Archive for November, 2014

The Zombies, Ourselves

Integral to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is the idea of the “American Phoenix”; the hope that the United States will emerge from the ashes of catastrophe and return to its former state of “glory”. The survivors’ attempts at rebuilding start with the transformation of Manhattan into an inhabitable area (Zone One; the first to come of a reclaimed country).

“Giving in to that pandemic of pheenie optimism that was inescapable nowadays and made it hard to breathe, a contagion in it’s own right.” (p. 16); thus the idea of rebuilding has become an anchor to sanity for the people of the USA. It is also important to note that the urge to rebuild is described as a contagion of its own.

The symbolism of the phoenix is particularly apt given that the neutralized living dead are incinerated and their ashes surround the living’s stronghold in Wonton; the living’s strife for reconstruction and return to normality takes place amidst the ashes of those who used to belong to their society.

Regarding the disposal of zombies and its relation with the American hope for reconstruction, it-s almost essential to analyze the following quote: “It was always disquieting to see empty pavement where you’d dumped some terminated skels. It was as if they’d just walked away.” (p. 93) This statement suggests that the dead keep standing up after getting killed, coming again and again in never-ending nightmare, and hinting at the unlikeliness of overcoming the dead and reestablishing the previous order.

Can the survivors actually build a society that is exactly the same as the one pre-apocalypse? Is it better to reinstate a central government or allow survivors to duel in anarchy, fending themselves against the dead and the thieving, more unpredictable living? Does the failure of governmental institutions and other sources of authority in our previous readings helps us answer this question?

Mark Spitz’s job is to “sweep” the area of “stragglers”: a minority of the living dead that are frozen in time doing a single action. Instead of the traditional brain-munching, limping human carcasses we, as readers, are more accustomed to, Whitehead plays with the idea of the zombie, instead depicting them as those who are destined to repeat the same action for eternity. The “stragglers” also come as a surprise to the characters in the book, who do not understand what causes some to become “skels” and others to become “stragglers”.

“Their lives had been an interminable loop of repeated gestures; now their existences were winnowed to this discrete and eternal moment.” (p. 62)

The comparison between zombies and humans is reinforced with the idea of these “stragglers”. It is seen in the novel that the stragglers are referred to as having gender:

“Mark Spitz had noticed on numerous occasions that while the regular skels got referred to as it, the stragglers were awarded male and female pronouns, and he wondered what that meant.”

By humanizing the stragglers, Whitehead is suggesting that the people of modern American society are nothing but zombies, caught in “interminable loop(s)”.

Is the straggler’s tendency to follow loops in behavior the result of capitalistic society or a comment on human nature and the necessity for routine and monotony? Is monotony related to the impression of having a purpose in life

The narrator introduces the concept of PASD (Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). PASD manifests itself in different ways for different people. The inconsistency of symptoms emphasizes the individuality of characters.

“Given the vast galaxy of survivor dysfunction – PASD in its sundry tics, fugues, existential fevers – the Wastelander’s particular corner of pathology was, Mark Spitz decided, unremarkable.” (p. 37)

The notion of individuality runs throughout the novel as a contrast to the idea that, prior to the outbreak, people were but zombies, entrapped in the machinery of capitalism, lacking individuality in the sense that they were all destined to go through monotonous lives.

“There were hours when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all.” (p. 108)

In what way does this variation of symptoms between individuals resemble “the bug” in Black Hole? To what extent? Since the plague brought variation to an otherwise monotonous lifestyle, can we consider the disease as a blessing in disguise, as we had discussed for Dream of Ding Village?

Take care guys.

Rafa, Liam and Vlad

Surviving Adolescence 101

According to the Urban Dictionary definition, adolescence is: “The most supreme torture in a form that most humans can understand.” Indeed, Charles Burns seems to agree with this definition, as he uses the disease in Black Hole as a metaphor for adolescence. The novel focuses predominantly on teenage characters who all deal with different symptoms of “the bug” and likewise, struggle with different aspects of adolescence.

