Search Results for: a feast during the plague

“We Are a Plague on Earth”

Camus’s The Plague is different from what we have previously read in the sense that it relays the story of an isolated town. Unlike Defoe’s London, Oran is completely shut off from the outside world during the epidemic and its citizens quite literally become “the prisoners of the plague” (Camus 129); thus, the quarantine causes great turmoil in the city. An outstanding example is the burning of the houses by the townsfolk: 

“…there was an increased number of fires, especially in the leisure districts around the west gates of the town. Investigation showed that these were due to people who had come back from quarantine and, driven mad by grief and misfortune, set light to their houses under the illusion that this would kill the plague.” (Camus 130)

City of Oran


Moreover Camus tells us, in what could arguably be called one of the most important passages of the novel, that the greatest vice of humanity is ignorance: 

“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill.” (Camus 100-101) 

What can we say about the self-destructiveness of humans under the threat of death in Camus’s novel? Can we relate such irrational, violent, and most importantly ignorant behavior with the attitudes of “merrymakers” in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague and other characters in Camus’s novel? How does this expand on our previous discussions of the appropriate reactions to imminent death?

Speaking of irrationality, Rieux’s contemplation of war and plague deserves our attention. Citizens of Oran are “humanists” and therefore cannot accept that the visitation will last: it is “too stupid,” too “unreal” (Camus 30). However, what they fail to realize is that disease, just like death, is irrational and it does not follow human expectations. In addition, the fact that disease is beyond our control addresses the subject of it being a form of punishment (also seen in Defoe).

Thus, the expectation of meaning in the face of a disease becomes irrational, as demonstrated by the initial denial of the disease by Oran’s citizens. The manager of Tarrou’s hotel is perhaps the embodiment of the citizens’ refusal to acknowledge their shared fate, when there are rats found in the elevator he is unable to accept that his hotel is leveled with everyone else: 

‘“But everybody has the same thing.”

“Exactly,” he [the manager] replied. “Now we are like everybody.”’ (Camus 24)

The citizens’ inaction and the medical community’s neglect, although seemingly irrational in retrospect, is attributed to the general belief (mentioned above) that a plague was something unreal, a ghost from the past. Rieux and Tarrou are perhaps the most prominent characters that realize the necessity of alleviating the suffering of the sick, defying the bystander effect, despite the futility of their struggle. This situation resembles the futility of our everyday struggle against death, and the apparent meaninglessness of life in the face of death.

Is Rieux’s struggle truly futile? What is the novel’s stance on the meaning of everyday life in the face of death? What is the appropriate reaction to irrational catastrophes like wars and epidemics? Is there any meaning to a fight without any chance of winning? 

Furthermore, newspapers also seem to occupy an important place in the story. Interestingly, we have already discussed their role previously during our analyses of Defoe, Brockden Brown and Ibsen, in which they promote societal approved values and spread rumors. By contrast, in Camus they first act as tools and leverage to make the authorities face the problem of rats; yet, when the human death toll starts rising, they are strangely silent and later become the space for advertisement for potions and “cures”.

What is the role of media in the novel? Can we tie the hypocrisy of Oran’s media outlets to our previous discussion of rumors and news?

On a side note, the rats depicted in the novel can be seen to symbolize the citizens because they die in droves, much like the people do when the plague strikes. At the beginning of the play thousands of dead rats begin turning up in public places. Their sudden deaths foreshadow the effect of the plague on the human population later on.  Furthermore the disposal of human corpses is very similar to that of the rats. They are collected and deposited in mass graves, undermining society’s traditions, underscoring the meaninglessness of life and highlighting the senselessness of death.


What other role are the rats playing in the novel ? What other similarities are there between the humans and the rats? Why do the newspapers report the rat problem but ignore the epidemic at first?

We hope that these questions will help us kick off our discussion of this outstanding piece of literature.


Vlad, Rafa and Liam

Ps.: Title is a quote from David Attenborough.

New Plague, New Playlist

Music always enhances situations; just imagine any movie without its soundtrack. It distracts, it expresses, it liberates, it comforts, it dramatizes – it lives. Unsurprisingly, music has played an important role in some of our previously studied novels (such as Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague), as well as in this week’s novel: Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Below, I’ve compiled the novella’s playlist of mentioned songs (as well as one poem) and their respective page numbers, ranging from war tunes to anthems, and spirituals to jazz music. 

