Author: Rafa

The Zombies, Ourselves

Integral to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is the idea of the “American Phoenix”; the hope that the United States will emerge from the ashes of catastrophe and return to its former state of “glory”. The survivors’ attempts at rebuilding start with the transformation of Manhattan into an inhabitable area (Zone One; the first to come of a reclaimed country).

“Giving in to that pandemic of pheenie optimism that was inescapable nowadays and made it hard to breathe, a contagion in it’s own right.” (p. 16); thus the idea of rebuilding has become an anchor to sanity for the people of the USA. It is also important to note that the urge to rebuild is described as a contagion of its own.

The symbolism of the phoenix is particularly apt given that the neutralized living dead are incinerated and their ashes surround the living’s stronghold in Wonton; the living’s strife for reconstruction and return to normality takes place amidst the ashes of those who used to belong to their society.

Regarding the disposal of zombies and its relation with the American hope for reconstruction, it-s almost essential to analyze the following quote: “It was always disquieting to see empty pavement where you’d dumped some terminated skels. It was as if they’d just walked away.” (p. 93) This statement suggests that the dead keep standing up after getting killed, coming again and again in never-ending nightmare, and hinting at the unlikeliness of overcoming the dead and reestablishing the previous order.

Can the survivors actually build a society that is exactly the same as the one pre-apocalypse? Is it better to reinstate a central government or allow survivors to duel in anarchy, fending themselves against the dead and the thieving, more unpredictable living? Does the failure of governmental institutions and other sources of authority in our previous readings helps us answer this question?

Mark Spitz’s job is to “sweep” the area of “stragglers”: a minority of the living dead that are frozen in time doing a single action. Instead of the traditional brain-munching, limping human carcasses we, as readers, are more accustomed to, Whitehead plays with the idea of the zombie, instead depicting them as those who are destined to repeat the same action for eternity. The “stragglers” also come as a surprise to the characters in the book, who do not understand what causes some to become “skels” and others to become “stragglers”.

“Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment.” (p. 62)

The comparison between zombies and humans is reinforced with the idea of these “stragglers”. It is seen in the novel that the stragglers are referred to as having gender:

“Mark Spitz had noticed on numerous occasions that while the regular skels got referred to as it, the stragglers were awarded male and female pronouns, and he wondered what that meant.”

By humanizing the stragglers, Whitehead is suggesting that the people of modern American society are nothing but zombies, caught in “interminable loop(s)”.

Is the straggler’s tendency to follow loops in behavior the result of capitalistic society or a comment on human nature and the necessity for routine and monotony? Is monotony related to the impression of having a purpose in life

The narrator introduces the concept of PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). PASD manifests itself in different ways for different people. The inconsistency of symptoms emphasizes the individuality of characters.

“Given the vast galaxy of survivor dysfunction – PASD in its sundry tics, fugues, existential fevers – the Wastelander’s particular corner of pathology was, Mark Spitz decided, unremarkable.” (p. 37)

The notion of individuality runs throughout the novel as a contrast to the idea that, prior to the outbreak, people were but zombies, entrapped in the machinery of capitalism, lacking individuality in the sense that they were all destined to go through monotonous lives.

“There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all.” (p. 108)

In what way does this variation of symptoms between individuals resemble “the bug” in Black Hole? To what extent? Since the plague brought variation to an otherwise monotonous lifestyle, can we consider the disease as a blessing in disguise, as we had discussed for Dream of Ding Village?

Take care guys.

Rafa, Liam and Vlad

War on Three Fronts

Searching for information on the government’s reaction to polio during war time, I stumbled upon Jacob Bryant’s thesis on the subject, named The Invisible Enemy: The Effects of Polio on the American War Effort during World War II, 1941-1945. Its second chapter, titled “The Home Front”, gives a helpful description of the ways of transmission, the symptoms of the disease and the attitudes towards the latter, particularly the way polio began to rival the war for the population’s attention. I would like to share some of the ideas that came to mind when reading this chapter.

