Author: Sophia

When AIDS Was Funny

Angels in America takes us back to the AIDS pandemic in America. The play is set in 1985, 4 years after the epidemic first started and 2 years before President Reagan publicly addressed the epidemic by its name (see here for a detailed timeline of HIV/AIDS in America compiled by New York City AIDS Memorial).

The first cases were reported in 1981. By 1984, 7,239 had been infected and 5,596 died. In 1985, there was an 89 percent increase in new AIDS cases compared with the previous year. The severity of the epidemic and the apathy of the Reagan administration formed a stark contrast in those days. Here’s an exchange between Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, and journalist Lester Kinsolving in 1982:

Kinsolving: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?

Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.

Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.[Press pool laughter.] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.

Speakes: I don’t have it. [Press pool laughter.] Do you?

Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: Do you?

Kinsolving: No, I don’t.

Speakes: You didn’t answer my question. How do you know? [Press pool laughter.]

Kinsolving: Does the president — in other words, the White House — look on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

The jokes from the White House carried on despite soaring death tolls. Here is another exchange between the two 2 years later in 1984:

Speakes: Lester is beginning to circle now. He’s moving up front. Go ahead.

Kinsolving: Since the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report is going to… [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: This is going to be an AIDS question.

Kinsolving: …that an estimated…

Speakes: You were close.

Kinsolving: Can I ask the question, Larry? That an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the president, as commander in chief, take steps to protect armed forces, food, and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they bed typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?

Speakes: I don’t know.

Kinsolving: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry?

Speakes: I haven’t heard him express concern.

Kinsolving: That seems to have evoked such jocular reaction here. [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.

Unidentified person: Has he sworn off water faucets now?

Kinsolving: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?

Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything. Sorry.

Kinsolving: You mean he has expressed no opinion about this epidemic

Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it.

Kinsolving: Will you ask him, Larry?

Speakes: Have you been checked? [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: Is the president going to ban mouth-to-mouth kissing?

Kinsolving: What? Pardon? I didn’t hear your answer.

Speakes: [Laughs.] Ah, it’s hard work. I don’t get paid enough. Um. Is there anything else we need to do here?

(For the audio of this exchange, see this documentary called When AIDS was Funny

Besides the homophobic jokes and infuriating indifference, we also see how little was known about AIDS (people still thought it could be transmitted through saliva and was only a problem within the gay community, thus, called the “gay plague”) despite the fact that 3 years have passed since the epidemic started–a telltale sign of the lack of research done at the time. To get more funding for research, over 100,000 people marched in San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic National Convention. 

An AIDS protest in front of the White House. ACT UP activists hang a "Silence = Death" banner on the White House gates.
An AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) protest in front of the White House (Jeffrey Markowitz / Sygma / Getty)

All this time, the President was silent. It was only until the spring of 1987 did Reagan give a public speech about AIDS at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington DC. By that time, 36,058 Americans had been infected and 20,849 had died. The speech was also no more than a mere acknowledgment of the happenings: “But let’s be honest with ourselves. ‘AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral’. After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” There was no mention of increasing government-funded research, but rather to “give educators accurate information about the disease. How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not Government.”

More on Reagan and the AIDS:

Listen To the Dead Man Sing

Dream of Ding Village, written by Yan Lianke, one of the most influential (and bravest) contemporary Chinese writers, is a depressingly realistic tale of an AIDS village in Henan, China. The story is based on actual blood sales that happened in Henan province when China faced a blood shortage in the 1980s. The Chinese government ordered each government official in each province to collect a certain quantity of blood donations. The officials in Henan provinces jumped at the opportunity for economic growth and marketed blood selling as a way of easy money to its people who are mostly farmers. 

Poverty and desperation for wealth blinded the Ding villager’s eyes and drove them to hop on the trend of blood sales. When the classrooms are turned into the dormitories for the sick and they are discussing why they first sold blood, most of the people were driven to it due to poverty, like the girl who sold her blood so she “could buy a bottle of nice shampoo.” The higher-ups were using the villager’s circumstances to pressure them into selling blood by successfully convincing them that blood-selling is more profitable than farming and keeping them in the dark about the practices being used and the long-term dangers. Although the older generation was worried about the consequences, the potential economic development in this rural town made blood sales irresistible to the villagers. The village grew rapidly on the “blood money.” Soon, the limit of the frequency of blood selling became ignored. People were selling more and more blood. People’s greed and ignorance obscured the potential harm this rapid development would have in the village. The blood heads started luring people into their business and into selling so much blood that the narrator says you could often spot people standing upside down to get their blood circulation back. Those blood heads became “bloody rich” indeed and were the main culprits of the AIDS pandemic that followed.

