The Fourth Part of the World

The bizarre story of how the planet Earth came to be represented on paper.

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“You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners ... they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave....” (Plato, The Republic, Book VII)

Even on our 21st-century, plugged-in, wired-up, Googleable globe, Plato’s allegory of the cave – a Philosophy 101 workhorse that articulates human beings’ futile attempts to understand their universe – resonates. Climate change is real, until deleted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change e-mails raise the possibility that it’s not. The moon is lifeless and barren, until NASA finds “bucketfuls” of water near its south pole. Pluto is thought to be a planet, until it’s proved not to be a planet, and then, apropos of nothing, the Illinois state legislature votes to make it a planet again.

If there is an end to this stumbling in the dark that passes for reasoning, don’t look for it in geography. As told in Toby Lester’s compelling The Fourth Part of the World, the bizarre story of how Planet Earth came to be represented on paper would be funny if it hadn’t inspired and been inspired by genocide, slavery, and religious war.

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Lester, an Atlantic and This American Life contributor, sets out to memorialize the 1507 Waldseemuller map – a cartographic Holy Grail uncovered in 1901 that first bestowed the name “America” on the massive land mass that frustrated European traders trying to reach the spice-rich West Indies. Lester is drawn to the folklore and folly that shaped pre-Enlightenment Europeans’ view of the world and their place in it: “[T]he more I looked at the map itself, the more I saw, and the view quickly became kaleidoscopic: a constantly shifting mosaic of geography and history, people and places, stories and ideas, truth and fiction.”

Fictions, at least, abound. In crude 13th-century “T-O” maps (so called because they were drawn with a T inside an O), Europe, Asia, and Africa – the three known parts of the world – huddle at the center of a circle surrounded by ocean. Anyone seeking more information about this planet could look only to the Bible.

The Torah inspired detailed medieval mappa mundi that showed the Garden of Eden not as a Freudian creation myth, but as a physical place at the eastern limits of Asia beyond the lands of the “monstrous races” – neckless, one-eyed, or dog-headed creatures that roamed terra incognita in the Southern Hemisphere or in the East where the sun was born. The mappa mundi, beautiful and ridiculous, “traced the march of human history – scripted in advance by God at the beginning of time,” Lester writes. “They portrayed the world as God had created it, and as God alone could see it.”

This worldview, of course, couldn’t last. Europeans – troubled by Mongol invasions, irked that blessed Jerusalem was in the hands of Muslim infidels, and desperate to exchange goods and human flesh for filthy lucre – were seduced by modernity. “The Waldseemuller map appeared on the scene at a time of convulsive social and intellectual change,” Lester writes. “Serendipitously, implausibly, indelibly, the map captured a new worldview as it was coming in to being – and that worldview, of course, is our own.” The heretofore unknown fourth part of the world wasn’t heaven, and wasn’t hell, but something much more interesting – an enormous, unspoiled continent whose natural resources could be exploited and whose natives could be converted, sold into slavery, or exterminated. Like any train wreck, the controversies of this historical moment fascinate: how Vasco de Gama’s heroic rounding of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope overshadowed Christopher Columbus’s discovery of a Western “Earthly Paradise”; whether Amerigo Vespucci, who first reached the American mainland, is properly credited with its discovery; how Columbus (oh poor, unlucky Columbus!) died without finding a Western passage to India.

But “The Fourth Part of the World” transcends mere cartographical melodrama. Maps – intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous – fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. “What the map charts is nothing less ... than the contours of the human experience itself,” Lester writes. “The never-ending attempt to imagine a place for ourselves in the world.” Whether a primitive “T-O” globe sitting in the hand of a Holy Roman emperor or a meteorological chart analyzed by a local TV weatherman, maps detail what is important to the society that generates them.

As our maps change – as Yugoslavia dissolves into the Balkans, or Hezbollah launches rockets into northern Israel across what some feel is an unjustly drawn line – Lester’s point is well-considered.

Who knows how absurd the US Geographical Survey will look five hundred years in the future? The world is, after all, 70 percent water, and we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about ... well ... the moon.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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