Ergodica: House of Leaves, Puzzle Boxes, and Experimental Literature

When I first heard about House of Leaves, I was excited. People told me it was maddening, mind-bending, the kind of thing meant to unhinge you from reality, using everything from metanarratives to typography to convey the insanity of its eponymous house. The book was meant to be a labyrinthine book about labyrinths, a story whose format was part of the narrative. That idea, that the form of a story could be part of the story, a kind of origami flower that opened as you read it, opened up new horizons in my imagination.

Then I sat down and read House of Leaves.

I couldn’t finish it. There was typographical trickery galore and some really tremendous 71vmj-9dzylpieces of metanarrative, but Johnny Truant’s invasive footnotes, evocative of someone else’s mind invading the story, had no substance to them, nothing that fit together with the dry scholarly passages about the Navidson Record and the drama of the expeditions into the heart of the house. And that’s my main critique of most of the book: these fantastic, inventive typographical tricks didn’t come together as a cohesive whole to evoke the story it was telling. Instead, it ended up as mostly white noise, a bunch of jigsaw pieces glued onto a very compelling nucleus, the house, whose borders and boundaries can’t be contained in space, time, or (potentially) the book itself.

In the end, what made me put down the book was sheer disinterest. It hurts the narrative flow to include the kind of ergodic lit puzzles that House of Leaves throws out: reading upside-down and slantways, combing through footnotes and inlaid text boxes, reading pages with only one word on them, following margin-notes (ala Ship of Theseus). But I would gladly read a book that uses all the same tricks as long as I felt like it was all adding up to something. I didn’t give a fuck about Johnny Truant and his drug-fueled casual sex episodes. About halfway through the book, I realized that all these strands were a mess, not a tapestry, and it sucked my resolve to keep navigating all the puzzles.

61vy5clgs5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_ A good counterexample of a piece of experimental literature that did its job well is Trillium, the graphic novel with Jeff Lemire. It takes a lot of skill to make a reader just flip a book upside down, but Trillium gave an amazing narrative reason to do just that: at one point in the book, the narrative splits into two parallel universes, and so the panels are actually running parallel to one another, but flipped so you don’t read both timelines at once. This makes you focus on one at a time while also getting little peripheral glimpses of what’s to come. It’s genius, and it works because it’s coherent, intuitive to navigate, and grounded in the narrative. You know why it’s happening, how to read it, and what it means for the story.

House of Leaves may read like Harry Plinkett’s jigsaw puzzle challenge, but it still did something original and tremendously thought-provoking by giving an idea of what ergodic literature could do and be. The very idea of it inspires me, and despite the frustrations and disillusionment, I wanted to do something like it. But there were three things to keep in mind if I was going to fool around with ergodic literature:

  1. The structure and format of the story would have to be grounded in the story
  2. The way the reader navigates or decodes the text would have to be intuitive and immersive, meaning that it was easy to grasp and brought people deeper into the story
  3. The structure and format needed to have a good flow, making it easy to jump in and out of

I came up with the idea of a “corpse” book, a story that was physically split into six separate books, like a torso with the limbs severed off. It would be, in practice, a constellation of short stories that illuminate a central novel, all united by invisible threads. You would start with all of the books, beginning by reading the central book, the torso, but periodically follow the narrative into one of the other limb books, then return. Each of the limbs would shed more light on the central book, but would be its own contained story and narrative.

The idea? Create a story about immortality, truth, and godhood whose structure and interconnections would mirror the Kabbalah Tree of Life and the Sephiroth, and whose story has to be unlocked like Hellraiser’s puzzle box, one piece at a time.

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Corpse book: central book in center, limb books in periphery

To be continued…

Ergodica: House of Leaves, Puzzle Boxes, and Experimental Literature

The Making of Anatman, Part 2: The Qliphoth

Now we come to the real, meaty occultism that everyone’s looking for in their origami pyramids: Kabbalah. But, as J.R.R Tolkien found out when trying to research the Eddas, there’s a problem with learning about ancient mythology and the occult: the materials that have become the “official” accounts of both Kabbalah and Norse myths are usually heavily altered by later authors or totally made up for the purpose of gaining profit, cultists, and loose women. It’s this cross-millennial game of Telephone (more “Forgery and Revision”) that created the New Age movement, including Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabbalah.

