text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
February 20th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck


As the stories in House of Leaves unfolds, there is a sharp distinction between the more formal style of language used in Zampanò’s documentation of Navidson’s exploration and Johnny’s profanity-laced colloquial style – until we encounter the word I’m hesitant to use, even as a quotation –  the word “fuck” occurs as an aberration Zampanò’s section, accompanied by Johnny’s footnote (#117, pages 99-100).  This footnote is a discourse dedicated to a term that has been loved or hated by English speakers for the past five hundred years (the OED documents the first usage of the verb form in a marginal note made in a manuscript at Oxford in 1528).

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Johnny’s footnoted discourse, when coupled with the documentation of Navidson’s crew’s investigation of the secret spaces of the house, begins to take on new meaning.  On the page opposite Johnny’s exposition, we find Navidson shooting video footage that “describes the agony of the wait” and restlessly pacing.  The larger stories of the book also shed light on this topic.  The interplay of Johnny’s sexual explorations with Navidson & Co’s exploration of the house seem to indicate that there is some similarity in these expeditions.  Each scenario features male characters probing interior spaces.  The language used to describe the investigation of the house is more is sometimes more erotic than architectural, like in the excerpt from Denise Lowery’s Sketches:  The Process of Entry.  The quotation uses evocative vocabulary like entwining, dance, penetrating, and prodding inky folds as it describes the entry of the men and their flares into the space, the relationship between the play of light and dark within the space, and the subsequent dying of the lights (HoL 154).  The house, then, is described both as a monster that “devours” their connection to the outside world (161) and also as “the woman you never want to meet” (162); when these descriptions are combined, it takes on the role of the monstrous female Other.  The labyrinthine house is simultaneously intriguing and repulsive, impenetrable and yet also inescapable.  The story’s progress follows the relationship between the human body and subjective exploration of space (169), touching on the topic of “sensation” (177) just prior to introducing the reader by degrees to the interiority of the house (are these anatomically suggestive?):  “The Infinite Corridor, the Anteroom, the Great Hall, and The Spiral Staircase, exist for all, though their respective size and even layout sometimes changes” (178).  After this little bit of exploration, the Zampanò portion of the text speculates that what they find in the house may be an “interactive Rorschach test” (179) – a topic that I mentioned in a previous post.  This Rorschach reference is immediately followed by Johnny’s contemplation of the blue pills given to him by a Dr. Ogelmeyer to help him overcome his anxiety.  [Note: to ogle is to look at amorously, flirtatiously, impertinently, or lustfully.]  The footnote ends by documenting another sexual encounter before returning to the Navidson narrative with the not-so-subtle: “Fortunately Reston’s nausea does not last long, and he and Navidson can spend the rest of the day pushing deeper and deeper into the labyrinth” (182).

Here, I think the author is himself is conducting a Rorschach test on the reader, and even taken the trouble to cue us in to what he is doing.  He has integrated a lot of interplay between these separate explorations – one architechtural (Navidson & Co.), one sexual (Johnny).  He has also included hints that link subjective exploration of a physical space with provocative descriptions and gendered language.  The goal of each exploration seems to be to gain greater interiority – Johnny wants to decipher Zampanò’s manuscript as he also attempts to decode women, while Navidson attempts to maintain a connection with Karen while simultaneously wanting to further explore the house.  Discussions of public vs. private space and “the meaning of interiority” related to Karen’s jewelry box and Navy’ and Karen’s relationship (350) are interwoven with Johnny’s description of his mother’s locket and the letter locked inside (351).  One of the interviews Karen conducts also refers to the male quest to explore the house, couching the exploration in sexual terms:  “Notice only men go into it.  Why?…They must penetrate, invade, conquer, destroy, inhabit, impregnate and if necessary even be consumed by it.  It really comes down to what men lack.  They lack the hollow, the uterine cavity, the creative life-yielding physiological incavation.  The whole thing’s about womb envy or vagina envy, whatever you prefer. . . . Women are everything that’s internal and hidden.” (357-8).  Later, a discussion of Karen’s modeling career talks of how she invites the scopophilic gaze with her smile that was “guaranteed to spark fantasies of further interiority” (416).

What do you think?  Have I presented a strong enough case?  Is House of Leaves about a masculine quest to discover and penetrate secret, intimate, interior spaces?  Or is it about sex?  Are they the same thing?  (Is it obvious that I’m concurrently enrolled in a gender theory class? Does that affect why I see these parallels?)


3 Responses to “Interiority”
  1. Josh Mc Quary says

    Can it be about both? I mean I don’t care to talk about this subject but it seem like the book is ending up with both of these things on a high note.

  2. Jessalyn says

    There is obviously sex as a focus in Johnny’s sections of the book. Not singularly, but notably. And yes, penetrating the dark, unfathomable reaches of the hallway (hello, yonic imagery) seem to suggest a disconnection with the female form. However, if we look at sex and this house as forms of understanding a deeper emotionality that extends from it I can see a way to move away from a feminist criticism of the male entity needing to conquer and explore the female, and look at the feelings of vulernability, and mystery that come from both, and the danger that is in both parties. We see the house as this frightening looming figure, but it is hard to imagine that what author wants to convey is the “female” presence of the house on Ash Tree Lane, protecting itself from foreign entities. It is a female (Karen) that is the only person unwilling to invade its deep reaches and only lets Navidson free when she comes to find him. Instead of seeing the novel as a reach for male dominance in feminine, we can see a case for the novel to show the feminine ability to stop an impossible search, ultimately with no end.

  3. I think I kind of agree with Jessalyn’s comments. I took it as more of the male need to “conquer and dominate” rather than fill that feminine void. However, you bring up many great points and quotes that allow me to think of this in the way you have. I’m not quite sure if they ARE the same thing..my first thought was that yes, of course they were. But sometimes we think of that secret intimate place as the mind and not the body. Thinking of it that way, they are different. Is the masculine quest to help men better understand and relate to women? Is the labyrinthine house a metaphor for our labyrinthine minds or bodies…or both as you suggest?

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