Bryant mentions that although the disease had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Century that it became an epidemic (pg 29); contrary to what we might expect from improves sanitation. The explanation provided is that improved sanitation prevents the immune system form encountering bacteria and viruses that allow it to build up, weakening it against more dangerous pathogens. Another explanation is migration, because it leads people to new places and diseases for which they’re not prepared; the example employed was of the Great Depression, but the mention of the 19th Century makes it difficult not to think about the Industrial Revolution. All this movement of people and innovation and development evokes Angels in America’s argument that the progress of mankind had brought upon us the disease and God’s neglect.

In the thesis it’s also discussed the comparison between disease and war (which we saw in the texts by Roth and Camus): how both President Roosevelt and other high ranking officials were enthusiastic to raise awareness of the disease by link it to the war effort. The thesis cites New York Governor Thomas Dewey: “In a time of war the health of our people– and particularly of our young people– is a vital factor for victory.” (pg 56) His statement struck me because it can also be read that the nation needed the young to be healthy because they could be needed for fighting, which contradicts people’s fright at the death of children. Perhaps the distinctive issue is the purpose: perishing to the disease seems pointless, as an abrupt and undeserved ending to a life that still had so much potential (since most of the deaths were perceived to be of children). While at war you’re fighting for your country and its ideals, and a soldier’s death is seemed as the small contribution to the war effort that might have made the entire difference – as seen by Bucky’s hopes in the novel. Nevertheless, it shows hypocrisy for the respect of childish innocence.

This chapter was an interesting and a relatively short reading. Hope you might find use of it.


Discussion about Ebola

During the “Ebola talk” last Monday, Ms Franklin recounted how an infected man had fled from Guinea to Senegal knowing he had the disease; she commented how his actions, although unjustifiable, were understandable: if there was better medical attention elsewhere, wouldn’t anyone try to seek it hoping to get treated? This narrative resembles of the zombie behaviour that we have encountered in several texts such as Defoe and Dream of Ding Village, of people exposing others to the disease with little regret or even amusement.

Both guest speakers mentioned the idea of dying with dignity: Ms Franklin commented on this while showing pictures of some victims, abandoned after passing away; while Ms Moussan from Médecins sans Frontières explained that amongst the aims of their organization were to treat the symptoms, alleviate the pain and ensure that the patient’s last hours were bearable and dignified. This subject invokes the responsibility of the living to look after the sick and provide a respectful burial. In addition, “dying with dignity” can be interpreted as the deceased maintaining his honour at the time of death, thus limiting our intentions of enjoying life at its fullest before dying. In Dream of Ding Village, Ding Liang claimed that because faced quickly and decisively approached them they could indulge in pleasures without caring for other’s opinions, nevertheless he still strived to legitimize his new marriage before passing away, so that , thus demonstrating that the sick still have responsibilities to society.

Finally, another compelling fact shared at the discussion was that the fastest ways that Ebola was spreading was through local funeral rites, and it was suggested that to avoid further spread it was necessary to take precautions that clashed with traditional rites. It thus links to another subject that we’ve discussed before: mass graves and death carts, as seen in Defoe, Camus and Pushkin. This raises a couple of questions. Are mass graves actually helpful in preventing the spread of disease, or they detrimental? And how far are we willing to abandon social norms to prevent the expansion of the disease and the endangerment of those that remain?

Sickly Community in the land of The Red Gold

In Dream of Ding Village the poor community bearing the same name is suffering from “the fever”, an outbreak of AIDS that was spreading through the Chinese countryside as a result of the state-sponsored blood-collecting anxiety that took place a decade earlier; an incident that can be considered as a social disease that led the way to the literal pathogens that would later kill these villagers.

To some selling blood became an addiction, as described by the woman of the wealthier Cai county:

“It [i.e. selling blood]’s more like once every ten days or a fortnight. If you don’t sell at least that often, your veins start to feel swollen. It’s like being full of milk and not being able to nurse your baby.” (pg 37)

… To others the blood industry was a testimony to their greed, such as Ding Hui, who kept exploiting his countrymen, who disrespected the memory of his dead mother, and who built a three-story house just to prove his superior wealth and power to the rest of the village.

