How a House Houses Humanity

Much of Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves (2000) is spent addressing the various impossibilities that the Navidson home presents, and the ways in which each character reacts to this ineffable space. Be it the actual characters of The Navidson Record, the multitude of cited sources, or Zampano himself, each voice that comes into contact with the home has a unique context that informs his understanding of the house. Because the reader is several degrees of separation away from the physical home, reading an essay about a film written by a blind man that is compiled by a schizophrenic, one’s perception of the house is dependent upon these alternate and individual interpretations. Stephen Belletto argues that because there is no absolute truth by which to judge the “correctness” of each interpretation, it is impossible to assign each a relative validity, and thus that the true value lies within the act of interpretation itself. While his fundamental argument is sound, this paper will argue that the interpretations or lack thereof within House of Leaves are only valuable in their ability to reveal the humanity of the interpreter.

By withholding and distorting absolute, quantitative information about the house, Danielewski cements the reader’s understanding that the house cannot be humanly qualified or understood. Our very first interaction with the impossible characteristics of the house is in the measurement of its physical dimensions, with the inside being 5/16 in. larger than the outside. Already our most basic assumptions about how we interact with the world, the “absolute” laws of physics, are broken by the house. Removing this trust in reality gives Danielewski the opportunity to show the contrasting mental states of the Navidson brothers. While Tom is content to exist within a figurative clean well-lighted place, Navidson is troubled by a constant need to attach and to understand: “Tom just wants to be, Navidson must become (32).” As one of Zampano’s fictional authors describes, “…there must be an answer. From there comes torment (33).” The two brother’s contrasting interpretations of the house’s impossible nature provide a crack in their facades through which we are given a better understanding of their individuality, and how each brother chooses to confront the world around him. Navidson’s nagging uncertainty continues to haunt him through most of the book, and grows most heated after Exploration 4, when he uses his samples and tapes in an attempt to rationalize his experiences within the house. The very samples that were Navidson’s lifeline to reason fail to provide any comfort, as they continue to defy any semblance of order or intelligibility. To take it one step further, we are told that 17 pages of seemingly quantifiable data regarding the samples taken from the house mysteriously disappears, as if the house itself is destroying any evidence that might seek to contain or quantify it. The house refuses to be understood by anyone, be it Navidson himself or the reader.

The cognitive dissonance Navidson experiences between his reality and the house isn’t resolved until he has almost died during Exploration 5, when he finally abandons any attempt to make sense of the house in favor of contemplating his past. When trapped on the ledge, Navidson’s lighting of flares and watching the direction in which they fly is an attempt to understand and to interpret the space, and how he exists relative to it. The nonsensical manner in which the flares go both up and down and nowhere confirms the impossibility of the house. Even after he has no light source, and thus no way to judge direction, the question of his orientation within the house continues to haunt him, “I’ve been falling down so long it feels like floating up to me—(473)”. Only as he nears death does this internal struggle slip away, and is replaced with more intimate and human concerns: “Soon though he grows less concerned about where he is and becomes more consumed by who he once was.” Paradoxically, it is only by abandoning any attempt of interpretation that Navidson’s fears and failures are brought to light.

Where Navidson’s relationship with the house develops over the course of the book, Karen’s interviews with various persons of interest give us a glimpse into more immediate, reflexive responses to the house. Upon seeing footage of the house, Hunter S. Thompson experiences a visceral rejection. The irrationality of the space strikes him deeply, as opposed to the relatively superficial reactions of many of the other interviewees. Rather than attempting to attach any sort of truth or interpretation to what he sees, he shuts down and is unable to process his thoughts on the house: “I’ve never seen anything so goddamn fuck up, so fucking fucked up (363).” Though in context such a response may not seem totally uncharacteristic of Thompson, nonetheless the volatility the house incites within him suggests a commentary on the human inability to process the impossible: “…something humanity has always been able to believe in is that the universe adds up (32).” In contrast to this, Camille Paglia constructs a complex metaphor for the house as a form of womb envy. In the exclusively male exploration of the house, she sees the masculinity of invasion and penetration. Though her interpretation might seem more artificial and composed than Thompson’s rejection, the total emptiness of the house refuses preference or opinion. With no metric to judge validity, all opinions are equally true and equally false. In this way all interpretation becomes a form of closed-eye hallucination, or finding patterns and structure in pitch blackness. As Belletto writes, “absence becomes presence through interpretive acts (102).”

Upon abandoning the idea of validity, individual interpretations become valuable only in their expression of the interpreter. In Thompson’s panicked attempt to escape the house’s implications, we see his need for fundamental truths that ground him to reality. Paglia’s interpretation exposes if not her gender ideology, then at the very least an assertive and self-assured personality.

The unique context of every individual brings about an infinite number of unique perceptions of a single stimulus. Because of the limitations of human perception, truth is not a confirmation of something’s absolute nature, but an agreement between the observers of one mutually experienced observation. As Belletto writes, “true, what counts as acceptable in such a setting is defined by an unwritten set of rules that is not inherently more or less legitimate than others, but is rather dependent on a ‘core of agreement.’” But because the house evades singular, unified observation, each individual understanding of the space is equally irrefutable. Consensus is impossible, therefore truth is impossible. In such a nihilistic frame of reference, the validity of each interpretation is meaningless, and the value of the interpretations lie within what they reveal about the interpreter. Be it Navidson’s attempts to rationalize the house to Camille Paglia’s womb envy metaphor, each interpretation found within House of Leaves exposes the reader to a glimpse of human behavior, and how we attach personal meaning even to empty space.



Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Belletto, S. “Rescuing Interpretation with Mark Danielewski: The Genre of Scholarship in House    of Leaves.” Genre 42.3-4 (2009): 99-117. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.


The House as a Inkblot

The act of reading Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves requires the reader to abandon any certainty in the idea of certainty. The degrees of separation between the house found in the Navidson Record and the reader creates a sense of skepticism in the ability to effectively communicate anything meaningful about the house. From the very beginning we understand the impossibility of reaching an absolute truth, as the entire novel is centered on a film adaptation of a fictional movie dictated by a blind man. Yet even when one accepts these certain impossibilities, our understanding of the House of Leaves isn’t truly our own, as it is inextricably bounded to the other voices in the Navidson Record, be it Zampano, Johnny, or the score of footnoted authors. In this way the reader is asked to make sense of a giant game of telephone, or more accurately a conference call, but the source itself (the house) may not even be something that can be coherently defined or understood.

Even in this mess of impossibility and ambiguity, the reader continues in his attempt to understand. The act of reading implies an intention to seek order, or at least a sense of closure. And so the various interpretations of the voices presented to us in the Navidson Record begin to take on a new meaning, as each can be seen as an individual’s attempt to define the emptiness of the house. As the house stubbornly refuses to offer up anything concrete, each interpretation of that darkness can be seen as a manifestation of the interpreter. In this way the interpretations are more revealing of the interpreter than the object being interpreted. As Zampano himself says, the house acts as a sort of Rorschach test, with each voice filling that empty space with their unique context.

Social Commentary through Ignorance

The rapid socialization of Frankenstein’s monster allows Shelley to critique her modern society through the lens of a tabula rasa. The description of the monster’s first forays into the world, including such scenes as the gradual differentiation of his senses (105-106) and his accidental burning of himself (106) firmly establish the monster as having a complete lack of any experience or inherent nature. With no meaningful cultural context to color his perceptions of the world, all of his emotions and reactions are brutally honest and fervent. Having experienced fear and brutalism in his encounter with the villagers (109) as well as tenderness and love in the interactions between Agatha and her father (110), the creature has been exposed to both sides of human nature.

This dichotomy in human behavior further troubles and confuses the creature upon the arrival of Safie, and the more formal education he then receives in history. The “stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians” is told in parallel with the “hapless fate of [America’s] original inhabitants.” These seemingly mutually exclusive realities inspire a sort of cognitive dissonance within the creature: “[Man] appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived as noble and godlike (122).”

The creature’s profound sensitivity gives a weight and sense of urgent abhorrence to the darker aspects of society that the average person views as simple realities of life. Concepts such as murder and violence are so repulsive to the creature that “for a long time [he] could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments…(122)” Because of the fact that he has no experience to dull his senses, he is able to approach the harsh realities of society such as murder, violence, and social inequality with a unique sense of suffering.

By giving the “wretched” creature these haunting insights, Shelley challenges the reader to truly empathize, and to recognize the true horror and wretchedness of those aspects of society we accept as immutable. Shelley gives the most profoundly human insights into the failures of mankind to the one character inherently lacking in humanity.

His Face All Read: Showing, Not Telling

One of the oldest maxims of writing is the simple statement, “Show, don’t tell.” In her comic, His Face All Red, Emily Carroll applies this principle to her illustrations and uses the reader’s intuition to streamline and focus her narrative. Much of the subtleties regarding the character relationships are communicated through her illustrations rather than the character’s words. Take for instance the younger brother’s subordinate position in the community relative to his brother, which is depicted in the sizes of their homes.houseThe same information can also be seen in the very first frame, in which he is depicted in the far right of the frame, isolated from the community.tavernIn this way we are given detailed information about the characters from a single frame that would take a paragraph of narration to convey.

Carroll complicated the “show, don’t tell” principle by conversely using it to intentionally add ambiguity to her story. Take for instance the two instances in which she saturates the frame with red. The first time, when the older brother kills the beast, the death of the beast is taken as definite fact.beastBut the central crux of this comic’s mystery lies in the reader’s interpretation of the next instance of this device, during the murder of the brother.Capture3Here the story can branch into a multitude of different directions. The brother could truly be dead, and some shapeshifter goes on to take his place. The brother could have survived, and through some unknown circumstance ends up untouched back in the village in three days time. By not directly showing the murder of the older brother, Carroll allows for multiple explanations of the plot and creates a narrative with a unique flavor for every individual reader. First she establishes the practice of communicating definite fact through illustration, and later turns that concept on its head by intentionally obscuring the absolute truth of the narrative.

Just as an interesting aside, the film Valhalla Rising, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson) does a very similar thing of filling the frame with red to imply violence and/or murder.Untitled