Saturday, May 7, 2011

journey into the labyrinth

Today is World Labyrinth Day! In order to celebrate, tomorrow's theme will circle around this intricate puzzle.

The first labyrinth was that which was ordered by Minos, dictatorial king of Crete, to imprison the Minotaur, a humanoid being with a bull's head -- the result of Minos' wife, Pasiphae, hiding in a wooden cow (constructed by Daedalus) so that she could procreate with a beautiful bull sent from Poseidon, a bull with whom she had instantly fallen in love. As if the story wasn't labyrinthine enough, Daedulus not only assisted in the creation of the Minotaur, but constructed the labyrinth in which the beast was confined. To make a long story short, Theseus arrived in a batch of Athenians who were to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Ariadne, Minos' daughter, fell in love with the strong, skilled and completely disloyal hero and helped him to escape the labyrinth (by giving him a ball of yarn to retrace his steps). Theseus killed the Minotaur, abandoned the beast at the heart of the labyrinth, and later abandoned Ariadne's heart when he ditched her on the island of Naxos -- an island where the young Zeus had been raised in a cave.

Island of Naxos
Theseus eventually got his own, though, when he forgot to change his sails back to white and his father committed suicide, assuming the black sails signaled his son's death. Theseus wound up being a hero anyway... and the founding father of Athens when he politically united several territories.

But back to Daedalus. Minos, short-tempered and rather paranoid, turned on Daedalus... which, as we are well aware, was not so paranoid after all considering the involvement Daedalus had in creating the Minotaur and freeing Theseus (because Ariadne consulted him on how to escape the labyrinth). For all of his innovative craftsmanship, he created a lot of complicated problems as well. As punishment, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus, within his very labyrinth. At least there was no longer a live Minotaur, though the smell must have been foul! (I know the scent of a rotting cow to be one of the most powerfully obnoxious smells in existence, so I can only imagine what a decaying massive humanoid bull-beast would be like...)

Who knows why Daedalus didn't use the string trick again. Perhaps he thought himself too clever. Anyway, his new brilliant idea for fleeing from capture was to construct wings of wax and feathers... where he got the wax and feathers in the middle of this labyrinth, no one is quite sure. Icarus, despite his father's warnings, flew too close to the sun which melted his pliable wings and he fell to the sea far below, perishing upon contact.

The moral usually exhorted from this myth is one of the reckless and heedless nature of youth, the need to take all things in moderation, and the danger of attempting to exceed reasonable boundaries. However, something else happens to the story when we remind ourselves that Icarus was coming out of imprisonment in the most frighteningly complex maze of pathways and tunnels ever to exist. Within the labyrinth, Icarus could only see walls, was at the mercy of the twists and turns of confusing passageways, was forced to navigate and make decisions within a seeming chaotic mess of disorder. Yet, when Icarus flew out into the great blue high above the entangling imbroglio below, he was
lifted out of the [labyrinth's] grasp [as one is when he views an aerial map or flies over the streets of his familiar urban realm.] One's body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to anonymous law; nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences and by the nervousness of New York traffic. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. An Icarus flying above these waters, he can ignore the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one was "possessed" into a text that lies before one's eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a God. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more." (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984), p.92.)
The story of Icarus interpreted thusly brings us to a double conception of the labyrinth. Being in it requires a focus on "doing" amidst disorder. Being above it enables a focus on "seeing" a complete order. Being in it makes you "a part of the creation of space... [Being distanced transforms the labyrinth into a patten and ultimately] into fiction, something not lived..." (Kristin Veel, "The Irreducibility of Space: Labyrinths, Cities, Cyberspace," Diacritics, vol. 33, no. 3/4 (Autumn - Winter 2003), p. 160) The labyrinth is the embodiment of this duality and thereby represents an unresolvable ambiguity, a paradox. It is "an ambiguous motif..." wherein the seeming simplicity of its unicursal circuit may be deceptive and only a piece of an infinite curve thus providing us with two simultaneous interpretations -- the labyrinth is at once "order and disorder, clarity and confusion, unity and multiplicity, artistry and chaos." (Veel, p. 156) The labyrinth comprises these two sorts of navigation in one path -- the nodal navigation of isolated positionality and the abstracted comprehension of universality.

The experiential labyrinth is different and yet connected to the imaginative one. In the strictest sense, a labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is an interconnected series of pathways with the possibility of many different routes and with the existence of dead-ends. A labyrinth, by contrast, consists of only one path to its center. There is no choice-making as in a maze. Thus, the walker in a labyrinth is removed from the necessity to use the rational part of his brain and can focus his attentions inward or perhaps elevate his mind above ordinary human limits. Originally, this was the function of the ancient labyrinth. The walker's navigational purposes were directed at the abstract, establishing a closer connection to God... his controlled disorder a tool for spiritual and transformative purposes. 12th century Christian mystics intended these meanderings to be a symbolic pilgrimage which encapsulated exile, estrangement, and return into one journey... a journey perhaps similar to Christ's expulsion into the desert and his ultimate return -- all the while two perspectives coaxing him... Satan's temptations close to his face obscuring all else, and God's broad and limitless vista opening to him when he peered above.