But it’s too easy to say that Ding Hui was the only corrupt member of that society. There’s also Li Sanren’s wife, who got jealous of her friends’ new homes and bullied her husband into donating blood, which led to him getting infected as well. In addition, the taboo of selling blood was broken by the entire society: the blood comes off as a metaphor of health that the villagers were initially reluctant to give up, but their avarice was able to defeat their previous beliefs, accurately portrayed in the following quote:

“For decade the villagers had come to the temple to burn incense and pray for wealth, but when they started getting rich from selling blood, they tore down the temple. They didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more: they believed in selling blood.” (pg 24)

Can the disease be thus interpreted as punishment for the villagers’ previous actions? Since individuals chose to donate their blood in exchange for money, what responsibility do the different members of the Ding Family have in the spread of the disease in their village? What about the government officials?

Another issue to be raised from these first volumes is the issue of behaviour in the face of death, a topic we’ve already addressed in Pushkin’s A Feast during times of plague. Ding Liang’s dialogue on page 78 argues in favour of abandoning previous social norms, since there’s no longer a reputation to maintain.

“Family, older brother, younger brother… what does any of that matter now? You and I are going to die soon.”

However, if Ding and Lingling can yield to pleasures, why can’t the thief that was disrupting their utopian society also indulge to the impulses (or reasons) that motivated him? Is there any way to tell how individuals will react when facing their end; will they follow the norms or disintegrate into anarchy? If so, what is such determining characteristic? Do the thresholds of right and wrong remain unchanged during these times  of suffering?

Ding Liang’s argument echoes another subject from Pushkin, which is the new community of those dying. Grandpa Ding also makes reference to the new and stronger bonds that tie these people together, stronger then the ties of blood with their family members who abandoned them or condoned their exile in the village school:

“But I never thought you’d steal grain from people in the same situation as you, people who are dying” (pg 101)

Ironically, this new relationship is also made up of blood (and contaminated one, at that). But the sick are as happy enjoying the rest of their lives.

In what ways do the sick cope with the looming presence of death better than the healthy? Are the sick exempt from the usual social norms due to their claim to “enjoy the rest of their lives”? 

Rafa, Vlad and Liam

Witch Hunt

Some have already mentioned who Ethel Rosenberg was: a traitor executed along with her husband for sharing American nuclear secrets with the Russians at the beginning of the Cold War. Here’s a short video on the subject, and a web page with more information.

Roy says the following line before passing away on page 247: “I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing!” Making Ethel sing could be an euphemism for making her confess for treason, a crime that according to other sources she may have not committed but was only accused for being the traitor’s wife. Roy had become so consumed by the idea of persecution and punishment that his sense of justice was completely destroyed.

Can Roy’s attitude be compared to the way homosexuals were associated with this modern plague during the late 1980s? Should we consider this as evidence of how society splits up during times of disease, as we also observed in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

Ikke mer Livsglede

When researching about the symptoms for congenital neurosifilis it caught my attention that most of the information was relevant for children below 2 years of age. However, the symptoms associated with Oswald’s age were “unexplained deafness, progressive intellectual deterioration or keratitis” (a condition in which the cornea becomes inflamed and eyesight is affected); these fit with the character’s behaviour at the end of the play, when he appears to have lost lucidity and his mother is devastated by the sight of her sick son.

Linking this with our discussion about punishment from Monday’s class, the deterioration of Oswald’s senses is a punishment for him because he won’t be able to pursue his profession as an artist; but most importantly, it interferes with his ideology of the joy of life, originally “Livsglede” in Norwegian. He explains his interpretation of this term to his mother in page 144:

“But people elsewhere simply won’t have that. Nobody really believes in ideas of that sort any more. In other countries they think it’s tremendous fun just to be alive at all. Mother, have you noticed how everything I’ve ever painted has turned on this joy of life? Always and without exception, this joy of life. Light and sunshine and a holiday spirit…and radiantly happy faces. That’s why I’m frightened to stay at home with you.”

Oswald’s last conscious thoughts, in which he repeats the image of the sun, now seem as longing calls for the happiness he wasn’t able to attain in life due to being distanced from his parents and not developing love for them or any other human. The gloomy weather which he describes in page 140 can be seen as an example of pathetic fallacy, reflecting his grief at the lack of love, the terror and guilt towards his disease and the sense of betrayal from his mother. His opportunities of simplistic joy fade away; he would have no more joy of life.

By Rafa