Here is a brief animated visual, made by the publisher Knopf, to introduce Marcus’s novel. Very cool, although a little bizarre and disturbing. Ever since we started reading The Flame Alphabet, I was curious as to how one would frame the idea of a language toxin with a visual medium, like film. One of the central ironies of Marcus’s book is the fact that written language is used to convey an epidemic of poisonous speech. If The Flame Alphabet‘s plot were instead embodied in a feature-length film, would the effect be any more powerful? Seems like it could offer an interesting premise for a future project or modern art piece.
A deeper look at Mpe’s South Africa
During the reading of Welcome to Our Hillbrow, I was particularly struck by the use of seemingly anachronistic and brutal traditions in post-apartheid South Africa. Attached below are two links which very much illuminate two cultural phenomena in late 20th-century South Africa.
1. An explanation about South African “sangomas”, or traditional witch doctors.
2. An essay analyzing South Africa’s necklacing tradition. Long but definitely worth reading.
Camus’s plague, set in the 1940s, offers a modern and human interpretation of an age-old disease—the bubonic plague.
While dead rats litter the city and people die in masses, the townspeople of Oran do not initially feel worried for their safety. They have no way of judging how grave the sickness is compared to their community’s norm. This changes, though, after a sermon is delivered by Father Paneloux, cautioning the inhabitants of Oran against behaviors that brought on the plague, and advising them to offer up loving, devotional prayers and trust that God will relieve the town when he deems fit. The sermon alleges that God became ‘wearied of waiting for you to come to Him” and thus “loosed on you this visitation” (Camus, 97). In so bland and ordinary a town, a change to piety could not have proven difficult. Paneloux reveals, however, that the mundane city’s ignorant, mercantile existence brought on a pestilence far from ordinary. After this reproaching sermon, the general panic set in. And why did this general panic set in only after a religious sermon?
Religion can offer comfort in finding solid answers rather than in furthering questions. In times of perilous pestilence, people turn to religion to comfort their fears and to attempt to regain a feeling of control over their lives. The plague ravages the lives of most individuals in Oran, disrupting both family and romantic relationships, trade, and travel. If Paneloux ties the visitation to a dearth of appreciation and devotion to God, then a return to religion is in a way an avenue that promises to rectify the bleak situation in the city and gives people something to do in the meantime.
On the other hand, religion serves to alienate as much as it does to unite. “To some the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.” Divine wrath is particularly confusing for many who did not see their lives and city as sinful. Rieux, however, (among others), takes a more humanist approach to the disease. He argues that not even priests believe in an all-powerful god. Utilizing, then, “creation as he found it,” Rieux takes on the human burden of curing a pestilence through mortal and scientific means.
Under Dr. Rieux’s scientific ideals, though, the town is put under quarantine and interaction with the outside world is completely severed. For the average citizen, being trapped inside the city’s diseased walls created an overwhelming feeling of despair and alienation. Many tried vainly to continue their normal lives, but this proved impossible. During the height of summer, the coasts were closed, shops were vacant, and the blazing sun was the only visitor upon Oran’s once-busy streets. The weather, ironically, became a central facet of the community. Even the slightest breeze or cool spell was enough to send throngs into fits of merriment and debauchery.
Arguably, the separation of loved ones created the strongest melancholy among Oran’s citizens. Many had presumed that short distances apart could never prove permanent obstacles. However, the breakneck implementation of quarantine was a shocking wake-up for many. Isolated lovers mourned, though, in a different way than the average despairing citizen. Their preoccupation with romance prevented them from being generally affected by the idea of plague:
“The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal” (Camus, 76-77).
The narrator notes how during separation thoughts would often drift to loved ones and the inability to picture one’s beloved could prove unbearable. The quarantine required telegrams to be short, mail to cease, and telephone use to be practically non-existent. So, while the plague ravaged Oran, distraught lovers felt a pain all their own.
