Thursday, April 12, 2012

House of Leaves and Marcuse

In Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, Marcuse states that “No concept can be valid which defines its object by properties and functions that do not belong to the object…”(Marcuse, 218). When applied to the house in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the more Zampano and his sources try to define aspects of the novel in various terms, the more convoluted and desperate his explanations become, revealing the inherently invalid nature of his arguments.

Throughout Chapter 11, Zampano tries to apply the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau to Will and Tom Navidson. He cites a claim questioning whether Navidson is a “…hunter like Esau, actively shooting with his camera?” and whether or not Tom’s calmness is representative of Jacob (Danielewski, 247). Danielewski seems to be criticizing the nature of applying Biblical comparisons to every aspect of literature, or as calls this standardized interpretation, “Everyone is Jesus in Purgatory.” The comparison is taken to its absolute extreme when Zampano compares Esau and Jacob’s struggle to the Navidson brothers, but realizes that “Will and Tom never indulged in such a violent struggle”(250).

Given that Zampano threw away virtually the entire chapter, it is considerably likely that after he acknowledged the Biblical analogy was ridiculous, he tore it up and threw it away like Denise Neiman who worked on the text claims. He tried to analyze the Navidsons in terms of a state of being that was not representative of who they were, and thus in his mind, the chapter itself and all of his intensive scholarly analysis in the earlier sections of the novel were for naught. At the same time, he may have also recognized that Footnote 242 was wrong as Johnny and the editor note, making him even more likely to have thrown out the chapter in its entirety, much like he scribbled out the material on the Minotaur in earlier sections.

Another section in the novel in which Danielewski highlights the ridiculousness of highlighting in terms of nonexistent subtext is in Footnote 329, in which Camille Paglia describes the house in terms of gender. Not only does she claim that the house only being entered by men is significant (despite Karen being essentially the only important female in the story), but Zampano extends the analysis to Freud, citing a critic who writes “The house as vagina: The adolescent boy’s primary identification lies with the mother…Navidson explores that loss, that which he first identifies with: the vagina, the womb, the mother”(358).

Once again, in the process of trying to define an object in inapplicable terms, Danielewski highlights the complete absurdity of Zampano’s analysis. He somehow manages to find two that view the house as feminine, including one who claims that it is in some way representative of an adolescent boy being displaced because “he has a penis; [his mother] doesn’t”(358). The absurdity is particularly highlighted by the heavily formal language that Danielewski’s cited critics use, pointing out that trying to define the house in ridiculous terms is inherently pointless and convoluted.

I have previously argued that House of Leaves is a satire of academic criticism, and with my additional reading, I have become more cemented in this conclusion. And this satire supports the Marcusian view that there are incorrect ways to view works, many of which are highlighted in various points in the novel.


Adam said...

Partially because I don't really share your point of view (is it shocking that a certified academic doesn't?) I enjoyed it. So take it as a starting point that I think you're making a good case here - better than in the last essay - although that had its merits - that all the webs of academic discourse in HOL are ridiculous, because they use systems of thought which are not commensurate with the House-as-object. (as an aside, I could nitpick with some of the details; for instance, I think Jacob's contact with the angel *is* commensurate with the House - but we're setting that aside for now).

If you are correct, what is the purpose of this satire?

Good satire, I'll propose, always has a higher purpose. Don Quixote satirized romance in order to create realism; "A modest proposal" satirized British views on Ireland in order to attack empire.

To what end, then, are these systems of thought being satirized, and what system of thought *is* commensurate with the House-as-object? Is there some system of thought (I'd propose American history, or Heidegger's philosophy as possible candidates) which work? Or is this a satire of all systematic thought?

If so, is it utterly nihilistic? Or is it something else?

In other words: if you're right, then you're probably uncovering the satiric means to a higher satiric end. What is that end?

Kira Scammell said...

Going along with what Professor Johns said, I agree that you'll probably have to implement some kind of system of thought or some other frame of reference to flesh out your argument. Additionally I think it would be wise to try and not be terribly linear in your argument and maybe offer several arguments for each subtopic you're working with. After all, things can be invalid for multiple reasons.