Pale Ramon

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world’s first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history’s first true moon map. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise ‘An Original Theory,’ depicting Wright’s trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies. Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

NASA’s 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Courtesy of USGS/NASA

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested. Courtesy of the Huntington Library

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, may look like just another Abrams coffee table book, one of those volumes that are heavy on pretty and light on content. But this book is no “beautiful blank.” Benson has assembled a stunning compendium of our longings as humans to outpicture, navigate and model the cosmos of our physical world. It is such a profound passion in us, that will to bring sense to what we can, in reality, only partially grasp.

From Maria Popova‘s excellent overview on Brainpickings:

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope…humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time—a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness”…This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

As an epigraph to his book, Benson includes an appropriately paradoxical and lyrical quote from Italo Calvino. This passage captures the poetic nature of that irresistible but essentially furtive presence, that something that we desperately long to “grok” but cannot. It’s too all too immense, too beyond our puniness.

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

The collection of images is so varied and enchanting they are museum exhibit worthy just based on their visual power. But underneath all that delight there remains that haunting search so exquisitely captured in the final stanza of Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West (which is, after all these years, still my favorite poem):

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

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