Author: Bryan

A ghost but more alive than she was

Edvard Munch’s illustration of Oswald, in Ibsen’s Ghosts, slumped in his chair at play’s end, the cold sunlight finally streaming through the window. More on Munch and Ibsen here.

As we transition from Ibsen to Porter, let’s take a moment to remember poor Oswald, slipping into unconsciousness just as the cold, cold Norwegian daylight finally comes streaming through that window. The ending of Ibsen’s play resonates with the final lines of Porter’s story:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (208)

Porter — or maybe it’s her heroine, Miranda — leaves us in a postapocalyptic landscape. The silent houses might remind us of Defoe. And Ibsen’s cold light makes a comeback. If you lived my ’80s teenage life, you’d have no question about the music direction for this moment:

Morrissey, “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” from Viva Hate (1988)

“Come, Armageddon! Come!”

Compare the endings of Ghost and Pale Horse. When Ibsen’s play closes, Mrs. Alving still stands there, wringing her hands, paralyzed by her own agency. Whatever she chooses to do will certainly result in her being haunted. Will she lose herself or finally find freedom? When Porter’s story closes, Miranda comes “to herself as if out of sleep,” but it’s hard to tell how much of Miranda is left and how much she’s just being propped up by the same voices of duty, obligation, and propriety that continually dogged Mrs. Alving. When she addresses the dead, her newly awakened self becomes self-conscious, chiding: “Oh, no, that is not the way, I must never do that” (208). Has she pulled herself out of sleep or into the numbness of survival?

One set of past conveners used the question of survival — how does it feel to be left behind? — as their way to frame the reading. Miranda, like Mrs. Alving or Defoe’s H.F., finishes the story having to make sense of what’s just passed. But unlike H.F., who seems to have all the answers, or Mrs. Alving, whose survival is overshadowed by the choice she confronts, Miranda seems profoundly altered, at odds with the notion that she’s awake and in charge of a future in which everything is possible. Here’s how those conveners put it:

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.


 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.” (“Interview” 85) – The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war?

As another set of conveners explained even earlier, the figure of the survivor — charged with the work of mourning — is prefigured even by the novella’s title, a reference not only to apocalyptic imagery from the Bible but, in Porter’s story, to a song Miranda and Adam improvise based on a spiritual sung by black field workers in Texas, presumably the descendants of slaves:

The suffering of the living is explicitly mentioned when Miranda introduces the song that begins with “Pale horse, pale rider…” (189). In this song the death, represented by “pale horse, pale rider”, takes away not only lover but also the whole family, leaving “one singer to mourn” (190). And Miranda, in her nightmare, experiences this devastating pain. She sees Adam continuously struck by arrows in his heart and dies, while she cannot help but live and endure everything. Miranda believes that the pain of the living is no less than that of the dead, as we can assume from “It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die?” (191). She would rather die than become the lone one who has to suffer from the loss.

This isn’t the first time music mediates a crucial moment in Porter’s story. References to popular songs appear scattered throughout. The characters have their own relationships to the popular culture of the war years, the same way I, growing up in the 1980s, had my relationship to the popular culture of the Cold War West. If Miranda, at the end, seems a bit like a zombie, one of the questions the novella asks is whether, when all is said and done, we’re made up of anything more than the stories and songs and social expectations we’ve consumed. It’s another tie back to Ibsen: what is it that actually lives on in us, lodged there, that we can’t get rid of? And is that detritus the stuff that ultimately doesn’t just haunt us but shuffles us into survival?

Oscar Seagle (baritone) and the Columbia Stellar Quartette sing “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)” on Columbia A6028, recorded on January 25, 1918.

Defoe and the history of the novel

Defoe’s novels, in an 1809-10 collected edition. Published by James Ballantyne and Co., Edinburgh, the set includes 3 volumes ”Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” 2 volumes ”Memoirs of a Cavalier,” 2 volumes ”The Life of Colonel Jack,” 2 volumes ”The Adventures of Captain Singleton,” 2 volumes ”A New Volume Around the World,” and ”The History of the Plague in London in 1665.”

I’m re-upping an old augmenter’s post of my own that may help us think with greater precision about Defoe’s novel as a novel.

