House on Ash Tree Lane = The Five and A Half Minute Hallway = The Spiral Staircase, The Anteroom, The Great Hall = The Endless Labyrinth = The Uncanny = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (cave drawings, rock art, hieroglyphics, cuneiform, oral stories, papyrus rolls, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion = DARKNESS = REQUIRES EXPLORATION = LEADS TO KNOWLEDGE = LIGHT, ILLUMINATION = RECORDED IN NARRATIVE OF THE PRESENT (clay tablets, pyramid texts, Linear B script, carvings, sculptors, bone engravings, ARCHITECTURE) = REVERBERATION OF KNOWLEDGE = EMISSION = TRAVERSES TIME AND SPACE = ECHO = MEETS REFLECIVE SURFACE = PERCEPTION OF FUTURE = MISUNDERSTANDING, MISINTERPRETATION, DISTORTION = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (stone documents, paper, art, literature, bound books, prayer books, Bibles, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (journal entries, art, music, poetry, novels, history books, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (graphic novels, comic books, diaries, art, photography, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion =
Darkness = Requires Exploration =
Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (photojournalism,
television, videos, magazines, movies, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of
Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective
Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation,
Distortion = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge =
Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (online databases,
e-books, blogs, youtube, Wikipedia, ARCHITECTURE) = Reverberation of Knowledge
= Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface =
Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light,
Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (?) = Reverberation of
Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective
Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation,
Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads to Knowledge = Light, Illumination
= Recorded in Narrative of Present (??) = Reverberation of Knowledge =
Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo = Meets Reflective Surface =
Perception of Future = Misunderstanding, Misinterpretation, Distortion = Darkness = Requires Exploration = Leads
to Knowledge = Light, Illumination = Recorded in Narrative of Present (???)
= Reverberation of Knowledge = Emission = Traverses Time and Space = Echo =
Meets Reflective Surface = Perception of Future = Misunderstanding,
Misinterpretation, Distortion =
House of Leaves seems like an impossibly complex book. Or perhaps, if not complex, then certainly random—a nonfictional fiction story of the Navidson family left behind in the artifacts of the deceased Zampano discovered by the sexually-crazed, drug addict, (and many more psychosocial issues here, but I will leave that for another essay) Johnny Truant. I became addicted to reading the novel; I needed to reach a conclusion, have closure, find answers. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the novel offers none. Mark Z. Danielewski- WHY!?
Google search: the importance of House of Leaves. Google search: theme of House of Leaves… top search result: “The Idiot’s Guide to House of Leaves.” Google may have failed me, but I realized that Danielewski did not. He offers a direct answer to what is the point!? It is actually one of the first things the book does and something that is done throughout the novel.
So what is the point? I will analyze both the title of and the importance of echoes in the novel to conclude that House of Leaves is a commentary on human personality—in short we have built ourselves a house of leaves—a society built on the historical traces left behind in literature and a world which will continue to be guided by the words of present recorders, because in the end, the leaves we produce long outlive our bodies. Our bodies fail, perish, dissolve, decompose, die and remain silent, and in death our bodies lose the ability to reverberate, to echo. But the narratives we leave behind, the words we inscribe into bleached-white paper, the ideas we weave into our characters can echo through time (minutes, years, centuries, millenniums, eras) and space. While the medium in which we leave behind our stories is an ever-changing technology, each story becomes a part of a larger history, like waves of knowledge passing through seemingly endless darkness (not just visual darkness but temporal darkness as well) until it finds itself a surface to reflect on, a reader to perceive the words and hear the echo. But the ever-changing human perception is an imperfect receptor. Each time an echo hits a new surface the original meaning and significance is inevitably and indefinitely distorted. The reader passes on the echo for another person to perceive, learn, and repeat; each time the meaning moving farther from the truth until we are lost in a never-ending labyrinth of darkness that we mistake for enlightenment and knowledge.
Echoes and Reverberations in Humanity and in House of LeavesAn echo, in the most simplistic terms, is a repetition. The scientific definition of an echo is the reflection of an emission by a reflective medium.
1. A “sender” produces a wave.
2. The wave travels through a medium.
3. The wave hits a surface.
4. The wave bounces off the surface, is distorted and a reflected wave is produced.
5. The reflected wave travels through a medium.
6. The reflected wave is perceived by a receiver.
A simple mathematical substitution leads from the physical explanation of an echo to a theoretical explanation of human society and personality:
Sender= recorder (author, photographer, painter, notetaker, historian…)
Wave= Narrative (Noun…any account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious2…literature, artwork, journals, novels, photographs…)
Medium= time and space
Wave Reflecting and Distorting= contemporary and individual interpretation and manipulation (intentional or unintentional)
Reflected Wave= New Narrative, new understanding
Receiver= Perceiver (Noun…one who perceives…reader, observer, listener, student…)
Sometimes echoes become reverberations. Reverberations are “the persistence of a sound after its source has stopped, caused by multiple reflection of the sound within a closed space1.”
