Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blog Essay

Rationality and the House of Leaves

Caia Caldwell

While readings Marcuse, the reader will stumble into the idea of rationality versus irrationality. While Marcuse discusses this in One-Dimensional Man, he also goes into depth with the idea in Eros and Civilization. His argument is that rationality is a social phenomenon, created and defined by society. Therefore, are we really able to distinguish what is irrational or rational? Our thought processes have all been modeled after this societal definition, and we are unable to separate ourselves from our upbringing.

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse states that “neither his desires nor his alteration of reality are henceforth his own: they are now ‘organized’ by his society. And this ‘organization’ represses and transubstantiates his original instinctual needs” (14). Over and over the characters in Danielewski’s House of Leaves try to act rationally to deal with unexplainable phenomenon occurring in their lives. Yet if they had been able to ignore this social construct, then perhaps they would have escaped the house unscathed.

Again and again Navidson measures the inside of the house and compares it to the outside. The quarter inch discrepancy refuses to go away. Frustrated, he calls his brother for help. “It is quite another thing when one faces a physical reality the mind and body cannot accept” (pg. 30). Navidson cannot accept it and move on because it is irrational. As Marcuse says, “It is natural only to a mode of thought and behavior which is unwilling and perhaps even incapable of comprehending what is happening and why it is happening, a mode of thought and behavior which is immune against any other than the established rationality” (Chapter 6). This mental wall Navidson is running up against is of his own creation, built by society’s expectations.

The team of explorers Navidson calls in continue to attack the house in a rational manner, exploring the bowls of the house with fishing line, Hi 8s, halogen lamps, and other assorted gear. Yet they became more and more bewildered as the space seems endless, the layout changes, and their markers become torn down. Even Karen, despite her irrational fear of dark spaces, acts in a traditional rational manner, putting up Feng Shui decorations, and trying to make the house her own.

The children, Daisy and Chad, seem to act in the most irrational of ways, with Chad preferring to spend most of his time outside, and Daisy hiding upstairs. Their drawings are also an irrational way to get help, but yet the “an impenetrable square, composed of several layers of black and cobalt blue crayon” was the only way to express themselves (pg. 314). As children, their instinctual fear and need for safety outweighs any sense of rationality. Because they are young they have yet to be indoctrinated into this sense of rationality. They are still, in society’s mind, irrational beings.

With the rationality displayed by the adults in the novel, they doom themselves to a certain fate, unable to accept that there are things beyond their societal understanding of rationality. “The limits of this rationality, and its sinister force, appear in the progressive enslavement of man…” (Chapter 6). The reader can only ponder how the story would be different if Navidson had decided just to abandon his quest for rationality and leave the house. But as humans, we seem unable to do this. We obey this societal construct, making horror stories like the House of Leaves relatable and chilling.


RJ said...

I really like that you expanded your reading of Marcuse into Eros and Civilization. I'm wondering about your comment regarding Karen however: is Feng Shui really "traditionally rational" in the sense that a white, Western, intellectual person would view it? In the book there's a lot made of the difference between Karen and Navy's responses to the threat and Karen's bookshelf-making and Feng Shui is sort of set up against Navy's scientific-masculinist type of rationality. Maybe you could go into that more.

Adam said...

I liked this a lot. From a certain point of view (maybe even my usual point of view) it's underdeveloped, but I like it because it's attempting to apply Marcuse *in spirit*, not just trying to shoehorn in a disconnected passage or two.

To respond to Richard's comment - what I thought you were doing with Feng Shui was pointing out that Karen is using a *different* but also traditional rationality (of traditional Chinese thought) - which also falls short or is in adequate.

So I think you do a very nice job within a confined space exploring the different irrational rationalities within HOL, as well as the irrationality of the children which may, in a higher sense, be rational. That's the part where I actually wanted more - what can we do in the novel to understand what the children (or even the animals) are up to *as thought*? I also think that incorporating Heidegger or Derrida (since they're quoted in the text) could be useful here.