One version comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which he began writing in 1771 and was first published in 1790. In a passage I particularly love, Franklin, who spent his formative years setting type and writing for newspapers, recalls the emergence of a new style of prose narrative around the turn of the eighteenth century. He begins with a chance encounter, during his initial voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book he knew well from his youth:

In crossing the bay, we met with a squall that tore our rotten sails to pieces, prevented our getting into the Kill,[25]and drove us upon Long Island. In our way, a drunken Dutchman, who was a passenger too, fell overboard; when he was sinking, I reached through the water to his shock pate, and drew him up, so that we got him in again. His ducking sobered him a little, and he went to sleep, taking first out of his pocket a book, which he desir’d I would dry for him. It proved to be my old favorite author, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Dutch, finely printed on good paper, with copper cuts, a dress better than I had ever seen it wear in its own language. I have since found that it has been translated into most of the languages of Europe, and suppose it has been more generally read than any other book, except perhaps the Bible. Honest John was the first that I know of who mix’d narration and dialogue; a method of writing very engaging to the reader, who in the most interesting parts finds himself, as it were, brought into the company and present at the discourse. De Foe in his Cruso, his Moll Flanders, Religious Courtship, Family Instructor, and other pieces, has imitated it with success; and Richardson[26] has done the same in his Pamela, etc.

[Footnote numbers take you to the gutenberg.org etext of Franklin’s book.]

There’s more to be said here about what this new mode of writing represented to Franklin, but at minimum we should note that he associates it with popularity and with aesthetic experience — with a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, as if we’re allowed to eavesdrop on characters. Certainly Defoe got high marks from contemporaries for excitement, in spite of the fact that some of you may find his account of the plague a little tiresome between the zombie episodes. (Can we talk about those, by the way?)

The second version of the history of the novel I wanted to bring to your attention is perhaps best represented by the classic 1957 text by Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, which places three eighteenth-century male writers — Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and to a lesser extent Henry Fielding — at the center of the history of the English novel. Watt’s book was an important departure from dominant modes of criticism in the middle of the twentieth century in his interest in plotting the relationship between society and social institutions and the production of literary works. (At that point, the dominant New Criticism advocated reading literary works as enclosed worlds, separate from the real world of authors and readers.) Watt offered an enduring analysis of eighteenth-century English novels that suggested the genre’s importance to understanding the rise of the middle class (especially the rise of economic liberalism, or liberal individualism) and the spread of Protestant values. He suggested that the novel didn’t simply reflect these changes but actually participated in them, by helping to form new kinds of reading audiences. He draws attention to Defoe’s significant contribution in creating memorable protagonists — Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, etc. — who are believable individuals. The novel’s association with individualism is present even in the tendency of early novels to take on the names of their protagonists. Watt thinks individualism’s emergence has something to do with Protestantism, especially its enshrinement of individual dignity and labor, but also recognizes the appeal to readers of imagining a character’s entire life, of identifying vicariously with a central character who is at once heroic and quite ordinary. We don’t just want to eavesdrop on characters, he’s suggesting. We might want to be like them, or perhaps even to be them, which is perhaps precisely what someone like Defoe wants from us.

Watt’s account has been subject, over half a century, to criticism on several fronts, but it remains enormously influential, even as authors seek to replace it with new histories that recognize transnational influences or the centrality of early female novelists. I’d like to take up some of these issues at some point, maybe when we turn to the question of H.F.’s medical and political opinions, if you think they can be discerned. What does H.F. mean, for example, when he writes about the “Moral” of the story of The Three Men? What is his “End in recording it,” and why does he contrast that end to giving an “Account” that is “exactly according to Fact”? (100).

Setting up shop with 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?

We’ve talked a little bit about the function of theodicy in 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? The Decameron also allows us to consider another set of explanations: 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 survivor’s guilt?

Finally, a question about government. What happens when Pampinea declares it necessary to “choose a leader”? (20). What kind of government does she aim to instate?

There is not one of you whose sickness equals mine

We’ll want to encounter Oidipous/Oedipus on the text’s own terms, and so pay attention to what this translation tells you about its title character, or what he tells you about himself. Think too about how you would summarize this story. Where would you start? With the King addressing his people? With the Priest describing the plague? With the Oracle’s news? With the cursed child or his parents? And what might taking any of these as a starting point tell us about how the play works or why it has endured so powerfully?

Would you summarize it this way?

Or this way?

One way for us to approach this play will be to think about the plague’s place in it. In a convener’s post I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the course’s first run, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously. This makes some sense. The assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ll read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol?

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d be approaching the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either representing medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, for something sick about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them.

