Archive for October, 2012

La Peste

Camus’s plague, set in the 1940s, offers a modern and human interpretation of an age-old disease—the bubonic plague.


While dead rats litter the city and people die in masses, the townspeople of Oran do not initially feel worried for their safety. They have no way of judging how grave the sickness is compared to their community’s norm. This changes, though, after a sermon is delivered by Father Paneloux, cautioning the inhabitants of Oran against behaviors that brought on the plague, and advising them to offer up loving, devotional prayers and trust that God will relieve the town when he deems fit. The sermon alleges that God became ‘wearied of waiting for you to come to Him” and thus “loosed on you this visitation” (Camus, 97).  In so bland and ordinary a town, a change to piety could not have proven difficult. Paneloux reveals, however, that the mundane city’s ignorant, mercantile existence brought on a pestilence far from ordinary. After this reproaching sermon, the general panic set in. And why did this general panic set in only after a religious sermon?




Religion can offer comfort in finding solid answers rather than in furthering questions. In times of perilous pestilence, people turn to religion to comfort their fears and to attempt to regain a feeling of control over their lives. The plague ravages the lives of most individuals in Oran, disrupting both family and romantic relationships, trade, and travel. If Paneloux ties the visitation to a dearth of appreciation and devotion to God, then a return to religion is in a way an avenue that promises to rectify the bleak situation in the city and gives people something to do in the meantime.


On the other hand, religion serves to alienate as much as it does to unite. “To some the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.” Divine wrath is particularly confusing for many who did not see their lives and city as sinful. Rieux, however, (among others), takes a more humanist approach to the disease. He argues that not even priests believe in an all-powerful god. Utilizing, then, “creation as he found it,” Rieux takes on the human burden of curing a pestilence through mortal and scientific means.


Under Dr. Rieux’s scientific ideals, though, the town is put under quarantine and interaction with the outside world is completely severed. For the average citizen, being trapped inside the city’s diseased walls created an overwhelming feeling of despair and alienation.  Many tried vainly to continue their normal lives, but this proved impossible. During the height of summer, the coasts were closed, shops were vacant, and the blazing sun was the only visitor upon Oran’s once-busy streets. The weather, ironically, became a central facet of the community. Even the slightest breeze or cool spell was enough to send throngs into fits of merriment and debauchery.


Arguably, the separation of loved ones created the strongest melancholy among Oran’s citizens. Many had presumed that short distances apart could never prove permanent obstacles. However, the breakneck implementation of quarantine was a shocking wake-up for many. Isolated lovers mourned, though, in a different way than the average despairing citizen. Their preoccupation with romance prevented them from being generally affected by the idea of plague:


“The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal” (Camus, 76-77).


The narrator notes how during separation thoughts would often drift to loved ones and the inability to picture one’s beloved could prove unbearable. The quarantine required telegrams to be short, mail to cease, and telephone use to be practically non-existent. So, while the plague ravaged Oran, distraught lovers felt a pain all their own.

We’re guessing that Skype could have made a lot of money in Oran…


These particular feelings of alienation are very important regarding the novel’s characters. Rambert, a reporter from Paris, wants to escape his isolation within Oran. He wants special treatment because he does not live in Oran, but the quarantine is not lifted for him. Rambert begins to roam around the town aimlessly, even sitting for extended periods in train stations with no trains. Rambert is not afflicted with the pestilence during these bouts of roaming, yet he is afflicted with a direct effect of the plague – a somber feeling due to separation from his home and his beloved. The separating effects of the plague lead to emotional changes in Rambert, as well as in other townspeople who go unnamed.


Dr. Rieux suffers similarly. His wife, recovering from another sickness in a sanatorium, is outside the city. While the doctor battles daily for the lives of others, he receives no personal solace.


The Plague, overall, is groundbreaking in its human examinations of a modern populous. The Black Death, often assumed to be an artifact of medieval Europe, has come again with a vengeance. Its victims are no longer isolated peasants. Instead, they are 20th century human beings–human beings with telephones, with automobiles, with all the amenities of modern life. Shocking, though, is that even this modernity is useless under the pretext of so brutal an epidemic.

