The following is a supplemental thesis from my MA program. At the time an academic thesis was not required, but I wrote this as part of a self-directed studies course under the supervision of Dr. Martin Nakell.
Solipsism and Subjectivity: A Personal Journey into House of Leaves
“A quick re-read of all this and I begin to see I’m tracing the wrong history. Virginia may have meant a great deal to Zampanò’s imagination. It doesn’t to mine. I’m following something else. Maybe a parallel. Possibly harmonic. Certainly personal” (Danielewski 502)
One day in mid-April, 2008, I stood with three Encore NZ3B mallets–two in the left hand, one in the right–in front of a five-octave rosewood marimba along side my percussion instructor.
“Well, if we break up the chord,” my instructor said, “split it up and arpeggiate it to focus on each individual note, we can get a better sense of the intervals, and we can hear how the common tone works in the following chord.”
As is the case with many other music departments, Cal-State Long Beach sponsored lessons for of its students who were music performance majors provided that the student keep up with their practice routine and lessons. This was my second semester at the university level, but I had spent the previous four years in the music department at Riverside City College.
I splayed my left hand fingers as far as I could, but my grip on the two mallets was very awkward.
“I can see the harmonic structure, it’s just a big stretch in the left hand to get that interval,” I said.
I had spent all of my time to that point using the Stevens grip, which is very much like closing the Vulcan salute around the rattan shaft of two mallets. To me it’s a very comfortable and ergonomic grip. However, Long Beach percussion students are expected to use the more common Burton grip, and I was having difficulty translating my muscle memory from Stevens to Burton.
I found it difficult to understand why arpeggiating the chord would help muscle memory. Once a child knows how to say the word “milk” he doesn’t need to spell “m, i, l, k” every time in order to articulate a desire for milk. Why then, I wondered, would I need to practice an entirely different articulation of the chord? I could already articulate the chord well enough, albeit in the dialect of Stevens grip. I wondered, also, whether a chord was like a word, where each note would be a letter, or whether a chord is more like a sentence, where each note is a single word.
As any music major will admit, lessons might be once a week, but often the material to be mastered within that week is enough to challenge even the brightest young musicians for months. At that time I struggled with some relatively fundamental patterns and etudes in the popular Mitchell Peters book. I was frustrated because they were etudes that I had spent the past four years working on at RCC, eventually having reached a point where I felt I could perform anything out of the book with an intuitive grace that may have been far from perfection, but my performance skill had developed enough to elicit an enthusiastic response from my fellow percussionists. I had enjoyed the process of learning the music. I enjoyed taking all of the elements of musicianship–theory, technique, performance, composition, rehearsal, orchestration, improvisation–and combining them to create a more universal and shared experience.
My instructor chided me. “Well, the interval is relatively simple. You just need to go back to the fundamentals. Practice eighth-note double stops on a chromatic scale, working your way up to a ninth, if you can reach it.” He saw all the holes in my playing abilities. Like playing a game of jenga, he had knocked out one haphazardly placed load-bearing block, toppling three years of practice and growth. Was it not that he simply spoke another dialect than I, that we both were attempting to say the same thing, because after all, as Eddie Izzard points out during one of his stand-up specials, dogs “bark” in English, “waouh” in French (Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill). Apparently, though, he thought my syntax was all wrong.
The summer before that I had finally finished reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s (MZD) debut novel, House of Leaves (referred to in this essay as HOL). It had taken me almost nine months to get through. For the whole year afterward, though, daily life was characterized by a euphoric high that defined every situation. I couldn’t help it. I learned to speak to and interact with people differently. For better or worse? Anyone’s guess. I began to see people’s skeletons, their structures, as if their genealogies were worn on their lapel like a “Hello, my name is” sticker, as if the topographies of their personalities were as common as Thomas guides found in the pocket of every car door. While I struggled a great deal in my attempt to understand the road map, so to speak, of the novel, it didn’t feel like an entirely convoluted course. In fact, I had found it to be if not necessarily innovative, then distinctly intuitive. Those nine months had drastically altered and heightened my awareness of language, and I began to severely doubt all of the time I had spent learning the language of music.
MZD was once interviewed by Borders Vision, a review program that aired inside the chain “big box” bookstores and ran on a loop to act as promotional material. He was asked to summarize the plot of HOL. He said, “The story is about a family that moves into a small house in Virginia where they discover that the inside is bigger than the outside by only a quarter of an inch, and yet that discrepancy begins to threaten everything in their family– the relationship between the man and the woman, between the children, and between the children and the parents” (PoesTruePsycho). Understandably, all families experience many sorts of crises that challenge the core of its values. Usually a death in the family, particularly the death of a child, is something that categorically has the potential to either reinforce familial bonds, or sever them entirely. Illness within the family also tests the endurance and the emotional resourcefulness of each member. Financial burdens, alcoholism, gender roles, physical distance, war, and time in general are all forces that weigh upon the nuclear family, force it to change, adapt. The house on Ash Tree Lane that the Navidson family move into, however, is something from an entirely different world. There is no precedent, and certainly no explanation for that initial quarter of an inch discrepancy, which turns out to be much, much more than a quarter of an inch. The house presents a paradigm that is distinctly non-categorical. Therefore, the stress which is placed upon this family is beyond horror.
The family is Will Navidson and Karen Green, who are unmarried, and their two children, Daisy, 5, and Chad, 8.
