Search Results for: a feast during the plague

Sickly Community in the land of The Red Gold

In Dream of Ding Village the poor community bearing the same name is suffering from “the fever”, an outbreak of AIDS that was spreading through the Chinese countryside as a result of the state-sponsored blood-collecting anxiety that took place a decade earlier; an incident that can be considered as a social disease that led the way to the literal pathogens that would later kill these villagers.

To some selling blood became an addiction, as described by the woman of the wealthier Cai county:

“It [i.e. selling blood]’s more like once every ten days or a fortnight. If you don’t sell at least that often, your veins start to feel swollen. It’s like being full of milk and not being able to nurse your baby.” (pg 37)

… To others the blood industry was a testimony to their greed, such as Ding Hui, who kept exploiting his countrymen, who disrespected the memory of his dead mother, and who built a three-story house just to prove his superior wealth and power to the rest of the village.

But it’s too easy to say that Ding Hui was the only corrupt member of that society. There’s also Li Sanren’s wife, who got jealous of her friends’ new homes and bullied her husband into donating blood, which led to him getting infected as well. In addition, the taboo of selling blood was broken by the entire society: the blood comes off as a metaphor of health that the villagers were initially reluctant to give up, but their avarice was able to defeat their previous beliefs, accurately portrayed in the following quote:

“For decade the villagers had come to the temple to burn incense and pray for wealth, but when they started getting rich from selling blood, they tore down the temple. They didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more: they believed in selling blood.” (pg 24)

Can the disease be thus interpreted as punishment for the villagers’ previous actions? Since individuals chose to donate their blood in exchange for money, what responsibility do the different members of the Ding Family have in the spread of the disease in their village? What about the government officials?

Another issue to be raised from these first volumes is the issue of behaviour in the face of death, a topic we’ve already addressed in Pushkin’s A Feast during times of plague. Ding Liang’s dialogue on page 78 argues in favour of abandoning previous social norms, since there’s no longer a reputation to maintain.

“Family, older brother, younger brother… what does any of that matter now? You and I are going to die soon.”

However, if Ding and Lingling can yield to pleasures, why can’t the thief that was disrupting their utopian society also indulge to the impulses (or reasons) that motivated him? Is there any way to tell how individuals will react when facing their end; will they follow the norms or disintegrate into anarchy? If so, what is such determining characteristic? Do the thresholds of right and wrong remain unchanged during these times  of suffering?

Ding Liang’s argument echoes another subject from Pushkin, which is the new community of those dying. Grandpa Ding also makes reference to the new and stronger bonds that tie these people together, stronger then the ties of blood with their family members who abandoned them or condoned their exile in the village school:

“But I never thought you’d steal grain from people in the same situation as you, people who are dying” (pg 101)

Ironically, this new relationship is also made up of blood (and contaminated one, at that). But the sick are as happy enjoying the rest of their lives.

In what ways do the sick cope with the looming presence of death better than the healthy? Are the sick exempt from the usual social norms due to their claim to “enjoy the rest of their lives”? 

Rafa, Vlad and Liam

Sex and Drugs and… Religion as an Affective Influence?

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, self-labeled as a ‘gay fantasia’ aims to provoke from the title onwards, describing itself as being a play based ‘on national themes,’ thus truly horrifying every Republican and ‘Nationalist’ that encounters the text. Kushner feels that the issues presented in the plays are representative of the themes in America at the time of writing, the late 1980s to the early 1990s. These themes will be described in this conveners post as change, religion and politics. None are unique, but few could argue that Kushner’s work is not. 

The theme of change within the play is continuous during Millennium Approaches, the part of the play duo we are considering in this post. The development of morals is something we can accept, but the ‘depressing… limitations of… imagination’ is what prevents change from occurring fully, it allows the characters to remould the world: but the world is made from the same dough, just pressed into a brand new shape. Same beast, different form.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act One, Scene Seven

The escapism in the play seems possible only with death or social acceleration, like the presentation of Roy’s career threatening freefall at any moment due to its crumbling foundations of hypocrisy. Perhaps a moralistic plot twist, but a satisfying collapse all the same.

The ways in which Kushner’s work assesses the topic of change is especially important for the reader’s of today who must live in a fast-paced, globalized world, the first signs of which were recognized by the characters of the play in the 1990s. This acknowledgment of the ‘sickness’ of modern man, is presented in this contradictory passage, where the cure to constant movement is supposed to be to continue this movement. After all ‘the only cure for motion sickness…’ is ‘to keep moving.’

 Does the play suggest feasible methods to the modern man for how to deal with this rootlessness? Does it provide a judgment on globalization or cosmopolitanism? Does the play suggest that the way America should respond to the ‘call’ of modern times is to embrace change and recognize diversity?

The theme of religion is evident, from the discussion of the neurotic Mormon, Harper, to the hardened Roy Cohn of Judaism. The distinction between the religious divides of characters is clear, two religions with clear intersections. Both religions follow commandments that clearly define their moral code: every character with a defined religion in Millennium Approaches defies a commandment, whether it be through homosexual intercourse, lies, drug addiction or hatred.

