Thursday, March 29, 2012

House of Leaves and a Deceptively Simple Passage

In Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves there is a notable passage in which Zampanò discusses the second exploration of the titular house. After Jed mentions the depth and dreamlike nature of the house, Zampanò notes that it “…is actually not uncommon, especially for individuals who find themselves confronting vast tenebrific spaces. Back in the mid-60s, American cavers tackles the Sotano de las Golondrias…Later on, one of the cavers described his experience: ‘I was suspended in a giant dome with thousands of birds circling in small groups near the vague blackcloth of the far walls. Moving slowly down the rope, I had the feeling that I was descending into an illusion and would soon become part of it as the distances become unrelatable and entirely unreal”(Danielewski, 85-86). Because this passage seems to be just an isolated interview quote, I found it significantly more difficult to analyze than the rest of this week’s assignment, which I tended to attribute to parallels between the lives of Johnny and Zampanò.

The depth of the house seems to parallel the nature of academic criticism. As Zampanò spends significant time on overanalysis of various aspects of the film the physical depth of the house seems to parallel the pseudo-depth of what he discusses, including the claim two paragraphs earlier that Navidson’s fear of the house is in some way Freudian. The interview quote itself establishes two claims: “People feel odd in dark spaces” and “Another deep, dark place happens to exist in the world.” Neither one of these claims should require an entire multi-line quote from an interview to establish its validity, and simply mentioning claustrophobia or leaving the material about the characters’ feelings to stand alone would have provided the same effect. What Zampanò has done is provided a pseudo-insight into an obvious claim and bolstered it with unnecessary support in the process of analyzing a film that does not even exist in the book’s world.

Additionally, it seems like even if the interview quote contributes nothing extra to the chapter, it may just be a way for Zampanò to establish the house as transcendent, even though he could have easily done so more concisely without the quote. Given that the house defies the laws of physics by lacking directionality and by being larger on the inside than on the outside, it transcends any traditional understanding for its inhabitants much in the same way that the cave did for the caver.

However my problem with accepting this kind of traditional interpretation is that in numerous points in the book, Danielewski seems to be providing brutal satire of academic criticism. This occurs notably in one of his endnotes in which a professor explicitly says that she “…told [Zampanò] all those passages were inappropriate for a critical work, and if he were in my class I’d mark him down for it”(55). By trying to interpret a passage with a meaning that seems like it could make sense, Danielewski is baiting the reader into exactly the point he is trying to support, which is that academic criticism allows for the addition of whatever meaning the reader desires for a particular work or passage.

The overall difficulty of analyzing the passage also seems to represent this pseudo-criticism. Given that the passage itself is about testimony of depth and contains a “citation”, its difficulty seems to be supporting the claim that academic criticism has become banal and empty of actual insight. Marcuse touches upon a similar concept in Chapter 7 of One Dimensional Man, where he claims that “On the ground of its own realizations, Reason repels transcendence”(Marcuse, 173). As the actual form of the passage is summary without analysis, the interview acts in purely rational means. This is much like a citation in a scientific paper in that as mentioned previously, all it does is show that someone else has performed something similar in the past and that the respective individual(s) deserve some credit for said discovery. The citation provides no actual insight, even though it provides additional information because “[it] leaves the established reality untouched”(173), in addition to further cementing what has already been established.

Overall, due to some of the blatant comments and exaggerations Danielewski uses to highlight academic criticism, I find that this passage was extraordinarily difficult to interpret precisely because its meaning seems so obvious. In any other work, I would take it at face value, but because it happens to be in House of Leaves I feel like any attempts to claim it as anything but a “red herring” are misleading.

1 comment:

Adam said...

It *does* seem like a simple passage; I need some convincing, to see it as being more complex in some way than my initial impressions would indicate.

"What Zampanò has done is provided a pseudo-insight into an obvious claim and bolstered it with unnecessary support in the process of analyzing a film that does not even exist in the book’s world."

Clearly, there's a lot of academic and pseudo-academic thought in this novel. Equally clearly, there is at least sometimes a satirical dimension to the deployment of academia. Just on that basis, though, I'm not convinced that this passages only yields a pseudo-insight: the psychological dimensions of cave exploration *seem* very relevant to me. One thing that's grown on me in the last couple years is Danielewski's interest in Mt. Everest, which periodically comes up. You can skim right over it, but the devastation/annihilation involved in climbing everest *are* relevant here, if we make them so. My point is that it's not obvious, at all, that there is no substance here - you need to *argue* that.

Taken in isolation, your approach to Danielewski's relationship with academic criticism is fine. But it would make much more sense if you were working with how HOL incorporates film theory, rather than how it uses real-world caves and real-world cavers to illustrate what seems like a straightforward point about the emotional character of the House.

In other words, I don't see what's academic about what Zampano's doing here.

Once you begin to invoke Marcuse, I begin to understand what you're saying. I feel like now you're critiqueing not *soley* academic thought (though I understand why you call it by that name) but the habit of invoking empty examples, hollow evidence, etc., which provides no real transcendental analysis of the text/situation at hand. I'm still not convinced that the passage has no function, though: it might be obvious to you, but it really isn't for me.

You're doing something interesting here, but I think that demonstrating the uselessness or hollowness of the passage - which is, as you say, not obvious - needs to be foregrounded here. I think that foregrounded Marcuse as well as doing more with the actual passage would help here.