The significance of echoes, an excerpt from the experimental novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The remastered full-colour edition.

"Any hope or fear that the experimental novel was an aberration of the twentieth century is dashed by the appearance of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, the first major experimental novel of the new millennium. And it's a monster. Dazzling." -- The Washington Post Book World

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It is impossible to appreciate the importance of space in The Navidson Record without first taking into account the significance of echoes. However, before even beginning a cursory examination of their literal and thematic presence in the film, echoes reverberating within the word itself need to be distinguished.

Generally speaking, echo has two coextensive histories: the mythological one and the scientific one. [David Eric Katz argues for a third: the epistemological one. Of course, the implication that the current categories of myth and science ignore the reverberation of knowledge itself is not true. Katz’s treatment of repetition, however, is still highly rewarding. His list of examples… are particularly impressive… Each provides a slightly different perspective on the inherent meaning of recurrence, especially when that repetition is imperfect.]

To illustrate the multiple resonances found in an echo, the Greeks conjured up the story of a beautiful mountain nymph. Her name was Echo and she made the mistake of helping Zeus succeed in one of his sexual conquests. Hera found out and punished Echo, making it impossible for her to say anything except the last words spoken to her. Soon after, Echo fell in love with Narcissus whose obsession with himself caused her to pine away until only her voice remained. Another lesser known version of this myth has Pan falling in love with Echo. Echo, however, rejects his amorous offers and Pan, being the god of civility and restraint, tears her to pieces, burying all of her except her voice. Adonta ta mete. [Adonta ta… = “Her still singing limbs.”] In both cases, unfulfilled love results in the total negation of Echo’s body and the near negation of her voice.

But Echo is an insurgent. Despite the divine constraints imposed upon her, she still manages to subvert the gods’ ruling. After all, her repetitions are far from digital, much closer to analog. Echo colours the words with faint traces of sorrow (The Narcissus myth) or accusation (The Pan myth) never present in the original. As Ovid recognized in his Metamorphoses:

Spreta latet silvis pudibundaque frondibus
ora protegit et solis ex jib vivit in antris; sed
tamen haeret amor crescitque dolore repulsae;
extenuant vigiles corpus miserabile curae adducitque
cutem macies et in aera sucus
corporis omnis abit; vox tantum atque ossa
supersunt: vox manet, ossa ferunt lapidis
traxisse figuram. Inde latet silvis nulloque in
monte videtur, omnibus auditur: sonus est,
qui vivit in illa.

[Eloquently translated by Horace Gregory as:

“So she was turned away
To hide her face, her lips, her guilt among the trees
Even their leaves, to haunt caves of the forest
To feed her love on melancholy sorrow
Which, sleepless, turned her body to a shade
First pale and wrinkled, then a sheet of air
Then bones, which some say turned to thin-worn rocks
And last her voice remained. Vanished in forest
Far from her usual walks on hills and valleys
She’s heard by all who call; her voice has life.]

To repeat: her voice has life. It possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story.

[Literary marvel Miguel de Cervantes set down this compelling passage in his Don Quixote, Part One, Chapter Nine: verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, deposito
de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente,
advertencia de lo por venir.

Much later, a yet untried disciple of arms had the rare pleasure of meeting the extraordinary Pierre Menard in a Paris cafe following the Second World War. Reportedly Menard expounded on his distinct distaste for Madelines but never mentioned the passage (and echo of Don Quixote) he had penned before the war which had subsequently earned him a fair amount of literary fame: verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, deposito
de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente,
advertencia de lo por venir.

This exquisite variation on the passage by the “ingenious layman” is far too dense to unpack here. Suffice it to say Menard’s nuances 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.]
Exactly! How the fuck do you write about “exquisite variation” when both passages are exactly the same?
In his own befuddled way, John Hollander has given the world a beautiful and strange reflection on love and longing. To read his marvelous dialogue on echo is to find its author standing perfectly still in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes wild with a cascade of internal reckonings, lips acting out some unintelligible discourse, inaudible to the numerous students who race by him, noting his mad appearance and quite rightly offering him a wide berth as they escape into someone else’s class.

