Archive for February, 2014

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.



Discrimination Persists in the Face of the Plague

The Gradual Abolition Act, a legislative action moving away from slavery, was passed in the state of Philadelphia in year 1790. Anti-slavery movements were well in motion and progress, and so stood strong the opposition. In year 1793, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital – and most cosmopolitan city in the United States. Internationally renowned physician, Benjamin Rush, asserted in the beginning and middle stages of the epidemic that the African American blacks were immune to the Yellow Fever. The social implications of such an assertion from a renowned scientist and figure in society was huge. Benjamin Rush had previously signed the Declaration of Independence and his studies were supported by his connections in the political and academic world.

This social phenomenon is discussed in detail in page 6 of Katherine Polak’s Perspectives on Epidemic: The Yellow Fever in 1793 Philadelphia:

Mayor Clarkson placed an advertisement in the one city paper that was still in print asking for “the people of colour to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick.” Africans “were supposed not liable to the infection based on information contained in several published histories of the disease, including one by Dr. Lining of Charleston.

Rush asked members of the Free African Society to take care of the ill and dying whites, which two prominent figures of the black community, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, agreed to do. In November 1793, after the thick of the epidemic, Carey attacks the assistance of these black volunteers in A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, as discussed in Mona Kolsky’s Philadelphia 1793: Yellow Fever, Race, Medicine and Politics:

He accused them of extortion, theft of property in homes in which they serviced, and overall publicly vilified them. He condemned them for taking money for their services at such a disastrous time. He spoke nothing of white citizens who did the same.

In pg. 41 of Arthur Mervyn, Mervyn states:

I was roused from […] doubts by a summons to breakfast, obsequiously delivered by a black servant.

Evidence from the text suggests racial discrimination against blacks; the black servant is seen to “obsequiously” deliver breakfast to Arthur Mervyn, suggesting a tint of contempt towards the black servant. 

Furthermore, there exists further evidence of discrimination against blacks as discussed in The Middle Passages of Arthur Mervyn by Liam Corley:

Black Philadelphians served as nurses in the Bush Hill hospital and as attendants to Rush’s patients throughout the months of the epidemic despite the evidence that blacks were as likely to die from yellow fever as whites.

It is important to note these said injustices and examine the novel in context of the racial discrimination that plagued society; with assertions that the blacks did not contract the plague in the same manner as whites did, and blacks agreeing to take care of the diseased whites as a service, it poses a question: what is the relationship between a society’s sins and engraved notions in society and the effects of the plague to society? Does it cause tension amidst the social hierarchy; does it encourage further discrimination? Some questions to keep in mind as we move on to observe how the plague affects society…

I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy…

Team Pushkin was given the beautiful gift of a person who speaks Russian, so our post used this expertise in our approach to this piece. Here is what we learned. Enjoy.

Translations and imitations are among the large number of works of Alexander Pushkin. These works make up about a fifth of all the works of Pushkin, and can rightly be called magnificent samples of his genius, although they are borrowed from other authors. This is what Pushkin writes on this matter: “Imitation is not shameful kidnapping or a sign of mental poverty, but a noble hope of own strength, a hope to discover new worlds, seeking the footsteps of the genius — or even more sublime feeling: the desire to explore your masterpiece and give it a secondary life”.

A Feast During the Plague (1829) is one of the most famous Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies.” Pushkin’s masterpiece was even adapted to a movie. This the scene where Mary sings.

The originality of Pushkin’s play is still debated among lot of Russian scholars; they argue whether Pushkin’s play is simply a translation of John Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816) or an independent Pushkin masterpiece. We, Team Pushkin, as “linguistic researchers”, examined three versions of the Plague narrations (Wilson’s, Pushkin’s, and the translation of Pushkin’s work by Anderson) and came up with the conclusion that the last two works slightly differ in terms of word choice and punctuation from the original text, but overall they accurately convey the basic content of the source plays. Here is the example:

Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816)


O impious table! Spread by impious hands!
Mocking with feast and song and revelry

The silent air of death that hangs above it,
A canopy more dismal than the Pall!
Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
Beside a dire interment, circled round
By the white ghastly faces of despair,
That hideous merriment disturb’d the grave
And with a sacrilegious violence
Shook down the crumbling earth upon the bodies
Of the unsheeted dead. But that the prayers
Of holy age and female piety
Did sanctify that wide and common grave,
I could have thought that hell’s exulting fiends
With shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away
Some harden’d atheist’s soul into perdition.

Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague

Безбожный пир, безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию распространенной!
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц молюсь я на кладбище –
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов – и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков и жен моленья
Не освятили общей, смертной ямы –
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тму кромешную тащат со смехом.

