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...
(The entire section is 1939 words.)