Well, that was a wild ride. And here comes the last zero G roll. I found the idea of R0, a.k.a. the basic reproduction number, absolutely fascinating. So here is a quick list of the R0 for the world’s most infamous viruses.
Let’s just say that we are lucky to live in an age where there is a vaccine for whooping cough.
Contagion actually made me think back to our discussions on HIV/AIDS. I think, regardless of how awful and devastating the virus depicted in the movie was, at least the incubation period was short. In a lot of ways HIV is a super virus, perhaps the most clever killing machine (yes, I just attributed agency to the virus) as of yet, due to the fact that its incubation period is enormous. What happens if we get a virus that is able to hide for decades? How do you fight against something that appears seemingly out of nowhere? All I can say is, I am very grateful I did not have to live through the ’80s. I wonder, is there such a thing as an “age of contagion”? What does it mean to live in a health-obsessed society like ours when there are hundreds of thousands of these killing machines?
I certainly don’t know the answers to these questions, but there is at least one thing I learned in the course of this semester. GET THOSE FILTHY HANDS AWAY FROM YOUR FACE!
Thanks for these awesome 14 weeks and I wish you a disease-free Christmas and a healthy New Year!
Ps.: Warner Bros. did the coolest advertising campaign ever for this movie. Check it out, I promise, you won’t regret it!
One of the augmenter’s posts have already touched upon the question of the title and how we should interpret it in the context of the novel. Just to reiterate:
In Greek mythology, Nemesis … was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris(arrogance before the deities). Another name was Adrasteia, meaning “the inescapable.” The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess: the goddess of revenge. (Wikipedia)
I wonder if we could dig a little deeper and discover who is committing the hubris in Nemesis? Humankind? The US? Bucky? All of the above? In this case, why is it the children who suffer the consequences? Is Roth trying to comment on the blindness of “divine retribution”?
I would also like to call attention to the difference between retribution and vengeance. Though the ever-informative Wikipedia tells us the she is the “goddess of revenge,” that is not quite accurate; Nemesis, strictly speaking, is the goddess of divine retribution. She is ruthless and remorseless because of the absolutist nature of her judgement, she does not have to be “fair” because you are either “guilty” of hubris or not, there is no middle ground. Nemesis is not to be confused with Themis the titan goddess of the divine law, mother to the seasons who in turn was used as an inspiration for Iustitia, the Roman blinded Lady Justice (worshipped by jurisprudents all around the world), who is more preoccupied with being “fair” (though being blindfolded is definitely not helping). Nemesis has nothing to do with these divinities. She is the daughter Nyx, the Night. The nature of Nemesis’s family is also quite telling; her siblings include the Moirai, the Fates (popularised in the cartoon Hercules).
Here is the entire not-so-happy ménage; the Addams Family would be jealous:
“And Nyx (Night) bare hateful Moros (Doom) and black Ker (Violent Death) and Thanatos (Death), and she bare Hypnos (Sleep) and the tribe of Oneiroi (Dreams). And again the goddess murky Nyx, though she lay with none, bare Momos and painful Oizys (Misery), and the Hesperides . . . Also she bare the Moirai (Fates) and the ruthless avenging Keres (Death-Fates) . . . Also deadly Nyx bare Nemesis to afflict mortal men, and after her, Apate (Deceit) and Philotes (Friendship) and hateful Geras (Old Age) and hard-hearted Eris (Strife).” Source
In sum, Nemesis is anything but pink and fluffy. However, as mentioned earlier, I think the difference between retribution and revenge is quite important here. She is distributing what one deserves in order to balance out the scales eternally present in her hands, not simply seeking revenge. What does retribution – as opposed to vengeance – mean in the context of the novel?
Also, again, if we are talking about polio, I think we should be aware of what it really is, here is a four-minute video summarising the disease and its history — unfortunately, mainly focusing on the US context only. Highlight: only 5% of all people who contract polio develop paralytic polio; otherwise the symptoms are pretty light (headache, fever, vomiting). But if you do develop paralytic polio, it’s very bad news, as it becomes quite clear from the novel. The information in the video is outdated; unfortunately we see polio resurfacing in some where it has been previously eradicated (e.g. Syria).
TL;DR What is the meaning of retribution as opposed to revenge? What does it mean to die from a paralytic disease as opposed to the plague, HIV, etc. Who is on the recipient side of this retribution? Who committed the hubris in the novel? What would it mean not to die from the disease and live with the devastating consequences of it?
Finally, I would like to leave you with a photo of the iron lungs, the machine that some people had to spend the rest of their life in after becoming paralysed.
This is our first text where we encounter HIV/AIDS as the subject of contagion in our course. Event though I am sure we all know what HIV/AIDS is and what the distinction between the two terms are, here is a short video reminder nonetheless.
What can we say about the symbolic role of the disease in Angels in America? How can we relate the fact that the main symptom of AIDS is our body’s inability to protect itself from external threats, just like some of the characters were unable to protect themselves from the harm caused by loved ones (think Harper) or the society?
Interestingly, AIDS has been casually called the ‘gay plague’ during the initial outbreak. When we have been discussing devastating diseases thus far, part of the horror was their indiscriminate nature. Yet the HIV/AIDS epidemic at the beginning of the ’80s has demonstrated just how ugly society’s response can be when only a subset of the population is at risk, especially minorities that are already discriminated against. Here is a short video of the early AIDS news coverage, or the “GRID,” gay-related immune deficiency, as it was first called.
What happens when ‘the plague’ suddenly started choosing it’s victims? When it seemingly starts targeting what could perhaps be called the most hated minority of the time? When the disease comes alive with a taste for certain humans?
