Category: Conveners’ posts

Memories of the Fallen Riders: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Red Cross volunteers assembling influenza masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Content source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers us a glimpse into the psyche of young Americans during World War I and the raging 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu”. Widely assumed to be based on the author’s own life experiences, the novella tells the story of Miranda, a reporter who covers the “routine female job” (149) of theatrical reviews. Even before Miranda contracts influenza, she cannot escape death; she is literally surrounded by funerals and death permeates even her most inane conversations through constant references to the war. However, it is not until she herself becomes sick and nearly dies that she experiences a fundamental shift in her relationship with her own mortality, returning to consciousness with the impression that “the body is a curious monster, no place to live in…” (203). In a world so full of death, what does it mean to live—to escape the pale rider?     

A past convener’s post explores the impact of Porter’s choice to employ the narrative style of free indirect discourse, aptly described as “a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters.” Throughout the story, it is often unclear whether we are hearing Miranda’s direct thoughts or the reflections of an outside narrator; this is part of what contributes to the hazy treatment of time in the novel, which Professor Waterman reflects on in his article “Plague Time (Again)”. The overall narrative structure of the piece is also worth considering as we try to piece together what Porter is showing us about death, war, and society. If this story is essentially a narrative about surviving an illness, why does Porter choose to start the action so long before Miranda actually falls ill? Why give us so much information about war bonds and newspapers? One answer lies in Miranda’s resistance towards returning to normalcy after she recovers. She puts off reading the letters that her loved ones sent while she was sick, lamenting, “They will all be telling me how good it is to be alive, they will say again they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to that?” (205). Even these positive threads of her communicative network pull at Miranda in unwanted ways, demanding a response that she feels she cannot give. By dedicating more than half of the story to Miranda’s life prior to the illness, Porter allows readers to see more clearly what has changed here. Once a vibrant, active figure within a social network, Miranda now feels alienated from others due to her new perspective on life and death. The disease has not just impacted her physical contact with others, but also her desire to engage in emotional, intellectual contact.

Adam and Miranda’s relationship has a doomed fate from the start, as Adam is readying for deployment overseas, a fact that the couple is acutely aware of: “She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.” What they don’t know is that it will be the virus that gets them first.  Still, that doesn’t stop the couple from enjoying their precious moments together. They spend their 10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz under the stars, sharing stories, going to plays, talking about their past lives and reflecting on futures that can never be. Their love adds a vibrance and light to the story, contrasting with the context of death and darkness they are surrounded by. Funeral processions pass regularly through the streets with seemingly growing frequency, but Miranda is determined not to disturb “the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty four years old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.”  Similarly to the community in A Feast During the Plague, human connection provides escapism, a symbol of the goodness remaining in the world. Miranda is portrayed as using her relationship with Adam as a shield against the war and the virus, substituting and interweaving one set of experiences for another.

The relationship between the living, the dead and memory is presented as a recurring motif in the text (Severance, is that you?). At one point, Miranda and Adam discuss the eponymous traditional spiritual Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which death steals the singer’s lover, mother, father, siblings, and eventually, the entire family. Because the dead in the song, like the dead in the war and the victims of the influenza pandemic, have no memory, remembering them becomes the survivor’s responsibility. Miranda identifies with the singer in the spiritual when she tells Adam, “but not the singer, not yet. Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190). As mourners at the feast, Miranda and Porter eventually each become bearers of memories that would otherwise be forgotten. 

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that just as much as the story is about escaping death, it is also about accepting death. In the case of Adam, he tries to make the best of his life and his time with Miranda because he wants to make use of what little time he has left before he goes to fight in the war. He has already accepted his death and does not run from it. He treats the war to be the same as his death (for example, he explains that he smokes despite knowing how bad it is because the state of his lungs in the future does not matter when he is going to war anyway.).

Despite this, however, he did not harbour any ill emotion for being made to fight in the war – he views it as his duty, saying he could not “look himself in the face” if he didn’t go (177). Miranda views him as a sacrificial lamb, marching to his death without fighting against it, having accepted it. This is quite similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, where Oswald accepts his inevitable (brain) death, although in his case, there is nothing he can do to fight against it. We can say that Adam has more agency than Oswald, and he gives up what little agency he has and accepts his fate. Another interesting, coincidental connection with Ghosts is that the sun represents death in Oswald’s case, while in Miranda’s case, it represents her coming back to life.

When discussing agency, we can revisit The Decameron, where the privileged ten have all the agency in the world to abandon their city and live in a countryside mansion. Here too, the ten main characters are running from death that surrounds them in the city, fighting against it, although it is much easier for them than for Adam.

