Personal Responsibility

“Human beings are selfish by nature” John Darnielle

A common thing to happen now is for a person to wake up feeling a throat ache, knowing a global pandemic is happing, and completely ignores it. Unfortunately, there is a belief that if you wore your mask and did everything right you don’t have to test for the virus. The belief that “there is no way that I am infected” cumulates in a domino effect that causes the pandemic numbers to skyrocket.

Emily Landon, the chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago says, “There is no way to tell the difference between cold and covid especially at the beginning.” To protect the community, it is a necessity for people to test if they feel any of the symptoms. Only 46% of people with a fever and a cough went to get covid tested according to Flutracking, a voluntary service.

In Oran during the early days of the epidemic people decided to ignore the start of the pandemic believing that they are unique. Some people believed that their pain was not the common pain that they would hear about from going around. Resulting in them later forming and joining the anti-plague efforts.

The disbelief in a pandemic exists whenever an outbreak happens. It might be human nature to believe that you are different and can’t be infected. I do acknowledge that some people might not be able to test. However, the people who, similar to the book, believe that “common” symptoms are different than theirs are putting people at risk and slowing the healing process of the pandemic.                        

How Pandemics Alter Romantic Relationships

While reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the love story of Miranda and Adam reminded me of a lot of romantic relationships during Covid-19. During covid, many relationships progressed much faster due to the extra time the pandemic created and the denial of the stressful reality of the world changing. Moreover, due to lockdowns, people mostly only experienced the private lives of their partners and which did not give them a chance to learn how they behaved in public, letting many negative behaviours go unnoticed. Love also provided a sort of escapism from the pandemic and helped many battle loneliness which rose either from losing loved ones or being unable to meet them due to pandemic restrictions. This was also visible in the stats that more people were using dating apps during covid. This is very similar to Miranda’s life during influenza, she was combating loneliness as many of her family members had succumbed to the ‘pale rider.’ This feeling of loneliness combined with the uncertainty of the influenza virus gives a new dimension to her relationship with Adam. Despite only knowing him for a few days, they have both already confessed their love for each other. Was it the uncertainty of life and how much more(or little) time they had left together the reason behind this deep connection or was she just trying to escape the reality that she had lost people and trying to find solace in another human?

Rats & pandemics go hand in hand

Cites across the world have been dealing with growing rat infestations. In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, rats lost much of their dependable food sources from restaurants and instead turned to the increasing supplies of residential garbage. As New York City opens up, it has witnessed a massive surge in rat sightings; “Through Wednesday, there had been more than 21,000 rat sightings reported to 311 this year, compared with 15,000 in the same period in 2019 (and about 12,000 in 2014).”

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, rats are terrifying omens that precede the onset of the plague in the town’s human inhabitants. Despite their long history as harbingers of disease, today they are just an aftereffect to COVID-19. Unlike the rats in Oran dying terrible deaths, these contemporary rodents seem to be thriving as restaurants open back up.

The townspeople of Oran are terrified by the appearance of the rats, the first sign that something is out of place. Their strange behavior is noticed throughout the town yet seems to inspire more concern than the first reports of disease in humans (although the local government does its best to suppress this news).

“The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes.”

It is the rats that seem to unsettle the townspeople more than the plague. Perhaps this is because humans have become very accustomed to their position as the dominant species and other animals seem to factor so little into their considerations of danger that when these animals change behavior en masse, it serves as a reminder that we are not immune to changes in our ecosystem. COVID-19 was likely transmitted from a bat. Although we are driving many species of bats to extinction, it took very little for one bat to change the course of human history.

When All is Over, What Then?

When all of this is over, are we going hedonistic or are we trapped by FONO?

Here is a fun video that talks about life in the 1920s after influenza and WWI ended — a time marked by lots of jazz, dancing, and drinking — and predicts our life in the post-Covid world.

Going completely hedonistic is not exactly what happened to Miranda at the end of the book Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Miranda reminds me of a new acronym I came across the other day: FONO aka Fear of Normal.

As Miranda recovers and prepares to return to a normal life, we see that she’s almost reluctant to leave the hospital where all her sickness and suffering happened. Her world was shattered and then put by together to become the “new normal.” There was no more Liberty Bond that obnoxious men forced her to buy, no Adam to go dancing with after a boring workday, … Fear is what we see on her face as she steps “one foot in either world” — the old days and the new (207).

Similarly, as we finally see the hope of getting out of our pandemic mode into a normal life today, lots of us are thinking the same thing — FONO. As the author of this article by the Washington Post says, when he gets invited to a social event, his mind races: “What about masks? Will there be hugs? Handshakes? Do I remember how to make small talk? What would I possibly wear?” I’m sure many of you reading this post in the late-Covid world or post-Covid world will relate to this. FONO isn’t a fear of the normal that we know. It’s a fear of a “new normal” that we are only beginning to have a glimpse of.

So, hedonism or FONO after Covid? Some of us seem to be standing in one of the two camps already. Either way, only future people can tell us how we really fared at the end of Covid, though I do hope no “mandatory sobriety” isn’t coming at us down the road 🙂

What Makes a Plague a Plague?

Albert Camus’ The Plague tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran, told from the point of view of a first-person narrator.

A central theme in Part 1 of Albert Camus’s The Plague is the significance of the naming of a plague as a “plague.” Labels hold a lot of weight, and the labeling of widespread disease and death as a plague is no exception. The narrator notes that plagues, like wars, have always existed amongst humans, but there is still a sense of shock and denial every time a new one arises. The people of Oran witness firsthand the disease’s spread throughout the rats, and then the transference of the disease to humans. The rats’ example can be taken as a clear instance of foreshadowing what fate awaited the people, yet they showed nowhere near as much concern for the disease spreading to humans–Dr. Castel tells Dr. Rieux that the government will avoid publishing anything about how rapidly the disease is spreading to humans to avoid inciting fear within the people. However, leaving the plague nameless poses an issue arguably worse than fear of the disease: a lack of concern for it. Despite seeing what happened to the rats, the people of Oran continue to go about their daily business. This is due largely to the fact that the plague is not being referred to as a plague at all, and the implications of the word are not getting through the peoples’ heads. A relevant example in today’s day and age would be the naming of the pandemic as a “pandemic.” While the word plague was not used, the heaviness associated with a term like “plague” is present in the term pandemic. People did not take COVID-19 as seriously until it began being labeled as a pandemic because the word provided larger and stronger implications than the word “coronavirus.” The peoples’ refusal to acknowledge the plague as a plague in The Plague says much about the significance of labeling and the avoidant tendencies humans utilize to reduce the seriousness of an issue in their minds, no matter how many signs say otherwise.

The motif of suffering is quite prevalent throughout Part 1 as well. In particular, we find that this work differs greatly from the other contagion works we’ve read in this class, in that Camus incorporates merciless gore-like details of the plague’s effects on both the rats and the humans. The motif of suffering in The Plague applies to both the infected rats and the infected humans, yet the difference is that with humans, there is the ability to divide the struggle amongst themselves. This is exemplified in the way doctors such as Rieux are selfless and work themselves to the bone in an attempt to save patients and minimize the struggle a human body has with the plague. Furthermore, the comparison “rats died in the streets, men in their homes” (Ch. 4), shows us that the only difference in how the plague affected men and rats was the place that each died. This leads us to consider the question of is there a dignified way to die if infected by the plague? Moreover, what does it mean to have a dignified death in a pandemic?

Part one of The Plague takes readers through the stages societies go through when dealing with the widespread and oftentimes unexplainable diseases. The first stage – initial observations – is marked by preliminary inspections of abnormalities around the community. In one peaceful evening, Dr Reiux noticed “a big rat … [with] its mouth slightly open and blood spurting from it” (5). The second stage, denial, takes place when different members in a society gather together to discuss these abnormalities. In most cases, if not all, they would deny these deviations, trusting that this phenomenon “is certainly queer…but it’ll pass” (8). As much as a society wants to maintain the status quo, however, these abnormal phenomenons continue to increase and intensify, taking us to the third stage – the spread of the plague (and rumors). The narrator noted that the number of rats that died on the streets of Oran has increased at an exponential rate. The situation has gotten so out of hand “it was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours — thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails” (13). This leads to the fourth stage – realization – in which members of the society slowly begin to acknowledge the existence of a widespread disease, but still try to carry out their daily activities. The fifth and final stage comes when the plague eventually escalates to a tipping point, often characterized by some form of government response. Thus, the end of part one marks the beginning of the fifth stage with a telegram announcement: “Proclaim a state of plague Stop close the town” (61).

The first chapter we’ve read tries to examine the way plague is perceived by different people. We have the views of the doctors, the authority, the common people of various occupations, etc. At this point, an attentive reader might wonder about the veracity of the novel – it is, after all, a work of fiction. We learn that Camus has done a remarkable job researching the epidemic of cholera in the city of Oran in 1849. But how much of the novel is true, or might have been true, if the plague really had visited Oran in the 194-? Fortunately (or maybe not really), we have an event to compare it to, and the striking similarities occur when we dive into the details.

