text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
February 13th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

What does this mean?


{ Rorschach inkblot }

source:  wikimedia commons

What does this mean?  That is a question frequently asked by me and other readers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  After a short google search, I landed at the House of Leaves forum, a section of the author’s website that allows a community of readers to interact – to wonder, question, debate, and discover.  The style of the novel, interposing Zampano’s documentary report-like text with copious footnotes referencing literary, scholarly, and falsified citations interspersed with Johnny Truant’s rarely punctuated meandering stories describing how the text and his life intersect – and show how his life becomes a series of footnotes subordinate to Zampano’s exposition.

What does _____ mean?  As humans, we search for meaning. We want things to make sense, and think they should make sense.  We often make connections or interpret old knowledge in light of new to form new conclusions – or at least new hypotheses.  The book is filled with repeating words and images – and we expect engineered patterns to have an underlying purpose.  The heavy concentration of superscripted references and their corresponding footnotes drives the reader to continually probe and search for answers; as the characters in the book search the labyrinthine house or maze of manuscript scraps for answers, the reader also searches the text for clues.  So many things are explained that those that remain unexplained compel the reader to search beyond the book.

Conveniently, the author has assisted the reader in this quest for answers.  Any web search using the book’s title is likely to bring up a page of the forum.  The phrase “Rorschach test” (HOL 197) occurs in one of the  Zampano sections, and the corresponding footnote tells of Truant’s growing anxiety and his quest for clarity and meaning from the manuscript.  My search for the title + Rorschach brought up a forum post as the first result of my query.  Sure enough, somebody else was positing the same idea that I had been contemplating: that the novel acts as a Rorschach test.  There were a couple of comments, one asked the original poster to revisit the idea after finishing the book, to see if the original commenter’s opinion had been changed or reinforced by the remainder of the story.  This is just an example of one of the questions or ideas that readers speculated about on the forum.  Ultimately, the forum offers a digital space for readers to congregate – to question, speculate, and discuss the book, and, in the process, to develop a community of inquisitors focused on a shared text.  This search, this communal exploration, this collaborative quest for ideas and answers mimics both Truant’s consultations with others to decipher unfamiliar languages as well as Navidson & Co.’s coordinated investigation of the house.  Each quest for meaning, whether by Truant, Navidson, or the reader’s investigation of the forum, takes the investigator into a labyrinth of ideas with twists and turns, unexpected dead-ends, or tangential hallways of inquiry.

Like the book, the forum can act as a Rorschach test of sorts.  The way the reader interprets the meaning of the book is influenced by the reader’s perspective.  The searches the reader chooses to conduct on the forum, or the threads one chooses to read are influenced by the reader’s own questions and perspective.  Sometimes consulting the communal repository of inquiries, speculations, and attempted answers offers a different perspective, allowing the reader to adhere to or alter prior suppositions.

[Interesting side note:  my perception of the inkblot pictured above was directly influenced by today’s featured image at wikimedia commons.  What did you see?  Why did you see that?]


6 Responses to “What does this mean?”
  1. Jessica DeSpain says

    I love that you’ve made the connection to interpretive communities in the text itself; I hadn’t thought of that; it is so smart! I know you haven’t gotten to the end yet, but we’ll have to return to this question to decide how these interpretive communities fare as sources of support and insight.

  2. Jessalyn says

    I directly viewed the Rorschach inkblot after travelling to the link you had posted to the image in wikimedia. Sure enough, I saw a boar. Does this mean that our perspective of unimaginable forms takes on the form of what is at the forefront of our minds? Am I influenced by my experiences around me as I read House of Leaves. I feel the same way when I learn something new, or experience something new like an older piece of music, film, or novels, and then suddenly I see references to that piece everywhere. Is it possible that the increased occurrences of this item in my life are coincidence or that my eyes around more open to those mentions because of my experience?
    Maybe the ultimate question is, am I unduly influenced by those experiences, or was I not influenced by enough before them?

  3. I like the points Jessalyn brings up in relation to your post. I find myself thinking about that a lot as well lately. I know that when I read a novel, depending on my mood or feelings at the time will depend on the characters and scenarios I can relate most with. Everyone wants to find comfort in their feelings; people want to know that others feel the same way they do and that their feelings are valid. The fact that their are so many references to songs, poems and other novels in “House of Leaves” shows that Zampano found some comfort or meaning in these enough to use them in his novel. Had he been feeling differently during his time of writing the novel, he may have chosen different lyrics or quotes to use. It is amazing to think about how much literature can affect us as humans.

  4. I think the really nice thing about the forum is that Danielewski never steps in to declare anyone else’s ideas either right or wrong, at least not in such a way that we are ever made aware of. Though if he is posting on his own forums under any of the names one is likely to encounter there, he forgoes his expert status by not establishing who he is. Maybe the forum is the hallway and Danielewski the mysterious growl? I think that the secret to what success the book enjoys is largely due to the fact that you can’t tie it down.

  5. I think I’ve been thinking too much about what everything means, rather than the how’s and why’s of it all. I tried to make all the connections, thinking that would help me understand the book. Instead, it got me more and more confused, especially when the layout of the pages began to change as well. Bryan also wrote about the Rorschach ink test in his blog, and the more I think about that idea, the more I like it. I also like how you compared the forums themselves to a Rorschach test. The more we search through the forums, the more we find out and loop back around and rethink ideas.

  6. I saw a bird, but after looking at the link I could see a boar also. The idea of the HoL being an ink blot test startles me. I have certain feelings about this book, that I don’t really want to be a reflection on me, but then again.

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