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The spiritual hometown of Jorge Luis Borges

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Being in Venice without thinking of Borges is impossible for me.  Although (unlike many other writers, including Henry James) Borges isn't linked to the city through past residency, many of Borges' stories feature labyrinths, among them "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth," "The Two Kings and their Two Labyrinths," "House of Asterion" and "Parable of the Palace" from The Aleph and other Stories; and a collection of his stories was published in English under the title, Labyrinths.  The importance of the labyrinth in Borges' work links him inextricably (in my mind) to Venice, a city and spectacular labyrinth in one.

I'd pondered Borges' fascination with labyrinths.  I know I'm not the first, and I'm sure many compelling explanations of Borges' labyrinth obsession exist.  Wandering around Venice yesterday, however, I came up with my own: a labyrinth is a physical representation of the brain's process of attaining insight.

As Jonah Lehrer writes in his New Yorker article, "The Eureka Hunt":

the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," [Mark] Jung-Beeman [a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University] said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers."  Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up.  The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.  The right hemisphere is also unusually active. . . . We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep. . . . [To attain insights, w]e must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.
A labyrinth mirrors a path "unwound and disorganized," and in a labyrinth, we find ourselves wandering, searching our way, "open to all sorts of unconventional" directions.  In a labyrinth, we may feel lost, but we may also stumble on the Minotaur: wild, dangerous and totally original.  To enter a labyrinth is to embark on an expedition which may end in a creative breakthrough - or a despondent failure - but which in any event takes us beyond the routines of day-to-day living.  (And, in a lovely aesthetic lietmotif, the brain and its neural networks look like labyrinths.)

Perhaps, in setting so many of his stories in labyrinths, Borges was consciously or unconsciously referring to his own creative process.  And perhaps, in constructing their city-republic as a labyrinth, the Venetians were invoking the blessing of the gods of genius.  Among these possibilities, however, is one certainty: in the labyrinth of my neural networks, Borges and Venice are tangled up.

(Bolognino Zaltieri's map of Venice from Wikipedia)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the House of Asterion category.

Emma Zunz is the previous category.

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