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We are Lost: But is it in the Labyrinth of Life or the Maze?

Today I thought I would speak about the word “amazement” as it relates to our words maze and labyrinth.

Two semantic lines intersect in the etymology of “amazement”: on the one hand, a reference to the patient activity of weaving; on the other hand, a reference to a loss of mental control.

The former can be related to the constraining dimension of semiosis, evoked through Hjelmslev’s
meta-linguistic choice of “content”, with Leroi-Gourhan’s emphasis on weaving as the technique that models the human conception of orderly cultural patterns, and in Deleuze & Guattari’s views on the fabrication of ‘rippled space’. So in this path we find maze, the root of amazement, as being part of the fabric of the universe itself. Or in other words, we were born to be in the maze of life.

The latter element, that is, a loss of mental control, is equally central in the semantics of amazement. That is why the lexeme “maze” has been extracted from the verb “amazement”.   A naïve etymology has the verb “amazement” derive from “maze”,  but historically the reverse is true.

“Maze” in English designates an amazing place, that is, a place whose intricate weaving represents a challenge to mental control. So here we see that our ancestors were somehow forming a template that used a weaving or maze of consequences, tied to a loss of mental control, if only temporarily, according to the definition.

In this regard, it is interesting to notice that English, unlike other languages, distinguishes between labyrinths and mazes.

Although the semantic line separating the two is thin, the first word is usually referred to intricate spatial structures where nevertheless a single path inexorably leads from entrance to goal; the second word, or the opposite, usually designates complex spatial structures that provide a multiplicity of choices.

The spatial structure of labyrinths is usually unicursal, meaning that it can be traced in one continuous line; the spatial structure of mazes, instead, is usually multicursal, meaning that it cannot be traced in one continuous line.

Both labyrinths and mazes are designed to prompt a cognitive, emotional, and pragmatic response, but in different ways.

Upon entering a labyrinth, one does not know whether its path will take to the goal; one therefore continues to walk through it, anguished by ignorance, while every twist adds to the feeling of spatial and emotional disorientation.

However, finding the exit in a labyrinth is a matter of faith, whereas finding the exit in a maze is a matter of both faith and choice.

In a maze too there is no certainty that the path will take to the goal, but the anguish of the labyrinth is increased by necessity of choice; at every turn, one fears that the wrong decision has been taken. That is why maze in German is called Irrgarten or Irrweg [litt. the garden, the way of erring].

Distinction between labyrinths and mazes helps to more precisely define the semantics of amazement: if maze is the spatial matrix of amazement, then amazement originally is the emotion of feeling lost in front of a vertiginous multiplicity of choices.

The current semantics of amazement, though, tends to bear a positive connotation. “Amazing” is what wonders and surprises in a positive way, generating a feeling of euphoria. However, the euphoric tone of amazement should not surprise. After all, both labyrinths and mazes turn often into playful places exactly for they provide narrative potentiality. Complicated as they may be, indeed, they offer human beings the perfect spatial metaphor of faith and will overcoming ignorance and adversity. The vertiginous thrill created by the meandering structure of the maze adds to the existential fulfillment that one attains coming out of it.

On the basis of these considerations, the semiotic definition of religion as the human dimension of amazement can be more analytically explained.

Like a maze, religious cultures often present believers with an intricate pattern, which manifests itself through the words of sacred texts, the movements of liturgy, the gestures of prayer, etc.

As in mazes, there is something both anguishing and playful about these patterns. On the one hand, the structure of the religious maze seems to constantly remind believers that they are confronted with vertiginous, overwhelming infinity.

On the other hand, the religious maze provides believers with a narrative. That does not simply mean that religions show the way out of the maze they construct, which would be a trivial interpretation of their role. More subtly, it can be argued that the religious maze represents the extraordinarily complex simulacrum of a key existential feature of the human species.

In today’s reality, I don’t believe that we can safely limit the maze effect that provides believers with a narrative to only the religious folk – it seems that we are currently living our lives in the hopes of somehow either understanding or escaping the twists and turns that chance provides to us. And of course we must also take into account the narrative that is fed to us without our direct knowledge or agreement. And that, my friends, is manifestly the most nefarious form.