Two labyrinths—where would you rather be?


Two Kings and two Labyrinths is a very short story, writ­ten by J.L. Borges. It barely man­ages to fill the space of a sin­gle page; and yet there is enough in it to al­low for an in­ter­est­ing dis­ser­ta­tion.

The ac­tual story is about a ri­valry be­tween two kings: The King of Baby­lon had once in­vited the King of Ara­bia to his cap­i­tal, and there got him to en­ter a labyrinth made of in­tri­cate pas­sages, sur­rounded by tall walls. The King of Ara­bia only man­aged to find his way out af­ter im­plor­ing his God for help. The ex­pe­rience ter­rified him, and he swore that in the fu­ture he would re­pay the Baby­lo­nian in kind, by in­tro­duc­ing him to an­other labyrinth; one par­tic­u­lar to his na­tive and des­o­late Ara­bian realm...

After his vic­tory in war, the King of Ara­bia takes the King of Baby­lon hostage. He brings him to the desert, where, at the end of a three-day jour­ney, he is aban­doned. The desert is an­other kind of labyrinth. It has nei­ther pas­sages nor walls, but still find­ing one’s way out of it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.

A Labyrinth is More Than Just a Pri­son Cell

A labyrinth isn’t just a struc­ture which con­fines; it is one which serves the pur­pose of get­ting one di­s­ori­ented. While a prison cell – re­gard­less if it is name­less and ob­scure or one as fa­mous as the stone vault in Sopho­cles’ play, Anti­gone, which was used to im­prison the hero­ine and slowly drain her of the will to live – is just a sim­ple room, enough to en­close, limit, and cause des­per­a­tion, an ac­tual labyrinth func­tions by al­low­ing the per­son in­side to still hope there is a chance of find­ing a way out… The labyrinth is differ­ent from a group of in­ter­con­nect­ing cells, in that some­where in it one may still dis­cover a pas­sage which will lead to liber­a­tion...

The pos­si­bil­ity of find­ing the exit may be so small that, in prac­tice, one wouldn’t ever suc­ceed in this quest… It’s not im­por­tant, though, be­cause the very form of the labyrinth forces its pris­oner to ac­cept that there are always new routes to ex­plore, or an­other idea to test; the pro­gres­sion from each part of the labyrinth to the next one may be quite monotonous, and al­most re­veal no change, but the pris­oner in­side is ac­tu­ally mov­ing, is still pro­gress­ing – and this al­lows for hope.

The Baby­lo­nian Labyrinth

The first of the labyrinths pre­sented in the story is the one the reader would read­ily iden­tify as a typ­i­cal labyrinth. A maze, filled with cor­ri­dors and fork­ing paths, and with the line of sight in ev­ery one of its lo­ca­tions be­ing cru­cially ob­structed by tall and sturdy ma­sonry. In such an ed­ifice one can at­tempt to ex­am­ine ev­ery minute differ­ence be­tween the nu­mer­ous in­ter­con­nect­ing rooms, as­piring to de­vise some man­ner of iden­ti­fy­ing and then mem­o­riz­ing which paths have already been taken, and come up with a plan that would al­low for the ex­plo­ra­tion of as many ar­eas as pos­si­ble, all the while hop­ing that through a com­bi­na­tion of method­ol­ogy and luck it may hap­pen that the exit will be dis­cov­ered!

Every room has spe­cific forms, and ev­ery step can be – and more­over may have to be – re­traced, to al­low for a pro­gres­sively more thor­ough and valid im­pres­sion in re­gards to the over­all shape of the labyrinth.

The Ara­bian Labyrinth

The labyrinth in Ara­bia is, of course, the desert it­self. It stretches for end­less miles. Here there are no rooms, nor walls, nor any other el­e­ment which changes as one car­ries on walk­ing. It is, in­deed, a labyrinth which con­sists of a sin­gu­lar vast space; and, un­like the Baby­lo­nian type, this labyrinth will re­veal its exit if you sim­ply walk far enough so that the first signs of some­thing other than the desert be­comes visi­ble on the hori­zon… Un­like with the built maze, the desert doesn’t al­low for re­trac­ing of steps; you have to choose a di­rec­tion, and carry on mov­ing. It may, in fact, eas­ily be the case that your very first step and your very first choice has already ei­ther saved or doomed you! Only at a far later point in time will you find out which of the two was true.

While in the built maze you need to form a sense of the over­all pat­tern, keep track of the var­i­ous routes you had taken and con­struct a plan so as to al­low for a new, origi­nal route to be set in ev­ery sub­se­quent at­tempt, in the desert maze you have an in­finite num­ber of routes which only differ in essence in re­gards to their di­rec­tion: if (for ex­am­ple) this desert’s end can only be reached – be­fore your stamina and sup­plies are de­pleted – if you keep mov­ing east­wards, you won’t ever suc­ceed if you moved to the west.

The Cru­cial Differ­ence Between The Two

Both ver­sions of the labyrinth ex­ist so as to achieve the same: pre­vent the one in­side to es­cape with­out con­scious effort. Or, to put it in a more poignant man­ner: not al­low one to leave un­less they had gained a par­tic­u­lar knowl­edge about the labyrinth; the knowl­edge of a way out. After all, no labyrinth can re­main im­pos­ing once you have lo­cated its exit.

But the two ver­sions differ in a very cru­cial way: While the labyrinth of cor­ri­dors will keep you hop­ing un­til the very last sec­ond of your life – for the exit may always be found in the next room and there­fore still be ac­cessible even if you are about to col­lapse, starv­ing and re­duced to crawl­ing on the floor – the labyrinth of noth­ing­ness, the cruel and level plane of the desert, will have in­formed you long be­fore you fall to the sand, never to rise back again, that you already have lost and are to die in­side it...

And yet it must be noted that this differ­ence brings about also a com­ple­men­tary and an­ti­thetic el­e­ment; an el­e­gant jux­ta­po­si­tion: In the labyrinth of cor­ri­dors you will re­tain hope un­til you draw your last breath, yes, but you will also keep be­ing fooled into think­ing your moves up to that point haven’t failed you. In the labyrinth of open space you will be in­formed that you failed, and that you will die, long be­fore it hap­pens – since there won’t be any set­tle­ment visi­ble on the hori­zon, and your body has already shown the tell-tale signs of giv­ing up.

by Kyr­i­akos Chalkopoulos

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I want to ask which of the two types of labyrinth you would rather be in. Cer­tainly one can imag­ine life as a jour­ney in­side (ex­ter­nal as well as in­ter­nal) labyrinths.