Hi everyone! We are making our last post of the semester to present our final podcast. We loved the idea of having a final project that involved us having conversations about the texts we read during the semester. We narrowed down on a theme, and tried to explore it (and a little bit extra) as much as we could.
Hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we did making it. Let us know what you think!
I don’t think I have contact with any of my students from Harvard in 1999-2000, which was the first time I taught Angels in America, but these were two of my students in an honors seminar I taught during my first semester at NYU in the fall of 2001. It was amazing to run into them a couple years ago when we had all turned up to see the same showing of Kushner’s plays back-to-back on Broadway.
I ran a few searches on Twitter to find the best tweets from my history of teaching the play. I started Twitter in 2009-10, so they don’t run earlier than that, although there are links to blog content for older courses that take you back at least to the mid-2000s. Some of those old blog formats have become quite run down. I will try to recover one of the more important posts from that run, with relevance to our final discussion of the play, and repost it here in full. Meanwhile, here’s this thread if you’re interested in memory lane.
Donald Trump may be (outwardly) the most powerful COVID denier in the world, but he is not the only one. Denialism runs deep inside the minds of people, whether due to their distorted allegiance to rationality (or rationalization) or thanks to the conditioned privilege of not encountering catastrophes on a daily basis before the disaster kicks their doors open and tells them to wake up. In Camus’s The Plague, we encounter denialism through witnessing the plague unravel from the perspective of Dr. Rieux, who unmasks the reality of the sickness taking over the French-Algerian city of Oran.
Figure 1. Variations in the book cover for Albert Camus’ The Plague
Among the many book covers (Fig. 1) of Albert Camus’ The Plague, the one at the bottom left corner, a 1955 version from the first paperback publication of the author’s work (Fig. 2), seems to best reflect the environment where the plague of denialism can spread among the denizens. The pastel roofs of the houses in the city Oran, painted lightly in blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, etc., aptly corresponds to how the town is pictured by Camus, with “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning,” where “all seemed well” (58). The soft colors belie how at the beginning the people of the city take the progression of the plague ‘lightly,’ in the tranquility that is “so casual and thoughtless [that it] seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague,” allowing the rats, as depicted in the cover, to infiltrate the town, just as soldiers during the war would conduct their surprise-attacks (39). Rats aside, the optimistic colors of the city are in contrast with the foreboding figure in the foreground. Could the figure be an anthropomorphized representation of a plague, a secondary one that is birthed by the epidemic of denialism? Why is the figure positioned at the outside of Oran, as if he is a foreigner to the city?
The figure of the plague is always a migrant, someone that arrives from abroad, rather than something in the population itself. That’s true for COVID- it jumped from animals to humans, a taxonomic leap that destabilized the entire human colony on earth. Yet barring the foreigner from entry is the most appealing tactic in a time of plague- that’s the first, measly step President Trump took to stem the flow of the contagion in February, and he focused only on China. That was never going to be sufficient, but the denier in chief of the US thought it would be enough. Denialism is no foreigner to us.
This previous conveners post touches upon denialism in society in The Plague through framing it as a “conflict between confidence and fear”, highlighted in the interaction between the authorities and the doctors and the reluctance to alarm people about the pestilence in concern of spreading fear. Adding to this previous conveners post, it is crucial to account for the dynamics between doctors and political authorities, and the roles each assume (which are still concerningly relevant to this day), described accurately in the following excerpt:
“… It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”
While doctors are concerned with protecting citizens and taking the necessary precautions to curb the spread of a contagion, authorities, in their PR-full roles, worry about image, response, and appeal. With a clash in intent and concern, citizens are often left in a state of confusion caused by a lack of information (and the abundance of misinformation). This could lead to difficulty in understanding the true extent of the plague, even when presented with numbers and official notices.
“And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. ”We see similar issues taking place today with how people are becoming numb to COVID death counts, despite more creative efforts in explaining to the populace how many people have died. COVID no longer surprises us. COVID is no longer a foreigner.
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.