Author: Julián Carrera

Writing the Disease: Ebola ’76

Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus, an RNA virus (filovirus) causing haemorrhagic fever.

Ebola ‘76 tells a story of Ebola’s arrival to Sudan through Lewis, a factory worker who is infected in Kinshasa (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and takes the virus back to Nzara, in Sudan —now South Sudan. While the novel talks about society and contagion in ways similar to what we have read before, there is a crucial difference: Ebola is a character. Although some texts, particularly The Ghost Map seem to portray their disease as a character, none personify it like Ebola ‘76 does. Ebola in the text is very much a personified character that seems to have its own agenda.

Furthermore, the way that the author describes Lewis and many other tragedies within the book, strips away the need to empathize to such a story where a disaster of an outbreak happens due to a mere mourning factory worker. What this does for a reader is create is sense of discomfort because our natural approach to these kinds of uncontrollable situations is to empathize, yet that is difficult with the narrative of Ebola ‘76.

The narration of Ebola within the book causes us to question who really is the protagonist in this novel? Yes we have a main character that is present for most of the novel, but Ebola is certainly always present in all the scenarios, serving more than just a disease. Ebola here is humanized with human-like qualities, such as to smile and migrate along with the human it infests, forcing our attention to its entity as we read this novel. Ebola has much more of an impact than just being a pathogenic and contagious disease, it dominates the narrative to its what some may say its “malicious intent.” What we make of this change of interpretation is unclear.

It is important to highlight, too, that Amir Tag Elsir is a doctor. Which leads to the question, what is Ebola?

This video by Kurzgesagt  — In a Nutshell explains the nature of Ebola succinctly.

The video above provides a window into Ebola and aspects surrounding it: while most of the video talks about how Ebola works in the body and the way in which it spreads —albeit the video is a bit Western- or American-centric. The last minute, however, hints at a minor detail that’s also present in Ebola ‘76: societal spread of an idea. The novel presents the spread and parody of the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen! You are kindly requested to refrain from shaking the performer’s hand, whatever the extent of your admiration” (13), the spread of terror after the epidemic reaches Nzara (87), rumours that specialists were coming (93). Ideas spread like disease, and Kurzgesagt’s video mentions this too, by comparing the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to malaria: the news of the Ebola epidemic spread fear and worry due to Ebola’s rapid —albeit localized— spread and its brutality.

A prominent aspect of Ebola ’76 is the focus on the individual transmissions of the disease within the community. Elsir highlights the general apathy and ignorance of the characters towards the illness, and he demonstrates how this obliviousness to the threat contributes to the ability for it to spread.  Characters’ disregard for cautionary measures – such as protected sex or avoiding physical contact with others – shows how simple decisions can have life-ending implications. Elsir’s emphasis on these interactions between two people and the infection is one that has been unencountered in other works we’ve studied. He seems to intend this as a warning: even in this modern day, Ebola remains a threat that can cross borders and infect communities. Its ability to do so is enabled through a chain of personal poor (and deadly) decisions.

The Role of Song in Roy Cohn’s Death Scene (Angels in America: Perestroika, Act 4, Scene 11)

The song Roy Cohn sings at the beginning of the scene.

Roy’s death scene in Perestroika, though short, contains two songs in it. The first comes as the scene starts, as Roy is singing John Brown’s Body softly. The song is a marching song dating back to the American Civil War, sung mostly by Union (the Northern States) soldiers and abolitionists opposed to slavery. John Brown was a famous abolitionist who thought armed uprising was the only way to liberation. He was the first person hanged for treason in the United States.

“I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

John Brown, last words.

As for why Roy Cohn would sing this song, it seems to be part of how the song describes John Brown’s march to Heaven, as Roy himself is soon to make that trip, according to him. He doesn’t seem to be convinced of abolitionism in any way.

The other song in the scene is sung by Ethel Rosenberg, at the acting of Roy, who pretends to be so delirious that he’d confuse Ethel with his mom, and she sings Tumbalalaika.

Tumbalalaika is a Yiddish/Russian folk song. Its title comes from two words, Tun, which is the Yiddish onomatopoeia for a sound, and Balalaika, which is a Russian stringed instrument.

A Balalaika

The song itself is a love song about a boy who has to make his mind up about who to be with. The body of the song is a to-and-fro where the boy riddles a girl, who answers in kind. The full text can be accessed here.

Tumbalalaika, the love song Ethel sings, as performed by The Barry Sisters.

The part that’s included in the play reads, in English:

A young boy stands

And he thinks,

Thinks and thinks

A whole night:

Whom to take

And not to shame,

Whom to take

And not shame,

Tum-ba-la, tum-ba-la, tum-balalaike,

Tum-ba-la, tum-ba-la, tum-balalaike,

Tum-balalaike, play balalaika—

Though nothing is said about it, the fact that it’s a love song explicitly between a boy and a girl seems to point towards Roy Cohn’s hidden sexuality, as it is the ghost of Ethel that sings it. The answer remains ambiguous.

The Plague, Society, and Kaiju Films

Although The Plague is a narrative centred around an epidemic, there are many things that make it different from what we have read so far: modernity. While previous texts focused on the breaking of interpersonal relationships and seclusion from the world, The Plague brings forth the governmental and logistical point of view by adding bureaucracy. The novel shows meetings and discussions with the Prefect, as well as having characters refer to the Prefect’s decisions as a leading force of quarantine and delay. There are not a lot of medical descriptions of the plague in the book, though there is a lot of time dedicated to talking about life in an infected city and the logistical problems and nonsensical restrictions taken by the government.

The description of society and the epidemic in The Plague reminded me of kaiju films, a mostly Japanese genre of cinema characterized by the presence of large monsters —kaiju— and their interference in human life. A prime example of this genre is Toho’s Godzilla (Gojira in the original). I believe there are similarities to be found between the epidemic narrative and the kaiju genre, since both talk about the survival of large groups of people when threatened by a force of nature outside human control. Reading through the bureaucratic parts of The Plague, however, I was particularly reminded of Shin Godzilla (sometimes called Godzilla Resurgence), Toho’s 2016 rebooting of Godzilla.

Shin Godzilla is a strange example of a kaiju movie. Godzilla has limited screen time and there is no individual main character tracked in the movie. Quite the opposite: the movie tracks government officials as they struggle with the bureaucracy of an event so unexpected it breaks protocol. Most of the key scenes in the movie consist of meetings, reunions, and people talking through the best solutions to a problem.

Moments like these in The Plague highlight a pushback to action: nothing can be done unless there is a general consensus that something must be done; and this delay in reaching a consensus takes time that could be used to prevent the spread of disease (or the destruction of a kaiju).

19th Century Immorality & Co.

A clip from Ghosts, from the 2014 Richard Eyre production at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring Lesley Manville as Helene and Adam Kotz as Manders.

Ghosts is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and was first staged in 1882. The play is shown to have critical views on 19th century immorality, which then breaks off to further factors that follow underneath this main idea. The overarching theme of immorality forms a throughline across the various topics the play touches on, the larger of which are STDs, sins, incest, and euthanasia. Not counting euthanasia, the way the play talks about these topics draws on the language of inheritance and links it to the wider motif of ‘ghosts,’ forces from the past that have a force on the present. Thus we know that Oswald wishes his illness was inherited instead of acquired, that his interest in Regine is immoral because they both have the same father, and that the shadow of the father’s sins seems to materialize itself in fire with the burning of the orphanage built using the money Oswald would have inherited.

Another underlying theme related to immorality is the role of ethics in this play. With the sins of one’s parents, the act of unfaithful affairs, and the role of ending one’s suffering, we should ask to what extent are all these situations and themes ethical? Both in modern day’s time and in the 19th century? Additionally, try and think about the transmission of not just disease, but of sins and tragedies as well. How can we connect the affairs of Oswald’s dead father to his own tragedies? Of Mrs. Alving keeping all her husband’s affairs secret and away from her own son, to Oswald’s shortcoming in the end? There is a line and history we can connect between immorality and the transmission of disease that can illustrate different perspectives and aspects of the story within Ghosts.

We should also consider the ethics and role of euthanasia within the text, the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and/or painful disease. In the end of Ibsen’s play, Oswald requests his mother the difficult task of ending his life through a morphine overdose, if the time of his utmost suffering shall come. In addition to the ethics of one given the role to end a person’s disease-ridden life, what does it mean to have one’s own mother fulfil that role? Does the immorality of a person ending another’s somewhat vegetative life suddenly lessen if it is the mother ending her own son’s suffering? How can we even consider and determine a person’s suffering if we ourselves are not that person?

Overall, the overlying theme within Ibsen’s Ghosts is the topic of 19th century immorality. We break immorality within this play into different mini-themes, such as the transmission of STDs, the act of sinning, incest, and euthanasia. Moreover, we discussed the interplay of ethics and morality within all these themes and question what is the difference between ethics and morality? Are they different or the same?

Money Matters

Reading Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I found it interesting to compare how Defoe and Boccaccio describe society differently, and even though it is noticeable that the texts are not only separated geographically (Defoe’s in London, Boccaccio’s in Florence) but temporally (by almost 400 years), there are some similarities and differences.

The general sense of a crisis is similar in both The Decameron and A Journal of the Plague Year, and the seeming vacuum of power and authority is present in both texts. However, this vacuum is portrayed differently in both texts, and the difference may be a sign of their times. Boccaccio is much more interested in moral and religious authority: people are either engaging in debauchery, trying to remain pious, some people have stopped going to church, those who do risk exposing themselves to the plague.

A Journal of the Plague Year seems more interested in how the presence of the plague affects all monetary relationships in the city. From the very beginning, we are shown how money and capitalism behave differently in a time of crisis. The first instance of this behaviour is in the protagonist, H. F., and his decision to stay in London. Though he explains it as “Intimations” from Heaven —supported by the sortes of the Bible— (15), a material reason for his decision to stay is that he has a business to run. H. F. says that “[he] had two important things before [him]; the one was the carrying on [his] Business and Shop […] and the other was the Preservation of [his] Life in so dismal a Calamity” (11). Apart from H. F.’s example, the book is interested in how money changes hands during the plague, taking a particular interest in the rise of quack doctors, bootleg medicines, and fortune tellers.

This profit in times of crisis reminds me of market reactions to recent hurricanes like Florence or Harvey, and how basic necessities like water and gasoline had their prices gouged to $20 USD for a gallon of gas, $8.50 for a bottle of water, or a 300% increase in the price of a hotel room. The market’s reaction to crisis cannot be humanitarian because crisis is an opportunity for profiting off the people who cannot afford to leave affected areas. And even though some economists are all for price gouging, it would seem that A Journal of the Plague Year has a problem with those who would make a profit out of people’s fears, as the text seems to condemn a particular “Quack-operator” who would “give Advice to the Poor for nothing” but then ask for their money to buy his fake medicine. A woman, tired of the Quack-operator, decided to “[tell] her Tale to all the People that came, till the Doctor finding she turn’d away his Customers” called her and gave her a box of the medicine “for nothing, which, perhaps too was good for nothing when she had it” (30-31, author’s emphasis). There is something, then, to be found in A Journal when looked at not only as a depiction of life and society in a crisis as big as the plague, but also as a description of capitalism’s behaviour and response to human crisis.