Maybe there were dragons on the edges of that world. “Here There Be Dragons,” likely, was a way to wrap our minds around that huge-ness, as much as we could.

I love that a whole story is implied in that phrase. It’s poetic, it suggests something immense and powerful, it hints at consequences (be careful!), it hints at a plan of attack if necessary (be careful!). It‘s the early version of what Neil Gaiman (apparently paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton) likes to point out: fairy tales tell us not that dragons exist, but that they can be defeated.. “Here There Be Dragons” is one early version of us acknowledging that there‘s More To Know. Much of this we’ve since figured out. Much of this we still haven’t. It took us until this century to figure out that the Etruscans of ancient Italy probably (not for certain) originally came from Turkey. Known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns still exist. Today we’re maybe more likely to joke about them as we also try to learn more about them.

That’s something that has evolved: humor. But that’s probably its own post.

This has been my Week 1 entry in LJ Idol, a.k.a. therealljidol. Sometime next week I'll link you to a chance to vote for my and others' entries on both this subject and the other Week 1 subject, "Winding Up." EDIT: The poll is here, and closes Tuesday, Nov. 9th at 9 p.m. Eastern.

(Also with a whole story implied in it? Woody Allen’s bit about Francis Bacon. “He died trying to freeze a chicken. Rumor has it the chicken pushed first.”)