Navidson is a Vietnam War veteran and Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist. He has every quality of “an adventurer willing to risk his personal safety in the name of achievement” and is often away from his family on lengthy assignments for National Geographic and other major publications (House 60). Though it is a particularly obscured motif, the photograph he is awarded the Pulitzer for becomes a center point of the novel and is key to understanding his psychological turmoil. It is based on the infamous 1993 photo by Kevin Carter as he documented the Sudanese famine, and it depicts a toddler girl hunched over with her face in the gravel, unable to move do to severe malnutrition, while a vulture stands just a few meters away seemingly awaiting the girl’s death (Fig. 1).
Carter was awarded the Pulitzer the following year, and only three months afterward he committed suicide. Suffice it to say, Will Navidson carries the same burden that Carter does: the guilt of having done little else for the girl but take her picture, the shame of having benefitted, indeed profited from her distress, misanthropic disgust for a sociopolitical structure that causes such suffering. Unlike Carter, though, Navidson at least expresses his burden by further dedicating himself to his work. However, this dedication contributes to a rift that grows between he and Karen, and they decide to move their family to Vermont in order to close the distance between them, to reconcile their relationship. True to his nature, Will is unwilling to leave his line of work entirely, but “Karen has made it clear that [he] must either give up his professional habits or lose his family,” and so “he compromises by turning reconciliation into a subject for documentation” (10). He places a series of Hi-8 camcorders around the home that are attached to motion sensors so that they record every family member’s movements and interactions. His intent is to turn his findings into a documentary about the family, which becomes The Navidson Record. Of course, though, the cameras document far more than that.
Karen is a former super model who, for the most part, has left behind “her life of Milan fashion shoots and Venetian Masques in order to raise her two children” (11). However, as a result of sexual abuse by her step father during her childhood, she retains some deeply seated insecurities which she carries into her relationship with Will and often unjustly holds him accountable for. Throughout the family’s time in the house and during the “explorations” into the “five and a half minute hallway” Karen is the “standard bearer of responsibility and is categorically against risks, especially those which might endanger her family or her happiness” (60). It becomes clear, however, that she is unable to cope with the stress of the deteriorating circumstances of the house, adamantly avoiding all conflict and complication having “molded her desperation into a familiar pose of indifference” (59). Indeed, she often places the children between she and Will, using them to leverage her ultimatum to him, to choose passivity or else.
I had grown weary of passivity myself, seen the inherent conflict in it, the paradox. It seemed that I was often at odds with my fellow music majors. On one occasion two of the grad students, a flute player and a percussionist, were in one of the percussion rooms intensely rehearsing a duet written by some up-and-coming hotshot composer from the east coast. I was outside taking a break from my own practice, munching on some trail mix. I thought their piece was at times interesting, but mostly it sounded like Eddie Murphy’s aunt Bunny falling down the steps: bang, boom, crash, sizzle, slap, whistle whiiiiiiiistle, doom, blam, whiiistle, floom, flap, bassssshhhh.
They stepped outside for a momentary break. I asked them how the piece made them feel.
“Feel?” said the flute player. “What do you mean?”
The thought occurred to me that I didn’t know exactly what I meant either.As I said, I was becoming skeptical of music, skeptical of what was supposedly being said in music, the dialogue that supposedly occurred between composer, performer and audience. However, I also knew that music was multifaceted, with layers of onion skin plausibility, and I had hardly peeled the first few layers. I felt very strongly that somewhere along my journey through HOL I had discovered a linguistic layer that was far more complex than what I knew my fellow music majors and even a few of my instructors had ever reached. The largest problem I faced, though, was that my skepticism of the music extended to encompass almost everything in my daily life, layers of meaning built arbitrarily atop other layers of arbitrary meaning. This was clearly a digression, because only children ask “why?” endlessly scratching at every frame of their own narratives until the conclusion is drawn that there are, in fact, no conclusions. Though, this may simply be part of the “postmodern condition,” for as Jean-François Lyotard says, postmodern is that which “puts forward the unrepresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms,” and “that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unrepresentable” (Lyotard 81). Those two grad students only haphazardly missed the meaning of the music they were rehearsing, it was far over their heads. I, on the other hand, knew that no matter how many layers of complexity I drew back, meaning never actually existed, the music was a signifier for which there was no signified. I wanted to expose the farce of the music, but I also felt entirely unqualified, and incapable of doing so. I certainly harbored some jealousy of them. They could properly translate the semiotic construct of the music on the page to its phonologic representation for the audience to hear, and they did so without question or inhibition, totally trusting both manifestations of the music. Moreover, I was angry that they were entirely unmoved, unchanged by the music itself, totally indifferent to the process of learning it. Mostly, though, I was jealous that they seemed entirely willing to allow the music to affect them only in the interest of a final product. For them, the phenomena of music merely occurred as a one-way exchange: music the program, they the automatons, a matter of input and output. They harbored no skepticism, did not struggle to find meaning in the music, experienced no horrific no-man’s land of existential war each time they picked up their instrument. For them, a single note on the page was directly equal to a single pitch on their instrument. If ever I saw, for example, a B flat, I asked, “Why not an A sharp or a C double flat? Why an eighth-note, why not a tied pair of sixteenths? What is that B flat’s relation to the notes before and after? How is that B flat relevant?” and so on. Another layer of the onion removed, revealing only another layer.
HOL is a metafictional novel which uses the framed, or embedded narrative technique with multiple layers, threads of narrative that are successively embedded within the previous. John Barth, for example, uses this technique in the “Menelaiad” chapter of Lost in the Fun House where there is one main narrative in which a character tells a story about a character telling a story about still another character telling another story, and so on for six levels of narrative that are embedded within one larger, framing narrative. Barth achieves this, or indicates the levels with the use of compounded quotations:
“ ‘ “ ‘ “‘Why’ I repeated,” I repeated,’ I repeated,” I repeated,’ I repeated,” I repeat. “ ‘ “ ‘ “And the woman, with a bride-shy smile and hushèd voice, replied: ‘Why what?’ (Barth 152)
This technique tests and exposes the limits of the form of the novel as a medium by placing stress upon traditional notions of chronology, characterization, and narrative voice. After all, postmodern works often “begin with the view that both the historical world and works of art are organized and perceived through structures, or frames,” and at the same time these works framing as a narrative “problem” (Waugh 28). Metafictional novels explicitly address the “arbitrary nature of beginnings, of boundaries,” and they often present or suggest multiple possible endings, fracturing linearity (29). HOL also uses this same technique. However, instead of using quotation marks, as in Barth, the narrative levels are discovered through a very complex network, or “road map” to use a musical term, of footnotes. In this way, each level is compounded, or expanded upon contextually through footnotes that are embedded within other footnotes. As such, there are many ways to read the novel, or many pathways through this roadmap, thus multiple endings. By beginning the novel from the standpoint of any one narrative thread as the center point from which all other threads emanate, I argue that it is possible to discover hundreds, possibly thousands of pathways to read through the novel. That is, in a manner very much like the Choose Your Own Adventure series published by Bantam Books in the 1980s, the reader chooses, on whim or after serious contemplation, whether or not to follow any given footnote knowing that it may very well lead to a series of other footnotes and so traverse the gap between each level of narrative. Furthermore, because of the interrelated contextual elements that are present in each thread–the intra- and intertextual references–it is possible to follow pathways that lead the reader to entirely external sources outside of the novel, and in doing so, discern an infinite amount of meaning from the text. This notion of exteriority which suggests an infinite expanse is something that MZD explored on a more focused level with his second book, Only Revolutions, but it is still very much present in HOL. During a reading at Columbia University in 2006 he said, “Another big theme for me was the exterior, or outside. House of Leaves was consumed with ancestors and progeny. It was all about the interior. So for me, there was an energy that was saying, ‘I wanna go outside, outside of myself’” (mzdinfo). This exteriority creates a three-dimensional pathway for the reader that replicates the experience of the infinitely expanding, labyrinthine nature of the house. For the purposes of this paper, though, I will focus mainly on the narrative thread that includes the relationship between Will and Karen.
This notion of drawing an infinite number of conclusions from the novel is not necessarily exclusive to metafictional works, though, because every text, no matter its form and content, can be examined through the scrutiny of any form of subjectivity, be it the microcosm of a single reader’s disposition, or the macrocosm of entire schools of critical theory. It is this very notion that the structure of HOL, the successively embedded narratives, directly addresses. In order to understand the significance of this we must first clarify what we mean when we use the term, metafiction. Stylistically, metafictional works address the fact that they are fictional, they “self-consciously and systematically draw attention to [their] status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh 2). Metafiction, then, is the stylistic antithesis of the more traditional narrative, which depends almost entirely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The very premise of The Navidson Record within HOL is one that is absolutely absurd: the house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The metafictional element of the narrative, however, is not a house that defies all laws of physics, but the fact that the events within the house are observed, documented, and analyzed. Indeed, the only glimpse of the house and Navidson’s family that the reader ever actually experiences is dramatically obscured through the hazy lens of multiple layers of narrative that constitute the novel.
As I said, there are many different “starting points” at which to begin reading the HOL, but for the purposes of this essay I examine the most fundamental model of its structure (Fig. 2 ).
At the core of the novel is Will and his family, along with his brother Tom, his friend Billy Reston, and the “Exploration Team” who’s ventures into the house turn disastrous and deadly. One could argue that this layer of narrative does not even exist within the context of the novel because all of the events that are documented happen exclusively as a matter of hearsay, at least according to the next level. The Navidson Record is the supposed film which documents all that happens inside the house. This layer is comprised of three main segments, The Navidson Record itself, the short film “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway” which is a precursor to The Navidson Record, and Karen’s short film, A “Brief History of Who I Love,” which she makes after she initially leaves the house resolute to stay away. Again, though, the verisimilitude of this layer comes into question when considering the context of the layer it is embedded within. The next layer compounds the complexity of the novel for the reader. This layer is House of Leaves, which is a critical analysis, or exploration of the documentary, The Navidson Record, as it has been dictated by a mysterious blind man, Zampanò, to various stenographers. The book remains unedited and unfinished because Zampanò died before ever completing a first draft. Just as the first layer, this layer of narrative is questionable considering the circumstances of the layer it too is embedded within. The troubled Johnny Truant might be considered the main character of the book. Truant comes into possession of the manuscript for Zampanò’s House of Leaves and it is he who addresses the reader directly as he narrates, or dictates what he reads from House of Leaves, throughout which he adds his own annotations that are, for all intents and purposes, his personal journal. However, Truant is not, by any means, a reliable narrator. The journalistic nature of his annotations suggest not only that he interacts with the text–the interaction itself further suggesting the metafictional self-referential element in that Truant directly responds to the very form of Zampanò’s work as an “artifact” of narrative–but also that he may not be relating House of Leaves to the reader as directly as he suggests. He may, in fact, be changing information as he transcribes it. Whatever his reasons might be for altering Zampanò’s work, the reader is never privy to them beyond speculation. Just as with the other layers, the reader must be ever skeptical of Truant and hyperconscious that the novel itself, the thing that the reader holds in their hands, is also very much a narrative layer. Again, all of these layers comprise a single model for reading HOL, but because there are many possible models, or many pathways, even the outermost layer of the narrative, the one which the reader inhabits, also becomes questionable. Since there is no fixed point at which to sufficiently anchor the novel, it remains elusive to any definition that the reader might attempt to place upon it. That is, the MZD’s novel is as elusive to the reader’s definition as the House is to Navidson.
Of course, I feel that this is a maladroit attempt to articulate the complex structure of this novel. Though, the ineffectuality of any model for the novel is an inherent trait of its metafictional style. A large part of understanding its complexity is to accept a great deal of suspension of disbelief regardless of its explicit farce quality. Therefore, I must believe Truant is telling the truth about Zampanò, that, in turn, Zampanò is telling the truth about The Navidson Record, and that further still, Navidson and Green tell the truth as best they can in their composing and editing of The Navidson Record, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” and “A Brief History of Who I Love.” In fact, I have complete empathy for Navidson and Green, for it is their struggle that I most relate to. Their story has helped me see small discrepancies that had been revealed in my own life, clues that suggested that the chasm of my own subjectivity is deeper than I thought possible. Call it an existential crisis, call it what you may, I felt like HOL had hollowed me out, laid bare the threads of whatever my personality had been. In fact, I had lost weight during the time I read the book. I stopped listening to music, lost touch with close friends, deleted my social networking accounts, and generally stopped responding to emails; like Johnny, I exhibited all of the telltale signs of crisis, removing oneself from joy and social interaction. Strangely, though, I felt like I was healthier than I had ever been, like finally having understood a punchline that had been lost on me for years, possibly my whole life. I was on the other side of the lacanian “horizon of desire” laughing to myself because all I had found when I got there was yet another “endlessly receding horizon” still further away (Mansfield 46). That is, I wanted desperately to discover inherent meaning within the music that I studied, but instead I found that there is no meaning inherent to anything, let alone music, and that meaning is only the projection of my own subjectivity upon a totally arbitrary signifier. Granted, at the time I was entirely unable to articulate this to others, certainly not even myself. It is precisely an inability to articulate one’s state of being that Will and Karen grapple with, so much so that their relationship disintegrates.
For Will, his most significant clue is the “dark doorless hallway” that appears in the living room of the house, which is the subject of “The Five and Half Minute Hallway,” a short film released as a sort of trailer to the The Navidson Record (Danielewski 57). The hallway can be seen as a portal that leads to the ever expanding, maze-like dungeon of the house. The film is shot entirely in first person perspective as Navidson holds the Hi-8 video camera to demonstrate the existence of the hallway despite its impossibility. The hallway extends beyond an exterior wall, and yet there is no structure beyond the wall outside. Having been forbidden by Karen to actually enter the hallway, Navidson puts his hand just beyond the threshold. When he is asked if he senses anything about the hallway that is different from the rest of the house aside from the peculiarity of its existence, Will responds, “It’s freezing in there” (5). The “freezing” quality suggests not coldness, but a lack of atmosphere, a lack of physical substance with which to describe the house as the container of. Much the same, the walls of the hallway, as well as the the depths of the house, are “ashen black,” suggesting a lack of light, and therefore a void of material property. But what’s so horrific about this moment at the threshold of the hallway is that Will not only stands at the threshold of the mysterious, endless deep of the house, he stands at the edge of his own psyche, the single thread that connects his self-awareness to some sense of an irrefutable truth about his existence. All that need happen for that self-awareness to become void and for that truth to become farce is for him to step across the threshold and enter the hallway. Of course, he must enter the hallway to explore the house, it is inevitable. As he says in a final letter to Karen before entering the house one last time:
Why am I doing this? Because it’s there and I’m not. I know that’s a pretty shitty answer. I should burn the place down, forget about it. But going after something like this is who I am. You know that (389).
Once inside the hallway Navidson discovers a world that has no boundary, no limit, no descriptive quality of any kind. Here the structure of the house shifts, alters, changes form spontaneously and endlessly as it takes on every possible form without pattern or predictability. I’d like to say that the house’s endlessness repealing of definition is symbolic of Navidson’s subjectivity, but that would be to incorrectly anthropomorphize the house and assume that it has its own subjectivity. What’s more horrific, is that for the very same reason the house eludes all definition, it also escapes the pages of the novel, becoming absolutely real. After all, what is “real,” in the lacanian sense, is “simply that which lies outside” of the two imaginary and symbolic “domains, and is unapproachable by them” (Mansfield 44). The house is not self-reflective and does not have any inherent unity precisely because it is infinitely deep. There is no mirror image of it, no precedent for it, and so there is no separated “other” to contextualize and prescribe understanding of it through any “discourse of the other” (43). There is no symbol of the house and it is not itself a symbol. It is no signifier, it simply is. And so, “Without sound or movement but by presence alone, the hallway creates a serious rift in the Navidson household” (Danielewski 60). Despite Karen’s fears and her adamant insistence that the hallway and the house be left alone, Will is driven to understand the house, to reconcile its impossibility with what he knows to be true. But his efforts are futile because the only tool he has to interpret it is language, a system of comprised entirely of symbols that forever differs meaning to a place beyond the horizon of his understanding, beyond the reaches of his subjectivity.
Presuming that it is inherent to human nature that we must ascribe meaning to every phenomena and every experience in order to justify our existence, Will is compelled deeper and deeper into the house to attempt to at least qualify and quantify it if not define it altogether. Yet, he is entirely unsuccessful. Even for as talented a photographer as he is, he is still unable to capture the immensity of the house. And so, he begins to break down emotionally and psychologically, the thread of his self-awareness snapped. His struggle to define the house has illuminated his struggle to define his own self, to reconcile his past and present. Later in his bourbon-laden letter to Karen he writes,
I miss you. I miss you. I won’t read this. If I do I’ll throw it away and write something terse, clean and sober. And all locked up…a code to decipher written by a guy who thought he was speaking clearly. I’m crying now. I don’t think I can stop. But if I try to stop I’ll stop writing and I know I won’t start again. I miss you so much. I miss Daisy. I miss Chad. I miss Wax and Jed. I even miss Halloway. And I miss Hanson and Latigo and PFC Miserette, Benton and Carl and Regio and 1st lieutenant Nacklebend and of course Zips and now I can’t get Delial–the name I gave to the girl in the photo that won me all the fame and gory, that’s all she is Karen, just the photo… (391)
As he crosses the psychological threshold of the hallway, Navidson begins to traverse the boundaries separating narrative threads that make up his history. He steps through a mental doorway, so to speak, leaving behind the narrative of his family and their experience of the house, and enters the chamber of his time spent in Vietnam, a room filled with the ghosts of fellow battalion members who died in combat. Then he steps through another mental doorway, this time entering the chamber of Delial. The doorway itself is very distinct, “gory.” Of course, the word is a double entendre. Navidson means to type “glory,” a notion commonly used to rally troops into battle. But he also recognizes the horrific way in which his friends were killed, gory being the adjective. He also recognizes the particular lack of “glory” in his winning the Pulitzer for his photograph of Delial. All of these rooms, these psychological chambers are interconnected, they share walls, walls which he built over time to protect his family and minimize his guilt. Further in the letter he writes,
…no people just a vulture and a fucking photojournalist i wish i were dead right now i wish i were dead that poor little baby this god god awful world im sorry i cant stop thinking never have never will cant forget how i ran with her like where was i going to really run i was twelve miles from nowhere i had no one to her no window to pass her through out of harms way no tom there i was no tom there and then that tiny bag of bones just started to shake… (393)
Not only has the bourbon almost totally impaired his ability to complete a thought, it has also begun to dissolve the very walls of language that have prevented him from speaking directly to Karen about how he feels. He becomes uninhibited by grammatical rules as the playing field of subjectivity is leveled, the pronoun “I” is reduced to “i,” essentially removing the subject of the sentence so that his thoughts flow freely, one becoming the next. It is only through this uninhibited deluge of thought, a solipsism to the most extreme level, that Will actually transcends solipsism altogether and opens himself to an entirely external, or outward flow of subjectivity. That is, he is free to expand his identity, subjectivity, to infinite faculty and explore every possible form of Will Navidson. The letter, though, is only a precipice from which Will is able to peer into the realm of infinite possibility. However, we must keep in mind that Karen is actually reading the letter, and that by the time she reads it, Will has already reentered the house and is assumed lost forever beyond the ever receding horizon of their relationship.
In those first two years at Long Beach State I too had lost myself beyond that same horizon having wandered the labyrinthine narratives of history and genealogies, futilely and hopelessly lost in my own solipsism. I knew in that moment with my instructor something was missing, something was out of tune, so to speak.
“Well,” my instructor said, “as you see here it’s a simple minor-seven chord that’s being arpeggiated. Maybe you need to spend this coming week practicing those intervals, getting the spacing set in muscle memory.”
Spacing, he said. He was referring to the distance between the rosewood bars, or more specifically, the distance between the center of each bar. But, because marimbas use graduated bars, meaning each bar is successively smaller the higher in pitch, the distance between the centers of the bars decreases as one works up the chromatic scale
I had a hard time suppressing my frustration. I had played through the twenty-four bar etude probably a thousand times by that point. I knew it by memory. There were many late nights where lying in bed, lights out, eyes wide open, the melody looped ceaselessly in my head. I was frustrated at being frustrated. Bored, exhausted, annoyed, angry; all of the telltale signs of burnout.
Not a minute later my instructor said something. To this day I can’t remember what, exactly, he said, but it was something about an interval jump and a common tone between two otherwise clashing chords which created dissonance in the general harmonic structure of the etude. Whatever it was though, I responded by saying that it reminded me of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and I even referenced Tchaikovsky’s homage to Shakespeare. My instructor was quiet for a moment and stared at me. I took a moment to explain what I meant, but it became clear to me that he did not understand the reference. I wouldn’t say that it was an obscure reference by any measure. Not only is the balcony scene in the play among the most recognizable moments in all of literature, but Tchaikovsky’s “love theme” is among the most recognizable musical motifs in all of contemporary western music. I found it difficult to believe that he was unable to follow the train of thought. Judging by his reaction, even if he did understand the gist of Romeo and Juliet, he certainly didn’t understand the connection I had made. He seemed like a child to me during that moment. But unlike a child, he seemed to resist expanding upon some idea, his natural curiosity having been smothered by decades immersed in the single language of music. Poetry, theatre, film, photography, sculpture, textiles, oil, acrylic, and water color were all lost on him, subservient to music in his world view. Obviously there’s no way for me to know for sure what exactly my instructor was thinking, but there were many times thereafter that I tested my assessment of him, from which I generally came to the same conclusion.
This experience was only one of many similar moments during my time as a music major at Long Beach, but it was the moment that I decided that I needed to move on to a focus that better suited my intellectual thirst and aesthetics. In fact, immediately after the lesson I scheduled a meeting with an academic advisor to change my major to English.
