Archive for October, 2020

How is a plague like a war?

‘Journal of the plague year’ contains very little, if no description on the medical treatment and cure of the dreadful plague that raged the city, which is understandable given the underdeveloped health system of London in the year 1655 compared with modern days’. However, during our time, the discourse of plague and its treatment has changed into something very much resembling war-fare, with US President Donald Trump talking about how he ‘fights’ the COVID-19 and how the virus cannot ‘defeat’ him.

This article of The Alantic perfectly illustrates this point.

“In the Western world, bouts of illness are regularly described as “battles.” Viruses and other pathogens are “enemies” to be “beaten.” Patients are encouraged to “be strong” and praised for being “fighters.”

This ‘battle’ against the virus, like any ‘battle’ against illiteracy, hunger, poverty, etc. saw a foregone victory belonging to the affluent in our society. Defoe has shown us that since the year 1655, only the rich can afford to flee the city and seek refuge in the country in the times of plague.

And remember what we said in our Severance discussion, about the plague serving to eradicate all social labels, only leaving one with the state of either ‘strong/not sick’ or ‘infected’, no matter what one’s religion, class, and political leaning is? Dafoe affirmed that another matter can have the same effect – death, as he described a burial ritual in ‘Journal of the plague year’:

“[…] seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials”

Augmenter’s post (Lubnah): Defoe

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year had incredibly similar parallels to the current COVID-19 crisis. From how nations regarded the pandemic to the rising death toll, it was surprising that a text written nearly 300 years ago felt so relevant today. But there is one moment in particular that stood out to me, where the narrative has somewhat changed today. This moment is how Defoe described migration. 

Defoe described the story of the wealthy leaving the country during the plague while low-income earners were left to stay in the city, far more exposed to the disease. The journeys that the rich versus the poor took, during or not during a pandemic, have always been vastly distinct. Even during COVID-19, many of those who could afford to went away on glamorous vacations and getaways.

While it is true that those who didn’t have the wealth or privilege to do this stay put where they were (similar to what was described in Defoe’s journal), there is a new addition to today’s world that Defoe wasn’t able to capture in his journal: migrant workers. Several migrant workers from all over the world were forcibly kicked out of their jobs and homes and had to make their journey back “home”. But the journey they made was very different from the privileged seeking an escape. This video poignantly addresses the journey of migrant workers in my home, India –

Migration and mobility have taken on a new shape in today’s world. And who we are, our occupation, our sponsor, our identification or lack thereof, makes all the difference in how smoothly our journeys go. Even more so in a pandemic.

Defoe: Spilling the Tea Since 1723? (Convener’s Post)

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents.  As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes. 

  1. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665) 

2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.

We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.

    “Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau

Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.

The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?

The city in tears

Defoe illustrates in great detail how the face of London drastically changed as a result of the plague. Once a cosmopolitan, buzzing city, he now describes it as “desolate”, stating that “London might well be all in tears”. This dark description of a once lively city reminded me of the impact that the pandemic had on New York City. Having experienced the initial phase of the pandemic in New York myself, this article and photo essay of the city resonated deeply.

As we scroll through the photos, we see a mere shell of the former metropolis, empty streets and eerily vacant public spaces. The photographer explains that as people “pass in the street, they keep a wary distance; if they acknowledge each other it is with terse, silent nods”. He also captures the same air of melancholy that Defoe describes in London through his pictures which highlight the concern and worry in his subjects’ faces. I drew this parallel between London and New York as despite being afflicted with different plagues and in different time periods, the impact of the contagion on both cities was jarringly similar, as both cities came to a grinding halt.

Finally, this piece in the New Yorker from April vividly describes the look and feel of New York City during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Finding Fortune in The Decameron

Image via the Public Domain Review, from a 1492 edition of the Decameron.

Allow me to point you to two older convener’s posts for The Decameron. I’m especially drawn to the following questions:

What does it mean that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset? How might this invocation — and the predominance of female characters — give us meaningful inroads to discuss gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

What do you make of the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden? Is storytelling a form of escape or a form of talk therapy for the brigata, something with salutary effects?

Remember the review essay you read from Prof. Stearns? It gestured toward the question of theodicy, an issue in several of the contexts we’ve examined so far. How could a just God allow such things to be? What explanations might be required to preserve a sense of God’s omnipotence or benevolence? Stearns writes:

Since the plague was indiscriminate in its victims, the massive death it brought with it raised the question of theodicy, or of why God would have caused the death of so many potential innocents; some Christian scholars explained the death of children to the plague, for example, by referring to their failing to honor their parents, or, conversely, by their death being a punishment for the sins of their parents.

As we noted in class, Boccaccio steers away from such explanations for the most part (though he notes that some do see the plague as divine punishment for “our iniquitous way of life” (5). Instead, The Decameron asks us to consider another explanatory frame: Fortune.

From Brown University’s awesome Decameron site:

Fortuna is a classic literary motif that along with wit and love represents one of the main themes of the Decameron. Medieval society was greatly interested in the workings of Lady Fortune. Most of the stories told by the Brigata members entail instances of Fortune because adventures by defintion are usually the product of fateful encounters. Fortune is usually kind in the Novellas, except for Day 4, bringing characters in contact with the right people at the right time, or more often, at the right place at the right time. In some of the stories, the protagonists are able to change the course of fate by using wit, deception or undergoing a clever action to escape harm, punishment or loss of love. In other stories, fate has total control over the characters and dictates the course of the Novella. In the end, Fortune usually brings lovers together either for life, or a few precious nights.