When listening to the pieces, ask yourself: Why did Porter specifically mention this by name? What is its significance in the text? Does the song in any way reflect and/or parallel the themes and events in the novel? 

Many of the war songs listed above coincidentally (or perhaps intentionally?) mention themes and images that appear in the text. For instance, “Pack Up Your Troubles” is a military tune about “Private Perks… with a smile, a funny smile,” and the chorus tells soldiers (“boys”) to stop worrying and to just “smile, smile, smile”. This notion of smiling in the face of difficulty can be seen in the novel, as both the war and plague are described as funny (158, 161), and characters such as Miranda respond to war or disease by laughing and feeling hilarious about it (184). Thus, was this a sheer coincidence, or did Porter try to highlight this behaviour when she named this particular tune? If so, why?

Aside from the justifiable mention of military songs, Porter also specifically identifies certain pop/dance songs of the early 20th century. Although this may again seem superficial or meaningless, pay attention to the lyrics and the story behind these secular songs. The quoted verse from the Blues contains the phrase “heart disease,” which in both the song and the novel, refers to an emotional rather than a physical pain. In fact, Miranda speaks of the emotional impact of war and its damage on the heart and mind: “what [the war] does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Again, what is the significance of this parallelism? How does the song enhance our reading of the text?

Here’s the video for the Blues:

And here’s the video for La Madelon:

All these songs/poems were mentioned for a reason. Give a few of them a listen and see if you can determine why they were specifically identified, and how they enhance and reflect the text. Or better yet, just listen to them for the sake of music. After all, music is “A magic beyond all we do here!” according to Professor Dumbledore.

Party, Party all Plague Long

A returning theme in our discussions is the power of disaster (of which disease may often be read as a subset). These instances cause the breaking of norms, the destruction of taboos in society, and ‘the creation’ of an increasingly liberal, and often unconventional space for people to live in. We began to explore these notions after the task of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell during the summer vacation.

This pattern of celebration in the aftermath of distress returns in both the work of Pushkin A Feast during the Plague and John Wilson’s City of the Plague — which was the original text used by the Russian writer to ‘compose’ one of his Little Tragedies. In both works, a group of men and women set up a table on the street, thus creating their own microcosm (not dissimilar to Boccaccio’s Decameron). Through a huge feast, a gathering place is formed to remember one of their friends (Jackson) who was a victim of the Plague.

What is the underlying meaning and aim of feast in these texts? What is the significance of the plague being “our guest” at this feast? Why is the impact of diseases on society a recurring motif for literary pieces? What do feasts symbolize and teach us about human nature? How is this “party behaviour” manifested in today’s society (such as in issues like alcoholism)?

The purpose of the feast in these plays is explicitly stated in the song of the Chairman: the citizens are left with only one option — to fight the plague by remaining cheerful and living in the moment:

“That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!

We’ll light the fire and fill the cup

And pass it round — a merry scene!

And after we have all drunk up,

We’ll sing: all hail to thee, dread queen!” (p. 101)

It is apparent from this passage that the characters view their situation as absolutely hopeless, and in their panic are determined to ‘laugh’ in the face of the disease; to show a last act of defiance and stubbornness when all seems to be lost. The hymn in honor of the plague sung by the chairman, is also his own (human) way of mocking a devastating force that has unknown origins, and is beyond the human ability to comprehend (“Beyond our power to explain” p.101).

The use of consumption as a device is interesting in that, much like religion, by consuming as they are, they are contributing to a higher power: in this case GDP and economic growth instead of a spiritual existence and afterlife. Unintentionally creating a better world for those left behind (for those living in the world of Keynes), or perhaps creating a disaster ready to lurk in the shadows due to the over-consumption lead by the perception of ‘finite time’ (if you prefer your economics Austrian). Both can be analysed here: in Pushkin’s Russia, trade was starting to grow and capitalism was beginning to come onto the stage internationally. This allows us to consider how people react, as the mentalities are in flux. The people have not completed the transition. This is very much representative of Pushkin’s life, his grandfather having been a Serf who gained Aristocratic station for himself and successive generations of family before his death. This was almost unheard of until this period, as innovation was not seen as a requirement for success. During the era of Pushkin, the socio-economic landscape changed dramatically. Such a leap in ability and fortune in such a short time meant education had not kept up: the fatalistic mentality displayed within the text is testament to this.

What are the implications of this ironically fatalistic mentality? How can these characters respond to imminent death with such mirth and lightheartedness? What does this mean for us, in terms of the role of news and rumour during an epidemic?

It is also interesting that the little group identifies the disease as a female being: a queen who rules over her kingdom of suffering. This idea of the “female as a source of the curse” is in harmony with the play’s references to Greek or Roman mythology (for example, the group asks for a Bacchus song, who was the Roman God of agriculture and wine), and is probably inspired by tales such as the Pandora’s Box or Medusa, the complex of Jocasta’s blame. The personification of the plague is another noteworthy point. The mere possibility that she can “knock at our windows without cease…” creates a helpless feeling among the people, leaving them questioning what they should do.

Why is the plague personified as a woman? How does this compare with history? How do the readers perceive the notion that the plague is embodied? What parallels the qualities of femininity with the effects of the plague? How does this contrast the role and portrayal of women that was seen in our previous novel, Arthur Mervyn?

Moreover, the group’s gathering can be regarded as an ‘ultimate act of consumption’, since they do not only eat up their food, but in a way their life as well, by preparing themselves for the reception of death. Curiously, in the work of John Wilson the feast has a sexual connotation as well, since the priest, who attempts to remind the group of the codes of conduct they abandoned and defines them as blasphemous, calls the gathering an orgy. This can be taken as a term used to describe the ‘lack of restraint’, where desire has overtaken sense and it is true selfishness, despite not being at the deliberate expense of others. Food is often described as inherently sexual in that it is used as both a complement and substitute for such activity. However, this term could also be derived from ‘orgiastic’, which belies wildness, a lack of control, the death of restraint — not used to define a sexual connotation at all. The question appears, was this sexually more explicit term left out by Pushkin on purpose or was it simply lost through the process of translation?

When studying the underlying meanings of the feast, we must not forget about the religious implications it can carry. Is it possible that this last ritual of eating in the works of Wilson and Pushkin is a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and his apostles? If yes, then does their fate contain a hope of resurrection? Or are they going to be resurrected through their stories that lead to eternal remembrance, which; in fact, is implied in the first lines of the play:

“But he’s gone away

To a cold lodging underground…

Although that tongue of wondrous eloquence

Has not yet fallen silent in the grave” (p. 96)

We hope that we have provided enough topics to talk about in the upcoming days, and haven’t been too ambiguous for a Pushkin text. For vagueness is a trait of his works, leaving the reader yearning for a definite answer and simultaneously teaching us that we must be comfortable with the unknown: much like how his characters respond to the looming, unfamiliar world of death.

These short texts demonstrate a possible method of dealing with bad news and with disease. Rather than lamenting the tragedy, the characters use music and entertainment to lighten their hearts, practically mocking “this rude visitor the Plague” (Wilson, 44). Ultimately, just don’t take things too seriously, and remember to party orgiastically whilst you can!

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

Rousseauism in Pushkin’s Plague

While reading Survival and Memory by Anderson, you may have read over a part where she mentions the “Rousseauism” in Walsingham’s response to the song. She actually says the following:

Walsingham’s mixture of admiration and condescension toward [Mary’s] song is worthy of an aristocrat in a Paris salon in 1770 toying with fashionable Rousseauism: it’s very sweet, of course, and unquestionably touching, but sophisticated people like ourselves really can’t be expected to regard it as anything more than a brief diversion.

But what did Rousseau actually have to say about death? In Émile, Rousseau states that the fear of death is unnatural.

Do you want to find men of a true courage? Look for them in the places where there are no doctors, where they are ignorant of the consequences of illnesses, where they hardly think of death. Naturally man knows how to suffer with constancy and dies in peace. It is doctors with their prescriptions, philosophers with their precepts, priests with their exhortations, who debase his heart and make him unlearn how to die. (Emile, Book I, 182)

Rousseau’s argument that men have only learned their fear of death from threatening doctors, philosophers, and priests plays out interestingly enough in A Feast During the Plague.  The priest serves as a reminder of society and its norms in a community where such norms are on the backburner and the numbing of feelings is first on the list. To make a Rousseauist reading of Pushkin’s play is to say that the priest is attempting to instill an unnatural fear of death in the revelers. And the action of the revelers? Contrary to Anderson’s argument of their true isolation behind the façade of a community, Rousseau could argue that they are simply living the natural way of life, before society came in and messed everything up. In a disoriented society in the eye of a plague, perhaps the state of nature comes back with full force and no one cares about your opinions, Priest.

Below is a picture of Rousseau so you all can appreciate his fur hat.



Reconstructing reality

My apologies for the late augmenter post. Hope you enjoy it.

The authors of the convener post on Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague presented us with very interesting questions. They first explain how there’s “a variety of responses to the plague…displayed in [the] play.” And they note that there’s a spread of “emotional responses to it.” They importantly tie this to societies’ usage of social media; which “polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic”. And ask if this further becomes a challenge or an opportunity to control public reactions during pandemics?

Jason Silva in his video titled How I Feel About Pandemic “Facts” discussed the blurring of the fringe stream and mainstream reality in the midst of a the COVID-19 pandemic. Silva finds himself convoluted while hearing out persuasive speakers on every side, with every opinion on different issues. This makes him feel disoriented. He describes it as living in a “post-truth world which is really problematic”. Furthermore, he compares the experience of living through this pandemic as being lost at sea. Not knowing who to believe, as the “agendas have hijacked the situations.” Do you follow the hysteria on one side or the arguments that claim it’s all a hoax? Silva calls for coherence and asks that we “disclose a set of common frameworks and objective realities” once again. So that we can “cooperate and collaborate and move about the world with some kind of orientation.” That’s his invitation during these times. And he hopes that’ll help us emerge out of the storm stronger, but he is concerned nonetheless.

Our conveners asked: how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? They then provided us with an excellent hedgehog metaphor, painting a picture of our relationship to one another. “It is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other.” Silva in his video sits with a similar dilemma. He is torn between the persuasive information on both sides trying to reconstruct a new reality by reevaluating his relationship to other people’s opinions, desperately in need of a common framework. How does one resolve that? That’s one of the challenges that pandemics leave us with. It’s a dilemma for all of us, humans, “to reevaluate our relationships with each other”, explain the conveners. “Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community.” Silva’s video is an exemplification of one person’s challenge, his emotional response to that dilemma, and how he articulates it. I invite you to explore his channel for more thought provoking videos on various topics and themes like: Mental health, Sex, love and relationships, Creativity, Technology, Fear, and much more!

If you’re curious about where to start, maybe start with this video: The New Normal 2020 in which Silva presents many questions which surround us during these times. Happy watching!

Memories of the Fallen Riders: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Red Cross volunteers assembling influenza masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Content source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers us a glimpse into the psyche of young Americans during World War I and the raging 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu”. Widely assumed to be based on the author’s own life experiences, the novella tells the story of Miranda, a reporter who covers the “routine female job” (149) of theatrical reviews. Even before Miranda contracts influenza, she cannot escape death; she is literally surrounded by funerals and death permeates even her most inane conversations through constant references to the war. However, it is not until she herself becomes sick and nearly dies that she experiences a fundamental shift in her relationship with her own mortality, returning to consciousness with the impression that “the body is a curious monster, no place to live in…” (203). In a world so full of death, what does it mean to live—to escape the pale rider?     

A past convener’s post explores the impact of Porter’s choice to employ the narrative style of free indirect discourse, aptly described as “a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters.” Throughout the story, it is often unclear whether we are hearing Miranda’s direct thoughts or the reflections of an outside narrator; this is part of what contributes to the hazy treatment of time in the novel, which Professor Waterman reflects on in his article “Plague Time (Again)”. The overall narrative structure of the piece is also worth considering as we try to piece together what Porter is showing us about death, war, and society. If this story is essentially a narrative about surviving an illness, why does Porter choose to start the action so long before Miranda actually falls ill? Why give us so much information about war bonds and newspapers? One answer lies in Miranda’s resistance towards returning to normalcy after she recovers. She puts off reading the letters that her loved ones sent while she was sick, lamenting, “They will all be telling me how good it is to be alive, they will say again they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to that?” (205). Even these positive threads of her communicative network pull at Miranda in unwanted ways, demanding a response that she feels she cannot give. By dedicating more than half of the story to Miranda’s life prior to the illness, Porter allows readers to see more clearly what has changed here. Once a vibrant, active figure within a social network, Miranda now feels alienated from others due to her new perspective on life and death. The disease has not just impacted her physical contact with others, but also her desire to engage in emotional, intellectual contact.