The commonality between the characters is not coincidental, Kushner masterfully creates an atmosphere in which everything lies at a point of conflict, situations which seem impossible even to the most gifted of Game Theorists. The emerging political philosophy championed by Kushner, and thus by Louis, is that of democratic optimism. Something that is not affiliated with the ‘evils’ of Republicans demonstrated throughout, and certainly could not be projected at the beginning of Millennium Approaches before one has information symmetry. The characters are unpredictable, which makes the game they play so much more dangerous: their political philosophy of democracy makes them even more so, because the decisions they make are liable to have impact on not only their lives, but the lives of the people they love. A prime example of this being the separation and the impact it has on Harper.

‘When we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness… it’s really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.’– Act Three, Scene Two 

John Sexton would be proud of Kushner’s ability to derive political statement from religious background: Mormons and Jews generally vote on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Jews favouring the more Conservative parties, and Mormon’s either abstaining from political contest or voting for social democracy. The idea of religion as an affective influence on voting behaviour is strong in the play, not only due to the issues surrounding sexuality and religion: something acceptable within Judaism, not so within Mormonism. It is near enough a battle of wills, between religion and sexuality – the result feeding the ‘X’ on the ballot in the game of chance they are embroiled in. The lies and the conflict between their love for God, and their love for each other seem ordinary, and as disease twists the world they live in, the escape becomes a trap once more. A trap that no ‘democratic idealism’ will free them of.

‘Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a puissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council… who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.’– Act One, Scene Nine

The idea of sexuality as something that hinders the progression of the characters is embodied primarily through Roy, and his desperation to hide his sexual preferences even when it will be AIDS that kills him: not bigotry. His refusal to become one of the unknown, lost souls is seen as a bad thing by the other characters as he is painted as a cold, almost evil character by Kushner. Yet his success within his field is admirable, and one cannot help but like Roy. His imperfections are vivid and clear, but they make him all the more human and workable.

The conflict he faces is excruciating: his career or his life. To seek full treatment would require his honesty, not something he is willing or able to provide.   

If we consider the conflict faced by the characters in Camus, how do we define what the more difficult choices are? Who acts more rationally in the face of danger and disease?

Sex is ever-present in the play, if not in lengthy scenes, in the shadows with AIDS, HIV, separation, love… there is not a moment when the looming figure of sex is not present. It is a blight on the characters, influencing their actions: from the victimisation and infestation of Prior, the social prejudice Roy projects on his ‘peers’, the liver ‘cancer’, and Harper’s descent into addiction. 

Yet the characters do not cease their participation, much like in Pushkin’s ‘A Feast during Plague’, where despite the risk of congregation, or in the case of Angels in America, the risk of sex – the characters continue their dangerous exploits. The idea of risk is all-consuming: the cards are dealt, the poker faces are on. They play the high stakes: unprotected sex, politics, law, love. All are set to lose, but the draw of the game is too strong to avoid. The plotting referred to in the quote above is not a coincidence with the theme of risk, the reference to the inescapable battle of politics is a form of addiction, something every character experiences, whether it be an unhealthy lust or the pill popping that both preserves and destroys.

In light of Prior’s and Louis’ separation it is important to ask, whether in the play AIDS is a force that pulls people apart (as opposed to the influence of the plague in Camus’ novel) or that brings people together into a strange, almost absurd community (think of Harper’s and Prior’s shared feverish vision)? Does AIDS have a different effect on human behaviour as the previously studied disease, due to its capability of ‘permeating’ the most intimate part of human relationships? What other manifestations of disease can we find in this play, apart from the sickness of modern man, corruption and guilty conscience?

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

So… Which one of you is Pushkin?

To fully understand the context of this play, it is important to consider how much of the playwright’s own life influenced the story. After being held in quarantine for three months due to the infection, Pushkin experienced a surge of ideas and thus wrote many of his finest works, including ‘Feast In the Time of the Plague.’ He had faced many hardships prior to this incidence and yearned for love for many years in the midst of a terrible epidemic.

“Pushkin’s drawings at this time show constant preoccupation with the persecution and hangings of his friends; surrounded by “spies, whores, and drunkards” he soon was pining again for the simplicity and peace of country life, for his nanny Arina Rodionovna—and she for him (“To my Nanny”). Even a bright new company of musicians, gypsies, and the great exiled Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, whom Pushkin befriended in Moscow, did not much console the poet.” [http://alexanderpushkin.com/content/view/16/39/1/5/] 

During time of persecution, political conflict and disease, Pushkin and his friends regularly submerged themselves in social gatherings and feasts. This may have been the perfect setting for them to neglect their hardships or to grieve in a comfortable setting. In reading the play, then, it is not hard to see that two characters in particular may directly mirror Pushkin’s situation and state of mind at the time; the priest and Chairman (Walsingham). 

Chairman
I don’t know one like that – here’s what I’ll sing:
A hymn in honor of the Plague. I wrote it
Late last night, after we had parted.
I found I had a strange poetic impulse

Much in the same way that Pushkin had, Walsingham also finds himself strangely inspired by the pain and suffering that surrounds him. He alludes to both his lack of and loss of love (as he had had various unstable relationships in the past) as well as the insecurities that arose from his loneliness. He clearly craved family and “the simplicity and peace of country life” which he had lost at a very young age. Thus, Walsingham’s story closely represents Pushkin’s own life. The Priest’s also plays an important role. He could either be representative of a different perspective that Pushkin had on the idea of celebrating during times of suffering or may even illustrate his friends’ reactions to his ways of dealing with grief. Nancy K. Anderson also touches upon this idea but does not expand on it fully.

Either way, Pushkin sure liked to party and had his characters do the same.

[Image via]

– Sheba