Author: Bryan

Love for Life

From Yan Li, who took this course in the spring of 2015:

As promised, here is the link to the full movie based on Dream of Ding Village. This movie is directed by Gu Changwei, one of the most famous “fifth generation directors” in China, and performed by many famous Chinese actors, such as Zhang Ziyi. You may be familiar with her early film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.Love for Life was released on 10 May 2011 in China. Though this movie is a little different from the novel and focuses more on Lingling and Ding Liang’s love story, it faithfully illustrates the rural background and the tragic flavor of the storyline. Hope that you will further understand the setting of the novel by watching this film.

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) The documentary is in several parts on YouTube. Here’s the first:

Kushner resources

Consider this an augmenter’s post of my own: I wanted to organize some links to material I’ve used and written over many years of teaching Kushner’s play. 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 amassed a pretty substantial number of blog posts 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; if you have limited time, please pay closest attention to the first two items linked in the next paragraph.

For WNY I would deliver two 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. We’ll touch on some of that as we wrap up our discussion of the play. On the WNY course site, which is slightly inactive now that we’re 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, and 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 one, too, and this one).

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

If you’re really interested, here’s the archive of a live-tweet one of our TAs ran as I lectured in 2011, the last time we taught this course together.

Part 1:

  • Getting ready for today’s #wny11 part I of Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. Thinking abt community, identity, history, legacies of immigration. #
  • A guide to some of the Kushner-related material from our blog: http://bit.ly/atyPKY #wny11 #
  • @_waterman lecturing on Angels in America today #wny11 #
  • @lwarr because @cpatell is in Abu Dhabi today; @pwhny in good hands. #wny11 #
  • Transitioning from 70s to the 80s via Patti Smith–>Grace Jones for our lecture prelude #wny11#
  • Prior: Not a conventional woman. Belize: Grace Jones? #angels #wny11 #
  • This a pretty good history of gays in New York for anyone who’s interested http://t.co/c4QlqMI#wny11 #
  • Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is also a pretty good history of AIDS in New York and SF #wny11 #
  • Theatricality of everyday life: How do we understand performance? #wny11 #
  • Performance is also interesting when you think about tension between out and closeted gay characters. What is Roy Cohn performing? #wny11 #
  • AIDS epidemic is perfect dystopian moment for Kushner’s play. Confluence of personal and political choices and consequences #wny11 #
  • Play is also conscious of the rise political correctness and its relationship to identity #wny11 #
  • Ginsberg as a prophet figure for “Angels.” He needs to be the crazy poet yet wants to participate #wny11 #
  • What is the role of theater in mediating themes like history, identity, and community? #wny11 #
  • Watching HBO ‘Angels’ “Drag is a drag” dream sequence #wny11 #
  • Pay attention to the way Prior is always “performing:” drag, prophet, lines from movies. #wny11#
  • “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it?” Can it? #wny11 #
  • Think about how “contamination” works in ‘Angels’ as something toxic, inexorable, and revelatory #wny11 #
  • @ultramaricon True #wny11 #
  • Feather floating represents possibility in writing for creation of new stories #wny11 #
  • New York pre-dates San Francisco as a “gay city.” See previous tweet about “Gay Metropolis” #wny11 #
  • Appiah on Contamination: “conversations that occur across cultural boundaries” #wny11 #
  • ‘Angels’ as an Early 90s period piece that reflects a post-Reagan-Bush I anxiety #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s silence on AIDS lead to people referring to the epidemic as “Reagan’s Disease” in some circles #wny11 #
  • What would Olmsted have thought of Central Park as a site for anti-nuclear bomb activism? #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s “Star Wars” looks like the cheesiest video game ever #wny11 #
  • It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s conflation of fantasy and reality, but Kushner does some interesting things by blurring that line #wny11 #
  • Reagan as performing masculinity in ‘Angels’ in the eyes of Joe and Roy Cohn #wny11 #
  • Relationship between gay activism and gay theater in the 1960s-1970s #wny11 #
  • Think about ‘Angels’ and the history of political theater (O’Neill) and meta-theatricality (Tyler and Doctorow) #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Mondale won my kindergarten class’s mock election in 1984. I cried when Reagan won the real election #wny11 #babynerd #
  • From the Reagan doc I used in #wny11 today: NYC as a set of symbols to be mobilized by all sides: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5wLsUl3vfk #
  • @ultramaricon Which is one reason I found the @NYTOpinionator piece on “Am Fam” to be puzzling. http://nyti.ms/hC9nS2 cc @epicharmus #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Part 1 of this Frontline series on AIDS documents the 80s and Reagan’s role in the disease http://to.pbs.org/gReEKS #wny11 #
  • @FlyingHubcap We certainly still live with its effects. #
  • @ThirteenNY @PBS Weds 10 pm RT @cityroom Documentary Celebrates Olmsted, a Creator of Central Park http://nyti.ms/gDdGTG #wny11 #
  • #wny07 #wny11 RT @CitySnapshots ANGELS IN AMERICA. SEE IT.http://tonicruthirds.com/2011/04/20/angels-in-america-must-see/ #
  • Just a NY conversation rattling round my head. RT @cire_e New York Stylehttp://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/newyorkcity/ #
  • The full American Experience doc on Reagan:http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/presidents/video/reagan_01_wm.html#v129 #wny11 #

Part 2:

  • Wrapping up ANGELS IN AMERICA in #wny11 today. #
  • @_waterman on Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA today. #wny11 #
  • Opening music: Talking Heads, 1978-79 “Thank you for Sending Me an Angel,” “Cities,” and “Heaven.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman starting off with Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “historiographic metafiction.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play asking: “Do we make history or are we made by it”? How are we conditioned by the stories we tell about the past? #wny11 #
  • Hutcheon’s book: A POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM http://amzn.to/gcgiYe #wny11 #
  • Showing clip from Mike Nichols’s adaptation: Roy, Joe, and Ethel. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, Act 3, Scene 5. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman on pre- (building Zion) and post-millennialism (apocalypse). Play’s Harper is caught between the two. #wny11 #
  • Interesting account of post-millennialism by Stephanie Hendricks: http://amzn.to/hAs34y#wny11 #
  • @waterman on 4 differrent angels invoked by play. 1st: Angel of History from Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” #wny11 #
  • See W. Benjamin, ILLUMINATIONS. http://amzn.to/e5nfqC Kushner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Benjamin. #wny11 #
  • 2nd Angel: Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelus_Novus #wny11 #
  • Benjamin on Klee: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned …. ” #wny11 #
  • “… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin’s idea of “messianic time.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Stonewall and AIDS in light of Benjamin: catastrophic moments, one liberating, the other …? #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play struggles with Marxist teleology, because it wants (like its character Belize) liberal progress. #wny11 #
  • Actually Benjamin and Klee’s angels are counting as 1. Second is angel who wrestles with Jacob, who then receives new name. #wny11 #
  • Jacob’s wrestling: renaming, rebirth. For Joe, also a sign of painful progress, plus he finds it erotic. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing this version of the picture: http://bit.ly/if4WrH #wny11 #
  • Motif of shedding skin throughout ANGELS. #wny11 #
  • Question of Joe’s fate. Why is he excluded from cosmopolitan redemption at end? Has he committed some kind of “sin”? #wny11 #
  • NY Mag interview with Kushner from 2008: http://bit.ly/f3Ca91 #wny11 #
  • Play’s Third Angel: Kushner stitching together bits and pieces form America’s past – Angel Moroni from Mormonism. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman show this image of Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith :http://bit.ly/g7DUdc #wny11 #
  • Mormon story as a rewriting of Christianity and also Judaism: a new Exodus. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing clip from HBO Angels of Harper in Mormon Center with diorama coming alive. Harper: “The magic of theater.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner and fallibilism: in what ways is ANGELS trying to learn from American traditions with which it disagrees? #wny11 #
  • 4th Angel: Bethesda Fountain. http://bit.ly/fUNynh #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing the final scene from the HBO version. Lucky, the film exists, because now he doesn’t have to read the scene … #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Because the last time he read it in class, he broke into tears, remembering his reaction to seeing the scene on stage. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Exit Music: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.” Over and out. #wny11 #

Whew! That should keep even the most ardent Kushner fan busy for a while. See you soon.

ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE: Act III Duet

I’ve posted this in the past, but the version I used has been taken down. Here’s another version, though the subtitles are in Spanish instead of English. Perhaps you can piece it together if you’re not one of our resident hispanohablantes. Early in Part IV of Camus’s The Plague, Cottard and Tarrou head to the Municipal Opera House to see a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus. Here’s the duet mentioned in that scene, which we’ll read and discuss in class today. Here’s a little more about Gluck’s opera — a variation on “the underground rescue-mission [plot] in which the hero must control, or conceal, his emotions” — as well as some additional info about the story it tells. What can this set piece — and the additional stories it invokes — tell us about Camus’ larger narrative?

Everyday is like Sunday


[Originally posted in Feb. 2015]

I stumbled across this “pocket history” of the plague in London, 1348-1665, produced by the Museum of London, and the line “One eyewitness said that London became so quiet that every day was like a Sunday” made me think of Morrissey’s apocalyptic anthem from the start of my Cold War college years. Enjoy.

