Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Cartoon by Gary Larson
Some people like elephant jokes, some people like cats, which is itself kinda jokey. I like duck jokes, although I don’t know many. In fact, I only know one, which has to do with a tiny pianist in a bar, a magic lamp and a million ducks - too long and convoluted for me to write here. I’d like to say Gary Larson’s with me on duck jokes. One of his that I still remember years after reading it has a diverse group of animals speeding down the highway in an open-top car. The car’s racing towards a low overhead pass, about to go under. The dog who’s driving (was it a dog? I can’t recall), yells a warning: “Duck!”
The giraffe stretches up to peer into the sky: “Where?”
Another of Larson's cartoons invented the term Anatidaephobia: "The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you." Some Americans took it for a bona fide mental condition, complete with symptoms listed in the DSM. It raised the question: can an absence of common sense be so complete as to become pathological?
Larson, a committed environmentalist, probably doesn't actually prefer ducks, however, even though several adorn the homepage of his new website. All animals are fodder for his sideways take on the belief that our species is superior to others. Ducks only entered my mind because I was recently in the US and saw them everywhere. Like other migrating birds, their sense of direction allows them to navigate considerable distances without google maps, whereas throughout my stay in suburban Maryland I experienced an unsettling geographic disorientation. I couldn’t for the life of me develop any sense of where I was, which was the way to the metro station or the supermarket, Baltimore or DC, or any of the other places I visited regularly. I was driven hither and thither every day to the same places to which I couldn't navigate without gps, and even then I took many wrong turns, to the dismay of my co-pilot.
I stared at a map in an attempt to internalise a sense of where was North, South, East and West, but remained lost and wondering if perhaps I lacked spatial intelligence. I sought consolation in the words of the German poet and philosopher Novalis: “Philosophy is home-sickness, the desire to be at home everywhere,” he said. And since we desire what we lack, I extrapolated, philosophy means to be at home nowhere, even at home. What if, I thought, I could share my geographic disorientation and so make everyone a little more philosophical?
The first world maps were made by Europeans after Columbus' voyages, and they generally placed Europe above Africa. One exception was the French cartographer Oronce Fine (1494-1555):
However, after Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) drew his 1569 world map, all others were and have ever since been drawn with North above South.
Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata ("New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation" ) by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594)
Why? Because they were drawn by Europeans who put their homelands then as they do today, above others, above Africa, Asia and South America. There's no objective up/down or above/below in the vast emptiness through which this pale blue dot whirls. Europe and the USA are in the upper hemisphere solely because they have politically, militarily and economically dominated other countries. It is based on the metaphor that up is good and below is bad.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980) explained, for instance, how up-down metaphors derive from life itself, and in turn affect how we look at emotions, awareness, health, authority, quantities, social status, virtue and other things. To paraphrase:
HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN
I'm feeling up. Something boosted my spirits, which rose, so I’m in high spirits. Thinking about her always gives me a lift when I'm feeling down, I'm depressed and really low. I fell into a depression and my spirits sank.
CONSCIOUS IS UP; UNCONSCIOUS IS DOWN
Get up, wake up, I'm up already. I rise early... He fell asleep. He dropped off to sleep under hypnosis. He sank into a coma.
HEALTH AND LIFE ARE UP; SICKNESS AND DEATH ARE DOWN
He's at the peak of health. Lazarus rose from the dead. He's in top shape. His health is way up there. Then he fell ill. He's sinking fast. He came down with Covid. His health is declining. He dropped dead.
HAVING CONTROL OR FORCE IS UP; BEING SUBJECT TO CONTROL IS DOWN
I have control over her. I am on top of the situation, in a superior position and at the height of my power. I’m in the high command, the upper echelon. My power rose. I rank above him in strength. He's under my control. He fell from power. His power is on the decline. He's my social inferior, a low man on the totem pole. Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!
MORE IS UP; LESS IS DOWN
The number of boring books printed each year keeps going up, and the number is high. My income rose last year. The artistic activity here has gone down. The number of errors he made is incredibly low. My income fell last year. He is underage. If you're too hot, turn the heat down.
HIGH STATUS IS UP; LOW STATUS IS DOWN
He has a lofty position but she'll rise to the top. He's at the peak of his career and climbing the ladder. She has little upward mobility, is at the bottom of the social hierarchy. She fell in status.
GOOD IS UP; BAD IS DOWN
Things are looking up. We hit a peak last. year, but it's been downhill ever since. Things are at an all-time low. He does high-quality work.
VIRTUE IS UP; DEPRAVITY IS DOWN
She is high-minded, has high standards and is upright, an upstanding citizen. His was a low trick. Don't be underhanded. I wouldn't stoop to that. It would be beneath me. He fell into the abyss of depravity. That was a low-down thing to do.
Physical and social basis: Good is up for a person, and Society is metaphorically a person.
RATIONAL IS UP; EMOTIONAL IS DOWN
The discussion fell to the emotional level, but I raised it back up to the rational plane. We put our feelings aside and had a high-level intellectual discussion. He couldn't rise above his emotions.
Up feels good, healthy, etc, and down the opposite for several reasons. Droopiness conveys sadness, whereas an erect posture suggests a positive emotional state. That's why willows and detumescent men weep.
Humans and most other mammals sleep lying down and stand when awake. Serious illness forces us to lie down, especially when you’re dead. Size typically correlates with physical strength, and the victor in a fight is typically on top. As you add more of a substance or physical objects to a container or pile, the level rises. Since status is correlated with (social) and (physical) power: more, or a higher level, is better.
Those ideas come from biology. Thinking emerges from how we inhabit living bodies. But that’s got nothing to do with map making, and there's no reason why North has to be up (happy, conscious, healthy, controlling, higher and better) and the South down - unhappy, unconscious, unhealthy, controlled, lower, worse, etc.. Up and down have to do with gravity, up being further from the centre of the earth, and down closer to it, wherever on the globe you stand up. Mapmakers only place North above South because of Europe and later North America's dominance and exploitation of the South. It's that dominance and commitment to unlimited growth, which has infected China, another North country, which has got us into the whole global warming mess.
So I'm going to change the atlas: no longer will North be up and South down; Europe and North America above South America, Africa and Asia. No longer will a disastrous project be one that "went South". And since I’m an equatorial man, I similarly find no reason to reverse things either: putting South up and the North down. Accordingly, I shall henceforth look at the world neither up nor down but sideways – that is, with the West African expression of disapproval known as cut-eye:
Now tell me: doesn't that look like a duck?