no life no life no life no life: the 100,000,000,000,000 stanzas of House of Leaves of Grass

May 8th, 2013 § 26 comments

HoLoGMark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a massive novel about, among other things, a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems about, among other things, the expansiveness of America itself.

What happens when these two works are remixed with each other? It’s not such an odd question. Though separated by nearly a century, they share many of the same concerns. Multitudes. Contradictions. Obsession. Physical impossibilities. Even an awareness of their own lives as textual objects.

To explore these connections between House of Leaves and Leaves of Grass I have created House of Leaves of Grass, a poem (like Leaves of Grass) that is for all practical purposes boundless (like the house on Ash Tree Lane in House of Leaves). Or rather, it is bounded on an order of magnitude that makes it untraversable in its entirety. The number of stanzas (from stanza, the Italian word for “room”) approximates the number of cells in the human body, around 100 trillion. And yet the container for this text is a mere 24K.

There are three distinct source texts for House of Leaves of Grass. As its title suggests, House of Leaves of Grass remixes Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the “deathbed edition” of 1891-1892). Key words and phrases were selected from these two works according to either frequency of appearance or thematic significance and then algorithmically remixed into couplets based on seven templates. The third source text for House of Leaves of Grass is its electronic literature forebear, Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s Sea and Spar Between (2011). Sea and Spar Between provided inspiration (and the underlying platform) for House of Leaves of Grass, though the two works are dramatically different in terms of content and tone.

House of Leaves of Grass is available online at http://fugitivetexts.net/houseleavesgrass/. The work displays properly in any modern computer-based browser, such as Firefox, Safari, or Chrome. A keyboard and mouse are required to explore the work. (I prefer using the arrow keys to navigate, and the mouse wheel—or the multi-touch equivalent—to zoom in and out of the work.

While the instructions for reading House of Leaves of Grass provide some details about the work, here is more background about the data sources and tools I used:

Platform

  • Modified version of Javascript-based Sea and Spar Between, by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland

Data Sources

  • Mark Z. Danielewksi, House of Leaves (2000 full color 2nd edition, scanned and OCR’d)
  • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-1892 edition, from Project Gutenberg)
  • Spreadsheet of word frequencies, n-grams, and other data, generated from the texts above using the tools below

Tools

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