Hollander begins with a virtual catalogue of literal echoes. For example, the Latin “decem lam annos aetatem trivi in Cicerone” echoed by the Greek “one!” [“I’ve spent ten years on Cicero” “Ass!”] Or “Musarum studia” (Latin) described by the echo as “dia” (Greek). [“The Muses’ studies” “divine ones.”] Or Narcissus’ rejection “Emoriar, quam sit tibi copia nostri” to which Echo responds “sit tibi copia nostri.” [Narcissus: “May I die before I give you power over me.” Echo: “I give you power over me.”] On page 4, he even provides a woodcut from Athanasius Kircher’s Neue Hall -und Thonkunst (Nordlingen, 1684) illustrating an artificial echo machine designed to exchange “clamore” for four echoes: “amore,” “more,” “ore,” and finally “re.” [“O outcry” returns as “love,” “delays,” “hours” and “king.”] Nor does Hollander stop there. His slim volume abounds with examples of textual transfiguration, though in an effort to keep from repeating the entire book, let this heart-wrenching interchange serve as a final example:

Chi dara fine a! gran dolore?

[“Who will put an end to this great sadness?”
“The hours passing”]

While The Figure of Echo takes special delight in clever word games, Hollander knows better than to limit his examination there. Echo may live in metaphors, puns and the suffix -- solis ex jib vivit in antris [“Literature's rocky caves”] [“From that time on she lived in lonely caves.”] -- but her range extends far beyond those literal walls. For instance, the rabbinical bat kol means “daughter of a voice” which in modern Hebrew serves as a rough equivalent for the word “echo.” Milton knew it “God so commanded, and left that Command/ Sole Daughter of his voice.” So did Wordsworth: “stern Daughter of the Voice of God.” Quoting from Henry Reynold’s Mythomystes (1632), Hollander evidences religious appropriation of the ancient myth:

This Winde is (as the before-mentioned lamblicus,
by consent of his other fellow Cabalists sayes) the Symbole of the Breath of God;
and Ecco, the reflection of this divine breath, or spirit upon us;
or (as they interpret it) the daughter of the divine voice;
which through the beatifying splendor it shedds and diffuses through the Soule,
is justly worthy to be reverenced and adored by us.
This Ecco descending upon a Narcissus, or such a Soule as
(impurely and vitiously affected) slights, and stops his eares to the Divine voice,
or shutts his harte from divine Inspirations,
through his being enamour’d of not himselfe,
but his owne shadow merely…
he becomes thence…
an earthy, weake, worthiesse thing,
and fit sacrifize for only etemall oblivion…

Thus Echo suddenly assumes the role of god’s messenger, a female Mercury or perhaps even Prometheus, decked in talaria, with lamp in hand, descending on fortunate humanity.

In 1989, however, the noted southern theologian Hanson Edwin Rose dramatically revised this reading. In a series of lectures delivered at Chapel Hill, Rose referred to “God’s Grand Utterance” as “The Biggest Bang Of Them All.” After discussing in depth the difference between the Hebrew davhar and the Greek logos, Rose took a careful accounting of St. John, chapter 1, Verse 1 -- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It was a virtuoso performance but one that surely would have been relegated to those dusty shelves already burdened with a thousand years of seminary discourse had he not summed up his ruminations with this incendiary and still infamous conclusion:
“Look to the sky, look to yourself and remember: we are only god’s echoes and god is Narcissus.”
Rose’s pronouncement recalls another equally important meditation:

Why did god create a dual universe?
So he might say,
“Be not like me. I am alone.”
And it might be heard.

There is not time or room to adequately address the complexity inherent in this passage, aside from noting how the voice is returned -- or figuratively echoed -- not with an actual word but with the mere understanding that it was received, listened to, or as the text explicitly states “heard.” What the passage occludes, no doubt on purpose, is how such an understanding might be attained.

