A Vision of Complex Symmetry

The Labyrinth in The Man Who Wasn’t There

How to Cite

Shiloh, I. (2007). A Vision of Complex Symmetry: The Labyrinth in The Man Who Wasn’t There. M/C Journal, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2674
Vol. 10 No. 3 (2007): 'complex'
Published 2007-06-01

The labyrinth is probably the most universal trope of complexity. Deriving from pre-Greek labyrinthos, a word denoting “maze, large building with intricate underground passages”, and possibly related to Lydian labrys, which signifies “double-edged axe,” symbol of royal power, the notion of the labyrinth primarily evokes the Minoan Palace in Crete and the myth of the Minotaur. According to this myth, the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull, was born to Pesiphae, king Minos’s wife, who mated with a bull when the king of Crete was besieging Athens. Upon his return, Minos commanded the artist Daedalus to construct a monumental building of inter-connected rooms and passages, at the center of which the King sought to imprison the monstrous sign of his disgrace. The Minotaur required human sacrifice every couple of years, until it was defeated by the Athenian prince Theuseus, who managed to extricate himself from the maze by means of a clue of thread, given to him by Minos’s enamored daughter, Ariadne (Parandowski 238-43).

If the Cretan myth establishes the labyrinth as a trope of complexity, this very complexity associates labyrinthine design not only with disorientation but also with superb artistry. As pointed out by Penelope Reed Doob, the labyrinth is an inherently ambiguous construct (39-63). It presumes a double perspective: those imprisoned inside, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted, are disoriented and terrified; whereas those who view it from outside or from above – as a diagram – admire its structural sophistication. Labyrinths thus simultaneously embody order and chaos, clarity and confusion, unity (a single structure) and multiplicity (many paths). Whereas the modern, reductive view equates the maze with confusion and disorientation, the labyrinth is actually a signifier with two contradictory signifieds.

Not only are all labyrinths intrinsically double, they also fall into two distinct, though related, types. The paradigm represented by the Cretan maze is mainly derived from literature and myth. It is a multicursal model, consisting of a series of forking paths, each bifurcation requiring new choice. The second type is the unicursal maze. Found mainly in the visual arts, such as rock carvings or coin ornamentation, its structural basis is a single path, twisting and turning, but entailing no bifurcations. Although not equally bewildering, both paradigms are equally threatening: in the multicursal construct the maze-walker may be entrapped in a repetitious pattern of wrong choices, whereas in the unicursal model the traveler may die of exhaustion before reaching the desired end, the heart of the labyrinth.

In spite of their differences, the basic similarities between the two paradigms may explain why they were both included in the same linguistic category. The labyrinth represents a road-model, and as such it is essentially teleological. Most labyrinths of antiquity and of the Middle Ages were designed with the thought of reaching the center. But the fact that each labyrinth has a center does not necessarily mean that the maze-walker is aware of its existence. Moreover, reaching the center is not always to be desired (in case it conceals a lurking Minotaur), and once the center is reached, the maze-walker may never find the way back.

Besides signifying complexity and ambiguity, labyrinths thus also symbolically evoke the danger of eternal imprisonment, of inextricability. This sinister aspect is intensified by the recursive aspect of labyrinthine design, by the mirroring effect of the paths. In reflecting on the etymology of the word ‘maze’ (rather than the Greek/Latin labyrinthos/labyrinthus), Irwin observes that it derives from the Swedish masa, signifying “to dream, to muse,” and suggests that the inherent recursion of labyrinthine design offers an apt metaphor for the uniquely human faculty of self-reflexitivity, of thought turning upon itself (95).

Because of its intriguing aspect and wealth of potential implications, the labyrinth has become a category that is not only formal, but also conceptual and symbolic. The ambiguity of the maze, its conflation of overt complexity with underlying order and simplicity, was explored in ideological systems rooted in a dualistic world-view. In the early Christian era, the labyrinth was traditionally presented as a metaphor for the universe: divine creation based on a perfect design, perceived as chaotic due to the shortcomings of human comprehension. In the Middle-Ages, the labyrinthine attributes of imprisonment and limited perception were reflected in the view of life as a journey inside a moral maze, in which man’s vision was constricted because of his fallen nature (Cazenave 348-350). The maze was equally conceptualized in dynamic terms and used as a metaphor for mental processes. More specifically, the labyrinth has come to signify intellectual confusion, and has therefore become most pertinent in literary contexts that valorize rational thought. And the rationalistic genre par excellence is detective fiction.

The labyrinth may serve as an apt metaphor for the world of detective fiction because it accurately conveys the tacit assumptions of the genre – the belief in the existence of order, causality and reason underneath the chaos of perceived phenomena. Such optimistic belief is ardently espoused by the putative detective in Paul Auster’s metafictional novella City of Glass:

He had always imagined that the key to good detective work was a close observation of details. The more accurate the scrutiny, the more successful the results. The implication was that human behavior could be understood, that beneath the infinite façade of gestures, tics and silences there was finally a coherence, an order, a source of motivation. (67)

In this brief but eloquent passage Auster conveys, through the mind of his sleuth, the central tenets of classical detective fiction. These tenets are both ontological and epistemological. The ontological aspect is subsumed in man’s hopeful reliance on “a coherence, an order, a source of motivation” underlying the messiness and blood of the violent deed. The epistemological aspect is aptly formulated by Michael Holquist, who argues that the fictional world of detective stories is rooted in the Scholastic principle of adequatio rei et intellectus, the adequation of mind to things (157). And if both human reality and phenomenal reality are governed by reason, the mind, given enough time, can understand everything.

The mind’s representative is the detective. He is the embodiment of inquisitive intellect, and his superior powers of observation and deduction transform an apparent mystery into an incontestable solution. The detective sifts through the evidence, assesses the relevance of data and the reliability of witnesses. But, first of foremost, he follows clues – and the clue, the most salient element of the detective story, links the genre with the myth of the Cretan labyrinth. For in its now obsolete spelling, the word ‘clew’ denotes a ball of thread, and thus foregrounds the similarity between the mental process of unraveling a crime mystery and the traveler’s progress inside the maze (Irwin 179).

The chief attributes of the maze – circuitousness, enclosure, and inextricability – associate it with another convention of detective fiction, the trope of the locked room. This convention, introduced in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a text traditionally regarded as the first analytic detective story, establishes the locked room as the ultimate affront to reason: a hermetically sealed space which no one could have penetrated or exited and in which a brutal crime has nevertheless been committed. But the affront to reason is only apparent. In Poe’s ur-text of the genre, the violent deed is committed by an orangutan, a brutal and abused beast that enters and escapes from the seemingly locked room through a half-closed window. As accurately observed by Holquist, in the world of detective fiction “there are no mysteries, there is only incorrect reasoning” (157).

And the correct reasoning, dubbed by Poe “ratiocination”, is the process of logical deduction. Deduction is an enchainment of syllogisms, in which a conclusion inevitably follows from two valid premises; as Dupin elegantly puts it, “the deductions are the sole proper ones and … the suspicion arises inevitably from them as a single result” (Poe 89). Applying this rigorous mental process, the detective re-arranges the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent and meaningful sequence of events. In other words – he creates a narrative. This brings us back to Irwin’s observation about the recursive aspect of the maze. Like the labyrinth, detective fiction is self-reflexive. It is a narrative form which foregrounds narrativity, for the construction of a meaningful narrative is the protagonist’s and the reader’s principal task.

Logical deduction, the main activity of the fictional sleuth, does not allow for ambiguity. In classical detective fiction, the labyrinth is associated with the messiness and violence of crime and contrasted with the clarity of the solution (the inverse is true of postmodernist detective mysteries). The heart of the labyrinth is the solution, the vision of truth. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the detective genre: the premise that truth exists and that it can be known. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the initially insoluble puzzle is eventually transformed into a coherent narrative, in which a frantic orangutan runs into the street escaping the abuse of its master, climbs a rod and seeks refuge in a room inhabited by two women, brutally slashes them in confusion, and then flees the room in the same way he penetrated it. The sequence of events reconstructed by Dupin is linear, unequivocal, and logically satisfying.

This is not the case with the ‘hard boiled’, American variant of the detective genre, which influenced the inception of film noir. Although the novels of Hammett, Chandler or Cain are structured around crime mysteries, these works problematize most of the tacit premises of analytic detective fiction and re-define its narrative form. For one, ‘hard boiled’ fiction obliterates the dualism between overt chaos and underlying order, between the perceived messiness of crime and its underlying logic. Chaos becomes all-encompassing, engulfing the sleuth as well as the reader. No longer the epitome of a superior, detached intellect, the detective becomes implicated in the mystery he investigates, enmeshed in a labyrinthine sequence of events whose unraveling does not necessarily produce meaning. As accurately observed by Telotte, “whether [the] characters are trying to manipulate others, or simply hoping to figure out how their plans went wrong, they invariably find that things do not make sense” (7).

Both ‘hard-boiled’ fiction and its cinematic progeny implicitly portray the dissolution of social order. In film noir, this thematic pursuit finds a formal equivalent in the disruption of traditional narrative paradigm. As noted by Bordwell and Telotte, among others, the paradigm underpinning classical Hollywood cinema in the years 1917-1960 is characterized by a seemingly objective point of view, adherence to cause-effect logic, use of goal-oriented characters and a progression toward narrative closure (Bordwell 157, Telotte 3). In noir films, on the other hand, the devices of flashback and voice-over implicitly challenge conventionally linear narratives, while the use of the subjective camera shatters the illusion of objective truth (Telotte 3, 20). To revert to the central concern of the present paper, in noir cinema the form coincides with the content. The fictional worlds projected by the ‘hard boiled’ genre and its noir cinematic descendent offer no hidden realm of meaning underneath the chaos of perceived phenomena, and the trope of the labyrinth is stripped of its transcendental, comforting dimension.

The labyrinth is the controlling visual metaphor of the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir film The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The film’s title refers to its main protagonist: a poker-faced, taciturn barber, by the name of Ed Crane. The entire film is narrated by Ed, incarcerated in a prison cell. He is writing his life story, at the commission of a men’s magazine whose editor wants to probe the feelings of a convict facing death. Ed says he is not unhappy to die. Exonerated of a crime he committed and convicted of a crime he did not, Ed feels his life is a labyrinth. He does not understand it, but he hopes that death will provide the answer. Ed’s final vision of life as a bewildering maze, and his hope of seeing the master-plan after death, ostensibly refer to the inherent dualism of the labyrinth, the notion of underlying order manifest through overt chaos. They offer the flicker of an optimistic closure, which subscribes to the traditional Christian view of the universe as a perfect design, perceived as chaos due to the shortcomings of human comprehension. But this interpretation is belied by the film’s final scene. Shot in blindingly white light, suggesting the protagonist’s revelation, the screen is perfectly empty, except for the electric chair in the center. And when Ed slowly walks towards the site of his execution, he has a sudden fantasy of the overhead lights as the round saucers of UFOs.

The film’s visual metaphors ironically subvert Ed’s metaphysical optimism. They cast a view of human life as a maze of emptiness, to borrow the title of one of Borges’s best-known stories. The only center of this maze is death, the electric chair; the only transcendence, faith in God and in after life, makes as much sense as the belief in flying saucers. The Coen Brothers thus simultaneously construct and deconstruct the traditional symbolism of the labyrinth, evoking (through Ed’s innocent hope) its promise of underlying order, and subverting this promise through the images that dominate the screen.

The transcendental dimension of the trope of the labyrinth, its promise of a hidden realm of meaning and value, is consistently subverted throughout the film. On the level of plot, the film presents a crisscrossed pattern of misguided intentions and tragi-comic misinterpretations. The film’s protagonist, Ed Crane, is estranged from his own life; neither content nor unhappy, he is passive, taking things as they come. Thus he condones Doris’s, his wife’s, affair with her employer, Big Dave, reacting only when he perceives an opportunity to profit from their liason. This opportunity presents itself in the form of Creighton Tolliver, a garrulous client, who shares with Ed his fail-proof scheme of making big money from the new invention of dry cleaning. All he needs to carry out his plan, confesses Creighton, is an investment of ten thousand dollars.

The barber decides to take advantage of this accidental encounter in order to change his life. He writes an anonymous extortion letter to Big Dave, threatening to expose his romance with Doris and wreck his marriage and his financial position (Dave’s wife, a rich heiress, owns the store that Dave runs). Dave confides in Ed about the letter; he suspects the blackmailer is a con man that tried to engage him in a dry-cleaning scheme. Although reluctant to part with the money, which he has been saving to open a new store to be managed by Doris, Big Dave eventually gives in.

Obviously, although unbeknownst to Big Dave, it is Ed who collects the money and passes it to Creighton, so as to become a silent partner in the dry cleaning enterprise. But things do not work out as planned. Big Dave, who believes Creighton to be his blackmailer, follows him to his apartment in an effort to retrieve the ten thousand dollars. A fight ensues, in which Creighton gets killed, not before revealing to Dave Ed’s implication in his dry-cleaning scheme. Furious, Dave summons Ed, confronts him with Creighton’s story and physically attacks him. Ed grabs a knife that is lying about and accidentally kills Big Dave.

The following day, two policemen arrive at the barbershop. Ed is certain they came to arrest him, but they have come to arrest Doris. The police have discovered that she has been embezzling from Dave’s store (Doris is an accountant), and they suspect her of Dave’s murder. Ed hires Freddy Riedenschneider, the best and most expensive criminal attorney, to defend his wife. The attorney is not interested in truth; he is looking for a version that will introduce a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. At some point, Ed confesses that it is he who killed Dave, but Riedenschneider dismisses his confession as an inadequate attempt to save Doris’s neck. He concocts a version of his own, but does not get the chance to win the trial; the case is dismissed, as Doris is found hanged in her cell.

