Human Cartography: Maps That Define the Mind

The Kingdom of Wisdom, the Isle of Knowledge, and other whimsical geographic representations of the human condition

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I love maps. There's something about cartography that lends itself to visualizing much more than land and geography. I've previously looked at how the London tube map was appropriated as a visual metaphor for everything from The Milky Way to the Kabbalah, and today we turn to seven cartographic interpretations of the human condition, using the visual vocabulary of classical maps to interpret various facets of the human psyche--a genre that came of age during the late Renaissance, when it became known as "sentimental cartography."


The Kingdom of Wisdom

In 1961, Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, a timeless children's classic and one of our essential children's books with philosophy for grown-ups. It tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo who one day receives a magic tollbooth that transports him to a fantasy land called The Kingdom of Wisdom. Though at first he gets lost in the Doldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed, he goes on to incredible adventures before returning to his own room as magically as he had left it.

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This map by mid-century American cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who illustrated the book, depicts the marvelous land that Milo finds himself in as he follows his own curiosity.

Isle of Knowledge

Last week, delicious new work by designer Marian Bantjes (whose latest book, I Wonder, is among the most ambitious and beautiful visual communication volumes ever published) made the rounds--and for good reason: Isle of Knowledge is a beautifully illustrated map of "the 'known' beyond which lie monsters," created for the second installment in Bantjes's column for U.K. illustration magazine Varoom on the theme of "Knowledge."

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The map is clearly--whether consciously or not--inspired by the Phantom Tollbooth map, which is perfectly fine: With the concept of combinatorial creativity in our DNA, we deeply believe that all creative work is derivative, everything is a remix, and good ideas come from other good ideas.

Map of an Englishman

English artist Grayson Perry's 2004 Map of an Englishman portrays his mind in a mock-Tudor etch of an imaginary island, surrounded by the "seas" of his perceived psychological flaws--desires, vanities, prejudices, fears. The island itself is vaguely brain-shaped, turning the map into a kind of cartographic phrenology of the self.


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Image courtesy of Grayson Perry and The Paragon Press via BBC

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Carte de Tendre

Carte de Tendre (Map of Tenderness) is a 17th-century French map by the writer Madeleine de Scudéry depicting the peaks and valleys of amorous pursuit, from the River of Inclination to Lake of Indifference to the Great Spirit. With its undetermined itinerary that offers you multiple routes to Tenderness, it's part map, part choose-your-own-adventure narrative for love.

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The Empire of Love

We first featured this extraordinary antique German map of Das Reich der Liebe (The Empire of Love) more than three years ago, and it remains an absolute favorite. Created by Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf in 1777, it's a pinnacle of sentimental cartography, as detailed and obsessive as love itself.

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If you don't sprechen Sie Deutch, here's the gist:

  • GABIET DER JUGEND = Land of Youth (Forest of Love, Kiss Field, Flirting Game, Charm Castle, Stream of Wishes, Worry-Free, Joy's Home, Beautiful House, Source of Joy, Sweet Look, Wisecrack Place, Rich River, Warning Castle)
  • GABIET DER RUHE = Land of Rest (Nightcap, Grandfather City, Equanimity, Manly Place)
  • GABIET DER TRAURENDEN LIEBE = Land of Mourning Love (Anger's Home, Flood of Tears, Whim Mountain, Complaint Place, Hopeless Mountains, Loathing, Strict Place, Swamp of Profanity, Desert of Melancholy)
  • GABIET DER LUSTE = Land of Lust (Illness Valley, Weak Home, Intoxication Field, Lechery, Hospital)
  • GABIET DER GLUCKLICHEN LIEBE = Land of Happy Love (Lust Wood, Answered Prayers, Pleasant View, Enjoyment, Tenderness, Good Times, Affection Farm, Satisfaction, Compliance Mountain, Fountain of Joy, Marriage Harbor, Reward City, Peace of Mind, Bliss Town)
  • GABIET DER HAGESTOLZE = Bachelor Country (Stupidity Town, Rejection Place, Irritation, Indifference, Place of Contempt, Reprehensibility, Old Age Mountains, Separation, Hat, Obstinacy, Wrangler Hall, Exasperation Heath, Hamlet of Death, Sea of Doubt)
  • GABIET DER FIXEN IDEEN = Land of Obsessions (Place of Sighs, Desire Town, Unrest, City of Dreams, Bridge of Hope, Disloyalty, Sweet River of Tears, Little Town of Instincts)

    Many of these maps can be found in these seven must-read books on maps, particularly in the excellent You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination--a treasure trove of imaginary and imaginative cartographic explorations of self-conception.


    This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
    Images: Courtesy of Brain Pickings
    Presented by

    Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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