Interestingly enough, for all its marvelous observation, The Figure of Echo contains a startling error, one which performs a poetic modulation on a voice sounded over a century ago. While discussing Wordsworth’s poem “The Power of Sound” Hollander quotes… the following few lines:

Ye Voices, and ye Shadows
And Images of voice -- to hound and horn
From rocky steep and rock-bestudded meadows
Flung back, and in the sky’s blue care reborn.
[Italics added for emphasis]

Perhaps it is simply a typographical error committed by the publisher. Or perhaps the publisher was dutifully transcribing an error committed by Hollander himself, not just a scholar but a poet as well, who in that tiny slip where an “r” replaced a “v” and an “s” miraculously vanished reveals his own relation to the meaning of echo. A meaning Wordsworth did not share. Consider the original text:

Ye Voices, and ye Shadows
And Images of voice -- to hound and horn
From rocky steep and rock-bestudded meadows
Flung back, and, in the sky’s blue caves reborn.
[Italics added for emphasis]

While Wordsworth’s poetics retain the literal properties and stay within the canonical jurisdiction of Echo, Hollander’s find something else, not exactly ‘religious’ -- that would be hyperbole -- but ‘compassionate’, which as an echo of humanity suggests the profoundest return of all.

Aside from recurrence, revision, and commensurate symbolic reference, echoes also reveal emptiness. Since objects always muffle or impede acoustic reflection, only empty places can create echoes of lasting clarity.

Ironically, hollowness only increases the eerie quality of otherness inherent in any echo. Delay and fragmented repetition create a sense of another inhabiting a necessarily deserted place. Strange then how something so uncanny and outside of the self, even ghostly as some have suggested, can at the same time also contain a resilient comfort: the assurance that even if it is imaginary and at best the product of a wall, there is still something else out there, something to stake out in the face of nothingness.

Hollander is wrong when he writes:

"The apparent echoing of solitary words [reminds] us… that acoustical echoing in empty places can be a very common auditory emblem, redolent of gothic novels as it may be, of isolation and often of unwilling solitude. This is no doubt a case of natural echoes conforming to echo’s mythographic mocking, rather than affirming, role. In an empty hall that should be comfortably inhabited, echoes of our voices and motions mock our very presence in the hollow space."

It is not by accident that choirs singing Psalms are most always recorded with ample reverb. Divinity seems defined by echo. Whether the Vienna Boys Choir or monks chanting away on some chart climbing CD, the hallowed always seems to abide in the province of the hollow. The reason for this is not too complex.
An echo, while implying an enormity of a space, at the same time also defines it, limits it, and even temporarily inhabits it.
When a pebble falls down a well, it is gratifying to hear the eventual plunk. If, however, the pebble only slips into darkness and vanishes without a sound, the effect is disquieting. In the case of a verbal echo, the spoken word acts as the pebble and the subsequent repetition serves as “the plunk.” In this way, speaking can result in a form of “seeing.”

…Along with resonance frequencies, the study of sound also takes into account wave acoustics, ray acoustics, diffusion, and steady-state pressure level, as well as sound absorption and transmission through walls. A careful examination of the dynamics involved in sound absorption reveals how incident sound waves are converted to energy. (In the case of porous material, the subsurface lattice of interstices translates sound waves into heat.) Nevertheless, above and beyond the details of frequency shifts and volume fluctuations -- the physics of ‘otherness’ -- what matters most is a sound’s delay. [Further attention should probably be given to sabins and Transmission Loss as described by TL = 10 log 1/ r dB, where r= a transmission coefficient and a high TL indicates a high sound insulation...]

Point of fact, the human ear cannot distinguish one sound wave from the same sound wave if it returns in less than 50 milliseconds. Therefore for anyone to hear a reverberation requires a certain amount of space. At 68 degrees Fahrenheit sound travels at approximately 1,130 ft per second. A reflective surface must stand at least 56 and half ft away in order for a person to detect the doubling of her voice. [Parallel surfaces will create a flutter echo, though frequently a splay of as little as 16 mm (5/8 inch) can prevent the multiple repetitions.]
In other words, to hear an echo, regardless of whether eyes are open or closed, is to have already “seen” a sizable space.
Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate.

And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love.

There is only silence.

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House of Leaves on Amazon. Ergodic literature on Wikipedia. The Guardian review. A simpler explanation of House of Leaves.