Dream of Ding Village | UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

The novel is about the AIDS pandemic in China, yet, it feels like a subtle commentary on China’s rapid economic growth. In the past 30 years, China has had great opportunities for a fast development the world has never seen before. However, the consequences of this fast development will have a cost on the land, nature, and the people in the foreseeable future. Just like the people in the villages, the blood-selling business gave them a new street and new houses, but the cost is only paid after a few years when almost the whole village feels sick and dies. The brand new houses then become the skeleton that reminds people of their blinding greed.

In the AIDS-stricken Ding’s village, we see that people “are dying like falling leaves. Their light extinguishing, gone from this world.” “If you hadn’t seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn’t ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead.” Not only did people who sold blood die, but others died like falling leaves as well. Girls were married into families and contracted AIDS without knowing their husbands were carriers. Our narrator died without ever selling his blood. No one in the village foresaw their fate (unless they read Camus), yet they were all stricken down by what made the village flourish years ago – blood sales. 

Death is central to the story not only because people are dying in almost every chapter, but also because from the very beginning of the book, we are told that the story is narrated from the grave: the omnipresent narrator Ding Quiang died of poison at the age of 12. The main story also unravels itself as we listened to the songs of Ma Xianglin, who then died on the stage. This is why we named our post “Listen To the Dead Man Sing.” 

We want to ask the following question: what does death mean?

One answer is that death means salvation. 

Throughout the book, Grandpa wishes his first-born son Ding Hui were dead. Ding Hui is certainly a sinner. A swindler and a scammer before and after the AIDS pandemic, he ripped people off from selling blood to selling coffins. As the biggest bloodhead in the village, he was a direct cause of the spread of AIDS. We also shouldn’t forget that because of his wrongdoings, his son–our narrator–was poisoned to death at the age of 12. Ding Hui wasn’t bothered by his sins, as he continued to earn “blood money” through his coffin business, but his father – Grandpa – was, deeply.

In the beginning, Grandpa started begging Ding Hui to get down on his knees and apologize to the villagers, but of course, Ding Hui never did and even threatened Grandpa that he would not support him in his old age or even go to his funeral if he brings this topic up again. At Ma Xianglin’s performance, Grandpa tried to choke Ding Hui to death. But what would Ding Hui’s death do? Perhaps, Grandpa wanted his death to serve as an apology and free him from all the sins he had committed in this village. Grandpa is also very specific about the way he wishes Ding Hui to die – in front of the public. This makes us think of an execution of a sinner. It also reminds us of the rats dying in streets while people dying in their homes in Camus’ The Plague. After what Ding Hui has done, he seems to have lost his value as a human, degraded into the likes of rats, and should now die in the streets.

Another answer is that death (or the sight of it) is the revelation of human nature.

Within the school where the AIDS-inflicted people gather, the worst of human nature flourished. We see lies, thefts, incest, betrayals, abuse of power … This reminded us of people in Defoe’s Journal of A Plague Year breaking into houses and robbing the dead. But it is even worse in Ding village because those people at the school are doomed to die. They have nothing to lose. 

HIV is growing so fast among Chinese youth that a university is selling  testing kits in vending machines — Quartz

But it wasn’t just the worst of human nature that prevailed. In a way, we also saw the formation of the school as voluntary quarantine and a way of doing good. The school was a utopian environment for the almost-dead to enjoy their last days. Inside this utopian society, since everyone was sick, the identity of AIDs patients was ignored. People started to view each other as humans, yet still contemplating their actions with traditions and values. In Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife. These themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel. In the previous readings, sin is often a result of an individual’s choice and action. Here, the sin is approached in a collection as a family or a community. The grandpa created the school as a way to pay back the father’s sin of starting the blood-selling business.

This also brought us to think about the element of family in this story. Family is worshipped as the single most important unit in Chinese society. The collectivity of a community comes before each individual, meaning that people think from and for the family. In the positive aspect, the villagers tried to turn a new leaf and provide a better life for their families. They strived for the betterment of the tight-knit community. However, on the negative side, the bond could become suffocating shackles that bound you to the faults of other family members. The narrator was poisoned for his father’s cruelty. The villagers were blamed for carrying the virus. Both took the consequences of others’ sins. The sins do not only harm the wrongdoer but also infect other family members. In society, you are seen as one. It was interesting to see that the villagers tried to find a sense of community within the school like the citizens of Oran. In both the Plague and Dream of the Ding Village, we could see how they committed terrible deeds against one another. Selfishness shone through before they could find a common ground. However, as they bond over the shadow of overseeable death, the anguish of the disease, and the discrimination and isolation from the outside world, the villagers came together to fight the disease.