Below is a list of the symptoms that each character develops from “the bug” (and my interpretation of what symptom of adolescence it represents):

  • Rick “The Dick” Holstrom – skeletal face (socially empty)
  • Chris – sheds skin (like shedding her identity)
  • Rob – mouth on his neck (self-conflict; hiding the voice of truth)
  • Lisa – webbed fingers (? not sure what this could represent – any ideas? parallels to dissection of frog at the beginning, perhaps?)
  • Eliza – lizard tail (was raped – treated like an object/animal)
  • Keith – tadpole-like protuberances (struggle with sex/sexuality)
  • Dave – yeti-like face (impossible to recognize – why would he shoot all his friends?)

As we all know, there’s more to adolescence than just the physical changes. It is a tumultuous transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where one is old enough to know better yet young enough to still do something (reckless/bad) anyways. Often, teenagers find themselves disengaged from their parents, families, teachers, and sometimes even society itself, which gives rise to our class discussion on the adolescent obsession with vampires, as both teenagers and vampires feel shunned and misunderstood by their peers.

Here is an article outlining many “symptoms” and aspects of adolescence, as well as providing “survival tips” to parents on how to deal with their teenagers.

Much like infected individuals, adolescents endure huge transformations and pain as they grow and learn what it means to belong within society as a responsible, knowledgeable adult. Along the way, there are numerous symptoms of this painful process, but once an individual survives the “disease” of adolescence, he/she is better prepared to face “the real world.” Adolescence teaches strength and patience. In essence, quoting Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

P.S. Here’s a short film adaptation of the novel that encapsulates the essence of adolescence, as portrayed in Black Hole. Enjoy!

Short Film Adaptation of Black Hole

Androgyny in the 70s

Our discussion in class today lead to the topic of gender and sexuality in Black Hole. From the very beginning, in ‘Biology 101’, we are exposed to the gender roles in society. Being called ‘pussy’ and other female derogatory terms reminds us of the common notion of females being inferior. Furthermore, Keith feels as though he should be tough during the dissection simply because he is a man. In our discussion today, we established that many characters look alike. The genders of the characters are often indistinguishable simply through their physical appearance. Names are also used interchangeably between males and females (such as Chris). Due to the time period in which it took place, the 70s, it is clear that the surrounding society greatly impacted the mixed gender outcome. The following article discusses androgyny and its relationship with characteristics of an individual

“Research studies have shown associations between androgyny and a wide range of positive outcomes such as self-esteem, satisfaction with life, marital satisfaction, subjective feelings of well-being, ego identity, parental effectiveness, perceived competence, achievement motivation, cognitive complexity when evaluating careers, cognitive flexibility, and behavioral flexibility.”

It is interesting to think about this in terms of the characters in Black Hole. The theme of individuality and conformity plays a role in what the article states. The positive outcomes of ‘self-esteem’, ‘subjective feelings of well-being’ and other features can be seen as enforcing individualism. Chris displays this behavior by going for a swim despite the fact that no other girls are going. On the other hand, however, most characters that are infected with “the bug” do not seem to be “satisfied with life” at all, thus they indulge in bad habits. Even though the article does not reflect the characters behavior very accurately, it is interesting because it gives some context to the time period.

Fear of the Dark

In today’s class we had a long discussions on how certain patterns, images and metaphors are continuously repeated throughout the pages of Black Hole (e.g.: the interchangeability of gender due to the similar features of characters, the appearance of scars that look alike, water symbolism.) I thought that it would be good to expand this conversation by pointing out another of Charles Burns’ works an animation called Fear of the Dark.

Fear of the Dark is part of a black and white horror film series on the subject of human fears written and directed by famous comic writers and graphic designers. Charles Burns contributed to this project by an approximately 18 minute animation with an introverted, intelligent and shy protagonist whose biggest aspiration is to get a girlfriend. Eventually he succeeds in finding a girlfriend, and their relationship seems idyllic, until one day, after waking up with a huge scar on her forearm, the girlfriend develops a crazy obsession with our protagonist. I won’t spoil the ending for you; if you are interested I encourage you to look at the video! I have one suggestion, though, while ‘enjoying the show’ keep an eye on the recurring patterns and symbols that seem so idiosyncratic to Burns!

