Lost in the Labyrinth

There’s a maze at VanDusen Botanical Garden that I tried out last weekend. Now, I’ve done my share of corn mazes as a kid, and this little circular thing? Ha, I could probably get through it in two minutes, especially since I had this vantage point to see it from before entering. But of course I didn’t need to figure it out in advance because it would be easy enough once I got in. After all, how many dead ends and wrong turns can you take in a maze this small?

piece of cake, right?

Well . . . a lot. Turns out my spatial intuition is not as good as I thought. After wandering in circles for an embarrassingly long time, I came to resolutely believe there was no “middle” to the maze—that the tree pictured from this viewpoint wasn’t accessible, which then greatly frustrated me because what fun is a maze that doesn’t offer a “reward” at the heart of it?

in the thick(et) of confusion

As I was walking through the maze in my state of confusion, I thought of a lecture I recently listened to as part of the Soul & the City series by Professor Arnold Weinstein titled “Lost in Space.” How à propos. He begins the lecture with a reading of space through the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (the Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth).

Weinstein called this Greek myth an “urban” myth—that while it’s about sexual power, becoming king, and human cunning and resourcefulness, it’s also about finding one’s way in and out of a built environment—of a labyrinth that stands for the city. At the heart of the labyrinth lies the monster; at the heart of the city also lies violence and monstrosity. So we try to contain it/control it/suppress it/ignore it. Daedalus, who represents the modern-day city planner, is commissioned by King Minos of Crete to build a maze to contain this erotic secret that was the love child of his wife, Queen Pasiphae, and a bull. Hence why the Minotaur is half-human; half-bull. Yeah, it’s complicated. You can read the full story here.

Theseus fighting the Minotaur by Étienne-Jules Ramey, 1826. In the Tuileries Gardens, Paris.

The maze is a marvel of order for the builder, and a prison for the creature trapped in it and for those who enter it. As Weinstein points out, the myth shows that one person’s design is another person’s nightmare, or less dramatically, that a gap all too often exists between builders and users of urban space. This gap creates a conundrum I have often wondered about: If imposing a grand design on a city is bound to fail, how do you design a city that doesn’t feel like a prison? If part of human nature is to give shape or a form to things, including urban space, how do we ensure this shape is liberating rather than tyrannizing?

What is the modern-day version of Ariadne’s thread (the magic boon) that helps us find our way through the labyrinth?

Like Theseus, I eventually found my way out of the maze—not with a thread, but through my own resourcefulness: it’s called following someone else who knows where they’re going. I was about to give up on finding the middle and make my way for the exit instead when a little kid walked by me. His confident, fast gait (far from lost) told me he knew was on to something. So I inconspicuously followed him (some may say cheated) and he led me to this:


But not everybody’s journey has a happy ending. Here’s Franz Kafka writing about being lost in the city:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of my way, I was not very well acquainted with the town as yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘From me you want to learn the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up, give it up,” said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

And here’s the Sam Roberts Band singing about it:

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