Sunday, November 16, 2014

House of Leaves: Illusion and Manipulation

                Stare at the black square on page 144. Thirty seconds, focusing on the blackness, the shape, the edges to the center of the square. Until it consumes your visual field. Then switch. Look instead at the white square on the opposite page, containing only the absence of words. For a few seconds, a third square exists, even whiter, almost nonexistent altogether, within the blank square. The impression made from the black square has created one that opposes it, created a fleeting imprint within the nothingness on the opposite page, adding a depth to it that did not exist before. This optical illusion tricks the mind into believing in something that isn't really there. It creates a shape where a shape shouldn't be. This illusion and the interaction between darkness and nothingness are at the core of how the house works.
                When the various explorers enter into the labyrinth of the house, they immediately note the vastness of the space that surrounds them. It is “an immense, incomprehensible space,” an “inky oblivion” and the light “ineffectually confront[s] the impenetrable wall of nothingness” (155). Clearly this is a multifaceted oblivion; it is made up of both darkness and emptiness, all consuming and impossible to visually penetrate. The most telling passage of the consuming nature of the house is during Jed and Wax’s trek back up the spiral staircase as they continue on, leaving Holloway behind them. They first see that the signs they left to follow on the way out are torn up. Then Jed “notice[s] more than a few of his buttons had vanished. Strips of Velcro have fallen off his parka, shoe laces have been shredded” (126). Obviously these things weren't taken from him or ripped up literally by another person, but they were destroyed by some invisible force within the darkness as it closes in around them. The void of black (which is also, notably, within a blue border that represents the house itself) takes in what enters it and destroys is little by little. The disappearances are only detectable when it’s already too late. On the other side of the two page spread, we have a box that is empty. It splits words in two, makes the sentences surrounding it difficult to follow. This again reflects the manipulative and isolating character of the house. Its emptiness creates a smallness and helplessness especially exemplified by Tom, who can’t make it past the top of the staircase.
                And with the addition of the third square, the hidden reflection that comes from the black square, a new level of nothingness is added within the page. This impression that can be created by immersion into the darkness is yet another dimension of the house, and possibly one of the most important. It is purely through interaction with the house that it can achieve the depths and dimensions that it does. What begins as a small closet becomes a hallway, becomes a series of halls with a staircase leading to millions more. Each exploration is not just a discovery of more space but a creation by the explorer, just as the third square only appears after interaction with the reader. This is noted in several other places throughout the book. Even looking beyond the fact that the house seems to grow and change as it is explored during Navidsod's first exploration, other instances stand as proof of the necessary interaction between house and inhabitant. Jed’s knocking on the floor somewhere within the mess of halls on page 128 is both carried and interpreted by the house as the SOS heard in the living room. On page 151, as Jed and Wax lay dying in the small room that they've trapped themselves in, Zampano writes that there is a knocking at the door, and that something “has come from him.” Traunt concisely corrects this to “for” him, but perhaps the “from” is a statement that the house and that which lies in it does not exist outside of the people in it. That everything in the house is really coming “from” the characters of Zampano's strange mystery. Later on in the book this theory is in part supported by one of the supposed analyses of the Navidson Record, who says that “the house’s mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it” (165).

                Even the idea of an optical illusion is within itself reflective of the nature of the house. An image which tricks the mind into believing something that isn't is much like the house that manipulates the minds of those who enter. Holloway enters the house with his mind set on conquering it, slaying the beast that lives within the walls, but instead becomes the beast. He is a monster created from within the house, within his own mind. Less directly, the illusions of the house have created a monster in Johnny Traunt. His psychological deterioration heightens as the story does. He loses himself within the pages of Zampano's book – the physical manifestation of the house – while the other characters lose themselves more literally within the maze of the house. Johnny begins to see and feel phenomena that come only from his mind, simply as his mind is manipulated by the book and by the house itself. He loses the ability to sleep, or screams if he does sleep, he can barely work, he has trouble leaving his own apartment, all because of his connection with the house. An interesting contradiction exists in looking at the house and the individuals exploring it: the house can only exist thanks to the minds of those that enter, but the house in turn manipulates those minds. There comes from this a give and take, an opposition that should be as simple and clear as a white square and a black square claim to be.

1 comment:

  1. This is good. You have clear ideas, touch on the relevant details, and stay focused. I'm very happy with it, but I don't need to dwell on the details of your execution.

    Instead, I want to think a moment about the big idea here, which blurs into another one. The big idea, I think, is that the "forms of nothingness" represented by those two (or three, including the one that isn't there) boxes, is a metaphor for or way into the role of nothingness here. There is a whole structure of illusion - what is not there - built upon the much more limited reality of what *is* there.

    That's awesome. But what does it mean?

    Then you slip more or less silently into the core psychological reading of the house: it is shaped by the minds in it. That's a more ordinary finding, but not therefore a bad one.

    What I struggle with is your overly easy transition from one to the other. Is the house dominated by a web of illusions, or is reality within the house fluid and shaped by people's minds? Maybe the two are really one, but you haven't really bridged the two.

    That's not a complaint - your focus made this work beautifully. I'm just pointing out that you shift or maybe even retreat when moving from illusion to psychology as your topic, despite the many merits of this piece.