I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.
Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus. Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”. “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific. I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?
While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”
One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.
For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.