Now, before Daedalus left Crete, he had given Ariadne a magic ball of thread, and instructed her how to enter and leave the Labyrinth. She must open the entrance door and tie the loose end of the thread to the lintel; the ball would then roll along, diminishing as it went and making, with devious twists and turns, for the innermost recess where the Minotaur was lodged. This ball Ariadne gave to Theseus, and instructed him to follow it until he reached the sleeping monster, whom he must seize by the hair and sacrifice to Poseidon. He could then find his way back by rolling up the thread into a ball again.
— Robert Graves, The Greek Myths
For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought—single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
But such experience can only be hinted at
In myths and images. To speak about it
We talk of darkness, labyrinths, Minotaur terrors.
But that world does not take the place of this one.
— T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
Within the extensive grounds that surround Leeds Castle in Kent, stands a relatively modern maze. It is a puzzle of topiary and pathways to be solved by the wandering visitor. At the centre of the maze can be found both an underground grotto and a viewing platform. From the vantage point of the latter, you can see the circular patterns of the maze contained within a square. Observing the bobbing heads of others undergoing the challenge, the route to the grotto reveals itself. Instructions are shouted by those in the know – who have completed the journey – to those lost in the maze’s cul-de-sacs, as well as to those pressed for time and in a rush to reach the centre. The secrets, once discerned, are shared. Friends and family are called to the I at the centre of the web.
The maze (with choices to be made en route) and the labyrinth (with only one pathway) are concepts, both spatial and metaphorical, that were documented in Antiquity and popularised in the Middle Ages. They have retained their allure, often used interchangeably, through the literature and art of Modernism and Postmodernism. The figure of Daedalus, for example, who designed the Cretan labyrinth that housed the Minotaur, resurfaces in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. Stephen walks the streets of Dublin, the city-as-labyrinth. In the same year, T. S. Eliot revived the figure of Tiresias who sits at the centre of The Waste Land, his poem-as-labyrinth. In this figure, time, space and people converge: past and present, Ancient Greece and contemporary London, masculinity and femininity, vision and blindness. Tiresias is another I that sits at the centre of the web.
Jorge Luis Borges continued the Modernist agenda with tales of literary detection and creation, dreams and maps. In essence, his short stories revolve around the motifs of all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. His influence on fellow Latin American authors was immense. So too, as Gerald Martin documents in Journeys Through the Labyrinth, was that of Joyce’s Ulysses on a group of writers drawn to postmodern practices and the sub-genre of Magical Realism. Authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez self-consciously produced examples of the novel-as-labyrinth.
Márquez’s monumental One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, is packed with characters bearing the same name (all people as one person), a location – Macondo – in which all time and space converge, and a Tiresias-like character in the figure of Melquíades. Cortázar’s Hopscotch, on the other hand, is a formal experimentation, a literary maze, offering the reader multiple choices in how to read the book. This is hyperlinking decades before the invention of the World Wide Web. The labyrinth appears overtly in titles too from the region, as witness Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.
[Picture Credit: Labyrinth Noir by Noah Mease, Dunraven Comics, 23 October 2011]
Running in parallel with the Modernist writers and their postmodern followers were the hardboiled authors and noir filmmakers. In their works, the city-as-labyrinth forms the backdrop to feats of detection and sense-making. Invariably, echoing Oedipus (another figure from Antiquity with a Tiresian connection), the hardboiled figures of detection found themselves implicit in the mysteries they unravelled, from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op to the protagonist of Memento. Journeying to the labyrinth’s centre, it was themselves they found waiting there. Another I ensnared in the web’s strands.
In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco draws on these characteristics of the detective narrative, borrowing from both the ratiocinative and hardboiled traditions, packaging them together with the interests and motifs of the Latin American authors. In his work, the sightless Tiresias morphs into the sightless Borges, thinly disguised as Jorge de Burgos, a blind guardian of the world’s knowledge. The question of sight, of vision, of perspective is an important one.
The I at the centre of the labyrinth is an encapsulation of personal journeys, personal narratives, rather than an emblem of narcissism. Wherever I go, there I am. In his hero adventure, Joseph Campbell owes much to Carl Jung’s ideas about individuation. He outlined a journey towards self-knowledge, an integration of the various aspects of an individual’s personality as represented by different archetypal figures. A notion echoed in Abraham Maslow’s progression to self-actualisation. Part of the journey requires that certain beasts – fears, misconceptions – are laid waste along the way. Crossing the threshold with Ariadne’s spool in hand, requires movement into a liminal state. Old-world thinking has to be displaced.
It is impossible to remove ourselves from the sense-making process. We cannot separate ourselves from our own subjectivity however much we may seek to empathise with other perspectives. Our modern labyrinths are the networks that we inhabit, both physical and digital. The nodes in the network become archetypal expressions of aspects of ourselves, our interests, who and where we are. We map our networks from ourselves, always finding I as a central hub. We may look to the edges, but like a spider adapting to minute shifts on its web, we are pulled to the middle again and again; Ariadne’s thread unwinding until it has led us home, where we are both detective and Minotaur.
Just like Neo in The Matrix, we see the code, heed the advice of the blind guardian of knowledge, yet play our role in the system. Our modern struggles, our quest for self-expression and agency, our bucking against the industrial machine, are timeless. A story for the ages. All time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. All viewed from the eye of I.
The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.
— Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Words, words that make me think. Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror.
— Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph
There is no single, “correct” view.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
- Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (Penguin, 1970).
- Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose (Secker & Warburg, 1985).
- Charlotte Higgins, Red Thread (Jonathan Cape, 2018).
- Angus Hyland and Kendra Wilson, The Maze (Laurence King, 2018).
- Gerald Martin, Journeys through the Labyrinth (Verso, 1989).
- Peter Turchi, A Muse and A Maze (Trinity University Press, 2014).