April 29, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Humans try to make sense of things. Is this a noble or foolhardy pursuit? In her book, In June the Labyrinth, poet Cynthia Hogue writes, “the labyrinth is not a maze but a singular way/ to strike ‘the profoundest chord’/ across aspire” (in “(‘to walk the labyrinth is amazing’)”). In other words, the journey of our lives is also, simultaneously, a labyrinth. In HMU’s April Quarterly Discussion, we questioned this complicated metaphor which pervades nearly all cultures.
Labyrinths were first mentioned in ancient Greek mythology, though it is likely that the idea had existed long before it was written. It transcends both culture and language. The interesting thing about the labyrinth is that it is revered and also feared. Labyrinths maintain a tension between order and chaos. For example, the following terms may be used to describe the artistry of a labyrinth: ingenious, intricate, productive, interpretive, structured. On the other hand, a labyrinth may be referred to as deceptive, confusing, and webbed. In other words, when representing chaos, it is a scary process rather than a clever product. Depending upon your state of mind, the labyrinth may benefit society, or condemn it.
For our recent Quarterly Discussion, we compared the mythological story of “Nisus and Scylla” to Jorge Luis Borge’s short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In Ovid’s story, Scylla (not to be confused with the Scylla from Homer’s Odyssey) falls in love with King Minos. Unfortunately, King Minos is the enemy of her father, Nisus. Scylla decides to cut off Nisus’s power, betraying both father and country. However, when she offers the gift of power to Minos, he is appalled. Minos rejects her completely. Ovid says, “with abhorrence filled, back Minos drew,/ Nor touch’d th’ unhallow’d gift; but thus exclaim’d/ (With mein indignant, and with eyes inflam’d),/ Perdition seize thee, thou, thy kind’s disgrace!” We questioned why King Minos reacted so severely. We also questioned what he intends when he claims “thy kind’s disgrace.”
“Thy kind” might refer to the fact that Scylla is a female, a traitor, or an outsider/other. We also discussed the possibility that Minos rejected this “act of love” because it is simultaneously an act of betrayal. Clearly, Scylla’s actions repulsed Ovid and his readers and she is therefore condemned to complete exile from all the world. One participant asked which is the worse crime: betrayal of father, or betrayal of country? Though we could not come up with a definitive answer, betrayal of both is clearly unacceptable.
At the end of Scylla’s narration, just before her death, she asks herself (and the gods) how she offended Minos. She calls him a hypocrite, citing the fact that he hides the Minotaur, his monstrous step-son, in the depths of a labyrinth. Furthermore, he feeds Athenian children to the Minotaur. In other words, Scylla claims that Minos’s problematic family mirrors her own, yet he acts as if he is superior. In this way, with the story of Scylla’s betrayal, Ovid introduces the labyrinth. Ovid writes:
“Great Daedalus of Athens was the man
That made the draught, and form’d the wondrous plan;
Where rooms within themselves encircled lye,
With various windings, to deceive the eye.
As soft Maeander’s wanton current plays,
When thro’ the Phrygian fields it loosely strays;
Backward and forward rouls the dimpl’d tide,
Seeming, at once, two different ways to glide:
While circling streams their former banks survey,
And waters past succeeding waters see:
Now floating to the sea with downward course,
Now pointing upward to its ancient source,
Such was the work, so intricate the place,
That scarce the workman all its turns cou’d trace;
And Daedalus was puzzled how to find
The secret ways of what himself design’d.”
Compared to a river that flows in two directions at once, the complicated labyrinth even confuses its creator, Daedalus.
Likewise, Borges’s story involves many circuitous paths. The narrator, Yu Tsun claims to be a spy in order to redeem his race. He explains, “I did not do it for Germany – no! …. I carried out my plan because I felt the Chief had some fear of those of my race, of those uncountable forbears whose culmination lies in me. I wished to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies.” So, in an effort to offer a clue to the Germans, Yu Tsun goes to the house of Stephen Albert. Albert, ironically, has studied the labyrinth of Tsun’s ancestor and explains the meaning behind his work. As it turns out, Yu Tsun must kill the man who understands, explains, and empathizes with Tsun’s ancestry. Acting as a spy, Tsun ironically betrays his own country with the intent of saving the reputation of his race. This story mirrors Scylla’s in a number of ways, but most importantly, both are condemned to death.
Labyrinthine metaphors pervade literature. A complex notion, it seemingly conflicts with itself, acting almost like a contronym. Most importantly, it exists in many cultures. Furthermore, it can be connected to a number of great ideas including (but not limited to): Progress; Man; Mind; Custom and Convention; Change; Desire; Life and Death; Sign and Symbol; and One and Many.
My thanks to the participants of HMU’s April Quarterly Discussion. I learned so much! Students, alumni and friends of the University may join in any Quarterly Discussion. Our next Quarterly Discussion will be in July. Email Alissa at as****@hm*.edu for more information.
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