In the concluding passages of the text, as Miranda regains consciousness to find that the war has finally ended, she is confronted with an atmosphere of jubilation in stark contrast to her individual story of deep loss. Amidst the celebration, Miranda’s reaction to the news of Adam’s death reflects on the purpose and meaning of her life without her lover: “Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?” (208). Now, rather than accepting her own death, she has to accept Adam’s, which is hard for her to do. As an ode to Severance, we see Miranda adopting consumer rituals, marking her survival and as an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, however her psyche remains haunted by the ghost of her lover, who is ‘more alive than she is’. 

To Miranda, her recurring struggle over Adam’s memory seems to be driven by three key reasons: because it is her responsibility, because it connects her to other survivors, and because she loves Adam. At the moment Miranda comes closest to death, “a thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh the dead, where are they?” (201). As she asks this question, she feels excruciating physical pain – the first returning sensation of life – and she begins to recover both her health and her memory. We view this connection between pain and forgetting as not accidental. Porter, who has experienced both her own near death and the actual death of her lover due to influenza, warns the reader that only the fragile, vulnerable thread of memory connects the living to the dead. Forgetting is presented as the psychological analog to physical paralysis, so remembering and pain, although negative states, are preferable to lack of memory and lack of sensation. Ultimately, Porter leaves us with the questions: why is it important to remember the dead? What is the relationship between the living and the dead? And what do those left behind owe to those taken away by the Pale Horse, when “now, there would be time for everything” (208)?

Maja, Mary, Saideep, Asma

A complex complex

I’d like to throw out two general areas for our consideration as we begin our discussion of Oedipus: First, the question of plague as material fact and as metaphor. To what degree can we think about the representation of plague in these separate ways — i.e., literal and figurative? To what degree are they conflated here? (This will be a question for us to continue asking as we go through the course.) The second general area has to do with social organization: What models of government or leadership are on display here? Kingship? Kinship? Social authority? Information networks? What does a plague setting offer to the play’s attempt to address such issues?

In a convener’s post for Oedipus the King I wrote for Contagion 2012, way back during the first iteration of this course, I mentioned a strain of recent scholarship on Sophocles’ play that takes the plague setting seriously:

After all, the assumption on scholars’ parts has long been that Sophocles introduced an epidemic as the setting for his version of the Oedipus myth because Athens had so recently suffered from plague (as recounted in the brief excerpt you’ve read from Thucydides). With mass deaths so fresh on their minds, these critics ask, wouldn’t Sophocles and his audience have understood the plague to be an actual fact of life rather than a literary symbol? If this set of questions interests you, I’d point you in the direction of this recent book by Robin Mitchell-Boyask, a classicist at Temple University in Philadelphia. You might also want to check out an even more recent article, written by a team at the University of Athens Medical School. It appeared this year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Center for Disease Control in the United States, and “adopt[s] a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features” to conclude that “this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.”

My assumption, in that post, was that we’d approach the plague in Sophocles’s novel as either intended to recall medical situations Sophocles’s original audience would have recognized, or that the plague was being used metaphorically, to represent something morally “sick” about the community — or its leader. As I noted in that original post, we read this play at the start of this course not just to recognize how long the plague-as-metaphor idea has been around, but also to question whether the literal and figurative registers are as separate or opposed as we commonly take them. From your reading of the play, do you see compelling reasons to side one way or another on the issue? What would it mean to decide that “this epidemic was an actual event”? Does the plague become more or less powerful in the play’s world? And how might this set of questions force us to continue thinking even more carefully about the relationship between sickness or medicine and the language we use to describe it (and anything else)?

As may be apparent by the juxtaposition on the syllabus of Sophocles’ play against Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens — coming soon! — we’ll be talking over the next little while about the significance of genre here. Sophocles is writing a play; Thucydides is writing a history. How does the plague figure into each? How does each author represent it? What can narrative structure teach us about either work’s ideals related to self, social, or medical knowledge? And how might each work help us consider the question of whether it’s possible to write about disease in language that doesn’t trade in metaphor of some sort?

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source. Are there ways to bring together the play’s take on what makes a good leader with Mark Harrison‘s historical consideration of the connection between epidemics and evolving notions of good government, which you read for last time?

The Great Work Begins

From the original production of Angels in America

“America, when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?”

America, Allen Ginsberg (1956)

Kushner’s “Angels in America” is a spectacle of diverse characters. The entanglement of individuals living and imaginary, along with deliberate choices in production such as having one actor play multiple characters, create a representative cohort to inhabit his depiction of America. 

A Character Map of the main characters in the play

At the beginning of the play, Kushner is detail oriented in his description of characters. What attributes of character backgrounds does he emphasize, why? Alongside pointing out relationships between characters, there is a focus on occupation, where they are from, and a re-casting of actors for sub-characters. How do these details influence your reading of and, from the perspective of a production, the portrayal of the play?

