Category: General

Casper, Syphillis or Strigoi?

Ghosts. 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. (Ibsen 126)

I don’t how it all happened with you guys…But when I read these words in Ghosts by Ibsen, I was somewhat confused. What on earth did Mrs. Alving mean by “ghosts”? And, more importantly, what is that to do with the play?
It didn’t seem that Mrs. Alving was actually haunted by supernatural things she saw. It wasn’t like in the Ghost Busters movie, it wasn’t anything like Casper.

So how was it? Why was the play named Ghosts, after all?

Trying to answer this question, I familiarized myself with one of, what seems, the funkiest Romanian beliefs. Belief in the Strigoi.

What is Strigoi?

 In Romanian mythology,[citation needed] strigoi (English: striga, poltergeist)[1] are the troubled souls of the dead rising from the grave.” (

As far as I understood, nowadays, the not so well-known “Strigoi” is the famous “Vampire”.
According to Wikipedia, “strigoi date back to the Dacians. The strigoi are creatures of Dacian mythology, evil spirits, the spirits of the dead whose actions made them unworthy of entering the kingdom of Zalmoxis.
In short, “Strigoi” is a lost soul that wasn’t able to enter neither Heaven, nor Hell and hangs somewhere between those spaces on Earth i.e. troubled.

Considering this information, I started wondering whether Oswald himself is a… Strigoi?
What if his sinful father’s soul, after death, didn’t find peace and settled in his son’s body? Can Oswald be considered a Strigoi? Can this actually explain and acquit Oswald’s behavior? Furthermore, maybe the soul perishing him is his sickness? Not syphilis — but a Ghost who killed the poor young man?

If we look deeper into the last scenes of the play, we would see an echo of Regine’s mother in Regine herself. Did her mother’s soul settle into her body too? Would this soul perish Regine’s future? We don’t know.

Furthermore, we don’t really know what Mrs. Alving wanted to say by mentioning “ghosts”.
However, we can guess. And my guess is that she has seen Strigoies.


Thank you for your unghostly (or maybe ghostly?) attention,





An epidemic of rumors, or rumors of an epidemic: The making of a rumor

Last class we talked in depth about the paragraph at the end of Chapter 13:

Such was the tale, distorted and diversified a thousand ways by the credulity and exaggeration of the tellers. At first I listened to the story with indifference or mirth. Methought it was confuted by its own extravagance. The enormity and variety of such an evil made it unworthy to be believed. I expected that every new day would detect the absurdity and fallacy of such representations. Every new day, however, added to the number of witnesses and the consistency of the tale, till, at length, it was not possible to withhold my faith.

In this passage, Arthur ponders the nature of rumors, which blur the line between the appearance and reality in the book. Both Defoe and Brown present rumors as a mean of spreading information about the respective epidemics. The amount of rumors skyrockets at a time of plague as illustrated in both Arthur Mervyn and The Journal. However, rumors are present in society most of the time.

In 2002, a French author T. Meyssan published a hoax book with a false claim ‘No plane did crash on the Pentagon on September 11.’ Meyssan sold more than 100,000 copies. His claims became an urban legend that propagated through France, until a public denouncement of the book by many prominent newspapers. The paper “Modelling Rumors: The No Plane Pentagon French Hoax Case” tries to answer the question of how did these rumors spread. Although the paper’s case study is not about contagion, its framework can help us understand why and how rumors spread in the context of epidemics as well.

The paper proposes two conditions necessary for a rumor to propagate: a group of people of a size beyond a certain threshold must initiate a rumor, and the rumor must be consistent with a wider collective paradigm. In in the case of an epidemic, some areas may be hit more severely than others by the disease. I find it easy to imagine that people from such areas, with a dramatic experience not necessarily consistent with the wider effects of the epidemic, may spread an exaggerated tale of the plague.

Rumors of epidemics satisfy the second condition as well. Due to public information and private experience, people at a time of an epidemic have some information about a spread of the contagion. The awareness and acceptance of the existence of the disease is the social paradigm that provides a fertile ground for rumors. As we see in Brown’s book, although people in the countryside have some awareness of the presence of yellow fever, the information is incomplete. In this context, gruesome stories provide “a tincture of pleasing,” and become accepted by many.

Now, we can start to see how rumors propagate. The question remaining is: How can we gauge their veracity? Are rumors a valuable source of information when the official channels of communication break down during a crisis? Or do they inevitably breed panic and slow down the official response?

Love me, I’m not Contagious

Back in 2012, the previous Contagion group was chilling on the beach and reading Arthur Mervyn by Charles B. Brown… Today in February 2014, as the weather wasn’t too beachy, our group ended up eating strawberry cake, drinking pink smoothies indoors in an environment of red balloons, lovey-dovy roses and valentine cards, trying to find a quiet place to talk about sickness, death and contagion. However, we weren’t able to escape the contamination from the celebration. Infected by, most probably, the love in the air, we ended up talking about, well, love, and the role of compassion in environments hit by disease, just as in the novel Arthur Mervyn.

Having previously read A Journal of the Plague Year by D. Defoe and The Plague of Athens by Thucydides, plague seemed to be a phenomenon that impacted human relationships greatly, for people avoided risking their lives to help another person who is already infected.

For example, In The Plague of Athens, some parents abandoned their sick children, believing that is was best to save their own lives than perish with their infected loved ones. In A Journal of The Plague Year, it was evident that people reset themselves to a new level of communication, resulting in the creation of an intangible barrier to escape the contagion.
In Defoe’s novel, a dialogue between H.F. and a poor man is a great illustration of the barrier that existed between people.

Here I saw a poor man walking on the bank, or “sea wall”, as they call it, by himself. At last, I fell into some talk, at a distance, with this poor man…”Why,” says I, “what do you here all alone?” – – “Why,” says he, “I am a poor desolate man: it hath pleased  God I am not yet visited, though my family is and one of my children dead. “– “How do you mean, then,” said I “that you are not visited?”– “Why,” says he, “that is my house,” pointing to a very little low boarded house, “and there my poor wife and two children live,” said he, “if they may be said to live; for my wife and one of the children are visited; but I do not come at them.” And with that word I saw the tears run plentifully down his face; and so they did down mine too, I assure you.

As seen from the dialogue, the author didn’t dare come close to the man he greatly pitied, and the poor man didn’t interact with his infected children in fear of catching the infection himself. Were those the right actions?

Having this material in mind, the aspect that surprised us was people’s relationships in Arthur Mervyn. We found the contrasting relationship dynamics between Arthur Mervyn and the other pieces we have studied to be particularly interesting.

(Credit to:

In Chapter I, a doctor saw a very sick man on the streets and ended up taking him into his own house, where he and his healthy family lived.
The most perplexing part was the logic of such an action.

Let us take the poor unfortunate wretch into our protection and care and leave the consequences to Heaven” (Brown 6), said the doctor’s wife, revealing the fact that she was aware of the frightening consequences she might face, letting in a sick stranger into the house.

Why is this relationship so different from the one shown in Defoe’s novel? What drives people to help others, to show compassion and love, risking their own lives, just like Saint Valentine once did for his family? Philosophy? Faith? Just like the previous Contagion group, we find the reasoning of doctor’s actions very interesting:

I had more confidence than others in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measure which we had used for our defence against it. But, whatever were the evils to accrue to us, we were sure of one thing; namely, that the consciousness of having neglected this unfortunate person, would be a source of more unhappiness than could possibly redound from the attendance and care that he would claim. (Brown 8)

However, is it only the belief in altruism that drove the doctor, or is religion a factor?

“The stranger was characterized by an aspect full of composure and benignity, a face in which the serious lines of age were blended with the ruddiness and the smoothness of youth, and a garb that bespoke that religious profession, with whose benevolent doctrines the example Hadwin had me rendered familiar.” (Brown 114)

From this quote, we see that Arthur perceived Dr. Stevens as a religious person. Our interpretation is that the doctor’s actions were influenced by religion, and by extension, Quakerism. Quaker folk held compassion and acceptance in high regard. Thus, many of their values and social movements, such as advocating for women’s rights and abolishing slavery, conflicted with the social norms at that time. Though Quakerism – or religion in general – was not as central in Arthur Mervyn as it was in A Journal of a Plague Year, it would seem that the compassion and altruism shown by Dr. Stevens could be consistent with religious values, such as opening up his home to nurse Arthur back to health, despite the risk of him and his family being infected with Yellow Fever. This notion is amplified by the fact that Charles Brockden Brown, author of Arthur Mervyn, was of Quaker background; perhaps this has influenced the creation of his characters.

How might we contrast ideas of altruism and relationships presented in Arthur Mervyn with A Journal of a Plague Year, or even The Plague of Athens?

All in all, as interesting as these ideas may be, we hope your Valentine’s Day wasn’t spoiled by the dark ideas of contagion.


Batu, Sarah, Victoria.

Kachina cameo

I’m still thinking about the appearance of Native American kachina dolls late in Black Hole. This morning I ventured a few thoughts off the cuff about how they invoke several relevant issues: ritual, rites of passage, community, parent/child relations, and perhaps a healing counterpoint to the fragmented Kewpie dolls strung up in the trees around The Pit/Planet Xeno in the woods.

Here are some notes I use when I lecture on Zuni origin myth in my typical American Literature survey. This is a summary of a text called “Talk of the First Beginning.” Its basic outline is shared by other Pueblo tribes’ origin stories:

Sun Father passes on his daily journey. He’s lonely. So he sends two sons, the warrior twins, to find someone to pray to him and keep him company. They go into the fourth womb of the earth. (Consider how literal this description of “Mother Earth” is.) What do they find? A group of amphibian-like people, living in utter chaos and darkness. They’re not pleasant: one of the warrior brothers lights a fire, sees an ugly fellow, and says “Poor thing! Put out the light.” The rest of the narrative is spent trying to get these creatures to the earth’s surface so they can worship Sun Father, followed by their journey to “the middle” place, which is called Zuni or Itiwana. It turns out that these creatures, which in some contexts are referred to as “raw” will eventually become the Zuni people, once they’ve become “cooked” by their exposure to the sun. So this text contains a movement from disorder and chaos—mudheads shitting and pissing on themselves in the dark—to order and ritual.

What happens next? Eventually the people move upward through three subterranean worlds or wombs, each associated with different colors, minerals, animals, plants, etc., before some—but not all—of the people finally emerge through a cavern into the sunlight and begin their journey toward a homeland.

What happens when they come into the sun? They have to confront their appearances and lack of identities. They encounter Spider Woman, who is the mother of Sun Father. She designates the first sun priest, the old man of the Dogwood clan, to guide the people.

Various things happen on their journey to the middle place, most of which help establish order, the rules by which their culture will operate: Coyote, who is always a trickster figure, gives them corn in exchange for mortality. An unnamed boy and his sister violate the incest taboo and revert to their slimy primordial state. Some of the children who fall in a magical river sink to the bottom and become kachinas. There’s a murder scenario that seeks to establish the rules of taking human life. They play a ball game as part of a contest for daylight and to establish the length of days. The warrior twins battle a giant and lead the people past ghosts. They divide into different clans and encounter other tribes. A water bug helps them establish the horizon, and finally they arrive at Itiwana, the middle, which translates as “The Middle Ant-Hill of the World.”

What I find useful here is the way in which this origin story is also a journey (which may echo the passage of Native Americans’ ancestors across the Bering Strait and down into what is now the American southwest) and also a series of transitions by which the people (uncooked mudheads) become the People (the Zuni). That movement may be paralleled by Keith and Eliza’s journey south toward Monument Valley and toward adulthood. We’ve already commented on their resemblance to other origin stories, namely Adam and Eve.

As I mentioned this morning, the kachina also invoke a process of disenchantment associated, especially in Hopi culture (another Pueblo tribe), with adolescents’ entry into the Kachina Society and, thereby, into a mature tribal membership. Is there a similar movement in Black Hole? Or does the lack of any meaningful adult relations with these teenagers preclude it? The account of the Hopi disenchantment ritual I gave this morning relied heavily on an essay I read when I was your age that has stuck with me lo these many years. I dug around a little this afternoon and found a scan of it online. Don’t feel pressured to read it for class, but if you’re interested in this tangent, here you go:

 Gill Disenchantment

Not a Guide Dog, a Blind Dog

Here are links to a couple of things… firstly to a blog review of Blindness – it provides a good overview of the book and crosses over with issues we previously discussed, e.g. the lack of punctuation.

Then, to provide some light relief for Eid, and to plug my own poorly made video (!), here is a YouTube video of my dog George. He has been blind from birth but copes really well!

George Running Blind

I feel Saramagos’ depiction of blindness does not give much credit to the abilities of the blind, however I suppose this can be attributed to the suddenness of the event and people’s confusion.

Welcome to Contagion

I’m very much looking forward to our conversations this semester. We have a lot in store: you’re already reading Oedipus the King and we haven’t even started the semester yet. I’ll have lots of advice for making it through large amounts of reading and writing, but for now I’ll pass on a different kind of advice relevant to the course topic:

More info here.