Fear of the Dark

P.S.: Don’t watch it too late in the evening if you don’t want to loose your beauty sleep!

Black Hole

In Black Hole, the central characters are on the cusp of adulthood, prone to emotional turmoil and indecision. They make mistakes, and the consequences of those mistakes often seem gravely inescapable, like ‘the end of the world’. Chris makes the mistake of having unprotected sex with Rob, and once Chris realizes she has “the bug”, she feels profoundly isolated and ashamed. Then, when she gets caught cutting class and her parents become stricter and impose a curfew, Chris is completely overwhelmed. This small series of mistakes makes Chris feel like a complete failure with no hope of redemption. She runs away from home with Rob to escape the situation, and the note she leaves for her parents mentions plans to go to California even though Chris only moves into the nearby woods with the other “burnout, sick kids”. Does this tendency to spiral out of control instead of moving past mistakes make these adolescents more susceptible to disease? Do they themselves contribute to the devastating effects of the disease?

This book does not confront the disease’s origin the way many of our previously discussed literature does. The disease itself is otherworldly, and it has a similarly nebulous origin. No blame is placed on a specific group of people for spreading or bringing the disease. The disease seems to come from a void, perhaps extraterrestrial. The title references a phenomenon that exists in only outer space, and the people affected by the disease congregate around a place they call “Planet Xeno”. This place is buried in the woods, and the fact that so many characters take comfort in/seek natural spaces might be further evidence that the disease affects humans but originated from something distinctly inhuman. 


Apart from its grotesque outward symptoms, the disease is very bizarre in that not a single person shares the same symptom with others. Rob has an additional mouth on his chest that utters strange sound and words against his will; Chris, although having contracted the disease from Rob, has a different symptom, her back and foot cut open. Eliza has a tail, and Keith discovers tadpole-like bumps around his ribs. The guys who hang out in the “pit,” secluded from the town due to their deformed appearance, all look hideous but in their own unique way.  At the end of the novel is a page from yearbook, where each student features unique symptom.

These symptoms have only one thing in common: mutation from what is considered “normal.” The disease that ostensibly distinguishes the ill from the sound degrades a popular, straight-A student into a social outcast.Why is it significant that the characters suffer from their own unique symptoms that make them socially isolated? Are these differences random, or does each mutation affect each character for specific reasons? What is Burns trying to convey by portraying a yearbook page in which everyone suffers from the disease, looking apparently different from one another? How can we relate it to the nature of adolescence? 

Last but not least, It would be impossible to discuss Black Hole without bringing up its use of imagery. Images are often repeated and juxtaposed, acting as a method of foreshadowing or emphasizing the main theme of the novel: a black hole.

The novel begins with a puzzling account of a Biology class in which Keith looks into a dissected frog’s back:

“I was looking at a hole… a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up.. and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness”

With this are parallel images of a frog’s dissected back, the cut in Chris’s foot, Chris’s back, and a hand covering genitals. With the story of the frog’s back acting as a starting point of the novel, the other three “black holes” are further elaborated upon and explained as the novel progresses. Interestingly, these are all images that Keith directly witnesses during his own narrative. These images seem to foreshadow all the major relationships developed during the novel: Keith helped Chris when she cut her foot in the woods; Chris’s mutation was caused by her sexual relations to Rob; the hand over genitals is an image from Eliza and Keith’s affair.

If all these are black holes, what message is the novel conveying? What is the significance of having a hand covering the genitals, as opposed to leaving it uncovered? What about the usage of a frog in particular?

Another recurring image is the black hole itself. In the very first black hole depicted in the Biology class scene, all the major images central to the novel’s plot are included: the snake, gun, tadpoles, the frog, bones, alcohol, drugs, water, etc. But why is Burns providing us with so many hints? It is remarkable to think that the whole novel was thoroughly thought out from the beginning.


Looking forward to the discussion tomorrow,

Annie, Joohee, Mina




War on Three Fronts

Searching for information on the government’s reaction to polio during war time, I stumbled upon Jacob Bryant’s thesis on the subject, named The Invisible Enemy: The Effects of Polio on the American War Effort during World War II, 1941-1945. Its second chapter, titled “The Home Front”, gives a helpful description of the ways of transmission, the symptoms of the disease and the attitudes towards the latter, particularly the way polio began to rival the war for the population’s attention. I would like to share some of the ideas that came to mind when reading this chapter.

Bryant mentions that although the disease had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Century that it became an epidemic (pg 29); contrary to what we might expect from improves sanitation. The explanation provided is that improved sanitation prevents the immune system form encountering bacteria and viruses that allow it to build up, weakening it against more dangerous pathogens. Another explanation is migration, because it leads people to new places and diseases for which they’re not prepared; the example employed was of the Great Depression, but the mention of the 19th Century makes it difficult not to think about the Industrial Revolution. All this movement of people and innovation and development evokes Angels in America’s argument that the progress of mankind had brought upon us the disease and God’s neglect.

In the thesis it’s also discussed the comparison between disease and war (which we saw in the texts by Roth and Camus): how both President Roosevelt and other high ranking officials were enthusiastic to raise awareness of the disease by link it to the war effort. The thesis cites New York Governor Thomas Dewey: “In a time of war the health of our people– and particularly of our young people– is a vital factor for victory.” (pg 56) His statement struck me because it can also be read that the nation needed the young to be healthy because they could be needed for fighting, which contradicts people’s fright at the death of children. Perhaps the distinctive issue is the purpose: perishing to the disease seems pointless, as an abrupt and undeserved ending to a life that still had so much potential (since most of the deaths were perceived to be of children). While at war you’re fighting for your country and its ideals, and a soldier’s death is seemed as the small contribution to the war effort that might have made the entire difference – as seen by Bucky’s hopes in the novel. Nevertheless, it shows hypocrisy for the respect of childish innocence.

This chapter was an interesting and a relatively short reading. Hope you might find use of it.


Fact or Fiction?

Philip Roth, the author of Nemesis, is a native of Weequahic, Newark. Presumably, Roth based the description of the playground on his own experiences as a child in Weequahic. The fact that the author is extremely familiar with the setting of the novel invites us to question the truth behind the events of the novel. According to this article there was no Polio outbreak in Newark during 1944. There were however, outbreaks of Polio prior to and after the year of 1944. In 1916 “fewer than 2000 children contracted the disease”. Futhermore, Polio struck Newark again in 1952 when approximately 3000 people died as a result of the disease. It seems as if Roth was interested in writing about a fictional outbreak during the second world war. The contrast between a war in Europe and a war on the home-front (against Polio) is key to the novel and ties into Bucky’s thoughts regarding fate and God.

Furthermore, the article mentioned also looks into the possibility that Bucky Cantor is in fact based on an actual Bucky Harris (a gym teacher in Philip Roth’s childhood school). Apparently Philip Roth has a tendency to base characters in his novels on actual people in his life. In an interview, however, Philip Roth dispels this possibility, stating it was a mere coincidence. Bucky was, according to Roth, the product of his imagination and represented the stereotypical American hero. One a completely unrelated note, could it be possible that Bucky is based off Bucky, the sidekick to Captain America? Although this is a stretch of the imagination it is interesting to consider the implications.

It was discussed at some point if Roosevelt, arguably Polio’s most famous survivor, actually had the disease. While Roosevelt did contract a paralytic disease it is debated whether or not it was actually Poliomyelitis or another very similar disease, Guillain–Barré syndrome. It is interesting to consider the fact that the man who essentially led the American war effort during the Second World War suffered from a paralytic disease. Yet again we see connections being drawn between the struggle against the Germans and the struggle against the disease. Are they two different struggles?