In Ghosts, the Plague, and now Dream of Ding Village, the theme of victim-blaming persisted. Even though everyone was impacted by the disease, the victims were, directly and indirectly, distorted as the perpetrators of the tragedy that did something to deserve the disease. In Ghosts, Oswald deserved to die because of his freethinking and exploring his authentic self. In the Plague, the citizens of Oran paid for their sins with their lives. In this Henan village, the villagers deserved dehumanization because they tried to make a living by “cheating the system.” Their sufferings were justified by “logically” connecting what they did to what they received. People that blamed the victims were making sense of this shock by not making any sense and sensible conclusions. So how can we stop shifting blame for the mere sake of finding the scapegoat? Moreover, how can the scapegoats survive the approaching blade of the public? 

Increase in number of HIV cases in China raises concerns | Financial Times

When All is Over, What Then?

When all of this is over, are we going hedonistic or are we trapped by FONO?

Here is a fun video that talks about life in the 1920s after influenza and WWI ended — a time marked by lots of jazz, dancing, and drinking — and predicts our life in the post-Covid world.

Going completely hedonistic is not exactly what happened to Miranda at the end of the book Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Miranda reminds me of a new acronym I came across the other day: FONO aka Fear of Normal.

As Miranda recovers and prepares to return to a normal life, we see that she’s almost reluctant to leave the hospital where all her sickness and suffering happened. Her world was shattered and then put by together to become the “new normal.” There was no more Liberty Bond that obnoxious men forced her to buy, no Adam to go dancing with after a boring workday, … Fear is what we see on her face as she steps “one foot in either world” — the old days and the new (207).

Similarly, as we finally see the hope of getting out of our pandemic mode into a normal life today, lots of us are thinking the same thing — FONO. As the author of this article by the Washington Post says, when he gets invited to a social event, his mind races: “What about masks? Will there be hugs? Handshakes? Do I remember how to make small talk? What would I possibly wear?” I’m sure many of you reading this post in the late-Covid world or post-Covid world will relate to this. FONO isn’t a fear of the normal that we know. It’s a fear of a “new normal” that we are only beginning to have a glimpse of.

So, hedonism or FONO after Covid? Some of us seem to be standing in one of the two camps already. Either way, only future people can tell us how we really fared at the end of Covid, though I do hope no “mandatory sobriety” isn’t coming at us down the road 🙂

Escapism In Times of A Plague

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality

Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see …”

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

And see there is a deadly plague in town.

Feasts, songs, staycations at Italian villas, stories, Netflix, and even pornography*. These are all things people have used to escape from the reality of a pandemic – the first two in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, the second two in Boccacio’s Decameron, and the last two in our world during Covid-19. These things divert people’s attention and help them catch a breath amid the overwhelming pandemic that’s in every nook and cranny of their lives.  

The theme of escapism is especially prominent in Pushkin’s play A Feast During the Plague. The play begins with the chairman Mr. Walsingham urging everyone to celebrate the living instead of grieving for the dead. Together, they feast, toast to their dead friend, and sing songs describing the plague in action. It’s not that they are unaware of the deadliness of the plague. As we can see (or hear) from Mary’s song, they are aware that “the dead are carried out / To burials that never cease, / The living pray in fear and trembling.” Also, unlike the young men and women in Decameron who are almost unaffected by the plague and go on their trip to the villa as if it’s a spring outing, the people at Pushkin’s feasting table have suffered personal losses to various extents: they lost their friend Jackson; Mr. Walsingham lost his wife and his mother; Mary seems to have lost her parents, … 

All these pitiful people gather at the feasting table for an escape from the horrid reality of the plague and the grave consequences that have befallen them, as Mr. Walsingham tells us: “I am bound here / By despair, by terrible remembrance, by the knowledge of my lawlessness, and by horror of that dead emptiness which greets me now in my own house.” Notice the word “bound.” He seems to suggest that he is not feasting by choice but rather compelled to be there because there is nothing else he can do without directly confronting the tragedy in his house. 

Reading about their gathering, we wonder if they are afraid of contracting the plague themselves. One answer to this question is that they are afraid of the contagion, but they have moved beyond the state of fear to a state of irrationality. This reminds us of the Covid-19 parties in Alabama when organizers purposefully invited guests that have tested positive. Granted, our feasters in the play may be slightly more rational (and perhaps more intelligent) than these party-goers in Alabama. But a similar form of irrational escapism is found in both: when there’s too much plague-ness in their life, people do irrational things like these under the slogan “youth loves gaiety” to shun the scary or saddening thoughts they are tired of having.  

