We know the labyrinth, with its enclosing folds, at the claustrophobic center of which resides the secret for which the structure was built. But the negative labyrinth is, perhaps, De Quincey’s invention. You find suggestions of that image all over his work, but most concentratedly in Suspira de Profundis, when he explains his idea of the brain as a palimpsest. The idea is introduced in a very odd and distaff way – De Quincey tells us that his explanation of the palimpsest is aimed at his women readers, who have not taken Greek – or if they have taken it, will politely hold mum, in order not to embarrass their men. This entirely unnecessary gesture is followed by a long discussion of the palimpsest as a metaphor for memory, where traces are erased to receive other traces, and then erased again. Yeet each level can be recovered given the right chemical solution (which, in De Quincey’s case, will definely involve opoids). Although on first glance a palimpsest is not a labyrinthian product, De Quincey’s use of it as a memory model makes it one – a negative labyrinth. Unfoldings here lead to other unfoldings, erasures to other erasures, down and down. It is a vertiginous descent without any inherent limit. The prose generates a host of images, among which the most striking is the phoenix
“Even the fable of the Phoenix, that secular bird who propagated his solitary existence, and his solitary births, along the line of the centuries, through eternal realys of funeral mists, is but a type of what we have done with Palimpsests. We have backed upon each pheonex in the long regressus, and forced him to expose his ancestral phoenix, sleeping in the ashes below his own ashes.”
The negative labyrinth, perhaps, marks a turn in the romantic figure of the labyrinth that leads to modernism. It must have fascinated Baudelaire, De Quincey’s translator (although the Suspira was never published as a whole in De Quincey’s lifetime, so it is possible Baudelaire was unaware of it). We use our escape into the world to go back, link by link, through the chain from which we’ve been freed, to find another chain at its end, that chain also broken – and so on. We are reminded, here, that addictus was the Roman word for creditor. I would draw out this thought at length, but I feel like instead, I’ll simply juxtapose it to a citation from William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities and let the devil take the words from my tongue:
“A curious passage of Gellius (xx.1) gives us the ancient mode of legal procedure in the case of debt, as fixed by the Twelve tables. If the debtor admitted the debt, or had been condemned in the amount of the debt by a judex, he had thirty days allowed him for payment. At the expiration of this time, he was liable to the Manus Injectio and ultimately to be assigned over to the creditor (addictus) by the sentence of the praetor. The creditor was required to keep him for sixty days in chains, during which time he publicly exposed the debtor on three nundinea, and proclaimed the amount of his debt. In no person release the prisoner by paying the debt, the creditor might sell him as a slave or put him to death."