Each component of the characters plays into the threads that are discussed in this convener’s post and perhaps remind you of prior readings as well: the focus on Mormon and Jewish religious minorities, AIDs, intergenerational politics, LGBTQ issues and power dynamics. These labels and personality traits have a particular function and continually raise questions about identity.

For instance, Belize, “a registered nurse and former drag queen whose name was originally Norman Arriaga” is a black gay man whose character pays homage to the ball and voguing culture of mid to late 80s in New York. Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” explores this scene through a similar lens as Kushner, focusing on gay and drag subculture and its importance in tackling AIDs, homophobia and racism and defining the modern LGBTQ movement.

The production history of the play is a story in its own right. Since its first performance in May 1990, the play has been re-invented by theatres all around the world and adapted to film and new media. Kushner also informs specific staging choices, like split view, where he does not encourage the use of freezing characters, but rather recommends that ‘active choices’ be made to stay silent to shift between the two simultaneous threads. What are the roles of these details in staging? What is lost when more artistic agency deviates from these instructions? 

Angels in America unfolds against the backdrop of intersecting historical moments in 20th century America. There is the era of the Reagan administration, characterized by significant political polarization and a heightened “conservative revolution.” There is the Cold War, with references throughout the play alluding to McCarthyism and Russian espionage— the title of the second part itself, “Perestroika,” a reference to the reformation policy promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 70s. There is the post-WWII era, characterized by the influx of Jewish migrants from Central and Eastern Europe into the United States. And finally, there is the U.S. AIDS crisis, which was also historically defined with severe undertones of homophobia.

It is through such a potent intersection of historical eras that issues of politics, race, and gender come to a head in Angels in America. Tensions between progressivism and conservatism play out vis-à-vis the contrasting political beliefs of the characters. The conservative views of Joe (despite his closeted homosexuality), for example, starkly contrasts the more progressive views of Louis. But the play does not necessarily shy away from complications to this central tension, either. Issues of progressivism versus conservatism are over time complicated by the nuances of socio-economic privilege. Louis, for example, is more concerned with the notion of America as a political arena between the conservatives and the progressives: “there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Yet in doing so, he fails to acknowledge the significance of America’s race problem, and his own privilege as a white man.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about a play entitled Angels in America without discussing its heavy religious motifs. Kushner’s play is brimming with Judeo-Christian imagery. This includes everything from references to Biblical stories like Jacob wrestling an angel (51) and Louis finding the Mark of Cain on his forehead (104) to larger overarching themes of prophecy, divinity, and sin. At the center of these religious themes is Prior who is visited by an Angel and chosen to become the prophet of America. Prior himself is not associated with either of the two main religions surrounding his visitation. He is not Jewish and does not understand the Hebrew spontaneously being spoken around him. He is also not Mormon, yet he is visited by the angel in the same way Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was visited by the Angel Moroni in 1820. If anything, Prior is the non-religious descendant of WASPs who were most likely Protestant or Catholic. The deliberate choice to make him the chosen prophet both speaks to the implied universality of the religions and the redemptive narrative of the angel’s appearance. Prior is dying of AIDS and abandoned by his lover. He has lost all hope, therefore the appearance of an Angel is almost Messianic.

But for all its metaphors and references, religion in Angels in America is a cultural presence more than a spiritual one. We as readers encounter religion most in Jewish funerals and Mormon visitation centers. The choice to focus on Mormonism and Judaism specifically is interesting since both religions seem incredibly different at first glance. One is ancient while the other is barely a hundred years old. One is liberal New York the other is conservative Utah. Yet they are also the same in their separation from society, the prejudice and ignorance they face, and the strict moral rules they impose on their adherents. Religion casts a long shadow over Louis and Joe for example, as religious values of loyalty condemn their abandonment of their partners. It begs the question, how much of the characters’ beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing? And also, what is religion really beyond a set of cultural practices and moral values?

Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

Roy Cohn (page 46)

Roy’s rather short interaction with Henry shows a lot about his character: to Roy, everything is about power and it is also ever present throughout Angels of America. Even in hearing about his condition, he dares Henry to tell him that he is gay, but threatens to destroy him if he tries. He differentiates himself with homosexuals, saying labels are not about sexuality but rather power, and that he, Roy Cohn is a “heterosexual man, who fucks around with guys.” Ironically, he is stripped of his power before his moment of death in which he becomes a “little faggot” and his excess supply of AZT is not enough to save him.

