Archive for November, 2021

Listen To the Dead Man Sing

Dream of Ding Village, written by Yan Lianke, one of the most influential (and bravest) contemporary Chinese writers, is a depressingly realistic tale of an AIDS village in Henan, China. The story is based on actual blood sales that happened in Henan province when China faced a blood shortage in the 1980s. The Chinese government ordered each government official in each province to collect a certain quantity of blood donations. The officials in Henan provinces jumped at the opportunity for economic growth and marketed blood selling as a way of easy money to its people who are mostly farmers. 

Poverty and desperation for wealth blinded the Ding villager’s eyes and drove them to hop on the trend of blood sales. When the classrooms are turned into the dormitories for the sick and they are discussing why they first sold blood, most of the people were driven to it due to poverty, like the girl who sold her blood so she “could buy a bottle of nice shampoo.” The higher-ups were using the villager’s circumstances to pressure them into selling blood by successfully convincing them that blood-selling is more profitable than farming and keeping them in the dark about the practices being used and the long-term dangers. Although the older generation was worried about the consequences, the potential economic development in this rural town made blood sales irresistible to the villagers. The village grew rapidly on the “blood money.” Soon, the limit of the frequency of blood selling became ignored. People were selling more and more blood. People’s greed and ignorance obscured the potential harm this rapid development would have in the village. The blood heads started luring people into their business and into selling so much blood that the narrator says you could often spot people standing upside down to get their blood circulation back. Those blood heads became “bloody rich” indeed and were the main culprits of the AIDS pandemic that followed.

Dream of Ding Village | UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

The novel is about the AIDS pandemic in China, yet, it feels like a subtle commentary on China’s rapid economic growth. In the past 30 years, China has had great opportunities for a fast development the world has never seen before. However, the consequences of this fast development will have a cost on the land, nature, and the people in the foreseeable future. Just like the people in the villages, the blood-selling business gave them a new street and new houses, but the cost is only paid after a few years when almost the whole village feels sick and dies. The brand new houses then become the skeleton that reminds people of their blinding greed.

In the AIDS-stricken Ding’s village, we see that people “are dying like falling leaves. Their light extinguishing, gone from this world.” “If you hadn’t seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn’t ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead.” Not only did people who sold blood die, but others died like falling leaves as well. Girls were married into families and contracted AIDS without knowing their husbands were carriers. Our narrator died without ever selling his blood. No one in the village foresaw their fate (unless they read Camus), yet they were all stricken down by what made the village flourish years ago – blood sales. 

Death is central to the story not only because people are dying in almost every chapter, but also because from the very beginning of the book, we are told that the story is narrated from the grave: the omnipresent narrator Ding Quiang died of poison at the age of 12. The main story also unravels itself as we listened to the songs of Ma Xianglin, who then died on the stage. This is why we named our post “Listen To the Dead Man Sing.” 

We want to ask the following question: what does death mean?

One answer is that death means salvation. 

Throughout the book, Grandpa wishes his first-born son Ding Hui were dead. Ding Hui is certainly a sinner. A swindler and a scammer before and after the AIDS pandemic, he ripped people off from selling blood to selling coffins. As the biggest bloodhead in the village, he was a direct cause of the spread of AIDS. We also shouldn’t forget that because of his wrongdoings, his son–our narrator–was poisoned to death at the age of 12. Ding Hui wasn’t bothered by his sins, as he continued to earn “blood money” through his coffin business, but his father – Grandpa – was, deeply.

In the beginning, Grandpa started begging Ding Hui to get down on his knees and apologize to the villagers, but of course, Ding Hui never did and even threatened Grandpa that he would not support him in his old age or even go to his funeral if he brings this topic up again. At Ma Xianglin’s performance, Grandpa tried to choke Ding Hui to death. But what would Ding Hui’s death do? Perhaps, Grandpa wanted his death to serve as an apology and free him from all the sins he had committed in this village. Grandpa is also very specific about the way he wishes Ding Hui to die – in front of the public. This makes us think of an execution of a sinner. It also reminds us of the rats dying in streets while people dying in their homes in Camus’ The Plague. After what Ding Hui has done, he seems to have lost his value as a human, degraded into the likes of rats, and should now die in the streets.

Another answer is that death (or the sight of it) is the revelation of human nature.

Within the school where the AIDS-inflicted people gather, the worst of human nature flourished. We see lies, thefts, incest, betrayals, abuse of power … This reminded us of people in Defoe’s Journal of A Plague Year breaking into houses and robbing the dead. But it is even worse in Ding village because those people at the school are doomed to die. They have nothing to lose. 

