Category: Literature

In search of lost time

At the end of the prologue to Ling Ma’s Severance, our narrator, Candace Chen, refugee from a deadly fungal outbreak that has devastated New York City and much of the rest of the planet, gives us a hint that she’s less than stable — as a narrator, at least. The Prologue, that is, has consisted mostly of other people’s memories and stories, and yet she narrated them as if they were her own.

“The truth is,” she confesses, “I was not there at the Beginning.”

Rather, she had fled New York after all major systems had collapsed, the last to abandon her post at a publishing house, where she oversaw outsourced, overseas productions of niche-market Bibles: old content in new wrappers. Her exit from the city had been in an outdated model NYC taxi, which she describes as “nostalgia-yellow”:

It was a Ford Crown Victoria, an older fleet model that cab companies had almost phased out. It looked, Bob [the self-appointed leader of their group] later told me, as if I’d driven a broken time machine right out of the eighties. It was my in. (7)

[page numbers in this post refer to the print edition; I’ll include ch refs for those reading the e-text]

Where did she hope this taxi time machine would take her, on a highway stretching into the West? What does this memory — refracted through the lens of another character, her experience finding some confirmation in his perspective on it — tell us about the narrative that will follow?

Shen Fever, the disorder that haunts this novel, tackles the memory first. “You could lose yourself this way, watching the most banal activities cycle through on an endless loop.” (This is one description of zombie-like behavior that reminds me of Colson Whitehead’s satirical NYC zombie novel, Zone One.) Memories are contagious, or at least reproductive: they beget more memories. “Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories” (ch 15; 160). How do these descriptions resonate or contrast with her mother’s Alzheimer’s? (ch 4; 63). What does it mean to “lose [yourself] in memory,” the way her father could? (ch 16; 188). And why, according to Bob, do “you have to engage your memory” in order to stalk effectively? (ch 15; 162). Candace’s narrative — a survivor’s tale — is structured largely as memory, flashback sequences with varying degrees of reach, from memories of the recent past (her relationship, her job in New York, the beginnings of the outbreak) to memories of her childhood as the only daughter of recent immigrants from China to the US, to narration of the postapocalyptic present, as she and a band of survivors make their way toward a mythical Facility in the West, where they will, perhaps, start again. This trip seems to be a retracing of the past: of Candace’s trip West as a child, of Bob’s journey to his hometown, of US settler colonialism. What is the gravitational pull that guides these movements? “[W]hat is the difference,” Candace asks, “between the fevered and us?” (ch 15; 160).

As Candace’s prologue makes clear, memories are both individual and collective. They consist of stories others tell us about ourselves and stories we create from those stories, ways to comfort ourselves about who we are, or are becoming, or have become. The Internet, which is a Bible of sorts for these Millennial characters, is “collective memory,” Candace affirms at the outset. The idea returns in a later chapter: “the internet almost wholly consists of the past. It is the place we go to to commune with the past” (ch. 9; 114). How do memories relate to other, less specific emotional structures and associations, as in Candace’s description of “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling”: “It is excitement tinged by despair. It is despair heightened by glee. It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge. If [FNF] were a sound, it would be early/mid-nineties R&B. If it were a flavor, it would be the ice-cold Pepsi we drink as we turn down tiny alley-ways where little kids defecate wildly” (ch 7; 98). On one hand this sounds intensely personal and subjective; on the other it sounds primordial, tapping into lower layers of the unconscious. Are such associations universal? What happens when Ashley returns to her childhood home and becomes fevered? Although Evan questions her proposition, Candace asks if “nostalgia has something to do with it” (ch 12; 143).

“Nostalgia” was once a name for home-sickness, originally regarded as a mental disorder. In the context of a novel narrated by a second-generation immigrant, what insight can this offer? Does nostalgia spread, like a contagious disorder? Do parents give it to their children? Does it make us who we are? And are we nostalgic for the things and places we once knew — or the things and places others have told us about, like the country our parents came from, or the mall whose shops and hang-out spots gave them comfort during a difficult childhood? Does nostalgia leave us out (it’s over; we missed it) or give us room to feel to collective longings, belongings, or other behaviors? That “nostalgia-yellow” taxi cab was both Candace’s escape from New York and her entry to the group, precisely because it reminded them of the world they had left behind: “It was my in.”

