Category: Literature

20 years of teaching Angels

I don’t think I have contact with any of my students from Harvard in 1999-2000, which was the first time I taught Angels in America, but these were two of my students in an honors seminar I taught during my first semester at NYU in the fall of 2001. It was amazing to run into them a couple years ago when we had all turned up to see the same showing of Kushner’s plays back-to-back on Broadway.

I ran a few searches on Twitter to find the best tweets from my history of teaching the play. I started Twitter in 2009-10, so they don’t run earlier than that, although there are links to blog content for older courses that take you back at least to the mid-2000s. Some of those old blog formats have become quite run down. I will try to recover one of the more important posts from that run, with relevance to our final discussion of the play, and repost it here in full. Meanwhile, here’s this thread if you’re interested in memory lane.

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.

Camus and the Postcolonial (augmenter’s post)

Albert Camus’ The Plague has widely been studied as an allegory for the invasion of Nazism in France during World War II. In the novel, set sometime during the 1940s, the bubonic plague invades the town of Oran in French Algeria, starting from a deluge of unexplained dead rats to the rapid upsurge of “inguinal-fever cases”. According to Steve Coll of the New Yorker, several writers have thus referred to The Plague as allegorical for “the virus of Fascism,” with characters such as Dr. Bernard Rieux— a Fauci-esque figure in the novel—as symbolic of the French resistance to Nazi occupation.  

But while the text can be seen as this allegory for Nazi occupation in World War II, one thing that should perhaps be emphasized is the fact that this text is situated in French Algeria; and that, in the grand scheme of the course, The Plague is the first time we are encountering a pandemic in a postcolonial setting. Keep in mind, that Algeria as a colony contributed significantly to the French army in World War II, and that not too long after the war Algeria gained its independence from France  in 1962. Therefore, in some ways, The Plague is situated within a colonial narrative. David Carroll writes the following in his essay “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran” in regard to The Plague and the postcolonial:

“[Camus] claims in fact that his choice to narrate history by means of an allegory of the plague has a decided historical and political advantage: that of suggesting a number of ‘historical referents’ or contexts for the plague and thus different forms of political oppression and injustice rather than just one (National Socialism). Camus clearly had in mind Stalinism as another form of political oppression that should be associated with the plague, but is it really possible to disassociate from the plague the forms of economic injustice and political oppression that were effects of colonialism and imply or assert that Camus intended such a disassociation?”

Carroll, David. “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 88–104. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

One of the questions we could ask ourselves is to what extent The Plague engages with theories and matters of the postcolonial. One of the ways we can think about this question is through the novel’s emphasis on anonymity, and a refusal to name things and/or people. The prefect, for instance, refuses to publicly name the disease, despite the evidence that seems to classify it as the plague bacillus. Then, and perhaps most significantly, there is the refusal of the text itself—at least, in the starting chapters— to name the narrator, who the novel also refers to as a “historian” of sorts given their collection and documentation of plague-related “data.” Why is that so?

If for now, as readers, we assume that Dr. Rieux is our mystery narrator— who, we might further assume, is French— what implication does that have in regard to whose voice is being heard, or whose record of plague history we are reading? As a French physician part of the seemingly wealthier classes of Oran, what does it mean for someone like Dr. Rieux to narrate the events of the plague in colonial French Algeria? Another question also worth thinking about is how does Dr. Rieux’s form of documentation compare to mysterious newcomer Jean Tarrou’s, described by the novel as “observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope,” with “trivial details which yet have their importance”? And finally, whose voices as a result are being excluded in the novel? In thinking about the postcolonial, Camus in many ways becomes a work of plague literature that offers a lot to think about in terms of whose pandemic experiences are recorded, and whose are potentially overlooked.

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. 

