The second part of Angels in America, titled “Perestroika,” refers to the economic and political changes triggered by decentralization policies incurred by Mikhail Gorbachev. As past conveners have discussed:
This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern bloc and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
It is through this lens that we can view the overarching themes that Kushner employs, specifically in connection to character formation, contemporary politics, and human progress. Similar to “Perestroika,” Kushner’s gay fantasia narrative, Angels in America, tells the consequential unraveling of US society concerning the AIDS epidemic. Thus, deconstruction is played out on both a macro-level and a micro-level: the approach of a new millennium and the disconnection of relationships that the new millennium embodies. “Perestroika” in many ways becomes emblematic for the change that takes place within the United States. It is not so much detailing the necessity for deconstruction to result in change, but rather that change is inevitable and that to move forward, quick adaptation is necessary.
In “Perestroika,”Kushner also embodies his own ideas on human progress. Prior is chosen by the angels as a prophet among humankind to stop migration and the destructive progress that people are making. He turns down his position, arguing that people “…can’t just stop…progress, migration, motion is modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire” (Kushner 275). Kushner argues through Prior that so long as people are alive they desire, and that desire leads to progress, even if it is at the price of destruction in the process:
Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general?
As these past conveners infer, Kushner suggests that progress is needed for growth. Moreover, the above quote and the content of “Perestroika” in a broader framework raises the question: How is progress achieved? Is it through synthesis or deconstruction? Or perhaps both?
Questions of progress and human nature are also raised in “Millennium Approaches.” Harper goes on a tangent about the ozone layer and describes it as a “pale blue halo, a gentle shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere energizing the earth” (Kushner 16). That halo was made up of “guardian angels, hands linked [making] a spherical net, a shell of safety for life itself. But everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (Kushner 16). We witness this collapse in the relationships between characters such as Prior and Louis. Later, we see that this collapse leads to a series of interconnected events that result in these characters finding solace in each other’s pain and suffering. Moreover, their shared distress strengthens their relationships as seen in “Perestroika”; characters as different as Belize and Roy support each other as Belize provides Roy with companionship — no matter how hostile — and in return, Roy provides Belize with access to rare medication. Harper describes this network of suffering people as “a great net of departed souls” (Kushner 285). This conglomeration of networks, a synthesizing of relationships, evokes the notion that through coming together, not only does change happen but we are healed. At the end of the day, do we need ties to survive through change?
“Perestroika” encompasses the complete downfall of a closed network, presenting us with key implications. Earlier, in “Millennium Approaches,” Louis and Prior are in a codependent relationship; however, when Prior’s illness becomes apparent, Louis is overwhelmed and leaves. This change, like Gorbachev’s relatively minor changes, leads to a host of other effects including new experiences and relationships. Prior not only learns how to survive on his own but homes in on his spiritual connection and becomes a prophet. Prior and Louis reunite at the end of the book; although they are no longer in a romantic relationship, they have a strong bond and spend much time together. Their network, undergoing a phase change, expands to include Hannah and Belize — a network that is stronger and more supportive than it was. Perestroika dissociated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which eventually formed either fully autonomous (Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) or semi-autonomous regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia). Although they have a shared history and still maintain a connection to each other, they have more agency in deciding their future because of their independence. This political transition is reflected in the character development throughout the play; people depart from their initial relationships and separate into semi-autonomous beings. The characters’ codependent habits evolve into more interactive relationships.
Past ideas of codependency and closeness had been tying down the USSR and the characters in the play; does contagion, in forcing us to leave our comfortable relationships, force us to find independence and autonomy? What degree of destruction/synthesis do we deem necessary for progress?
Welcome to Our Hillbrow opens with the line “[i]f you were still alive, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco” (1). The omniscient narrator continues shortly after, stating, “[y]ou would remember the last occasion in 1995, when Bafana Bafana won against Ivory Coast and, in their jubilation, people in Hillbrow hurled bottles of sorts from their flat balconies” (1). Immediately, the reader is drawn into two distinct components. A relationship with the dead and an event that implicitly extends across boundaries, eradicating the “Us vs Them” tension throughout the book. If Refentše had been alive, the narrator presumes he would have been glad to avoid the hardship, though nonetheless sad that the team had lost. Yet, the loss of Bafana Bafana felt through Refentše is a loss that encapsulates a much larger portion of the population. It is one that, for the most part, brings suffering all around. Together collectives endure the suffering, but if they had won, the collective would have celebrated. Moments such as these point to events that erase boundaries drawn by individuals in society. Winning or losing brings together individuals; categories such as class, race, and economic status no longer matter.
This year, the South African Rugby team won the World Cup, defeating England 31-12. This win, much like the loss of Bafana Bafana, was likely to be felt by most of the nation. If only for a couple of days, perhaps weeks, the endless suffering still existent in South Africa was clouded. It is worth considering similar events across the world that turn our focus elsewhere. When pain continues to persist in our world do we need a distraction from its endless torment? How can/do individuals/communities create fabrications that although momentary, give us rest?
Albert Camus’ The Plague is a recount of the horrific events taking place in the French Algerian city of Oran circa 1940. There is an unexpected mass exodus of rats emerging from the sewers to die; always dying in twos and threes. The number of deaths within the rat population increases exponentially until people, instead of rats, start dying – the first victim being M. Michel.
The book is told by an unknown narrator that takes us to the beginning where one of the characters – Dr. Bernard Rieux – starts noticing the first signs of what later becomes the plague. However, there is also a second character that Camus briefly includes – Jean Tarrou – a man of few habits, that is “an addict of all normal pleasures without being their slave” (24). Before introducing us to either character, Camus describes Oran as a city that survives off of habit, geared towards “the object of getting rich” (4). But how could a man like Tarrou survive in such a place without habits? It is not only the plague that Camus pays attention to, but also these habitual actions. What significance could this hold further down the line?
Another interesting aspect of the narrative style is the reluctance of the narrator to identify himself. He argues that “the narrator would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate” (6). The anonymity of the narrator, coupled with Tarrou’s accounts, brings up the question of the distinction between a historian and a novelist – who is the narrator, and where can we see Camus’ voice come in?Does he intend the account to be historical, or fictional?
The citizens of Oran are not living so much as they are collecting habits. Their main objective to accumulate as much wealth as possible is what motivates them to keep working. Camus often refers to the absurdity of life and the complete lack of purpose which is why towns such as Oran are so bizarre to him; people work frantically and without enjoyment towards a goal they can never reach: “treeless, glamorless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there” (6). Oran is a town haunted by its own ghosts – habits – their current system is peaceful and secure so they do not question it and “social unrest is quite unknown” (5).
Habit also plays a big role in determining Oran’s reaction to the plague. When rats begin dying out on the streets, we notice a concerted unwillingness to address the issue face to face. It certainly seems strange that hundreds of rodents are dying, but are people willing to dig deeper, to find the reason why? Not so. People are not willing to let minor disturbances get in the way of their daily routines. We notice people theorizing “rational” explanations. M. Michel, the concierge, says “some young scallywags…had dumped three rats in the hall” (9). The municipality is also unwilling to tackle the issue head-on. It is only when Rambert’s newspaper starts running the story that a meeting is convened to discuss the issue at hand.
The denial continues even when the victims of the plague transition from rats to people. M. Michel, with sores all over his body, says “It’s just swellings…I must have strained myself somehow” (17), to die soon after. The newspaper, once in a frenzy over the rats dying in the streets, “now had nothing to say. For rats died in the streets; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street” (35). The citizens also deny the possibility that the issue could be anything more serious than an anomaly, a minor disturbance. As the narrator says, the “townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences” (37). So devoured by their daily routines, people are unwilling, even unable, to accept that anything as extraordinary as a plague could happen in their lives.
Fear also plays a central role in determining people and the government’s reaction to the plague. Interspersed within the unwillingness are traces of fear, of “what-ifs.” What if there is a plague? What if the signs all point to a disastrous consequence? Even entertaining the vague possibility of a plague prevents people from investigating the cause of the symptoms and devising potential solutions. The government, when faced with Dr. Rieux’s claims about the plague, is reluctant to put out a public proclamation, fearing the consequences and panic it could bring. At the doctor’s adamant requests, the government does take action, but in the form of “small official notices…in places where they would not attract much attention…it was hard to find in these notices any indication that the authorities were facing the situation squarely” (51). The situation brings a question to mind about the role of the government and how it should react to crises, as reflected in a previous post:
The reaction of the government and the measures taken have significant influences on the spread of the plague. What is the moral dilemma that falls upon the government when a plague hits their people/city? Do they tell them and risk panic that will cause them to attempt to leave and further spread the disease? Or do they risk their community and population completely dying?
The amount of time which takes the government to identify and react to the plague brings to our attention an interesting contrast to Johnson’s argument. Johnson argues that central, urban planning is key to tackling city-wide problems, especially the plague. He argues that past progress is built up to influence the future, and presents a temporal spectrum. In The Plague, the government officials are aware of past incidents, to the point that they are able to recall specific cases from Paris and other locations. However, they are not as quick to jump to decisions or actions. They stall and stall until they receive a confirmation via telegraph. It is as if they’ve forgotten the severity of past situations, or deny the situation as if denial would prevent the plague from happening. The contrast between Oran and London raises an interesting question: are people’s reactions to plagues determined by societal structures, as Johnson says, or by people’s base natures, as Camus suggests?