After his wife’s death, Ed gets lonely. He takes interest in Birdy, the young daughter of the town lawyer (whom he initially approached for Doris’s defense). Birdy plays the piano; Ed believes she is a prodigy, and wants to become her agent. He takes her for an audition to a French master pianist, who decides that the girl is nothing special. Disenchanted, they drive back home. Birdy tells Ed, not for the first time, that she doesn’t really want to be a pianist. She hasn’t been thinking of a career; if at all, she would like to be a vet. But she is very grateful. As a token of her gratitude, she tries to perform oral sex on Ed. The car veers; they have an accident. When he comes to, Ed faces two policemen, who tell him he is arrested for the murder of Creighton Tolliver.

The philosophical purport of the labyrinth metaphor is suggested in a scene preceding Doris’s trial, in which her cocky attorney justifies his defense strategy. To support his argument, he has recourse to the theory of some German scientist, called either Fritz or Werner, who claimed that truth changes with the eye of the beholder. Science has determined that there is no objective truth, says Riedenschneider; consequently, the question of what really happened is irrelevant. All a good attorney can do, he concludes, is present a plausible narrative to the jury.

Freddy Riedenschneider’s seemingly nonchalant exposition is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Succinctly put, the principle postulates that the more precisely the position of a subatomic particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa. What follows is that concepts such as orbits of electrons do not exist in nature unless and until we measure them; or, in Heisenberg’s words, “the ‘path’ comes into existence only when we observe it” (qtd. in Cassidy). Heisenberg’s discovery had momentous scientific and philosophical implications. For one, it challenged the notion of causality in nature. The law of causality assumes that if we know the present exactly, we can calculate the future; in this formulation, suggests Heisenberg, “it is not the conclusion that is wrong, but the premises” (qtd. in Cassidy). In other words, we can never know the present exactly, and on the basis of this exact knowledge, predict the future. More importantly, the uncertainty principle seems to collapse the distinction between subjective and objective reality, between consciousness and the world of phenomena, suggesting that the act of perception changes the reality perceived (Hofstadter 239).

In spite of its light tone, the attorney’s confused allusion to quantum theory conveys the film’s central theme: the precarious nature of truth. In terms of plot, this theme is suggested by the characters’ constant misinterpretation: Big Dave believes he is blackmailed by Creighton Tolliver; Ed thinks Birdy is a genius, Birdy thinks that Ed expects sex from her, and Ann, Dave’s wife, puts her faith in UFOs. When the characters do not misjudge their reality, they lie about it: Big Dave bluffs about his war exploits, Doris cheats on Ed and Big Dave cheats on his wife and embezzles from her. And when the characters are honest and tell the truth, they are neither believed nor rewarded: Ed confesses his crime, but his confession is impatiently dismissed, Doris keeps her accounts straight but is framed for fraud and murder; Ed’s brother in law and partner loyally supports him, and as a result, goes bankrupt.

If truth cannot be known, or does not exist, neither does justice. Throughout the film, the wires of innocence and guilt are constantly crossed; the innocent are punished (Doris, Creighton Tolliver), the guilty are exonerated of crimes they committed (Ed of killing Dave) and convicted of crimes they did not (Ed of killing Tolliver). In this world devoid of a metaphysical dimension, the mindless processes of nature constitute the only reality. They are represented by the incessant, pointless growth of hair. Ed is a barber; he deals with hair and is fascinated by hair. He wonders how hair is a part of us and we throw it to dust; he is amazed by the fact that hair continues to grow even after death. At the beginning of the film we see him docilely shave his wife’s legs. In a mirroring scene towards the end, the camera zooms in on Ed’s own legs, shaved before his electrocution.

The leitmotif of hair, the image of the electric chair, the recurring motif of UFOs – all these metaphoric elements convey the Coen Brothers’ view of the human condition and build up to Ed’s final vision of life as a labyrinth. Life is a labyrinth because there is no necessary connection between cause and effect; because crime is dissociated from accountability and punishment; because what happened can never be ascertained and human knowledge consists only of a maze of conflicting, or overlapping, versions. The center of the existential labyrinth is death, and the exit, the belief in an after-life, is no more real than the belief in aliens.

The labyrinth is an inherently ambiguous construct. Its structural attributes of doubling, recursion and inextricability yield a wealth of ontological and epistemological implications. Traditionally used as an emblem of overt complexity concealing underlying order and symmetry, the maze may aptly illustrate the tacit premises of the analytic detective genre. But this purport of the maze symbolism is ironically inverted in noir and neo-noir films. As suggested by its title, the Coen Brothers’ movie is marked by absence, and the absence of the man who wasn’t there evokes a more disturbing void. That void is the center of the existential labyrinth.

Author Biography

Ilana Shiloh