Author: nha237

“A virus can be useful to a species by thinning it out.”

Viruses and diseases can play an important role in maintaining evolutionary order. Although it is difficult to imagine a worldwide epidemic that could thin out the human species, it has already occurred many times in recorded history. Richard Preston first published an article titled “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” which talks about the outbreak of a mutated strain of the Ebola virus that appeared in the U.S in the winter of 1989. Later, he wrote The Hot Zone, which is based on on the article.

The section “The Shadow of Mount Elgon” begins with the description of the history of viruses, and the outbreak of Ebola virus and also the Marburg virus. It first introduces Charles Monet, a Frenchman who lives in Mount Elgon in Western Kenya in 1979. He goes with his lover during winter holiday for a camping trip to the national park in his city and explores Kitum Cave, a tourist site. After the trip to Kitum Cave, Monet develops a headache. Three days later he starts vomiting. He is so very sick that his housekeeper fears he will turn into a zombie. Preston uses personification as a way to describe the disease rather than describing its symptoms in clinical terms. He writes, “Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” This helps transform the nonfictional work into a dramatic narrative because the disease is actively engaging in the destruction of Monet’s personality and not just his physical body. Over the course of the book, the author frequently changes narrative point of view. Why is that?

Dr. Shem Musoke tries to treat Monet but Monet’s vomit cause Dr. Musoke to become sick. The virus then spreads out and infects different people. Dr. Musoke was infected because of his concern for his patient, and the workers are also infected because they work in a factory that makes vaccines. They are infected with the virus for their action of aid of others. The act of selflessness is dangerous because diseases spread because of humans’ negligence. Chance plays a significant role in determining how a virus is spread. The virus hits indiscriminately regardless of age, personality, or sex. Although a disease’s spread can be attributed to chance, the outbreak of viruses can also be caused by laziness. Is the disease spreading because of the act of selflessness, chance, or both?

“People performed all kinds of small rituals before they walked through that steel door. Some people crossed themselves. Others carried amulets or charms inside their space suits, even though it was technically against the rules to bring anything inside the suit except your body and the surgical scrubs. They hoped the amulets might help ward off the hot agent if there was a major break in the suit” (74).

Four years after Charles Monet’s death the narrative shifts to a Victorian house in Maryland. Major Nancy Jaax is a married female working in the U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease in Biosafety level 4 hot agents. She is working on an Ebola experiment. The narrative perspective here switches to Nancy’s inner monologue. Preston refers to the issue of sexism by showing how Nancy faces discrimination at the institute because of being a woman in the science field. Why didn’t Nancy get infected with the virus? What is Preston trying to say?

Finally, it is ironic that human beings develop viruses just to later develop cures and vaccines for them. We are constantly striving for new technologies even if it means potential annihilation of the human kind. Biological warfare is one of the reasons for that. However, these kinds of warfare can easily backfire since they cannot be controlled. In what ways does technology hinder our growth as human kind? And moreover, what role does greed play in the spread of contagion? Are our governments obliged to control that kind of greed?

– Noora, Odera, Dayin, Nada

Teenagers growing tails?

Black Hole is a place in space that gravity pulls strongly that light cannot reach and cannot get out of it. The gravity is so strong that matter has been in a tiny space. This happens when a star is dying. What is the Author trying to say with this title?Is the Author trying to warn teens from unprotective sex that can cause HIV/AIDS? The transmitted disease is called “The Bug.” Is it a metaphor to HIV/AIDS? I think it will be a good idea to check May 2014 convener’s post. 

“AAAAHH!” (Black Hole)

Posted by sv1046 on May 5, 2014 in 

Black Hole is a graphic novel by Charles Burns, which explores contagious disease in a radically different way, using uncomfortable and disturbing imagery to emphasize relationships between disease, alcohol & drugs, and teen culture. All characters in the graphic novel are teenagers and even the parental figures are marginalized. It is reminiscent of the 1960s subcultures with its allusions to David Bowie, hallucinogenic drugs, rampant sex, and an unknown sexually transmitted disease, which – after close analysis – seems to be a metonym for the HIV virus.

