Maze, Labyrinth, and the Search for Consciousness

The garden mazes and labyrinths existent today are pleasurable structures, innocuous relics from a foregone time, with their recreational duty so pure that an interest in them would be associated with childlike propensities. The fear for the labyrinth only existed in the deep past, from the fantasized conjecture of its criminal nature intertwined with our anxiety. In Greek mythology, the king Minos of Crete commissioned the most prominent architect of the country, Daedalus, to build the most intricate structure in the world to permanently imprison the cursed monster Minotaur. Daedalus built a labyrinth to which any person who entered could never find the way out. It was a black hole. The lost would wander forever, doomed in the fatalistic prophecy of the encounter with a human-feeding monster. At that time, Crete, the regional dominance, demanded its subservient state Athens to send Athenian youths to the labyrinth to feed Minotaur each year. The tribute continued until the heroic Theseus successfully slayed the monster and navigated his way out the impossible labyrinth with the help of a thread offered by Crete’s princess Ariadne.

The key notion of Ariadne’s thread was the distinction between one path and many pathways. The modern consensus on the difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze is multicursive and the labyrinth unicursive, the labyrinth of Minotaur was multicursive, or people would escape just by reversing their direction and following along the single pathway whereby they have entered. Without the thread, any mortal darer of the labyrinth would find himself lost at the intersection of multiple pathways whose progressions couldn’t be seen through and such uniquely human myopia renders him mad. The explorer is myopic; God is omniscient. The labyrinth’s function is to entangle, to confuse, to arrest the explorer’s ability to discern truth from fallacy. Everyone is rendered myopic except the architect. In a way, this architect is omniscient just as God is. The implication is that for a totalitarian monarch to secure his absolute power the architect must be put to death. Indeed, architects in the ancient empires were killed for the cryptic labyrinthine structures they made. Built in 208 BC, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was an intricate and complex underground network of cryptic chambers and pathways designed and constructed by the master architects of the time to defend it against tomb raiders. Unbeknownst to the architects and workers, once the mausoleum was near completion, every one of them was buried alive inside the underground maze of their own ingenuity. The secret of navigating out would never surface.

The labyrinth and the maze are both centripetal in the way they are repetitive. A round plate looks the same from the center whichever direction the gaze is fixed, disabling human’s visuospatial perception. But when you are located away from the center of the circle, distance measurement becomes meaningful. The mechanism with which the maze confines people is that it always put the explorer at its center, psychologically and experientially. The repetition of structure in the maze and the repetition of turns in the labyrinth appear as the numerous exit points on a circle’s circumference. Having too many choices is the same as having no choice. In Borges’s allegorical story Two Kings and Two Labyrinths, the antithesis of a complex built labyrinth, the desert, powerfully symbolizes this frustration. Whichever direction the confined king looks is infinite uniformity; wherever he moves, he is at the center. He eventually dies in the labyrinth, although there is no labyrinth. He cannot escape the center, although there is no circle. This allegory hints at the architecture we build on a spectrum of complexity: the most intricate structure that human can achieve and the simplest structure both evoke the long-lost, ancient fear for labyrinthine non-consciousness. Both ultimate deliberation and ultimate randomness are labyrinths, and everything built in real life is in between two labyrinths of opposite but convergent natures.

The fear for labyrinths and mazes is long since abandoned, and gone with it is perhaps the obsession with the repetitive loop-like sublimity. Duality has become the leading mode of thought in Western, Christian civilizations. Christianity is monotheistic. One end of the game is Heaven, and the other end is Hell. The Gothic spires endeavoring to reach Heaven are the remnants of the biblical Tower of Babel, embodying human’s bipolar mindset of the high and the low, and a desire to intersect with the divine. The labyrinth ceased to evoke awe or fear for its convoluted centripetal forces, and the upcast eye adopts a new sublimity formed by the Heaven-Hell divide. Such a philosophy underlies the phenomenon that the subjectively perceived center of a landscape is not necessarily its geometric center, but usually the building of vertical dominance, especially when this structure is a church. The labyrinth had religious and symbolic significance only in the pre-Christian period, and finds little relevance in the Christian admiration for soaring verticality derived from the Heaven-Hell duality. The enigmatic fatalism that one will always arrive at the identical place doesn’t contain this duality.

In the spirituality of Christian-based cultures, the labyrinth is irrelevant. Terracotta artist Jacques Kaufman built an indoor installation consisting of an undulating pathway that rises from the floor to an exit on the ceiling, a symbol for human’s journey from Hell to Heaven. This is a wonderful architectural translation of the duality concept. The labyrinth is only relevant to people who don’t regard the church with any spiritual associations. Contrary to the duality, the Oriental myths are usually characterized by a non-bipolar, loop relationship between cosmic elements, forces, morals, and states of existence. For instance, the ancient Indian fable collection Panchatantra documented a classical paradigm of circular worships. In the myth, the Sun was thought to be the most powerful in the Universe, but he is overcome by the Cloud; the Cloud is more powerful than the Sun, but even he is overcome by the Wind; the Wind is overcome by the Mountain; the Mountain is overcome by the small mice, who are considered inferior to the Sun. In the mutually generative and mutually conquering relationships, each part is the center of the whole chain, and starting from any place you will eventually return to the same place – it relates to the unraveling of a labyrinth. The centripetal labyrinth was found in physical form, including one in Gedimedu over 2000 years of age, and the serpentine coil on which Vishnu sits. In cultures that relate to a convoluted, non-dual sublimity, monuments rarely exhibit great verticality.

The maze and the labyrinth symbolize the journey in search of consciousness. As a common practice in recreational corn mazes, the “destination” where people can climb stairs to an elevated viewing platform reward the seekers with omniscience that is transient. Soon the explorers, in navigating their way out, will again be submerged in myopic pains of repetitions, lest their memory of the structure viewed from above can sustain for a long while. Bjarke Ingels built a centripetal maze in Washington D.C. that reversed the practice of elevating the “destination,” but lowered the walls surrounding the center of the maze. The same effect of omniscience is achieved. Compared to the sudden enlightenment in the destination of the corn maze, the Bjarke Ingels maze makes this transition from the non-conscious to the conscious state more gradual, with more visual information of the structure revealed at locations closer to the center. The contemporary survival of mazes and labyrinths are the ones that emphasize the process in which consciousness is attained through physical movement and the enigmatic pleasure from it. The original labyrinth of confinement continues its crime in reminiscence of an archaic past.

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