These particular feelings of alienation are very important regarding the novel’s characters. Rambert, a reporter from Paris, wants to escape his isolation within Oran. He wants special treatment because he does not live in Oran, but the quarantine is not lifted for him. Rambert begins to roam around the town aimlessly, even sitting for extended periods in train stations with no trains. Rambert is not afflicted with the pestilence during these bouts of roaming, yet he is afflicted with a direct effect of the plague – a somber feeling due to separation from his home and his beloved. The separating effects of the plague lead to emotional changes in Rambert, as well as in other townspeople who go unnamed.
Dr. Rieux suffers similarly. His wife, recovering from another sickness in a sanatorium, is outside the city. While the doctor battles daily for the lives of others, he receives no personal solace.
The Plague, overall, is groundbreaking in its human examinations of a modern populous. The Black Death, often assumed to be an artifact of medieval Europe, has come again with a vengeance. Its victims are no longer isolated peasants. Instead, they are 20th century human beings–human beings with telephones, with automobiles, with all the amenities of modern life. Shocking, though, is that even this modernity is useless under the pretext of so brutal an epidemic.
—Diana & Allen
Besides the analysis above, here are a few other topics we thought could serve as jumping off points for discussion:
– how Grand’s novel serves to distract him from the plague and the emotions it evokes
– What is gained by the reader regarding the narrator’s ambiguity at the onset of the novel? Is the story more trustworthy in third person with interspersed elements of other accounts and figures versus a first person narrative with the same elements?
– “Reckless extravagance” and advertisements of sterilization as results of the plague
Moral Plagues on a Beachy Day
As we were reading Arthur Mervyn on the pristine sands of the Corniche, we could not help but be distracted by the azure Gulf waters and the towering skyline of Abu Dhabi. In a moment of reflection, we realized how our new life at this Arab Crossroad shared several key themes with that of Brown’s protagonist. Abu Dhabi is a city of both substantial wealth and gross socioeconomic inequalities, two ideas which shape the volatile character interactions within Arthur Mervyn.
The titular character, with his humble agricultural background, is intelligent and adaptable, but inexperienced in the norms of upper-class life. When he is exiled from his rural home, Mervyn is at the mercy of Philadelphia’s streets. Here, we find an essential theme which unites Abu Dhabi, Mervyn’s Pennsylvania, and Daniel Defoe’s London in Journal of the Plague Year. With sickness and socioeconomic inequalities against the backdrop of an urban landscape, class interactions take on contrasting forms under the influence of moralism, religion, and self-preservation.
At the first signs of plague in London, the affluent would flee the city out of panic, abandoning the poor to pestilence. Furthermore, as the epidemic seized the city, all interpersonal relationships crumbled — leaving each individual to fight for his life both isolated and despairing.
Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is in some ways an antithesis to Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. The latter novel is introduced with a deed of altruistic charity. The narrator finds Arthur Mervyn penniless and stricken with yellow fever. Without scruple, the narrator invites Mervyn back to his house, where he is nursed back to full health. One might ask what the benefits are in risking one’s life for that of a helpless other. Inspired by a humanistic and moral obligation, nearly absent from the London populous during the 1665 visitation, the narrator quotes:
“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.”
This moral debt, which the narrator takes action upon, often arises when both philosophy and religion are confronted with plague. The practices of Islamic martyrdom (in the face of disease) and almsgiving are two principles highly present in modern Arabia and Justin Stearns’s examination of plague and Abrahamic faith.
But what is altruism? Defined as “selfless concern for the well-being of others,” we see in Arthur Mervyn, that like Yin and Yang, generosity is always complemented by greed. Quoting Brown’s titular character:
“…interest and duty were blended in every act of generosity.” (Brown, 27)
As yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, no good act remains unrequited. When Mervyn is most desperate, the wealthy Welbeck shows him charity, but not without its price. Bound to his benefactor, Mervyn is sucked into a world of corruption, betrayal, murder, and intrigue. The plot only thickens when Mervyn himself, and Welbeck, are confronted with yellow fever.
Under the societal pressures of a city devastated by plague, what would you do? Flee to the country in hopes of escape? Flock to the city in the hopes of some fortune? Ambivalence is inevitable, but choices necessary. What will go first, your life, your soul, or your resolution? Think about that next time you’re enjoying the beautiful waves and powdered sands of the Corniche.
“My poverty, but not my will consents.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, V.i.75)
Allen, Adam, and Diana