At the round earths imagin’d corners

[ by Charles Cameron — mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor’s score, complexity thinking ]

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About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.

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It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise

From death, you numberlesse infinities

Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,

All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,

All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,

Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,

Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.

But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,

For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,

‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,

When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,

Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good

As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.

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I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…

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And then there’s Bob Milne.

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