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When Ariadne gave Theseus a thread at the entrance of the Cretan labyrinth, she knew that he could easily find his way in. The challenge was to help him find his way out. Ariadne’s Threadmakes the same assumption of its readers. This book is not an introduction to story lines or the lines of narrative theory. Rather, Ariadne’s Thread assumes that the reader is already caught in a critical labyrinth, that the reader is aware of the many intellectual currents that converge in the multifaceted processes of literary criticism at the end of the twentieth century. Ariadne’s Threadsearches for a way out of this labyrinth by seeking approaches to the complexities of narrative theory.

Writing at the culmination of a distinguished career as professor of English and comparative literature, Miller merges the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of the self, and the grammatology of Jacques Derrida in order to trace a twisted path through several pieces of long fiction, especially George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, 1872), and Jorge Luis Borges’ “La muerte y la brújula” (1951; “Death and the Compass”). The goal of this journey is a theory of narrative composition that sheds light not only on European long fiction but also on the process of literary theory itself. Indeed, Miller’s attention not only is directed outward, toward the creative work of others, but also is directed inward, toward Miller’s own process of critical thinking. Part of the labyrinth in this book consists of the critic tracing his own path through an intellectual maze of deconstruction and reconstruction, of interpretation and reinterpretation.

The journey begins with the ancient Greek myth of the labyrinth, a maze that serves as the central metaphor of Miller’s examination of narrative. The twisted and tangled passageways of the labyrinth parallel the passages that a literary critic must unravel and interpret. Just as Ariadne’s thread was the clue and the key to the Cretan labyrinth, so the word “thread,” with semantic cognates such as “weave” and “line,” becomes in this book the metaphoric key to the problem of literary criticism. Indeed, illustrations of labyrinths on ancient Cretan coins and on the wall of the cathedral in Lucca, Italy, suggest to Miller that Ariadne’s thread merges visually with labyrinthine form. So, too, does thread converge with story line and written line in the labyrinth of literary criticism, in which the image of the line operates in a broad semantic field. Ariadne’s line of thread represents not only the act of writing in phrases such as “to write a line” but also the written character, that is, the letter of the alphabet. Themselves composed of curved and crossed lines, alphabetic designs are transformed into the signs that these lines represent. Word and meaning, morphology and semantics, join via Ariadne’s line, which is itself both a material and a symbolic thread. In the process, the distinction between signifier and signified blurs.

Ariadne’s story does not end in the Cretan labyrinth. Fleeing her homeland with Theseus, the princess is abandoned by the hero on the island of Naxos, where she eventually is rescued by and married to the god Dionysus. Threads unravel and ravel again as Ariadne’s story line merges with that of Dionysus. Miller uses well-known paintings by both Titian and Tintoretto to illustrate how the two are bound in the marriage knot via another line, the circular crown or ring of stars that Dionysus gives his bride. Noting that in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (1883-1895; Thus Spake Zarathustra; 1896) the god informs Ariadne that he is her labyrinth, Miller concludes that the thread is itself a labyrinth, that the story line is a complexity of linguistic and critical fields. Three of these theoretical paths are tracked in separate chapters of Ariadne’s Thread: character line; “anastomosis,” or the line of interpersonal relationships; and the figurative line. Each of these paths requires a detour into the Oxford English Dictionary, detours in which Miller examines the labyrinthine meanings of “character,” “anastomosis,” and “figure,” and their linguistic links with the processes of plotting story line and narrative theory.

“Character,” derived from the Greek word for “stamp,” receives most of Miller’s attention. Although the etymological and literary contexts of “character” suggest predictability and repetition, the word also harbors questions about the nature of selfhood and its relationship with the outside world. Is there any difference between the fictional “character” of a novel and the character of a living self? Are these characters and selves fixed? If so, where does that leave free will, the human ability to choose?

The distinction between inner and outer realities is obscured as Miller deconstructs self as it is portrayed in Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (1910). Ariadne’s thread takes another twist as the traditional unified and static self is posited against a multiple, changing self. This quest for character and self leads Miller through Walter Benjamin’s “Schicksal und Charakter” (“Fate and Character”) and Charles Baudelaire’s writings on Edgar Allan Poe to Jacques Derrida’s concept of an “other” within the self.

Various metaphoric definitions clarify and complicate the character line followed by Miller. In An Autobiography (1883), Anthony Trollope describes character in fixed genetic and sexual terms, while character in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) is seen as a physical alphabet combining both corporal and moral features. The act of reading a character becomes more hypothetical as it merges with astrology and palmistry in Maurice Blanchot’s L’arrêt de mort (1948; death sentence) and with the exotic list of divining of the self via fire (pyromancy), geometry (geomancy), fish (ichthyomancy), and names (onomatomancy) in François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (1653-1694). Edgar Allan Poe’s rejection of such scientologies of character in favor of character as an indecipherable hieroglyph in “Autobiography” finally leads Miller to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), in which language and character hover between two modalities, with the linguistic (or character) sign viewed as either intrinsic or mimetic, as an innate entity or a metaphoric pointer.

