Archive for October, 2012

Kushner resources

In the several years Cyrus Patell and I taught our Writing New York course on the Square, we amassed a pretty substantial number of blog posts about Kushner and Angels. They may prove useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights:

I typically deliver two lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era), very similar to the one we had in class today, and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. We’ll get into some of that on Thursday. On the WNY course site, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he teaches at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, and this one).

If you’re really interested, here’s the archive of a live-tweet one of our TAs ran as I lectured last year.

Part 1:

  • Getting ready for today’s #wny11 part I of Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. Thinking abt community, identity, history, legacies of immigration. #
  • A guide to some of the Kushner-related material from our blog: #wny11 #
  • @_waterman lecturing on Angels in America today #wny11 #
  • @lwarr because @cpatell is in Abu Dhabi today; @pwhny in good hands. #wny11 #
  • Transitioning from 70s to the 80s via Patti Smith–>Grace Jones for our lecture prelude #wny11 #
  • Prior: Not a conventional woman. Belize: Grace Jones? #angels #wny11 #
  • This a pretty good history of gays in New York for anyone who’s interested #wny11 #
  • Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is also a pretty good history of AIDS in New York and SF #wny11 #
  • Theatricality of everyday life: How do we understand performance? #wny11 #
  • Performance is also interesting when you think about tension between out and closeted gay characters. What is Roy Cohn performing? #wny11 #
  • AIDS epidemic is perfect dystopian moment for Kushner’s play. Confluence of personal and political choices and consequences #wny11 #
  • Play is also conscious of the rise political correctness and its relationship to identity #wny11 #
  • Ginsberg as a prophet figure for “Angels.” He needs to be the crazy poet yet wants to participate #wny11 #
  • What is the role of theater in mediating themes like history, identity, and community? #wny11 #
  • Watching HBO ‘Angels’ “Drag is a drag” dream sequence #wny11 #
  • Pay attention to the way Prior is always “performing:” drag, prophet, lines from movies. #wny11 #
  • “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it?” Can it? #wny11 #
  • Think about how “contamination” works in ‘Angels’ as something toxic, inexorable, and revelatory #wny11 #
  • @ultramaricon True #wny11 #
  • Feather floating represents possibility in writing for creation of new stories #wny11 #
  • New York pre-dates San Francisco as a “gay city.” See previous tweet about “Gay Metropolis” #wny11 #
  • Appiah on Contamination: “conversations that occur across cultural boundaries” #wny11 #
  • ‘Angels’ as an Early 90s period piece that reflects a post-Reagan-Bush I anxiety #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s silence on AIDS lead to people referring to the epidemic as “Reagan’s Disease” in some circles #wny11 #
  • What would Olmsted have thought of Central Park as a site for anti-nuclear bomb activism? #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s “Star Wars” looks like the cheesiest video game ever #wny11 #
  • It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s conflation of fantasy and reality, but Kushner does some interesting things by blurring that line #wny11 #
  • Reagan as performing masculinity in ‘Angels’ in the eyes of Joe and Roy Cohn #wny11 #
  • Relationship between gay activism and gay theater in the 1960s-1970s #wny11 #
  • Think about ‘Angels’ and the history of political theater (O’Neill) and meta-theatricality (Tyler and Doctorow) #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Mondale won my kindergarten class’s mock election in 1984. I cried when Reagan won the real election #wny11 #babynerd #
  • From the Reagan doc I used in #wny11 today: NYC as a set of symbols to be mobilized by all sides: #
  • @ultramaricon Which is one reason I found the @NYTOpinionator piece on “Am Fam” to be puzzling. cc @epicharmus #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Part 1 of this Frontline series on AIDS documents the 80s and Reagan’s role in the disease #wny11 #
  • @FlyingHubcap We certainly still live with its effects. #
  • @ThirteenNY @PBS Weds 10 pm RT @cityroom Documentary Celebrates Olmsted, a Creator of Central Park #wny11 #
  • #wny07 #wny11 RT @CitySnapshots ANGELS IN AMERICA. SEE IT. #
  • Just a NY conversation rattling round my head. RT @cire_e New York Style #
  • The full American Experience doc on Reagan: #wny11 #

Part 2:

  • Wrapping up ANGELS IN AMERICA in #wny11 today. #
  • @_waterman on Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA today. #wny11 #
  • Opening music: Talking Heads, 1978-79 “Thank you for Sending Me an Angel,” “Cities,” and “Heaven.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman starting off with Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “historiographic metafiction.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play asking: “Do we make history or are we made by it”? How are we conditioned by the stories we tell about the past? #wny11 #
  • Hutcheon’s book: A POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM #wny11 #
  • Showing clip from Mike Nichols’s adaptation: Roy, Joe, and Ethel. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, Act 3, Scene 5. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman on pre- (building Zion) and post-millennialism (apocalypse). Play’s Harper is caught between the two. #wny11 #
  • Interesting account of post-millennialism by Stephanie Hendricks: #wny11 #
  • @waterman on 4 differrent angels invoked by play. 1st: Angel of History from Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” #wny11 #
  • See W. Benjamin, ILLUMINATIONS. Kushner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Benjamin. #wny11 #
  • 2nd Angel: Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” – #wny11 #
  • Benjamin on Klee: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned …. ” #wny11 #
  • “… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin’s idea of “messianic time.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Stonewall and AIDS in light of Benjamin: catastrophic moments, one liberating, the other …? #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play struggles with Marxist teleology, because it wants (like its character Belize) liberal progress. #wny11 #
  • Actually Benjamin and Klee’s angels are counting as 1. Second is angel who wrestles with Jacob, who then receives new name. #wny11 #
  • Jacob’s wrestling: renaming, rebirth. For Joe, also a sign of painful progress, plus he finds it erotic. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing this version of the picture: #wny11 #
  • Motif of shedding skin throughout ANGELS. #wny11 #
  • Question of Joe’s fate. Why is he excluded from cosmopolitan redemption at end? Has he committed some kind of “sin”? #wny11 #
  • NY Mag interview with Kushner from 2008: #wny11 #
  • Play’s Third Angel: Kushner stitching together bits and pieces form America’s past – Angel Moroni from Mormonism. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman show this image of Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith : #wny11 #
  • Mormon story as a rewriting of Christianity and also Judaism: a new Exodus. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing clip from HBO Angels of Harper in Mormon Center with diorama coming alive. Harper: “The magic of theater.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner and fallibilism: in what ways is ANGELS trying to learn from American traditions with which it disagrees? #wny11 #
  • 4th Angel: Bethesda Fountain. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing the final scene from the HBO version. Lucky, the film exists, because now he doesn’t have to read the scene … #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Because the last time he read it in class, he broke into tears, remembering his reaction to seeing the scene on stage. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Exit Music: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.” Over and out. #wny11 #

“We are failing, failing. The Earth and the Angels.”

Who are these angels?

And what the hell are they doing in America?


Prior Walter first encounters an angel when he hears a commanding voice in his dream (which overlaps with Harper Pitt’s Valium trip), and again hears the same voice while being treated at the hospital for infections. He at first attributes it to his prescribed medication, telling Belize, “[T]his drug she is serious poisonous chemistry, ma pauvre bichette. And not just disorienting. I hear things. Voices” (66). The hallucinations culminate with the messenger angel smashing through his roof, convincing Prior that he’s caught the “virus of prophecy”, and that the angel actually exists. Belize remains unconvinced, though, and he tries to persuade Prior, “This is not dementia. And this is not real. This is just you, Prior, afraid of what’s coming…Even if you’re hurting, it can’t go back. There’s no angel. You hear me?” (181).

So is it real? Another clue about the angel’s genesis can be found by inspecting the author’s notes on the casting of the characters. At the hospital Prior meets “Emily, a nurse, played by the actor playing The Angel”. The woman who Prior envisions as the angel is the very same woman who has been taking care of him at the hospital. Further entwining the images of the angel and the nurse, Harper tells prior in their mutual dream scene, “[I]n my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with…It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions” (38). The angel is so shrouded in drugs and dreams that it’s unclear whether it is real or a product of Prior’s imagination. According to Harper’s understanding of the brain, she, like Belize, might argue that the idea of the angel came from somewhere in Prior’s experience. Being infected with HIV caused so much stress and fear in his life that his subconscious gave him a vision that his sickness was part of a greater problem in the world, that everyone must bear some of the burden for the ill.


The idea of infection plays a very important role in the storyline. Not only are people infected with HIV, but additionally the angel refers to humans with “the Virus of TIME”, Prior suggests his disease is “the virus of prophecy”, and Belize accuses Louis of having the “GOP germ”. The pioneering American expansion westward (epitomized by the Mormons in the diorama scene) can also be read as virus-like, and Belize calls America “Terminal, crazy, and mean”, as if it were experiencing the last days of a drawn out infection. However, the act of pioneering can also be seen as something productive, as homosexual males in the time of the play are pioneers in social justice. They are only just beginning to be accepted by American society.


Belize’s ideas of America could help make a crucial connection between the angels and America. He calls Louis Ironson “like an angel” because he can only see big ideas like America, and is blind to details. He iterates, “Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you” (228). In this sense America and angels are similar because they only care about grand ideals while failing to acknowledge the reality full of problems which makes ideals impossible. Their failure, if not addressed, will lead to the terrible consequences that Prior prophesied.


