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Charlotte Higgins 'Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths': The truth within being Lost and Amazed

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:13

Labyrinths I: The truth within being Lost and Amazed (Charlotte Higgins Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths London, Jonathan Cape).

There is a fine tradition of taking themes and tracing them in literature and art both diachronically and synchronically. In the latter case we often evoke Baxandall’s ‘period eye’ to look at how a trope, such as the hortus conclusus, is looked at within the distinct limits of a historical period. Schama in Landscape and Memory deals with both synchronic and diachronic overview of three great tropes in looking, for instance at the trope of the forest in Germanic art – looking at its how its meanings change from the breakup of the Roman Empire to its colonisation as a myth of the Arian Germanic by Hitler and the remnant effect of that in the more contemporary art of Anselm Kiefer.

There is some suspicion of such approaches from some older art-historical traditions, such as Panofsky’s supposedly scientific iconological methodologies. Such approaches, based on a fear of subjective interpretation, create paradigmatic stages of interpretative procedure to keep subjectivity in check. Art history, even where it is not based on iconographical reading, has still maintained this distrust of the subjective of which strict ‘period eye’ approaches are the most typical. These insist that that there is a small range of meanings in any one period for any one trope – and hence reserve interpretation for academic elites.

Not so Charlotte Higgins, who allows meanings to cross periods – to change, mutate but also co-exist as in some transhistorical palimpsest. Moreover, these readings allow ‘moderns’ to see ancient art through their own eyes such that whatever a trop means will be layered by history diachronically and networked synchronically and diachronically to associate meanings and even the domain of other tropes – for instance the relation of labyrinths to tropes such as webs, weaving and woods. Her most fascinating reading ties Freud’s love of Michelangelo’s Moses to the riddle involved in how knots appear in Moses’ beard as a reflex of emotion, thought and the birth of psychological machinery for evaluation (56ff.)

I have a great liking for this approach which embraces subjective interpretation (as sometimes does Schama) such that those versions of the trope that emerge in developmental self-stories such as those Higgins tells – of her experience in Crete as both a child and adult and through her correspondence with a Greek teacher and auto-didact she met as a child as a guide in Heraklion museum and concerning Knossos. But the star is her exposure of why ‘Troy Town’ emerges as an English place name – at Saffron Walden for instance - (83ff.) or the labyrinth is used by scientists to describe the ear (107) or became the source for the most memorable pieces of land art – Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (104).

Labyrinths are not just mazes but also palaces, woods and transcendental spaces (and sometimes all of these in, say, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton) – they are external and internal, underground and over-ground, physical or mental, umbrageous or just interminably obscure or puzzles that merely need clarity of insight to see them clearly. They are associated with spiders and snakes, evil and divine (if inscrutable) good and with complex fictional or social narratives and networked webs. They are all of these we see in Eliot’s Middlemarch – as descriptions of Rome’s geography or Casaubon’s mind. They are that and more in Borges’ model of fiction, and in any riddling narrative such as James’ The Turn of the Screw.

They are at their most social in the myths that emerge from historical archaeology – especially the early exploration of Minoan culture by Arthur Evans – but from thence in the weaving of fictions or transcendent myths, such as the Laocoon and the art that sprung from it – in Michelangelo and Titian. Through Minotauromachie (179), we emerge into the wonderful art of Picasso. However, one of the most fascinating revelations to me was their use in Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres (65).

I loved this book. I read it while on holiday in Edinburgh and the Festival has produced many experiences of which I want to write with Higgin’s discoveries (in something less and yet more than the limited meaning implied by that word in academic research) in mind.

They are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings.

3.       This introduction.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


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