A map of the unknown

When I was a kid, I remember that Paddington Bear, in my picture books, would always introduce himself as being from darkest Peru. This puzzled me a little. Was it always dark there? Did the people in Peru never get to see the sun? Was that a problem for them?

I realized later that he meant ‘dark’ in the sense of ‘unknown’ or ‘unexplored’. It implied a certain fear, maybe even menace; jungles and monsters; racist, colonial ideas about ‘uncivilized’ foreign lands.

As far as I can remember, Paddington never seemed willing to describe what his homeland was like. So it remained: darkest Peru.

We talk about knowledge and ignorance in terms of light and dark, to such an extent that it has infused our language. It’s become a kind of standing metaphor that we never have to explain. The blank parts of a map are dark lands. When we feel confused or lost, the way ahead is shrouded in darkness. Where the historical record gets patchy, we call it dark ages. The far side of the moon, which we can’t see from Earth, is the dark side of the moon, a place, according to Roger Waters, of oblivion, anomie, and terror.

When we understand, we are enlightened. When we explain, we elucidate. Jesus of Nazareth was a light unto the world. In Sanskrit, the word guru (teacher, guide, sage) can be translated as ‘a light in the darkness’.

As a species, our eyesight is usually our primary sense. We are diurnal, grassland creatures, and our eyes are poorly adapted to the dark relative to, say, cats or owls. So it makes sense that we would associate light (when we can see) with knowledge, and dark (when we cannot) with ignorance.

But I wonder if there’s another layer to this. Light gives us knowledge, yes, but maybe it also works the other way. Does knowledge allow us to see in the first place?

An idea of rhinos 

Albrecht Dürer's 1515 print, 'Rhinoceros'. A black-and-sepia woodcut print, it shows a rhino with fanciful armor, extra horns, and scales.
Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, 1515

In 1515, Albrecht Dürer published a woodcut print of a rhinoceros(Note: Wikipedia: Dürer’s Rhinoceros.). It was a big hit. He’d never actually seen a rhino himself; his picture was based on an account from a friend who described a rhino that had just arrived in Lisbon from India. The rhino was named Ganda and kept, for awhile, in King Manuel I's menagerie at the Ribeira Palace and later given to Pope Leo X.

In Albert and the Whale, Phillip Hoare describes the drawing:

A horn honed on stones, speckled hide in shades of grey. In Dürer’s divine harmony, animals took on an emblematical role. He saw them the way a monk reads scriptures, or an astronomer peered into the sky. His rhino is interplanetary, pitted with lunar craters; erupting with coral reefs; jewel-laden as any tortoise, carved as any Venetian grotto chair. And as Dürer cut him into wood, Ganda became even more crenellated and encrusted, the way little oysters grow on bigger ones. In his days at sea, Ganda had acquired new markings, a kind of fungus, the way algae appears on the backs on whales and seals.

— Page 34

Dürer’s picture is a bit hard to read for modern eyes. It presents itself as a factual, if not scientific, representation. But it is also so wildly inaccurate, so fanciful that it looks like an illustration for a children’s book or fantasy novel.

In 1515, however, artist and archivist were effectively the same role. Nobody in Europe had seen a rhino before. This was one of the very few records of the animal that existed in the region. Dürer’s print was received with wonder, apprehension, shock. As Hoare notes,

To the Renaissance the rhinoceros was a legend, a classical creature, a myth. Pliny had considered it the natural enemy of the elephant, which prepared for battle by sharpening its horn on rocks; its skin was the colour of boxwood, he said. Albertus equated it with the unicorn, as if all one-horned creatures must perforce be related. They were all waiting for the real thing to appear.

— Page 31

Funny thing: Like Dürer and his compatriots, I have never seen a rhinoceros in person.(Note: I’m a little sad about that. Someday, hopefully.)But I could describe one to you pretty readily. I can tell you that they’re distant relatives of elephants (they have thick, textured skin like elephants, not armor); they eat grass but they’re not ruminants (just one stomach); and there are several species. Some have a single horn (made of keratin, not bone), some have two. I also know that despite their massive size and formidable horns, they are all critically endangered.(Note: An irony here: in Dürer’s time, the world's rhino population was perhaps much healthier, but they were mostly unknown to humans who didn’t happen to live in India or Kenya. In our time, they are known and beloved all over the world, but they are so few left they are nearly gone, thanks, maybe, to their own fame and to our greed.)

My awareness of rhinos comes from technology: photography, mass media, fast transit, and the growth of global economies and networks. Our language and our media serve as a kind of shared memory, a shared knowledge. All the images and words I’ve seen allow me to know — to ‘see’ —something outside of my own experience, beyond the limits of my own eyes.

In a similar way, I can navigate my own house reasonably well in pitch dark, because I remember how long the hallways are, how many steps between the basement and living room, where the chairs and lamps are.

So we can ‘see’ by memory — our own, as well as those recorded in media. Is our shared memory, our media, in that way, a sort of human version of echolocation?

This is how we see in the dark: we hear the echos of other voices, and we form maps in our own minds.