House of Leaves: It Keeps on Ticking

Thursday’s discussion about the preponderance of literary analyses embedded within House of Leaves offered, for me, a new way of looking at the novel.  As Professor Sample noted, if Danielewski thought of every line of enquiry, one wonders if there are any new secrets to unearth that the author may have hidden, consciously or unconsciously.  Can we sit in an English class and explore this novel in any way that has not already been explored?

I thought about this as I took a second look at the “letters” written to Johnny from his mother (p. 587-644).  They are, on their own, a rich source of debate and discussion. Certainly I think we can experience the pathos of a woman gone mad who inflicted burn injuries on her young son (or did she? See footnote of page 129) and at some point tried to strangle him.  The letters give the reader a “back story” for how a traumatic childhood could inform what we know about the “narrator” of this story. But, as I re-read the letters, I thought they had an inauthentic feel to them.  Like a good novel, they reveal character and plot and motivation and emotion, but in some ways they strike me as too literary.  Did this crazy wife and mother have another life as a brilliant academic (or perhaps just a prodigious autodidact), tossing off lines in Greek and Latin and French and Old English? The letters are stuffed with intertextuality.  We have Mars and Apollo and other characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Homer’s Odyssey (hmm, one imagines a entire paper just on the mythological references in Pelafina’s letters).  Then there is a slew of tragic figures, from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Claudius to Ugolino (wait, another paper topic!).  One could analyze the letters to death. And is the “secret” message relating to Zampano (p. 615) supposed to point us to the “real” author of the letters?  Are Pelafina’s letters a red herring, just more unreliable text in a sea of unreliability? Is Danielewski brilliantly layering every possible interpretation, detour, and dead end (like a labyrinth) for us to discover, or is he just messin’ with our heads?

Perhaps, as John Barth suggests, the exhaustion of the novel itself is a new and rich source of discussion and artistic expression, and that maybe we fret too much about our propensity to analyze and discover “the hidden meaning.”  House of Leaves certainly has challenged me to think about what a novel is and why this literary form continues to appeal. I can only think of something a little more clichéd: storytelling, whether it is highly literate or folksy, gets to a part of our intellect that craves an imaginative life, that “takes us out of ourselves.” Given that online forums, YouTube and Facebook references to this novel abound and thrive (even this blog entry and more to come from our class), it would appear that no one has yet exhausted the themes suggested by this novel. House of Leaves just keeps on going and going.

This brings me also back to Barth’s essay—and a digression (which should be allowed, I think, especially since I refrained from making this a footnote). For some reason it reminded me of another piece of work, by Shakespeare scholar and Yale professor Harold Bloom, who is just about at the other end of the literary criticism spectrum, I would think (he dismisses historicist/Marxist/feminist criticism as “The School of Resentment,” for starters).  Bloom, who wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), explains in his preface why the Great Writers pushed the envelope of their day by what he called “strangeness”; their works were astonishingly revolutionary and original in their time. He includes Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and more (he also includes Jorge Luis Borges in his canon, incidentally, and quotes him extensively). “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies,” writes Bloom (5).

What particularly struck me about Bloom’s argument and Barth’s essay is what Bloom refers to as the “anxiety of influence” among writers. “There can be no strong canonical writing without the process of literary influence,” writes Bloom. “Any strong literary work creatively misreads and misinterprets a precursor text or texts.  An authentic canonical writer may or may not internalize her or his work’s anxiety, but that scarcely matters: the strongly achieved work is the anxiety” (8). For Bloom, this originality is everything; Barth perhaps would not disagree, but he seems to suggest there is plenty of room for the imitators, and the imitators of the imitators, presumably if they are, well, original about it. —Trish

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2 thoughts on “House of Leaves: It Keeps on Ticking”

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    Professor Sample says:

    I hadn’t thought about Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory in relationship to House of Leaves, but this would be an interesting discussion to have.

    Bloom’s original theory applied only to poetry, and it’s very Freudian (with its Oedipal notion that the son — a new poet — most somehow overthrow or overcome the father — those “great” poets that came before him). Even if you don’t buy the theory (and I don’t), it’s evocative enough to open up new lines of inquiry when we’re stymied by House of Leaves.

    The crux of Bloom’s theory are six “revisionary” techniques that new poets adopt in order to overcome the influence of their predecessors. Bloom gave these six techniques fancy Greek names, like clinamen (a poetic misreading of an earlier work), tessera (completing the dialectic cycle of earlier poem by writing its antithesis), kenosis (an utter break with the earlier poem), daemonization (I have no idea what this one is, but it’s apparently creating a “counter-sublime” to the original poem’s sublimity), askesis (the newer poet purging himself, but of what, I don’t quite know), and apophrades (the “return of the dead,” channeling the earlier poet in a way that makes it seem that not only did the newer poet write his own poem, but he also wrote the earlier poet’s work as well).

    I’m not sure how far we can take this, but what happens if we imagine that at least some of the narrative voices in House of Leaves (if not all of them) are having their own “anxiety of influence” concerning the other narrative voices that precede them in the text? Do they have “revisionary” strategies to deal with these other voices? To rework them, augment them, contradict them, silence them?

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    trishhiggins says:

    This is an addendum to this post. I just realized that Harold Bloom makes an appearance in House of Leaves on pages 358 and 364, now that I have read further. Whoa… I SWEAR in had not read ahead and had no idea in the world that Bloom would even be on the  radar screen in this book. It sure feels … uncanny.

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