“The bug” that causes the disease has a different manifestation in each character. For example, Eliza grows a tail (which keeps growing back even after broken) and seems to keep transforming and desire solitude, therefore she gets dubbed the “Lizard Queen.” Chris starts shedding her skin and always being near, almost needing, water, which makes her represent a snake. Rob grows a lesion on his neck that looks like a second mouth with a second tongue and a second mind – or an alter-ego speaking his inner thoughts. These mutations are mostly animalistic, not unlike the deformities encountered in Animal’s World, and not unlike that same novel, the characters stricken by the disease start shifting out of the identity of “human.” Even though the manifestation of the disease seems to be contingent upon the individuals’ characteristics (personalities?), the people develop a new sense of identity as the diseased. Chris becomes a snake that sheds its skin since she is uncomfortable with her own identity, while Eliza’s bodily transformations and changes in attitude turn her into a chameleon-like being. A lot like many other books we’ve read, disease forms another layer of identity and creates community: people start hanging out in the forest (#chilling). They live in seclusion because they are ashamed of who they are and sometimes compensate for/avenge their condition by infecting others, because of jealousy or as a punishment, like Dave spitting on a bully in the fast-food store: ”See how easy that was? That’s all it takes… A little spit. Some saliva… And now you’re one of us.” Morality comes into question in similar ways as it does in Journal of the Plague Year.

However, unlike our previous books, the teen plague does not seem to be a catalyst for the narrative: it does not have a known cause, no one is grappling with its consequences or even questioning its symptoms; the disease plays a different role. One of its functions influences the visual representations: the black and white scenes could be related to the infection. Feeding from the conventional color symbolism, the dark scenes are the ones that include sex and the bug and death, while the light ones are disease-free. Another structural thing to notice are the two types of frames that divide the panels: the straight lines of the frames indicate that the narrative inside it is the dominant plot line, while the wavy frame represents ambiguous fantasies and crazy dream sequences.

(Image via)

Like in the image above, these dream states often foreshadow the future (some of the recurring symbols are the tail, the cave construction, Chris floating in water, the cigarette exiting the mouth-wound etc.) These déjà vus enable the very confusing organizing structure of the novel, which skips through different stories in place and time with retrospective fragments completing the cyclical form.

Also, what is the significance of the sandwiches?

“I’m not in your hallucination. You’re in my dream.”

Set during the AIDS crisis in the U.S. in 1985, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches conveys two paralleled stories of a gay couple, Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and a married couple, Joe Pitt and his wife Harper, as they all go through a troubling period to deal with issues surrounding homosexuality and AIDS. Through this play, Kushner poses question on the concepts of identity and social division. In the face of a political idealism that restrains homosexuals from being open about their sexuality, the characters are struggling to find a common ground where their identity and their social expectations are not at odds with each other. This struggle becomes particularly visible in Joe’s Pitt case, where he has to hide behind the facade of his marriage and lie to his wife. In Act 2 scene 2, he tells his wife a biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. He does this because he so desperately wants to say that he has had homosexual feelings since he was a child, and yet his faith in his religion prevents him from admitting it. His sexuality and faith are intrinsically connected, and it is interesting to note this as it poses an important question: Is it possible for someone to be religious and gay at the same time? Are the paths to God and self-acceptance always diverge from each other in this context? The ‘issue’ of being religious and gay also connects seamlessly with the ‘issue’ of being a gay republican: Joe Pitt. I personally don’t know too much about American politics but republicans are described as having strong traditional, conservative and religious values. The terms ‘gay’ and ‘Republican’ are almost antithetical to each other as being gay stands against the very basic and core Republican beliefs. How exactly does Joe Pitt embody the contrasting ideals of a gay Mormon Republican lawyer? Has he also created a fantasy space for himself where these competing ideals seem to coexist?

In this play, the characters are categorized by their religious beliefs and their sexuality: Jewish, Mormon, straight, and gay. Even AIDS is served as an identity type written on the skin. An example is Roy Cohn, who says: “I don’t have AIDS I am not a homosexual man. I am a heterosexual man… That’s what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.” What are the grounds for identity in this play? Why do religion and sexuality seem to play a stronger role than race, for instance?

