(untitled fragment) from house of leaves

Every time I try to write a post on House of Leaves, it ends in total disaster. Normally, my writing would turn into a slough of obscure references and jokes vaguely related to the text, leading me to abandon the piece and start anew. Then that new piece would also turn into a slough of obscure references and jokes vaguely related to the text, causing me to restart again.

This post was hardly an exception; it began as a simple reading of one poem from the book, but quickly devolved into a 5,000 word essay on aesthetics and interpreting art. This only served to distract readers since 80% of the post was no longer about House of Leaves. I cut most of that out, saving it instead for A Future Post™.

Anyway, in one of the appendices in House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski included some poems. Y’know, in case the book wasn’t complex enough. Here’s the poem we will be considering today:

(Untitled Fragment)

Little solace comes

to those who grieve

when thoughts keep drifting

as walls keep shifting

and this great blue world of ours

seems a house of leaves

 

moments before the wind.

Analysis:

For the opening lines, Danielewski writes:

Little solace comes

to those who grieve

Note that this is different from writing the poem as:

Little solace is found

by those who grieve

Solace is not something that one seeks and obtains, it comes on its own time. Those grieving must wait. It is likely that their wait, their time reserved for grieving, must likely be undisturbed for them to properly grieve. ‘Solace’ is used instead of ‘comfort’ or ‘peace.’ Solace is something more fundamental, an inner peace, harmony. A few questions: who is grieving? What are they grieving over?

The following two lines introduce a disruption to this grieving process:

when thoughts keep drifting

as walls keep shifting

‘Keep’ is used several times, followed by ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting,’ emphasizing constant movement, preventing those grieving from finding solace. We understand this movement is not something that can be easily stopped. Answers to what exactly is ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ may be found in ‘thoughts’ and ‘walls.’ 

‘Thoughts keep drifting’ relates constant distraction in one’s mind. What causes thoughts to run so amok? ‘Drifting’ also may describe movement similar to that of a raft, drifting away from its original position, signifying the thoughts in one’s mind growing further distant. Naturally following is the question: distant from what original position?

‘As walls keep shifting’ may shed some light on what exactly is causing ‘thoughts’ to ‘keep drifting.’ ‘Walls’ may serve a protective purpose, as in the sense of a shelter’s walls, or a restrictive purpose, as in the sense of a prison’s walls, or both, as in the sense of a castle’s walls. These boundaries contain us, but they also focus us. One may be prohibited from leaving a set of protective walls, but in the same sense, one need only worry about what lay inside the walls. The problem introduced by the poem is that these walls ‘keep shifting.’ Our metaphorical containers are less stable than we first considered. As such, we must spend our energy constantly adjusting to their new shapes. This may reflect fundamental changes occurring in society, too fast for us to properly keep up with, ones that keep us from ‘grieving,’ the fundamentally human process of mourning what was so that we may focus on what is.

The following two lines appear to support this:

and this great blue world of ours

seems a house of leaves

Ambiguity in language is what makes it interesting, and there are two very ambiguous words here: ‘great,’ and ‘blue’; though it may not appear so at first. When someone first reads ‘great blue world,’ they may think: “hey, that’s Earth!” However, it’s clear that this phrase does not refer to something so strictly physical. If Earth is likened to ‘a house of leaves,’ then this is an apocalyptic poem. Actually, that’s not too far off, but the apocalypse is not one strictly physical. At least, I don’t liken it to one, especially after reading the book that contains this poem.

‘Great’ may refer to something that is ‘very good’ or ‘very large.’ ‘Blue’ is typically a word used to describe Earth, as in ‘Blue Planet,’ but reading ‘blue’ as a signifier of melancholy (e.g., feeling ‘blue’) weaves it nicely into our narrative, especially as an association to ‘grieving.’ Since the many interruptions to our societal grieving process, that process of moving on from the past in a healthy way, the deep feelings of melancholy have not been properly dispersed—they linger. In a similar vein, ‘world of ours’ smoothly incorporates into our narrative as well, supporting the idea of fundamental, unsettling shifts in society disrupting basic, yet important, human behaviors. 

Things take a dark turn with:

seems a house of leaves

 

moments before the wind.

Previous lines related a feeling of constant, unstoppable and unsettling movement. The last two lines take this idea and inject a sense of fragility into the mix. ‘House’ fits nicely with ‘walls,’ especially in the protective sense. This house is made to protect us, partially through its act of containment. A house is foundational to life—it is a home. It grounds us. It is our origin, where we start the day and where we end it. 