From this maze of character lines, Miller emerges with the theory that, in realistic fiction, character serves the double purpose of both affirming and questioning self. Identification between character and self, between the world of imagination and the world of reality, enables character to ward off a reader’s loss of self by enacting such loss in fictional characters. Miller illustrates this duality in an extended analysis of the character of Clara in Meredith’s The Egoist. In this novel, images of mirrors and broken lines reinforce Clara’s volatile nature as she struggles to free herself from her engagement to Willoughby in order to marry Vernon Whitford.

Breaking a promise in order to make another promise places Clara’s marriage vow in epistemological and moral jeopardy. Can such an unstable character make a reliable promise? In order to answer this question, Miller examines the sovereign man in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (1896), the individual who has acquired through discipline and bitter experience the ability to make and keep promises. In the end, sexual imagery associating Clara with chalices, vases, and vessels in The Egoist persuades Miller that the female Clara cannot exactly fit the mold of Nietzsche’s sovereign man because she lacks the biological means. For Miller, Clara lacks will because she is not male.

From an examination of the individual as self or character, Miller moves to paths where “self” intersects with “other,” to interpersonal relationships. These paths Miller calls “anastomosis,” a word that historically carries anatomical, botanical, and topographical associations. “Anastomosis” takes on special interpersonal connotations in the works of James Joyce, in which the word refers simultaneously to human copulation and to the ancestral line. The myth of Ariadne weaves together many such pairings, which are particularly sexual (Ariadne and Theseus or Ariadne and Dionysus) or generational (Ariadne and her half-brother, the Minotaur). In order to confirm the explicitly sexual nature of such relationships, Miller cites an imaginary island in Rabelais’ Le Quart Livre (completed 1552; Fourth Book, 1694) where arbitrary copulation has undermined kinship and inhabitants must seek new and bawdy terms of endearment. Miller follows the complications of such I-Thou relationships through the works of Joyce, in which intersubjectivity becomes a narcissistic attempt to find self in others. In an extended analysis of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Miller reads metaphoric references to mirrors, architecture, and landscape as traces of intersubjectivity in the adulterous relationships among four characters: Edward, Ottilie, Charlotte, and the Captain. Edward’s self-centered love for Ottilie raises two contradictory models of anastomosis, one in which fixed characters interact with each other and another in which selves find meaning and substance only via the very act of anastomosis. Thus Miller’s critical path leads through a maze in which two metaphysical systems both unravel and define each other.

The final route that Miller follows in Ariadne’s Thread is that of figure, which can mean simultaneously an outline of a concrete object or its abstract, artificial representation. The use of such figures in the narrative line is illustrated by Borges’ “Death and the Compass,” a sophisticated detective story in which maps, rhombs, and triangles operate in the undoing of the detective Lönnrot. In this labyrinth, the moment when the murderer is found is also an awful moment of self-discovery and self-destruction for his discoverer. By solving his murder case, Lönnrot causes his own death.

The narcissistic image of the mirror is a refractory motif through Ariadne’s Thread. Reflecting back to Meredith’s The Egoist and Goethe’s Elective Affinities, mirror imagery in Borges’ story line results in an ambiguously double-ended narrative that loses itself in the dizzying logic of Zeno’s famous paradox. Just as Achilles never catches the hare via his infinite series of half-distance sprints, so the shot from Scharlach’s gun lingers in a temporal never- never land between narrative time and reality and never actually kills Lönnrot. Narrative is thus a distorted time capsule in which past, present, and future merge in the depths of the figurative, fictional labyrinth.

Theseus’ labyrinth was perilous not only because it harbored the monstrous Minotaur but also because its intricate passageways made exit impossible. In the end, for Miller all narrative, like Theseus’ labyrinth, is a dangerous catachresis, a linguistic misunderstanding in which words never quite mean what they appear to mean, in which narrative never leads where it seems to lead. Because the process is deconstructive, because there is always another critical path to follow, literary critic and discerning reader remain forever caught in the labyrinth of story lines.

In this process of endless wandering, it is Ariadne’s thread that complicates the path. The narrative itself, with its ambiguous tension between character, anastomosis, and figure, becomes not a thread of escape but a thread of entanglement. Consequently, Miller, following the implicit suggestion of John Ruskin, conflates two Greek myths and identifies Ariadne’s thread with Arachne’s web. The thread of liberation and of solution becomes a web of multiple, self-contradictory interpretations.

As he follows Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth, Miller is not only Theseus. He is at once the Minotaur, consuming his readers in the dangerous maze of critical exegesis, and Daedalus, the skilled craftsman who plans out the many detours and dead ends of the labyrinth and who thus knows the way out.

Sources for Further Study

The New York Review of Books. XL, March 25, 1993, p. 46.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 6, 1992, p. 25.