Anderson’s A Feast During the plague


A godless feast, befitting godless madmen!
Your Feasting and your shameless songs
Mock at  and profane the gloomy peace
Spread everywhere by death and desolation!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,
And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry
Disturb the silence of the tomb – because of you,
The earth itself trembles over the dead bodies!
If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.

In all three texts we can see the following pattern of the language use:

Archaic English → Simplified Russian version of the play –> Translation of the simplified Russian version 

Moreover, we can regard A Feast During the Plague as independent work simply because it is not the word-by-word translation of the whole of Wilson’s play, but only a part of it. And why did Pushkin choose exactly this scene from all the play?

According to the Russian scholar, Leo Polivanoff, Pushkin generally chooses to translate to his native language only the brightest part of the original foreign work. This is what happened with A Feast During the Plague: Pushkin chose from all the play the part that interested him most, and thus shifted the focus from describing the horrors of the plague to the conflict.

As for the sources of the tragical story, some evidence indicates that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) actually inspired John Wilson to write a play. Another famous Russian scholar Yakovlev wrote: “The book of Defoe influenced someone who in turn was a source of inspiration for Pushkin — an English writer John Wilson”. In addition, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year  was also found in the library of Pushkin, and perhaps he read it as well.

We can definitely notice the resemblance between the play A Feast During the Plague and the tavern scene, where people partied and behave atheistically, in A Journal of the Plague Year. Both scenes essentially have the same settings and major actors. Both scenes are happening at a tavern and the major actors all involves a dead-cart, group of jesting people, and a godly or moral man that tries to correct the group’s way. In fact, even the plot progresses in a similar manner, with the moral person failing to change the behaviour of the group. However both pieces differ in the perspective that the story is told. Pushkin told the story in the form of a play and therefore gave us the perspective of both the priest and the group while Defoe told the story from the perspective of H.F., the moral person.

Given the amazing thread of a creative work such as this one, we could not help but make the connection of a traveling text and a traveling plague. Specifically, the way in which the nature of the plague transforms through communication. The Russian version was slightly more explicit than either of the English versions, be it the original work or the translation. The author’s taste is key. With talk about any sort of contagion, the details one chooses to express or omit will affect hordes of people’s actions and perceptions when it come to the given contagion.The telling and retelling of the horrors of the contagion gives people a sense of agency and authority in a situation that renders them helpless and subject to whatever may come. But to get back to the situation of the authors at hand, their adaptations of this story in effect becomes their own once they allow it to pass through their analytical lens. Thus, the foundational idea may not be original, but the products still stand as a one worth recognizing, one of a unique analytical lens.

So we say go ahead Pushkin, recreate with your bad self.

The Origins of Yellow Fever in Arthur Mervyn

Some of the stories we have encountered about contagion so far stress the nature of the disease as an extraneous agent.  Thucydides specified that the pathogen causing the Plague of Athens came in through Africa and H.F. took note of the rumors about the Plague of London of 1655 coming in from Holland.  Although Yellow Fever is a key element in Arthur Mervyn, characters do not dwell too much on its origins. 

Take a look at Harvard University’s portal on historical views of diseases and epidemics (conveniently called Contagion) to learn more about Yellow Fever and 1793’s outbreak, the rotten coffee anecdote included.  Moreover, the YouTube series Philadelphia: the Great Experiment looks into various aspects of the city in which Arthur Mervyn takes place and offers various insights about the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793 and how it affected not only the urban landscape but also the collective memory.

This video mentions sugar and slaves coming from the Caribbean as the culprits of bringing the pathogen into Philadelphia.  The following passages from the book make allusion to these trade routes but do not relate them to the Fever.

On page 91, Mervyn finds Watson’s correspondence.

The fourth letter was open, and seemed to have been very lately written. It was directed to Mrs. Mary Watson. He informed her in it of his arrival at Philadelphia from St. Domingo; of the loss of his ship and cargo; and of his intention to hasten home with all possible expedition. He told her that all was lost but one hundred and fifty dollars, the greater part of which he should bring with him, to relieve her more pressing wants. The letter was signed, and folded, and superscribed, but unsealed.

On page 274, which we analyzed in class, he encounters a Frenchman and his slaves.

I mounted the stage-coach at daybreak the next day, in company with a sallow Frenchman from St. Domingo, his fiddle-case, an ape, and two female blacks. The Frenchman, after passing the suburbs, took out his violin and amused himself with humming to his own tweedle-tweedle. The monkey now and then munched an apple, which was given to him from a basket by the blacks, who gazed with stupid wonder, and an exclamatory La! La! upon the passing scenery, or chattered to each other in a sort of open-mouthed, half-articulate, monotonous, singsong jargon.

With all this in mind, how can we think of Arthur Mervyn in terms of Contagion-themed literature? Is it a novel about contagion or one in which contagion works as an element adding to the network of relationships among characters and characters and their environment?  How do the author’s strategies differ depending on our answer to this question?

