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19 September 2018

The lure of getting lost: why mazes draw us in

Mazes are the epitome of a designed environment, of complexity, and yet they seem to emerge from somewhere dark and organic and basic in human nature.  

By Christian Donlan

Mazes are made to confound and disorient, yet as I flipped through two new books that explore our fascination with these ancient pieces of design, I kept seeing mazes I recognised. A squat cruciform affair was instantly identifiable as the library from The Name of the Rose, even though I have not opened that book in decades. Another was clearly lifted from the tiles of the Warren Street Tube, where it was designed to be solved between departures.

Such moments of recognition feel odd. On the surface, at least, Charlotte Higgins’s Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths, and Henry Eliot’s Follow this Thread are both books that delight in their dizzying nature. Both use the story of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur as the point of origin for a bewildering journey through the territory in which landscape becomes a puzzle. Both are filled with maps and plans, and both seek to emulate the structure of the maze itself with twists, turns and dead ends, “[which] are there to be savoured”, as Higgins is told.

As a consequence, neither feels like a narrative so much as a ruminative exploration inwards. Both ask: just what is it about mazes? They are the epitome of a designed environment, of complexity, and yet they seem to emerge from somewhere dark and organic and basic in human nature. We invoke mazes in metaphor far more frequently than we actually encounter them. They remain vivid. Why?

The joy of travelling with Higgins, the chief culture writer of the Guardian, and Eliot, the creative editor of Penguin Classics, is that they muster a huge cast of characters who each join the reader for a page or two. Flipping through at random, Higgins offers up Arthur Conan Doyle one moment and Arnold Bennett the next; Eliot finds time to loop in the Situationists and the Frisian artist Boetius Bolswert.

Often the casts overlap, often they do not, and there is more than enough room for each book to delight. Higgins’s is a sort of memoir, while Eliot’s often flirts with biography, returning again and again to the life of Greg Bright, the most ingenious maze designer of recent years, who disappeared at the height of his fame. In truth, genre distinctions falter in the presence of a maze anyway: essentially both books are about retracing steps.

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“In the middle of my life, what do I know about where I have been, and where I might go?” Higgins asks early on. She is lost, and her Virgil is a tour guide she met as a child while visiting Crete, the legendary site of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The guide tells Higgins she must build “a labyrinth of labyrinths”. To navigate the tricky second act of a life, she must circle back to the art and myths that have long haunted her and try to see them from new perspectives. This sounds more fable than memoir: Red Thread is melancholic and playful, sometimes toying with fiction while remaining deeply concerned with truth.

What follows is the story of a life lived in culture, often told through the act of revisiting the places and things that have meant the most. Again and again Higgins turns to myth, poetry and sculpture, invoking her first encounters: as the teenager discovering Virgil, the schoolgirl in love with Catullus and in love too with Titian’s painting Bacchus and Ariadne on the cover of her paperback edition, the image so vivid it “made me feel I could step into the poem”.

The journey is difficult. Crete is harder to experience in Higgins’s forties, “now I was a cynic, alert to semi-inventions”. Later, in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, she discovers Michelangelo’s Moses is now cordoned off and can be lit by feeding coins into a slot machine. (Moses earns a place in among the mazes because the statue’s inscrutable pose led Freud to create labyrinths of meaning in an attempt to understand his own response to it.) Even the antique sculpture of the sleeping Ariadne (and it is the spurned and ingenious Ariadne rather than the psychopathic Theseus that this book circles) in the Vatican Museums offers “no possibility of recapturing… earlier excitement”.

All is not lost. Ariadne’s statue prompts a return to the undimmed richness of Middlemarch, since Dorothea confronts it on a trip to Rome, while Higgins’s wider explorations benefit from her clear eyes and gloriously rangy mind. Home of the labyrinth, Crete was famous for its liars and its fictions, and maybe the maze is the key to understanding the link between these things. There is certainly a perverse thrill to discovering that those “semi-inventions” Higgins encountered at Knossos – such as a detailed matriarchal “earth goddess” religion that was inferred from a pair of snake goddess figurines, both heavily restored – were largely the work of one man. Arthur Evans, who excavated the site in the early 20th century, wrote extensively on the Minoan civilisation he uncovered there, but he was clearly an individual for whom archaeology seems to have had as much to do with imagination as it did with digging.

Was Evans a fraud? The truth is probably more complicated: he only attempted to convince others of his theories because he had first been able to convince himself. “No one was better… at breathing texture, life and narrative into the shattered fragments of an impossibly ancient civilisation,” says Higgins, marvelling at his gift for finding evocative names for the things he told himself he had discovered.

Later, she quotes Cathy Gere, a lecturer on the history of science: “[Evans] always knew what he was looking for – and he made sure that he found it.” Mazes are perilous not just for those trapped inside. The most dangerous temptation may lie in the desire to construct them, filling tantalising absences with complex certainties.

Over time, more positive aspects of labyrinths announce themselves among the fear and lies and power dynamics. The labyrinth is “a gesture of optimism that a corner of the universe can be mastered and given pattern and order by the human mind,” she writes. There is something more, too. Through Higgins’s structural fleetness, we get a sense of how the mind creates those patterns and orders.

This is a book that delights in the blinking movement from one subject to the next. In a few pages, we travel from Middlemarch to Ovid, from Arachne to Velázquez and his painting The Spinners and then back to George Eliot. It sounds dizzying; in truth it is illuminating. Just as the maze offers its landscape from every angle, these short, interlocking journeys allow for fresh contexts. The labyrinth “represents the manner in which humans make associations,” Higgins decides. The reward lies in the connections, “the magical, impossible ‘now’ that sparks into being when two points in history are suddenly and briefly fused by one person’s reading words that another once wrote”.

Henry Eliot, like Evans, has a story that initially seems too good to be true. Towards the centre of his short but well-stuffed book sits the life of Greg Bright, an English maze designer who suffered for his strange art and disappeared in 1979 after a decade of astonishing work.

Mazes, for Bright, were not playful things: the maze books he published are terrifying, as one level of complexity melts into another. His terminology – partial valves, conditional movement – has the daunting, exclusionary rigour of a private language. In a few short years he travelled so deeply through maze design that he began to hate it.

Bright is such a brilliant tease I was startled to discover that he is a real person. While he is far from the only focus of Follow this Thread, he provides an anchoring darkness to the book, another victim, like Evans, of his own imagination. Around Bright, Eliot’s book darts with a nimble wit, sentences arcing from one page to the next so you must turn the entire thing as you read, an experience I had not had since the labyrinths of Mark Z Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. Ariadne’s red thread runs throughout, a sinuous scribble forming mazes, but also minotaurs and Mephistopheles and Lara Croft. At times, it interrupts a clause or circles a single word, causing you to recalibrate the weighting of a sentence.

“A maze is a conversation,” concludes Eliot. A conversation that will not end. Mazes are such powerful metaphors because we seem to carry them inside us.

And yet, how difficult it is to become lost on purpose. Higgins tries to do this on holiday in Rome. After some half-hearted wandering, she finds herself at a church in front of the tomb of Poussin. Never the most spontaneous of painters, even he was once moved to take a drying canvas and push his thumb into the oils again and again, pressing upon the scene a great personal labyrinth that stretched back and forth until it covered the whole world. 

Christian Donlan is the author of “The Unmapped Mind” (Penguin)

Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths
Charlotte Higgins
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £25

Follow this Thread
Henry Eliot, Quibe (illustrator)
Particular Books, 240pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war