As a child, Charlotte Higgins visited the city of Heraklion in Crete and was entranced by the Bronze Age archaeological site at Knossos. Knossos is synonymous with the Greek legend of the labyrinth: Theseus is said to have eluded the Minotaur by escaping from his labyrinth with the aid of a red thread supplied by Ariadne.
“The labyrinth,” writes Higgins, is “both a symbol of the body and its fragile mysteries, and a gesture of optimism that a corner of the universe can be mastered and given pattern and order by the human mind.” In Red Thread, she explores a number of labyrinths in literature and the arts, from those depicted in medieval Hebrew bibles to the maze in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as well as the ruins of several real ones in North Yorkshire, Oxfordshire and Essex.
Here she is perambulating the Maze in Saffron Walden: “The route was intestinal, switching back and back on itself in claustrophobic, dizzying frequency but then—moments of odd relief—coursing in bold, wide swoops for a while.”
Revisiting Heraklion in 2016, Higgins learns that some of the figurines and frescoes that had captured her imagination had been extensively restored or “reconstituted,” sometimes with considerable creative licence. This prompts her to reflect on the afterlives of artefacts, the way they accumulate layers of meaning over time.
Bridging the distance between antiquity and Freudian modernity, Higgins observes that the psychiatrist and the art critic “are like the archaeologist, who must search the discarded ephemera [and] pick out the broken and obscure fragments. Then reconstruct, and build.’’
This erudite and elegantly written book transcends its esoteric subject matter: what begins as an art historical investigation develops into a thoughtful meditation on the nature of intellectual inquiry, and a celebration of human curiosity.
Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape, £25)