Buckle up for a conversation that delves into: the contagion of ideas & social structures, the concept of “co-morbidities” in society, and most importantly, the contagion of hope as examined by the texts we read this semester. Bonus content (rapid fire Q&A about this class) in the last 10 minutes. Enjoy our website and podcast here.
Ding Village hadn’t celebrated like this in years. The villagers couldn’t remember the last time they had seen a ceremony so exciting and lavish. There were tiny firecrackers that exploded with a pop, and great strings of them that popped and crackled for minutes on end. There were fireworks that exploded with a bang or a boom, and rockets that whizzed up into the air, sending down showers of sparks. It was a display to light up the sky and dazzle the senses. The noise of fireworks mingled with the babble of voices; smoke and charred bits of red paper floated through the air.
At two key moments in the plot of Dream of Ding Village, we find that the community resorts to the strange phenomenon of celebration and gatherings as a means to alleviate the suffering of the AIDS epidemic: first, at the outset of the outbreak at Ma Xianglin’s concert, where nearly 300 people gathered despite the fever taking over the village; and second, during the narrator’s “wedding” (refer to quote above). In the first instance, the concert seems to serve as a happy distraction from a potentially threatening disease, whereas in the second, it is a display of lavish excess and a momentary respite from the widespread death that has ravaged the village. In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, this raised several questions: what coping mechanisms do people gravitate towards when mortality is in question? Why are gatherings and celebrations continued in the face of crisis?
During COVID-19, underground parties have become increasingly commonplace. As this article highlights, millennials in metropolitan cities have been using secret WhatsApp groups to organise parties during this time, completely flouting social distancing norms. While the celebrations in Dream of Ding Village were strange enough already, the phenomenon becomes even more bizarre in the COVID context, as this is a virus that spreads through droplets, making each gathering potentially life threatening. This begs the question: why is it worth it? Why do people continue to seek opportunities to “celebrate” during crises even when the costs far outweigh the benefits?
Psychologists recommend that despite COVID, children’s birthday parties (even virtually) are essential, as celebrations make children and adults feel like they are part of a community, and break the monotony of life during the pandemic. The psychological benefits of celebration during a crisis seem to make sense, however, I am still left with the question of why there is such an emphasis on excess and lavish grandeur in these celebrations. We observe a similar phenomenon in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, illustrating the historical use of sensory pleasures as a way to numb the pain of loss during crisis.
Defoe illustrates in great detail how the face of London drastically changed as a result of the plague. Once a cosmopolitan, buzzing city, he now describes it as “desolate”, stating that “London might well be all in tears”. This dark description of a once lively city reminded me of the impact that the pandemic had on New York City. Having experienced the initial phase of the pandemic in New York myself, this article and photo essay of the city resonated deeply.
As we scroll through the photos, we see a mere shell of the former metropolis, empty streets and eerily vacant public spaces. The photographer explains that as people “pass in the street, they keep a wary distance; if they acknowledge each other it is with terse, silent nods”. He also captures the same air of melancholy that Defoe describes in London through his pictures which highlight the concern and worry in his subjects’ faces. I drew this parallel between London and New York as despite being afflicted with different plagues and in different time periods, the impact of the contagion on both cities was jarringly similar, as both cities came to a grinding halt.
Finally, this piece in the New Yorker from April vividly describes the look and feel of New York City during the initial stages of the pandemic.