Coupled with irrationality, there’s also a sense of fatalism in their escape from reality. In Mr. Walsingham’s song, he sings “All, all that threatens to destroy / Fills mortal hearts with secret joy / Beyond our power to explain – / Perhaps it bodes eternal life! And blest is he who can attain / That ecstasy in storm and strife!” It almost seems like he desires to contract the plague and die, but at the same time he is calling the plague “a queen of dread” (We will come back to this personification later). 

With all of these said about escapism, we would like to invite you to think about the following questions:

Should we attempt to escape from reality when it’s too much for us to handle? If so, for how long? The duration of a feast? Or perhaps a few weeks of staying at Boccacio’s Italian villa?

Aside from the theme of escapism, we would also like to bring your attention to a few other questions that intrigued us:

First, how does each character depict and react to the plague? Does how we think of and react to the plague have any consequences?

The dialogues in this play, especially Mary’s and Mr. Walsingham’s songs, are filled with imagery, analogy, and personification of the plague that reflected people’s reactions to the plague. 

One interesting point is how Mr. Walsingham personifies the plague to be “the queen of dread.” This use of female personification to describe something as horrible as the plague is very different from how we tend to use female personification today: we mainly use female personification to describe things that are beautiful or bountiful, such as the earth. Related to this use of personification, is the overall contrast between males and females in this play. Men, such as the chairman, have leadership positions and the song they sing are “bold and lively;” on the other hand, women are quarreling or having fainting fits, and the song they sing is “sad and haunting.” 

A variety of responses to the plague are displayed in this play. Mary’s song is a melancholic reminiscence of the past in the face of the vivid cruelty of the present. Louisa’s personification of the plague as the “hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes” shows her fear of death during the feast. In striking contrast, the chairman’s song is a declaration of war against their enemy, the plague, that confronts and celebrates death (A great conveners’ post from last year’s class that also touches upon this analogy to war can be found here.). These descriptions, although different, all evoke powerful emotions that repeatedly shift the mood of the feast. The chairman’s speech at the end even prompted the crowd to drive out the priest because of his attempt to dismiss the feast. 

The spread of emotional responses to the plague is also present in A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. The city of London was filled with fear, panic, and hysteria. People are in no way capable of controlling their emotions and responses in these situations, but stabilizing public reaction plays a crucial factor in minimizing the damage of a pandemic. What’s worse in today’s society is that the usage of social media in our daily life polarizes the information we receive about the pandemic, even more so during quarantine when the internet is our only source of news, and this adds a further challenge (or opportunity?) to controlling public reaction during pandemics.

So how should we treat and respond to detrimental shocks like the plague? Is there a proper timeline or principle to moderate this shock to prevent mass hysteria and misinformation? A Feast During the Plague, especially through the emotional conflicts of the chairman and the priest, raises questions of much weight do our words, with the use of literary devices, truly hold in affecting the public?

(Interesting side note: today, climate activists treat climate change as “the war of humankind”. The idea of fighting against a phenomenon parallels the chairman’s speech in the reading. Would you say it is an effective way of appealing to emotions and motivating people with a sense of urgency? Or is it creating an opposite effect?)

Second, is it really morally shameful to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or can it be justified as a redemption of the human spirit in the face of darkness? 

Contagious diseases like Covid and the plague create a challenging dilemma for all of us, humans, to reevaluate our relationships with each other. Humans are like hedgehogs, it is inescapable that we stay together for warmth, but if we are too close, too connected, we hurt each other. We are all involved in a community, but we also survive as individuals. Pandemics pose a challenge for us to reconstruct the interdependent relationship between ourselves and our community. Our safety and happiness can no longer be obtained in a group setting, what should we do? 

In both A Journal of the Plague Year and A Feast During the Plague, society very quickly created a new moral construct to regulate people’s actions in order to maintain the fulfillment of a common goal – combating the plague. People are then bound – morally and sometimes legally – by this new social construct. Even nowadays on our campus, we shame those who host parties and prioritize their personal enjoyment over our community’s safety. These new moral constructs ask us to downplay our personal interests, quarantine, struggle with mental health, and be responsible for the interest of a larger community. But to what extent can we sacrifice ourselves? Moreover, How do we balance our personal interest with heroism and responsibility to the world?  A Feast During the Plague presents us with this challenge through the conflict between Mr. Walsingham and the priest. Is it really shameful, like the priest says, to pursue selfish personal enjoyment during a pandemic, or is it justified during the days of darkness?

With that, we leave you here. Hope you enjoyed Pushkin’s play and our blog post.

– Amna, Chi-Ting, Sophia, Vivi

*See here for an interesting study done on pornography consumption during Covid-19.