“Deep in his labyrinth, shaking and going mad,” Rukeyser’s Minotaur stands in a maze, a “crooked city” (Collected Poems) whose apparent order masks a subterranean sphere of madness. We are brought into and through, again and again, the dead-ends and never-ending walls of confinement and isolation. By invoking the imagery of seclusion and despair, Rukeyser may well be directing us towards the ways that ideological systems impose order on madness, trapping citizens into a Minotaur-like existence. In “Letter to the Front,” Rukeyser notes that being Jewish in the twentieth century may involve “Full agonies: / Your evening deep in the labyrinthine blood” (CP) and speaks of “the maze / Of compromise and grief” (CP) of war torn cities. These labyrinthine images highlight the irrationality that underlies totalitarian attempts at order and control. Rukeyser knew well the power of images to represent and challenge political forces. From 1942-43, she was a specialist in the Office of War and Information (OWI), helping to create posters for the allied cause. Though ultimately becoming disillusioned when the OWI seemed to her more interested in advertising than testing the images of war (Gander 33-34), her involvement reveals an appreciation for undermining power through both poetic and artistic imagery.
The historical setting of the Second World War situates my reading of the poem, showing how “The Minotaur” critiques Nazi architectural ideals and their ideological sentiments. In the poem, cities become maze-like sites of suffering and oppression, confining spaces where ghettos separate populations and bring about a condition of bare life. The Minotaur remains “deep in his labyrinth, shaking and going mad,” confined to a network of walls that allows no sheltered home and no rest for the “raving” beast. Writing about the architectural philosophy of the Third Reich, Johann Chapoutot notes, “[W]hat was truly specific to Nazi architecture was its crushing monumentality, which aimed to herd the people and overwhelm or stun the subjected masses,” thus disappearing the individual into “the greater whole of an organic totalitarian entity” (261). The Minotaur’s individualism becomes trapped within the labyrinthine walls. We are invited to find him in his maze, yet we must be “led circuitously about, / Calling to him and close and, losing the subtle thread, / Lose him again.” Our own exploration of his lair turns us into Minotaur-like figures, moving in circles, trapped by the walls of loneliness. In this regard, we can see how the apparent order of a city of walls becomes “crooked” and “roundabout,” entrapping all who enter and herding the masses down blind alleys, feeling “trapped, blinded, led.” We are drawn to the Minotaur; we want to find him, relieve his suffering, understand his pain, remove his loneliness and make him whole. This sympathetic impulse eradicates a herd mentality by seeing in the figure of the deformed creature a neighbor or friend, a glimpse of humanity deformed by the ugliness of violent ideology, a heart that is “lost, lost, trapped, blinded and led,” but still beating.
Chapoutot, Johann. Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past. Translated by Richard R. Nybakken. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.
Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Rukeyser, Muriel. Beast in View. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1944.