Middle Class isn’t sexy. Is it?

Middle Class. Soy Milk Macchiato. Mortgages. PTA. Mumsnet. Reserve Pension Funds. White. Prim. Proper. Dull.

In Black Hole, middle class teenagers take risks whilst exploring their sexuality. We might immediately class this as typical: private schools are awash with those who wish to experiment at parties, in the full knowledge that they have their hockey team kudos that no amount of embarrassing sexual encounters will diminish.

We might look to their parents and hope that it is finished by that stage, but research suggests that those PTA meetings aren’t as dull and dispassionate as you might expect. One of the key aspects of black hole is the freedom the girls take to experiment, and this aspect of being a middle class woman doesn’t diminish with time.

The Barcelona Public Health Agency presented findings in the Annals of Epidemiology earlier this year to suggest that women who have higher disposable income and the ability to manage their own contraception are far more sexually satisfied (16% more than those on lower incomes). They were described as having a greater awareness of their own needs, which led to higher satisfaction. 

Anyone with a vague awareness of Mumsnet knows there are certain threads you need to avoid, or read – depending on your disposition. Countless stories are in the press over the private affairs of the middle class enraging their husbands as they chase the option that maximizes their utility. Such wild abandon is not deemed suitable for women in the upper class, and the working class often lack the ability to do so. 

So, do we take the actions of the teenagers in Black Hole to be necessary to develop an awareness of these sexual needs before they can demand them as adults? Is this, then, a natural stepping-stone on the way to adulthood? 

It is easy to forget that Middle Class adults were once Middle Class teenagers, and as such had the money and trust to pursue what pleasured them.

The Middle Class. Not so prim after all.


I say Nemesis, you say retribution. I say Polio, you say…

One of the augmenter’s posts have already touched upon the question of the title and how we should interpret it in the context of the novel. Just to reiterate:

In Greek mythology, Nemesis … 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)

I wonder if we could dig a little deeper and discover who is committing the hubris in Nemesis? Humankind? The US? Bucky? All of the above? In this case, why is it the children who suffer the consequences? Is Roth trying to comment on the blindness of “divine retribution”?

I would also like to call attention to the difference between retribution and vengeance. Though the ever-informative Wikipedia tells us the she is the “goddess of revenge,” that is not quite accurate; Nemesis, strictly speaking, is the goddess of divine retribution. She is ruthless and remorseless because of the absolutist nature of her judgement, she does not have to be “fair” because you are either “guilty” of hubris or not, there is no middle ground. Nemesis is not to be confused with Themis the titan goddess of the divine law, mother to the seasons who in turn was used as an inspiration for Iustitia, the Roman blinded Lady Justice (worshipped by jurisprudents all around the world), who is more preoccupied with being “fair” (though being blindfolded is definitely not helping). Nemesis has nothing to do with these divinities. She is the daughter Nyx, the Night. The nature of Nemesis’s family is also quite telling; her siblings include the Moirai, the Fates (popularised in the cartoon Hercules).

Here is the entire not-so-happy ménage; the Addams Family would be jealous:

“And Nyx (Night) bare hateful Moros (Doom) and black Ker (Violent Death) and Thanatos (Death), and she bare Hypnos (Sleep) and the tribe of Oneiroi (Dreams). And again the goddess murky Nyx, though she lay with none, bare Momos and painful Oizys (Misery), and the Hesperides . . . Also she bare the Moirai (Fates) and the ruthless avenging Keres (Death-Fates) . . . Also deadly Nyx bare Nemesis to afflict mortal men, and after her, Apate (Deceit) and Philotes (Friendship) and hateful Geras (Old Age) and hard-hearted Eris (Strife).” Source

In sum, Nemesis is anything but pink and fluffy. However, as mentioned earlier, I think the difference between retribution and revenge is quite important here. She is distributing what one deserves in order to balance out the scales eternally present in her hands, not simply seeking revenge. What does retribution – as opposed to vengeance – mean in the context of the novel?

Also, again, if we are talking about polio, I think we should be aware of what it really is, here is a four-minute video summarising the disease and its history — unfortunately, mainly focusing on the US context only. Highlight: only 5% of all people who contract polio develop paralytic polio; otherwise the symptoms are pretty light (headache, fever, vomiting). But if you do develop paralytic polio, it’s very bad news, as it becomes quite clear from the novel. The information in the video is outdated; unfortunately we see polio resurfacing in some where it has been previously eradicated (e.g. Syria).

TL;DR What is the meaning of retribution as opposed to revenge? What does it mean to die from a paralytic disease as opposed to the plague, HIV, etc. Who is on the recipient side of this retribution? Who committed the hubris in the novel? What would it mean not to die from the disease and live with the devastating consequences of it?

Finally, I would like to leave you with a photo of the iron lungs, the machine that some people had to spend the rest of their life in after becoming paralysed.

Iron lungs in a gym


Polio: The Nemesis

So far in Philip Roth’s Nemesis we encounter Bucky Cantor – a primary school PE teacher – who is the playground director in the summer, the season of Polio infestation. Cantor has been denied membership in the army due to his poor eyesight, which as left him feeling inadequate and ashamed – he feels he is being judged by the wider community for his lack of participation in the war effort:

“He was ashamed to be seen in civilian clothes, ashamed when he watched the news reels of the war at the movies, ashamed when he took the bus home to Newark from East Orange at the end of the school day and sat beside someone reading in the evening paper the day’s biggest story…he felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the US forces in the pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another” (p.27).

It is evident that Cantor has a strong affinity towards the children, and is distraught by the fact that they are dying as a result of this “summertime disease”, so much so that when his girlfriend Marcia, suggests that he leaves the school to accompany her and, to some extent, save himself from contracting the illness, he refuses, saying that “I can’t leave them. They need me more than ever. This is what I have to be doing” (p.85). This bond he shares with these students is seen once again in his resentment towards God for directing this disease towards the children only:

“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of Polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (p. 75).

We see in this instance, a central question the novel poses: what is the significance of polio being contracted by young children as opposed to teenagers, adults or those of an older generation?

It is clear that Cantor is disappointed with God. He has taken away his father, his mother and most importantly his paternal figure and mentor in life – his grandfather. This naturally brings about the next question: why does God do the things He does – why does He interfere in this way? Can we link this involvement of God during contagion-based crises to any of the other texts we have read so far? How do they compare to Nemesis?

This interference has made Cantor reflect upon the idea of what a “real family” should be, and how himself had not grown up in one, as he was raised by grandparents as opposed to the boys in his class who were “sons of their parents” (p.123). What are some elements that define what a family truly is, looking at previous texts?

We see Cantor’s distress over the fact that children are dying as opposed to adults, with the death and funeral of Alan, who will “remain twelve forever” (p.63). This idea of death freezing one’s existence in time alludes to the notion of the timelessness of death – a concept that appears subtly in the novel and primarily when Cantor reflects as to whether his mother would have looked as his grandmother does, had she been alive, which goes to show that the image that he has of her is a picture frozen in time, unchanged by external circumstances, as is now the case of Alan.

It is undeniable that the playground has a sense of eeriness to it. It seems to be the both the breeding ground for polio, and is slowly consuming the children – it appears to be an entity of its own and a central cog in the drama of the novel, affecting several, if not all, of the plots and subplots. Can you think of instances in previous texts where a non-human figure has been this influential in the action of the story? Perhaps blood and money in Dream of Ding Village? Can you think of any others?

We have encountered an array of narrators in the texts we have read. What is the significance of this text being narrated by a man (who was once a child in the Newark playground), who was infected by polio, keeping in mind what we have aforementioned about the degree of unfairness about children being the targets of this disease?

We hope this leads to an interesting class discussion about this text!

By Camila, Simi, Sudikchya and Silviu