A change of major midway through a degree is, of course, very common, but it was a very difficult and personal decision for me. At one point in time I loved music. I had come to depend on it, trust it, and I worked myself to the point of emotional exhaustion trying to understand the language. I’d say that I desired to command it. I wanted to be able to compose symphonies that rivaled the greatest musical works. I wanted to respond to Tchaikovsky, challenge Mahler, scare John Cage and John Williams. To think, the comic hubris of that last statement. It’s mostly a symptom of my desire to create, to forge and expand meaning. Like Will and the house, I needed to learn everything I could about music, driven to define and categorize it. However, also like Will, I was immediately faced with an inherent existential problem. Like Nietzsche’s challenge to Christians, the challenge to the notion that “belief makes blessed, therefore it is true,” I believed, in part, that the language of music was objective, that an arpeggiated minor-seven chord meant something particular (Nietzsche 178). Of course, this is not so. As with every other language, the grammatical structure of music–rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structure–does not mean anything in particular, and can be interpreted in many ways. I had no idea what a seventh chord meant, no way to connect a musical phrase to any sort of qualifiable meaning. I wanted to believe this very much, but my empirical understanding of music never equated to that belief. Will lost in the house, I lost in music. Both of us lost in solipsism. Yet somehow I reappeared at the end of the second year, an apparition of myself but intact, like Will and Karen at the end of the novel after they finally escape the house that had swallowed their love and their lives.
The severity of the solipsistic inward gaze actually suggests an outward expression, outward expanse. In this way, regardless of its immensity, regardless of its threatening paradoxical existence, the house becomes entirely trivial when compared to the immensity of Will and Karen’s struggle to keep their family together. Long after they split up and communication between them breaks down entirely, Karen makes her first attempt at understanding what has happened to her family. As an addendum to the unfinished The Navidson Record she interviews famous authors, critics, artists, architects for their analysis of clips from the film. French linguist Jacques Derrida is among these fictitious interviewees.
Derrida: Well that which is inside, which is to say, if I may say, that which infinitely patterns itself without the outside, without the other, though where then is the other? (Danielewski 361)
I think I understand Derrida’s comment. Though, there needs to be a sifting of his words so that the sentence becomes, “That which is inside patterns itself without the outside.” Though, this interview is something of a comical point in the novel. MZD knows a great deal about the inherent unintelligibility of derridean theory because he is actually a Derrida scholar and was even a sound editor for the biographical documentary film, Derrida (2002). In any case, this fictional Derrida seems to support the notion that the severe solipsism that Will, and eventually Karen experience leads to an acceptance of the house, an acceptance that elevates them out of their fears of it. That is, if the house were to exist as an entity that was consistent with the physical norms of the world outside of it, then Will would have no reason to explore it and Karen would have no reason to fear and avoid it. The inside of the house would simply be that which is not outside the house, nothing more than ordinary and inconsequential. However, because the inside is something so remarkably alien to all patterns before it, they are confronted with the possibility of their own infinite expansion of subjectivity. Whatever the form that expansion takes is entirely up to them, but they can never return to the trite norm of their condensed lives.
Will and Karen’s discovery is not entirely unique to HOL. For example, the narrative voice in Martin Nakell’s Two Fields that Face and Mirror Each Other expands to other points of view, and so too do the novel’s characters expand to become ever more complex. With each chapter of the novel there is a point of view shift that allows for every character to be explored through the point of view of every other character as well as through their own stream of consciousness. In the beginning of chapter four, Gloriana walks along the streets of New York lost in her own thoughts. There is a distinct, but entirely fluid point of view shift from third-person-limited to third-person-omniscient and finally to first-person stream of consciousness:
Without any specific plan, Gloriana walks cross-town all the way to Broadway. Going down into the subway, she takes the number 6 train up to 57th Street, where she gets out and keeps walking uptown. Once, she thinks, walking, once it was science and religion that were at odds with each other. Now it’s science and emotion, isn’t it? Science versus feeling. Reason versus emotion. Is that the cause of my restlessness, I am of my time and they are divided? Why can’t they come into harmony? The masks themselves, she thinks, which are beyond reason, speak in the language of the particular, which must be a form of reason. Even meaning, which is an emotion, has its logic, doesn’t it? Can I find no more direct meaning than that? Am I so very trapped in it, in reason’s logic? My face, bare to the afternoon’s warm thick air. On my face against my face around my face around my eyes. Oooops. Stand still. This city. None other quite like it this city of brick and cement. How is that brick and cement become such living objects in the tepid air of this city? As thought they absorb the air, as though they too breathe it. The verticallity of the buildings. Solid, living brick. Incorporates science incorporates reason… (Nakell 34)
The narrative voice shifts with the sentence, “Now it’s science and emotion, isn’t it?” and steps across the narrative threshold away from a more objective, or normal point of view. Normal, that is, to the reader who is an observer, and in the sense that it is a relatively simple, almost trivial sequence of events, observable also to anyone who might pass by Gloriana. But as the narrative shifts into the omniscient mode, Gloriana’s subjectivity comes into focus, a subjectivity that is much more broad. Then as she asks the question, “isn’t it?” she transcends the physical and becomes entirely metaphysical. She is no longer inhibited by any physical boundary of a body and is free to transform from one state of subjectivity, one concerned with reason and science, to an other state, concerned with feeling and emotion. Of course, the binaries that she has set up, reason and feeling, are separate chambers of her subjectivity, but she actively chooses to tear down the walls between those chambers. She seeks to move beyond mere binary oppositions, a two dimensional and horizontal plane, and expand her self-awareness with the “verticallity” that she sees in the “living objects” of the “brick and cement” buildings in order to find a “more direct meaning.” Reason and logic to her is the state of subjectivity, or “mask” that she has been ascribed, and it’s a mask that she is encapsulated in, wears like a second skin “on [her] face around [her] face.”