-Connor, Christy, Caroline

Not a Guide Dog, a Blind Dog

Here are links to a couple of things… firstly to a blog review of Blindness – it provides a good overview of the book and crosses over with issues we previously discussed, e.g. the lack of punctuation.

Then, to provide some light relief for Eid, and to plug my own poorly made video (!), here is a YouTube video of my dog George. He has been blind from birth but copes really well!

George Running Blind

I feel Saramagos’ depiction of blindness does not give much credit to the abilities of the blind, however I suppose this can be attributed to the suddenness of the event and people’s confusion.

Drawing Comparisons

This essay draws connections from Blindness to a number of contemporary thinkers, trends and of course, works of literature. Including a small section that looks at both the Plague and Lord of the Flies comparisons that we made also in class.

“The novel can also be interpreted and taught from a philosophical and existential standpoint. Some may want to compare this novel to Camus’, The Plague (1947/ 1991), particularly regarding the insistence upon absurd logic in the face of an epidemic. From this perspective, Blindness is an allegory about the human condition. In the absence of social or cultural norms, we understand more clearly the core of humanity. Saramago’s harsh depiction of violence, rape, and loss of dignity reinforces pessimistic accounts about the cruelty of humankind.

The novel also alludes to Social Darwinist notions of the survival of the fittest. In this instance, one could compare Blindness to Lord of the Flies (1954) to discuss the implications of such an evolutionary (and eugenic) vision of society. In the novel, when all are equally blinded, power is exerted by means of force. Men with weapons rape women. Stronger men control the food supply. Yet, others with scarce resources share them with others. Thus, the novel can be construed as a reactionary moral tale of good and evil, but also reflects the humanity and kindness people can embody.”

The analysis is very shallow however and I think the remainder of the essay is more fruitful for discussion.

Also, the title in Portugese is “Ensaio sobre a cegueira” which means ‘an Essay on Blindness’.


Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Imagine people losing their eyesight in massive numbers for no apparent reason, without any additional symptoms, while their eyes remain perfectly healthy. Imagine someone just turned off a feature of the brain responsible for vision and left you in an abysmal void. Why not a perfect subject-matter for fiction novel?

The epidemic of mass blindness has been previously used as the basis of the plot – for example – in a post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids.” Yet in this particular case we have a parable, rather than a traditional novel; on top of that, a parable with some rather apparent biblical roots – i.e. the story of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of Christians, who got blind for three days by God’s will, and then saw the light at first metaphorically and then literally, thus becoming Paul the Apostle. It would be fair to say that a parable is far from being a perfect genre: the main objective for the author of the parable is not the plot, but rather a peculiar ‘message of the wisdom’ he/she is trying to convey to the reader. Yet, if at the same time, the reader knows in advance (or thinks that he/she knows) what exactly the author is trying to convey to him/her, the parable loses all its elegance from the very beginning and becomes rather mundane. Finally, the whole brilliance of the parable as a genre lays in its brevity, whereas Saramago’s narration style is extremely verbose. Should we perhaps shift from the stylistic features to the content?

The first two-thirds of the novel is the traditional story of how people caught in extreme circumstances, are quickly losing civilized appearance. Matching the storyline with the well-known classics, we might recall “Lord of the Flies.” Much like on Golding’s island, evil prevails in the mental hospital Saramago creates, and a typical, exceptionally cruel dictatorship takes control, which, however, does not last long; since the dictatorship doesn’t manage to address the eternal question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ in timely manner, the ‘blindness’ gets out of the quarantine facilities and spreads further on.

The idea of sight without vision and vision without sight is one of the undercurrents of this text – by conceptually separating the two, we are able to distinguish between what we can ‘sense’ and what we can ‘feel’, a distinction that is hard to interpret. Sight is apparently important for foresight, and social stability is contingent on how well we are able to perceive the state of society. Hence there is a primal drive to establish chaotic order in the face of scarcity and fear, leading to repression, violence, and selfishness – all factors that diminish the possibility of stemming the contagion through a collaborative effort. Saramago tackles the centrality to which uncertainty factors into our decision to live within a society – and an epidemic of blindness, whose cause is unknown, makes it a fascinating yet grim tale.

While the loss of sight had brought chaos to the society and changed the way people interact in daily basis, the physical blindness lets the characters realize that they were as blind before the physical blindness as they are now–the sight without vision. They realize the importance of little things they take for granted everyday as well as the reality of human nature unveiled as the society breaks down. The “white sickness” might have blurred everyone’s sight, but it has cleared the nature of human interaction that was hidden and veiled by technology, society, and organizations. This leads us to several questions: what is the meaning of blindness in the novel? Were people always blind? Are some people less blind than others? Is the real human nature only revealed in the midst of plague, disease, or in this novel, blindness?

