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«The Text, the Void and the Vortex: Turbulent Topologies in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves Moritz Ingwersen Abstract The human fear of space ...»

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The Text, the Void and the Vortex: Turbulent Topologies in

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

Moritz Ingwersen


The human fear of space oscillates between two extremes: the void and the trap

– agoraphobia and claustrophobia. It is in the excess and the lack, the presence of

too much and of too little space that the human imagination is haunted by the

advent of the monstrous. Like no other, the American fiction author Mark Z.

Danielewski's has managed to capture this spatial tension in his experimental debut novel House of Leaves (2000). His literary subject of a suburban family house whose walls open up into the impossible space of a constantly reconfiguring labyrinth of lightless corridors, enormous halls and abysmal shafts is projected onto the spatiopoetic layout of the page itself. While multiple narrative strands break in on each other and multicursal footnotes indicate ways to proceed and to get lost, the tectonic shifts of the fictional house reverberate in the textual shifts of words on paper. My presentation will revolve around the katabatic centre of Danielewski's fictional maze – a Spiral Staircase. Motivated by its prominence in House of Leaves I will treat the vortex as topological figure of transition between the two poles of spatial monstrosity - the infinite and the infinitesimal. As an archetypal element of many horror tales, the spiral staircase, like the tornado or the Maelström, can be understood as emblematic of the breakdown of laminar order (vestibular, narratological, typo-/cartographical), inviting the spectre of irrational fears and turbulent transformations. With recourse to Edgar Allan Poe and Michel Serres, I will demonstrate to what extent Danielewski relies on the topology of torsion in his design of a terrifying scenario that is best described in the words of one of his characters as a ‘goddamn spatial rape.’ Key Words: Spiral staircase, house, Mark Z. Danielewski, topology, House of Leaves, vortex, fiction, space, void, Michel Serres.

***** In my talk monstrous geographies take shape with turbulence. I will consider the vortex as preeminent spatial metaphor for the passage between the two extremes of spatial monstrosity, the excessive space of the agoraphobic – the void – and the constricted space of the claustrophobic – the trap. Where the topology of The Text, the Void, and the Vortex vortices emerges it becomes manifest in a variety of forms and settings that range from oceanic whirlpools, apocalyptic cyclones and infernal spiral staircases. It is particularly the last motif of the spiral staircase whose significance I will trace in one of the most breathtaking literary debuts of the 21st century – Mark Z.

Danielewski’s turn of the millennium novel House of Leaves. This will be the setting in which I hope to illustrate in what way the text, the void and the vortex partake in the delineation of spaces of monstrosity that derive their menacing force from the very nature of their topological layout.

From the womb to the crypt, our experience of space oscillates between constriction and exposure, between the trap and the void. Cosmological models metaphorise the birth of space in the catastrophic transformation of an infinitesimal singularity into the expansive entity that we experience as the physical universe.

From a state of infinite constriction emerges a complex dynamical system of condensed energy clusters and the intermediary void. It is at this threshold between no space and the excess of space that peculiar spiral patterns emerge which have become the fetishized referent for many of our spatial anxieties. 1 The traumatic transition between order and disorder, between life and non-life is instantiated by a homeorhetic form in flux – a vortex. Consider, for instance, the dramatic choreography of a star caught up in the gravitational field of a black hole. As it is torn apart by immense angular forces, its energy is released in form of a massive interstellar vortex.

In fluid dynamics the vortex emerges with the onset of turbulence, when the velocity of laminar flows exceeds a threshold value and small instabilities in the system induce the leap to a higher level order. At their boundary layers adjacent currents do not mix in random patterns, but form semi-stable whirls and eddies. In 1979 Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Prize laureate in Chemistry, introduced the term ‘dissipative structures’ to describe this kind of self-organization. The vortex is emblematic of a new kind of transient order; it opens up a transitional space between random turbulence and laminar alignment. 2 In a poetically intense exegesis of the Lucretian poem “De Rerum Natura” Michel Serres gives a lucid account of how this genesis of form has already been central to ancient atomist models of the universe. In Lucretius’ conception of space [a]toms cascade in a laminar flow down an infinite channel without banks.

The void is a generalized hollow body. Inclination, then, imposes itself, the precursor of turbulence. It is produced, as experience shows, in an aleatory manner, at indefinite times and places.3 This originary swerve, Lucretius calls it the clinamen, is the irreversible fluctuation that precipitates the spiral morphology of the vortex. It is the hydrodynamic myth of creation.