1. “Sender” stops producing wave
2. Wave continues to travel through a medium as long as the wave is contained in a closed space
3. Wave bounces back and forth between reflected surfaces.
Sender stop producing wave= original recorder dies
Closed space= humanity (accounting for the fact that some waves, some recordings, are occasionally lost)
Multiple reflected surfaces= multiple perceivers, multiple perceptions, perceptions are individual and unique.
House of Leaves reduces this large-scale idea to a few characters. The novel is therefore not only a commentary on how this is all working, but it is innately doing this itself. However, and this is the reason why the novel is complex, each narrative level is doing this!! I will explain the widest scale in which this is happening as it affects the reader of the novel.
Wave= Navidson story (which in itself contains an important message about the eternal search for knowledge as a result of the fallibility of the humanity)
Surface= Johnny Truant
Reflecting and Distorting= lost material, damaged material, foreign language, braille (and let’s be honest Johnny Truant is probably not the most mentally-capable person of receiving this knowledge, but that’s the point, right? Senders blindly send their knowledge into the world not knowing or controlling who receives it or where or when it is received)
Reflected Wave= Johnny Truant’s publication titled House of Leaves and Johnny Truant’s telling of the Navidson story to Lude/Thumper/girls he hooks up with/random people/anyone who will listen…eventually the reflected wave is published in Johnny’s Truant’s House of Leaves
Receiver= readers of his book
Reverberation= Danielewski’s House of Leaves perceived by readers
Further Reverberation: this essay, your perception of this essay…it is a never ending cycle…
Therefore, and in the words of Danielewski himself as to prevent further distortion… “It is impossible to appreciate the importance of space in The Navidson Record without taking into account the significance of echoes.”3
However, this is only the most general overview of why literature is a medium of historical echoes. One question that arises is what does the Navidson story have to do with this theory? Why does Zampano write about a fictitious (?) family and a fictitious house (?) with a fictitious and unexplainable hallway?
Relying on Echoes: The Heart of Human Fallibility and the Eternal Search for Knowledge
While the repetitive theme of echoes offers a commentary on human society, the Navidson narrative offers a critique on human society’s reliance on distorted echoes= flawed historical information as a source of foundation and progress. The “system” is a house of leaves—fragile and frail and likely to burst into uncontrollable flames. This “system” we have created for ourselves (and will continue to use) is at the heart of human fallibility, because it causes and requires an eternal need to search for knowledge. The Navidson narrative illustrates the eternal search for knowledge and the consequences an eternal search for knowledge induces. The Navidson narrative heeds warning to the pursuit of knowledge while also revealing the impossibility of such a warning. Both of these ideas are tied together with a simple clichéd truism: history repeats itself—Johnny Truant fails to learn from Zampano’s obsession and follows his footsteps to crazy. And clearly the reader of Danielewski’s novel learns nothing from Johnny Truant, because we continue to read despite Danielewski’s warning on the inside flap of the cover (a pause symbol) and then the very first page of the novel which reads, “This is not for you.” (Why don’t we stop reading there?) Nor do we stop when we read Johnny Truant’s letter to the reader where he lays out the fundamental flaw of our “house of leaves”—“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you….you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by…And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name. And then the nightmares will begin.”
The human race is either plagued by an extreme case of stubbornness which prevents us from internalizing and applying this warning, or the human race is so entranced by the unknown that we cannot resist stepping into the darkness.
“Both arguments are probably best attributed to the persistent presence of schizophrenia plaguing the human race…language of objectivity can never adequately address the reality of that place on Ash Tree Lane.”
The hallway is, of course, the symbol for the unknown, for darkness, for that which humans crave and blindly seek, but “You will never find a mark there. No trace survives. The walls obliterate everything. They are permanently absolved of all record. Oblique, forever obscure and unwritten. Behold the perfect pantheon of absence.” (423) Radiometric dating of the samples Will and the explorers collect from the hallway reveal that the hallway is an “exact chronological map.” It is hard to overlook the symbolic “historical significance” of the hallway. (374) It is also hard to overlook the “typo” in this footnote, which reads, “Scientists estimate the universe unfolded from its state of infinite destiny—a moment commonly referred to as ‘the big bang’…Typo: “destiny should read density.” (Or should it?) The hallway by all means represents darkness, but more importantly it represents the world in which humans inhabit—a constantly shifting, unsure, and unknown world that we have the ability to control just as the explorers realize the shifting of the hallway reflects their psychological state of mind.
Will Navidson (as well as the other explorers, but primarily Will because he returns to the house even after Tom dies and everybody else nearly dies) is representative of human society and human susceptibly to be lured in by the unknown. Will’s occupation as a photojournalist is the starting point for analysis. As a photojournalist, Will is not only compelled to explore and discover, but he has to record and capture his discovery. Early in Will’s life, humans seem like the ultimate mystery…“And yet out of the thousands of pictures Navidson took, there does not exist a single frame without a person in it.” (367) It is ironic that humans are so complex and “advanced” yet there are aspects of the human body that we cannot even comprehend (such as the brain).
Will’s need to discover and explore is carried home with him; it is significant that the hallway appears in his home and not at his place of work or in the home of another character. (“It does not matter that the house existed in Virginia, only that it existed in one place: ‘One place, one (eventual) meaning.’’’) The Five and a Half Minute Hallway is a more enticing source of the unknown, “It contorts itself to advance and grow…its curves still hold out the promise of even greater illumination…Navidson the possibility that he could locate either within himself or ‘within the vast missing’ some emancipatory sense to put to rest his confusions and troubles, even put to rest the confusions and troubles of others, a curative symmetry to last the ages” (401)
Will pursues the knowledge, and we all know it doesn’t go very well. Will’s search for an explanation is not impeded by injury or fatigue or lack of food. The hallway changes to parallel the thoughts and state of mind of its intruders. Therefore Will has the ability to get out of the hallway anytime. But he does not. He realizes that his pursuit of knowledge, that any pursuit of knowledge will only succumb to failure…
He becomes, “a creature instirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath.” (497) “He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrows threatens to no longer matter. Navidson is forgetting. Navidson is dying.” (483) He desperately clings to the last bits of hope…“If only it could be perceived.” (491)“As if it to say not only can this book not be destroyed, it also cannot be blamed.” (493) But he ultimately discovers that … “As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten. I must remember. I must read. I must read. I must read.” (498)“What’s the difference, especially in differance, what’s read what’s left in what’s left out what’s invented what’s remembered what’s forgotten what’s written what’s found what’s lost what’s done? What’s not done? What’s the difference?” (515) (Here Will or Zampano or Johnny or Danielewski is explicitly point out that even reading to learn is clouded with darkness…“This darkness symbolizes one of the novel’s central themes: knowledge. Knowledge — what the reader and the novel’s characters do or do not know and how that knowledge or lack thereof affects the reader and characters — is a major and perhaps the core concern of the book.”5)
What’s the difference if we record or don’t record? History is bound to repeat itself regardless, because we do not learn from what is recorded, because humans have no way of learning something and passing it on to the future. We face the great barrier of time and space. Echoes are the only way we can pass on our knowledge; the distortion of every single thing we pass on requires humans to redo, repeat, research, rethink, reexplore, repeat, repeat, repeat. We never really progress, we just recycle. In fact, that quote I used—“history is bound to repeat itself” is taken from a longer quote by Rufus Historie who in 1533 said, “History follows a pattern of events that recur in different eras.” But even before Historie said that Soloman wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, “The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” But then again I read this in a history book, and we now know how accurate those things are, and regardless the popular saying now is “history will repeat itself.” I wonder how they will say that phrase in the future…it’s ironic isn’t it? That we have a truism for the ultimate flaw of humanity yet we don’t or can’t (?) change…
…we believe we are an enlightened species, one capable of great knowledge and innovation. But the roots of our society are drenched in the distorted, impure echoes of history, history that is carried through and by literature. We are stuck in a never-ending labyrinth of darkness that we cannot bring ourselves to leave. It begins as a five and a half minute endeavor—simple, easy, attainable, possible. We explore and question and become obsessed. We become so entrenched is seeking the knowledge that just barely eludes us—one more step and we can find it, one more mile and we will find the end. The house of leaves becomes a spiral staircase, an endless corridor of dead-ends and doors and windows. We keep exploring, pushing forward…
…“We mustn’t forget the most obvious reason Navidson went back to the house: he wanted to get a better picture” (418)….
We pursue knowledge, answers, truth…until it is if we are “moving along a surface that always tilts downward no matter which direction [we] face.” (425) Until “All that remains is the ashblack slab upon which he is standing, now apparently supported by nothing: darkness below, above, and of course darkness beyond.”
We are stuck in boundless, eternal darkness; we mistake our house of leaves for tokens of knowledge, we think we live in light only because our eyes have adjusted to the dark.
1. "Reverberation." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 23 Apr. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Reverberation>.
2. "narrative." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 23 Apr. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/narrative>.
3. Danielewski, Mark. House of Leaves. 2nd Edition. New York: Pantheon Books. Print.
4. Bemong, Nele. “Exploration #6: The Uncanny in Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves.’” Image and Narrative. January 2003. Web.
5. Marks, Aaron. “Readings of House of Leaves.” Web.
1. Dawson. Michael. “‘The horror! The Horror! Traumatic Repetition in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.” Web.
2. “Echoes vs Reverberations.” The Physics Classroom. 2014. Web.
3. Halliday, Resnick, Walker. Fundamentals of Physics Extended Ninth Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2012. Print.