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Week Eleven (Tues, Apr. 5): The Tree of Culture/A Multiplicity of Stories


Among the Carnevale di Venice Masks is that of "El Medico della Peaste," the Plague Doctor. His costume originally served several functions -- first, in the time of plague, it was a disguise to hide the identity of a physician who by visiting plague victims might be exposed to contagion. The tunic was of pure linen or waxed cloth to protect him, and finally, he always had his trusty staff with which he removed the clothes of plague-victims, thinking that in this way the terrible epidemic would not bring him any harm. thought this an amusing representation of our sense of "distance" both from Powers' characters, and of Camus' characters' distance from the disturbing events going on in their town....

[which we seem, btw, to be changing our minds about!!

Elly: rather than having this coldness turn me away from the characters, it strengthened my connection to them … allowed me to put myself into the story because the situation of the characters and the town was not made so specific, but rather left open in order to serve as a representation for many other towns, places or people.

rachelr: this distancing was necessary for the audience (the readers) to ultimately trust his account of all the happenings throughout the plague outbreak]

from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics:
greater abstraction invites identification,
because less specific

I. Coursekeeping

we will finish talking about The Plague this Thursday

for next Tuesday's discussion, please watch Spike Jonze's 2003, 114-minute film, Adaptation, which we will discussing next week as a contemporary "evolution" ("adaptation?") in narrative form; I've placed it on library reserve in Canaday

on Friday a week, April 15th, your third webproject is due: 3-4 pp. on some aspect of the evolution of literary or filmic stories that particularly interests--or is useful--to you

II. But first: our afterthoughts on The Plague: Paul? 

III. Last week, I reviewed a number of
stories "not being told" in this class, about

* social Darwinism,

* "literary Darwinism," which focuses on the "indelible
core of human nature," as exemplified in canonical texts, and so
trying to provide literary criticism w/ "universal explanations"
and "foundational principles," monocauses and stability; and

* "adaptation studies," which, according to Dawn's review,
valorizes original texts, upholds values of fidelity, hierarchy, canonicity.

I offered activities
@ the other end of the spectrum of literary study:

* the "distant reading" of Wai Chee Dimock (and of Katherine Hayles,
whose essays on "How We Read" and "How We Think" were central to my other course on Gender and Technology this semester);

* the "graphs, maps, trees" of Franco Moretti, who is replacing old distinctions (high and low; canon and archive; this or that national literature...) with new temporal, spatial and morphological distinctions that trace large-scale patterns of "divergence and convergence."

* our own imaginings of a course of study in "evolutionary" literature.

IV. We began to explore, too, how-- out of all these possibilities in the cultural landscape --Powers' novel, in particular, might contribute to our story of cultural evolution: what do we gain from reading it? What does Powers' novel give us that others don't? What does it not give us that others might?

cr88: I would argue that novels such as "Generosity" represent not the future but the past of the novel, a past in which literature was an art form that celebrated individual expression rather than a trade to be plied for the entertainment of the masses. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, it seems we do not have the patience for stories unless they are conveyed directly, without adornment, and preferably in less than 140 characters. [Or: is the novel dead??]

[Based on my assumption that it's not/quite!], we also began to
explore the relationship of Powers' text to Camus':

* how The Plague might have served as a warning to Thomas
Kurton, about the limitations of a career devoted to life science;

* a reminder that "the bacillus never dies... for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

In our small groups, we explored what "enlightenment"
might be offered by the persistent (and essentially random,
ultimately uncontrollable?) return of the plague. We thought about

* existentialism (the essential absurdity of life, and the concomitant
necessity that we make our own meaning,since it is not is scripted for us
ahead of time)

* solidarity (shared participation in struggle, as per Toan's Without the sense of community, we would be nothing)

* boredom (this was Paul's group: how much of the time we are just trying to avoid/get out of this state? which is the originary --and ongoing--state of the novel)

* evil (this was my group, which focused on the claim made by Camus's narrator that  "The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance," and then continued the conversation on-line:
tangerines--> vlopez--> sarah--> ewashburn:

I have reservations about using the word "evil" because of its connotations of irreversability, and its polarizing effect on other humans. To label the act of another human being as "evil" is to pretty much exile that person from the rest of human society -->


The question here seems to be, can we control evil? I would tie it back into a question of previous discussions; can we control happiness? ... I think if we have this sense of outer self looking in on ourselves, that would help us manage each of the situations. We could have an objective view of ourselves and provide input for ourselves....