Another example of this ever transforming subjectivity is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, which is also very solipsistic, if not simply egocentric at times. Her “lurid, vulgar, and hectic” thoughts are also uninhibited by grammar or punctuation, stream-of-consciousness that flows like the River Liffey, fluidity being a central motif in the novel (Nabokov 362).
…shes mad in love with him that I wouldnt so much mind Id just go to her and ask her do you love him and look her square in the eyes she couldnt fool me but he might imagine he was and make a declaration to her with his plabbery kind of a manner like he did to me though I had the devils own job to get it out of him though I liked him for that it showed he could hold in and wasnt to be got for the asking he was on the pop of asking me too the night in the kitchen I was rolling the potato cake theres something I want to say to you only for I put him off letting on I was in a temper… (Joyce 612)
Nabokov says that, as a whole, Ulysses is “a deliberate pattern of recurrent themes and synchronization of trivial events” (Nabokov 289). Because there are so many of them, and because the interrelation between them seem to exponentially compound the significance of each, these recurring themes become the ever expanding chasm of subjectivity. What is essential to understand with this excerpt, is that whatever form Molly’s subjectivity is throughout the novel–she subsists mostly in the thoughts of her husband, Leopold Bloom–, by the time we begin her chapter, the “Penelope” chapter, we learn that she is capable of many, many new forms. Indeed, in this short selection we register a distinct transformation from one state of mind to another as she moves from a very bleak thought, “look her square in the eyes she couldn’t fool me,” to a very sentimental one, “he was on the pop of asking me too.” She seems two entirely different people, first someone who is bitter and jealous, then someone who is loving and somewhat romantically nostalgic. This shift in temperament, albeit a slight one, suggests that if she can so easily change her state of mind within the the course of a single microcosm of a thought, then she is capable of much more drastic transformations. These transformations also include images, because she does “not think continuously in words–[she thinks] also in images” (363). She thinks of the kitchen in which her moment with Bloom takes place. The kitchen itself takes on form, or is, again, a solipsistic expansion of her subjectivity catalyzed by her memory of the moment. If she were to continue thinking through this memory, or the following minutes or hours after the particular moment, she would eventually be able to recreate the whole city of Dublin. However, the paradox is that in the very same instant she recalls the memory, or recreates the image of the kitchen from her memory, she must filter that image through language in order to contextualize all of the elements that make up the image, but “the switch from images to words can be recorded in direct words only if the description,” or the definition of a the world of the image in her mind, is eliminated. Language, then, becomes the medium of Molly’s ever expanding subjectivity.
Will and Karen’s house may not be a “medium,” because again, the house defies definition. However, when we traverse the boundaries of narrative and step back into Johnny Truant’s narrative level as a reader of House of Leaves by Zampanò, we are forced to remember that the novel itself, HOL by MZD, is a piece of fiction. As Gloriana puts it, “literature itself is a mask worn by the silence that precedes literature and the silence that precedes language,” and it is a mask that the characters, the author, and the reader must all wear (Nakell 35). Subjectivity, in the form of language, refracts upon the inside of this mask and is sent inward again, and so completes another revolution of an endless cycle of selfhood. This cycle does not include any objective experience. That is, there is nothing that is real within the cycle. Therefore all of Will’s guilt, desires, emotions that are conjured by memories of his family, platoon, and Delial, all of the internal “patterns” that the fictional Derrida alluded to, all the “recurrent themes” that Molly Bloom is part of and the Dublin she knows, the “brick and cement” Gloriana sees as “living objects,” and indeed the house on Ash Tree Lane, Will’s family, Zampanò, Johnny Truant, are all unreal. They do not exist beyond the printed word on the page. They are nothing more than conjured subjectivities because they subsist exclusively in language. The horror that each of them experience, though, is inescapable when I begin to question my own subjectivity (after all, HOL is found in the horror section of any brick-and-morter bookstore). For what is my selfhood if not made entirely of language? There is no me before language, only the silence that Gloriana is vaguely aware of, the silence that Will is consumed by in the depths of the house. If there is only silence that precedes language, and language is merely a medium, then what is subjectivity? Is there more than just a narrative vacuum, a void? Does subjectivity even exist? Deleuze and Gauttari argue that it does not:
There is no longer a tripartite division between a field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author). Rather, an assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from these orders, so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one of several authorities as its subject. In short, we think that one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside. (Deleuze and Guittari 23)
The characters, the author, and the reader are all lost beyond the linguistic and semiotic event horizon. The extreme solipsism, or the inward projection of subjectivity in attempt to define and justify experience, gives us the illusion of outwardness. This is what drives Johnny Truant mad as he discovers his life is a fiction when a stranger hands him a “big brick of tattered paper,” the title page of which reads
House of Leaves
With introduction and notes by Johnny Truant
He cannot rectify what has been taken away from him and given to some other entity, the creator of the work, Zampanò, and he is left with a question often asked in postmodern works: “How can I know the original” when “I can only interpret what others before us have interpreted the original to be?” (Goodman 29). He no longer controls who he is because all that is Johnny Truant has been relegated solely to the introduction and notes in Zampanò’s work. But Johnny knows this to be untrue. He sees himself as a man of faculty, self-assertion, albeit sometimes socially prude, but real and tangible nonetheless. To think that he does not exist beyond words on the page is unfathomable to him. However, as Searle argues in what he calls the “principle of identification,” for an object to exist, it “must be distinguishable from the speaker’s utterance of it,” and if House of Leaves by Zampanò is a fiction, and “fictional statements do not ‘really’ refer but only appear to do so,” then Johnny is exclusively a fiction (Waugh 94). He is the “assemblage” of “connections between multiplicities” that Deleuze and Gattari allude to. There is no part of him that is a “sequel” object in the real world, there is only the reference of his name on the title page. Because he is also the narrator of HOL by MZD, if he does not exist according to the principle of identification, then the entire novel comes into question, along with every level of framed narrative within it. They do not, then, exist. Furthermore, because the reader has no way of verifying that Johnny is not actually annotating Zampanò’s work as he suggests, he is also, the author of the entire work. And because Johnny does not exist, his position as author becoming void, MZD also comes into question as the author of HOL. In short, Johnny is at once character, reader, and author, and all three positions are null, “undermined and exposed as fictional,” “implicit [comments] on realism” that call the very existence of the reader into question (95).