Alving’s Haunt- The Form and Place of Ghosts. (Bhrigu’s Augmenter Post)

Ghosts work from home. Apart from the Flying Dutchman’s crew and the Wild Hunt, ghosts, ghouls, and other phantoms are homebodies, content to stick to one place to carry out their spooky business. Captain Alving is such a ghost, tormenting his long-suffering wife throughout the action of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Ibsen keeps Alving’s ghost in one place by structuring the play with reference to Aristotle’s “classical unities” of action, time, and place in dramatic tragedy. The time of the play is uncertain- the place however remains the same. This form of drama resembles quarantine- by enforcing strict boundaries in the form of the play, Ibsen tries to contain Alving’s sins to his lonely country estate by the fjords, a quarantine-like focus that reduces the chances of the audience catching the impression that this tragedy happened because of any reasons other than Alving’s original actions.

The setting also prevents the fallout of his sins on the larger community beyond the Alving family, burning down his memorial to society. The orphanage was destroyed quite quickly after it was constructed; something to be grateful about, for if it had survived for too long, the memories of the place would spread, and Alving’s ghostly contagion would proliferate. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, designed around “Ruin Value“, an architectural idea that called for buildings of the Third Reich to last for a long time and to remain aesthetically pleasing while ruined-the most oppressive ghosts of World War Two. Promoting Captain Alving through an orphanage built around the Ruin Value principle is a deeply distasteful thought. Thus, with Engstrand’s smoking match, Ibsen burned the orphanage.

Parthenon- an example of aesthetically pleasing ruins that have served as the revenants of Greek ideas and their ghosts.

The audience can see how structural failures in Danish patriarchal society force the necessity of a literary quarantine in Ghosts, a failure that permitted Alving to make his wife’s life a misery and brand his sins on his son’s brain. Syphilis is often called the “great imitator” (NSFW images in article, view at own risk) as its presence resembles the symptoms of other disease. Syphilis, like a ghost, is also perfectly happy to wait, as in its latent form, it can haunt the afflicted for years before manifesting in tertiary stage of the disease, a stage at which the victim is no longer infectious. Oswald cannot pass this disease on, and the contagion has been contained in his central nervous system, at the expense of Oswald’s life, Regine’s marriage, and Mrs Alving’s happiness.

Ghosts and Suddenly Last Summer (Maitha’s Augmenter Post)

While reading Ghosts, I was struck with the theme of hiding the truth for the sake of maintaining ideals and reputation. One example of this is of the characters implicitly conversing with each other on topics too taboo to be explicitly articulated (Mrs. Alving saying “Regine belonged here in this house…” instead of explaining how Regine is related to the family).

This concept of evading the truth reminds me of another play, Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, which also tackles the ideas of illness and preexisting rigid social structures, although written almost 100 years later. William’s play is about Mrs. Venable and Catherine (her niece), and it focuses on Mrs. Venable’s recently diseased son, Sebastian. Mrs. Venable attempts to have a psychiatrist perform a lobotomy on Catherine, as she claims her niece has gone mad. This is because Catherine, the only person present with Sebastian at the time of his death, reveals that Sebastián used to “procure” young males for sexual exploitation, and that he died being devoured by a mob of starving children – all of which Mrs. Venable refuses to believe.

While the illness that is uncovered in Ghosts is a sexually transmitted disease, Suddenly Last Summer grapples with the idea of Catherine’s reliability as a narrator of Sebastian’s death, hinting that she might be mentally ill. I was reminded of this play, as both illnesses aforementioned are perceived as “invisible” illnesses (up until the stage at which Syphilis becomes debilitating).

Another similarity is that both plays tackle the topic of social structures and the difficult decision of challenging them. In Suddenly Last Summer, Catherine suffers the consequences of choosing to challenge the structures by talking about Sebastian’s troubling reality. In Ghosts, on the other hand, the characters suffer the consequences of choosing not to challenge the structures and hiding the truth in the name of ideals.

A.N. Here’s a short clip of a film adaptation of Suddenly Last Summer

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?

Finding Fortune in The Decameron

Image via the Public Domain Review, from a 1492 edition of the Decameron.

