Into the Labyrinth by Catherine Annabel

Embarking on research, one is always told to define the question one is trying to answer, and to answer the secondary question – so what?  But given that the question you end up answering may not be quite the one you started with, and the ‘so what’ may not be evident until much later, the most pressing question in the early stages is likely to be, how do I start?  I could begin by sketching in the background, finding the context, mapping out the territory.  That feels safe and sensible.   But all of my instincts tell me to head straight into the labyrinth.

Labyrinths are dangerous places.  You can lose your way/yourself.  And if you do get to the centre, who knows what might face you – or whether you will find your way out.

labyrinth

The entrance to my particular labyrinth is a 1967 poem by W G Sebald, inspired by Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time).  The poem, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, was first published in English in 2011, and its translator warns against an overly detailed exploration:

The poem presents a labyrinth of allusions, and the reader who attempts to follow them risks becoming ‘perdu dans ces filaments’ [‘lost amidst these filaments/threads’].[1]

This warning is echoed by a leading Sebald scholar, Jo Catling:

The echoes and coincidences weave a varied, densely textured web, a kind of labyrinth always ready to ensnare the reader (and perhaps the narrator) in its spellbinding array of images and reflections, resonances and paradoxes, the shimmering interplay of memory, dream and reality encountered in and through the narrator’s peregrinations. [2]

Both writers use the labyrinth as a recurring metaphor and image, which may refer to the city, to memory, to the text itself, to literal or mythological mazes, to the experience of disorientation, of losing one’s way.   As Will Hansen says, ‘Sebald writes in and into labyrinths, and reading him requires plunging into that labyrinth, as well.  Labyrinths of memory, history, and geography, as well as labyrinths of fiction and nonfiction.’[3]  Butor’s novel is a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory.   The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes itself labyrinthine.   ‘The rope of words … is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it.’ [4]

In a labyrinth of the classical design, there are no dead ends, no choices to be made, so the disorientation results from the complex looping of the path, which takes the walker  closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel that they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible.  The maze, in contrast, is a puzzle to be solved, requiring constant choices, which may lead to dead ends, or back to one’s starting place.

So the texts themselves are mazes, so richly reflexive and allusive that there are endless choices to be made about which path to take,  as all may lead somewhere interesting, but only a few, or one, will provide answers.

But the process of research is also rather like that of navigating the labyrinth.  One might get to the centre and find it empty, the question unanswered or unanswerable, or merely irrelevant.  The greater risk, perhaps, is that the labyrinth becomes a trap, that one wanders endlessly up one pathway and then another, getting no closer to the heart, or to the way out.  I’ll have to hope that the researchers who have gone before me have left a trail of breadcrumbs, Ariadne’s thread to guide me.

 

 


[1] W G Sebald, ‘Bleston.  A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), pp. 18-22. 177

[2] Görner, Rüdiger (ed.), The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W G Sebald (Munich: Iudicium, 2003) , p. 46

[4] Michel Butor, Passing Time  (Faber, 1965),  p. 183

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