Moritz Ingwersen Every nascent object is initially a vortex, as indeed is the world. […] The summation of the dispersed inclinations in space and time in the cataract produces, in the maximal descent, a complex weave of flows that begin from the unified nappe. The world is a vortex of vortices, interlacings or networks of waves.4 On the fringe between chaos and cosmos, etymologically the void and the universe, reigns the whirling order of the spiral flow. While its emergence is characteristic of the temporary suspension of the entropic degeneration of order proclaimed by the second law of thermodynamics, its sinister suction also inaugurates a suspension of control. Once in the arms of a vortex turning back becomes an arduous, if not impossible task. It is this circumstance that renders the maelstrom, the whirlwind, the wormhole, and the spiral staircase such ubiquitous motifs of spatialised terror. Especially in the context of American literature and film the vortex constitutes a recurring trope, whose prominence could be attributed to a unique American experience of space, so skilfully articulated by Charles


I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. […] The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle. Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.5 Melville and Poe exemplify geographical extremities. While the scenes envisioned by Poe court the claustrophobic terror of the crypt, of being buried alive, of constriction and depth, Melville’s poetics are inspired by the merciless vastness of the sea, infinite surface, and of being lost in the open - agoraphobia. In many ways the vortex unites these two spaces. At sea the whirlpool digs in, it dramatically unfolds a vertical dimension that otherwise remains latent. At shore it is the circular path into the pit, the spiral staircase into the cellar – what Gaston Bachelard calls ‘the dark entity of the house,’6 that introduces a turbulent fluidity into the static geological architecture of the land.

In Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves the monstrosity of the American space lurks beneath the walls of a suburban family house whose inside is bigger than its outside. With profound consternation one of the protagonists, the awardwinning documentary photographer Will Navidson, and his family are first The Text, the Void, and the Vortex confronted with the deviant geometry of their house when they discover a mysterious walk-in closet previously undetected and not accounted for in the architectural blueprints. Ensuing measurements conducted by Navidson and his brother Tom reveal that ‘[t]he width of the house inside would appear to exceed the width of the house as measured from the outside by ¼".’ 7 Unsettling as they are, these events only mark the beginning of a disproportionately graver geometrical disruption as ‘a dark doorless hallway’ 8 appears out of nowhere in the family’s living room, leading into the gaping depths of a contorted underground maze of endlessly bifurcating corridors, pitch-dark chambers and the abysmal shaft of a vast spiral staircase at its centre.

In truly gothic fashion, one of the most terrifying moments in the novel arrives when we learn about the geographic history of the house through excerpts from a journal discovered at the site of two frozen bodies on an icy field outside the Jamestown Colony in 1610.

–  –  –

More fnow. Bitter cold. This is a terrible Place we have stumbled on. It has been a Week fince we haue fpied one living thing. Were it not for the ftorm we would have abandoned it. Verm was plagued by many bad Dreames last night.

–  –  –

The ftorm will not break. Verm went out to hunt but returned within the houre. The Wind makes a wicked found in the Woods. Ftrange as it must feem, Tiggs, Verm, and I take comfort in the found. I fear much more the filence here. Verm tellf me he dreamt of Bones last night. I dreame of the Sunne.

–  –  –

At this point we realize that the monstrosity of the Navidson home on Ash Tree Lane is inextricably interwoven with the geography of the American founding fathers. As this passage seems to suggest, the spiral staircase has always been there. Neither man-made nor natural its grotesque presence, like the vortex in a turbulent fluid, introduces an uncanny order into the chaotic wilderness of the American South-East. Back to the house. Many of the themes exhibited in House of Leaves link up with the American tradition of exploration and cartography.

Transposed into contemporary Suburbia, the early settlers’ penetration of the wide plains and jagged geography of the American west is mirrored in Navidson’s cinematographic accounts of various expeditions into the hostile territory of his house. What complicates his endeavours to survey the place is that the topological arrangement of walls and distances inside of his house is subject to recurrent eruptive metamorphoses and shifts.

Equipped with survival gear and a wild assortment of high resolution cameras and photographic equipment Navidson and a team of reckless adventurers embark on a number of explorations whose photographic records reveal the truly monstrous scale of this bizarre subterranean terrain. Yet, while the camera bears witness to the excruciating presence of this impossible space, the house is virtually

devoid of anything besides itself:

The walls are endlessly bare. Nothing hangs on them, nothing defines them. They are without texture. Even to the keenest eye or most sentient fingertip, they remain unreadable. You will never find a mark there. No trace survives. The walls obliterate everything. They are permanently absolved of all record. Oblique, forever obscure and unwritten. Behold the perfect pantheon of absence.10 The impossible space behind the walls of Navidson’s living room is blank and textureless except for one thing, the spiral staircase at its centre.

[A]t least the stairs offer some detail: risers, treads, two large newel posts, one at the top and one at the bottom, capped and connected with a single, curved banister supported by countless balusters.11 When it is first discovered, its bizarre immensity inspires awe and disbelief.

–  –  –

right up.” Wax nods, and then adds with a shake of his head: “It’s so deep, man, it’s like it’s almost dream like.”12 At least two of the features set down by Edmund Burke to characterize the sublime apply here: ‘greatness of dimension’13 and the ‘artificial infinite.’ 14 In its vastness and with its sheer endless number of descending steps, the spiral staircase testifies to the conceptual kinship between sublimity and terror – its bizarre spatiality becomes a scene of the uncanny. In its vicinity spatial fears converge.

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