Category: Literature

Scapegoat mechanisms

We talk fairly casually about the notion of the scapegoat — a being forced to bear the burdens of a larger group’s sins or flaws, ritually sacrificed or exiled in order to restore social balance — and certainly this is a useful term for us as we think about social responses to epidemics. One of the fundamental questions people tend to pose in epidemic settings is: who has caused this plague? And if a specific entity or group of people can be identified, what then?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this concise entry on “pharmākos” that may serve as a useful starting point for more specific definitions of terms:

pharmākos, in Greek religion, a human scapegoat used in certain state rituals. In Athens, for example, a man and a woman who were considered ugly were selected as scapegoats each year. At the festival of the Thargelia in May or June, they were feasted, led round the town, beaten with green twigs, and driven out or killed with stones. The practice in Colophon, on the coast of Asia Minor (the part of modern Turkey that lies in Asia) was described by the 6th-century-bc poet Hipponax (fragments 5–11). An especially ugly man was honoured by the community with a feast of figs, barley soup, and cheese. Then he was whipped with fig branches, with care that he was hit seven times on his phallus, before being driven out of town. (Medieval sources said that the Colophonian pharmākos was burned and his ashes scattered in the sea.) The custom was meant to rid the place annually of ill luck. The 5th-century Athenian practice of ostracism has been described as a rationalized and democratic form of the custom. The biblical practice of driving the scapegoat from the community, described in Leviticus 16, gave a name to this widespread custom, which was said by the French intellectual René Girard to explain the basis of all human societies.

Following these leads, here’s the relevant passage from Leviticus 16:

Leviticus 16

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.
The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
“This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.
From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household.
Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
He is to cast lots for the two goats–one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.[1]
Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering.
But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.
“Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.
He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain.
He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die.
He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
“He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it.
In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness.
No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.
“Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar.
He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat.
He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites–all their sins–and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task.
The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
“Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there.
He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people.
He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
“The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and offal are to be burned up.
The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves[2] and not do any work–whether native-born or an alien living among you–
because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.
It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.
The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments
and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.
  1. [8] That is, the goat of removal; Hebrew azazel; also in verses 10 and 26
  2. [29] Or must fast; also in verse 31

And here’s a summary of the work of René Girard on the subject:

When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.

Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’, an allusion to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.

However, Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.

In what ways can Oedipus’ outcome be understood in similar terms? Girard certainly thought so. Oedipus was his chief example of how this process works; in treating Oedipus as an innocent victim of his society’s effort to rid itself of plague, he aims to undo Freud’s dominant understanding of the Oedipus myth.

Image above: William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854.


Kicking off #contagion15

While you’re all working on your first assignment — which includes a summary of Sophocles’ King Oidipous — you may get a kick out of this peculiar retelling of the story. It’s also a summary of sorts.

Meanwhile, I wanted to direct you to a few posts on Sophocles and Boccaccio from past years. Here’s a sample convener’s post on Oidipous, with a link to an even earlier one. It follows up on something we only brushed against today: the question of why genre matters when we’re comparing the plague descriptions in Sophocles’ drama and Thucydides’ historical account. Here’s another, which may help you start to compare the Sophocles and excerpt from Boccaccio. And here’s an even earlier post on The Decameron which dwells on the relationship between storytelling and plague in Boccaccio’s work. Each of these posts contains ideas I hope we’re able to take up in the next few meetings. Which topics here strike you as most interesting or relevant to our conversations thus far?

Thoughts on Hillbrow

A distinctive feature that separates this novel from our previous readings is its narrative voice, as briefly mentioned in the past convener’s post. It is second person, omniscient narrative, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentse, as “you”. In the first part of the novel, the narrator walks the readers through Refentse’s experience in Hillbrow:

Then you arrived in Hillbrow, Refentse, to witness it all for yourself; and come up with your own story, if you could. You came to be a witness, because your cousin, with whom you were going to stay until you found student accommodation at the University, stayed in Hillbrow, although not exactly in the center of the action. (Mpe 6)

One possible effect of this second person narrative is subtly drawing the readers into the plot, making us feel as if the narrator is addressing us and put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

In other places in the novel, the narrator not only gives information on the behavior and thoughts of the characters but also reveals personal opinion from a detached point of view—when the narrator discusses the reason for the difference between Refentse and his cousin, for example (20).

What are the effects of second person, omniscient narrative shown in this novel? What could be Mpe’s purposes in this particular type of narration? Are they achieved throughout the novel?

