Red Thread by Charlotte Hig­gins


The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Laura Beatty

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’

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