The reason of blindness is unknown, and like the plague, the contagion of blindness does not have a preference when choosing its next victim. The blindness in this sense is equal to everyone, and as time goes, people realize that they will all become physically blind at some point. What differentiates this “white sickness” from disease or plague, however, is that it inflicts people without killing them, thus making them a different kind of “invalids.” In order to live, they have to be dependent on each other and collaborate. It is interesting to observe how the characters distinguish, judge, and build trust with each other with voice and personality without their looks. Is this state of interactions more or less natural than normal full of pretenses and facades? What we consider natural or take for granted as the truth might not be as real as we had thought.

– Suel, Kefa, Kee

Camus wrap-up

Greetings from death’s door. Apologies for the loss of a day’s discussion, but my hope is that putting some of your thoughts down here will allow us to still get some closure on this novel.

Last time we finished by reading several paragraphs surrounding the death of M. Othon’s son. Our first task today was going to be a close examination of the language of that scene. You’re welcome to offer your thoughts about that specifically, but I’m also interested in posing some questions that would situate this as one in a series of death scenes, including Paneloux’s and Tarrou’s, and some off-stage deaths, including Rieux’s wife and M. Othon. Why does each of these characters die? (“We’re all going to die” isn’t an adequate answer, at least not without some elaboration.)

I also intended for us to discuss two further sections in detail: the swimming scene near the close of Part Four, and the conclusion, beginning with Rieux’s confession of authorship on p. 301. These two moments are linked by the ghost of Tarrou, we could say. How do you read the swimming scene (consider specific details)? And how do you read Rieux’s confession. Earlier in our discussion I referred to the “problem of the narrator” and Kefa suggested we might actually think of it as a solution instead. Either way, how do you read Camus’ choice here to to have the narrator wait until the last minute to disclose his identity? Or to draw, for so much of his narrative, on another character’s plague diaries?

Finally, I want to return to an issue Diana raised in class last time — the question of relativism. Is that a fair description of this novel’s ethics? If not, how else would you describe the kind of living this text seems to advocate? Are all the characters’ responses to the plague equally valid? I’d like to hear what you make of Grand’s closing comments, especially this: “But what does that mean — ‘plague’? Just life, no more that that.”

[Illustration via]

For the Practicing Absurdist…

I’ve stumbled upon the Absurdist Monthly Review.

They have a nice selection of absurdist quotes, including this particularly relevant one by Eugene Ionesco:
“No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”Not even the most efficient bureaucracy (in The Plague’s case, a French colonial bureaucracy) can alleviate the nearness of death that all of its citizens feel in their lives.

Of course, the Absurdist Monthly Review also has, well, monthly reviews of absurdist art and literature (which are downloadable from the site). So check it out for a window into a modern niche of absurdism!

Persistence of Yersinia Pestis

According to this semi-scientific article, Yersinia Pestis, the agent of the plague in the 1940s in Oran, still existed in the same place in Algeria when the article was written in 2006:

“Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus in “La Peste,” aimed to relate the events of the plague outbreak in Oran in the 1940s with the highest objectivity. He stated that “the virus” of plague can come back 1 day and he asked to be aware when it did. Apparently plague has retired but is waiting in numerous foci and could reemerge, as it did in India during the 1990s. The “comeback” of plague in the region of Oran occurred in June 2003. In this study, we detected Y. pestis in rodent fleas collected from September 2004 to May 2005 in the same area as those plague cases occurred. Our results confirm that Y. pestis infection is still present in Algeria. The persistence of zoonotic foci of plague is worrying since persons living in these areas remain in close contact with rodents and fleas. Despite the absence of new cases since June 2003, the risk for further outbreaks remains high. Surveillance should be maintained to monitor this natural focus and potential spread resulting from climatic or habitat influences. A strong case could be made to extend surveillance to adjacent countries such as Libya and Mauritania, which also have natural foci of plague, according to the World Health Organization. In conclusion we believe that detection of Y. pestis in fleas can be a useful tool for epidemiologic surveillance of plague in specific settings and could thus serve to study the risk for reemergence of the disease.”

Why recommend it

I found a nice video of recommenadtion and I could not agree with him more. He also puts the emphasis on the philosophy behind the novel and the idea of “how one should live”. It is worth listening to his point of view. I believe this book may make some readers gain a new perspective about their attitude towards life.

Less connected to this post but: Rats are now cute and many people consider them to be pets. Times change. It is interesting.