HIV is growing so fast among Chinese youth that a university is selling  testing kits in vending machines — Quartz

But it wasn’t just the worst of human nature that prevailed. In a way, we also saw the formation of the school as voluntary quarantine and a way of doing good. The school was a utopian environment for the almost-dead to enjoy their last days. Inside this utopian society, since everyone was sick, the identity of AIDs patients was ignored. People started to view each other as humans, yet still contemplating their actions with traditions and values. In Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife. These themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel. In the previous readings, sin is often a result of an individual’s choice and action. Here, the sin is approached in a collection as a family or a community. The grandpa created the school as a way to pay back the father’s sin of starting the blood-selling business.

This also brought us to think about the element of family in this story. Family is worshipped as the single most important unit in Chinese society. The collectivity of a community comes before each individual, meaning that people think from and for the family. In the positive aspect, the villagers tried to turn a new leaf and provide a better life for their families. They strived for the betterment of the tight-knit community. However, on the negative side, the bond could become suffocating shackles that bound you to the faults of other family members. The narrator was poisoned for his father’s cruelty. The villagers were blamed for carrying the virus. Both took the consequences of others’ sins. The sins do not only harm the wrongdoer but also infect other family members. In society, you are seen as one. It was interesting to see that the villagers tried to find a sense of community within the school like the citizens of Oran. In both the Plague and Dream of the Ding Village, we could see how they committed terrible deeds against one another. Selfishness shone through before they could find a common ground. However, as they bond over the shadow of overseeable death, the anguish of the disease, and the discrimination and isolation from the outside world, the villagers came together to fight the disease.

In Ghosts, the Plague, and now Dream of Ding Village, the theme of victim-blaming persisted. Even though everyone was impacted by the disease, the victims were, directly and indirectly, distorted as the perpetrators of the tragedy that did something to deserve the disease. In Ghosts, Oswald deserved to die because of his freethinking and exploring his authentic self. In the Plague, the citizens of Oran paid for their sins with their lives. In this Henan village, the villagers deserved dehumanization because they tried to make a living by “cheating the system.” Their sufferings were justified by “logically” connecting what they did to what they received. People that blamed the victims were making sense of this shock by not making any sense and sensible conclusions. So how can we stop shifting blame for the mere sake of finding the scapegoat? Moreover, how can the scapegoats survive the approaching blade of the public? 

Increase in number of HIV cases in China raises concerns | Financial Times

Camus wrap-up

Camus: the tattoo via

As promised, I am creating a post here for us to discuss the swimming scene. However, as I was preparing to post this I discovered that during the 2012 class, I must have fallen sick for the session in which we would have finished our discussion of this novel, and so I had created a wrap-up post at that point for the class to conclude its discussion. In the spirit of remembering bygone generations, let’s use that original post as the place for your own comments about the swimming scene (or any other aspect you wanted to comment on but didn’t have the chance). Feel free to respond to the original batch of comments left by that original group of Contagion students. I wish you’d had the chance to meet them, and vice versa.

Descartes says “I think, therefore I am”, Camus says “I resist, therefore we are.”

In order to aid our discussion about Camus work “The Plague”, I decided to choose article by VOX – “What Camus’s The Plague can teach us about the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Tap, tap, tap!

Honestly, the article is great and all, but the reason why I chose it, lies solely on the phrase that you can see as the title of my post.

“I resist, therefore we are.”

Such a short phrase that has so much meaning (at least for me it does). Not only it connects some of the major themes of the novel – interdependence within the society, as well as individual identity being crushed by the collective, it quite possibly can pass of as a motto of the narrator of the story – Bernard Rieux.

The character of Bernard is probably one that is (for me) the most empathetic and strongest out of all. The reason being is the power I see in silence and his attempts to remain strong throughout the exhausting plague outbreak. This is ironic I guess, because his approach is (or at least supposed to be) very clinical, which means more on the dry side when it comes to things like descriptions, emotions, feelings, sufferings. However, I feel like the reader can’t help but feel great amount of strength behind Rieux’s attempts to fight through a plague by living in the world of abstractions. His coping mechanism of trying to dissociate and focus on routines (shout out to Severance, whats up, i swear i talk like this, not a thug) and “getting things done” without any hope for the future astonished me.

One of the episodes that hit close to heart were when Tarrou died.

“But what about isolating me, Rieux?”

“It’s by no means certain that you have plague.”

Tarrou smiled with an effort. “Well, it’s the first time I’ve known you to do the injection without ordering the patient off to the isolation ward.”