Finally, what happens when the doctors refuse to test the blood that they know may be infected with a deadly virus for which there is no cure, simply because it might damage revenue and give the blood to haemophiliacs? To quote And the Band Played On, a great book on the epidemic: “when the doctors start acting like businessmen, who do the people turn to for doctors?” In all the books we read so far, the doctors were mostly portrayed as positive characters. What happens when we can’t rely even on the ones that are supposed to save us? Who were the respective characters in Angels in America relying on in the play?
Camus’s The Plague is different from what we have previously read in the sense that it relays the story of an isolated town. Unlike Defoe’s London, Oran is completely shut off from the outside world during the epidemic and its citizens quite literally become “the prisoners of the plague” (Camus 129); thus, the quarantine causes great turmoil in the city. An outstanding example is the burning of the houses by the townsfolk:
“…there was an increased number of fires, especially in the leisure districts around the west gates of the town. Investigation showed that these were due to people who had come back from quarantine and, driven mad by grief and misfortune, set light to their houses under the illusion that this would kill the plague.” (Camus 130)
Moreover Camus tells us, in what could arguably be called one of the most important passages of the novel, that the greatest vice of humanity is ignorance:
“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill.” (Camus 100-101)
What can we say about the self-destructiveness of humans under the threat of death in Camus’s novel? Can we relate such irrational, violent, and most importantly ignorant behavior with the attitudes of “merrymakers” in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Pushkin’s A Feast in Time of Plague andother characters in Camus’s novel? How does this expand on our previous discussions of the appropriate reactions to imminent death?
Speaking of irrationality, Rieux’s contemplation of war and plague deserves our attention. Citizens of Oran are “humanists” and therefore cannot accept that the visitation will last: it is “too stupid,” too “unreal” (Camus 30). However, what they fail to realize is that disease, just like death, is irrational and it does not follow human expectations. In addition, the fact that disease is beyond our control addresses the subject of it being a form of punishment (also seen in Defoe).
Thus, the expectation of meaning in the face of a disease becomes irrational, as demonstrated by the initial denial of the disease by Oran’s citizens. The manager of Tarrou’s hotel is perhaps the embodiment of the citizens’ refusal to acknowledge their shared fate, when there are rats found in the elevator he is unable to accept that his hotel is leveled with everyone else:
‘“But everybody has the same thing.”
“Exactly,” he [the manager] replied. “Now we are like everybody.”’ (Camus 24)
The citizens’ inaction and the medical community’s neglect, although seemingly irrational in retrospect, is attributed to the general belief (mentioned above) that a plague was something unreal, a ghost from the past. Rieux and Tarrou are perhaps the most prominent characters that realize the necessity of alleviating the suffering of the sick, defying the bystander effect, despite the futility of their struggle. This situation resembles the futility of our everyday struggle against death, and the apparent meaninglessness of life in the face of death.
Is Rieux’s struggle truly futile? What is the novel’s stance on the meaning of everyday life in the face of death? What is the appropriate reaction to irrational catastrophes like wars and epidemics? Is there any meaning to a fight without any chance of winning?
Furthermore, newspapers also seem to occupy an important place in the story. Interestingly, we have already discussed their role previously during our analyses of Defoe, Brockden Brown and Ibsen, in which they promote societal approved values and spread rumors. By contrast, in Camus they first act as tools and leverage to make the authorities face the problem of rats; yet, when the human death toll starts rising, they are strangely silent and later become the space for advertisement for potions and “cures”.
What is the role of media in the novel? Can we tie the hypocrisy of Oran’s media outlets to our previous discussion of rumors and news?
On a side note, the rats depicted in the novel can be seen to symbolize the citizens because they die in droves, much like the people do when the plague strikes. At the beginning of the play thousands of dead rats begin turning up in public places. Their sudden deaths foreshadow the effect of the plague on the human population later on. Furthermore the disposal of human corpses is very similar to that of the rats. They are collected and deposited in mass graves, undermining society’s traditions, underscoring the meaninglessness of life and highlighting the senselessness of death.
What other role are the rats playing in the novel ? What other similarities are there between the humans and the rats? Why do the newspapers report the rat problem but ignore the epidemic at first?
We hope that these questions will help us kick off our discussion of this outstanding piece of literature.
During our discussion in class we have briefly touched upon some of the apparent parallels that can be found between Ibsen’s Ghosts and Oedipus Rex. Pursuing this line of thought, I delved into the bowels of the internet and found some fascinating articles about Ibsen here.
In Sophokles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus defies the warning of his priest, Tiresias, and embarks on a quest for truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that he is the criminal he seeks, the unintentionally guilty destroyer of his own family.
In Ghosts Helene Alving defies her priest, Pastor Manders and embarks on a journey towards the truth that ends in the devastating knowledge that she is the unintentionally guilty destroyer of her family.
Another interesting issue brought by these essays is the temporal sequence of the play: how can it be that the play begins in the morning, is only interrupted by lunch, and yet somehow ends morning next day? This is
…a passage of at least sixteen hours. Yet the action of the play…is just two hours. Even in the most laid-back Norwegian households, lunches don’t go on for fourteen hours.
How can this inform our reading of the play? What is Ibsen trying to convey with this impossibility? How is this similar to Oedipus’s journey of discovery that unfolds in a matter of a few hours? What are some of the deterministic elements present in Oedipus Rex and how do these translate to 19th century Norway?
On a different note, perhaps one of the most intriguing metamorphoses that a text can undergo is its adaptation through the movements of the human body, i.e. dance. Here is a trailer for Cathy Marston’s dance adaptation, filmed at the Royal Opera House, London.
Finally, here you can find a beautifully haunting interpretation of ghosts by a contemporary Italian sculptor, Livio Scapella.
Ps.: The quote of the title is from Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers.