The Ancient Modern

Minotaur  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

They sent me on a quest, gave me a map and a compass, and told me to find the center of the Labyrinth. I didn’t ask why I should go. In a moment of adolescent confusion, I simply agreed. Others have gone before you, they said, this is how the system works. So I roam the sometimes crowded, sometimes deserted hallways of the maze, observing the pillars and the arches, the ruins and the new construction. Every now and again, I consult the map and the compass.

Crude artwork covers the walls. I mean crude in both senses of the word. The depictions are often poorly rendered and in poor taste. New, hastily scrawled images over older, inscrutable icons and hieroglyphs. So much imagery. I search scene after scene for useful patterns or depth of meaning. I stare and stare until my eyes are sore and my mouth dry from repeating words I hear or invent to correspond with the pictures. Success, Liberation, Sexual, Happiness, Progress, Leadershipthese words appear frequently. I am not sure what they mean.

Long after the journey began, I realized that the compass and the map contradict each other. The compass is useless in this fortress of immovable stone, here where I rarely see the sky. What do north or south mean in a world underground? I do not know if the center of the Labyrinth corresponds to an orient or occident, to an old or new. No one told me. And the map, so it seems as I continue to study it, appears to have been made long ago, before series of renovations. Its as if one maze was built on another.

The map corresponds to some earlier mazenot the original, I think. Maybe to an ideal maze. Maybe to repairs done back in a more cosmologically literate century. I have to conjecture. The paths as I find them and the paths as described by the map have only a vague correspondence. Some streets are still the same. But the houses, shops, landmarkshave they been torn down or burned and rebuilt? How many times? Parts of the maze are not plotted on the map at all. Some doors and passages indicated on the map are blocked, altered or abandoned.

The people I found in the Labyrinth do not speak my language. Though I have the disquieting sense that I once knew theirs. I feel that I used to speak the language of the maze, but have now forgotten it. I recognize words and phrases. I ask directions. But I receive many quizzical looks and hear whispers behind me as I pass.

There are many false Centers. Sometimes, I ask for help and am directed off the main path to a terminus of some kind. They say this is the completion of the quest. Over here is the end. That way, you’ll find what you’re looking for. But these dead ends and cul-de-sacs are always imitations, not real completion. They are often interesting, artistic, comforting. Some are sinister. One room, painted a dreary neutral grey, has walls and ceiling covered with roving, mechanical black beetles. I first took them to be a moving code of points and lines. A message. The effect was hypnotic.

In another place, an auditorium hollowed out of sandstone, a lone orator gives a passionate speech to a huge crowd. The attendees laugh, sigh, weep. They go to be entranced by the speaker. And his own voice entrances him. Both parties give me the distinct impression they are deeply satisfied. I have passed by that room a few times. But I can never stay for long. I can’t understand the words, and the air in there is heavy with the hint of something unpleasant. Humid, but stale.

I once found the most disappointing of these false centers. A filthy hotel room. The hallway I followed became narrower and darker, and subtly transitioned from stone to brick to wallpapered sheetrock. At the end of the hall, a plywood door with a faded number room number and a rusty knob. I knocked. No one answered but I heard a voice or voices inside, so I opened the door cautiously.

On the edge of a disheveled bed, wearing an old T-shirt and briefs sat a thin, middle-aged man holding a knife and muttering to himself. He was familiar. My father? An old friend? Someone familiar. A second glance, and I knew this was not someone else. It was myself or an image of myself. HeIlooked up helplessly as I entered.

I am the Minotaur, he said. I am the monster.

Two simultaneous emotions rose in me immediately: He’s right; all is meaningless, and this is a fake. The two thoughts trapped me between them. I wanted him to be right. I wanted himmeto be the monster. But the image was so contrived, so melodramatic. So Hollywood. I looked at the map. I looked at the compass. No solution.

Compassion and revulsion and frustration rose up in me. Is this the Center? Is this what I am supposed to find? Does it matter if he’s right or if it’s all fake? What if these come down to the same thing? Nothing is real, but even in unreality I am a monster.

Then, I suddenly felt sorry for the figure on the bed. The image may be fake, I thought, but perhaps the suffering is real. And, this was myself. What would I say to myself? I offered to take him out of the room. Do you want to get out of here? Do you want to leave this room? We would search the Labyrinth together. The childhood feeling of wanting and needing a friend, a feeling buried under long distractions and disappointments, returned with such a palpable presence I wondered how it had ever been forgotten. I might befriend myself. Is this the secret of the maze?

But he pointed the knife at me and said again, I am the monster. I am the Minotaur.

So that’s when I knew the hotel room couldn’t be the Center. The voice and the form in there were hollow and inhuman. No person, only a shadow. But I think the reason that room, that one among the many false centers, disappointed me so deeply is that I am certain it contained elements of truth. Maybe the real Center will be some kind of reflection, some kind of revelation. Maybe I will have to confront a knife. I understood the words of the figure in the hotel room, but I had to reject them. Maybe at the Center, there will be a message I can both comprehend and embrace.

Some of the people here indicate that the Labyrinth is easy for them. They seem at home, challenged and content. Most of them have given up trying to find the Center and have chosen chambers or corridors as homes. But I can’t stop searching.

I begin to believe that the Labyrinth changes and expands and deepens depending on the soul of the adventurer. Easy for some, impossible for others. But impossibility is a limit only of the possible. What is beyond possible? Perhaps I cannot yet find the Center because I am not ready to find it. The Labyrinth will lead me out of possibility into the given. Then the Center will appear.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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