- Edifying the Reader:Ionesco's "The Colonel's Photograph"
Curieusement, donc, il y a quelque aptitude fructueuse dans les failles d'une lecture. En se déchirant de la sorte, telle lecture insuffisante laisse entrevoir ce que sa réussite, comme une cache, aurait eu tendance à offusquer.—Jean Ricardou, Nouveaux problèmes du roman
Perverse as it may seem, it is, occasionally, more appropriate to rejoice at failure than at success. No one, for example, begrudges Proust's narrator the errors of his ways because without them their story would never have come into being. Even such an egregious failing as the original sin can offer advantages, as Milton's Adam reflects: ". . . full of doubt I stand, / Whether I should repent me now of sin / By mee done and occasioned, or rejoice / Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring" (Paradise Lost XII 11. 473-476). Unfortunately, at the time of my initial encounter with Ionesco's "The Colonel's Photograph," I had completely lost sight of the possible benefits of error and therefore could not appreciate as lucky breaks the paradoxes and irregularities that reduced the whole cloth of my interpretation to tatters. Instead of seeing them [End Page 645] as so many openings to a superior understanding, I persisted in wanting to close the gaps, fill in the lacunae, salvage my reading at all costs. However, each new attempt at emendation resulted in a further tearing until, rent and gaping, my explication fell to pieces of itself. Only with the admission of defeat did the obvious occur to me: Ionesco's story was inconsistent on purpose, and it was only my unfounded assumption that all literature sought to be coherent that had cloaked my success in the guise of failure. This revelation opened the way to a first satisfactory understanding of the text, which was eventually subsumed and corrected by a second; this, in its turn, was superceded by a third and even a fourth. During the course of my reading, I became aware of a constant alternation between oversight and revision that convinced me that "The Colonel's Photograph" aims less at generating a given message than at dramatizing the trial and error by which the reader produces meaning for himself. However, because such conclusions are both less interesting and less instructive than the errors that eventually lead to their elaboration, the following presentation will recount the adventures of "an innocent reader, confident in traditional assumptions about structure and meaning, who encounters the deviousness of texts, falls into traps, is frustrated and dismayed, but emerges wiser for the loss of illusion" (Culler 79).
1 The Reader Hot on the Trail
At the outset "The Colonel's Photograph" resembles any number of tales the Reader has already come across. He intuitively recognizes that a given situation (here, the desirability of a residential quarter) has been adversely affected (rendered undesirable) by the activities of the antagonist (a murderer) and that the protagonist (the narrator) must discover the means of restoring the situation to its initial state. Moreover, certain aspects of the plot (a series of crimes, an evasive criminal, police intervention, an amateur detective, an unsolved riddle) clearly indicate a piece of detective fiction in which the seemingly impossible (the arrest of a master criminal) will be effected, resulting in the triumph of good over evil to which the Reader is accustomed. However, the Reader's expectations will be thwarted, for, by story's end, the murderer will not have been apprehended, the enigma will remain unresolved, and evil will continue its dark domination. From the Reader's point of view, "The Colonel's Photograph" is a botched job.
Thanks to a thorough literary training, the Reader can justify his frustrated expectations and his subsequent disappointment. He can show, for example, that, until the final page, the story had followed quite closely as basic a narrative pattern as the one Propp deduced from the Russian [End Page 646] folktale.1 As in the prototype, the story establishes the initial situation: in a most unusual residential area, all the inhabitants are healthy, wealthy, and amiable. The weather is always warm, sunny, and springlike, and the...