If you look around your current world, you will find a truly infinite amount of things surrounding you. These things are all meticulously placed in such a way that they create a unique snapshot of what humans like to call “reality.” You might even say that this reality that surrounds you is there to be basked in like the air or the sun's rays. Most would not argue with you if you claimed that, in fact, reality simple “is.” It is bound by laws that have been discovered by scientists who deal in facts and tautologies beyond comprehension of the layman. In turn, reality must be consumed to be experienced. Any attempt to interact with this reality through creation or action is inherently a personal act that generally has small reflections in the vast realities of the world. We even have a phrase for this vast reality. We like to say that our small actions don't truly matter in “the grand scheme of things.” This view however is a learned perspective. We are infatuated with the stories that we read in the news or see in a television show and we consume them as our personal perspective of reality. We often explore digital worlds that are discrete and arbitrarily bound yet we view these explorations as uniquely personal experiences. It is often forgotten that these stories and worlds are based on a perspective of reality that is not ours. Even if these actions feel unique, we are undeniably consumers of the reality that has been prefabricated and presented to us. Marcuse would say that we the imposed reality is imposing on us “False” needs that “perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.” Marcuse even goes on to suggest that we are unable to “distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination.” Once an imposed reality is taken for truth, that reality can contain any type of information which its controller feels important. Also, a bystander culture emerges from this constant consumption of information. The information that is placed in front of us is absorbed as the reality of the whole and regurgitated subconsciously as personal perspective. The human mind is then at the mercy of whatever it is presented.
However, the idea of consumer-centric reality is not simple a truth about the way we think. It is a product of our environment and current historical moment. If we step away from this view of reality we see that, conversely, creation and action can be driving forces of a personal reality and the consumption of others' realities leads us away from creating our own unique reality. Reality is not a global entity to be consumed blindly but rather it is a local perspective that can be significantly changed by personal action. In essence, “the grand scheme of things” does not exist. The only thing that exists is our local perception of the world around us and the actions we take within that world.
In House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski directly challenges the idea of a reality that is meant to be consumed. Traditionally reading a novel is wholly an act consumption by the reader. While the reader may reflect or analyze the novel, these are necessarily reflections upon a reality or world that has been presented to the reader by the author. In contrast, House of Leaves is presented as an interactive piece where readers are encouraged to engage, extend, and physically interact with the novel. Danielewski makes his intentions explicitly clear on page xxiii when Johnny states that “Old shelters—television, magazines, moves—won't protect you anymore. You might try scribbling in a journal, on a napkin, maybe even in the margins of this book. That's when you'll discover you no longer trust the very walls you always took for granted.” Here the reader is warned that the reality they've always known, as presented to them, is not their own reality but a superficial reality pieced together by other people that are flawed and conflicting themselves. When action is taken to engage instead in a personal reality, the superficiality of the old perspective is uncovered. In this case, that action comes in the form of scribbling in the margins of the book and thereby creating a totally unique experience when engaging with the novel. In fact, House of Leaves is so dedicated to the reader building upon his or her own reality by engaging with the book, that there is not a particular correct path through the book physically or narratively. Through the use of circular footnoting and untraditional typesetting, the reader must take a uniquely personal journey through the book in three dimensional space as well as within the narrative. It is simply impossible to read the book without some level of thinking or personal engagement. With these constructs in place, reading House of Leaves is no longer an act of consuming a reality that is presented to the reader and blindly accepting it as truth. Instead, reading the book is used as a means in which to evoke the reader to create and engage with his or her own reality and discern for themselves what should be considered true or meaningful in their own context.
House of Leaves is also explicitly concerned with engagement in reality when the narrative itself is considered. At nearly every layer of the novel, a narrative is presented which is ambiguous in its truth. Danielewski deals with lies that are layered upon further lies and this is made extremely clear to the reader. Danielewski trains the reader to actively interpret the stories being presented and consciously decide how each line of narrative fits into the final narrative that they choose to construct. One such place which we see such a lie is when Johnny is explaining on page 507 that his health is improving due to staying with his doctor friends (Danielewski). Johnny elaborates on this story for some time and then on page 509 Johnny says, “Are you fucking kidding me? Did you really think any of that was true? September 2 thru September 28? I just made all that up. Right out of the air.” (Danielewski). If this entire line of narrative from page 507 to page 509 is a blatant lie then one might ask why is it included at all. However, the goal of Danielewski's narrative is not to impose truth upon the reader but to provide a continuous series of events or ideas which the reader can decompose in any manner which they find to be the most effective and useful in shaping their own view of reality. The truth of each narrative no longer matters because their purpose is not to define itself within the reality of the book but to serve as a catalyst for original thought or action within the reader.