—Diana & Allen

Besides the analysis above, here are a few other topics we thought could serve as jumping off points for discussion:

–       how Grand’s novel serves to distract him from the plague and the emotions it evokes

–       What is gained by the reader regarding the narrator’s ambiguity at the onset of the novel? Is the story more trustworthy in third person with interspersed elements of other accounts and figures versus a first person narrative with the same elements?

–       “Reckless extravagance” and advertisements of sterilization as results of the plague


Ultimate Irony

Saint Aschenbach in the Purgatory of Sex and Art

What Aschenbach as artist fails to accomplish, the fusion of Dionysian revelry with Apollinian form, Mann himself does accomplish in this novella. The passion and instinctual power the novella thematizes is held in check by the careful formal organization, the stylistic distance, the rational control of Mann’s narrator. (c)

..and much more for “Death in Venice” discussion prep for tomorrow can be found here.

Pederasty in Ancient Greece–It was natural back then!

I found this interesting introduction about Greek pederasty. Before tomorrow’s discussion about whether Aschenbach’s love of Tadzio is that of an artist or a pedophile, I thought it would be a good start to read about the origin of today’s so-called pedophilia/homosexuality. The video below is the story of Ganymede, who is often used as a symbol of beautiful male youth who attracts homosexual desire.


Visconti’s Mann

Because we brought up the 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice I thought I’d post a few related bits here. First is the film’s official trailer:

Next is the brief “making of” documentary:

Third is a very odd set of clips from the film, all bits involving lascivious/coquettish glances exchanged with Tadzio. SPOILER: It includes the death scene. Note that Visconti’s Aschenbach even looks a little like the person in Kefa’s post below. Ouch.

A contemporary review of the film had this to say about Visconti’s adaptation:

In the hands of Luchino Visconti, Aschenbach is instead the “weak and silly fool” for whom Mann’s Aschenbach showed little sympathy in his ironically titled novel The Abject. Where Mann’s Aschenbach approached tragic dimensions as an artist larger than life whose fall presaged the fall of his epoch, Visconti’s is a repressed, priggish gentleman whose infatuation with an exquisitely lovely adolescent boy reflects more ignominy than irony. Far from Mann’s distinguished author, he is a whining, whimpering man in need of smelling salts.

Full text via JSTOR. For one of many longer considerations of the relationship between film and novella, try this.

Is it OK to laugh at Ibsen?

I’ve just found an interesting article on Ibsen, and if you are interested in knowing a little more about the general opinion about him, then it is definitely worth reading it. You’re going to find references to the gender issue he deals with in some of his works.

“In my review of Raison’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, I wrote that Pastor Manders’s “homilies about marital fidelity” produced “derisory laughter”, a response the director believes the playwright intended. In Norway, he said, they stage Ibsen more as domestic comedy than the weighty drama we assume here.”

Beauty and the Beast

Gary Glitter aka the new-age Aschenbach

Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Aschenbach, is a complex character with an obsessive, artistic nature. Aschenbach has a clearly defined view of beauty and his concept is fully represented by the beauty of the boy, Tadzio:

“It was the face of Eros, with the yellow gaze of Parian marble, with delicate and serious brows, the temples and ears richly and rectangularly framed by soft, dusky curls.” (25)

There is an infatuation with Tadzio, with his appearance comparable to flawless marble and the Greek god of love. Initially, the descriptions of Tadzio looks seem to be as an art critic assessing a masterpiece; however it quickly develops into an obsession for Aschenbach. This obsession is highlighted when he claims he was glad to return to Venice, after nearly moving on, because he could watch the boy more. As well as in the quote, when talking about Tadzio, the narrator/thoughts of Aschenbach’s mind cite Greek gods to shed light on emotions “the smile of Narcissus” (43), a beautiful youth condemned by the Greek gods for falling in love with his own reflection.