For me that taxi cab is a telling detail. It opens up broader patterns that ripple through and structure the novel. What are the telling details/patterns you’ve noticed?

*post title is a nod to Contagion alum Tom Abi Samra’s paean to Proust and other long reads as an antidote to pandemic time.

A complex complex

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

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

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

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

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

I will be curious to see how you think this first general area of concern relates to the second I mentioned: the play’s consideration of social organization or government, starting with a king who declares himself (warning! dramatic irony!) to be the sickest one of all, even as he attempts to get at the plague’s source.

If you read the introductory material to Oedipus or poked around a little on the web, you’ve probably started to get a sense of how Athenian theater anticipated audience members who were citizens, involved in direct deliberation of public policy. (What role does deliberation play in this tragedy?) Greek theater developed at the same moment as political democracy, philosophical thought, classical architecture. There’s an emphasis in the play — and in the very dramatic form — on civic life: theater is central to political culture. A Greek theater could seat 14-15K spectators. (The ruins of the Theater of Dionysus are shown above.) Playwrights wrote for contests that coincided with religious festivals. The chorus was a theatrical innovation that incorporated older forms of song and dance into the theater. One of Sophocles’ chief innovations as a playwright was to move beyond two actors, making the relationship among characters the thing that drives the play, and making the chorus recede into role of commentators who to some degree perform as surrogates of the audience-as-jury. With this in mind, note how the chorus seems to go back and forth in this play as more and more evidence is presented. Where do they ultimately fall on the question of Oedipus’s guilt? What does the play seem to want its audience to take away on the question of good government? And how is that theme related to the issue the play has remained most famous for: the question of self-knowledge?

Angels wrap-up

Bethesda angel sculpture in Central Park, New York.

For a decade before we both moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyrus Patell and I taught a course on the Square called Writing New York, for which we generated a pretty substantial amount of online content about Kushner and Angels. I’ve written a little about it elsewhere too. There are a lot of things I wish we’d had time to discuss more fully. Here are a few of the highlights.

On the WNY course site, which is inactive now that Cyrus and I no longer teaching our course, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience. Earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell. Here’s another post on the fountain’s sculptor, Emma Stebbins.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he has taught at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this, too, and this). As a sidenote: in 2011 Cyrus first invited me to NYUAD to help him teach Angels; by the end of that week I had requested a teaching assignment here for the following year. We’ve never gone back.

Remember that you can always search “Angels in America” on this site and see what past Contagion students have come up with: there’s a lot of great material from conveners and augmenters. And If you really want to get hardcore, an older version of this post includes a live-tweet from the last time I lectured on this play at NYUNY in spring 2011.

More reading! Which is to say, more life!

Going Back to Move Forward

The second part of Angels in America, titled “Perestroika,” refers to the economic and political changes triggered by decentralization policies incurred by Mikhail Gorbachev. As past conveners have discussed:

This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern bloc and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.


It is through this lens that we can view the overarching themes that Kushner employs, specifically in connection to character formation, contemporary politics, and human progress. Similar to “Perestroika,” Kushner’s gay fantasia narrative, Angels in America, tells the consequential unraveling of US society concerning the AIDS epidemic. Thus, deconstruction is played out on both a macro-level and a micro-level: the approach of a new millennium and the disconnection of relationships that the new millennium embodies. “Perestroika” in many ways becomes emblematic for the change that takes place within the United States. It is not so much detailing the necessity for deconstruction to result in change, but rather that change is inevitable and that to move forward, quick adaptation is necessary.