But labels and words themselves seem to have power throughout the play with characters unable to speak out about homosexuality. Louis at the hospital responds to Emily’s inquiry that he is in fact Prior’s “uh”. The conversation is casual but ultimately incomplete. The same lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS epidemic from the Reagan administration can be found here. The lack of acknowledgment and reaction And there is constant struggle from characters due to the stigmas, even more so when they and their loved ones are faced by fatality, highlighted by Louis and Prior.

A power shift also appears towards the end of the novel with Harper. Initially she is the first to fight for no change, she is already so alone and frightened that it seems that any change would break her. In the real world she is both sexually and ideologically suppressed and finds herself escaping from it. Towards the end, she overcomes her fears, realizes that loss is needed for change and finally leaves Joe, who “[doesn’t] know what will happen to [him] without [her]”, slapping and handing him some Valium in the process. The second play ends with her on real trip, as she flies to San Francisco.

(Un)Welcome To Our Hillbrow

Apartheid in South Africa may have been eradicated, but its haunting remnants remained. Transition to a postapartheid society led to a host of problems that the South African government have to grapple with: Anti-apartheid people joining the police, labor disputes, criminal violence, conflicts between factions, the HIV-AIDS epidemics damaging a significant part of the population, corruption allegations being raised against their deputy president Zuma in 2005, poor living conditions of their citizens, the 2015 students protests against the increase in university fees. Mpe’s novel is one heavy with the weight of reality; therefore, it is no surprise for us to see W E B Du Bois’s words applied to “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”: “Readers, be assured that this narrative is no fiction.” 

As another post (and the opening paragraph on Hillbrow on Wikipedia) points out, “in the 1970s [Hillbrow] was an Apartheid-designated “whites only” area but soon became a “grey area”, where people of different ethnicities lived together. It acquired a cosmopolitan and politically progressive feel, and was one of the first identifiable gay and lesbian areas in urban South Africa. However, due to the mass growth of the population of poor and unemployed black people after the end of Apartheid, crime soared and the streets became strewn with rubbish.” Hillbrow has a deep history… of separation, and then, as seen in the novel, of “togetherness” born out of necessity. Hillbrow is a city of migrants fleeing violence, yet also a city where migrants are loathed. 

The negative connotations associated with foreignness in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is prevalent and pervasive. It is evident through the repetitive use of the derogatory term makwerekwere, often used to describe black foreigners from other African countries (especially Nigerians). It is also prevalent in the description of AIDS and how it is caused by “foreign germs” that are “transported” from Western and Central Africa. Even the disagreements and tensions regarding support for sport teams is rooted in supporting foreign teams, especially those from elsewhere in Africa. The moral decay of Hillbrow is even claimed to be the result of foreigners, “Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing” (17). The idea of foreignness as an evil does not only manifest in the contagion of AIDs. It manifests in every dimension of life in Hillbrow. Foreignness is perceived an “other” that decays life even though it also makes Hillbrow what it is, “…there are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages…many of the makwerekwere you accuse of this and that are no different to us – sojourners…” (18). Essentially, the “foreignness” is also the core of what makes Hillbrow, Hillbrow. This leads us to question, how and when does something that defines what a community is, become othered? What is the criteria for being regarded as “foreign”?

In the novel, the themes of xenophobia and contagion are inextricably linked, serving as a haunting parallel to the current COVID-19 crisis and how it unleashed prejudice against specific racial/ethnic groups around the world. During COVID-19, what began as casual racism about the “China virus” slowly intensified into intense xenophobia against people of Asian origin across the United States, as illustrated by this article. Concerningly, this phenomenon was not isolated to the U.S alone. In fact, xenophobia and scapegoating particular communities for the virus became common in several countries. In China, this manifested as racism towards Black expatriates, who were barred from shops during the crisis, and routinely evicted from their homes as they were blamed for spreading the virus. Similarly, in India, it cropped up as intense islamophobia, where Muslims were targeted as a community and perceived as spreaders. Lubnah’s recent short documentary from this summer encapsulates the blatant prejudice and vitriol that became commonplace on every Indian WhatsApp chat at the outset of the pandemic. 

These parallels of xenophobia make it obvious that societies have a tendency to scapegoat certain populations, and more importantly, that these infections are simply used as covers for underlying racism. This also raises some pertinent questions: why do we turn to xenophobia and us versus them narratives in times of crisis? How does contagion, in particular, lend itself to prejudiced sentiments? 

As a previous Convener’s post pointed out, the city’s most destructive contagion might be “spread of judgement,” including its xenophobia, or its spread of gossip and superstition. In a city plagued by death, crime, blatant xenophobia, visited by AIDS, vulnerable to superstition and gossip, where does the origin of this contagion lie? Is it a city of multiple contagion? This idea brings up a very crucial point about Hillbrow which is its insistence on stories. The residents are surrounded by stories at all times – the “informal” news about the city, including the news about the origin of AIDS, comes from the “migrant grapevine,” Refentse’s cousin insists on assigning stories of blame to the migrants seeking refuge in Hillbrow, Refentse’s own death is altered by Refilwe shifting his story at his funeral, Refentse’s mother is also murdered because the story of witchcraft being imposed on her.

