On Borges: Labyrinths

comments 5
becoming-animal / borges / infinity / jorge luis borges / labyrinth / literature / madness / maze / minotaur / multiplicity / pride / sacrifice / salvation / transmutation / work


I deny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in whcih all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduruous than the denial of succession. (Jorge Luis Borges)

The maze is (a) work, mazes are always at work within work. The maze is the very object of work itself. The subject is always labyrinthine: a largely unknown interconnected field of instances, spaces, engagements — whose convoluted and intricate structure as such must be actually explored. Enclosing a journey, a work is a maze: the subject becomes a convoluted space by becoming a wanderer of these forking paths which continuously converge and diverge, cyclically multiplying spaces, ever forwards to infinity.

The fabled maze which confines a minotaur, labyrinth already contains the Lydian labrus, the double-headed axe of Minos. A sacred dual-weapon to rend the folded beast, to slay the man with the monstrous head of a bull. The labyrinth itself is monstrous and harbors monsters; within its folded space, amidst tunnels and promenades, somewhere a terrible half-man, half-beast is wandering alone, on the borderline between infinite spaces, waiting within the imbrications of fractured infinity, waiting for his death, for his redemption. Salvation is a question of transmutation, and like all metamorphic fables, a mysterious secret is contained, an answer to the question: what to do with the hybrids, these half-men, half-x…?

Literature responds: recover them, redeem them, make them cycle transitorily, make them unfold (new worlds between.) In short, save them from the labyrinth. These people deserve their freedom, the spirit of open space “just like” us. But how long is it going to take? A maze unfolds itself by being traversed, the differences between beginning and end mapped out completely; but in the passage, the unthreading multiplies pathways, events, moments of affirmation or refusal. And ultimately we probably will not claim victory; for the labyrinth has swallowed greater than we.

Thus great decisions are lethal, because they work: the labyrinth slays or is slain, it is an instrument of fate, a cursed (double-headed) weapon and a mystical sacrifice. Borges poses a question for translators: do we attempt to resolve the labyrinth (slay the master,) or leave it unresolved, circular, open (childlike, half-animal)? What is literary pride, why do we feel proud of another’s words, as though they ennobled us, raised us up above men (perhaps into a half-man, half-x…?)

So Literature is violence insofar as it rends static ancient mazes in pieces in a joyful, liberating affirmation of openness, of opening-up, of being-opened. Borges fractalizes the labyrinth, infinitely multiplies the interconnections between spaces — but makes all these spaces identical, cloned pieces of an infinite non-linear repetition, extending vertiginously into eternity, out in space and deep into the future, forever onwards. Such is literature: a tremendous, terrifying, joyous exploration of abyssal infinities. The labyrinth represents the hardness, the cruelty which is possible in literature, in the violent subtraction of identity, in the mad convolution of forms and the slowly unfolding spaces of thought…

(Literature is the labyrinth, Borges the mad minotaur, Ariadne’s thread the telling, the story, or if you like, a library.)

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. why privilege literature as labyrinth? isn’t experience/life/reality labyrinthine? and literature then would be a version of a labyrinth and, at the same time, in relation to “reality,” function as a kind of ariadne’s thread, in that a work of lit, is both the tool to slay the labyrinth and the kind of map or cartographic tool that cannot quite match reality but also can never be separated from what it refers to.

  2. No, you’re completely right, it’s not only literature that’s a labyrinth. Yet literature is a labyrinth, and not just because it’s reflecting life, experience and reality. Literature conforms not to any particular universal form; it shatters these forms, generates new forms from itself, from zero. I’m tempted here to claim that cultural activity (writing/art/politics) shouldn’t be understood in terms of absolute non-referential forms but about expression and content. Writing is about tracing an experimental flight into infinity, into the abyss.

    Your question raises a wonderfully Borgesian point that I currently feel I don’t really know how to answer, so I’ll pose it back to you. Are we making maps of the territory or territories of maps? I think the issue here is probably that actual critique is a famously difficult position to maintain; nonetheless I think we’re absolutely bound to it, to self-negation, to decay and transcendence. Death and resurrection by mazes. There’s religion in here somewhere, too.

    But whatever we can or can’t say about it — it’s working, it works, it’s already at work within us and without us. The cosmos is a maze, but I think we can get out. The problem is that the pathways are immanent, and so ambiguous. Escape it’s almost impossible, and anyway it means termination, cruelty. Deleuze puts it beautifully. A line of flight becomes a line of death, if taken far enough. Revolutionary intensity is insufficient, there must also be clarity of the medium. How can we communicate in this wasteland? The internet is a wonderful example of actual pollution that isn’t “real,” i.e., mental and social pollution, ‘subjective’ processes of degeneration and decay. To me the good news is that there are escape-routes from these particular social assemblages. We can, we are moving towards a new earth…

    I’ll leave it there, thanks again for the great question!

    – Joe

  3. You’re crazy Joe. You’re hoggin’ all the ‘lucinogens. I need to take ten times as much as your body naturally produces to start to see the glimmer of religion in my maze. Back to the marijuanitaur.

  4. “Laughter is day, and sobriety is night; a smile is the twilight that hovers gently between both, more bewitching than either.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

    Oh, and of course…
    “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication” (Nietzsche)

  5. Nice. Are those from Borges, the book you’re reading now? I was serious about writing a paper on Deleuze, Guattari and drugs…you’ve got the series on alcoholism in LoS, you’ve got all the references and ‘readings’ of drug experiences throughout ATP–and D+G always say in AOe that the emotion and affect behind hallucinogenic experiences are what is primary, not the representative nature of the images, or what it means, etc.

    Then there’s the short article on drug use in Two Regimes of Madness…

    Towards a redefinition of ‘drug’ use…

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