Notes on the Synthesis of Labyrinths

At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze.’ Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.

I wanted to start this article with that quote from The Garden of the Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges because I think the act of reading while doing research is in a way similar with that of traversing a labyrinth. We start with one book, or article, and then suddenly we are faced with an ever increasing amount of material that might be pertinent to our research. We need to decide which paths to follow and which paths to discard in order to progress to the exit. Many times, we are not only unaware of a possible exit, but we also ignore that we just entered a labyrinth.

This idea of how to use texts when doing research, brings me to a book by Ricardo Piglia called The Last Reader. In the first chapter he asks the question What is a Reader? From Cervantes to Joyce, from Kafka to Borges, Piglia comments on the different kinds of readers proposed by their literature. Don Quixote was an avid reader that went out into the world to live according to what he read in his books about chivalry. Joyce proposed an ideal reader that’s suffering from an ideal insomnia, the only way to penetrate his Finnegans Wake. Kafka presented the reader that reads one book, sitting alone at night at his house, while overlooking Prague behind his window. What’s interesting is the reader proposed by Borges.

This Borgesian reader as explained by Piglia is

someone that is lost in a library, going from one book to another, reading a series of books and not an isolated one. A reader that’s scattered in the fluidity of their tracing, someone who has all the volumes for themselves. They go after names, sources, allusions; they go from one citation to another, from one reference to another.

This idea brings immediately to mind Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, an infinite library where all the books are accessible, a maze of infinite proportions. This reader going from one book to another, having infinite choices of what they can read also casts in front of us the image of The Garden of the Forking Paths. This garden, like the Library of Babel, is a labyrinth. At the center of the labyrinth we may find success, but to reach there we have to make decisions at every fork in the path.

This reminds me of the Internet and hypertext, where we are used to read in a way that encourages non-linearity, going from one link to the next, without ever finishing to read one text, because all texts become the Text.

In Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Espen Aarseth writes:

[…] when you read from a cybertext, you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices, that is, exactly what you missed.

The reading experience transforms itself in the task of traversing a labyrinth, where at every point we must make the tradeoff between going for depth or breadth. We don’t know where the current path is taking us, nor we know where the new path in the fork is going to lead us to.

The problem with solving labyrinths is that we only show others the successful path, the one that goes from start to finish, from entrance to exit. We exclude from our solution the paths that we took but that led nowhere; or the paths that gave us enough understanding to make a better decision on the next fork. Sometimes the solution seems so direct that it seems that in certain points there was never a fork in the first place.

This line showing our solution implies that when we later present what we found in our research we have to do it linearly, placing one fact after another. We can’t escape the tyranny of linearity of language. The problem with this is that as readers we ignore all the decisions made by the author while they traversed the garden. The narrative they constructed, the solution to their own labyrinth, is the only witness of the research process that was undertaken. The problem is that from a whole graph we just know one path. Each vertex in the path, each knot along the way not only hides a decision but also doesn’t tell what lays if we follow this particular bifurcation. We don’t know what texts we are missing. As Aarseth says:

This is very different from the ambiguities of a linear text. And inaccessibility, it must be noted, does not imply ambiguity but, rather, an absence of possibility — an aporia.

This explains one of the main problems with any work that tries to share knowledge. This relates to Umberto Eco’s idea of encyclopedia, where a text is a mechanism used by the author to share its own encyclopedia. A reader needs to actualize the text with the clues provided in the text. As the reader follows the text, each vertex that they find indicates the next edge to traverse to reach the end of the labyrinth, but doesn’t tell anything of the existence of other edges, the other paths, making it impossible for the reader to build the same mental image of the labyrinth that the author had.

Because each knot in the text, each decision, is the author way of saying “despite having considered all these possibilities, despite having suffered all these failures, despite knowing all this, I choose to show you this particular one”. This kind of compression loses detail that it can’t be recovered by the receiver of the message. The reader can, at most, fill in the gaps with the material available on its own encyclopedia.

A text is thus just one of the many possible paths that traverse the labyrinth.


Image from the British Library Online Archive, from Heron of Alexandria, Pneumatica, De automatis.