Adam and Miranda’s relationship has a doomed fate from the start, as Adam is readying for deployment overseas, a fact that the couple is acutely aware of: “She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.” What they don’t know is that it will be the virus that gets them first.  Still, that doesn’t stop the couple from enjoying their precious moments together. They spend their 10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz under the stars, sharing stories, going to plays, talking about their past lives and reflecting on futures that can never be. Their love adds a vibrance and light to the story, contrasting with the context of death and darkness they are surrounded by. Funeral processions pass regularly through the streets with seemingly growing frequency, but Miranda is determined not to disturb “the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty four years old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.”  Similarly to the community in A Feast During the Plague, human connection provides escapism, a symbol of the goodness remaining in the world. Miranda is portrayed as using her relationship with Adam as a shield against the war and the virus, substituting and interweaving one set of experiences for another.

The relationship between the living, the dead and memory is presented as a recurring motif in the text (Severance, is that you?). At one point, Miranda and Adam discuss the eponymous traditional spiritual Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which death steals the singer’s lover, mother, father, siblings, and eventually, the entire family. Because the dead in the song, like the dead in the war and the victims of the influenza pandemic, have no memory, remembering them becomes the survivor’s responsibility. Miranda identifies with the singer in the spiritual when she tells Adam, “but not the singer, not yet. Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190). As mourners at the feast, Miranda and Porter eventually each become bearers of memories that would otherwise be forgotten. 

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that just as much as the story is about escaping death, it is also about accepting death. In the case of Adam, he tries to make the best of his life and his time with Miranda because he wants to make use of what little time he has left before he goes to fight in the war. He has already accepted his death and does not run from it. He treats the war to be the same as his death (for example, he explains that he smokes despite knowing how bad it is because the state of his lungs in the future does not matter when he is going to war anyway.).

Despite this, however, he did not harbour any ill emotion for being made to fight in the war – he views it as his duty, saying he could not “look himself in the face” if he didn’t go (177). Miranda views him as a sacrificial lamb, marching to his death without fighting against it, having accepted it. This is quite similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, where Oswald accepts his inevitable (brain) death, although in his case, there is nothing he can do to fight against it. We can say that Adam has more agency than Oswald, and he gives up what little agency he has and accepts his fate. Another interesting, coincidental connection with Ghosts is that the sun represents death in Oswald’s case, while in Miranda’s case, it represents her coming back to life.

When discussing agency, we can revisit The Decameron, where the privileged ten have all the agency in the world to abandon their city and live in a countryside mansion. Here too, the ten main characters are running from death that surrounds them in the city, fighting against it, although it is much easier for them than for Adam.

In the concluding passages of the text, as Miranda regains consciousness to find that the war has finally ended, she is confronted with an atmosphere of jubilation in stark contrast to her individual story of deep loss. Amidst the celebration, Miranda’s reaction to the news of Adam’s death reflects on the purpose and meaning of her life without her lover: “Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?” (208). Now, rather than accepting her own death, she has to accept Adam’s, which is hard for her to do. As an ode to Severance, we see Miranda adopting consumer rituals, marking her survival and as an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, however her psyche remains haunted by the ghost of her lover, who is ‘more alive than she is’. 

To Miranda, her recurring struggle over Adam’s memory seems to be driven by three key reasons: because it is her responsibility, because it connects her to other survivors, and because she loves Adam. At the moment Miranda comes closest to death, “a thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh the dead, where are they?” (201). As she asks this question, she feels excruciating physical pain – the first returning sensation of life – and she begins to recover both her health and her memory. We view this connection between pain and forgetting as not accidental. Porter, who has experienced both her own near death and the actual death of her lover due to influenza, warns the reader that only the fragile, vulnerable thread of memory connects the living to the dead. Forgetting is presented as the psychological analog to physical paralysis, so remembering and pain, although negative states, are preferable to lack of memory and lack of sensation. Ultimately, Porter leaves us with the questions: why is it important to remember the dead? What is the relationship between the living and the dead? And what do those left behind owe to those taken away by the Pale Horse, when “now, there would be time for everything” (208)?

Maja, Mary, Saideep, Asma

“Hopelessly Passé” Songs

How can music help us process grief during an epidemic? 

In A Feast During the Plague, Pushkin’s characters turn to song as a way of enhancing their celebrations. After they drink to the death of one of their friends, Walsingham requests that Mary sing “…something sad and haunting, / To make us turn again to our merrymaking / With a wilder spirit, like one who is seized / And carried away by some unearthly vision” (28-31). The desire to enliven the party contrasts with an impulse to connect with a mournful and “unearthly” song, but to Walsingham, these two ideas are not contradictory; he is claiming that depressing music will actually lift the group’s spirits. Not all of the partygoers agree on this: later one of them requests that Walsingham sing “a bold and lively song …. A rowdy song, a song in Bacchus’s mode / One inspired by foaming goblets!” (126-129). But even though Walsingham does respond with a song that centers around drinking and partying, he is reluctant to identify it as such, and initially introduces it, sarcastically, as “a hymn in honor of the Plague” (131). 