Rieux looked away.

This quote… THIS quote. I felt my heart flip over, go jump off the cliff, climb up again and fly to the sky. Its such a simple thing of how Rieux looked away, but seeing him maintaining his composure throughout the novel and never letting ANYONE take any risks by putting caution above all and then this…

Reading these lines is one the greatest moments of the story. The wall Rieux build around his heart has an opening made by Tarrou. This man that wouldn’t budge for anyone when it came to his duties and obligations, but for the first time ever, is seen vulnerable and so sensitive, without all the abstractions used to escape and survive.

We all have this person in our life who is so principled that you can never catch them breaking those, but when they do, it means so much. It shows that the situation and person are special. It creates so much meaning and intimacy. It is special. Very special.

And because this scene translates a very dear moment in life for me, that’s what Camus “The Plague” has taught me about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bernard is the best.

I rest my case.

Breaking up in COVID

This line in Part II struck me hard:

“Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking—all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.”

Camus, A., & Gilbert, S. (1991). The Plague [E-book]. Vintage. at Part II.

The struggles here persisted during the beginning of COVID. Travel restrictions and visitation limits uniformly imposed physical separation between loved ones, when not everyone signed up or have experience in long distant relationships. On campus in March 2020, I heard and saw parents pleading and strongarming their kids back to their home country despite there not being a clear way back to campus amid the travel bans on inbound traffic to Abu Dhabi. This extended between couples too – but what we do know is that COVID raised the divorce rate for people in lockdown by a significant amount. This reminded me of what a friend recently said to me, “COVID didn’t kill relationships, it merely expedited the end for relationships that already don’t work.”

Example of a contextual breakup text during COVID.

Many people found the experience of breaking up during a global health crisis a mixed bag. While the social seclusion from work responsibilities during lockdown allowed for ample space and time for healing and processing, people found themselves “to suffer the heartbreak in the same place where they experienced the good times”. The narrator didn’t really dive into the pain and desperation of the towns people at this point – but I would assume that they wouldn’t be writing positively about it.

Personal Responsibility

“Human beings are selfish by nature” John Darnielle

A common thing to happen now is for a person to wake up feeling a throat ache, knowing a global pandemic is happing, and completely ignores it. Unfortunately, there is a belief that if you wore your mask and did everything right you don’t have to test for the virus. The belief that “there is no way that I am infected” cumulates in a domino effect that causes the pandemic numbers to skyrocket.

Emily Landon, the chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago says, “There is no way to tell the difference between cold and covid especially at the beginning.” To protect the community, it is a necessity for people to test if they feel any of the symptoms. Only 46% of people with a fever and a cough went to get covid tested according to Flutracking, a voluntary service.

In Oran during the early days of the epidemic people decided to ignore the start of the pandemic believing that they are unique. Some people believed that their pain was not the common pain that they would hear about from going around. Resulting in them later forming and joining the anti-plague efforts.

The disbelief in a pandemic exists whenever an outbreak happens. It might be human nature to believe that you are different and can’t be infected. I do acknowledge that some people might not be able to test. However, the people who, similar to the book, believe that “common” symptoms are different than theirs are putting people at risk and slowing the healing process of the pandemic.                        

How Pandemics Alter Romantic Relationships

While reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the love story of Miranda and Adam reminded me of a lot of romantic relationships during Covid-19. During covid, many relationships progressed much faster due to the extra time the pandemic created and the denial of the stressful reality of the world changing. Moreover, due to lockdowns, people mostly only experienced the private lives of their partners and which did not give them a chance to learn how they behaved in public, letting many negative behaviours go unnoticed. Love also provided a sort of escapism from the pandemic and helped many battle loneliness which rose either from losing loved ones or being unable to meet them due to pandemic restrictions. This was also visible in the stats that more people were using dating apps during covid. This is very similar to Miranda’s life during influenza, she was combating loneliness as many of her family members had succumbed to the ‘pale rider.’ This feeling of loneliness combined with the uncertainty of the influenza virus gives a new dimension to her relationship with Adam. Despite only knowing him for a few days, they have both already confessed their love for each other. Was it the uncertainty of life and how much more(or little) time they had left together the reason behind this deep connection or was she just trying to escape the reality that she had lost people and trying to find solace in another human?

Rats & pandemics go hand in hand

Cites across the world have been dealing with growing rat infestations. In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, rats lost much of their dependable food sources from restaurants and instead turned to the increasing supplies of residential garbage. As New York City opens up, it has witnessed a massive surge in rat sightings; “Through Wednesday, there had been more than 21,000 rat sightings reported to 311 this year, compared with 15,000 in the same period in 2019 (and about 12,000 in 2014).”