The novel starts off by presenting Refentse as the protagonist. It doesn’t take long, however, until the readers realize that our protagonist is soon to be (or already) dead, facing “the blank wall of suicide” (25). Then the later part of this novel deals with how people around Refentse behave after his death, rather than continuing to recount the life of Refentse when he was alive. As the chapter “Refilwe” begins, the focus of this story shifts to this past “Bone of Heart” of Refentse—her life after his death is thoroughly narrated in the consecutive chapters. At the end of the novel, the narrator no longer addresses Refilwe with third person pronoun.

Refilwe, you were very grieved by this show. You felt sorry for those who loved you so much and expressed it so openly. You knew it was not  intentional that they should depress you (119).

It seems that Refilwe is now the protagonist of this second person narrative—in fact, she is the only round character in this novel who went through significant transformation. Once a xenophobic Hillbrowan, Refilwe became a cosmopolitan citizen who “no longer hide behind bias against Makwerekwere” and “do not blame them for troubles in life” (122).

Who do you think is the real protagonist of this novel? How can we elucidate this dichotomous narration?

One natural consequence of the narrator not being directly present as a character in the plot is that everything is told as it has been heard and seen, in the form of storytelling and rumors.

It is interesting to note that the people of Tiragalong are referred to as a whole as “Tiragalong”, uniting them as one organism that thinks and responds together:

“Tiragalong’s story was constructed when your mother slipped and fell into your grave on that hot Saturday morning of your burial. As Tiragalong believed, only witches could fall into a corpse’s grave on burial.” (43)

Because the people believe and act as one entity, rumors play a large role in determining their reactions.  Xenophobia and superstitions are the fundamental driving forces of the rumors, causing them to “[drink] in the scandal eagerly” (44). Rumors propagated by fear lead to various interpretations of Refentse’s death and also cause some subsequent deaths, such as the death of Refentse’s mother and Tschepo’s neighbor.

“So in your story, as in real life, Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia — its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers — was vindicated.” (55)

What does it mean to refer to an entire group of people as a proper noun? Are the traditional beliefs of Tiragalong responsible for the rumors and the consequences that follow? Or are they caused more by fear of the unknown?

The rampant prejudice, euphemism, and social classifications in Welcome to Our Hillbrow reflect the entrenched effects of apartheid and oppressive state control over South Africans. As a result of a governmental system that bestowed benefits and value based on skin color, within the post-apartheid black community of Hillbrow derogatory divisions remain. Black Africans originally from countries outside South Africa are derided as “Makwerekwere”, interracial romance is labeled as mental illness, AIDS is often referred to euphemistically and scornfully — “Is it not known what the fruit of sin is?” (112). Language is even systematically policed, erasing cultural characteristics and therefore denying the value of those cultures.

“She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.” (56)

Therein lies evidence of a flawed system that “criminalize[s]… linguistic honesty” and legitimizes certain cultural practices and languages instead of others. The novel’s characters acutely experience this systemic oppression, as the literary aspirations of Refentse and Refilwe are marginalized and devalued.

How does this demonization and isolation of an “other”, especially to create a scapegoat for a complicated epidemic, present itself in other texts we’ve discussed? What role does euphemism play in disseminating both contagious bodily disease and an epidemic of distrust and rumor?

-Mina, JooHee, Annie


Dead War, Dead Survivors

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

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

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

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

 “It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two- what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body.” (177)

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

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

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

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

…something, somebody, was missing, she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country, oh, what could it be? There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright, I have left something unfinished. A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? (201)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ibsen round-up

Well, today may have been the first time I was ever tempted in class to link Ibsen to Suicidal Tendencies, but the passage we focused on from Ghostsall 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 — made me think of the above song, which was released in 1983. They key connection comes when the singer asks how he could be considered crazy if he’s simply a product of his parents’ various institutions. As noted in discussion, Ibsen’s take on cultural inheritance is pretty bleak. Might we even say it’s punk?

Here are some links to past discussions of Ibsen on this site. Last year someone posted a clip from a recent theater production in London. Here’s a post that reads syphilis itself as the play’s creepiest ghost and another on 19th-century Norwegian beliefs about ghosts and haunting — with a surprising dip into the history of photography. Here’s one on Romanian takes on the undead.

I think I mentioned in class that Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter, was a big Ibsen fan. Ibsen was 30-odd years older than Munch and they only met a few times. But Munch was pretty taken with him. Here’s a brief essay on the relationship between their work, including comments on Munch’s 1906 set designs for Ghosts (see above, Oswald sitting in the chair in the final scene, the sun rising outside as visible through the big picture window). I like this observation in particular:

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

And here are a couple links to even earlier posts: the first conveners’ post from 2012; one on humor (how much of this play should we read as comedy?); and one on fatherhood — especially bad fathers — as one of Ibsen’s particular obsessions. Enjoy!

