Friday, December 09, 2005

Pieter de Hooch, The Linen Closet, and Danielewski, House of Leaves: Negotiations of space

Finals week is next week for me, which means the usual immersion into the grading of student papers. But before I pretty much disappear from "here" for the next week, I thought I'd post something here that I posted on the House of Leaves discussion board this morning. It's about possible connections between the novel's experiments with visual and textual space and those of 17th-century Dutch painting. Don't worry if you've not read Danielewski's novel; for the most part I'm just speaking of the arrangement of text on the page.

Who knows if what I say in it is right? But it FEELS right, you know? Perhaps you'll enjoy reading it. Here, by the way, is the whole thread, in case you might be interested.

See you next weekend.

I have a little stolen time today to try a more in-depth discussion of some of the links I see between the depiction of visual space I see in some domestic scenes in Dutch painting and what MZD seems to be doing, in certain moments, at least, in HoL.

Here again (to save you a bit of scrolling) is Pieter de Hooch's Linen Cupboard (or Linen Closet)(1663) (70cmx75.5cm; approx. 27.5"x29.75"):

Not all Dutch paintings in this genre are this complex in their depictions of space. But a commonly-held feature of this genre is the simultaneous depiction of an Inside space (the room in the foreground) and an Outside one, visible through an open window or door or gate. The strong sensation is that the viewer doesn't just stay static, outside the image, but is invited to move into and through the space depicted. And, as I hope you'll see, this one's elaborate composition is especially appropriate for comparison purposes to certain textual moments in HoL.

In the first post on this thread, I mentioned the painting's four vertical spaces, each of them leading us away from the Linen Closet (1). The more I have looked at this painting, the more I realize just how much there is to say about it. But for now I just want to concentrate on the positioning of two figures, the woman holding the stack of sheets and the little girl in semi-shadow standing by the door leading out of the room. Note that each is postioned in such a way that, if they were in the same room, each would have her back to the other. They mirror each other even down to the way each is holding her hands at the waist. Each looks in a different direction, as well: the woman at the Closet, concentrating on her work, and the girl at us, seeming to invite us to join her as she heads out to the street to play. They mirror/echo each other. The upshot: our attention gets pulled in two physical directions simultaneously, but those directions have symbolic charges as well: work/play; maturity/youth. There is also de Hooch's palette's visual echoes, too: the goldenrod of the woman's skirt is perfectly matched by the goldenrod of the light striking the far sidewalk that we can see through the open street entrance of the house. It's interesting that the goldenrod doesn't appear on the girl's dress but, from our perspective, at the height of her shoulder. Meanwhile, look at what we find in the lower center of the painting: a laundry basket with unwashed bedding. For the woman, perhaps it represents unfinished work; for the girl, it might represent something to be escaped--no wonder she leans toward the door.

Titles for these sorts of paintings are usually descriptive and often are not of the painter's choosing; its subsequent sellers or owners or collectors name them. But the title for this one seems most fortunate: it was probably meant to be only descriptive, but I don't think it'd be claiming too much to say that, even though the Closet isn't at the visual center of this painting, it certainly provides the thematic center around which the action of the painting revolves: the work of the household. As I suggest above, even the girl's eagerness to be leaving is a response to the work the Closet's "feeding" requires.

So: what does all this have to do with HoL? We all are familar with the way the pages of Chapter IX are printed. To my mind, they are easily the textual equivalent of de Hooch's painting. I happen to be looking at pp. 134-135 as I write this, and here is what I see, working from the margins of the two pages (I'm treating the open book's two pages as a visually-unified structure) inward: on the left margin, part of the long list of conventionally-printed names of famous structures, mirrored on the right margin (by means of upside-down, italicized print) by part of the long list of famous architects. Those two lists serve as appropriate visual framing devices for the pages of a chapter that will discuss "design and construction" (109). Also, to build the outer and inner wall structure of a house is to frame it. But the textual frames here consist of lists of buildings that, Zampano tells us, the house on Ash Tree Lane "does not even remotely resemble" (120)--and it stands to reason that it doesn't resemble the work of the architects named, either. Meanwhile, the content of the text of the blue boxes lists, appropriately, the various things that finish a house, things the walls of a conventional house contain--wiring, plumbing, duct work, molding, windows, etc. And etc. (the footnotes and commentary, for a while, crowding out the TNR narrative/exegesis). Add to that the sense I have that, from p. 119, where the blue box first appears, up to pp. 132-133, the overall visual appearance of these pages has had a sort of blocky look that has been more-or-less consistent and symmetrical. From 134-135, though, that consistent appearance breaks down. As we try to read all this, it can be easy to lose track of whether we're reading The Navidson Record or the book that contains it, House of Leaves.

Once we get past the "How cool is this!" response to all this textual and visual noise, the natural question should be, "Why?" Why doesn't MZD simply say, "This ain't no ordinary house" and let the narrative (and the footnotes, too, if we must) confirm that? To return to the de Hooch painting for a bit, the analogous question would be, "Why not just have all those doors and windows closed and let the painting be just about the Closet?" In both instances, I'd say, in addition to the centerpiece of de Hooch's painting and MZD's novel, there's just as much interest on the part of the makers in establishing a context for the worlds of these respective works, one that, eventually, will intersect with our own. The visual and textual noise in each actually makes those spaces more accessible to us even as it the noise) distracts us from the spaces themselves. The illusion of a world separate from our own gets broken, the trade-off being a world that invites us into its world . . . or, as we all have seen here on this forum, has the power to convince some of us that it is already in our world. And all because we ask Why.

Now: to actually try to give some of this a foundation.
(1) In one sense that's not quite right: one of those spaces is the Closet itself, its open door seeming to invite us to look in after the women finish putting away the bedding. But there's something a bit ominous, isn't there, in pondering that cavernous interior. Besides: that interior isn't meant to be seen; it isn't a public space. So, thinking about things in that way, one could say that the Closet's interior space is removed from the room depicted in the painting and so leads us away from, if not "outside," that space.

Technorati tags:
, , , , ,

No comments: