Saturday, April 16, 2011

House of Leaves: Menard vs. Cervante

Mark Z. Danielewski, on the heels of authors like Jorge Borges, wrote a novel that uses references to both actual and fictional authors and works in the labyrinth of footnotes and quoted passages. Using these various authors and their understanding of their own topics of focus Danielewski reveals to the reader the unreliable nature of interpretation in general. He presents this idea by providing two passages in chapter five that deal with the subject of Don Quixote. The first passage is from Cervantes original novel Don Quixote. The other is from a reinterpretations by Pierre Menard called simply Quixote. At first glance these two texts appear to be identical. In fact the passage in both texts are literally letter for letter:

“…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 porvenir.

This passage is the same in both readings yet the footnote on page 42 states that, “this exquisite variation on the passage by the “ingenious layman” is far too dense to unpack here. Suffice is to say Menard’s nuance are so fine they are nearly undetectable, though talk with the Framer and you will immediately see how haunted they are by sorrow, accusation, and sarcasm.” The idea that two things that are written in the exact same way could contain “exquisite variation” is obvious quite confusing to the average reader. In fact it envokes a feeling of rage in Johnny as he spends hours trying to interpret the difference: “How the fuck do you write about “exquisite variation” when both passages are exactly the same?”

A large portion of this novel is about the insubstantial nature of perception. The first instance we encounter this is early on when the narrators are introduced. An unreliable narrator tell the reader that the events being described are supposed to be taken somewhat lightly. This story has not one, but two unreliable narrators. Zampano supposedly watched a documentary about the events that took place in the house, which we know is impossible because he is in fact blind. Then we are further removed from this unreliable narrator through the lens of yet another; Johnny.

Danielewski is trying to portray that the intrinsic meaning of events lies not in the presentation of said events but the mind of the person viewing them. Another section of this novel that deals with this theme is on page 420. This section surrounds the idea of the Delial photograph taken by Will Navidson. The photograph this section is actually refereeing to was taken by photographer Kevin Carter. Carter won the Pulitzer prize for the photograph of a starving Sudanese child, but committed suicide weeks later of the guilt he felt for not helping her. I believe the actual history of the photograph is important because depending on the viewer there are many ways of interpreting Carter’s actions. Was he in the wrong for allowing this girl to starve and snapping a photograph in the mean time, or was there nothing he could do except raise awareness with the image itself. It is important that Danielewski only provides a description of the photograph in this section. By doing so he allows the reader to interpret it for themselves. As every persons mind and past experiences are different so too are every mental image one is bound to construct.

Danielewski includes these two seemingly identical passages to demonstrate how the mindset of the reader effects the words that are written. Borges through Menard states that historical truth is not “what happened but what we believe happened” (Borges 94). Menard and Cervante are two very different writers and therefore the intrinsic meaning behind their words will be very different. It is how their history effects the reader’s interpretation of their words that is important. Johnny is unable to understand this idea because he is unable to understand how one’s own attitude affects their interpretation of the world around them. It is for the same reason that he is unable to understand the nature of the house. Because Menard was writing his text after Cervante and because he was writing it about his original text one can assume his understanding would be different if not fuller. Because Menard lived in a time when Don Quixote had seeped into the social consciousness and had altered it accordingly any writing he may do on the subject will have a different meaning. This is even true when, like in the passages above, the text from both authors are exactly alike.

Danielewski includes these passages to reinforce his point that interpretation is more dependent on the interpreter rather than the presentation of the events being interpreted.

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