It all starts with the wordings used during the Plague, such as “… a spirit of prudence that all would appreciate,…” (Ch. 5) in the book, which cognates the legendary phrase of an “abundance of caution,” that the NYUAD administration had used quite regularly. But it evidently goes beyond that – Camus analyzes the human ability to understand the Plague, and we come to the conclusion that it is simply incomprehensible when we stumble upon Rieux’s thoughts throughout the first chapter: “…what man knows ten thousand faces?…” or “… he couldn’t picture such eccentricities existing in a plague-stricken community…” (38).

But most importantly, we get to read about the counterintuitive nature of the Plague. In many human thoughts, Camus notes, “stupidity has a knack of getting its way” (37), and that the Plague is contrary to the life itself as we know it: “… everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.” This rigid duality of our world was indeed observed during our time of the pandemic. I (and, I hope, many others in our class) remember clearly when the school said that it was “impossible” for them to quarantine people since NYUAD is not a hospital or any other kind of medical institution. But in a matter of days, A1 became a quarantining building on campus. And then, all of a sudden, every room on campus could be used for the quarantine measures. The plague destroys our notion of what is possible and impossible, because our systems of possibility rely on the simple, yet dangerous assumption that the plague is impossible.

Jenn, Afraah, Meera, Adi

Our Preception of Time, Non-biologically Speaking

It is amazing how our body has a built-in rhythm that allows us to perceive time and beats in music. (see more in Chi-Ting’s post) These eclectic signals tell us when to wake up; when to go to sleep; when to eat; and how to enjoy music. However, each body’s clock functions differently so we created a socially constructed ruler to unify everyone’s experience of time. 

Miranda’s perception of time changed drastically when she contracted influenza. The 2021 audiences who read the novels also find a resemblance (less dramatic though) in their perception of time: Everything happened in 2020, but it feels like nothing happened because it passed by too fast. How does Covid change everyone’s perception of time in the same way? Why do we all feel like time passes so fast during covid?

One answer to this question is that we register new experiences differently in our brain than in our mundane everyday tasks. When we experience something new and exciting the times feel longer and it is more memorable. When we are constantly locked inside a room with no new stimuli, the perceptions of time blurs. Today feels like yesterday, and tomorrow feels like last Friday. 

This video elaborates on the covid experience and raises an even more interesting issue. We rarely have the language to communicate the experiences of time. Maybe that is why we all feel weird but it is hard to communicate it. 

Memories of the Fallen Riders: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Red Cross volunteers assembling influenza masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Content source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers us a glimpse into the psyche of young Americans during World War I and the raging 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu”. Widely assumed to be based on the author’s own life experiences, the novella tells the story of Miranda, a reporter who covers the “routine female job” (149) of theatrical reviews. Even before Miranda contracts influenza, she cannot escape death; she is literally surrounded by funerals and death permeates even her most inane conversations through constant references to the war. However, it is not until she herself becomes sick and nearly dies that she experiences a fundamental shift in her relationship with her own mortality, returning to consciousness with the impression that “the body is a curious monster, no place to live in…” (203). In a world so full of death, what does it mean to live—to escape the pale rider?     

A past convener’s post explores the impact of Porter’s choice to employ the narrative style of free indirect discourse, aptly described as “a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters.” Throughout the story, it is often unclear whether we are hearing Miranda’s direct thoughts or the reflections of an outside narrator; this is part of what contributes to the hazy treatment of time in the novel, which Professor Waterman reflects on in his article “Plague Time (Again)”. The overall narrative structure of the piece is also worth considering as we try to piece together what Porter is showing us about death, war, and society. If this story is essentially a narrative about surviving an illness, why does Porter choose to start the action so long before Miranda actually falls ill? Why give us so much information about war bonds and newspapers? One answer lies in Miranda’s resistance towards returning to normalcy after she recovers. She puts off reading the letters that her loved ones sent while she was sick, lamenting, “They will all be telling me how good it is to be alive, they will say again they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to that?” (205). Even these positive threads of her communicative network pull at Miranda in unwanted ways, demanding a response that she feels she cannot give. By dedicating more than half of the story to Miranda’s life prior to the illness, Porter allows readers to see more clearly what has changed here. Once a vibrant, active figure within a social network, Miranda now feels alienated from others due to her new perspective on life and death. The disease has not just impacted her physical contact with others, but also her desire to engage in emotional, intellectual contact.

Adam and Miranda’s relationship has a doomed fate from the start, as Adam is readying for deployment overseas, a fact that the couple is acutely aware of: “She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.” What they don’t know is that it will be the virus that gets them first.  Still, that doesn’t stop the couple from enjoying their precious moments together. They spend their 10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz under the stars, sharing stories, going to plays, talking about their past lives and reflecting on futures that can never be. Their love adds a vibrance and light to the story, contrasting with the context of death and darkness they are surrounded by. Funeral processions pass regularly through the streets with seemingly growing frequency, but Miranda is determined not to disturb “the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty four years old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.”  Similarly to the community in A Feast During the Plague, human connection provides escapism, a symbol of the goodness remaining in the world. Miranda is portrayed as using her relationship with Adam as a shield against the war and the virus, substituting and interweaving one set of experiences for another.

The relationship between the living, the dead and memory is presented as a recurring motif in the text (Severance, is that you?). At one point, Miranda and Adam discuss the eponymous traditional spiritual Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which death steals the singer’s lover, mother, father, siblings, and eventually, the entire family. Because the dead in the song, like the dead in the war and the victims of the influenza pandemic, have no memory, remembering them becomes the survivor’s responsibility. Miranda identifies with the singer in the spiritual when she tells Adam, “but not the singer, not yet. Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190). As mourners at the feast, Miranda and Porter eventually each become bearers of memories that would otherwise be forgotten. 

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that just as much as the story is about escaping death, it is also about accepting death. In the case of Adam, he tries to make the best of his life and his time with Miranda because he wants to make use of what little time he has left before he goes to fight in the war. He has already accepted his death and does not run from it. He treats the war to be the same as his death (for example, he explains that he smokes despite knowing how bad it is because the state of his lungs in the future does not matter when he is going to war anyway.).

Despite this, however, he did not harbour any ill emotion for being made to fight in the war – he views it as his duty, saying he could not “look himself in the face” if he didn’t go (177). Miranda views him as a sacrificial lamb, marching to his death without fighting against it, having accepted it. This is quite similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, where Oswald accepts his inevitable (brain) death, although in his case, there is nothing he can do to fight against it. We can say that Adam has more agency than Oswald, and he gives up what little agency he has and accepts his fate. Another interesting, coincidental connection with Ghosts is that the sun represents death in Oswald’s case, while in Miranda’s case, it represents her coming back to life.

When discussing agency, we can revisit The Decameron, where the privileged ten have all the agency in the world to abandon their city and live in a countryside mansion. Here too, the ten main characters are running from death that surrounds them in the city, fighting against it, although it is much easier for them than for Adam.

In the concluding passages of the text, as Miranda regains consciousness to find that the war has finally ended, she is confronted with an atmosphere of jubilation in stark contrast to her individual story of deep loss. Amidst the celebration, Miranda’s reaction to the news of Adam’s death reflects on the purpose and meaning of her life without her lover: “Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?” (208). Now, rather than accepting her own death, she has to accept Adam’s, which is hard for her to do. As an ode to Severance, we see Miranda adopting consumer rituals, marking her survival and as an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, however her psyche remains haunted by the ghost of her lover, who is ‘more alive than she is’. 

To Miranda, her recurring struggle over Adam’s memory seems to be driven by three key reasons: because it is her responsibility, because it connects her to other survivors, and because she loves Adam. At the moment Miranda comes closest to death, “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). As she asks this question, she feels excruciating physical pain – the first returning sensation of life – and she begins to recover both her health and her memory. We view this connection between pain and forgetting as not accidental. Porter, who has experienced both her own near death and the actual death of her lover due to influenza, warns the reader that only the fragile, vulnerable thread of memory connects the living to the dead. Forgetting is presented as the psychological analog to physical paralysis, so remembering and pain, although negative states, are preferable to lack of memory and lack of sensation. Ultimately, Porter leaves us with the questions: why is it important to remember the dead? What is the relationship between the living and the dead? And what do those left behind owe to those taken away by the Pale Horse, when “now, there would be time for everything” (208)?

Maja, Mary, Saideep, Asma

Our Perception of Time, Biologically Speaking

In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, we can see Miranda losing her perception of time. In the almost first-person storytelling, we as readers were misguided to believe that she hasn’t been hospitalized for as long as a month. Stemming from curiosity, this post seeks to provide biological insight into this “time flies” sensation.

TED ED’s wonderful video explaining how our brain retains its regular activities and approximates time.

