Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa





Laputan Logic

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Laputan Logic*
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Foolish World

Posted on Sunday 5 November 2006

From "World Map Drawn in a Fool's Head." Ca. 1590. [Larger] Ptolemaic projection (otherwise known as an equidistant conic projection) onto the face of a clown. Maker, date and place of publication are unknown. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

This startling and disturbing image is one of the enigmas of cartographic history. The artist, date and place of publication are all unknown, and one can only guess at its purpose. The geography of the map strongly resembles that of the world maps of Ortelius published in the 1580s, giving a tentative date of c. 1590. This is the earliest known use of the world map in a visual joke. Its central visual metaphor is the universality of human folly and various mottoes around the map reinforce that theme. The panel of the left says: “Democritus laughed at it [i.e. the world], Heraclitus wept over it, Epichtonius Cosmopolites portrayed it.” Although Epichtonius Cosmopolites appears to be the author's or artist's name, it translates roughly as “Everyman,” leaving the mapmaker's true identity hidden.

A strong legacy of the theme of the Fool exists in literature and popular art from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. The Fool was licensed to break rules, speak painful truths and mock power and pretension, and the grotesque shape he bore was a kind of living punishment. This frame of reference would have been quite familiar to the audience of this engraving in the 1590s. And people would have recognized in this map a radical visual interpretation of the Fool's role: it is now the whole world that takes on the Fool's costume, thus forcing the viewer to confront the possibility that the entire created order is irrational, alien and threatening.

— The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps by Peter Whitfield (1994, p. 78-79). Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco.