Category: Conveners’ posts

Dead War, Dead Survivors

Pale Horse, Pale Rider resonates strongly with the “living dead” theme we discussed throughout Ibsen’s Ghosts. Instead of being haunted by the incidents of the past, however, the characters in Pale Horse, Pale Rider are haunted by both the ongoing war and the lingering atmosphere of oncoming death. It is interesting to note that this sense of imminent death, however, is not limited to direct combat in war; rather, it is focused on the dreary lives of the “stay-at-homes”.

Miranda, the main protagonist, is a female reporter who feels as if her life is meaningless. She goes to work, she dates a man, she fulfills her expected duties, but is cynical of the entire process:

“So all the happy housewives hurry during the canning season to lay their baskets of peach pits on the altar of their country. It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful…So rows of young girls… roll cock-eyed bandages that will never reach a base hospital, and knit sweaters that will never warm a manly chest, their minds dwelling lovingly on all the blood and mud and the next dance at the Acanthus Club for the officers of the flying corps. Keeping still and quiet will win the war.” (171)

This social milieu of doing pointless activities for the sake of the war (without actually helping it) is presented as a disaster almost greater than the war itself. It is a contagion infesting itself into wartime society, and is eventually directly revealed in the form of a plague:

 “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.” (177)

“I tell you, this is a plague, a plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!” (183)

Miranda seems to be the only character who is acutely aware of this influenza (of both the mind and body), “I hope I see you once more before I go under with whatever is the matter with me” (170). Nonetheless, the “living dead” is a recurring pattern represented in each of the characters throughout the story. How are each of the characters not quite living? Are there any characters that could be considered fully alive?  If so, how are they managing to do this?

The relationship between the living and the dead is another recurring theme worthy of discussion. The suffering of the living is explicitly mentioned when Miranda introduces the song that begins with “Pale horse, pale rider…” (189). In this song the death, represented by “pale horse, pale rider”, takes away not only lover but also the whole family, leaving “one singer to mourn” (190). And Miranda, in her nightmare, experiences this devastating pain. She sees Adam continuously struck by arrows in his heart and dies, while she cannot help but live and endure everything. Miranda believes that the pain of the living is no less than that of the dead, as we can assume from “It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die?” (191). She would rather die than become the lone one who has to suffer from the loss.

In another of Miranda’s dreams, we learn how she handles the memory of the dead.

…something, somebody, was missing, she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country, oh, what could it be? There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright, I have left something unfinished. 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)

In her dream, Miranda enjoys the company of “all the living she had known” in a serene scene of sea and sky, until the pain returns with the memory of the dead. She could live in joy and peace if she would forget everything, but it seems that she cannot let go of her memories of the dead—she feels that “something valuable” is missing. She chooses to bear the remembrance, although it entails severe pain.

How is Miranda’s attitude toward the dead similar with or different from that of other characters we’ve encountered in our readings so far? How can we apply Anderson’s argument regarding the relation of the living and the dead to Miranda’s situation? Does Porter explicitly or implicitly suggest how we should act in response to the loss of beloved ones?

Finally, this novel also offers a much more intimate perspective on disease. The prose transitions fluidly from third person to first person. The reader becomes both an omniscient observer and a part of Miranda’s consciousness, privy to her inner dialogue.

This is especially important when Miranda is delirious and on the brink of death:

 “I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can’t I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall…” (199)

When Miranda identifies her own survival instinct, it is described as “a hard unwinking angry point of light” that speaks to her, and yet the light uses the personal pronoun “I”. Miranda is within and without herself, and she recognizes her instinct for survival as an external force pushing her towards life and as a part of herself, intent on self-preservation.

The novel focuses on Miranda – the things that happen around her, her reactions, her observations, her thoughts, even her dreams. The disease itself doesn’t have a strong presence at first, only in the many funeral processions that intersect with Miranda and Adam’s walk. Then, when Miranda contracts the disease and confronts it directly, the disease consumes the pages as it consumes Miranda. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts in that the portrait of the disease is very personal and intimate, perhaps making for a more disturbing effect on the reader/viewer. 


Feeling Alive?

What does it mean to be alive? Aside from the physiological component, to be alive can be understood to have the capacity to feel and experience a wide range of emotions. The way in which we respond to these emotions can be seen as a determinant of how we live our lives and what we classify as significant.

In Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, it is evident that the character that is the embodiment of being alive is Mrs. Alving. On numerous occasions she experiences such raw emotions, which cannot be said for any of the other characters. We see that she has a strong affinity to her son, a daughter-like sentiment for Regina, and an undoubtable romantic connection to Manders. The way she feels emotion is unlike anyone else in the play and this is due to the fact all of the other characters represent ghost-like figures in Mrs. Alving’s life. They are all examples of temporariness, a lack of dependability and transparency – they all seem to torment Mrs Alving and hinder her life trajectory, yet she is somehow so emotionally bound to her ghosts and cannot seem to evade them.

“Ghosts. When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was jut 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.” (p. 126)

See minute 48:43 – 49:43

Firstly, let’s look at Engstrand, who seems to be the most malicious ghost of all and an impediment in Mrs Alvin’s world. His shrewdness and cunningness liken him to a ghost, as he brings about troubles in a way that is so sneaky and evasive that his actions almost come across as being supernaturally based. The perfect example of this is the fire incident, when he encourages Manders to hold a prayer meeting, which results in the burning down of the Orphanage – which he uses to his advantage in terms of establishing his seaman’s hotel.

Secondly, Manders – the Ghost of What Could Have Been. The romantic sentiment Mrs Alving has for Manders is undeniable:

Mrs Alving: “I thought you realized where my heart, as you put it, had strayed at that time”

Manders: If I had realized anything of the kind, I would not have been a daily guest in your husband’s house” (p.123)

He is the embodiment of the love Mrs. Alving’s has always yearned for, and what she would have been content with in another reality, and so Mander’s presence torments her, like that of a ghost, though he acts as a confidant to whom she reveals her deepest and darkest secrets, and who’s company she seems to enjoy, despite his undermining her ability as a wife and mother.

Thirdly, Regine. From the onset, Regine’s permanency is challenged, with the presentation of the opportunity to work at her suppose father’s seaman’s hotel. Though she refuses, and for the duration of the play is seen as constant and faithful to her post as Mrs Alving’s worker, we see the fickleness and ghost-like qualities of her character when she is told the truth about her father, and almost immediately seeks to obtain her inheritance. This demonstrates the two-sided nature of her character, and her departure, once she has what she wants, is as seamless as that of a ghost. The lack of emotional attachment or concern also relates to her ghostliness, and alludes to the idea that on the inside, she seems to be devoid of emotion. Regine also acts a daily reminder of the ghost of Mr Alving, as she is the product of his sins and misdeeds.

Finally, the most ironic ghost of all is Oswald – the son of Mrs Alving. Oswald seems to be his father resurrected. His sickness, which can be seen to come from the sin of his father as “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” (p.138), and his wrongdoings, which are in direct reflection of those of his father, demonstrate that he has become what his mother has tried so painstakingly to prevent him from becoming. He is indeed the ghost of his father and what makes it ironic is that he – who is most ghostlike relative to all the other ghost figures in the play – is Mrs Alving’s attachment to him and her non-willingness to let this kind of ghost, go, despite that her efforts to keep him pure and proper have gone in vain. It is possible that her strong motherly love towards him has clouded her better judgement, and so when he is becoming an actual ghost, as he goes into “the sun…the sun” (p. 164), she is left isolated in a state of pure hopelessness, as she has already lost Regine and to some extent, Manders.

Can you think of any to other instances of ghostliness? What about the wrongly attributed credit of the foundation and operation of the orphanage being given to Mr Alving instead of Mrs Alving? Can this be seen to have some ghostly connection? Can you think of any others?

Finally, some questions to keep in mind as you continue to read:

  • Can you think of any beliefs, characters or instances in the novel that can be perceived as ghostly? (As above)
  • Ethically, is it wrong to lie to your children?
  • Looking at Regina’s reaction, is Mrs. Alving’s not telling her the truth about her father justified?
  • What role do relationships have in the play in building tension?
Sudikchya, Silviu, Camila, Simi

Party, Party all Plague Long

A returning theme in our discussions is the power of disaster (of which disease may often be read as a subset). These instances cause the breaking of norms, the destruction of taboos in society, and ‘the creation’ of an increasingly liberal, and often unconventional space for people to live in. We began to explore these notions after the task of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell during the summer vacation.

This pattern of celebration in the aftermath of distress returns in both the work of Pushkin A Feast during the Plague and John Wilson’s City of the Plague — which was the original text used by the Russian writer to ‘compose’ one of his Little Tragedies. In both works, a group of men and women set up a table on the street, thus creating their own microcosm (not dissimilar to Boccaccio’s Decameron). Through a huge feast, a gathering place is formed to remember one of their friends (Jackson) who was a victim of the Plague.

What is the underlying meaning and aim of feast in these texts? What is the significance of the plague being “our guest” at this feast? Why is the impact of diseases on society a recurring motif for literary pieces? What do feasts symbolize and teach us about human nature? How is this “party behaviour” manifested in today’s society (such as in issues like alcoholism)?

The purpose of the feast in these plays is explicitly stated in the song of the Chairman: the citizens are left with only one option — to fight the plague by remaining cheerful and living in the moment:

“That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!

We’ll light the fire and fill the cup

And pass it round — a merry scene!

And after we have all drunk up,

We’ll sing: all hail to thee, dread queen!” (p. 101)

It is apparent from this passage that the characters view their situation as absolutely hopeless, and in their panic are determined to ‘laugh’ in the face of the disease; to show a last act of defiance and stubbornness when all seems to be lost. The hymn in honor of the plague sung by the chairman, is also his own (human) way of mocking a devastating force that has unknown origins, and is beyond the human ability to comprehend (“Beyond our power to explain” p.101).

The use of consumption as a device is interesting in that, much like religion, by consuming as they are, they are contributing to a higher power: in this case GDP and economic growth instead of a spiritual existence and afterlife. Unintentionally creating a better world for those left behind (for those living in the world of Keynes), or perhaps creating a disaster ready to lurk in the shadows due to the over-consumption lead by the perception of ‘finite time’ (if you prefer your economics Austrian). Both can be analysed here: in Pushkin’s Russia, trade was starting to grow and capitalism was beginning to come onto the stage internationally. This allows us to consider how people react, as the mentalities are in flux. The people have not completed the transition. This is very much representative of Pushkin’s life, his grandfather having been a Serf who gained Aristocratic station for himself and successive generations of family before his death. This was almost unheard of until this period, as innovation was not seen as a requirement for success. During the era of Pushkin, the socio-economic landscape changed dramatically. Such a leap in ability and fortune in such a short time meant education had not kept up: the fatalistic mentality displayed within the text is testament to this.

What are the implications of this ironically fatalistic mentality? How can these characters respond to imminent death with such mirth and lightheartedness? What does this mean for us, in terms of the role of news and rumour during an epidemic?

It is also interesting that the little group identifies the disease as a female being: a queen who rules over her kingdom of suffering. This idea of the “female as a source of the curse” is in harmony with the play’s references to Greek or Roman mythology (for example, the group asks for a Bacchus song, who was the Roman God of agriculture and wine), and is probably inspired by tales such as the Pandora’s Box or Medusa, the complex of Jocasta’s blame. The personification of the plague is another noteworthy point. The mere possibility that she can “knock at our windows without cease…” creates a helpless feeling among the people, leaving them questioning what they should do.

Why is the plague personified as a woman? How does this compare with history? How do the readers perceive the notion that the plague is embodied? What parallels the qualities of femininity with the effects of the plague? How does this contrast the role and portrayal of women that was seen in our previous novel, Arthur Mervyn?

Moreover, the group’s gathering can be regarded as an ‘ultimate act of consumption’, since they do not only eat up their food, but in a way their life as well, by preparing themselves for the reception of death. Curiously, in the work of John Wilson the feast has a sexual connotation as well, since the priest, who attempts to remind the group of the codes of conduct they abandoned and defines them as blasphemous, calls the gathering an orgy. This can be taken as a term used to describe the ‘lack of restraint’, where desire has overtaken sense and it is true selfishness, despite not being at the deliberate expense of others. Food is often described as inherently sexual in that it is used as both a complement and substitute for such activity. However, this term could also be derived from ‘orgiastic’, which belies wildness, a lack of control, the death of restraint — not used to define a sexual connotation at all. The question appears, was this sexually more explicit term left out by Pushkin on purpose or was it simply lost through the process of translation?