I am responsible for my happiness ... we are in control of how we react to things.... I can choose to let reactions affect me or not. In that sense I will be in control of my happiness.

V. I want to pick up on that theme (the central theme of today). But as we go on with
our exploration of The Plague, I want to do so with a reminder that this is only one of an infinite number of stories that might be told about the novel, and more generally, about the evolution of literature.

Rather than go "back" to The Plague, for instance, after reading Generosity, we might have gone "forward" in another direction Powers gestured toward: "If people want mystery and imagination and inexplicable temperament, they should just read Assia Djebar" (p. 214).

AnnaP is reading Djebar-->

Soliloquy: The sharp ploughshare of my memory digs its furrows through the darkness behind me, while I tremble in broad daylight to find myself among women who mix with men, with impunity…. They call me an exile. It is more than that: I have been banished from my homeland to listen and bring back some traces of liberty to the women of my family.... I imagine I constitute the link, but I am only floundering in a murky bog.

My night stirs up French words, in spite of the resurrected dead…. I thought when I gasped these words they would be doves of peace, in spite of the ravens hovering over the charnel houses, in spite of the snarling jackals tearing flesh to pieces. Cooing turtle-dove-words, chirruping robin-red-breasts like those that wait in opium-smokers- cages…. The first strains of a dirge well up, penetrating the barriers of oblivion, at one a plaintive song and song of love in the first light of dawn. And every dawn is bright because I write….

My fiction is this attempt at autobiography, weighed down under the oppressive burden of my heritage. Shall I sink beneath the weight?.... But the tribal legend criss-crosses the empty space, and the imagination crouches in the silence when loving words of the unwritten mother-tongue remain unspoken – language conveyed like the inaudible babbling of a nameless, haggard murmur – crouches in this dark night like a woman begging in the streets….

1) People were complaining about Powers' and Camus's lack of emotional attachment to his characters and the idea that the novel is changing; Djebar also puts forth a novel/autobiography in a very different (hybrid) form, but does so with a great deal of investment in her characters (which has to do with Powers' characterization of her as mysterious and emotional...or whatever nonsense he said...whoops that's my personal bias coming in).

2) Powers puts forth the idea that all stories have already been told - I think Djebar sort of challenges this idea, and actually looks to history to say that, hold on, a lot of stories in a lot of languages have NEVER been told, and don't get the air time.

3) Powers' emphasis on other mediums to tell stories (film, etc) - Djebar too is really preoccupied about with representation and form, and she talks a lot of language's representational limits in her text. Also, she actually ended up switching to film, which might indicate some commonality between her and Powers.

V. With a recognition that we might be turning in other directions, that there's no "inevitability" about the move we are making, we turn back now to The Plague.

One keynote in the "evolutionary" story we have been
telling is a sense of history, of time passing, of future.

Several of you mused about the sense of time in
The Plague:

Ems8140:  in my psychology of time class... we learned about temporal perspective, and how there are five different time directions: past negative, past positive, present hedonistic, present fatalistic, and future.... When the plague first became present among the people, the citizens tended toward a present hedonistic orientation, as shown by the “much heavy drinking” and other similar actions.... As the plague continued to ravage the city, however, many of the citizens shifted to a present fatalistic temporal direction.... However... Rambert and Rieux had a future orientation.

Cremisi:  The concept of time is something that, though it is all around us constantly, still continues to make me wonder.... Time is such an odd concept--it's irreversible... and never to be repeated again.... I'd like to understand it more.

Lethologica:  It's always baffled, intrigued, and amazed me that we... have managed to impress upon the abstract idea of time an orderly system that allows us to express it with ease.... It also puzzles me that 'Time,' even after we organize it, has a strange tendency of moving in leaps and bounds.... I also have to wonder if it is even possible to waste time as it is suggested in The Plague.... We are, after all, still using 'Time' ...ticking along, despite any of our efforts. So, perhaps one can waste an opportunity, but I don't see how one can waste Time

How would you characterize the sense of time in this novel? Does it help us to answer some of the questions posed by Ems8140, Cremisi, Lethologica?

Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed, the here and now had come to mean everything to them.... the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments (Part II, p. 165).

There was nothing to do but to "mark time" (Part IV, p. 169).

.... the whole town lived as if it had no future (Part IV, p. 234).

Another way of asking this question: how much freedom is there in this novel?

Our townsfolk... forgot to be modest... and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible... plague rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences (Part I, p. 35). of Rieux's patients against all expectation had recovered.... "That's impossible... once you have plague your number's up." True enough, as a general rule.... But if you refuse to be beaten, you have some pleasant surprises" (Part II, p. 144).

"The plague has the whip hand of you and there's nothing to be done about it." "We shall know whether that is so... only when we've tried everything" (Part II, p. 44).

Some... even continued to fancy they were still behaving as free men
and had the power of choice. But actually it would have been truer to say that... the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny... the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the cross-currents of revolt and fear (Part III, p. 151).

How does (does?) the question of freedom differ from Ashley's claims about our responsibility and control?
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Hannah: Thursday’s conversation made me think in depth about inevitability. We talked about whether or not, with a greater understanding of science and medicine, the rats could have been exterminated… inherent blindness seems to be equal parts denial and equal parts self- preservation.... Part of being human is being selfish and being fit enough to survive.... this inability to act can... be the very trait that saves us evolutionarily.

ckosarek:  I'm wondering if the repetitive quality of the rats appearing could be construed ... as a metaphor for for the ways that humans gravitate toward the familiar.... in the face of tragedy humans may cling to what is predictable and comfortable is explored.... people will hang on to what they know because what they don't know... is too difficult to confront.  In Camus' novel, we see the people carrying on as normally as possible with the appearance of the rats. Could it be that the trauma/presence of the rats takes away people's agency to break out of their norm and adjust their routines to ones that could be safer? If humans act in certain ways in the presence of past-known stressors, then what does that do to agency? Is agency anything but an illusion, and (in the case that it is), does that prove the existence of Babel?

Speaking of the possibility of agency: would you say that there is any justice in the world that Camus has created?

And in the growing darkness the almost empty town, palled in dust, swept by bitter sea-spray, and loud with the shrilling of the wind, seemed a lost island of the damned.... The plague as no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone... was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned (Part III, pp. 152-153).

He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice-- hideous, witless justice (Part IV, p. 173).

Would you call this justice??

The plague has put an effective stop to politic inquiries.... we have no police nowadays; no crimes past or present, no more criminals--only condemned men hoping for the most capricious of pardons.... "the one way of making people hang together is to give 'em a spell of plague" (Part IV, p. 175).

... whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and... exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men's hearts. They were assured,  of course, of the inerrable equality of death, but nobody wanted that kind of equality (Part IV, p. 214).

The leveling-out that death's imminence had failed in practice to accomplish was realized at last... in the rapture of escape (Pt V, p. 267).

How individualized, how collective, is the experience portrayed in this novel?

Thus the disease, which apparently had forced on us the solidarity of a beleaguered town, disrupted at the same time long-established communities and sent men out to live, as individuals, in relative isolation (Part III, p. 154).

Rieux no longer had the impression of putting up a solitary fight; the patients were co-operating (Part IV, p. 234).

...setting forth at last, like a shipload of survivors, toward a land of promise (Part V, p. 246).

Does the novel suggest that we can (are we allowed to?) be happy in an unhappy world? reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous.... they had adapted themselves to the very condition of the plague... mediocrity. None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had trite, monotonous feelings... vast despondency... passive and provisional acquiescence.... the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room.... The town was peopled with sleepwalkers.... they had ceased to choose for themselves.... Everything was taken as it came... blind endurance had ousted love from all our hearts (Part III, pp. 163-168).

"No resource was left him but to tighten the stranglehold on his feelings and harden his heart protectively (Part IV, p. 172)

there was nothing shameful in preferring happiness...."But it may be shameful to be happy by oneself" (Part IV, p. 188).

"each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten the infection on him. What's natural is the microbe. All the rest--health, integrity, purity (if you like) --is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous willpower, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, its a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to it.... on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us ... not to join forces with the pestilences" (Tarrou, Part IV, p. 229).

hlehman: for the most part I am at ease with my disease.... even though it is kind of scary and depressing that we all have the “plague” within us, I also find comfort in it. That really no one is perfect and since the only way to be free from our “disease” is to die, we really don’t need to sweat the small stuff...  live each day the best you can, the plague won’t be so bad and you’ll hardly notice it. 

"the only way in which he might help was to provide opportunities for the beneficence of chance, which too often stays dormant unless roused to action. Luck was an ally" (Part V, p. 256).

.... he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what... would have to be done again in the never ending fight.... the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.... (Part V, p. 278).

KT: I viewed the ending as a call to make the most of the present.

How do others view it? Does this story give us a means for dealing with the return of the plague? What have you learned from reading it? [Or: is the novel dead?]

Come back next week for what film does differently....