Friday, April 15, 2011

Self-Actualization and the Unconscious Mind in House of Leaves

On page 42, there is a passage from Don Quixote, another seemingly exact passage from Borges’ Pierre Menard, and commentary about the two passages from Johnny Truant. The two exact passages serve as a way for those who are self-actualized to find the deeper meaning of life. As there are very few of us who will ever achieve such an enlightened state, the passage also serves as a type of ‘wake up call’ for those of us who have not yet achieved this heightened state. For the vast majority who are not self-aware, it helps our unconscious to bring to the forefront exactly what we need to know in order to make us more self-aware.

The term self-actualization comes from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which states that beyond the normal air, water, food, and sex, there are other needs that need to be addressed and taken care of before one would become self-actualized. The hierarchy of needs is pyramid-shaped with four different levels before becoming self-actualized. On the bottom level were physiological needs which are basically the major items needed for life: air, water, food, sleep, etc. Once those needs are met then one would be able to graduate to the second level of safety needs, which is essentially the need to be safe, have a stable life, feelings of protection, and living with structure. Once that is met, one would move on to the third level which is the sense of belonging to some kind of relationship, family, or community. The final level that needs to be met once all the others are met would be esteem in which we look for the respect of others as well as self-respect. Once all of those needs are met then can one be considered as meeting the requirements for self-actualization. Without all levels being addressed, then one cannot be self-actualized. It comes down to even if even one aspect is missing or not 100% complete then that needs to be addressed before moving on. Once a person reaches the self-actualized state, it is a constant state of being that needs to be worked at in order to be able to maintain that structure. If for any reason that one reaches that level and fails at another, then one would not be completely self-actualized. The reason why so many never reach the point of being self-actualized is that their unconscious is protecting them the harsher reality that it knows its conscious form would not be able to take. So although one might truly believe they are self-actualized, they will never be as their unconscious will not allow them to know the harrowing truths that may lie beneath the surface until they are really ready to face those consequences.

One looks at the two passages on page 42 and at first glance, as Johnny realized, they are the exact same passage. But with further examination by looking deeper, “Menard’s nuances are so fine they are nearly undetectable, though talk with Framer and you will immediately see how haunted they are by sorrow, accusation, and sarcasm (pg. 42)”. As a footnote to that statement, Johnny said, “I just kept reading both pieces over and over again, trying to detect at least one differing accent or letter, wanting to detect at least one differing accent or letter, getting almost desperate in that pursuit, only to repeatedly discover perfect similitude, though how can that be, right? if it were perfect it wouldn’t be similar it would be identical, and you know what? I’ve lost this sentence, I can’t even finish it, don’t know how— Here’s the point: the more I focused in on the words the farther I seemed from my room (pg. 42)”.

At first Johnny admits that he sees them as the exact same, but when he looks at the two excerpts, the more scattered he becomes, not even able to complete his train of thought until eventually the more he focuses on the passage, the further away he seems from his room, from his reality, and from his safety net and it is when this occurs that his ‘demon’ comes to him. When he looks at himself in the ‘mirror’ of the duplicate, he comes face to face with his own mental deterioration that is overpowering his life and rationality. He has a small moment of clarity when faced with being taken out of his comfort zone with these passages, but he his unconscious is still protecting his conscious mind from exactly what he is trying to be defended from.

“Bring on the haze. But who am I kidding? I can still see whats happening. My line of defense has not only failed, it failed long ago. Don’t ask me to define the line either or why exactly it’s needed or even what it stands in defense against. I haven’t the foggiest idea (pg. 42)”. So even though he is aware of the situation, he still is not aware of full meaning so therefore he is still in the dark as to the reason for his deterioration. It is not going to be until he realizes exactly what is causing his mental deterioration will he have the chance to change it and move on to the next level towards the ultimate goal of being self-actualized.

Another meaning to look at through Johnny is when the footnote describes the two exact passages as “how haunted they are by sorrow, accusation, and sarcasm”. This can also be applied to Johnny in that he too sees his reflection in these mirrored passages and is very haunted by his visions that aren’t there, sorrow from his mother, accusations about his choices in life, and sarcasm can be seen all throughout his style of writing.

A separate section of the book that these themes could be successfully applied to is Navidson’s interaction and conflict with Delial. Throughout the book, we are presented with the name Delial and the negative impact that it carries for Navidson and Karen without explanation. Did Navidson have an affair with her, was she an old girlfriend, or was she perhaps a love child with another women? It wasn’t until page 368 that the truth is known. Delial is the name that Navidson gives a little girl in a photo that he takes that is dying of hunger. “The print comes from Navy’s personal collection. The same one hanging in their home and one of the first things Navidson placed in their car the night they fled. As the world remembers, the renowned image shows a Sudanese child dying of starvation, too weak to move even though a vulture stalks her from behind. (pg 368).” Why then would Delial be something that Navidson was not keen to discuss? On page 394, it details that “[b]efore the release of The Navidson Record neither friends nor family nor colleagues knew that Delial was the name Navidson had given to the starving Sudanese child. For reasons of his own, he never revealed Delial’s identity to anyone, not even to Karen…Those who have asked [why she meant so much to Navidson] usually received one of several responses: “I forget,” “Someone close to me,” “Allow a man a little mystery” or just a smile.”