In “Perestroika,” Kushner also embodies his own ideas on human progress. Prior is chosen by the angels as a prophet among humankind to stop migration and the destructive progress that people are making. He turns down his position, arguing that people “…can’t just stop…progress, migration, motion is modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire” (Kushner 275). Kushner argues through Prior that so long as people are alive they desire, and that desire leads to progress, even if it is at the price of destruction in the process:

Yet Prior gradually realizes that moving and progress are inevitable, and even necessary, for humans. Throughout the play, for instance, each character progresses emotionally. Prior and Harper gain strength from being abandoned and are able to reject or leave Louis and Joe. Joe finds the courage to come out as a homosexual to his mother and Roy. After betraying Prior and realizing he has been in a relationship with a man whose acts he abhors, Louis comes back to Prior for his forgiveness. Perhaps we should ask if individual progress represents humanity’s progress in general?


As these past conveners infer, Kushner suggests that progress is needed for growth. Moreover, the above quote and the content of “Perestroika” in a broader framework raises the question: How is progress achieved? Is it through synthesis or deconstruction? Or perhaps both?

Questions of progress and human nature are also raised in “Millennium Approaches.” Harper goes on a tangent about the ozone layer and describes it as a “pale blue halo, a gentle shimmering aureole encircling the atmosphere energizing the earth” (Kushner 16). That halo was made up of “guardian angels, hands linked [making] a spherical net, a shell of safety for life itself. But everywhere, things are collapsing, lies surfacing, systems of defense giving way” (Kushner 16). We witness this collapse in the relationships between characters such as Prior and Louis. Later, we see that this collapse leads to a series of interconnected events that result in these characters finding solace in each other’s pain and suffering. Moreover, their shared distress strengthens their relationships as seen in “Perestroika”; characters as different as Belize and Roy support each other as Belize provides Roy with companionship — no matter how hostile — and in return, Roy provides Belize with access to rare medication. Harper describes this network of suffering people as “a great net of departed souls” (Kushner 285). This conglomeration of networks, a synthesizing of relationships, evokes the notion that through coming together, not only does change happen but we are healed. At the end of the day, do we need ties to survive through change?

“Perestroika” encompasses the complete downfall of a closed network, presenting us with key implications. Earlier, in “Millennium Approaches,” Louis and Prior are in a codependent relationship; however, when Prior’s illness becomes apparent, Louis is overwhelmed and leaves. This change, like Gorbachev’s relatively minor changes, leads to a host of other effects including new experiences and relationships. Prior not only learns how to survive on his own but homes in on his spiritual connection and becomes a prophet. Prior and Louis reunite at the end of the book; although they are no longer in a romantic relationship, they have a strong bond and spend much time together. Their network, undergoing a phase change, expands to include Hannah and Belize — a network that is stronger and more supportive than it was. Perestroika dissociated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which eventually formed either fully autonomous (Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) or semi-autonomous regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia). Although they have a shared history and still maintain a connection to each other, they have more agency in deciding their future because of their independence. This political transition is reflected in the character development throughout the play; people depart from their initial relationships and separate into semi-autonomous beings. The characters’ codependent habits evolve into more interactive relationships.

Past ideas of codependency and closeness had been tying down the USSR and the characters in the play; does contagion, in forcing us to leave our comfortable relationships, force us to find independence and autonomy? What degree of destruction/synthesis do we deem necessary for progress?

Angels in America

Angels in America revolves around the story of two struggling couples: Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. Louis Ironson comes from a very stereotypically confounding background: he is a jewish gay man in mid 1980’s Brooklyn. A product of his circumstances, Louis is found in a constant state of guilt, yet to factor out his conflicts he is remorseless. Prior informs Louis that has AIDS, but only after they have been together, which sets the tone of what opinions the reader can form about Louis, as he leaves Prior lying alone in a hospital room soon afterwards. Prior finds himself in the midst of a prophetic experience while he lays sick in the hospital bed, as he is visited by an “Angel of God.” The Angel offers Prior the status of a prophet, but Prior asks for the gift of surviving instead. 

Meanwhile, Joe Pitt, although married to a woman, is a closeted gay man. Pitt eventually leaves his wife Harper, to pursue Louis. The infamously hated Roy Cohn takes Pitt under his mentoring, which exacerbates his conservative and seemingly intolerant reputation. Pitt’s relationship with Cohn leads to Louis abandoning his attraction to Pitt, as Cohn displays disturbing, hateful qualities of homophobia, although he is himself a closeted gay man. Harper Pitt, who was previously struggling with a valium addiction, ends up making the biggest character leap in the novel, moving from a weak, broken woman to enjoying her newfound confidence and lust for life. Each character in the story has an important role in the play’s development, as they rise or fall, and each of their stories represents a moral perspective for the audience to acknowledge.

A character in Kushner’s play who allows us to explore this further is Roy Cohn, based on the real-life controversial New York lawyer known to have worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy led the vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US government whereby targeted people (including those he wanted out of the way) were blacklisted and lost their jobs, although most were innocent.

The act of accusing others of treason without proper evidence, later known as McCarthyism, plays into the political themes Kushner develops in Angels in America. His reference to the anti-communism movement of the 1950s connects well with the portrayal of the 1980s AIDS epidemic as both explore the idea of confinement and a sense of “quarantine.” In 1980s U.S, when the story is set, some residual anti-semitism still exists and homophobia runs rampant, especially as the AIDS epidemic begins to unfold. The U.S. government targeted the gay community in particular as it associated AIDS with homosexuality and deemed it the “gay plague.” 

Kushner goes beyond simply portraying Cohn as an evil character and explores his conflicted nature as an anti-semitic Jew and a gay homophobe. 

As a villain, yet also a victim of his own bias, what role does Cohn play in Kushner’s overall representation of the society and politics of the time?

“Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.”

    (Roy Cohen,  page 51)

Roy, a power-hungry politician, refuses to acknowledge his disease, which at that time would have meant acknowledging his sexual orientation and eventually dying a painful death. His struggle with his own identity almost makes readers sympathetic toward him, which Kushner uses as a strategy to reveal to what extent American society and government had marginalized homosexuality. Roy, by eventually dying of AIDS, inadvertently forges a connection to the very community he did not want to be affiliated with in life.

Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his two-part work. While the play is set in the 1980s, its descriptions of issues such as LGBT rights, religion, political minorities, the environment, drug use (I mean Valium is still a drug…), conservatism, and more remain directly relevant today. This is especially true in the current political and social environment, in which minority rights of all types are being recognized even as the American political environment creates and perpetuates deep divisions between various social groups. Its opening acts, where the Rabbi mourns the death of a migratory generation, is especially noteworthy in its ironic incorrectness as America remains as a nation that is driven by change and immigrants. Perhaps the play is best understood as a discussion of identity: national identity (democracy vs communism, a dichotomy that is still employed to divide American politics), sexual identity (at times in conflict with religious identity), professional identity (politician or a lawyer), and public identities that sometimes contradict what happens in private life. Most if not all of these identities and labels are social constructs, existing due to a social need to categorize and understand people with a small number of descriptors; they are perpetuated both by society and by individuals so that they may find others with similar beliefs and values. Whilst this play no doubt calls into question the debilitating and destructive ability of labels and stigma related to them, it also raises the question of how useful an ‘identity’ can be to an individual. 

On the topic of individual and group identities, a previous convener’s post raises the questions of individuals having a “say” in their own lives. There are certain truths provided to characters by the society about who they are and how they ought to behave. These restrictions then translate to a taboo in one’s thoughts and expressions on an individual level.

Is it human instinct to distinguish oneself from others? Where do the social stigma against certain labels even coming from? Why are there some identities that are, by nature, at complete odds against one another?