These are only a few examples from the first two chapters, but it seems like stories have the capability of changing lives in the city of Hillbrow. Which raises the question, where do these stories come from? Moreover, the migrants bring their stories with them to a city which already seems to be inundated with stories, their new stories don’t seem to get space in Hillbrow, on the contrary, does the city force itself together by the violent imposition of its existing stories on everyone who walks through its streets? What role do stories play in ‘uniting’ the city — or in doing just the opposite? Do these stories stem from the already separated, disjointed nature of the city, broken by its history? Can such a city begin to heal from its stories, and therefore its contagion that has tied everyone together? What does healing even look like?

Freedom, Chains and Dreams

If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to do today?

For the people in Ding village this wasn’t just a hypothetical question, this was their reality. The fevered, as they lived in the village school, striving to make their last days full of happiness. We see many of them looking for ways to fulfil their lifelong desires and to tie up loose ends. We see Ma Xianglin holding on for a few more days by fulfilling his desire to put on a concert for the entire village. We also see Li Sanren looking around desperately for his precious village seal that was taken away from him in his last days. The fevered went running around to find their coffins, and when they did, they were so happy they almost forgot about the fever that had been inflicted upon them.

‘A lot of us have died already. I cheat death every day … what do I care if I get caught cheating with someone else’s wife?’

From Severance to The Plague, getting sick incapacitates people, prevents them from living their life to the fullest. But in Dream of Ding Village, it also sets people free. It gives freedom from the future. When Ding Liang and LingLing are isolated from their families, they are free to be with each other and enjoy themselves free of societal expectations. Ding Liang, even on being caught with LingLing, doesn’t seem to be ashamed of himself. Ding Yuijin and Jia Genzhu are aggressive in claiming authority over the village for themselves and living their best life. In the text, as leadership moves from Grandpa to the two of them, so the town seems to free itself of the future. People stop putting up scrolls to remember the dead. They take away everything from the school, meant for future generations, and use it for themselves. For want of more coffins and exquisite furniture, all the trees disappear overnight. The town truly lives like there would be no tomorrow. We want to bring up a relevant question here from an old conveners’ post: Do people have the right to neglect the future if they know they will not be in it?

On the flipside, however, there are horrors and realities that cannot be escaped. The act of all the fevered in Ding Village moving to Grandpa’s (quarantine) school is reminiscent of the “escapes” we have seen in our earlier readings. For example, the Brigata in Boccaccio’s Decameron who live in a plague-free utopia outside the infested city, and the survivors in Severance living inside a mall to start a new society after Shen Fever has wiped out the rest of the world. While these characters are the survivors of their plagues, the fevered school residents are actually the ones who have a guaranteed death coming for them soon. However, as they all try to make a fresh start with their “escapes”, eventually all of them are plagued by their pasts and human desires. So while the school-life for the fevered is described as “paradise” in its initial days, the illusion breaks with occurrence of theft, greed, and power struggles – all caused due to the sick wanting to connect to their past lives and desires. In Severance, Bob’s desire to live in his own childhood haunt also leads to his death and disbanding of the survivor group. This begs the question that with the plague or AIDS or COVID-19 destroying our normalcy, can we ever forget our past lives and desires to make a fresh start? Or is it just a utopian ideal, ready to be shattered at one reminder of the past? Will you still take care of sanitizing your hands after going out as diligently as now if we told you that COVID-19 is over?

Rural tourism brings prosperity to Xihe village, Henan province -
A village in the Henan province in China
Source: China Daily

Let’s take a step back and think about an important detail in the frame of the story that deserves some reflection. The narrator of the novel is a 12-year-old boy, the son of a blood kingpin. He seems to be the only dead character in the novel who did not die of the fever. Because of it, but not from it. He is a ghost, haunted by his father’s sins. Is his purpose now to narrate the horrors that his family brought about? What does his role, and the events that happen to Grandpa due to his sons, say about family? Are we bound to our families no matter how far apart we try to be?

While we are looking at the frame, it is meaningful to delve deeper into the three dreams in Volume 1. It refers to the story of Joseph in Genesis of the bible. Joseph, who was found to be an interpreter of dreams, and was summoned by the Pharaoh to interpret his disturbing dreams. Joseph informs the Pharaoh that his dreams imply that his kingdom would have a long period of prosperity followed by a period of famine and destruction.