I think it’s safe to say that at some point in time every one of us has wondered about the world in the mirror: Is that world the reality, I the reflection, the facsimile? This is, in part what postmodern writers have done with metafiction. MZD–and by extension, Johnny, Zampanò, and Will–recognize the desire “to live in a world of neat separations and known quantities” (Mansfield 139). As a result, our explorations are always interior, are limited to an inward gaze because the framework of the walls, those separations that verify quantities, are the only form that subjectivity takes: language. From that inward exploration we discover that “change, mobility, relationship, ambiguity, mixture are all seen as secondary and derivative” and that the fear associated with the unknown is also “derivative.” In other words, once Will learns to accept the ambiguity of the house, and more importantly, accept the ambiguities of his life, the irreconcilable guilt of his past and the confusion of the present, he no longer needs to live in fear. He comes to this realization when he discovers something new, something different in the depths of the house, a landmark that is entirely alien among the flatness of the walls, doors, large halls, tiny rooms:
ventually though, he e
merges inside a v
ery large room w
here everything about
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Will sees a window, which is visually represented in the novel as text, or the pattern of “X”s, because the window does not exist, according to Searle, unless it is “uttered,” or referenced. If the word window were never used at this point in the text, then there would be no signifier “window” manifested in the reader’s mind. Will says then,
“I’m afraid it’ll vanish if I move closer. It’s almost worth spending an hour just basking in the sight. I must be nuts to enjoy this so much.” (463)
He finally realizes that the house is not a mere object to amuse his interest. It is, in fact, multifaceted, with infinite faculty that once overwhelmed him, but now he accepts. Shortly after that he climbs through the window:
Climbing out onto a narrow terrace on the other side,Navidson,for the second time during Exploration #5, confronts that grotesque vision of absence. This time, however, he can do little else but laugh. (464)
It’s interesting to note, too, that Will is both on a narrow ledge in the context of the narrative, as well as on a narrow ledge between two commas in the text, “… ,Navidson, …” It’s as if language itself, the laws of grammar, have closed in on him, form fitted exactly to his proportions, indeed limiting his proportions. In essence, language has become a the mask that Gloriana alludes to in Two Fields. This narrow ledge could give way at any moment. It is unstable, being arbitrarily supported by nothing. Will knows this, and yet “he can do little else but laugh.” His laughter is, in my opinion, the only legitimate response to his situation. If death is the great equalizer, an end in of itself, then laughter is the means to that end. In this moment Will faces the absolution of his ending, he stops speaking, ceases all attempts to reason or qualify the house, and he begins to laugh. In a sense, he is finally free of solipsism, free of the cycle caused by the mask of language, the attempt at outward expression and the refraction back to internal metaphysical state. Will is at peace with the possibility that he may not be alive anymore, as he accepts that all of his “questions are sadly irrelevant” (465). And so, shortly after that, “except for when [he] speaks, silence predominates” (469). Will becomes nothing more than “substitutive significations,” as Derrida–the nonfictional Derrida, that is–says in Of Grammatology:
What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the ‘dangerous supplement,’ is that in what one calls the real life of these existences ‘of flesh and bone,’ beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the ‘real’ supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc. And thus to infinity, for we have read, in the text that the absolute present, Nature, that which words like ‘real mother’ name, have always already escaped, have never existed; that what opens meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence. (Derrida 1692)
As I said, it’s Will and Karen’s story that I relate to the most because I too have found peace in accepting the notion that my own subjectivity may not exist, that I am nothing more than a construct of language. I find that I am entirely comfortable, now, without a narrow ledge to stand on, that I embrace silence. All I can do is chuckle when others around me find it necessary to speak at all times, afraid that if they aren’t constantly speaking their mind, be it in person or through social media, that they will cease to exist.
“You see that?” one of my fellow percussionists said to me before rehearsal one night as he motioned towards the top point of the Long Beach Pyramid, the school’s basketball arena. “Every halloween someone tries to stick a pumpkin up there.”
He pointed to the Pyramid, but I saw empty space. I told him that I thought it was funny that the pyramid seems so large, but that on the atomic level the pyramid is actually mostly empty space, that so too is a pumpkin.
“What’s your point?” he said.
“No,” I said, chuckling, “no point.”
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