From a literary point of view, the author’s packaging of these themes into a ‘fantasia’ is a fascinating choice. The elements of ghosts, angels, and hallucinations which escalate the tension in the play are certainly useful dramatic techniques — but why are these fantastic elements employed? After all, there are sufficient pre-existing social pressures in the setting to drive the plot. Perhaps it is a commentary on religion, with American people and politicians often characterising the nation as ‘Christian’ even though it is specifically defined otherwise in its constitution. Perhaps it is a commentary on the LGBT community, who might be thought of as ‘dreaming’ a fantasy where they are accepted as a member of the society without any stigma. Perhaps it is a commentary of the author’s work itself – that escapes of reality such as his play are not truly ‘escapes’ as fantasies and realities are inherently intertwined, often with as significant corporal impact as seen in the play. Whatever the author’s original intent was, the impact of the fantasy elements is significant enough for the audience to ponder. After all, the divine is often associated is being all knowing and all good — while in this play there is certainly no such entity which can claim such characteristics.

A lot has progressed since the AIDS epidemic and the time when the play was written. Although it has been decades since the AIDS epidemic was primarily identified as a “gay” disease, Angels in America remains relevant. As an ending note, we can ask what about Angels makes it resonate with us today:

Is it the political and social dimensions portrayed? Does it have something to do with how the U.S. government handled the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s? Do we see similar management of authority in pressing issues today?

Can you see my ghosts?

Richard Eyre was the director of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the BAM Harvey Theater in 2015. In this interview he is asked “Why do people have to write plays which are so sad?”  He answers that “that is what art is about… perceiving pieces of the world that can’t be put together in any other way.” He is touching on the ability to put yourself in the mind of the ‘other’, and by being able to do this, you are learning how to empathize with other people. The ability to empathize is important, especially in our class conversations about the ghosts of our pasts being represented through tradition or culture. Being able to empathize with the ‘other’ also lends to more meaningful self-reflection which can help us answer questions about what it is like to be haunted by these ghosts which Ibsen is trying to call to our attention. Plays like these allow us to access worlds of tragedy, and through characters in plays, we are given many versions of the ‘other’. Particularly in Ibsen’s play, we are presented with several characters, all which are vastly different than the others, and each one playing an important role and representing a clear perspective from society. Manders and Oswald clearly represent two clashing perspectives about society, Oswald is a young, modern artist who doesn’t think twice about couples who aren’t married but are living together, while Manders represents the traditionalist and religious point of view. Both of them vying for influence over Mrs. Alving. These characters allow us to explore the sentiments of people which arise during times of hardship and controversy. These sad plays are important because, as in the words of Eyre, they “show us individuals, who are not like ourselves.” Once we are able to step into the minds of these characters, we can begin to feel as they do, and we can gain a better understanding of what it means for Mrs. Alving to be haunted by her newspaper ghosts; but then, we can begin to ask ourselves what our own ghosts are made of, and where do they come from? Are we all haunted by our cultures? And what does it mean for those who do not have one clear culture, are they haunted by their lack of cultural stability? What do your individual ghosts look like and can you see the ghosts of other people as well? 

Ghosts of Dead Ideas, Lifeless Old Beliefs

Henrik Ibsen was a well-known Norwegian playwright whose plays provide a critical view on 19th-century morality, especially as it pertains to womanhood. His other plays, Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, both discuss the social norms at the time, which treated women like household objects, potential topics of scandal if they behaved out of the norm. Many of his plays were scandalous at the time, with some theatres refusing to perform his plays in order to not encourage social misbehavior. A Doll’s House, for example, has an alternative ending made by German theatres that implies an eventual reunion between the “dissenting” protagonist, Nora, and her husband, but Ibsen (like most modern audiences) did not consider this a useful or a valid alternative to the themes of his plays. Indeed it can be considered that the outcry against his work, the attempts to hush up taboo subjects such as venereal disease, incest, and female freedom, is precisely in line with the social norms that Ibsen wanted to dredge up and expose to light so that the audience has no choice but to face them. Ibsen’s plays have therefore gained a reputation for being “realistic,” no matter how disquieting the truths may be, and some see them as among the earliest literary case studies for the “modern woman” and “Electra complex.”