The cupbearers dream

Ding Village seems to have followed in the footsteps of Egypt. They have a period of prosperity brought on by the selling blood followed by a devastating period of death. At first we were unsure of the purpose of these dreams appearing in the first volume but by reading more and more we can see the similarities between the two communities. The Cupbearer’s Dream comes to the forefront when Grandma comperes the blood bags to plump red grapes:

“Throughout the village, blood-filled plastic tubing hung like vines, and bottles of plasma like plump red grapes.”

Grandpa, like Pharaoh, has the remarkable ability to foresee reality in his dreams. However, he was not able to stop many of the tragedies that fell upon the village. If only he could dream what could have been rather than what was.

The Dream of Ding Village is one that many can relate to. It is a dream to rise above, and to fulfil the heart’s desires. Amongst the chaos and tragedy, however, Ding Village chronicles a collapse of integrity, respect, honour, and the value of a human life.

Denialism is No Foreigner (Conveners Post)

    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

Premiere et derniere de couverture depliees de l’edition en 1955 dans le “Livre de poche” du roman d’Albert Camus “La peste” (n°132). Il s’agit de la premiere publication en livre de poche d’un ouvrage de Camus. “L’etranger” y sera publie en 1959, malgre les reticences de Camus a voir ce livre figurer dans cette collection. L’illustration de couverture de La peste est signee CS, un portrait photo de Camus, yeux baisses et cigarette aux levres, figure au dos du livre, avec la mention “l’un des plus grands romans de nortre epoque”. ©Gusman/Leemage

Figure 2. First and last cover unfolded from the 1955 edition in the “Pocket Book” of Albert Camus’ novel “La peste.” ‘L’un des plus grands romans de notre epoque,’ is translated to ‘One of the greatest novels of our time.’ / Â © Gusman / Leemage

    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.

The Lone Singer

Death always leaves one singer to mourn.

It is the year 1918, four years after the death of Franz Ferdinand. Russia ends its participation in the war, the United States wins Battle of Cantigny, and a deadly strain of influenza quietly sweeps across the globe infecting a third of the world’s population and claiming approximately 50 million lives. Katherine Anne Porter survives this pandemic. She had been working as a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News during the height of the virus in Denver, Colorado while also seeing a young soldier who was about to be deployed overseas. After she falls ill, the soldier nurses her until her editor manages to squeeze her into a hospital. The hospital is so overcrowded that she is left lying on a gurney running a forty-degree fever for nine days. After her miraculous recovery she finds out that the young soldier she had been seeing died because of the virus weeks ago. So it goes. Pale Horse Pale Rider is therefore a testimony to Porter’s own unique experience caught between both one of the deadliest wars and one of the deadliest plagues in history.

The Motor Corps of St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross on ambulance duty during the influenza epidemic, October 1918.

It is easy to see how Porter’s personal encounter with the virus shapes the way the story is told. The entire novella is written as a fever-dream, full of vivid and almost surreal iconography but disjointed in its sense of time and place. The story opens for instance with a dream within a dream, emphasizing the delirious nature of our protagonist, perhaps emulating for the reader what it is like to feel influenza first-hand.  She also incorporates language of memory — “remember”, “forget”, “remind”, ”forgotten”–  throughout the piece, frequently moving in and out of flashbacks between strings of monologue and moments of lucidity. Through her writing, Porter aims to reflect on Miranda’s psychological reaction to tragedy and how the plague and war changed her. The story becomes about how Miranda is meant to process trauma, loss, and confront her own mortality. Porter said of the pandemic in a 1963 interview:

It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.

Katherine Anne Porter (Interview)

The eponymous Pale Horse and Pale Rider is, of course, a reference to the Biblical Book of Revelations. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in Revelations are Conqueror on a white horse, War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and Death on a white horse. In this way, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is also a story about the end of things, a combination of factors that lead to great tragedy.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. From left to right are Death, Famine, War, and Conquest; the Lamb is at the top.

The theme of war is pervasive throughout Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It pervades every facet of the characters’ lives, and furthermore seems to divide society into the “combatants” and the “noncombatants”: those who actively fight in the war and those who are the “stay-at-homes” (171), encouraged to “do their share” by purchasing Liberty Bonds (147). While patriotism is severely emphasized by both combatants and non-combatants alike, whether that be direct or performative, Miranda herself views the war as more of a harbinger of death. Especially in regard to her relationship with Adam, Miranda sees the war as something that merely send these soldiers— these “sacrificial lambs” (177) — out to die. 