For Defoe-related material from previous years’ courses, see this convener’s post as well as one about the novel’s medical content — especially concerning competing beliefs about the plague’s origins. Also see this one about how to situate Defoe’s work in the history of the novel as a genre. If you browse back and forth around these posts you’ll find other useful content. Here’s a round-upwith links to some of the best additional posts on Defoe assembled over the last couple years.

Talk therapy

In addition to wrapping up our discussion of Sophocles today we’ll turn the corner to a consideration of the frame narrative for Boccaccio’s Decameron: a quick leap over a thousand-plus years in time.

What remains consistent between or at least similar in the plague frameworks for these works? That’s one question we’ll ask. But I’m struck by generic differences as well, especially the shift from theater to novellaThe Decameron is about storytelling, and the effects of storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about reading stories about storytelling. Note that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset. This invocation — and the predominance of female characters — will give us a good inroad to discuss the role of gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

A couple quick resources that may be useful to you: The best Boccaccio site I know of is the Decameron Web, a long-standing project of Brown University’s Italian Studies Department and Virtual Humanities Lab. In particular, pages devoted to the plague and to various literary contexts, medieval to postmodern, should be relevant to our discussions. Note the page devoted specifically to the narrative frame, which will take up much of our brief consideration of this work. You’ll find more resources at Columbia University’s Core Curriculum resource page for Boccaccio’s text.

That material can be glossed at your leisure. If you’d like a more specific and intensive engagement with recent criticism on The Decameron, you might want to look at recent special “Italian Issues” of the literary journal MLN. (You can view these search results from a secure NYU connection; almost all of the Italian issues have something re: Boccaccio.) Of special interest to us: Irene Albers, of the Freie Universität Berlin, writes about the specifically medical relationship between storytelling and the body in Boccaccio’s text. A few key excerpts should suggest why this would be an important topic for our consideration. She starts by focusing on two familiar approaches to the frame narrative: parallels between plague and other disorders (here, specifically, lovesickness), and the narrator’s claim that by beginning with the descriptions of plague, the pleasures brought by the hundred stories to follow will be heightened by contrast:

The analogy between Plague and lovesickness is also based on the fact that the emotions in Boccaccio’s work, according to premodern theories of emotion, are external instances and entities which “overcome” and “seize” the subject. They are not the result of “elezione,” but of the “appetito,” which does not obey the will.31 This is reflected by the use of common metaphors from the realm of nature, like the fire metaphors that often appear in passive constructions: “essendo acceso stato d’altissimo e nobile amore” (3); “in fiero furore accesa” (189); “dello amor di lui mi s’accese un fuoco nell’anima” (893); “di subita ira acceso.”32 In other cases, the passivity of the subjects is shown by verbs like “venire” and “cadere”: “ed andando gli venne un pensier molto pauroso nell’animo”; “cadde in un crudel pensiero” (165). The analogy between lovesickness and plague corresponds to the doubling of the frame: if the narrator in the “Proemio” offers his book to the women as a medicine for lovesickness and “malinconia,”33 the [End Page 34] “therapeutic fiction”34 of the frame means that the storytelling can offer protection from the Plague. Accordingly, one cannot understand the novellas as mere diversion from the catastrophe of the disease.

The final sentences there deserve our consideration in class this week: If we’re asking what purposes the plague frameworks serve, we have to ask whether storytelling here is merely a form of diversion from the plague’s devastation or if something bigger is at work. Albers argues that the characters themselves understand storytelling to have physiological, and potentially curative, effects on their bodies:

It is not in the novellas alone that characters react bodily and emotionally to what they see and hear. Such situations are also formed in the frame narrative, in the commentary following the individual novellas, in which the reactions of the brigata are conspicuously portrayed as bodily. This first occurs among the narrators: in the introduction to the tenth novella of the first day, Pampinea says that when a person wants to use storytelling to cause others to blush, he often ends up blushing himself.83 The same applies when one tells of others’ tears, “raccontar l’altrui lagrime” (354), the words with which Fiammetta announces the Ghismonda novella. The narrator of a novella also becomes moved himself—in rhetoric, this is a well-known requisite for the successful transfer of emotion to the audience.84 The occurrence of such a transfer is demonstrated by the many references to the audience’s blushing (63, 247, 560), sighing (392, 185), crying (159, 366, 763), “compassione” (159, 392, 418, 738), and above all, their at times uncontrollable and boisterous laughter (48, 71, 100, 142, 185, 479, 556, 575, 593, 644, 674, 681, 702, 710, 763, 802, 817, 842, 843). Often, multiple reactions occur simultaneously. After the Masetto novella (III.1) some of the women blush while the others laugh: “Essendo la [End Page 50] fine venuta della novella di Filostrato, della quale erano alcuna volta un poco le donne arrossate e alcuna altra se n’avean riso, piacque alla reina che Pampinea novellando seguisse” (247). Or the women blush first, only to break into laughter: “La novella da Dioneo raccontata prima con un poco di vergogna punse i cuori delle donne ascoltanti e con onesto rossore nel loro viso apparito ne diede segno; e poi quella, l’una l’altra guardando, appena del rider potendosi abstenere, soghignando ascoltarono” (63, cf. 560). The narrator of the Decameron apparently finds it important that speaking about passion and hearing novellas have direct bodily effects, causing, according to the medical assumptions of the epoch, either the expansion (in laughter) or the contraction (in weeping or sighing) of the heart. The humors are set into a motion that “cleans” the subject, or frees him from harmful emotions and humors.85