So to understand the nuances of Kabbalah, you’d better be a Hebrew scholar with a doctorate in it. I’m not a Hebrew scholar, and I definitely don’t have a degree in medieval esotericism. I chose a much more practical, business-minded college degree (English). So I’m not an authority on the Sephiroth, I just play with its ideas.

That being said, Neon Genesis: Evangelion was a pretty fucking great account of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Shaving it down to its most basic ideas, Kabbalah is a primarily Jewish philosophy that proposes a hidden, or “esoteric,” symmetry in the Universe based around Ein Sof, which is the embodiment of God, Creation, Truth, and Infinity. The practice of Kabbalah is meant to help practitioners learn to reconcile themselves with Ein Sof and learn the truth of their connection to all of creation. The concept of Ein Sof as Infinity was especially fitting for ANATMAN, since it brings together truth, the universe, and the metaphysical (and mathematical) concept of infinity, which, as I’ve talked about before, all seem to overlap in the search for enlightenment. Another fitting concept of Ein Sof is Kether, or unity and oneness. Ein Sof unites everything in itself: humanity, the universe, and God. There are no fundamental divisions between things, and the only thing that keeps you from recognizing this is ignorance, deception, and unholiness. Compare this to Part 1 and the description of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism:

“Enlightenment is embracing your own annihilation, because the truth is that “you” do not exist. “You” is no-self, no-soul. You are Void, because you are the universe, and the universe is Void. There are no divisions anywhere, no up or down, no day or night, and no division between life and death.”

No divisions, just unity. You and the universe. Kether in Kabbalah, like the Void in Zen Buddhism, can be thought of as a coin, with oneness and self-annihilation as different faces. Now, the recurring problem: enlightenment means the disappearance of all your desires, pleasures, fears and the person you call yourself.  “You” have to die. Death is necessary for enlightenment. You either choose to die spiritually in enlightenment and reconcile yourself with eternity to be reborn, or you choose to die physically and succumb to time, old age, and constant change.

In Kabbalah, there is the Sephiroth, the Tree of Life and Knowledge, which is the ten-part route to Ein Sof, with Malkuth, or earthly existence, existing on the lowest branch of the Sephiroth. You can ascend the Tree or sit in Malkuth forever. In Buddhism, you would be thrown into the Wheel of Samsara again after death and be reincarnated, repeating life and death forever.

But what if there was another way, another path? A crack in the whole system of life and death, enlightenment and the universe? Anyone who found a way to escape the rules and unity of the universe would exist outside all rules and order. There would be a place outside of eternity.

And this is where the Qliphoth, the Kabbalah Tree of Death, comes in.

THE QLIPHOTH

There exists an antithesis to the Sephiroth, and it’s called the Qliphoth. The Qliphoth is the universal structure by which the Truth of Ein Sof is perverted, twisted, and otherwise hidden. Each of the ten points of the Qliphoth represent the antithesis of its correlating sephirot in the Sephiroth, and two of the highest levels of the Qliphoth are Thamiel and Chaigdel, which oppose Kether and Chokmah, respectively. Thamiel represents division instead of unity, and Chokmah represents emptiness when there should be fullness, especially in the universal life-force.

(Take note of these two ideas, Chaigdel and Chokmah–they’re going to show up later, in fractal geometry, no less.)

The Qliphoth offers an alternative to the conscious choice of enlightenment and the unconscious choice of ignorance, at least in my conception of it. By choosing to follow the Qliphoth, you can place yourself at an infinite distance from Truth, God, and Eternity, and this is different from being unenlightened. You choose to be the antithesis of the Universe rather than the embodiment of it. This is the greatest perversion of enlightenment: knowing the nature of yourself and the universe, and rejecting your place in the grand unity of it all.

What kind of life would that be? If you’re not part of the grand scheme of creation, are you a creation unto yourself? A closed circuit? If you’re beyond creation and destruction, how can you exist? If you’re beyond life and death, what kind of power can sustain you?

There is a name that sums up this kind of existence: Ouroboros, or the snake that eats itself.

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Next up in Part 2: Oroboro and Fractals.

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The Making of Anatman, Part 2: The Qliphoth