A similar decomposition of the presented reality is inherent in the house itself. The characters within the narrative of the Navidson family find themselves presented with a reality that is at odds with the reality they have always known to be true throughout their lives. Namely, the house defies the laws of physics which reality relies on for equilibrium. When this is considered, House of Leaves becomes a case study on how each character reacts when an imposed reality questions their own perspective. Rather than perceiving the house as something of a different reality, Navidson seeks to find a concrete way in which to situate the house in his own view of reality. Navidson seeks resolution so adamantly that he is eventually consumed by his mission. On page 483, as Navidson is nearing his final absorption into the house, “Navidson's words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will.” Navidson has gone from his own world and moved into the world of the house. Even speaking, the most basic form of creation or interaction within the world, is taken away from Navidson. All that remains for him is the impossibility of the house. Similarly, we find a consuming labyrinth of ideas and objects if we attempt to synthesize the entirety of our own world into a personal reality. An entire life could be spent consuming the stories presented by CNN but that person does not truly gain any new personal thoughts or perspective. Contrasting Navidson's choice to find answers to the house's existence, Karen, for most of the novel, turns inwardly in resistance to the house's imposed reality. While Navidson obsessively explores the impossibility of the house, Karen chooses to create and build within her own reality. Karen builds a bookshelf and turns to the arts of Feng Shui (Danielewski 33, 90). Despite Karen's resistance, Navidson forces Karen away from her own reality and into his obsession with finding truth in the house. Karen even pleads for Navidson to “stop putting holes in [her] walls” (Danielewski 30). While this can be taken literally as physical holes in the house, Karen is not choosing at this moment to accept the house and she could also likely be referring to the walls of her personal reality which are being compromised. In the end however, Karen's reality however predominantly involves her love for Navidson and when his obsession with finding truth has broken down Karen's reality totally, Karen is consumed by the house as well (Danielewski 417).
In addition to the demise of Karen and Navidson, Danielewski presents a strand of narrative throughout the novel that is concerned primarily with climbing Mount Everest and the activity's relationship to reality. Danielewski references Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air when comparing Navidson's exploration into the house to Neal Biedelman's attempt at climbing Mount Everest in 1996. Biedelman is quoted saying that “he stumbled to the edge of the earth. [he] could sense a huge void just beyond” (435). Here, Danielewski insists on the comparison between climbing Mount Everest and Navidson's obsessive exploration into the house and both are presented as the act of obsessively consuming imposed ideas or realities. In order to fully understand Danielewski's motives here we must explore the context of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Into Thin Air presents a day of climbing on Mount Everest that is plagued with commercialism, crowding, and inexperience, and most notably, death (Krakauer 7). Krakauer explains that his partners for the climb “in outlook and experience were nothing like the hard-core climbing with whom [he] usually went into the mountains” (37). Many of the deaths of climbers on that day can be traced directly to an obsessive attraction to climbing the world's tallest mountain by people who were inexperienced in high altitude mountaineering. In essence the climbers being guided up Mount Everest were chasing an imposed idea of reality which asserted that climbing Mount Everest is the one true ultimate goal. They are willing to follow this goal which is imposed upon them even if it has dire consequences. This goal however is not unique or personal to their own perspective of reality. In contrast to many Everest climbers of today, George Mallory and Edmund Hillary, who were among the early climbers of Mount Everest, were chasing a goal that had never been accomplished before and would be uniquely theirs (Krakauer 15, 16). They sought to expand their personal sphere of reality by accomplishing something wholly new. It is not surprising then that Navidson's pets, Hillary and Mallory, are able to playfully move in and out of the hallway without being consumed by it (Danielewski 75). Similarly to George Mallory and Edmund Hillary's attempts to climb Mount Everest for the first time, mountain climbing is an activity that has the ability to stand in complete opposition to the consumer-centric reality which Into Thin Air describes. Alpine climbing allows a climber the ability, if he or she chooses, to create and explore a path in the world that has never been touched by human existence. This experience allows climbers to add to their own reality something which is boldly new and unique without any influence of an imposed reality.
