Red Thread by Charlotte Higgins
Red Thread By Charlotte Higgins Jonathan Cape £25 Oldie price £22.25 inc p&p
Before I’d read Charlotte Higgins’s book on Roman Britain, had you asked, I would have told you that the Romans were a clumping, bureaucratic, race of copycats, heavier in mind and limb than their Greek superiors. Higgins is an energetically persuasive writer and she taught me otherwise.
Her method is to show the ghostworld of the ancients through all the layers of time in between, like something seen through water, something so closely giving rise to the world we know, that in some sense it is still present. Her writing is alive. Her mind is attuned to echo and repetition, folding and shifting the patterns she can’t help seeing, in and out of each other in kaleidoscopic turns. I
was interested to see what she would make of the labyrinth, that place of inwardness, darkness, secrecy and horror, that place of testing and despair.
Red Thread is an exploration of the labyrinth both historically, as a thing, and more widely, intellectually, as an idea. Starting in Crete, with Knossos and the myth of the Minotaur, she considers its possible linguistic origins, and its beginnings as palace, mythic prison or dancing floor. She finds, in Herodotus, its first mention as a built structure: the thousand-roomed tomb of Egyptian kings and their crocodiles, now gone without trace. And she follows it outwards, through the pattern-making of storytelling, psychoanalysis, archaeological reconstruction, art history and architecture.
In between these she threads, as
memoir, her own fascination with mazes, starting from a childhood visit to Knossos, where a heatproof guide in a brown suit lit her imagination down the years that followed and gave her three postcards.
From here the book spins out into a web of connections (the author’s private labyrinth of mental association, sometimes bafflingly random) built up in short sections, like little shards of something once complete. Vivid, present-tense retellings of myth follow disquisitions on Renaissance paintings. The pavement labyrinth at Chartres gives way to the hotel carpet in The Shining.
As the heatproof guide observes, in a fictional email towards the end of the book, labyrinths look like a human brain and, as such, can be seen as a cipher for the imagination. They represent ‘the manner in which humans make
associations, one thought following another in a long procession’. This accounts for the book’s episodic structure.
There are brilliant things here. Evans’s process at Knossos is fascinating, as is the psychology of modern maze-making, and the connections between Velasquez and Rubens. Some of the liveliest and most interesting things are in the long, digressive footnotes: Cupid and Psyche at the Farnesina, for instance, or techniques for transferring cartoons in tapestry-making, or the fact that the Potteries Motor Traction bus company had PMT emblazoned on all its vehicles.
But for all the ingenuity and energy of Higgins’s associations, the labyrinth remains the labyrinth. Her description of walking the one at Saffron Walden mirrored much of my experience of the book: ‘The route was intestinal, switching back and back on itself in claustrophobic dizzying frequency but then… coursing in bold, wide swoops.’ It isn’t her fault. Make no mistake, Higgins is a brilliant and scholarly writer. If anyone could do it, she would.
The labyrinth, she claims, has a dual nature, its horror balanced by the pleasure to be had in the man-made, solvable puzzle, the comfort of being held by its limits. It is this second aspect that Higgins sets out to celebrate, and she finds its pattern everywhere she looks – a key to the universe. But labyrinths are all about the pull of the centre. You come out – if you do come out – the same way as you came in, along the Red Thread of the book’s title.
A universe that is labyrinthine is one that is limited, feeding back to its own centre, in a kind of reverse Big Bang. So in the end, the more inventive Higgins is, the wider she flings her connective power, the more everything reflects inward, sucking back to the vanishing pinprick of the maze’s centre. The labyrinth has become a black hole.
‘No, Harold. Not badgers’