Death is accepted but largely ignored in daily life which is made evident by the fact that Oran’s inhabitants rarely go to the beach, and “very sensibly they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons” (4). Thus, the two types of human existence in Oran are either death or a sleep-like life. One exception to this rule is Tarrou who lacks the rigid structure of work as he relies on other funds and disregards social norms that dictate limits on pleasure. Tarrou often goes to the beach – he is living. The plague is a mindfulness exercise that reminds people that their time is not guaranteed. Under the plague, Oran exists in the in-between, where planning for the future is naive, and every moment alive is scarce, which sanctifies time. Death and Life become conflated into one. As a result, a third state of being forms in the lives of those living in Oran. Individuals are put into place where not only the town but their everyday lives are also in limbo. This is Death’s dance.
There is a movement to it, the Dance of Death, that wraps itself around the living as they are side by side with the dead. The reader is first introduced to Death through its initial gradual move into the city using rats: “When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it further thought, continued on his way downstairs” (7). Camus meets movement with movement, constructing a rhythmic relationship between Death and Life. Who is to be our protagonist? The dead or the living? Death’s dance continues through the observation of Dr. Rieux who “remarked it was rather odd, the way all these rats were coming out of their holes to die” (13). Not only does Camus establish the movement of death through a network of rats, but he identifies the contagion’s spatial movement: “From the outer suburbs to the center of the town…From basements, cellars, and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers” (15). Death’s infiltration into the city disrupts habitual practice, causing a cyclical process of confusion. Thus, death becomes a transformative power, altering the identity of the collective and individual within Oran. Citizens are forced to decide what to do, having never experienced a dilemma of this caliber. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes of this experience:
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? This is why life is always like a sketch. No, ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture (8).
The first movement for citizens in Oran can also be their final movement. With the wrong choice, they become victims of the plague. But, Kundera’s quote also raises the question of eternal return, which he addresses in his book:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing…Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia (3-4).
If Camus treats Life and Death as subjects, perhaps individuals rehearse for death: we live a double-life. Are we to criticize the actions of the living in the books we have read? Reverend Whitehead and Snow were certainly able to make the correct choice, but what if they had not, would any of it mattered? An old commentator’s post begins to grapple with this conundrum:
In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat?
Camus’ novel addresses the issue of action – what is our responsibility to our surrounding community? Whether explicitly or implicitly, Jonhson, Defoe, and Porter have dealt with action in times of conflict. However, all such responsibility has been placed on the living, Kundera’s dilemma causes us to return our focus back to dead. We have so far, in the texts we have read, regarded with great focus our attention on the living and not the dead. In doing so, what have we missed out on?
Johnson’s book evolves much like the bacteria he describes within it. Every chapter brings forth new elements, incorporating a multitude of macro-level and micro-level components which seem to build off one another in a fascinating way. The author’s “bird’s-eye view” of storytelling is enthralling. One cannot get much further than the next page before being pulled into another relationship, each building on the last into a vast network. One of the many roles that Johnson tasks the reader with is the identity of an explorer. It is up to the reader/individual and the class/collective to uncover what is hidden in the shadows of Johnson’s story.
Though the multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach to storytelling is exciting, it can often be disorienting. Am I connecting the dyads which need to be connected? Why is Johnson sharing this part of the story with me? How does his manner of storytelling affect how I understand London’s epidemic? Certainly, the plethora of questions that fall from the pages should all be addressed, but it is worth stepping back from the streets of London to analyze just why Johnson decided to tell this story in the dramatized form he does.
Radiolab’s 2011 podcast entitled “Patient Zero” demonstrates much like Johson’s The Ghost Map a multidimensional approach to addressing the origin of a disease. In this case HIV/AIDS. In many ways Johnson’s storytelling functions much like a podcast:
The reader is able to create a world in their head, in a very detective-esque manner. The reader could create detective mind maps in their head, complete with push-pins and yarns connecting the characters and places together.
Within the medium of the podcast, the reader transforms into the listener. In what way does this distinction change the flow of information which we digest?
While the format may seem to dramatize the story of AIDS and cholera, it is in fact, the opposite. Both parties demonstrate the realistic manner in which these diseases unfolded in our world. By telling each story in a ‘hyper-focused,’ yet “bird’s-eye view,” the reader/listener pieces together the intricacies of these two mysteries. We, the reader, become part of the story. We are put on the streets of London, walking alongside Snow and Whitehead. Equally, Radiolab’s podcast positions the listener in a similar heightened state of absorption. Ultimately, both “Patient Zero” and The Ghost Map recreate an active network instead of a passive one. As much as the events described were in the past, they become to the reader, a present. As a result of this experienced dualism, the reader/listener experiencing both the past and present simultaneously, the individual is inevitably forced to make comparisons to their own societies.
Have the societies we live in today altered? Are we still victims of our own illnesses? To our own self-made contagions?