Marcuse, like the first ascentionist of a mountain, is intimately concerned with discovering reality which is distinct from any that has been imposed upon him by society. Marcuse, in One-Dimensional Man, notes that “The intellectual and emotional refusal 'to go along' appears neurotic and impotent” and the idea of “inner freedom” is lost to “technological reality.” He warns that we are living in a society which fosters an agreement on a common reality which every person must adhere to. Each person must posses “an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole” (Marcuse). The only way to oppose this reality is by creation and action within the individual perspective of reality. A person who feels that they are contributing to the smallest part of the false common reality can be at the same time entirely altering their own reality. Additionally, that personal reality which they are impacting so profoundly is the only reality that exists to that person. To Marcuse, the productivity within one's own reality while ignoring an imposed reality can be called “the Great Refusal.” Through “the Great Refusal” Marcuse imagines a person whose reality maintains that “the world of art which they create remains, with all its truth, a privilege and an illusion.” The contributions which a person makes to their own sphere of reality remain true to that person but illusive to any other sphere of reality.
Marcuse argues that the individual's embrace of an imposed reality finds it's catalyst and fuel in an increasingly technological society. He states that “The more rational, productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the more unimaginable the means and ways by which the administered individuals might break their servitude and seize their own liberation.” As the means in which to impose a fabricated reality onto people becomes easier or more widespread, it is harder for those people to break free from this imposition. We see this increase in technological imposition now in our current historical moment more than ever before. While modern technology becomes an increasingly more complex system, the opportunity for the layman to comprehend this technology becomes slim. Even specialists in the field of technology hardly understand a fraction of the technologies with which we are inundated. Instead of technology being a tool to create and participate in your own reality, technology has become a way to effortlessly consume. The Internet is a prime example of such a technology. The Internet, from it's early stages, was used as a tool for people to participate in a large scale dialogue with others and form ideas that create a personal reality which would have otherwise not been possible. However, as the complexity of the Internet has grown, the average user of the technology is not a contributor but a consumer to this dialogue. Instead, this dialogue consists primarily of ads, frameworks, and data tracking systems which are all in place to create a culture on the Internet that is focused around a centralized control. This centralized control then imposes any reality it wishes upon the users of the technology by providing a gateway to the Internet that is a more accessible abstraction to the complex world of computer networking and programming. Because of the, generally vast, misunderstanding from individuals about how the Internet works and the centralization of control, there is no hope for the layman to be able to enter into the Internet without the use of these centralized gateways and therefore each individual must be inundated with an imposed and fabricated reality. As we allow the centralized control of the Internet to flourish we will see an even further move away from purely personalized reality and a higher reliance on the consumer-centric reality. Marcuse, who wrote prior to the flourishing of the Internet, notes a similar sentiment in regards to the technologies of his time. He argues that “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.” This process will continue to perpetuate itself unless the individual insists on claiming back the control of his or her own reality.
Once a person begins to recognize and understand their reliance on the consumption of a fabricated reality it is still extremely hard to find the motivation to step away from this reality. To oppose this other reality, one must first do the hard work of hashing out their own views, perspective, and ideas which would form their own reality. The fact is that letting the world do the work for you is easier than thinking for yourself. Simply letting the world do the work however, as Danielewski warns, could prove to be a person's downfall. Navidson became completely obsessed with finding answers to an imposed reality (the house) that did not have answers to provide. This search led to the demise of himself as well as his family. Alternatively, if Navidson would have accepted the house for what it was, a piece of a different reality apart from his own, he may have approached his dealings with the house differently and survived. In fact, he may have been more attune to what is actually important to him and built a better future for his family. Jon Krakauer would agree with Danielewski here, by noting that following the imposed reality of others could mean finding yourself high up the headwall of a deadly mountain without a personal purpose or motive that is strong enough to warrant your impending death. History reminds us that an imposed reality has led many climbers into situations which led to their death. Marcuse pushes this concept even further by arguing that by abandoning our own reality and instead using the imposed reality as our own, we will create “a truly totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of this universe.” While Marcuse's imagined repercussions may be a bit exaggerated, the idea behind them holds true. If you own view of reality is trumped by that of the consumed reality, your conscious mind is constantly at odds with your view of the world. Thankfully there is an alternative. The alternative is to oppose the imposed reality and find freedom in your own version of the world. Finding a unique path or idea from every new experience is the key to this freedom. We must constantly realize that impassioned uniqueness is what matters “in the small scheme of things” and “the small scheme of things” is the only scheme that matters. Whether it be through climbing an unclimbed mountain, wholly loving your significant other, or creating a new piece of software, if you choose creation that is meaningful to you over consumption that serves an imposed reality, freedom will tend to follow.
Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. New York: Villard, 1997. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Online. http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odmcontents.html.