What kind of explanation is this? Just a way to ease survivors’ guilt?

Any time I think about the concept of Fortune, I’m 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.

We can see the language of Fortune at work in the frame story as Pampinea begins to lay the foundations for the new society she will establish: “See how Fortune favours us right from the beginning, in setting before us three young men of courage of intelligence, who will readily act as our guides and servants if we are not too proud to accept them for such duties” (18). Can you see some sort of political theory in the society she establishes that speaks to questions of fate, chance, or Providence? You’ll also want to watch out for how such concepts factor into Defoe’s narrative, coming up next for us. (Image via.)

Since we won’t necessarily come back directly to this text in class, I’m hopeful that you’ll let the conversation from today continue in the comments.

Severance: the quick pitches

Book vlogs aren’t far from the kinds of analysis you’ll end up doing in this class. When I asked you to make a pitch for your favorite video review of Severance, part of what I hoped you would do, as you watched and wrote, was pay attention to how these critics assembled and presented not just their summaries and evaluations of this novel but their sense of what it means, what kind of work it’s trying to do. So let’s see what you came up with.

Over half of you chose to write about the review from David Yoon, aka ThePoptimist. What did he get right? Most of you liked how much he covered in a mere 5 minutes: “consumerism, mindless repetition, and human group behavior packaged in a post-apocalyptic plot,” as Gabi put it, along with commentary on immigrant experience and nostalgia and a quick political analysis, borrowed from this web article, of vampire versus zombie motifs in contemporary US films. (That political analysis seems a little reductive to me: if Republicans see vampires as decadent, and so vampire films shoot up in popularity under Democratic presidents, that can’t really explain the overwhelming popular appeal of vampire sexuality, can it? Wouldn’t those representations be a little more negative?) Maitha notes that this review would have benefitted from more attention not just to capitalism but to the “exploitative monopoly” the US hold over global trade; Leanne thinks the unwittingly carries a kind of timeliness in the Trump Era. Mingu wonders if these political interpretations might be a little forced and whether the equation of capitalism and contagion might be sufficient. Personally, I would love to see something that can account a little better than this reviewer does for global trends: is the 2016 Korean zombie film Train to Busan about Korean politics, global economy, or class politics brought on by the confluence of Korean politics & a global economy?)

What else made this review compelling to so many of you? Jihun liked that it put an original spin on the material and did so while balancing just enough plot detail with the need to be succinct. Lubnah noted the high production quality ThePoptimist brings to his work, giving his reading added credibility. And if this video left some of you wanting more, it tended to be more commentary on generational, consumer, and cultural politics. What do “cozy apocalypse” and millennials have to do with each other? (As Linh notes, he puts the word “millennial” in the video title but never really explains why it matters to the novel.) Are the “zombies” supposed to be figures of workers or mindless consumers? Or is the point of what Maryam calls the “already lifeless repetitive cycles people have adapted to” supposed to be that capitalism asks us to work harder mostly so we can consume more, stuck in a loop?

Work culture (and generational ethos) received greater emphasis in other vlog reviews, such as this:

Cindy Pham, aka readwithcindy, only gives Ma’s novel 3 of 5 stars because she thinks the central insight — we are already zombies/monsters — is nothing new. She does, though, think that millennial readers in particular will identify with Candace’s work ethic overdrive. Siya, reviewing this review, thinks that the criticism may be “apt to some extent in a pre-pandemic world, the power of Severance is amplified significantly by our current context.” To Siya, Ma’s novel “illustrates with an almost terrifying accuracy how especially during global crises, we become even more entrenched in our identities as capitalistic pawns that grind away monotonously to no end.”

Though Pham spends some time wondering if there could have been more in Ma’s novel on the immigrant experience. (As Ayan notes, she identifies more with the generational emphasis than with Candace’s experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.) Other reviewers seem to have identified more than Pham did with the second-generation immigrant theme, and specifically with the connections drawn between Asian American experience and the burdens of cultural identity and work ethic:

Alex Simms, aka whatpageareyouon, referred to the “internal apocalypses” of Asian American identity. Centering this aspect of the novel accords with Smrithi’s sense that the novel’s “immigrant story” is “one of the most important reasons why one should read this book.” (Odmaa and Ryoji agreed. For Ryoji, Candace’s father’s story epitomizes the ways in which “working and its repetitive routines” are pathways to assimilation and “the only ways to suppress their alienation and loneliness.) Harper points to another reviewer, ClaireReadsBooks, who coins the term “cultural severance” to talk about the impact of assimilation on a second-generation immigrant like Candace.

As Harper notes, Claire prefers the flashback sequences because “they depicted anxieties of the modern world so well.” I wasn’t sure how conscious Claire was that she describes her summer as “fevered” or that she pined for a return to routines and rituals with the fall. Hmm…

Finally, noting the similarity between book vlogging and the kinds of assignments I’ve given you so far, Yaman noticed that the review by Wuthering Reader Reviews blends summary with original analysis, centering on the book’s coming-of-age story.

(The idea of adolescence — or young adulthood — as a contagious disorder is a these explored in a book no longer included on the syllabus: the graphic novel Black Hole, which I highly recommend.) The most relatable aspect of this review of Severance, however, at least to Yaman? That would be the reviewer’s “really relatable” confusion at times. Perhaps this suggests that even the best reviewer of a zombie novel is only, er, human, in the end.