Is The Decameron holding up an early model for a talking cure? Let’s spend some time this week talking about the bodies in and the implied audiences for the texts we’re reading.

Image: The Decameron, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1837.

A Plague at Thebes

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, 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’ve 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? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

As I noted in that post, part of the reason we read this play at the beginning of this course is to recognize just how long the idea of plague as metaphor or literary device has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. Do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? Are both views valid? And how might this set of questions force us to think even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and language in general?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens, we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? And how might each work help us consider further the question we raised during our initial discussion: whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort.

Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.

Hi, guys. It’s been a real pleasure to make our way through this semester together. While we were watching Contagion I was reminded of these two posts from last semester that commented on the film and the science behind it. In a comment on the first of those posts, I made a few observations and asked a couple questions the movie raises for me:

I’ve seen the film now four or five times and I’m still trying to sort through the logic of the final scenes. On the one hand, it would seem that global capitalism has rendered us more vulnerable than ever: both in terms of how food is produced and shipped and in terms of global air traffic potentially spreading a virus between major global cities. That seems to be the point of tracing the spread from the bats (dislodged by developers) to the pigs to the hotel chef to Gwyneth, the swanky casino/hotel patron. (Also, is there some suggestion that she may have deserved the infection due to her infidelity? Or perhaps her gambling?) This chain of transmission — from food prep to credit cards — seems to send the notion that every touch, every transaction is potentially deadly. But Laurence Fishburne’s little speech at the end to the janitor’s son about the history of the handshake ritual (Nemesis, anyone?) seems to suggest that the film doesn’t want us to abandon such demonstrations of our non-threatening human exchanges. Is it just that we need to keep washing our hands between handshakes?

A friend of mine, Caleb Crain, wrote about Contagion for The Paris Review back when the film was first released. Note the cameo appearances in his review by Defoe, Camus, and none other than Arthur Mervyn! Caleb’s more extended reading of Arthur Mervyn can be found in his book American Sympathy. But I thought you’d appreciate some of his connections:

Contagion has been praised by science journalist Carl Zimmer for its realism—for showing such details as the sequencing of the fictional MEV-1 virus’s genetic material in order to trace its phylogeny. But how did Soderbergh keep his plague from becoming too real? I’d say it’s by limiting moral ugliness to the villains—to nameless looters in masks and to Jude Law, who plays a scurrilous blogger, branded with a crooked front tooth by the make-up department, for ease of identification as a pariah. When I was a teenager, I read La Peste, Albert Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian town, because I was entranced by the moral certainty of the hero, a doctor who never seemed to factor the risk to himself into his decisions. How noble!, I thought. Years later, as a young adult, my sexual awakening took place in the shadow of a plague that, in those days before triple-combination drug treatments, killed within ten years almost everyone who contracted it. (Soderbergh’s MEV-1 only kills one out of four of its victims.) In the shadow of AIDS, Camus-like moral certainties turned out to be hard to find; all the gay men I knew worried about risks to themselves. Not worrying about such risks seemed to constitute a moral failing; on the other hand, surviving, too, seemed a somewhat guilty endeavor. In graduate school at the time, I found myself reading and rereading one of America’s first Gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown, set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797. The book’s paranoid mood and untrustworthy hero seemed timely. Moralizing was ubiquitous but unhelpful; virtue and villainy seemed mixed up in oneself.

How does Soderbergh play around with the major tropes we’ve discussed all semester? (Think of the play on communication — words — and communication — of disease, in the movie poster above, or the role played in the film by governments in containing information or establishing quarantine or seeking cures.) You can read the rest of Crain’s thoughts here. But I wonder if you’ve got some answers of your own after 14 weeks of thinking about these issues.

Already gone

Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way they went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One 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. 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 (at least in Europe and the US) 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 Whitehead’s novel that 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.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? It certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucratic modernity. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

The Whitehead/Defoe/zombie connection also pops up in this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?