In more recent iterations of the class, however, we encounter Oedipus just after our brush with network and contagion theory, including Tony Sampson’s strong endorsement of Tarde’s and Deleuze’s critique of Freud’s definition of the unconscious. (At stake in his reading of these thinkers is how to understand crowd behavior — and, by extension, how imitative behavior from fashion to fascism operates.) Here we’ve already encountered Oedipus, whose centrality to Freud’s thinking makes him an easy symbol for everything Deleuze in particular wants to resist. He and Guattari, recall, even named their original collaboration Anti-Oedipus (1972). If we want to understand why, we’ll have to think about both what Oedipus meant to Freud and why that would come to stand for the things the rest of our folks seem to be resisting.

Freud, famously, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), writes:

There must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus[.] … His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. (301)

For Freud the subject is an individual, and its formation is a family romance. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, the unconscious is not an individual, but part of a crowd, like wolves in a pack. “Who is ignorant of the fact that wolves travel in pack?” they ask in A Thousand Plateaus (1980). “Only Freud. Every child knows it. Not Freud” (28). In their Anti-Oedipus, desire is framed as fundamentally social, not familial:

[T]he family is never a microcosm in the sense of an autonomous figure [but is] by nature eccentric, decentered. We are told of fusional, divisive, tubular, and foreclosing families. … There is always an uncle from America; a brother who went bad; an aunt who took off with a military man; a cousin out of work, bankrupt, or a victim of the Crash; an anarchist grandfather; a grandmother in the hospital, crazy or senile. The family does not engender its own ruptures. Families are filled with gaps and transected by breaks that are not familial: the Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, religion and atheism, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the Vietnam War, May ’68 — all these things form complexes of the unconscious, more effective than everlasting Oedipus. (97)

This heady stew, I take it, is what they mean in their later book when they refer to the unconscious as multiple, as “the buzz and shove of the crowd,” not to be mistaken for “daddy’s voice” (30). The big picture here is how we understand the very definition or nature of the individual. For Freud, the individual is always going to be Oedipal. For Deleuze and Guattari (and by extension Sampson) the alternative is, as their contemporary Michel Foucault put it in the preface to their work, to “‘de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations” (xlv). Referring to Anti-Oedipus as an “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life,” Foucault summarizes one of its key imperatives this way: “Do not demand of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. … The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization. Do not become enamored of power” (xlv).

For all their resistance to Frued’s reading of the story, could it be possible that Sophocles’ Oedipus the King had been making a similar point all along? And why would this matter in a time of plague?

Keywords: Rhizome

Our discussions of Tony Sampson’s Virality this week will almost certainly send you Googling some names and terms. Among Sampson’s most important influences are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. We’ll regard them as rabbit holes you can head down if you’re interested in further reading — and we’ll bring them up again, at least briefly, when we talk about the enduring influence of the Oedipus story — but for now if you want to sample the flavor of their thinking, or figure out why they may appeal to Sampson as he attempts a non-Darwinian contagion theory, you could do worse than starting with this little video explainer. Another helpful resource: the Deleuze dictionary.

Our zombies, ourselves

I’m reminded, whenever I think about zombies, of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different (but related?) kind of zombie economy to the one we encounter in Train to Busan, with its blood-sucking hedge-funders. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years, and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Train to Busan that global corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine. Lots more to talk about in relation to Busan: communication, quarantine, government, empathy, but this origin story is one place to start.

Angels wrap-up resources

For some reason I always want to make a Talking Heads playlist when I teach these plays.

Here’s what else I want to share:

For a decade before we both moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyrus Patell and I taught a course on the Square called Writing New York, for which we generated a pretty substantial amount of online content about Kushner and Angels. I’ve written a little about it elsewhere too. I hope some of this proves useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights.

For WNY, I routinely delivered two 75-minute lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era) and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. For a similar approach that pretty thoroughly mines Kushner’s material, see this piece by the critic David Savran, which informed my earliest thinking about the play, as well as this piece, written by a Mormon literary critic named Michael Austin, which I actually commissioned for publication when I was a graduate student in the mid-’90s. We’ll continue to discuss some of the issues these critics raise as we wrap up our discussion of the play.

On the WNY course site, which is inactive now that Cyrus and I no longer teaching our course, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience. Earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he has taught at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this, too, and this). As a sidenote: in 2011 Cyrus first invited me to NYUAD to help him teach Angels; by the end of that week I had requested a teaching assignment here for the following year. We’ve never gone back.

Remember that you can always search “Angels in America” on this site and see what past Contagion students have come up with: there’s a lot of great material from conveners and augmenters. And If you really want to get hardcore, an older version of this post includes a live-tweet from the last time I lectured on this play at NYUNY in spring 2011.

More reading! Which is to say, more life!