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, rats are terrifying omens that precede the onset of the plague in the town’s human inhabitants. Despite their long history as harbingers of disease, today they are just an aftereffect to COVID-19. Unlike the rats in Oran dying terrible deaths, these contemporary rodents seem to be thriving as restaurants open back up.

The townspeople of Oran are terrified by the appearance of the rats, the first sign that something is out of place. Their strange behavior is noticed throughout the town yet seems to inspire more concern than the first reports of disease in humans (although the local government does its best to suppress this news).

“The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes.”

It is the rats that seem to unsettle the townspeople more than the plague. Perhaps this is because humans have become very accustomed to their position as the dominant species and other animals seem to factor so little into their considerations of danger that when these animals change behavior en masse, it serves as a reminder that we are not immune to changes in our ecosystem. COVID-19 was likely transmitted from a bat. Although we are driving many species of bats to extinction, it took very little for one bat to change the course of human history.

When All is Over, What Then?

When all of this is over, are we going hedonistic or are we trapped by FONO?

Here is a fun video that talks about life in the 1920s after influenza and WWI ended — a time marked by lots of jazz, dancing, and drinking — and predicts our life in the post-Covid world.

Going completely hedonistic is not exactly what happened to Miranda at the end of the book Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Miranda reminds me of a new acronym I came across the other day: FONO aka Fear of Normal.

As Miranda recovers and prepares to return to a normal life, we see that she’s almost reluctant to leave the hospital where all her sickness and suffering happened. Her world was shattered and then put by together to become the “new normal.” There was no more Liberty Bond that obnoxious men forced her to buy, no Adam to go dancing with after a boring workday, … Fear is what we see on her face as she steps “one foot in either world” — the old days and the new (207).

Similarly, as we finally see the hope of getting out of our pandemic mode into a normal life today, lots of us are thinking the same thing — FONO. As the author of this article by the Washington Post says, when he gets invited to a social event, his mind races: “What about masks? Will there be hugs? Handshakes? Do I remember how to make small talk? What would I possibly wear?” I’m sure many of you reading this post in the late-Covid world or post-Covid world will relate to this. FONO isn’t a fear of the normal that we know. It’s a fear of a “new normal” that we are only beginning to have a glimpse of.

So, hedonism or FONO after Covid? Some of us seem to be standing in one of the two camps already. Either way, only future people can tell us how we really fared at the end of Covid, though I do hope no “mandatory sobriety” isn’t coming at us down the road 🙂

What Makes a Plague a Plague?

Albert Camus’ The Plague tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran, told from the point of view of a first-person narrator.

A central theme in Part 1 of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the significance of the naming of a plague as a “plague.” Labels hold a lot of weight, and the labeling of widespread disease and death as a plague is no exception. The narrator notes that plagues, like wars, have always existed amongst humans, but there is still a sense of shock and denial every time a new one arises. The people of Oran witness firsthand the disease’s spread throughout the rats, and then the transference of the disease to humans. The rats’ example can be taken as a clear instance of foreshadowing what fate awaited the people, yet they showed nowhere near as much concern for the disease spreading to humans–Dr. Castel tells Dr. Rieux that the government will avoid publishing anything about how rapidly the disease is spreading to humans to avoid inciting fear within the people. However, leaving the plague nameless poses an issue arguably worse than fear of the disease: a lack of concern for it. Despite seeing what happened to the rats, the people of Oran continue to go about their daily business. This is due largely to the fact that the plague is not being referred to as a plague at all, and the implications of the word are not getting through the peoples’ heads. A relevant example in today’s day and age would be the naming of the pandemic as a “pandemic.” While the word plague was not used, the heaviness associated with a term like “plague” is present in the term pandemic. People did not take COVID-19 as seriously until it began being labeled as a pandemic because the word provided larger and stronger implications than the word “coronavirus.” The peoples’ refusal to acknowledge the plague as a plague in The Plague says much about the significance of labeling and the avoidant tendencies humans utilize to reduce the seriousness of an issue in their minds, no matter how many signs say otherwise.

