Author: av1509

Drugs, Body Fluids, and an Unearthly STD

“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future…and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness.”

Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.

We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.

With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”

“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.

The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?

An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?

Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations.  There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.

The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.

“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”

What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:

“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”

Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and  views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators? 

“[We’d] [talk about this] forever if [we] could…”

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

The written word is the deepest dagger you can drive into a man’s soul

‘Animal’s People’ may well be that dagger. The chemical disaster in 1984 that devastated Bhopal, India, was till date the worst industrial disaster. Ever. Anywhere.

The advertisement on the left was designed by a team that included Indra Sinha that served to illustrate the negligence on the part of the Indian government and people in other parts of the nation after a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal ravaged the entire state of Orissa.

Indra Sinha has been public with his criticism of the events that led to the disaster and the post-disaster help provided to the citizens. His strong opinions about the ‘Kampani’ and its owner, who are never mentioned by name in the novel, make for a frustrating reading.

The references to 9/11 are striking. Animal views these events as though they occurred in a movie and is unable to comprehend the attention and media coverage it receives. The reason why this reference struck me was because Animal’s reality can be equated to these events yet there is never any empathy for a deformed, ugly victim. His distance from humanity stems partly from this apathy.

Zafar claims that they were “armed with nothing” and he is right. The only medical assistance of any note came a decade after the disaster. Elli’s efforts to provide a free clinic (a possible reference to the Sambhavna Trust that provided free healthcare to victims)are futile. The people of Khaufpur have become hardened to external help and Elli cannot help feeling like an outsider. The reason why she cannot understand Animal’s People is because her empathy is not really genuine; she is not a victim.

Thus to emphasize the true magnitude of the disaster Indra Sinha does not tell the story. The voice on the tape is Animal’s. Animal criticizes, Animal emotes, Animal cusses (frequently) and Animal observes. Many authors have tried to emulate the voice of a poor person or a victim or just a common man in post-disaster accounts, but Indra Sinha does what many authors who write about disasters fail to do: he gives Animal a voice that sounds not like Indra Sinha, but like Animal.

Keep observing and criticizing.

Nothing unknown is knowable

Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’ is laden with examples of intertextuality, with references to either ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ in “People come and go so quickly here…” (Act 1 Scene 6).

Kushner also references Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, and the almost verbatim allusion in the following lines (Act 2 scene 5) struck me acutely:

Prior: Stella.
Belize: Stella for star.
Belize: Not to despair, Belle Reeve.

It is only fitting that Belle Reeve is a French mistranslation for “beautiful dream”, because Prior is constantly plagued by visions, illusions and dreams of angels, and of his ancestors. However, the connection between Kushner and Williams has deeper roots. Williams accepted his homosexuality in the 1930s, and his sentiments on his own sexuality resonate with Kushner’s portrayal of homosexuality in his ‘gay fantasia on national themes.’ In a time of rampant homophobia, the implicit undertones of homosexuality in Williams’ play shows a hesitation to explicitly state his sexual beliefs, much like the characters, not just in ‘Angels in America’ but also in Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ too, who fear naming what they fear. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was of stylistic importance as well. It paved the way for the emphasis on dramatic realism in plays later in the 20th century, including ‘Angels in America’. Additionally, many of Williams’ female characters, including Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Laura in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ are based on his mentally fragile sister, and their hallucinations are clear signs of depression and mental instability. There is an eerie similarity between these characters and that of Harper, whose conversations with Mr. Lies and hallucinations involving Prior possibly illustrate a constant struggle to get over a husband who never loved her. 

One of the themes in Act 1 scene 6 of the play is the limit of imagination, or whether it is possible to know the unknown, and to be able to imagine what has not been sensed. This is possibly a representation of Mormon religious beliefs, as Mormons do not believe in creation ex nihilo, or the creation of the world out of nothing. Mormons believe that matter is eternal and God simply reorganized it. Kushner’s acceptance of borrowed elements makes his play an embodiment of Harper’s philosophy “nothing unknown is knowable”.

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Who’s feasting today?

On the 23rd of July 2014, Barack Obama spoke at a $32,400 per plate fundraiser. Meanwhile, Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman whose assets are being frozen and his visas blocked, updated his Facebook page with pictures of his family sailing in the Caribbean.

These factoids are especially crucial to us, analysts of Pushkin’s ‘A Feast During the Plague’ because they bring up ideas that resonate with much of what’s going on in the text. The satirical street-art on the left tells the story. Thankfully there isn’t a plague epidemic going around at the moment but the references to Pushkin in both articles are appropriate. For starters, many Americans believe that Obama giving yet another talk at a Silicon Valley fundraiser means that he is ignoring more pressing domestic and international concerns and instead feasting (literally). Yakunin’s Facebook posts show that he’s clearly escaping his personal issues (again, literally). 

The characters in the play make a choice in how they react to the literal or figurative plagues that they respectively survive. We are given to understand that Yakunin and Obama are making a conscious decision too. But if we’ve escaped a plague, or something similarly nasty, do we have to behave in a certain way or do we have no such obligation? Would Yakunin be behaving in a more “sensitive” way if he locked himself inside his home in St. Petersburg and never saw anyone again? What’s wrong with taking your family on a cruise of the Caribbean when you can?

In the play and in the two articles, there is a kind of social removal. But the major difference between the articles and the play is what side of society the audience gets to see. In the play, we see the people who have escaped society and the plague, whereas the articles and the street-art reflect the thoughts of the larger society that the characters escape. His role as the President dictates that Obama has an obligation towards the people who face the problems he doesn’t immediately deal with, but do the characters in the plague have a similar responsibility towards society? Pushkin introduces the priest who raises this question. He tries to make the chairman feel guilty in the same way as the street-art tries to do. We don’t know what Obama or Yakunin feel, but we are given a glimpse of this survivor’s guilt towards the end of the play. 

The moral debate continues.

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