Points for a Compass Rose

by Evan S. Connell Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412

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 consideration of how nations and empires, from Egypt to Rome to the United States, become great but are then undone by their reliance on sheer power, adrift from its moral compass. Connell is more than abstract in this concern, for his work is often a philosophical and poetic polemic that directly confronts the American involvement in Vietnam, a conflict that was still raging when Points for a Compass Rose was written. Clearly, Connell fears that his country has gone astray, and he seeks to restore its natural sanity and health:

Look, I’m writing a gnomic book about Americabecause not long ago when the entrails of an eaglewere studied for fatidic signs a vile odor spreadand the heart was found misplaced.

In images such as this Connell links the ancient Roman Empire with the modern American state, connecting the Roman practice of examining the prophetic signs found in the organs of sacrificed animals with the symbol of the American eagle. Further, Connell uses specific, concrete references to locate his poem in contemporary history: The names of American presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and verbatim quotations concerning alleged American atrocities in Vietnam tie the action to modern times.

A problem is thus posed for the reader: Does this technique make the book merely a polemic? Is the work weakened by its close ties to one specific period in American history? Points for a Compass Rose is successful because its theme of power is approached in a universal, rather than a specific, fashion. The United States is not the only nation called to account for its misuse of power; throughout the book, Connell produces numerous examples of states and monarchs, rulers and empires crushing others, or trying to do so. Other references include scenes of torture and cruelty from Europe’s wars of religion and its conquests in the New World. Perhaps the most powerful presentation of this theme is the simple, chilling citation of the names of Nazi death camps, followed by the numbers of their victims. In the end, Connell is no more limited by his references to Vietnam than Thucydides is by the Peloponnesian War, or Vergil by the destruction of Troy.

Connell makes this clear by using the metaphor of a chess game, raising the question of power and force to its most abstract level. Throughout the book he sprinkles the gnomic notations of chess moves: P-K5, R-K1, Q-K2, and so on, giving the movements of the pieces as the two opponents struggle for mastery of the board. In the end, the only tangible action that results is PxP, or pawn captures pawn. Despite all the maneuvers of the powerful kings, queens, bishops, knights, and rooks, the ultimate result is that one lowly pawn, the weakest piece on the board, has eliminated another pawn, equally helpless. Such is Connell’s final comment upon the powerful of the world, and their glorious victories.

There remains, however, one thread which runs through the entire work, and that is the individual—in this case, the person who has fashioned this poem called Points for a Compass Rose. Throughout, Connell plays a guessing game with the reader, revealing a variety of purported authors, only to shift to a new persona without apology or explanation. He claims to be a bewildering cast of historical figures, from Paracelsus to Isaac Newton. In this, as in so much else in Points for a Compass Rose, the reader is presented with definite, solid facts, only to have those very facts refuted or withdrawn within a few lines or pages.

Connell’s point here brings him back to his original theme of travel and exploration: No human being is complete and final. We change, adapt, mutate. Like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, we become part of all that we have met. What the reader must do is recognize that and attempt to hold fast to that which is valid and enduring: “Appearances pass; the truth abides.”

Points for a Compass Rose thus charts travels and changes for an entire culture, a mighty nation, and an individual narrator. Its method is part of its meaning, and the fact that its narrator has no name—or so many names—is central to the message it carries:

If you find yourself either troubled or exasperatedby my pseudonyms, postures and elaborate disguisesremember that this has been a private testamentmade of odd details with a touch of the commonplace.

One of the most attractive aspects of Points for a Compass Rose is its language and style. The tone is conversational as Connell (or Raymond Lully, Pythagoras— whoever the narrator claims to be at any particular moment) moves from subject to subject, offering fascinating individual facts and novelties which are gradually and almost imperceptibly woven into the larger meaning of the work. At the same time, Points for a Compass Rose imparts much knowledge. The range of Connell’s references is great, and he frequently slips into brief phrases from other languages, especially Latin. Because of the lightness of his touch, however, the learning is never obtrusive. Connell’s purpose is, ultimately, education in its broadest and best sense:

I’ve set down these things for your instructionbecause I know that the earth with its many facts,wonders and immensities, as well as the adventureswhich befall pilgrims passing through it,are astonishing and greatly worth narrating.

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