In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, however, these themes of war and death are further complicated by the simultaneous unfolding of a plague. Throughout the novella, the language of contagion and militarism seem to overlap to the point where it becomes difficult to separate the war and the plague from one another. Adam, for example, says to Miranda that “the men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat” (158). In many ways this statement is unclear on whether Adam is referring to the war or the plague, as both in their own right are claiming lives. Another example would be the ways in which Porter describes the nature of the two through the character of Miranda. Miranda, for instance, describes the war as such: 

“The worst of the war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet…. It frightens me; I live in fear too, and no one should have to live in fear. It’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two— what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” .

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (176-177)

These notions of mind, heart, and body also come into play throughout the time Miranda falls ill to the influenza. What seems to weaken Miranda is not necessarily her physically ailing body, but her deteriorating mental state. Her claim to fighting the illness is not through her body but through her mind, where “a clear line of communication… between her and the receding world” is considered her “small hold” on her life (194). The parallels in language imply that war and the plague can be seen as one and the same thing. 

Another key theme that Porter focuses on are the ideas of mortality, asking what does it mean to live and to die? Particularly for Miranda, the decision to live seems to be made for her: “…,the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and waster flesh to its feet…” (204). Her wanting to die and feeling empty as a result is not well accepted. The story ends on a melancholy but conflicting note: “…the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there will be time for everything” (208). What does she mean by ‘everything’?

A pandemic can be thought of as a collection of millions of personal traumas and explorations of mortality occurring simultaneously. This personal and psychological account is able to shed light into individual decisions and actions more deeply. Adam was supposed to die because of war, but most probably Miranda ended up giving him the flu that killed him. To what extent is she responsible for Adam’s death? How does she consolidate the guilt if at all?

Finally, mortality is presented as a war against time and the body. Throughout the text, Miranda is running out of time and she is constantly calling attention to this. Why is time almost a third main character? Additionally, as she ‘fights’ the flu, what parallels exist between the language of war and the war against a pathogen within the body?

There are ways in which this story reminds us of our situation today. It is not new to see the media and governments using war metaphors when discussing pandemics, given how convenient it can be. It can be an easy way of evoking emotional response and a sense of urgency, both of which make people more accepting to make sacrifices.

Soldiers fighting in the front lines of the First World War are today’s social workers combating the pandemic. Trying to provide care for patients in the face of failing institutions and lacking infrastructure is most likely a war of its own and both have their lives put at risk in trying to fight. There is even glory in going out to fight, shown more through the bitterness of Chuck who, unable to go, does not care about “how it started or how it ends” (170).

Of course, sacrifices are still made away from the front lines as well. However, Miranda is skeptical of the ones made in her home front. She acknowledges that “it wasn’t so much her fifty dollars that was going to make any difference” (147) and that much of actions of their part “keep[s] them busy and make[s] them feel useful.” (171) COVID revealed the importance of the actions of everyone involved in preventing the spread, though many proved either equally as skeptical or incompetent. 

Invisible Contagion

“When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.”

(Ibsens, Ghosts, Act II)

This quote said by Mrs. Alving stuck out to all four of us. She highlights the idea of old societal beliefs and values that eerily live on within us in ways we aren’t aware of, and are passed down in ways that we aren’t aware of. The way these “old defunct beliefs” were presented as a “ghost” was intriguing, especially because the concept of contagion seems to be embedded in this idea.  This is evident when she says, “I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.” Yet, the way that she uses ghosts to describe a kind of contagion is not the primary way we have been thinking of contagion in this class. Contagion has been described in visible, physical and tangible terms. It felt powerful to have the invisible contagion of values of beliefs wrapped in the metaphor of a ghost. Ironically, through this line, she gave visibility to the invisible. She voiced, really clearly, intangible structures in a really poignant way.  

A 1987 televised version of the play directed by Elijah Moshinsky has very interesting visuals. The whole action takes place inside the Alving house, in its dark walls, dark furniture and sparse light. Its visuals, especially its colours, are somewhat suggestive of the paintings that have emerged out of earlier pandemics. 

“Titian’s last painting, Pieta, from 1575. In 1576 he succumbed to the plague that was raging in Venice.

Pastor Manders’s character in the film is particularly similar to Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait during the Spanish Flu.

It’s very useful to the action of the play taking place in dim, spacious, yet claustrophobic rooms, never leaving the indoors, a quality that has come to be associated with the current pandemic. Moreover, in this version of the play, a model of the house is securely stored inside a glass box, placed in the living room. Manders is seen constantly resting his hands on this box as though protecting and relying on this structure. This can be seen as a metaphor for Mander’s insistence on closely following the established rules/structures of the world. 

