Points for a Compass Rose is held together by a system of associations and images, rather than by logical or narrative development. Although this method involves the reader in sudden shifts in subject, time, and character, it is essential to Connell’s central concern, which is the confused human response to uncertain times. He asks toward the end of the work, “Do human events exceed human understanding?” In a sense, this book is his attempt at an answer to that question.
The first cluster of themes found throughout the work concern travel and exploration; it is a topic announced even in the book’s title, with its reference to maps and navigation. Connell announces his intention early: “Listen. I’ve decided to take a trip,” and he urges his readers to accompany him:
I don’t plan to returnaltogether ignorant, and you’re welcome to join me.So what do you say? Come along. Let’s traveltogether.God our suzerain has a duty to protect His vassals;but with Him or without we’ll go back and forthalong the dusty ways choosing all knowledgeas our provenance. Interspersing fact with lore,interpreting experience in terms of moral purpose...
Throughout the book, references are made to travel, journeys, and explorations. On one level, the image of the journey becomes a symbol for the acquisition of knowledge, an undertaking which Connell clearly regards as a moral, even a religious, duty. Just as explorers clear away the blank spaces of the map with detailed features of the landscape, so attentive men and women can clear away the dark spaces of human character—and perhaps prevent or mitigate the crimes and atrocities which are so often noted in Points for a Compass Rose.
On a second level, the theme of exploration and discovery addresses this topic of human violence. Connell hints broadly at this theme in six passages, where he gives precise geographical locations, noted in degrees of latitude and longitude. Each location is a site where European culture interacted, mostly destructively, with indigenous cultures: for example, at the mouth of the Congo, where the slave trade began; off the coast of South America, where the conquistadors destroyed the ancient civilizations of Inca and Maya; and in the seas off Southeast Asia, where collisions between the East and the West, including the Vietnam War, occurred repeatedly.
In this sense, the theme of exploration blends into the theme of cultural interaction, which for Connell can take two forms: mystery and mastery. His book is filled with oddities, strange facts from foreign lands which cannot be explained by conventional wisdom. There are many things which could be learned from those people dismissed as savages: “Let me warn you: Don’t lapse into the vulgar practice/ of decrying what you don’t comprehend.” Yet decrying, even destroying, is the most likely result of interaction between cultures, as Connell sees it. This concept leads to his third, and perhaps dominant motif, that of power and how it is exercised.
In a way, Points for a Compass Rose is a meditation on power and violence, a...
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Points for a Compass Rose is an important statement about the troubled times in which it appeared and represents a reaction of a significant portion of the American people to their country’s involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. The work was published in 1973, a time when there was considerable and often anguished debate about the role which the United States had taken in Southeast Asia. Connell’s position on the matter is quite clear, but he moves beyond polemic and momentary relevance by connecting the American experience with those of other great powers— Rome, Spain, Great Britain.
In a sense, Connell is asking questions about the nature of national power and its use, about the role of the individual in a nation. Such concerns are hardly new for Connell, but his approach—a long, discursive “poem”—was certainly unique for the period in which it was written. In this light, Points for a Compass Rose both comments upon its own time and manages to move beyond it, because of the many links and connections it makes with history.
Points for a Compass Rose also reveals its author’s artistic interests and abilities at an exceptionally high level. All Connell’s writings demonstrate an awareness of other cultures and an interest in the quirks and wonders of human nature, but this intelligence is never showcased. In The Connoisseur (1974), for example, his knowledge and mastery of pre-Columbian art...
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