Aschenbach’s lengthy ruminations on beauty and its relation to how it relates to art, age, spirituality and sexuality frames, particularly, the second half of Death in Venice. He is aroused from his critical and disinterested characterisations of fellow tourists by a sighting of Tadzio, a “beautiful” young Polish boy on whom he soon becomes transfixed. Tadzio is young, feminine looking (“beautiful”) and saliently, free in action and in dress, especially when compared with his well-groomed and constantly monitored sisters. Aschenbach sees a path to divine writing in the boy’s beautiful aesthetic,

“He wanted to work here in the presence of Tadzio, to use the boy’s physical frame as the model for his writing, to let his style follow the lines of that body that seemed to him divine, to carry his beauty into the realm of intellect as once the eagle carried the Trojan shepherd into the ethereal heavens.” (39)

Aschenbach’s transformation comes from his feeling of “a need to restore and revive his body” (58). The language regarding his old appearance is very negative: “he confronted the tortured gaze of his image in the mirror” (58). Seeing such beauty in youth, Aschenbach now feels he must emulate youthfulness and has his hair and complexion altered; as mentioned, this is similar to the man he criticised before who he considered a “bizarre distortion” (15, aka a Beast). Interestingly, the barber says, “Will you allow me to give you back what is rightfully yours?” (58) This directly relates to Aschenbach’s previous questioning of the impersonators right to dress and socialise in a ‘youthful’ manner.

Aschenbach’s attraction to the boy turns out to be fatal however. The trajectory of his sickness begins as he arrives in Venice and thus sees the boy, then immediately following his profession of love for the boy, the notion of a plague-like disease is first mentioned and then finally as the boy seems to officially invite Aschenbach’s affection, the “lonely traveller” dies.

Sam and Tom

Ibsen and fatherhood

Our discussions of Ibsen’s use of congenital syphilis in Ghosts raises the specter of the absent father, whose sexual excesses have literally infected his family. Unlike his earlier play A Doll’s House, this play’s father figure is off stage throughout. He’s already dead before the play starts, so we’re living with his legacy, figured as inheritance, in monetary terms, in public reputation, and in physical and moral health. The critic Jørgen Lorentzen, writing in general about representations of fatherhood in Ibsen plays, begins his study with a set of questions that might guide our discussion on this topic. “I can hardly think of a more pervasive motif in Ibsen’s works than fatherhood,” he writes, though he acknowledges that we more often focus on Ibsen’s famous female protagonists, such as Nora (in A Doll’s House) or Mrs. Alving.

However, fatherhood is not what most of us associate with Ibsen’s dramas. Most of us think of women who fight for the right to a life of freedom or heroic men who become embroiled in great moral battles related to truth, freedom, power, suppression, and bourgeois double standards of morality. The reason for this is rather obvious. Ibsen’s dramas do not explicitly deal with fatherhood. It is not the relationship between fathers and their children that comprise the dramatic plot. Fatherhood lies in the background, ahead of the drama and underlying the dramatic interactions and scenes. Fatherhood is pervasive, yet kept discreetly in the background. This makes it even more fascinating to study. What is it that leads Ibsen to dramatize so consistently the relationship between father and child without fully developing it as a theme? In what ways are issues of fatherhood part of the realistic discourse on truth, freedom, and other issues under discussion?

Later in the piece he makes plain his interest in Ibsen’s fathers and not just male/female relations:

Quite simply, Ibsen wanted to explore the dramatic workings of the family … specifically the relationship between mother, father, and child—not just between the woman and man or the relationship between the adults. The children occupy a deliberate and central place in both plays, with an emphasis on how children are wounded to their core in the bourgeois family drama.

If you’re interested, you can find the rest of Lorentzen’s piece here. For now I’m willing just to entertain these issues as we continue our discussions this week.

Image: David Claudon, 1/2-inch scale model of the set of Ghosts (c. 1967).