Now, I should mention this: Danielewski is such a bastard. I mean that, of course, in the most respectful way possible. In writing House of Leaves as such a staunch ‘fuck you’ to post-something-ism and deconstruction, he also made it very hard to develop a coherent reading of the book. You’ve probably been wondering: “what’s with writing ‘house’ in blue?” Thankfully, it connects nicely with our reading of the color blue as signifying a melancholic sheet draped over the modern world, dampening feelings of joy and happiness. Coloring house in blue signifies that this melancholy is imbedded in the very societal fabric that houses us. But try figuring this out from the book—it’s a nightmare.

As has been alluded to, this house is under threat: ‘leaves’ conveys the idea that the foundations of the house were not as sound as we once thought—or hoped. In fact, the house was built from millions of tiny pieces, all fragile themselves, all poised to be blown away by a passing gale. The sense of fragility is key here. ‘Moments’ purveys a sense of immediacy. The feeling of life teetering just on the edge of a cliff, threatening to fall with the slightest push. The feeling that this could happen at any time, that we may not have much longer.

To recap: great societal shifts mean we are so busy adjusting to the present that we no longer have time to properly move on from the past. As such, all that we had built, all that had contained us, all that had kept us safe, our foundation, our house, now stands poised to be swept away by the slightest breeze.

But what is this ‘wind’ that seeks to blow over all that we have created, all that grounds us, all that protects us? I’m sure some people would be more than eager to interject with: “climate change!” or “evil AI!” or “capitalism!” or “social media!” or “a meteor strike!” or “a global pandemic!” or “progressivism!” or “fascism!” or “the realization that Earth only has finite resources and we’re quickly running out of them!” 

However, I’m going to throw you a curve ball and not go with, or not even bother with, any one of those suggestions. Given that this post (and my entire blog) has been busy working to supply readers with tools, or, at the very least, the means to create their own tools, what naturally follows is the notion: perhaps instead of trying to stop the wind, we should try building a better house.

life, and death, and giants

One time Emily Dickinson wrote a poem.

Life, and Death, and Giants

Such as these, are still.

Minor apparatus, hopper of the mill,

Beetle at the candle,

Or a fife’s small fame,

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Ashok Karra introduced me to this poem. Karra has a great blog, especially if you’re into poetry, I highly recommend checking it out. Karra did a great reading of this poem. I’d like to offer another. My poem was taken from the Emily Dickinson collection at Project Gutenberg. As such, it lacks the dashes.

The poem may be read as a commentary on the dominance of inflated concepts in peoples’ lives. 

“Life, and Death, and Giants” are the great fixations people hold. I will then refer to them as the ‘Big Concepts.’ “Life” is all we have, all we know. “The Miracle of Life.” Life as being something precious. Something finite and continually expended. A tire with a leak, a boat with a hole. As such, we worry and fuss: “is this a good way to spend it? How about this?” This drains Life too. 

“Death”: the uncrossable upper-bound of Life—what bestows Life its value. However, our obsession with self-preservation and immortalization is driven by Death. It is the apparent presence of Death that spawns this fixation.

“Giants” is vague. Giants are typically thought of as fantastical creatures—they don’t exist. However, they are unmistakably humanoid. Giants are people like us, but, in a sense, larger. Now what could that refer to? What figures appear as “Giants” to us? The celebrities, the idols, the historic figures we all know and we all talk about. People are always disappointed upon meeting their Giants, as it shrinks them to human-size.

An absence of motion is introduced by “are still,” but also the act of maintaining. The action of still being (there), remaining. The line indicates that “Life, and Death, and Giants” remain now, and shall remain in time. “Still” also reads conversationally into the next section… 

The Big Concepts are described as “minor apparatus, hopper of the mill.” They are said to be “minor” parts to a whole. Not insignificant, but not vital. “Hopper”: a bucket that grain is fed into then feeds out of—though at a restricted rate. The hopper at a mill restricts the flow of grain, a life-giving, nourishing substance for us. 

“Beetle at the candle.” No actions are provided for the beetle. It is simply “at” the candle. A beetle, an insect, unintelligent by our standards—an apt stand-in for us. The beetle is entranced, transfixed, by the candle, but the candle also provides warmth and light. The candle sustains and illuminates—for some time, at least.

“Fife”: an instrument, whose “small fame” relates the fleeting significance of the Big Concepts. Its music is but transitory, granting only temporary pleasure. A fife also requires input—a fife does not play itself. Who plays it?

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Dickinson claims these Big Concepts reign supreme in our lives (“Maintain”) “by accident” due to their definitions (“accident/That they proclaim”). Their proclamations grant permanence. Life is precious because it is Life; Death is scary because it is Death; Giants are bigger than us because they are Giants. But who defined them as such? 

We birth our own obsessions. From “hopper of the mill,” we understand that we have shackled ourselves by inflating these Big Concepts. We have formed a psychological chain-gang where we are simultaneously both prisoners and guards. 

We are transfixed by the candle’s flame, but who lit it in the first place? Who agreed it was worth watching? Will constant vigilance slow its burn?