Author: shc607

What’s in a Name

Grandma’s funeral bench scene

Angels opens with a funeral. The service for Louis’ grandmother has just passed and we see Louis and Prior sitting on a bench, their conversation starting from Louis’ acting “closeted” at family functions to the disappearance of their cat, ending with Prior’s great reveal of his sickness.

As an opening scene, there seems to be a hint of what lies ahead in the play when Prior says of Louis naming their cat Little Sheba, “Names are important!” Even later in this scene, when Prior reveals his “kiss of death”, the implications of it – the AIDS that lurks just faintly beneath the dark mark – is never named. When we avoid calling illness by its name, when we skirt around the issue and hide behind metaphors, what gets lost? What social stigma breeds under this cover of darkness?

Another point of interest is when Louis mentions the act of putting dirt in the grave. Everyone participates in the burial, making it a communal act. And just as Angels opens with Louis and Prior sitting on a bench in conversation, it ends with them, with the addition of Belize and Hannah, on a bench in Central Park. The Louis and the Prior at the beginning of the book are very different from the ones at the end – they have changed immensely. But the conversation has never ended. It’s even expanded with Belize and Hannah’s voices in the mix. Even if Prior doesn’t survive the winter, the community, the conversation, lives on.

Why Sisyphus Says We Shouldn’t Go to the Beach on Sundays

In The Plague, we see the people of Oran going to beaches (but only on Sundays!) and we see men and women performing “the act of love”: having to love one another without knowing much about it. The social encounter exists, but the force of the social encounter isn’t there. Pleasure is to be found in love-making, sea-bathing, or going to the pictures, but there is no passion in such pleasure. Life in Oran is more lifeless than death itself – it’s an absurd existence.

As a philosopher, Camus was interested in “the Absurd”: the human tendency to seek meaning in life, and the human inability to find that meaning. The paradox of the Absurd is reflected in another of Camus’ works, The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is sentenced by the Greek gods to an eternal punishment: he must push a boulder up a mountain, but as soon as he pushes the boulder to the top, it rolls back down, and Sisyphus must start again. Here, Camus tells us we have three choices: we can either commit suicide by rejecting life as completely meaningless, take a leap of faith and reject absurdism itself, or we can do what Sisyphus does: embrace the absurdity of life. We can recognize two things: first, we are human beings with an innate need to make sense of the universe, and second, the universe doesn’t care about us human beings. There is no answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?” we ask. As the article from which this picture is cited states, Sisyphus recognizes “life was meaningless anyway so he might as well keep pushing this boulder”.

Rereading the novel, we can now ask: Who is Sisyphus in the novel? What is the boulder they must keep pushing? And finally, are we ourselves Sisyphus? If we are, what do we do now?

What Are We Going To Do With All This Sh*t?

Previously described in this post as a ‘birds’-eye view’ approach, Johnson’s style of writing enables him to examine the confluence of factors that led to the cholera outbreak of 1854. Johnson explains that, in the past, the spread of cholera was prevented by humans’ aversion to excrement ingestion and a lack of densely populated urban centres. However, amidst a growing population and their unsanitary waste disposal practises, 19th century London was the perfect breeding ground for V. cholerae.

By taking the ‘birds’-eye view’, The Ghost Map challenges the notion that crises are caused by individuals (be it people or events). Rather, it is the culmination of the unwitting side-effects of the actions of large groups of people living ordinary lives or trying to better those lives through, for example, the invention of water closets that improved waste disposal whilst simultaneously caused cesspools to overflow, that direct the arc of history.

Johnson frames the choice to continue living in the city after the outbreak as a “new form of collective human choice”, illustrating that each human has become a node in a newly formed network of information, labor, and ideas. This new form of choice was one where the collective’s needs took higher priority than the individual’s: “the city itself was best understood . . . greater than the sum of its parts” (91). Londoners were not in control of London; it had a life of its own. Collective behavior was not a collection of hundreds of individual, micro-scale human choices, but instead, was shaped by the macro-scale flow and direction of energy. Such a network also influenced how people perceived and understood ideas, such as the popular contagion and miasma theories. 

Yet in spite of their attempts to understand the causes of the cholera outbreak, individuals were often unable to view the city of London on a macro-scale or even on the micro-scale, with the microorganisms behind cholera. Thus, we see that history is littered with mistaken hypotheses and flawed understanding, as those trying to make sense of a deeply interconnected and interdependent world were often blind to the full extent of its complexity, constrained by their time.   

Johnson situates John Snow within a slowly dying Soho neighborhood and presents him as an underdog hero (an underdog due to his socioeconomic background). Snow, the “brilliant” son of a Yorkshire laborer, is presented as a highly qualified, high-achieving, and incredibly intelligent individual. His research and practice on pain management and anesthesia show his intelligence and passion for medical research, which explain his deep interest in cholera and in settling the debate between contagion and miasma theorists. Snow investigates the case thoroughly and postulates that cholera may come from something victims ingest, either through water, food, or waste matter. Several outbreaks in London, five years before the 1854 cholera outbreak, help support his case. In the 1854 outbreak, he thus begins investigating the water from the Broad Street pump — which, despite being completely clear, led to the deaths of individuals upon their consumption of it.

Johnson’s specificity in building his characters lends the book something that can be resonated with. By situating the outbreak specifically, at a certain time and space, 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. The piece reads like a true crime narration, heightening the stakes of the text for the reader. The utilization of introspective investigative questions in the text invites the reader into the investigative mind of John Snow rather than keeping the reader a passive spectator, thus emphasizing the true crime-esque/detective novel genre of the book. 

Such specificity in character also showcased the fear that was a defining emotion of urban life in London. But with death as close as their next-door neighbor, why did people continue to live there? Johnson writes that the Victorian-era Londoners were acclimatized to death. For them, death was so normalized that terror “does not quite play the role that one might expect, given the body count” (87).

Beginning with “This is a story of four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men”, how does Johnson characterize London? How is his London different from Defoe’s? What role does Johnson’s London play?

Did the wide acceptance of the miasma theory hinder individuals in finding the right solution to the cholera outbreak? How do we distinguish between popular opinion and logical fact? 

If fear is a defining emotion of urban life – how does it define modern urban life? What have its effects been in times of disease and disaster?

As Johnson mentions, network externalities cause feedback loops. The network effect is usually described in economics, but how does it relate to the city and its citizens here? What about negative network externalities? The network effect can also create a bandwagon effect – how does that affect the city?