In our modern age of music consumption, where we can stream high-quality performances at the click of a button, we have a very different relationship with music than Pushkin’s cast, but when it comes down to it, we still face the same issue as Walsingham and his drinking buddies: what kind of song will make us feel better when nothing else in the world makes sense? Today our soundtrack options extend far beyond the melodic memory of our peers. The pandemic may have strangled the live music industry, but it also produced a plethora of online performances, accessible to a wider number of people than a single concert. Not every project hit the mark—when Gal Gadot assembled a celebrity lineup to sing a jarringly off-key rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the video became a running joke online and an example of the disconnect between upper class and lower class experiences of the pandemic. But other pieces resonated and made more positive waves across the internet. 

For two wildly different examples of successful pandemic music projects, I point you to Taylor Swift’s folklore and Bo Burnham’s “Inside” — one project a lush journey through interwoven storylines inspired by the songwriter’s escape into movies during the pandemic, the other a dark comedy reflecting upon social isolation in a hyperconnected age. In some ways, the difference between folklore and “Inside” reminds me of the difference between Mary and Walsingham’s songs in A Feast During the Plague : one functions through escapism, the other through a sort of brazen comedy. Rather than force the parallel, though, I want to return to my initial question about grief. Swift and Burnham, in different ways, both appeal to young audiences who are grieving not only for the loss of life around them, but the loss of their youth, their future, and their planet. Neither project explicitly centers around themes of illness or death, but perhaps it is because of this that they are impactful for so many people. They offer an opportunity to both reflect and escape. I don’t think Pushkin’s priest would have anything good to say about them. But in a time when so many of us essentially curate soundtracks for our daily life,  music strikes me as a crucial part of our communal grieving rituals, and it makes a difference when it has been produced in the same cultural moment that we are struggling through. 

Lavish Excess in the Face of Death? (Siya’s augmenter’s post)

Ding Village hadn’t celebrated like this in years. The villagers couldn’t remember the last time they had seen a ceremony so exciting and lavish. There were tiny firecrackers that exploded with a pop, and great strings of them that popped and crackled for minutes on end. There were fireworks that exploded with a bang or a boom, and rockets that whizzed up into the air, sending down showers of sparks. It was a display to light up the sky and dazzle the senses. The noise of fireworks mingled with the babble of voices; smoke and charred bits of red paper floated through the air. 

At two key moments in the plot of Dream of Ding Village, we find that the community resorts to the strange phenomenon of celebration and gatherings as a means to alleviate the suffering of the AIDS epidemic: first, at the outset of the outbreak at Ma Xianglin’s concert, where nearly 300 people gathered despite the fever taking over the village; and second, during the narrator’s “wedding” (refer to quote above). In the first instance, the concert seems to serve as a happy distraction from a potentially threatening disease, whereas in the second, it is a display of lavish excess and a momentary respite from the widespread death that has ravaged the village. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this raised several questions: what coping mechanisms do people gravitate towards when mortality is in question? Why are gatherings and celebrations continued in the face of crisis?

During COVID-19, underground parties have become increasingly commonplace. As this article highlights, millennials in metropolitan cities have been using secret WhatsApp groups to organise parties during this time, completely flouting social distancing norms. While the celebrations in Dream of Ding Village were strange enough already, the phenomenon becomes even more bizarre in the COVID context, as this is a virus that spreads through droplets, making each gathering potentially life threatening. This begs the question: why is it worth it? Why do people continue to seek opportunities to “celebrate” during crises even when the costs far outweigh the benefits? 

Psychologists recommend that despite COVID, children’s birthday parties (even virtually) are essential, as celebrations make children and adults feel like they are part of a community, and break the monotony of life during the pandemic. The psychological benefits of celebration during a crisis seem to make sense, however, I am still left with the question of why there is such an emphasis on excess and lavish grandeur in these celebrations. We observe a similar phenomenon in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, illustrating the historical use of sensory pleasures as a way to numb the pain of loss during crisis. 