So the question again begs to be asked, why would Delial be something that Navidson was not keen to discuss? It wasn’t as if his unconscious mind was protecting him from the truth. He knew what happened. He was trying to build his life up. He had food and shelter, he was safe (before moving into the house), he had enormous accolades from other famous people, but the thing that he lacked was self-esteem. He had survivor’s guilt and was unwilling to face it until forced to by the house. It might not be just any coincidence that Delial was just two letters away from Denial. This denial or Delial comes full front with the last letter that Navidson writes to Karen.

“Now I cant get Delial out of my head. Delial, Delial, Delial—the name I gave to the girl in the photo that won me all the fame and gory [*note that it is gory, not glory as the expression would call for] that’s all she in Karen, just the photo. And now I can’t understand anymore why it meant so much to me to keep to keep her a secret—a penance or something. Inadequate…i miss miss miss but i didn’t miss i got her along with the vulture in the background when the real vulture was the guy with the camera preying on her for his fuck pulitzer prize it doesn’t matter if she was already tem minutes from dying i took threem minutes to snap a photo should have taken 10 minutes taking her somewhere so she wouldnt go away like that no family, no mother no day, no people just a vulture and a fucking photojournalist i wish i were dead right now i wish i were dead that poor little baby this god god awful world im sorry i cant stop thinking of her never have never will cant forget how i ran with her like where was i going to really run i was twelve miles from nowhere i had no one to her to no window to pass her through out of harms way no tom there i was no tom there and then that tiny bag of bones just started to shake and it was over she died right in my hands the hands of the guy who took three minutes two minutes whatever a handful of seconds to photograph her and now she was gone that poor little girl in this god awful world i miss her i miss delial i miss the man who would have saved her who would have done something who would have been tom maybe im looking for all of them i miss you i love u there’s no second ive lived you can’t call your own (Page 391-393)”

The letter that was written is chaotic, rambling, just in one run-on sentence, completely manic. This is the writing of a man who once was on the path to self-actualization, but because of his denial/Delial, he then needs to find what it is that he is denying in himself which is the reason why he went back into the house.

Pages 395-396 describe the unconscious perhaps trying to protect Navidson from the horrors that he has witnessed in just a short while and thus use Delial as a tool in order to work through that grief, “The BFJ Criteria posits that Delial’s prominence in Navidson’s last letter is a repressive mechanism enabling him to at least on a symbolic level deal with his nearly inexpressible loss, after all in a very short amount of time Navidson had seen the rape of physics. He had watched one man murder another and then pull the trigger on himself. He had stood helplessly by as his own brother was crushed and consumed. And finally he had watched his lifelong companion flee to her mother and probably another lover, taking with her his children and bits of his sanity. It is not by accident that all these elements appear like ghosts in his letter. …Navidson is tying up loose ends and the reason, or so The BFJ Criteria claims, can be detected in the way he treats the Sudanese girl still haunting his past: “It is no coincidence that as Navidson begins to dwell on Delial he mentions his brother three times: ‘I had no one to pass her to. There was no window to pass her through out of harms way. There was no Tom there. I was no Tom there. Tom, maybe he’s the one I’m looking for.’ It is a harrowing admission full of sorrow and defeat—‘I was no Tom there’—seeing his brother as the life-saving (and line-saving) hero he himself was not (pg. 395-396)”.

In conclusion, there are items in this world that might have no meaning or no difference at first glance, but as the reader or the viewer take a closer look at the passage or image then another world opens up. But this world is not an imaginary world, it is an introspective world to help us become better people, live better lives, and to become more aware individuals.


  1. I'm not quite sure what you wee trying to do here. You had a lot of lengthy quotes, which in a paper this size is unnecessary. I don't know what prompt you are following. You mention the Don Quixote quote once, but then you get into self-actualization. I think this is a good paper if it was longer, to justify the quotes, and used as something other than the answer to a prompt. You were supposed to analyze Danielewski's use of Borges use of Cervantes, and yet there was no mention of Borges, nor was there mention of the quote we were supposed to talk about. You went a completely different direction. I could not identify a thesis so I did not understand what point you were trying to make. Try to focus more in on the the actual text of the quote and see how that speaks to you.

  2. This is an interesting, thought-provoking essay on self-actualization in HOL. As Lindsay points out, this does raise the problem that you are, to some extent, at the very least skirting the edge of the prompt (and, along the way, indulging in an excess of long quotations.

    What I was thinking as I was reading went something like this: "If she can tie all of this back to Cervantes and Borges in a convincing way, I'll never forget this essay."

    You don't actually tie it back, of course; you do address the context, and within the context understanding Johnny's problem as being rooted in self-actualization (or the lack thereof) makes perfect sense. The idea that the doubled quotation will be handled differently/better by those who are self-actualized than those who are not, and that it will serve as a kind of alarm to those who are not, *is* credible and interesting, but is *not* fully detailed or justified.

    What you needed was a way to integrate Cervantes and Borges into the argument. So here's what is, to me, the obvious question: is Pierre Menard also about self-actualization, in a way which can be applied to your argument.

    I think you could absolutely make answering that question work

  3. sorry, hit post too soon --- anyway, I think you could make that all work together, but you'd need to do so in order to fully answer the prompt, although this is a very interesting essay on its own terms, and does *partially* respond to the prompt.