Jane Austen, meet Arthur Mervyn

If anyone here is a Jane Austen fan, you may want to think about the fact that Brown’s Arthur Mervyn and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are separated by roughly a dozen years. I’ve written here before about ties between these two novels — and on the special consideration novels in general give to questions of love, marriage, and property — though coming soon, we may also have to consider additional connections between Austen and our course material

Where they belong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Nemesis?

Personally, I had no idea what the word “nemesis” meant, before I started reading the novel Nemesis by Philip Roth.

Google gives us the following definitions:

– the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall.
– a long-standing rival; an arch-enemy.
– a downfall caused by an inescapable agent.
– retributive justice.
Digging a little deeper, one can find that the term “Nemesis” is directly tied to mythology.
 In Greek mythology, Nemesis (Greek, Νέμεσις), also called Rhamnousia/Rhamnusia (“the goddess of Rhamnous“) at her sanctuary at Rhamnous, north of Marathon, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris(arrogance before the deities). Another name was Adrasteia, meaning “the inescapable.” The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess: the goddess of revenge. (Wikipedia)

All in all, if Nemesis is the goddess of revenge or a spirit of retribution, does P. Roth try to initially portray the events of Newark as a a direct consequence of the actions of people living there? By naming his book Nemesis, did the author mean to portray its characters as victims of the polio outbreak or people who met their retribution?


The Martyrdom of Animal’s People

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (re)presents an interplay of a variety of religions in the fictional city of Khaufpur. Tape Fourteen (pages 205-222) coincides with the ritualistic mourning of Musharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and on the tenth day, the Day of Ashurra, the night of the fire walk happens.

Historically, it refers to “Zibh-e-Azeem,” the Great Sacrifice. The tragedy of the oft-mentioned Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was a brutal massacre on the plain of Karbala (about 60 miles soth/southwest of modern day Baghdad) in the year 680 C.E., year 61 of the Muslim calendar. It was a direct result of a struggle between the Sunni and Shia Muslims for the claim to power. After the Prophet’s death, two factions emerged from the schism that occurred regarding a dispute over succession to Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic community – the Sunnites advocated the customary tribal tradition of election while the Shiites believed the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali had a divine right of succession as the first Imam. After a series of assassinations, Hussein became the head of the Shiites and had to flee Medina for Mecca because he refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the Sunnite caliph in Damascus. His army caught up with Hussein’s company in Kufa in southern Iraq, where they were given an ultimatum to pledge loyalty to Yazid or face water deprivation amid the scorching desert. Nine days later, on Ashura, a brutal massacre took place: the men were all killed (except for Hussein’s ill son) and their heads taken as trophies to Damascus, while the women were taken hostage.

Shiites consider the battle as the ultimate example of sacrifice and dramatically reenact it every year during Musharram in a ritual performance called ta’ziyeh (the word ta’ziyeh literally means “to mourn” or “to console”). Ta’ziyeh belongs to a genre of passion play, most often associated with Christian theatrical tradition, and is the only serious drama in the Islamic world. It is performed in theatres-in-the-round where spectators are surrounded by and even participants in the plot; main drama is staged on the central platform and subplots and battles take place in a surrounding sand-covered ring. The stage and props are stark, echoing the barenness of the desert plain at Karbala. An interesting and important distinction between protagonists and antagonists is that the former sing their parts in a classical manner while the latter recite or shriek theirs. There is also a strong musical presence (the accompaniment of drums and trumpets in intervals sets a mood or advances the action) and the most complete ta’ziyeh performances even involve horseback riding. You can see a few short excerpts below.

Although originally performed by Shiite Muslims in Iran, it has spread to other Arab countries and even places in France and Italy. There, the specific religious themes resonate more with the Christian sensibility and ideas of rebellion against tyranny. A cathartic experience is one of the common denominators everywhere. How does Hussein’s martyrdom function within the contexts of Animal’s People? What effects are produced when the narrative becomes interwoven with marsiyas, elegiac poems? What do religious motifs contribute to the discussion of the novel and its characters?

Source: Peter Chelkowski’s Time Out of Memory: Ta’ziyeh, the Total Drama. You can also read one of the versions of the play, The Ta’ziyeh of the Martyrdom of Hussein.