When studying the underlying meanings of the feast, we must not forget about the religious implications it can carry. Is it possible that this last ritual of eating in the works of Wilson and Pushkin is a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and his apostles? If yes, then does their fate contain a hope of resurrection? Or are they going to be resurrected through their stories that lead to eternal remembrance, which; in fact, is implied in the first lines of the play:

“But he’s gone away

To a cold lodging underground…

Although that tongue of wondrous eloquence

Has not yet fallen silent in the grave” (p. 96)

We hope that we have provided enough topics to talk about in the upcoming days, and haven’t been too ambiguous for a Pushkin text. For vagueness is a trait of his works, leaving the reader yearning for a definite answer and simultaneously teaching us that we must be comfortable with the unknown: much like how his characters respond to the looming, unfamiliar world of death.

These short texts demonstrate a possible method of dealing with bad news and with disease. Rather than lamenting the tragedy, the characters use music and entertainment to lighten their hearts, practically mocking “this rude visitor the Plague” (Wilson, 44). Ultimately, just don’t take things too seriously, and remember to party orgiastically whilst you can!

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon

Trust me, I am a stranger

The previous conveners brought up the notion of altruism. In contrast, at the beginning of the second volume we are faced with questions of trust. The question of Steven’s faith in Mervyn and the validity of his story become more prevalent at the beginning of the second volume.

Dr. Stevens regularly emphasizes his unwavering faith in Mervyn’s character and the authenticity of his tale:

“His courage was the growth of benevolence and reason, and not the child of insensibility and the nursling of habit.” (p.167)

We see here that Stevens is very much attached to Mervyn as a heroic figure. Stevens also disregards the notion that people are defined by their social status, upbringing, gender, or race, making a point of saying that the Mervyn’s honesty was apparent through his demeanor (tone, gestures, “looks”):

“Mervyn is the index of an honest mind.” (p.175)

Steven’s fondness towards Mervyn develops to the point where he considers mentoring Arthur Mervyn in the skills of a physician (an idea that comes to fruition by the end of the novel, which is equally interesting considering his ambitions to run a hospital toward the end of the Vol.1):

“By residing with me… he would, in a few years, be fitted for the practice of physic.” (p.167)

This faith in Mervyn’s character translates into a general faith in his story, which, at times, can seem to be contrived. Volume 2 introduces the first, proper discussion and evaluation of the authenticity of Mervyn’s tale. Steven’s contemplations are summarized in the following lines:

“Surely the youth was honest. His tale could not be the fruit of invention; and yet, what are the bounds of fraud” (p.175)

We see throughout the first chapters of Volume 2 a confused Stevens consulting several people regarding Mervyn’s character in an attempt to ascertain the truth. His conversations with the Althorpes and Wortley reveal that there is more to Mervyn’s story than he originally thought. It should be noted, however, that even with this newfound knowledge regarding Mervyn’s story, Stevens remains relatively faithful to Mervyn:

“Suspicions have fixed themselves upon him, which allow him not the privilege of silence and obscurity.” (p.193)

Stevens still sides with Mervyn even when others begin to question his character and his story.

Why is Steven’s so faithful towards Arthur Mervyn and the authenticity of his story? Furthermore, why should we (the readers) believe any of what Mervyn recounts seeing as that, according to Stevens, honesty can only be determined by inspection of a person’s demeanor and body language? The questions brought up regarding Mervyn’s tale aren’t so directed at Stevens as they are directed at the reader. When Mervyn’s narrative resumes once more in chapter V, is the reader to assume what he says is true? Why does the author choose a relatively similar narrative structure the second time around (with Mervyn relaying what has happened to him)?


The previous group of conveners  brought up the role of women in Volume 1. It was suggested that women are portrayed as being key figures of power and, in some instances, determine the plot.

In Volume 2 does this trend continue? If so, how? Are they still portrayed as decision-makers?

We are introduced to several new characters (e.g. Mrs. Villars and Mrs. Althorpe) but also the course of the plot is, to a great degree, shaped by the desires and needs of these female characters. We witness several key events involving women such as Susan’s death, Mervyn’s compulsion to help Eliza, and the love that appears between Mervyn and Achsa. One could make the claim that in Volume 2, the desires of women drive the plot, since Mervyn’s actions are governed by the situations of various women (Eliza, Clemenza Lodi, and Achsa).


Do women act more as catalysts for the plot development in Vol.2? Why does Brockden Brown depict women in this way? Is this a counterbalance to the way women were depicted in the first volume? Or is it an expression of his own values regarding the role of women in society, perhaps influenced by his Quaker background? The previous post brought up similar questions and they are even more relevant to the second installment of Mervyn’s adventures.

PS.: Watch out for this guy!

Liam, Rafael, Vlad


Discussion questions on Arthur Mervyn (from A2C 5th Floor Lounge – aka the Ballroom)

Our previous conveners’ post casts light on altruism shown by Dr. Stevens and his wife at the very beginning of the novel. In Chapter 1 of Arthur Mervyn, they decide to take the eponymous character with yellow fever “into [their] protection and care,” although they were aware of the “consequences” (Brown 6). This altruistic behavior is indeed unusual during an outbreak of infectious disease, especially when we look back on our previous novel, A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe, in which the narrator delivers stories of inhumane incidents.

Altruism of the sound toward the sick is one thing, but the latter’s concern for the former is another. Quoting H.F. of A Journal of the Plague Year:

But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he (Defoe 128)

The “zombie” syndrome—the “wicked inclination in those that were infected to infect others” (Defoe 124)—depicted in Defoe’s novel doesn’t exist in Arthur Mervyn. On the contrary, Arthur Mervyn strives not to harm his host:

He suppressed his feelings and struggled to maintain a cheerful tone and countenance, that he might prevent that anxiety which the sight of his sufferings produced in us. He was perpetually furnishing reasons why his nurse should leave him alone, and betrayed dissatisfaction whenever she entered his apartment.

How can we explain the difference of behaviors portrayed in the two novels? Did Arthur Mervyn’s altruism simply derive from gratitude toward his benefactor? Or does it have underlying religious and/or cultural background? How did the infected people in London differ from Arthur Mervyn in terms of economic and social status?

Another notable feature of Arthur Mervyn is the novel’s portrayal of women. On one hand, females seem to emerge as figures of power, in charge of major decisions that determine the plot. When deciding whether or not to take in Arthur Mervyn, Dr. Stevens allows “the advice of my wife to govern” (Brown, 6) his decision. Arthur Mervyn himself chooses to leave his home because a female (Betty Lawrence) has overpowered him:

No doubt her own interest would be, to this woman, the supreme law, and this would be considered as irreconcilably hostile to mine. My father would easily be moulded to her purpose, and that act easily extorted from him which should reduce me to beggary. … The house in which I lived was no longer my own, nor even my father’s (Brown, 16). 

On the other hand, Arthur Mervyn himself develops romantic feelings for three women in succession: Clemenza, Eliza, and Mrs. Fielding. He fantasizes of marrying and regaining social power: 

I was raised to a level with her and made a tenant of the same mansion. Some intercourse would take place between us. Time would lay level impediments and establish familiarity, and this intercourse might foster love and terminate in- marriage! (Brown, 46)

 He ultimately values women that attain the adequate amount of sophistication and social status he considers necessary to fulfill the lifestyle he dreams of.

a gif from Blue Jasmine the movie

Could Brown simply be reflecting the social changes of the time, or offering a sort of critique towards this social phenomenon? Are these women depicted as true powers of figure or simply individuals symbolizing opportunities to climb the social ladder? What are the moral implications of such desires of Arthur Mervyn?

Last but not least, Arthur Mervyn sets out from his father’s house with the intention of making his own fortune and living on his own terms. He’s an unencumbered young man who is physically able, and at first he “trod this unwonted path with all the fearlessness of youth” (Brown 20). But since Arthur has very little money and quickly loses his small bundle of belongings, he lives largely on advantageous coincidences and the mercy of others. Often this mercy springs from the best intentions, such as the doctor’s offer of shelter despite Arthur’s dangerous yellow fever. But Arthur also meets Welbeck, whose mercy is a guise for manipulation and greed. When Arthur sets out from his family’s home, does he find freedom or simply a lifestyle dependent on societal goodwill? 

Philadelphia’s Homeless. 1986 Pulitzer Prize, Feature Photography, Tom Gralish, The Philadelphia Enquirer

We’ve come up with questions that are worthy of discussion–hopefully they will enrich tomorrow’s roundtable!

Happy reading,

Mina, Joohee, Annie

Where they belong

Colson Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of his novel Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way the went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read? In certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucracy. You might also be interested in this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

I also posted a link to this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly earlier in the semester that should be newly meaningful to you this week; it argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? You might be interested in this longish review of Zone One, which places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America. But we shouldn’t overlook the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption. Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is he from the hordes he’s hired to clean up?

“AAAAHH!” (Black Hole)

Black Hole is a graphic novel by Charles Burns, which explores contagious disease in a radically different way, using uncomfortable and disturbing imagery to emphasize relationships between disease, alcohol & drugs, and teen culture. All characters in the graphic novel are teenagers and even the parental figures are marginalized. It is reminiscent of the 1960s subcultures with its allusions to David Bowie, hallucinogenic drugs, rampant sex, and an unknown sexually transmitted disease, which – after close analysis – seems to be a metonym for the HIV virus.

“The bug” that causes the disease has a different manifestation in each character. For example, Eliza grows a tail (which keeps growing back even after broken) and seems to keep transforming and desire solitude, therefore she gets dubbed the “Lizard Queen.” Chris starts shedding her skin and always being near, almost needing, water, which makes her represent a snake. Rob grows a lesion on his neck that looks like a second mouth with a second tongue and a second mind – or an alter-ego speaking his inner thoughts. These mutations are mostly animalistic, not unlike the deformities encountered in Animal’s World, and not unlike that same novel, the characters stricken by the disease start shifting out of the identity of “human.” Even though the manifestation of the disease seems to be contingent upon the individuals’ characteristics (personalities?), the people develop a new sense of identity as the diseased. Chris becomes a snake that sheds its skin since she is uncomfortable with her own identity, while Eliza’s bodily transformations and changes in attitude turn her into a chameleon-like being. A lot like many other books we’ve read, disease forms another layer of identity and creates community: people start hanging out in the forest (#chilling). They live in seclusion because they are ashamed of who they are and sometimes compensate for/avenge their condition by infecting others, because of jealousy or as a punishment, like Dave spitting on a bully in the fast-food store: “See how easy that was? That’s all it takes… A little spit. Some saliva… And now you’re one of us.” Morality comes into question in similar ways as it does in Journal of the Plague Year.

However, unlike our previous books, the teen plague does not seem to be a catalyst for the narrative: it does not have a known cause, no one is grappling with its consequences or even questioning its symptoms; the disease plays a different role. One of its functions influences the visual representations: the black and white scenes could be related to the infection. Feeding from the conventional color symbolism, the dark scenes are the ones that include sex and the bug and death, while the light ones are disease-free. Another structural thing to notice are the two types of frames that divide the panels: the straight lines of the frames indicate that the narrative inside it is the dominant plot line, while the wavy frame represents ambiguous fantasies and crazy dream sequences.

(Image via)

Like in the image above, these dream states often foreshadow the future (some of the recurring symbols are the tail, the cave construction, Chris floating in water, the cigarette exiting the mouth-wound etc.) These déjà vus enable the very confusing organizing structure of the novel, which skips through different stories in place and time with retrospective fragments completing the cyclical form.

Also, what is the significance of the sandwiches?

Judging the Infirm

Philip Roth’s Nemesis tells the story of 1944 polio outbreak in Newark, where Mr. Bucky Cantor works as a playground director after being unable to join the army due to his impaired vision. The death of Alan, a 12 year old, triggers mass hysteria as villagers undertake a frantic search for the causes of polio. As the cause of the disease remains unknown, extreme measures such as “exterminating alley cats” are taken but fail to stop the spread of the illness given that they are unrelated to polio. Parents and villagers insist on “disinfect[ing] everything” and forbid play and enjoyment to an extent that seems to prevent life from happening altogether.

In this context, blame and responsibility become central themes in the novel.  First, we must consider the use of scapegoats (Italians in the beginning, Jews towards the end) and its implications given the historical context of the novel. Moreover, morality is used to cast a judgement over those infected.  For instance, many villages consider Alan had an exquisite character, hinting at the fact that there might be some divine justice in the disease. On the other hand, we must think of the character of Bucky and whether his attitudes towards his own responsibility in spreading the disease render him likable or not.  Although once an active participant of communal life, Bucky becomes increasingly isolated as he is haunted by guilt to the extent that he leaves Marcia and becomes a hermit.  All these, motivated by his desire of living with integrity:

“[H]is last opportunity to be a man of integrity was by sparing the virtuous young woman he dearly loved from unthinkingly taking a cripple as her mate for life” (Pg. 262)

Bucky is haunted by the frustration of not serving in the army and by the idea that he might have been one of the sources of the contagion, all this embedded in a quest to validate his manliness.  This, considered in the moral and historical context of the play prompts to ask: is America a place for the infirm?

“A Minority of One”

Animal’s People offers insight into the lives of people who experienced the trauma and the aftermath of the gas leak that plagued the Indian city of Bhopal.

Victims from the Bhopal Disaster

The story is narrated by a nineteen-year-old boy who survived “that night,” and is written as a series of transcripts of oral recordings. The novel is about the fight between the American owners of the Kampani and the innocent people who are still facing the after-effects of the disaster. The main characters of the novel are involved in the struggle to get the Kampani to take responsibility for the disaster at the factory in terms of paying for ongoing medical problems, cleaning up and detoxifying the land and water into which poisonous chemicals continue to exist.

The factory where the Bhopal Disaster occured

The catastrophe left the narrator half-crippled, his back twisted out of shape so that he has to walk on all fours. Hence, it is not surprising that he was named by peers as Animal and was mistreated by the society for his appearance. “People see the outside, but it’s inside where the real things happen, no one looks in there, maybe they don’t dare. I really think this is why people have faces, to hide their souls” (11), says Animal to justify their offensive behavior towards him.

The theme of societal pressure and its effect on the characters permeates throughout both Ibsen’s play Ghosts and the novel Animal’s People. In Ghosts the societal pressure or the need to maintain a good reputation haunted the Alving household, with Mrs. Alving financing an orphanage to maintain the falsified but well respected reputation of Captain Alving. This pressure manifests itself as the “ghost” in the novel and causes characters to feel trapped. However, in order to free themselves, the characters must break away and not conform to the norms, becoming outcasts.

Mrs. Alving suffers complete desolation at the end of the play, and the same thing is happening in the novel. Characters such as Animal are trapped by societal pressure, along with a personal desire to be what he used to be, as evident by his desire to walk on two legs and be like normal human. However, due to his appearance, which cannot be hidden, Animal was not the norm of society, making him an outcast. Though he is not the only person who was affected by the poison, he sure does get the spotlight for being the strangest of casualties. The other kids called him an animal, and it takes him a while to finally accept this title. He starts off attacking people much like an animal, biting others, and he ends up introducing himself as Animal. A contrasting case in the novel is Ma Franci. Ma Franci suffered very much from the poison herself. Once fluent in Hindi, she came out of the incident only being able to speak and understand French. When talking with Animal, she asks, “ Animal, if you can learn to speak properly, why do these fools talk rubbish all the time? “  She finally asks, “Why won’t they treat me like a human being?” (40). Language and communication have essentially rendered Ma Franci an animal too.  Out of concern, Nisha questions how Ma Franci could possibly have lived in India for so long and not know any Hindi. Against her will, Ma Franci becomes even more displaced in a foreign land because she cannot understand its people. Even as a nun, a socially accepted position, Ma Franci manages to be an outcast. To her, there is absolutely no way she can accept that, because she honestly believes that she is completely fine. The problem lies with the blabbering society she has chosen to stay with and help. Animal has the upper hand when it comes to dealing with the people around him, because he knows exactly how they view him in such a way and why.

But what’s amazing about a person becoming an animal is the fact that the very cause of their societal exile is in fact a common one, shared widely. Tons of people suffered from that poison, but people like Ma Franci and Animal are either driven crazy by this or forced to accept being casting out. So, how much of a leveler was this poison, this widespread catastrophe?