Facing Death

A common theme that interconnects multiple readings, and perhaps becomes more apparent in Defoe’s work and matures in Pushkin’s “A Feast During the Plague” is the personification of death. We are introduced to different descriptions of mortality and the plague and more importantly, further understand characters, figures and viewpoints through how ‘it’ is described.

To bring you back to the feast table, as Louisa revives (line 112), she states:

I dreamed I saw

A hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes…

He called me to his wagon. Lying in it

Were the dead-and they were muttering

In some hideous, unknown language.

The details that Louisa highlights raise an interesting question about how we choose to visualize death and how that may vary between different cultures, religions and time periods. Particularly in art history, death plays a key thematic role and the Art History Project’s Curated portfolio takes you through different cultures and pieces of artwork guiding you through how the depictions and the perceptions have or haven’t changed.

Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” is perhaps one of my personal favorites, along with Hugo Simberg’s “Death Listens”. The contrast between life and death is more recognized in Klimt’s, but what surprises me about Simberg’s depiction is how patient and almost respectful death looks as he is listening to the boy playing the violin. Additionally, straying slightly away from art history and towards modern cinematography, one of my favorite scenes from the Harry Potter films captures death’s persona through an eerily interesting tale (spoiler alert).

It seems most curious then, that such a rich and vibrant track record of work has led us to the modern COVID era, where the killer is now the image of a spiked virus that has become ubiquitous all around the world.

Mr. Walsingham: Breaking Sad

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really…I was alive.” –Walter White, Breaking Bad

The play begins with everyone making a toast to their friend who has just died. Mr. Walsingham is the chairman at the table, enthused to celebrate in the middle of the pestilence. Later, we find out that he lost his mother and his wife. That begs the question: How can he celebrate? The whole scene feels like a classic drown your sorrows in alcohol narrative. The Priest certainly tries to be the voice of reason for him.

“Why have you come here to trouble me?
I cannot, I must not
Follow after you: I am bound here
By despair, by terrible remembrance,”

Was Walsingham entirely wrong in doing what he was though? How justified is what the priest did?

We have seen a recurring theme in the works discussed thus far of victims of plague needing to find ways to cope. Many flee from the plague in search of some normalcy and often the greatest source of normalcy is festivity. We see it in Boccaccio’s Decameron where the characters flee the city and insist on making merry in the countryside. We see it in Severance where some of the characters drink booze and get high every night and we see it here in the Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. Yet this does not necessarily mean that their actions are justified.

This old conveners’ post brings up a similar question, and offers an explanation through Pushkin’s own life. Mr. Walsingham and the Priest serve as Pushkin’s two conflicting states of mind when he himself was dealing with the epidemic of cholera and seeing his friends either die of the pandemic or be politically persecuted.

What we see with Mr. Walsingham and his sadness, or suppression of it, is the struggle between mourning irreparable losses and pursuing happiness in life. This is something everyone at the table is going through, since they all lost their friend. Moreover, if one reads closely the lyrics of all their songs, while they may be celebrating, the songs speak of tragic events.

We ourselves refrain from answering this question but rather like to further ask: what is the best way to honor the dead? Does it have to be solemn and sincere or can it also be open-hearted and celebratory?

Amidst the celebration, a black wagon passes by filled with bodies. In an instance we are reminded that countless lives were lost to the pestilence. Lousia’s fit is a jolting return to reality, if only for a moment in the play.

“He called me to his wagon. Lying in it Were the dead – and they were muttering In some hideous, unknown language”

An illustration of Cholera in Palermo, Italy, 1835

Source:  Wellcome Collection

The Black Man could also have just been someone in black clothing and a plague mask, which were pretty grim reaper-ish.

Mr. Walsingham tells Louisa that the black wagon can go wherever it pleases.  This is compounded by the fact that the plague is referred to as a guest shows how the plague is being personified. This can be compared to Dafoe who uses the term ‘visitation’ . Again, we see a recurring theme throughout various Contagion texts where the Plague almost becomes its own persona – the antagonist.

This ties well to our final point of comparing a pandemic to war, something that Linh also brings up in her augmentor’s post for Defoe. In Mr. Walsingham’s poem, he uses the words of a war against plague. Today, we refer to essential workers as the Frontline ‘Warriors’.  Can the language of war and personifying the plague as the enemy help us better cope with the abstractness of it all? It’s either we pretend that disease is something tangible that can be combated, or we resign ourselves to our miserable fates and make merry where we can.