Thursday, April 14, 2011

Danielewski, Borges and Cervantes: Kindred Spirits?

In House of Leaves, the author, Mark Danielewski, references a specific quote from a story written by Borges, called Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. In this story, Borges references the same quote from Don Quixote written by Miguel de Cervantes. On the surface, the works of Borges and Danielewski have nothing in common. Borges is fiction writer partial to circular stories. Danielewski is writing a horror story using several layers of narration. Why then, would both authors use the exact same quote in their works? I think that Danielewski specifically used this quote in order to illustrate a more general idea about the features of the house he is writing about. The house means something different to every person who encounters it. The house does not physically change and yet it takes on diverse meanings to various people. The meaning of the quote is included in order to send a message to the reader. The reader should endeavor to interpret Danielewski's use of Borges' use of Cervantes as a direct message, telling them how to read the rest of his book.

Let’s start at the beginning, with Cervantes and his work, Don Quixote. Don Quixote was published in the early seventeenth century and is considered the greatest work of literature to come out of the Spanish Golden Age. Many people, worldwide, are quite familiar with it. The quote that we are dealing with appears in Chapter Nine of the First Part and is quite ironic, considering the context around it. The quote is, “truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, repository of great deeds, witness to the past, example and advisor to the present, and forewarning to the future” (Cervantes 68). This quote appears as a critique of the author of the Don Quixote memoirs. The book is set up in layers of narration from Don Quixote, whose memoirs were written down by a Moor and found by a Spanish gentleman at a book sale. It is the Spanish gentleman who presents us with the above quote. We are just finishing another of Don Quixote’s misadventures, a sword fight where one of the fighter’s shields is a pillow. This is obviously fictitious and yet not only does the Spanish gentleman assume it is fact, he also berates the Moorish translator for not praising the deeds of, “so good a knight,” his reasoning being that Arabic people are prone to lying. Don Quixote has two different narrators and each obviously believes something different about one “battle” scene. The Spanish gentleman believes that this is historical fact misrepresented by the Moorish translator who just telling a story about a strange man. The same story about a man’s misdeed has varied meanings.

In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Borges tells a story of a man who is striving to write exactly the same words as Cervantes, but for their words to have a different meaning. In his narration, Borges prints Cervantes’s quote twice, claiming Menard wrote one and the other was by Cervantes. Initially, I was very confused because comparing the two quotes yielded one conclusion; they were EXACTLY the same. Still, Borges claims that Menard’s version has more meaning. “History, the mother of truth! - The idea is staggering. Menard… defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened” (Borges 94). It seems that Borges never read Cervantes’s quote. He claims the above about Menard’s quote and yet it is the same as Cervantes. The same quote, the EXACT same quote, has a different meaning depending on the person’s perspective.

This brings us to House of Leaves. This book is a masterpiece of multi-understandings and misdirection. Every person who reads this book finds his or her own ideas and meanings in it. This starts from the characters in The Navidson Record and continues on through Zampano, the Record’s author and Johnny Truant, transcriber of Zampano’s work. Consider this quote, found in House of Leaves, “To repeat, her voice has life. It possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story” (Danielewski 42).

We are introduced to this quote during Zampano’s explanation of space in the house. He claims that the only way to really understand the space is to “take into account the significance of echoes” (Danielewski 41). Zampano starts by explaining the Greek myth about a nymph named Echo who helped Zeus cheat on his wife Hera. Hera found out and took her revenge on Echo by making Echo’s only way of communication a repetition of the last words spoken to her. He goes on to say that even though she is bound to say the same thing as others, she is able to infuse her words with sadness or anger, giving them a different meaning than the speaker might have wanted to instill. This story leads us to a footnote of Zampano’s, which gives us the EXACT same Cervantes’s quote, in Spanish, twice, “… la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir” (Danielewski 42). The footnote goes on to say, “This exquisite variation on the passage by the ‘ingenious layman’ is far to dense to unpack here. Suffice it to say Menard’s nuances are so fine they are nearly undetectable…” (Danielewski 42) Even in Spanish, the words are identical.