Allow me to point you to two older convener’s posts for The Decameron. I’m especially drawn to the following questions:

What does it mean that Boccaccio directly addresses a female reading public at the outset? How might this invocation — and the predominance of female characters — give us meaningful inroads to discuss gender and gendered bodies in the selections you’ve read so far.

What do you make of the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden? Is storytelling a form of escape or a form of talk therapy for the brigata, something with salutary effects?

Remember the review essay you read from Prof. Stearns? It gestured toward the question of theodicy, an issue in several of the contexts we’ve examined so far. How could a just God allow such things to be? What explanations might be required to preserve a sense of God’s omnipotence or benevolence? Stearns writes:

Since the plague was indiscriminate in its victims, the massive death it brought with it raised the question of theodicy, or of why God would have caused the death of so many potential innocents; some Christian scholars explained the death of children to the plague, for example, by referring to their failing to honor their parents, or, conversely, by their death being a punishment for the sins of their parents.

As we noted in class, Boccaccio steers away from such explanations for the most part (though he notes that some do see the plague as divine punishment for “our iniquitous way of life” (5). Instead, The Decameron asks us to consider another explanatory frame: Fortune.

From Brown University’s awesome Decameron site:

Fortuna is a classic literary motif that along with wit and love represents one of the main themes of the Decameron. Medieval society was greatly interested in the workings of Lady Fortune. Most of the stories told by the Brigata members entail instances of Fortune because adventures by defintion are usually the product of fateful encounters. Fortune is usually kind in the Novellas, except for Day 4, bringing characters in contact with the right people at the right time, or more often, at the right place at the right time. In some of the stories, the protagonists are able to change the course of fate by using wit, deception or undergoing a clever action to escape harm, punishment or loss of love. In other stories, fate has total control over the characters and dictates the course of the Novella. In the end, Fortune usually brings lovers together either for life, or a few precious nights.

What kind of explanation is this? Just a way to ease survivors’ guilt?

Any time I think about the concept of Fortune, I’m reminded of this piece by the cultural historian Jackson Lears about the concept’s history (especially in Western thought). A few relevant excerpts:

In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”

But Fortune did not fit well with Christian ideas of Providence. To early Christians, the divine plan unfolded as mysteriously as the fluctuations of luck, but however remote the planner or apparently perverse his decrees, his purpose was ultimately benign. Boethius, unjustly imprisoned in the sixth century after a distinguished public service career, endorsed this idea in the Consolation of Philosophy. “Well, here am I, stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good.… Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” Lady Philosophy appeared in Boethius’s story to explain that behind the apparent caprices of Fortune, divine Providence governs all things with “the rudder of goodness.” Chance was “an empty word,” Lady Philosophy said. After all, “what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?”

This was the traditional Christian argument that would be repeated for centuries.

We can see the language of Fortune at work in the frame story as Pampinea begins to lay the foundations for the new society she will establish: “See how Fortune favours us right from the beginning, in setting before us three young men of courage of intelligence, who will readily act as our guides and servants if we are not too proud to accept them for such duties” (18). Can you see some sort of political theory in the society she establishes that speaks to questions of fate, chance, or Providence? You’ll also want to watch out for how such concepts factor into Defoe’s narrative, coming up next for us. (Image via.)

Since we won’t necessarily come back directly to this text in class, I’m hopeful that you’ll let the conversation from today continue in the comments.

Severance: the quick pitches

Book vlogs aren’t far from the kinds of analysis you’ll end up doing in this class. When I asked you to make a pitch for your favorite video review of Severance, part of what I hoped you would do, as you watched and wrote, was pay attention to how these critics assembled and presented not just their summaries and evaluations of this novel but their sense of what it means, what kind of work it’s trying to do. So let’s see what you came up with.

Over half of you chose to write about the review from David Yoon, aka ThePoptimist. What did he get right? Most of you liked how much he covered in a mere 5 minutes: “consumerism, mindless repetition, and human group behavior packaged in a post-apocalyptic plot,” as Gabi put it, along with commentary on immigrant experience and nostalgia and a quick political analysis, borrowed from this web article, of vampire versus zombie motifs in contemporary US films. (That political analysis seems a little reductive to me: if Republicans see vampires as decadent, and so vampire films shoot up in popularity under Democratic presidents, that can’t really explain the overwhelming popular appeal of vampire sexuality, can it? Wouldn’t those representations be a little more negative?) Maitha notes that this review would have benefitted from more attention not just to capitalism but to the “exploitative monopoly” the US hold over global trade; Leanne thinks the unwittingly carries a kind of timeliness in the Trump Era. Mingu wonders if these political interpretations might be a little forced and whether the equation of capitalism and contagion might be sufficient. Personally, I would love to see something that can account a little better than this reviewer does for global trends: is the 2016 Korean zombie film Train to Busan about Korean politics, global economy, or class politics brought on by the confluence of Korean politics & a global economy?)

What else made this review compelling to so many of you? Jihun liked that it put an original spin on the material and did so while balancing just enough plot detail with the need to be succinct. Lubnah noted the high production quality ThePoptimist brings to his work, giving his reading added credibility. And if this video left some of you wanting more, it tended to be more commentary on generational, consumer, and cultural politics. What do “cozy apocalypse” and millennials have to do with each other? (As Linh notes, he puts the word “millennial” in the video title but never really explains why it matters to the novel.) Are the “zombies” supposed to be figures of workers or mindless consumers? Or is the point of what Maryam calls the “already lifeless repetitive cycles people have adapted to” supposed to be that capitalism asks us to work harder mostly so we can consume more, stuck in a loop?

Work culture (and generational ethos) received greater emphasis in other vlog reviews, such as this:

Cindy Pham, aka readwithcindy, only gives Ma’s novel 3 of 5 stars because she thinks the central insight — we are already zombies/monsters — is nothing new. She does, though, think that millennial readers in particular will identify with Candace’s work ethic overdrive. Siya, reviewing this review, thinks that the criticism may be “apt to some extent in a pre-pandemic world, the power of Severance is amplified significantly by our current context.” To Siya, Ma’s novel “illustrates with an almost terrifying accuracy how especially during global crises, we become even more entrenched in our identities as capitalistic pawns that grind away monotonously to no end.”

Though Pham spends some time wondering if there could have been more in Ma’s novel on the immigrant experience. (As Ayan notes, she identifies more with the generational emphasis than with Candace’s experience as the child of Chinese immigrants.) Other reviewers seem to have identified more than Pham did with the second-generation immigrant theme, and specifically with the connections drawn between Asian American experience and the burdens of cultural identity and work ethic:

Alex Simms, aka whatpageareyouon, referred to the “internal apocalypses” of Asian American identity. Centering this aspect of the novel accords with Smrithi’s sense that the novel’s “immigrant story” is “one of the most important reasons why one should read this book.” (Odmaa and Ryoji agreed. For Ryoji, Candace’s father’s story epitomizes the ways in which “working and its repetitive routines” are pathways to assimilation and “the only ways to suppress their alienation and loneliness.) Harper points to another reviewer, ClaireReadsBooks, who coins the term “cultural severance” to talk about the impact of assimilation on a second-generation immigrant like Candace.

As Harper notes, Claire prefers the flashback sequences because “they depicted anxieties of the modern world so well.” I wasn’t sure how conscious Claire was that she describes her summer as “fevered” or that she pined for a return to routines and rituals with the fall. Hmm…

Finally, noting the similarity between book vlogging and the kinds of assignments I’ve given you so far, Yaman noticed that the review by Wuthering Reader Reviews blends summary with original analysis, centering on the book’s coming-of-age story.

(The idea of adolescence — or young adulthood — as a contagious disorder is a these explored in a book no longer included on the syllabus: the graphic novel Black Hole, which I highly recommend.) The most relatable aspect of this review of Severance, however, at least to Yaman? That would be the reviewer’s “really relatable” confusion at times. Perhaps this suggests that even the best reviewer of a zombie novel is only, er, human, in the end.