Ibsen’s Ghosts is set in late-19th-century Norway in the Alving household. The beginning of the play is set on the day before the opening of “Captain Alving Memorial,” an orphanage Helen Alving — the widow of the Captain — is determined to open in his memory. Upon her meeting with Pastor Manders, who had been helping with the plans for the memorial, she reveals to him that her marriage was far from perfect. Her husband, regarded with respect by the people of his town, had been unfaithful, yet she had stayed with him to prevent a scandal. She then reveals to him that Regine, Mrs. Alving’s maid, who at the beginning of the play was introduced as the daughter of Engstrand, a carpenter helping with the orphanage, is in fact Captain Alving’s bastard child. Captain Alving had an affair with their maid, who soon became pregnant, and Mrs. Alving paid the nurse to begin a relationship with Engstrand and raise the girl as his. Once Alving died, his widow used all his money to build the orphanage, hoping that once it was built and running her son would not inherit anything from his father and they will finally be free. 

Throughout the course of their conversation, the two witness Regine and Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, seemingly in a relationship. Stunned, Mrs Alving and Manders try to end the relationship, since the two are siblings, even though they do not know it. Although his mother tries to convince him to end the relationship, Oswald believes that Regine is his salvation. He confesses to his mother that he has been diagnosed with a hereditary illness, and as his father was a great man, he believes he must have contracted Syphilis due to his questionable way of life in Paris. 

As Mrs. Alving contemplates telling Oswald the truth, they suddenly learn that the orphanage had burned down. This only worsens his agony, and his mother finally decides to end his pain and tells him and Regine the truth about their father. Once the truth is revealed, Regine leaves, adding further to Oswald’s pain. Mrs. Alving, determined to care for her son afterwards is shocked when he asks her to help give him a fatal morphine overdose if his disease reaches its final stages. The play then ends in a dramatic scene in which Mrs. Alving is confronted with this decision as her son’s disease quickly progresses.

Ghosts, very likely by design, raises many questions of morality, namely what purpose it serves for the people. Is morality merely a product of society in order to preserve itself? Or is there a universal virtue of morality that seems to fail in special — but possibly common — circumstances? If morality is an important guideline that people should follow, to what extent is it valid across both circumstance and time?

In terms of our overarching theme of Contagion, these questions are undoubtedly in regards to contagion of social norms, especially through generations. The ghosts of the norm created by those that came before us create a society’s burden, which affect us far more realistically and directly than the ghosts of the dead themselves. Can we ever escape from these ghosts? Have we, as a modern society, learnt to recognize and concede to them? Or are we doomed like Oswald, bound to death by burdens that realistically should have no bearing on us? 

Ibsen presents many different aspects of his characters, particularly those of women. There is an inherent sacrificial and selfless element that is an expectation in each of the female characters. Was Mrs. Alving a devoted wife, a responsible mother? Was Regine wrong to not agree to leave with her father, knowing fully well that he was a deceitful person? This paper divides itself to spell out features of an ideal woman, as a person, a daughter, a mother and a wife. But no matter how one acts in the scenario presented, it is almost impossible to fit the “ideal” image. This is particularly evident when analyzing Mrs. Alving’s character. From a societal point of view, there is an expectation to hide the flaws of one’s husband and present the best possible image. Yet, when reading the play, there is an urge that one has to stop Mrs. Alving from presenting such a false reputation of her husband to the entire world. This paper walks us through the many ways that the women of the play try hard to fit the criteria of “perfection,” but fail to do so not because of their shortcomings, but because of the preposterous expectations of society. 

In relation to a previous post on Ghosts, the overarching theme of 19th-century immorality is what encapsulates the entire character of ghosts in the play. With inadvertent critiques on filial piety, or societal standards constantly being made such as those found within Ibsen’s work, the shackles of the past are slowly loosened. As with Regine, social standards are questioned, and within time society will soon disregard them, but as with any contagious disease, if it’s not fought it will once again prevail.

Setting up shop with 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?

We’ve talked a little bit about the function of theodicy in 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? The Decameron also allows us to consider another set of explanations: 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 survivor’s guilt?

Finally, a question about government. What happens when Pampinea declares it necessary to “choose a leader”? (20). What kind of government does she aim to instate?

What’s with the Metamorphosis?