An epidemic of rumors, or rumors of an epidemic: The making of a rumor

Last class we talked in depth about the paragraph at the end of Chapter 13:

Such was the tale, distorted and diversified a thousand ways by the credulity and exaggeration of the tellers. At first I listened to the story with indifference or mirth. Methought it was confuted by its own extravagance. The enormity and variety of such an evil made it unworthy to be believed. I expected that every new day would detect the absurdity and fallacy of such representations. Every new day, however, added to the number of witnesses and the consistency of the tale, till, at length, it was not possible to withhold my faith.

In this passage, Arthur ponders the nature of rumors, which blur the line between the appearance and reality in the book. Both Defoe and Brown present rumors as a mean of spreading information about the respective epidemics. The amount of rumors skyrockets at a time of plague as illustrated in both Arthur Mervyn and The Journal. However, rumors are present in society most of the time.

In 2002, a French author T. Meyssan published a hoax book with a false claim ‘No plane did crash on the Pentagon on September 11.’ Meyssan sold more than 100,000 copies. His claims became an urban legend that propagated through France, until a public denouncement of the book by many prominent newspapers. The paper “Modelling Rumors: The No Plane Pentagon French Hoax Case” tries to answer the question of how did these rumors spread. Although the paper’s case study is not about contagion, its framework can help us understand why and how rumors spread in the context of epidemics as well.

The paper proposes two conditions necessary for a rumor to propagate: a group of people of a size beyond a certain threshold must initiate a rumor, and the rumor must be consistent with a wider collective paradigm. In in the case of an epidemic, some areas may be hit more severely than others by the disease. I find it easy to imagine that people from such areas, with a dramatic experience not necessarily consistent with the wider effects of the epidemic, may spread an exaggerated tale of the plague.

Rumors of epidemics satisfy the second condition as well. Due to public information and private experience, people at a time of an epidemic have some information about a spread of the contagion. The awareness and acceptance of the existence of the disease is the social paradigm that provides a fertile ground for rumors. As we see in Brown’s book, although people in the countryside have some awareness of the presence of yellow fever, the information is incomplete. In this context, gruesome stories provide “a tincture of pleasing,” and become accepted by many.

Now, we can start to see how rumors propagate. The question remaining is: How can we gauge their veracity? Are rumors a valuable source of information when the official channels of communication break down during a crisis? Or do they inevitably breed panic and slow down the official response?

Love me, I’m not Contagious

Back in 2012, the previous Contagion group was chilling on the beach and reading Arthur Mervyn by Charles B. Brown… Today in February 2014, as the weather wasn’t too beachy, our group ended up eating strawberry cake, drinking pink smoothies indoors in an environment of red balloons, lovey-dovy roses and valentine cards, trying to find a quiet place to talk about sickness, death and contagion. However, we weren’t able to escape the contamination from the celebration. Infected by, most probably, the love in the air, we ended up talking about, well, love, and the role of compassion in environments hit by disease, just as in the novel Arthur Mervyn.

Having previously read A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe and The Plague of Athens by Thucydides, plague seemed to be a phenomenon that impacted human relationships greatly, for people avoided risking their lives to help another person who is already infected.

For example, In The Plague of Athens, some parents abandoned their sick children, believing that is was best to save their own lives than perish with their infected loved ones. In A Journal of The Plague Year, it was evident that people reset themselves to a new level of communication, resulting in the creation of an intangible barrier to escape the contagion.
In Defoe’s novel, a dialogue between H.F. and a poor man is a great illustration of the barrier that existed between people.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or “sea wall”, as they call it, by himself. At last, I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man…”Why,” says I, “what do you here all alone?” – – “Why,” says he, “I am a poor desolate man: it hath pleased  God I am not yet visited, though my family is and one of my children dead. “– “How do you mean, then,” said I “that you are not visited?”– “Why,” says he, “that is my house,” pointing to a very little low boarded house, “and there my poor wife and two children live,” said he, “if they may be said to live; for my wife and one of the children are visited; but I do not come at them.” And with that word I saw the tears run plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

As seen from the dialogue, the author didn’t dare come close to the man he greatly pitied, and the poor man didn’t interact with his infected children in fear of catching the infection himself. Were those the right actions?

Having this material in mind, the aspect that surprised us was people’s relationships in Arthur Mervyn. We found the contrasting relationship dynamics between Arthur Mervyn and the other pieces we have studied to be particularly interesting.

(Credit to:

In Chapter I, a doctor saw a very sick man on the streets and ended up taking him into his own house, where he and his healthy family lived.
The most perplexing part was the logic of such an action.

Let us take the poor unfortunate wretch into our protection and care and leave the consequences to Heaven” (Brown 6), said the doctor’s wife, revealing the fact that she was aware of the frightening consequences she might face, letting in a sick stranger into the house.

