Do you know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze? I’ll let you think about it for a few minutes. Take your time.
Meantime, I’ll ask another question: have you ever had a lover from another country? Or, rather, whose mother tongue was different from your own? I’m not going to make the trite crack that men and women speak different languages anyway, but the sub-question to that is: have you ever tried to make a joke in another language? Wait, I know it’s a lot to ask, but maybe the real question should be: have you ever made a joke, period? That was funny I mean. Sure, I know there have to be a lot of incredibly brilliant but humorless doubledomes out there – serious as hell, and not the types you’d be backslapping after accidentally farting in a prison mess line, if you know what I mean.
I do, and have.
Her name was Annabel. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for Poe, and for all you good people out there, her middle name was Mary, or I’d be off to the poem-quote races with that one: “We loved with a love that was more than love.” Etc. And as far as the English as a native tongue part, I’m going to say yes she meets that requirement, barely and badly, because she was Irish. Seriously, have you ever heard French spoken with a brogue? Lilting, rhythmic and lovely. She grew up in her rich arty hippy family's country estate, blissfully unaware of the unique, shabby-chic preposterouseness all around her. She’d tell me stories of Mick Jagger coming over for supper and absentmindedly ashing on the heirloom carpet in her father’s study that she later found out was museum quality and worth millions. Nobody cared.
A labyrinthic and lovely lass, for sure: you go in one which way, willingly, and come out another. The main difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze has many paths and dead-ends and it’s very difficult to get to the center; whereas a labyrinth has only one path that leads inevitably to the end, making it a journey of inner discovery, not one of outer reward and success. The most famous labyrinth, the Labyrinth on Crete, created by Daedalus to keep the Minotaur, a half-man, half bull caged and safe, was originally conceived as a patterned outdoor dancing ground for Ariadne, at least according to Homer. Later writers turned it into a complicated maze that was extremely difficult to navigate in, and next to impossible to exit. The Minotaur was then ensconced there– a mythical metaphor for malevolence that couldn’t be easily encountered, nor easily defeated, nor easily escaped.
You can read a bit more about Daedalus and his son Icarus in a piece that I wrote entitled Call me Icarus - you can find it somewhere in the O' Journal archives.
To this day I think the most charming word in French is “caoutchouc”, not least because of its spelling and pronunciation: COW-chew. It means ‘rubber’ in English. I was laughed out of the pharmacy on Avenue Villiers a long time ago by the haughty help the first time I walked in and asked for a box. Oh, the word I was looking for, Annabel told me afterwards, was "preservatif.” Seriously, one of the most interesting things about learning another language is, at least for me, hearing ideas/concepts and perspectives for the first time in strange phonemes. Really, just the different pronunciation of words/people/places intrigued and continues to fascinate me. I told my daughter recently that a friend of mine had a cottage on his property growing up and Givenchy’s son lived there for a while. I said GEE-ven-SHE and she looked at me like I had two heads – who the hell is that? Oh, you mean GUH-vin-CHEE? No, I don’t actually.
I remember coming across this in a Shakespeare sonnet, Number 57, a while back:
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you.
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
My first thought was that “adieu” doesn’t rhyme with “you.” Strange – Bill’s usually pretty good with his choice of words I smirked. Usually. Ha – I found out much later that in English it does. Bill the Hack Poet who? Place names aren't the same in different languages, and this has confused me for a long time, too. I was telling an Italian friend of mine a story about the city of Torino and he kept telling me he never heard of it.
Back to the labyrinth thread. Theseus was the mythical king/founder of Athens, and much like Osiris, embodied the best attributes and essence of his culture and its patriarchy. He was able, with incredible courage and vision, to rise to the top of the heap so-to-speak, and establish a new type of government, which the Greeks called democracia. He became, through an impressive force of will and wisdom, the uniter of the many archaic religions and patchwork cultures around Athens at the time, by overcoming and subduing, emblematically, as represented by his labors, the beasts and ogres which incarnated many, many centuries-old superstitions and beliefs. One of these was the killing of the already-mentioned and monstrous Minotaur, the half man, half bull son of Pasiphae. With the help of Ariadne, who gave him the golden string which he unwound on the way in to ensure he would be able to find his way out again, he succeeded.
The story is a classic riff on the hero's journey: a descent into chaos, slaying of the dragon, and eventual redemption. Athens became the first, and so far, thankfully, only true democracy – and although it reached dizzying heights of art and culture at the apex of its influence, it eventually dissolved into mob rule and chaos, collapsing under its own idealistic equality experiment about 150 years after its founding. If you think equality is a good thing, in theory or practice, just ask yourself what Socrates would say about it. For more on this, you can read all about it in our O' Journal: On Democracy Parts I and II.
Meantime Daedelus’s maze became and remains a classic call to adventure story – one that we all are fascinated by, afraid of, but long for, and sometimes even embark on, even if it’s only into the tangled psychological underbrush and brambles and messy biological forest in our head. It’s an old, old, old concept, older than any religion – face your fears, embrace the dragon, and you’ll get the gold – because the holy grail of truth is where you least want to look for it for the simple reason because that's where you keep it.
But this monograph wasn't meant to be about Minotaurs and girlfriends, or equality and democracy, changing the world, or anything like that – it’s actually about moules-frites. And the Chartres Cathedral. I’m not being facetious – they’re my Proustian madeleines – in a cheap, pretentious way. With mayonnaise. In a sidewalk café, in the slant shade of a few magnificent flying buttress, on a terrific summer day.