The motif of suffering is quite prevalent throughout Part 1 as well. In particular, we find that this work differs greatly from the other contagion works we’ve read in this class, in that Camus incorporates merciless gore-like details of the plague’s effects on both the rats and the humans. The motif of suffering in The Plague applies to both the infected rats and the infected humans, yet the difference is that with humans, there is the ability to divide the struggle amongst themselves. This is exemplified in the way doctors such as Rieux are selfless and work themselves to the bone in an attempt to save patients and minimize the struggle a human body has with the plague. Furthermore, the comparison “rats died in the streets, men in their homes” (Ch. 4), shows us that the only difference in how the plague affected men and rats was the place that each died. This leads us to consider the question of is there a dignified way to die if infected by the plague? Moreover, what does it mean to have a dignified death in a pandemic?

Part one of The Plague takes readers through the stages societies go through when dealing with the widespread and oftentimes unexplainable diseases. The first stage – initial observations – is marked by preliminary inspections of abnormalities around the community. In one peaceful evening, Dr Reiux noticed “a big rat … [with] its mouth slightly open and blood spurting from it” (5). The second stage, denial, takes place when different members in a society gather together to discuss these abnormalities. In most cases, if not all, they would deny these deviations, trusting that this phenomenon “is certainly queer…but it’ll pass” (8). As much as a society wants to maintain the status quo, however, these abnormal phenomenons continue to increase and intensify, taking us to the third stage – the spread of the plague (and rumors). The narrator noted that the number of rats that died on the streets of Oran has increased at an exponential rate. The situation has gotten so out of hand “it was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours — thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails” (13). This leads to the fourth stage – realization – in which members of the society slowly begin to acknowledge the existence of a widespread disease, but still try to carry out their daily activities. The fifth and final stage comes when the plague eventually escalates to a tipping point, often characterized by some form of government response. Thus, the end of part one marks the beginning of the fifth stage with a telegram announcement: “Proclaim a state of plague Stop close the town” (61).

The first chapter we’ve read tries to examine the way plague is perceived by different people. We have the views of the doctors, the authority, the common people of various occupations, etc. At this point, an attentive reader might wonder about the veracity of the novel – it is, after all, a work of fiction. We learn that Camus has done a remarkable job researching the epidemic of cholera in the city of Oran in 1849. But how much of the novel is true, or might have been true, if the plague really had visited Oran in the 194-? Fortunately (or maybe not really), we have an event to compare it to, and the striking similarities occur when we dive into the details.

It all starts with the wordings used during the Plague, such as “… a spirit of prudence that all would appreciate,…” (Ch. 5) in the book, which cognates the legendary phrase of an “abundance of caution,” that the NYUAD administration had used quite regularly. But it evidently goes beyond that – Camus analyzes the human ability to understand the Plague, and we come to the conclusion that it is simply incomprehensible when we stumble upon Rieux’s thoughts throughout the first chapter: “…what man knows ten thousand faces?…” or “… he couldn’t picture such eccentricities existing in a plague-stricken community…” (38).

But most importantly, we get to read about the counterintuitive nature of the Plague. In many human thoughts, Camus notes, “stupidity has a knack of getting its way” (37), and that the Plague is contrary to the life itself as we know it: “… everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.” This rigid duality of our world was indeed observed during our time of the pandemic. I (and, I hope, many others in our class) remember clearly when the school said that it was “impossible” for them to quarantine people since NYUAD is not a hospital or any other kind of medical institution. But in a matter of days, A1 became a quarantining building on campus. And then, all of a sudden, every room on campus could be used for the quarantine measures. The plague destroys our notion of what is possible and impossible, because our systems of possibility rely on the simple, yet dangerous assumption that the plague is impossible.

Jenn, Afraah, Meera, Adi

Our Preception of Time, Non-biologically Speaking

It is amazing how our body has a built-in rhythm that allows us to perceive time and beats in music. (see more in Chi-Ting’s post) These eclectic signals tell us when to wake up; when to go to sleep; when to eat; and how to enjoy music. However, each body’s clock functions differently so we created a socially constructed ruler to unify everyone’s experience of time. 

Miranda’s perception of time changed drastically when she contracted influenza. The 2021 audiences who read the novels also find a resemblance (less dramatic though) in their perception of time: Everything happened in 2020, but it feels like nothing happened because it passed by too fast. How does Covid change everyone’s perception of time in the same way? Why do we all feel like time passes so fast during covid?

One answer to this question is that we register new experiences differently in our brain than in our mundane everyday tasks. When we experience something new and exciting the times feel longer and it is more memorable. When we are constantly locked inside a room with no new stimuli, the perceptions of time blurs. Today feels like yesterday, and tomorrow feels like last Friday. 

This video elaborates on the covid experience and raises an even more interesting issue. We rarely have the language to communicate the experiences of time. Maybe that is why we all feel weird but it is hard to communicate it.