Why is this relationship so different from the one shown in Defoe’s novel? What drives people to help others, to show compassion and love, risking their own lives, just like Saint Valentine once did for his family? Philosophy? Faith? Just like the previous Contagion group, we find the reasoning of doctor’s actions very interesting:

I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim. (Brown 8)

However, is it only the belief in altruism that drove the doctor, or is religion a factor?

“The stranger was characterized by an aspect full of composure and benignity, a face in which the serious lines of age were blended with the ruddiness and the smoothness of youth, and a garb that bespoke that religious profession, with whose benevolent doctrines the example Hadwin had me rendered familiar.” (Brown 114)

From this quote, we see that Arthur perceived Dr. Stevens as a religious person. Our interpretation is that the doctor’s actions were influenced by religion, and by extension, Quakerism. Quaker folk held compassion and acceptance in high regard. Thus, many of their values and social movements, such as advocating for women’s rights and abolishing slavery, conflicted with the social norms at that time. Though Quakerism – or religion in general – was not as central in Arthur Mervyn as it was in A Journal of a Plague Year, it would seem that the compassion and altruism shown by Dr. Stevens could be consistent with religious values, such as opening up his home to nurse Arthur back to health, despite the risk of him and his family being infected with Yellow Fever. This notion is amplified by the fact that Charles Brockden Brown, author of Arthur Mervyn, was of Quaker background; perhaps this has influenced the creation of his characters.

How might we contrast ideas of altruism and relationships presented in Arthur Mervyn with A Journal of a Plague Year, or even The Plague of Athens?

All in all, as interesting as these ideas may be, we hope your Valentine’s Day wasn’t spoiled by the dark ideas of contagion.


Batu, Sarah, Victoria.

Categorizing A Journal of the Plague Year

Here are some thoughts from Sebastián following our last discussion:

Today in class we discussed how does the fact that A Journal of the Plague Year is a fiction affects our responses to the text. We also made an effort to categorize the piece; is it a proto-ethnography or historical novel?

I would like us to consider Defoe’s intentions when writing and publishing the novel. In this sense, it would be useful to consider that the book was published as a new plague outbreak takes place in France and that H.F. is keen on making remarks about public health policy.

With all this in mind, let us think about the following: is it a fictional account based on a historical event or a historical account in which fictional elements are introduced to enhance the writer’s argument?

An example: García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth

In 1989, Colombian novel laureate Gabriel García Márquez published a novel tracing the last days of general Simón Bolívar in Colombia, before death frustrated his attempts to travel to Europe in exile. The narration focuses on the general’s anxieties about the country’s future, offering a more human portrait of an often-mythicized figure. The novel faced huge criticism regarding its portrayal of Bolívar, to the extent that some critics deemed the account “profane”.

Is Defoe proposing a new version of the history of the Plague?

Defoe as novelist, novels as something new

During our last discussion of Defoe I mentioned, briefly, Defoe’s place in the history of the novel. (It’s hard to overestimate, for instance, the influence and longevity of his best-known novel, Robinson Crusoe, but he was the author many other popular works, including the one we’re reading.) Here’s a post I wrote on this topic in 2012. It includes Benjamin Franklin’s comments on what felt new about novels.

Image of Defoe’s collected works via.

Fortune’s wheel

Thinking about our discussion of Fortune today, both as it informs The Decameron and butts heads with Protestant reformers later on, I was reminded of this piece by the cultural historian Jackson Lears about the concept’s history (especially in Western thought). A few relevant excerpts:

In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”

But Fortune did not fit well with Christian ideas of Providence. To early Christians, the divine plan unfolded as mysteriously as the fluctuations of luck, but however remote the planner or apparently perverse his decrees, his purpose was ultimately benign. Boethius, unjustly imprisoned in the sixth century after a distinguished public service career, endorsed this idea in the Consolation of Philosophy. “Well, here am I, stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good.… Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” Lady Philosophy appeared in Boethius’s story to explain that behind the apparent caprices of Fortune, divine Providence governs all things with “the rudder of goodness.” Chance was “an empty word,” Lady Philosophy said. After all, “what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?”

This was the traditional Christian argument that would be repeated for centuries.

It’s worth paying attention to how language of fate, chance, and Providence work their way into Defoe’s narrative. What was the relationship between Fortuna and storytelling in The Decameron? What does it seem to be in this text?

Image via.

Defoe round-up

Hi, all. As we prepare to begin discussing Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, here are a few links to help get us thinking:

An earlier convener’s post, taking up the question of public discourse on the plague. In what ways is communication like the disease? What mileage does Defoe get out of the link between the two?

An image of the Bills of Mortality this novel refers to.

A link to a piece considering Defoe’s book as a precursor to zombie novels and films.

Finally, here’s an award-winning short film based on Defoe’s book that raises its own questions about how to behave during an epidemic.