Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Formal Blog: The confusion

Find a very confusing passage in House of Leaves – not a slightly difficult one, but one that drives you up a wall. Hopefully that won’t be too hard! Then briefly explain both

a) What that passage seems to mean, or at least one possible explanation of it. If you’re highly confident in your explanation, your passage is probably too easy (or you did some substantial research).

b) What that difficulty accomplished; in other words, you should explain what the difficulty itself (think form, not content) is for.

My favorite field of academia is history. Most of our modern western culture and essentially everything else in our society can be derived from antiquity – ancient Greece and Rome. I was looking through the book, House of Leaves, reading the different sections and in section “F: Various Quotes” I stumbled upon something familiar: The Greek alphabet is what actually caught my eye. I looked at it more carefully and continued on, deciphering. I quickly learned that the next several quotations were actually taken from the same work, the same passage from the Iliad - one of my favorite works of ancient Greece (only second to the Golden Ass). The passage is repeated six times in the following languages respectively: Greek, Italian, German, Russian, French and finally translated to English in the foot notes (Page 650, footnote 442).

I was sure, right away because of the repetition, that this passage has some sort of significance. Luckily I can call myself an expert on the Illiad so my analysis was eased. Two questions immediately arose in mind…why did Danielewski choose this particular passage and why did he repeat them in five non-English languages? What is the significance of this repetition?

To begin, I should like to explain a little bit about this passage in the context of the Iliad since I think a firm understanding of this passage is important for further analysis. This passage is about Agamemnon preparing for an assault on the sieged city of Troy. The siege had been going on for years at this point and Zeus was growing tired of the lack of fighting. Zeus, using his powers, manipulates Agamemnon to have a dream which is about a premature attack on Troy (which was a strange idea, because the strongest Greek hero of that side, Achilles, was on strike because of his “property” being violated – a slave girl he captured earlier in the war). In response to the dream, Agamemnon deceives his armies and declares that the war is futile and it must be abandoned. He does this in order to see how the troops feel and whether they would gladly give up on their Kleos (Greek’s difficult concept of honor, which is the main reason for Achilles’ participation in the Trojan War) or if they would remain and fight in spite of the futility declared by their King. It is interesting and also important to note that this passage therefore has a very interesting point that can be missed by a superficial eye. What we have here is a bluff by Agamemnon based on a trick by Zeus, kind of a double false where “Nothing is quite what it seems…”1

Now, that we have a small insight of the meaning of the passage in the context of the Iliad, perhaps we will be able to understand why this passage appears in the book and why it appears so many times and in different languages. My first suspicion is the meaning of the passage, which is that nothing is as it appears – like a labyrinth if we can consider an abstract notion. In a labyrinth, which is a major part of the story, everything looks the same so nothing is what it appears (as in the entrance looks like the rest of the maze and nothing is as it appears) – which is why I suppose the main character has to use the fishing line to find his way to his original starting point (Is this another reference to the Greek King Theseus who used his wits similarly with thread at the Palace of Crete?). So perhaps the meaning of the passage is why it was included in the book, although this conclusion is pretty abstract and there could be closer more relevant ideas such as Homer being the founder of “literature” etc. and this book is a continuation and prime example of a new era of literature.

The next point of analysis that I considered was the use of the several languages. Why did Danielewski rewrite this passage so many times in all these different languages (even using different fonts and obviously different alphabets)? The only guess I could arrive is the problem of translation. In Classics courses here at the University we pay a lot of attention to translations of ancient texts and the problems this comes with. Some words are difficult to translate into modern words because they are concepts that we no longer have, such as Kleos (which roughly means honor but very important in ancient Greek society) or Harmatia (Fatal Flaw/ Blood Guilt / Debt). These terms have very complicated meanings and it is very difficult to translate such concepts because they do not exists in our society today. Some of these terms are translated and because of the inherent problem of translations the original meaning is often lost and changed. If I could only understand all languages that the author chose to include I could confirm my theory that each of these passages has slightly different meanings…like the growls in this book. So perhaps the use of the various languages is a reference to the book regarding that particular idea etc…

… or perhaps the insanity of this work has engulfed me and I am seeing things where there is nothing.



Adam Johns said...

This was a lot of fun, and an admirable unpacking of a fragment of the book that I'd always wondered about, but never gotten around to really working through in detail (many of the quotes are like this - deeply resonant with the text as a whole, if we spend the considerable effort to unpack them).

I don't have anything much to add to your convincing interpretation, but let me also add in the fact that invoking Agamemnon inevitably means invoking the Orestia (sp) as well - the Furies and Cassandra are lurking in the background here, which fits very much with the tone of the book.

Dan said...

I am glad you liked it, I really enjoyed writing it and I like the addition you made. I should like to look into it more in the coming days.

Andrea said...

Since you are an expert on Homer I have a question for you, was Homer blind?
Maybe the fact that Zampano is blind have something to do with the use of passage?
I do not even remember any more where this passage was used, so I am just throwing the question out there

Dan said...

In some dialects of Greek, Homer, apparently means blind, but it is usually understood to mean "he who is forced to follow" etc.

The point you bring up is excellent and I did not consider until now.