In such a meditative labyrinth, the journey mentally untangles as the path tangles. But how does the labyrinth function metaphorically... and in our modern world?

The writer perhaps most associated with labyrinths is the South American author Jorge Luis Borges. Fascinated by "paradoxes, metaphysical games, and infinite progressions and regressions," (Robert Philmus, "Wells and Borges and the Labyrinths of Time," Science Fiction Studies, vol. 1, no. 4 (Autumn, 1974), p. 239) his labyrinths are infinite and centerless... and they are self-referential, taking us on a journey whose "logical consequence of the tendency of baroque self-consciousness towards self-irony -- is self-betrayal." (Philmus, p. 240) Hegelian universal history cedes to and is lost within the labyrinths of time and returns one to oneself, but with more questions and less reassurance.

In "The Garden of Forking Paths," infinity is pondered indirectly by the main character through thoughts of his ancestor who died without finishing an immense and complicated novel and an equally immense and complicated labyrinth. Escaping from dangerous circumstances, this man winds up at the home of a friend who tells him he has solved both of the puzzles of the other's grandfather. As it turns out, the labyrinths are one and the same:
"'A labyrinth of symbols,' he corrected me. 'An invisible labyrinth of time. I, an English barbarian, have somehow been chosen to unveil the diaphanous mystery. Now, more than a hundred years after the fact, the precise details are irrecoverable, but it is not difficult to surmise what happened. Ts'ui Pen must at one point have remarked, 'I shall retire to write a book,' and at another point, 'I shall retire to construct a labyrinth.' Everyone pictured two projects; it occurred to no one that book and labyrinth were one and the same.'" (Jorge Luis Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths," in Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin, 1998), p. 124)
Like Plato's cave, Borges understands our human experience to be an irresolvable one in which we interpret the shadows as real forms, in which the labyrinth of our lives is the labyrinth of consciousness and existence, in which we end up where we started in a parallel to Hofstader's 'strange loop': movement up or down through a complex system always putting one back from whence he started. Thereby, strange loops are self-referential, paradoxical, and create an impossibility of ever knowing what the boundaries are between dream and reality, self and other, time and memory, the navigable and the unfathomable. And what even is the labyrinth itself? Is it the physical journey? The vision from above? The loss of self and linearity to the simultaneity of time? Our consciousness and psychological well-being? Our orientation in the world? Culture? Society? Hypertext? Ourselves?

M.C. Escher, Relativity
M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands
For Borges, the labyrinth was not of the genre of 'magical realism' under which he is often categorized but replicated and delved into our reality itself.
There'll never be a door. You're inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling nor secret center.

(Borges, "Labyrinth," In Praise of Darkness 39)
Like the paradoxes of Walter Benjamin, Borges' labyrinths loop the trapped wandered back to himself, lifting him out of the labyrinth and simultaneously suggesting the labyrinthine quality of life.
A man sets himself the task of making a plan of the universe. After many years, he fills a whole space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. On the threshold of death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines has traced the likeness of his own face. (Borges, El hacedor, 1960)
In her article on Borges, labyrinths, hypertext, and cyberspace, Veel suggests that there may be a redemptive power in this ambiguity, in our "refusal of closure of the rhizome." (Veel, 155) The etymology of the word, labyrinth, takes us back to Crete where it can be translated at "place of the double axe." Always, the labyrinth had this sense of duality. It is perhaps overcoming the duality that brings us to redemption. In writing about the Borges' story, "Death and the Compass," George McMurray has commented: "Their antithetical natures [become] inverted mirror images...[a blurring of character and reality that implicates] the concept of the eternal return."

The labyrinth in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is both real and fantastical... just like Ofelia's human experience... her escapism and her redemption. Is the underworld real or not? Does it even matter? Is it a choice between accepting Ofelia's fantasies versus Fascist brutal realities? Or do they overlap and co-exist? Hands are eyes. A child is all powerful. Death is rebirth. Escape is return. "Who are you?" "Me? I've had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce. I am the mountain, the forest, and the earth."

Ofelia entering the labyrinthine underworld
Perhaps we are lost in the labyrinth of a city like Venice. We walk and return to where we began. But in the process we are changed. Perhaps we are lost in a labyrinth of suffering. We seek and answers forever elude us. But we find more profound questions. Perhaps we are lost in paradox and can find at least some salvation in the awareness of that paradox. Our disenchantment with duality becomes the only journey. Such was Benjamin's prediction for our inevitable course:
The task of future epistemology is to find for knowledge the sphere of total neutrality in regard to the concepts of both subject and object; in other words, it is to discover the autonomous, innate sphere of knowledge in which this concept in no way continues to designate the relation between two metaphysical entities. (Walter Benjamin)
The paradox sustains us. The labyrinth petrifies and calms and turns to us with the lines of our own face, our own memory, history, and future, our perpetual loss and return. His end is our beginning. Your confusion is my understanding.
The hours that hold the figure and the form
Have run their course within the house of dream

To convince is to conquer without conception.

If a person very close to us is dying, there is something in the months to come that we dimly apprehend -- much as we should have like to share it with him -- could only happen though his absence. We greet him at the last in a language that he no longer understands.

(Walter Benjamin, "One-Way Street," 1928)

No comments:

Post a Comment