Labyrinths and Mazes – finding and losing the thread

The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve).  The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation.  It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre.  But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all.  There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.

And yet Daedalus, at  least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion.   Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism.  So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?

Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning.  So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him.  It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads.    Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.

The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology.  The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate.  But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991).   It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started.  Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self.    Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it.  There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped.  Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.

The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory.   The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about.  But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal.   The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles.   ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).

But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth?   Perhaps Revel never reached it.   Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained.  So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston’.

Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)

Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)

Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)

Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)

Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London:  MIT Press, 1960)

Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

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  1. #1 by PlastiCités on February 23, 2012 - 10:31 pm

    Reblogged this on PlastiCités.


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