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Forests, Labyrinths

October 31st, 2007

I come tramping out of the woods near dusk. The stormclouds that threatened all day have unseamed into windblown cirrus, and the following pair of sentences run over and over through my head:

Labyrinths are artificial. A forest is a labyrinth self-imposed by pattern impulse on the preoccupied mind.

I am referring to the notion of the labyrinth in its original sense: a meditative device, designed not to confound physical progress but to facilitate metaphysical advancement. The appropriate image is that of a Benedictine friar, pacing the path of a spiral in the monastery garden, his mind carefully cleansed of human speech or worldly notions (except perhaps a fleetingly lingering concern for the well-being of the Trappist ale maturing in the monastery cellar), and contemplating the Name of God.

This notion of physical repetition as an act of cleansing for the mind has parallels in almost every culture: the mathematical mosaics of the Arabs, the rigid rituals of the Pythagoreans, the principles of zen. I wonder sometimes whether the labyrinth of Daedalus might not have been constructed with the purpose of enlightenment in mind. Borges, a man preoccupied with labyrinths, in one story conceives of the Minotaur as a plodding dullard, incapable of understanding the vastness of his prison because he can’t count beyond fourteen. To me it seems equally possible that the Minotaur was a monster of intellect, who chose to endlessly traverse the labyrinth in hopes that it might cause him to transcend the condemnation of his flesh.

The forest where I’ve been walking actually contains a literal labyrinth: a path in the shape of a figure eight with a tail coming off one end, like a crop circle or a petroglyph. My progress through it complicates this figure, adding detail where I detour to circle the trunk of a tree or to observe a fogbound marsh that has appeared by unknowable means with the change of the seasons, and no doubt will be gone again by spring. I run my palms along the patterns in the rough bark of big pines. I plunge off at random through thick brush, investigating glimpses of interesting mushrooms and ferns. At one point, I lie flat on my back in springy pine needles for a quarter of an hour, staring up at the canopy. Rarely do I encounter anything I haven’t seen before. What I do encounter is new instances of the familiar, new opportunities to engage with the details of the external world in the moment. I can’t admit to much ambition when it comes to spiritual transcendence (though if you read back in The Mossy Skull you’ll find I take sublime joy in pretending to it). What I can say is that more often than not, I enter forests seeking answers. Where does this story go? Why am I writing it? Why am I a writer? What the hell am I doing with my life? And more often than not, when I come out, I’ve found some.

   Religion, Transcendentalism, Writings | 7 Comments »



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7 Comments »

  • wil says:

    Hi.

    After reading your post, I was viewing pictures of various labyrinths, and it struck me that they bear a resemblance to the physical human brain (molded, twisting, knotted cerebral pathways). The brain-as-labyrinth unites the physical labyrinth and the mental labyrinth. Anyway…great post!

    • mjd says:

      Wil,

      I too went looking for labyrinths online! Matter of fact I was so inspired by the results that I ended up making a jack-o-lantern from one of my findings, which I’m just about to post a picture of cause it looks so damn cool. And it actually does look quite a lot like a brain–not so much the texture of a brain, but the profile view. It is a most interesting notion, one I think might be worth a little more research.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Ian says:

    When I first read this post, I thought, “Huh. Cool.”, and then went onto other things. And then the idea weevled into my brain, and it’s still weevling almost 10 hours later. I get the feeling that it will continue to weevle, but I wanted to post a response before my thoughts get too unweildy…

    If the labyrinth is a spiritual barrier for the minotaur, then what kind of barrier is it? What is the minotaur’s spiritual challenge? I was just, coincidentally, reading Joseph Campbell’s take on the myth. He makes the (excellent) point that King Minos is the son of Europa and Zeus. Zeus transformed himself into a bull and “carried” Europa “away”. Well, fast forward years later and King Minos is getting ready to christen his shiny new city. He’s supposed to sacrifice his prize bull, but he’s too proud of it, so he sacrifices his second best. The bull is so beautiful that his wife ends up dressing like a cow, so that she can rape it. The product of her pregnancy is, of course, Minotaur.

    Now, you probably already know all this. My point is that the Minotaur and King Minos share some heritage. They are both the children of bulls. But one is a King, and the other is a Monster. I think that this is Minotaur’s spiritual conflict. This is his labyrinth. Somehow he’s just like that King, and somehow he’s horribly different. I’m just not sure whether this is Minotaur’s labyrinth, or Minos’. Probably both. I imagine that they look at each other and think, “why am I not like him? What makes me so different?”

    • mjd says:

      Yeah–true. Minos and the Minotaur are indeed much alike. They are both being somewhat unfairly punished–Minos for his wife, the Minotaur for his nature. And as punishment, there’s the labyrinth. A prison for the Minotaur, a permanent, ghastly reminder for Minos. And yet, built by Daedalus, the labyrinth can also be seen as a mitigation for punishment. It’s this beautiful thing, built by this sublime architect, to house sin and fend off temptation. The Minotaur wants out. Minos wants it dead. Minos’ wife, in some versions of the myth, wants to get in there and jump that Minotaur’s bones. But nobody can get at what they want with the Labyrinth in the way. The ritual element of labyrinths kind of gets lost in modern interpretations of the myth–what with Theseus needing a string to unravel like Hansel and Gretel lost in their labyrinth forest. But thinking abut the labyrinth in this context, as a tool of enlightenment and ascetisism, makes me wonder if we aren’t meant to see the whole situation of Minos and the Minotaur as an allegory. The labyrinth provides a solution (if, like so many of the inventions of Daedalus, an imperfect one), a means of maintaining the status quo. At least until Theseus shows up. Yes, there is this forbidden thing that you desire, and it would be right in front of you for the taking if it weren’t for this labyrinth–your mind, your powers of self-control. But concentrate, meditate upon the labryinth, traverse its convolutions, and for now, everything will be all right. As long as you sacrifice a virgin or two once in awhile.
      Oh, those Greeks.

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