Ibsen uses the symbolism of “ghosts” to illustrate the idea that remnants of practices from a bygone era continue to haunt us, sometimes preventing our society from progressing. The struggle between the craving for a new social order and the rigid shackles of the past are perfectly exemplified in Mrs. Alving. She embodies a progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood — ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions. As Mrs. Alving explains, ghosts are “all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs…”, which in her life have been the gender norms imposed on her of being a “good”, supportive wife despite being stuck in a toxic marriage. Reading this in 2020 was alarming as many of the issues she raises surrounding expectations from women continue to be salient, which begs the question: when do these “ghosts” finally terminate, and when do these ideas stop propagating across generations? What does that mean for us, as people participating in the world today? Is the core of what we have constructed as life infected by patriarchal structures of the past?

In “Severance”, Candace held herself to the immigrant work ethics not because she found meaning in her job, but only because she wanted to uphold the legacy of her deceased father. Duties and responsibilities are passed down from generations, and they are just as contagious and sins and diseases. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.” is what the doctor told Oswald Alving about his illness. 

So, where does the contagion originate? What is the source of it? Did it come from Oswald’s father when he passed on the illness of his mind and body to his son, who now has to face the ghosts of his late father’s life? Or did it come from even before this family, did it come from structures of “law and order” that Helene talks about? Do these rigid structures birth and sustain this contagion? What makes these structures so contagious, what makes them so compelling to pass on, why do they continue to haunt us? 

In this particular course, we learn about the current pandemic that we are facing by reading about all the great plagues that have happened in the past. Within these materials we are bound to see similarities. Patterns are concluded, feelings shared, and history seems to repeat itself. Humans have been studying history since forever. Why is that? What is the point of us living in the present and looking back into our past, into our collective memories? Do we ever learn from it? 

Mr. Walsingham: Breaking Sad

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really…I was alive.” –Walter White, Breaking Bad

The play begins with everyone making a toast to their friend who has just died. Mr. Walsingham is the chairman at the table, enthused to celebrate in the middle of the pestilence. Later, we find out that he lost his mother and his wife. That begs the question: How can he celebrate? The whole scene feels like a classic drown your sorrows in alcohol narrative. The Priest certainly tries to be the voice of reason for him.

“Why have you come here to trouble me?
I cannot, I must not
Follow after you: I am bound here
By despair, by terrible remembrance,”

Was Walsingham entirely wrong in doing what he was though? How justified is what the priest did?

We have seen a recurring theme in the works discussed thus far of victims of plague needing to find ways to cope. Many flee from the plague in search of some normalcy and often the greatest source of normalcy is festivity. We see it in Boccaccio’s Decameron where the characters flee the city and insist on making merry in the countryside. We see it in Severance where some of the characters drink booze and get high every night and we see it here in the Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. Yet this does not necessarily mean that their actions are justified.

This old conveners’ post brings up a similar question, and offers an explanation through Pushkin’s own life. Mr. Walsingham and the Priest serve as Pushkin’s two conflicting states of mind when he himself was dealing with the epidemic of cholera and seeing his friends either die of the pandemic or be politically persecuted.

What we see with Mr. Walsingham and his sadness, or suppression of it, is the struggle between mourning irreparable losses and pursuing happiness in life. This is something everyone at the table is going through, since they all lost their friend. Moreover, if one reads closely the lyrics of all their songs, while they may be celebrating, the songs speak of tragic events.

We ourselves refrain from answering this question but rather like to further ask: what is the best way to honor the dead? Does it have to be solemn and sincere or can it also be open-hearted and celebratory?

Amidst the celebration, a black wagon passes by filled with bodies. In an instance we are reminded that countless lives were lost to the pestilence. Lousia’s fit is a jolting return to reality, if only for a moment in the play.

“He called me to his wagon. Lying in it Were the dead – and they were muttering In some hideous, unknown language”

An illustration of Cholera in Palermo, Italy, 1835

Source:  Wellcome Collection

The Black Man could also have just been someone in black clothing and a plague mask, which were pretty grim reaper-ish.

Mr. Walsingham tells Louisa that the black wagon can go wherever it pleases.  This is compounded by the fact that the plague is referred to as a guest shows how the plague is being personified. This can be compared to Dafoe who uses the term ‘visitation’ . Again, we see a recurring theme throughout various Contagion texts where the Plague almost becomes its own persona – the antagonist.

This ties well to our final point of comparing a pandemic to war, something that Linh also brings up in her augmentor’s post for Defoe. In Mr. Walsingham’s poem, he uses the words of a war against plague. Today, we refer to essential workers as the Frontline ‘Warriors’.  Can the language of war and personifying the plague as the enemy help us better cope with the abstractness of it all? It’s either we pretend that disease is something tangible that can be combated, or we resign ourselves to our miserable fates and make merry where we can.

Defoe: Spilling the Tea Since 1723? (Convener’s Post)

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents.  As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes. 

  1. London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665) 

2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.

We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.

    “Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau

Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.

The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?