Needless to say, the plot of this graphic novel is extremely chaotic– we are presented with two distinct narrators whose lives seem to merge but who follow different trains of thought, the narrative of the story is messy and difficult to follow, there’s way too much nudity, and the characters within the story–being teenagers–are acting very hormonal. Amidst all the chaos, the audience is left having to tease out the moral of the story.

Since this is the first time being exposed to this text, I am stuck in a whirlwind of confusion. I can’t seem to figure out the multiple layers of isolation being presented in this text, and I sadly, can’t identify with the issues facing the teenagers because I had a whole different set of teenage problems outside the ones depicted in this novel.

However, I was particularly struck by the Burn’s need to depict changing character traits as a form of metamorphosis. Looking up the term “metamorphosis” in the dictionary, I came across the following definition:-
“(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.”
“A change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.”

Burns’ choice to depict the characters as teenagers offers some clarification as to why the characters change form. Teenage years, marking the stage of puberty, and a move from childhood to adulthood, offers group for some of “metamorphosis” within the context of the novel.

But there are also a number of flaws within this definition that are almost aggravating to me as a reader. Here are some of them.
1.) Metamorphosis based on my understanding requires a linear progression or series of stages. So an adult frog starts of as an egg, then moves to being a tadpole and then moves to being a tadpole with legs before emerging as an adult frog. There’s a clear starting point and a clear end point. This text, however, is contextualized in the middle of this progression. We are unsure of how the characters took form as children, and based on the end of the novel, we are also unsure of their end form. The idea of the “Black hole” as a metaphor stands not only for isolation, but for genuine confusion from a reader’s perspective. Added to this frustration is the fact that the experience of “teenage-hood” is also strictly contextual. These depictions are of American teenagers within a set time period so the experiences might greatly differ from other teenage perspectives across time periods and geography.

2.) There’s still no resolution as to why the concept of adolescence is depicted as an embodiment of some animal form. What is the rationale behind switching the face of a human boy to the face of a cat? Is there a reason for Eliza’s tail? Or Chris’ need to periodically shed skin like a snake? Granted the change of forms might just be temporary. But remember that metamorphosis is a linear progression–eggs–>tadpole–>tadpole (with legs)–> adult frog. You have a clear destination and every stage within the development entails some adding on of form or body part to reach that final stage of development. You can’t go from being a tadpole to being a butterfly. It just doesn’t work. There has to be some linear progression from one form to another.

I’m interested to see what you guys think.

Chiamaka Odera Ebeze (coe209).

“Welcome to….”?__Augmenter’s post

“Welcome to our Hillbrow…welcome to our Alexandra… welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg…welcome to our England…welcome to our Heaven”.

There are a number of things I find fascinatingly wrong with the above phrases. The most obvious of my issues is the very fact that I cannot decipher who the narrator is and what his/her relationship is to some form of constructed identity or structured community. By constantly welcoming foreigners to “our” stated communities, the narrator is implying the he/she is already a part of those communities. How is it possible to belong to Hillbrow, Alexandra, Tiragalong, England and heaven, all at the same time? I postulate that it might be because the narrator has a fluid sense of identity. ‘Identity’ for our narrator is not rooted in socially-constructed ideals of identity by descent (birth and breeding). But, identity as part of a community is rooted in one’s present spatio-temporal world. Essentially, as one moves, so does his or her relation to a community. It is unclear as to whether the narrator abandons his previous belongings to other communities by adapting to newer ones, but it is evident from my understanding of the novel that because change and movement are very dynamic, one’s form of identity should equally be dynamic.

The second issue with the above phrasings rests in the extents to which one is truly welcomed as part of a community. Throughout the book, Mpe creates strong tension between the foreigners and the locals- the Hillbrowans vs. the people from Johannesburg, the black South Africans vs. the black foreigners, the ‘Africans’ [excluding (white) South Africans] vs. the British, etc. So, even though it may seem like the foreigners are being welcomed with open arms, one cannot help but take this invitation with a grain of salt or some form of hesitation as the invitation might not be truly sincere.