Danielewski used Cervantes through Borges because their stories sent exactly the message he wanted. We pay more attention to it because the quotes, whether in Spanish or English read exactly the same. We pause because this and ask ourselves, “What are these guys talking about and why can’t I find a difference in the text?” As soon as we do that, Danielewski has accomplished his goal. He has shown that it is possible for people to assign completely different meanings to the same quote or, in his case, characteristics of a house. While, we, the common reader, see nothing other than words repeated on first glance, Borges, sees magical meaning in the same words written by a different author. Borges and Cervantes were the perfect authors to use for a demonstration because they layer their works in the same style as Danielewski. I would even go so far as to say they are kindred authors, despite each author writing in a different century. By making this comparison, Danielewski sets us up to start thinking exactly the way he wants us to think about the rest of his story. He does not want us to just believe that Karen is crazy or Will Navidson has abandoned his family for nothing. He wants us to wonder WHY this is happening and ask HOW one house can have a different affect on every single person who steps inside it. With a little investigation the common reader can get on the level of the author and receive the real message he is trying to send. What is the message you might ask? Well, I’m not sure yet. I haven’t finished the novel but I’m sure going to try and thinking about it in a different way now.


  1. Overall a great essay!

    However, I have a small statement about a part of your thesis: You suggest that Danielewski is, “telling them how to read the rest of his book.” From this, I was thinking that rather than him “telling” the readers how to read the rest of the book – perhaps he is rather trying to make the readers “aware” of how his book can be interpreted: Multiple ways. But anyways, this really has nothing to do with changing your essay; it was just a small thing that I might have changed.

    In the second paragraph, maybe you could have by the end of the paragraph, begun to relate the Arab translator to a character in House of Leaves: Johnny. As he too is sometimes seen as the translator of Zampano’s work and occasionally prone to lying: Like as he did at the bar with Lude and the two girls. But in the end, I like how you used the fact that different people, like in Don Quixote, can read the same thing, but interpret it a vastly different way.

    Third paragraph, Perhaps it wasn’t that “Borges never read Cervantes’s quote”, but rather he had a deeper meaning in mind or even w;t.

    Fifth paragraph is the house like Echo. Bound to send a message but able to change its meaning with each and every person that enters its depths? Maybe an interesting elaboration: Another way we could interpret the House. Also, maybe you could develop a stronger ending and transition sentence at the end besides, “Even in Spanish, the words are identical.” It’s too obvious and unnecessary.

    Sixth paragraph, I now see that you related the “echoes” or rather interpretations to the House. In the end, when you stated, “What is the message you might ask?”, instead of saying you don’t know yet. . . you could have played around with this idea of interpretation by saying that, “you well never know the message I’ll receive and I will never know the yours: Interpretations are exclusive.

    The essay was great, but I still hope that this helped even a little ha

  2. Great comments from Luis - pay attention to them.

    Unsurprisingly, a lot of people said many of the same things this time around. Yours was similar to quite a few others, so I'll focus on a couple distinguishing characteristics.

    First, while you summarized quite a bit of material from class, you did it accurately and relatively compactly. Good! You maybe could have omitted some of the summary, but this is the way to do it if you're going to do it.

    Second, your analysis of Danielewski's motivations, while by no means final or conclusive, was excellent. You place a *good* emphasis on the simple fact that he's making us pay attention to the quote, to the repetition, and to the question of why he's using that repetition. I'd also mention, though, that he *conceals* as much as he reveals (as does Borges) - by not letting us in on the context within Cervantes' work. So while I think your approach is excellent, I think the sort of deception which Danielewski is simultaneously practicing is certainly relevant.

    What I wanted to see, which wasn't here, was an attempt to really turn these insights toward some other part of the book, hopefully in some kind of depth. Raising and then dodging the question of what exactly it all means shows that you could have benefited from at least brief attention to something later in the book, even if any kind of final answer to the question isn't possible.