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As part of my own evolution, I’ve become interested in why I interpret novels in the way that I do. I have a “style” that puts meaning in the forefront with no conscious thought devoted to the devices and culturally influenced theories that unconsciously shape my interpretation. I felt that I was missing out on a fuller picture of what is being offered in a work of literature, so when I met with Professor Dalke for a writing conference, I had one question which had been looming larger and larger as the course has progressed, “how do YOU read?” I wanted to get inside her head so I could see a more expanded view of the novel. She diagnosed the underlying nature of my concern and prescribed Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.   She suggested that I shift my focus away from my MEANING and instead use Culler’s head to EXPERIENCE The Plague. I’d like to explore the mechanisms behind the change in understanding when you view literature using “close” versus “distant” reading. Let’s try analyzing Camus using my new glasses: Culler-focals. 

When you ask our class what The Plague is about, you receive a myriad of answers. There are those who look at the text as an allegory, or a psychological directive to seize the day, justice, randomness, and my favorite, “the desire for meaning is our plague.” [1] What these interpretations all have in common that they are speculative, they can serve to question our societal norms and assumptions, they are interdisciplinary and reflect thinking about thinking. In short, each is a theory. [2] But to look at literature as an experience, let’s focus on the fact that a novel doesn’t aspire to any one theory, it’s ALL of them and more. But how can it achieve this?

Culler suggests a number of rhetorical structures and other considerations for use in deconstructing and influencing the reading of a text. Let’s zoom-in on Camus’ last paragraph to see how some of these elements are utilized. 

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city. [3]

As described earlier, we can propose wide-ranging intertextual metaphors for the plague, so let’s see what else we have to explore. We see irony, in that despite the effort and suffering of the citizens of Oran, the bacillus is still not dead. Much like a Friday the 13th movie, it plays with our expectations of an end to this saga and sends us back to the beginning where this could all keep happening again and again. Additionally, I quite enjoy the irony that the plague bacillus is laying dormant in a place where the townsfolk could have learned that it’s laying dormant, books on bookshelves. Further, I find the multiple places where Dr. Rieux describes the bacillus laying dormant as a very poignant choice. Culler notes that a text can be understood not by the words that the author uses, but those that s/he doesn’t. I have a sense that Camus is using metonymy when he writes of the furniture and linen closets etc. These are all spatially related elements of our comfortable surroundings. He could have written that the bacillus is in the flies or streets or it’s moved on, but instead the adjectives he chooses all lay within the home.   I also find Camus’ use of personification striking in that it is the bacillus that’s doing the “rousing up” of the rats.  The thing doing the killing, the bacillus, is directing the vehicle of the killing. They are separate entities that work in tandem, but one is the agent directing the other. [4]

We also need to consider our narrator, Dr. Rieux, and the fact that he is our focalizer and this is all from his point of view. He has an insight from books that, in his opinion, no one else in the town has (as evidenced by their jubilance). It’s unexpected that the doctor knows about plague from commonly available books rather than his training or experience as a physician. 

To use a slightly wider-angle lens, a key consideration put forth by Saussure (and Culler) is how our language influences the way we think and our assumptions. We are trapped by the confines of our words: symbols that combine both form and meaning inherently. Saussure contends:

We tend to assume that we have the words “dog” and “chair” in order to name dogs and chairs, which exist outside any language… if words stood for preexisting concepts, they would have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to the next, which is not at all the case.” [5]

A piece of literature can play upon common associations of form and meaning and alter them using the structures of rhetoric to make us question our words, phrases and concepts. When Camus writes of the “bane and enlightening of man,” it makes me wonder how the two can co-exist. Our language and thinking doesn’t usually find a JUXTAPOSITION to be the result of an action.  This placement of bane AND enlightening unearths a new complexity.

These varied angles of entry into literature bring us back to “loopy science.” [6] Literature makes observations about how we think and what we assume, and explores them through its discourse. This leads to new questions about why we accepted something as a norm and how we can rethink things to increase our understanding. We see that in literature, as in science, questions and exploration are the key, not answers and not “truth.”

Through this essay, I’ve come to find, what is for me, a profound similarity between science and literature. Until this point, they had always been listed separately in my mental “course catalog.” This interdisciplinary nature reflects the never-ending continuum of the Library of Babel, where theories and disciplines can mingle and grow out from each other. As we look to film as a modern form of discourse, I wonder how its path will grow and learn from that of literature, with its addition of body language and “visual” assumptions, how will the new audio and visual “rhetorical” structures impact our experiences?

Bibliography and Works Cited

[1] hlehman /exchange/node/9912

[2,5] Culler, Jonathan Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press Inc., New York (1997) Kindle Edition.

[3] Camus, Albert, The Plague. First Vintage International Edition (March, 1991)

[4] Idea credit: Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene 30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford University Press Inc., New York (2006) Kindle Edition.

[6] Professor Grobstein /exchange/node/9110

Picture: The Fraser spiral, also called false spiral and twisted cord illusion is a shape distortion visual illusion first discovered in 1908 by the British psychologist James Fraser. The image appears to be a spiral, while in reality it is a series of concentric circles. The illusion is triggered by mixing regular figures (the concentric circles) with the staggered, alternating black and white stripes (the checkered background magnifies the effect).