Our brain has its way of regulating our daily activities. Through a seesaw relationship of two proteins, CLK, which activates genes that keep up awake, and PER, which deactivates genes that produce CLK, in the SCN, our brain maintains the circadian rhyme that controls when we wake, eat, and sleep in its primitive cycles of time.

To be more precise, our brain has its own count clock, the cortex utilizes the roughly constant speed of electric signals transmitting between a pair of neurons to calculate the passing of time. That becomes our perception of time.

Miranda’s terrible body conditions caused by influenza may have severely impacted her brain activity, further disrupting her 24-hour rhythmic cycle. The disrupted circadian rhythm then, in turn, affects her consciousness in normal activities.

Furthermore, in Michel Siffre’s experiment in the cave, the darkness of the environment warped his conception of time as he counted to 120 in 5 minutes instead of 2 mins. In Miranda’s case, being severely sick may have also impacted her neurological activity that led to her confused conception of time. Time, in my experiences, truly did spin on a different axis when I was ill or sleep-deprived.

Frankly speaking, her delayed realization of time may have been included to exaggerate her sickness or her sentiments of lost love. Forcing biology into theater somehow takes away the impact of evoking this bitter-sweet feeling. Such a drama pooper. However, there must have been a scientific explanation for such phenomenon for it to widely resonate with so many of us. After all, she was merely a fellow lovestruck human in the shifting times of an epidemic.

Silence = death

SILENCE = DEATH Project (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Li. SILENCE=DEATH, 1987. Offset lithograph, sheet: 33 9/16 × 21 15/16 in. (85.2 × 55.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Robert Thill in honor of Robin Renée Thill Beck, 1998.109. © artist or artist’s estate (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1998.109_PS6.jpg)

While we were talking about Ibsen’s Ghosts today, I mentioned that the play resonated with the 1980s AIDS crisis. I poked around the New York Times archives after class and found a 1982 review that mentions how ubiquitous the play had recently become but doesn’t yet mention AIDS (though it describes Mrs. Alving’s truth-telling as a “coming out”), and one reviewing an Irish production in 1990 that explicitly updates the play and changes Oswald’s disease from syphilis to AIDS. The first of those reviews, from 1982, seems to reproduce the problem of remaining silent about the obvious. It refers to the play as “an intimidating classic that, for some most mysterious reason, has been too much with us of late.” Could the reason have been so mysterious? The fact that the paper couldn’t just name the advent of HIV/AIDS as the “mysterious reason” anticipates what would become a major activist critique (see the poster above) of the Reagan administration’s failures in confronting the crisis, which will return as an issue when we read Kushner’s Angels later this semester.

(For an interesting look at the effects of the New York Times’s early AIDS coverage, which began in 1981 with a now infamous article on a new “gay cancer,” see this take from the Covid era.)

While I was looking at these older reviews I also found this clip, which I hadn’t seen before, of Lesley Manville (who played Mrs. Alving in recent productions in London and New York) reading some lines out of costume: she’s staggeringly good, and really makes plain just how modern the play can still feel.

I’d seen another clip before, of her in costume on stage, performing the scene we’ve spent so much time discussing. She’s amazing. Enjoy.

Ghosts of the Past

Ibsen’s Ghosts deals heavily with the idea of personal agency and the impact of inherited traits. Last week, I finished watching the new Netflix documentary on the Burari deaths, a case that presents several of the same themes. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Back in 2018, 10 members from 3 generations of the Bhatia family were found hanging in a strange pattern from the roof of their house, and the grandmother, the oldest member of the house, was found nearby, strangled. As the police tried to uncover what had happened in the seemingly normal and happy family, they learned that the younger son, Lalit, believed that the ghost of his dead father, Bhopal Singh, had lodged himself within him and began writing diaries with instructions, apparently from Bhopal. Bhopal was a harsh man with very distinct mannerisms, so when Lalit began speaking and writing exactly like Bhopal, the family believed that Lalit truly was Bhopal incarnate and began following his instructions exactly. It was difficult for the police to comprehend that the younger members of the family, including a 15 year old and 25 year old, would willingly hang themselves simply because an older member of the household told them to, but the fact was that they fully believed it was Bhopal speaking to them, and Bhopal’s knowledge and power superseded everything. Bhopal’s impact was so strong, the family did not know how to live after he died, so when Lalit claimed that he had inherited his father’s ghost, the family felt as though some normalcy had returned to their lives. Ibsen’s interrogation of the idea of a child being a parent’s incarnate took place in 1881, but the concept still remains hauntingly relevant in 2021.