The most fascinating part of the play is perhaps the merged worlds of fantasy and reality that Kushner introduces. The two worlds intertwine in a way that they sometimes can hardly be distinguished from each other. In Act 1 scene 7, both Prior and Harper meet in a strange hallucination. Kushner uses this scene in order to show how reality does not only cut people off from each other, but it also summons them together in an interesting way. Kushner also introduces the idea that fantasy is vain in a sense that it also roots from whatever happens in reality. This makes us wonder: if fantasy is so attached to reality, does this mean that there is no true escape from life’s realities? This reminds us of a line from Harry Potter’s wise headmaster Albus Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Harper dreams up Mr. Lies who whisks her away to Antarctica, and Prior and Roy receive visitations from the dead. Are these hallucinations or are they “real” ghosts in the play?

Speaking of Harper’s hallucination/Prior’s dream, in Scene 7 of Act 1, Harper’s statement about imagination in Scene 7 of Act I is a statement worth noting. In the discussion, she takes a moment to discuss the unoriginal and recycled nature of imagination, that it is “really only the same old ordinariness and falseness re-arranged into the appearance of novelty and truth.”

This is a point of realization for both Harper and Prior, as they realize what they believe is fictitious is rooted in the reality of their situation. For Harper, the daydreams and hallucinations revolve mostly around leaving, and hence convey her desire to escape, and that it may have happened before.

However, there is a note of contradiction between Harper’s desires and the reality; particularly when Roy offers her to leave for Washington, DC, and she offers a defensive response. It is evident that there is a psychological barrier or restraint that constrains her from pursuing what she wants, a barrier of uncertainty that deprives her from her sense of freedom. Yet this is due to the contradictory nature of her approach in dealing with this escape. Moreso, the theme of travel or movement is preeminent in this Act. Sarah Ironson, a Jewish woman of Russian and Lithuanian descent, was said to have moved to America in search of something better. Joe wants to move to Washington because “I’m tired of being a clerk. I want to go where something good is happening” (Kushner 23). There’s even mention of a travel agent. These characters chose to move in and around America in search of something better. How truly different can things be? Have things really changed for the good in America? Has the country truly attained “its sacred position among nations”? (Kushner 26)

For Harper, the escape of a psychological barrier is not as much of an escape as it is a holiday, a break from everything. The reality of escape is coated with the notion of travel and exploration which will allow her to heal and gain insight. From here one can see Harper’s need to discover herself, an element of postmodernism which was present throughout the second half the 20th century, including the play Angels in America.
The postmodernist traits are once again present in the illusions that Harper has created without any confrontation of the issue itself: only she is capable of healing herself, and there is not a place or person that could that for her.

 Prior’s dream:

There are many betrayals throughout Angels in America. Louis betrays his lover, Prior, with the excuse that he needs some time alone. Also, Roy feels betrayed when Joe refuses to take a job he’s arranged for him in Washington, DC. Of course Joe might very well feel betrayed when he learns that Roy wants him to take the job for his own selfish reasons. And then there’s Harper who feels betrayed because her husband admitted that he is gay. Can you betray someone and still love the person? Is it worse to betray someone else or to betray yourself?



Noora, Nada, Odera, and Dayin

Priests in every Plague

I once commented in one of the classes about how priests are always present in every novel we have read about plagues so far. So I recall a Kuwaiti series called  “Alhadama,” (video linked) which talks about Smallpox that impacted Kuwait city in 1932. More than four thousand victims died because of it in just the first 10 days. This year was considered a disastrous year because not only people died from smallpox but also heavy rain hit the country and destroyed 500 houses.

The person who took the priest’s position in this series is the religious female who teaches kids Quran in her house. It is interesting that she didn’t refer to the disease as a punishment from God but a test from God. All our readings looked at the plague from one religious perspective. This leaves me with a question:

“Do all religions respond to plagues in the same way?”

Noora Almarri