Archive for March, 2019

Narrative Technique in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

One of many woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Apocalypse. It is argued that Porter derived inspiration for her book while doing research at University of Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, which house these woodcuts.

By Dürer –, Public Domain,

Hello everyone!

Since we will not have the chance to discuss “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” again in class, this post will be a bit longer than usual.

For those of you who missed the waffles and class discussion, we are first going to briefly talk about narration, which is a topic that we touched upon on Saturday.

Porter employed free indirect discourse, a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s voice is fused with the voice of Miranda as we cannot distinguish who says “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart” (208).  Miranda also imagines herself through other people, such as the young couple in the bar, and as the narrative voice is filtered through other voices, this creates another layer of obscurity. Since this narrative layer blurs the line between Miranda and the society she observes, the question of whether it is possible to separate oneself from a social formation is one to be raised.

Miranda’s voice and personality allows the reader see things from a female perspective. Her voice brings feminism to light, by showing objection to patriarchy. For instance, she showed resistance, in a male dominated society, when she was being coerced to pay the bond. She also claps back when Adam makes an allusion of roles being gender specific (157). Other parts of the text portrays Miranda’s tastes in a way the female audience can relate. Also, mentioning her tastes and ability to make sole decisions of what she wants on her shopping list shows the power the author gives the narrator, Miranda, in the text.

This contrasts with the strength of another female character, Mrs Alving, in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, that we’ve discussed in class. Mrs. Alving, unlike Miranda, cannot make sole decisions and her life is based on the norms of the society and the partriachical display of her husband and Manders. Both texts were written by authors of different genders and judging by the outcome, it becomes clear how the masculine gender sees females or the position the masculine gender wishes to place females.  This raises the question: Do we only relate to people’s struggles if we have walked/are walking their path, just as Porter is able to relate to feminism and give the female character a voice? It would also be interesting to see how a female writer portrays the character of a woman.

Building off this question of the author’s experience and whether it feeds into the short novel, something else we didn’t touch on extensively in class is the fact that this book is to a large extent autobiographical; it is reported that Porter almost died of the Spanish flu in 1918 in Denver. Given this fact, one can question the legitimacy of this work as a history — or historiography, rather — of the Spanish flu in America during the war.

In a 2013 article titled ‘Trauma, Influenza, and Revelation in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”’, Laurel Bollinger discusses this issue of autobiography. She cites some contemporary critics who read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” “as a record of the trauma itself (whether personal or communal) rather than on the degree to which Porter creates a highly structured and carefully fictionalized version of the experience” (366). Seeing the story as a psychological/traumatic narrative that explores the infected self — more of an anthropological and psychological exploration — can be well-supported by the narrative technique employed by Porter, and

However, Bollinger is interested in exploring this relationship between fiction and autobiography. She argues that is exactly that fusion between truthful societal accounts and personal experience that strengthen the narrative, which is then ultimately tied together through biblical allusions:

[H]istorian Alfred Crosby describes the novella as “the most accurate depiction of American society in the fall of 1918 in literature. It synthesizes what is otherwise only obtainable by reading hundreds of pages of newspapers” (318). Porter offers similarly precise descriptions of the impact of the flu, both on her own body and on the victims who surrounded her. Yet far from simply recording what LaCapra worries will be “confused or undisciplined thought,” Porter’s hybridized account of the events takes its power specifically from its fusion of the autobiographical and the fictional as she works through the trauma by turning to the mythic. … Looking back on her memories over twenty years later, Porter depends upon biblical allusions, particularly to the Book of Revelation, to give shape and presumably meaning to her experiences (370).

Another significant element of this book is death and its the role throughout the story. One instance where the meaning of death is juxtaposed is in one of the multiple dreams that Miranda has throughout the text. In this dream, Miranda yearns for death as it is an escape from her worldly life and unwanted relationships; she wants to be transported to a world that would rid her of these inconveniences. But it is also apparent that she flees from death when she states “This journey I do not mean to take” (142).  Here, we see her hesitation about actually facing death as well as its consequences. This is interesting as it shows the uncertainty that comes along with making decisions that are absolute as nobody really knows what the result of them could be. This juxtaposition also reveals the contemplative and uncertain nature of her thoughts — it could be interesting to refer back to religion in this case and see how much she does indeed draw from Christian beliefs when she evaluates the concept of death.

If you made it all the way through here — thank you! We hope this post generates some questions and food for thought. Enjoy your break!

Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider: An Autobiography About Everyone Else?

Kathrine Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider opens with a lucid stream of consciousness. Throughout the dream sequence, the reader experiences intimate contact with Porter’s immediate thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Interestingly enough, upon waking up, Porter is not free from her morbid dreams of fear and death. As Porter enters a daunting reality, the readers are plunged into an inconsistent stream of consciousness, much like the one in the dream sequence. This experience can be largely attributed to porter’s use of ‘free association’. Originally coined as a Freudian method for psychoanalysis, free association is the act of allowing one’s thoughts to run freely. This technique eliminates the need for consistency in thoughts, thus, allowing the patient (and in this case, the reader) to come to their final conclusions. In many ways, Porter’s use of Free association has the same functionality. Although the reader might sense a lack of structure, they are able to gain the general sentiment, allowing them to feel the stresses of wartime and influenza in the same way.

Conversely, Porter’s use of free association can almost be viewed as out-of-place. In a story that is autobiographical in nature, the reader expects a detailed, linear description of the life and times of Kathrine Porter. Instead, the introspective novella provides an account of Porter’s life through those around her. A few examples of this become apparent the author’s description of the “envious” young couple, and her own interpretations of the characters followed by their dialogue (Porter, 180). This poses some questions to the original motive of Porter’s work; what is the purpose of an autobiography that associates more with the personas of others? How does this perspective give us a different take on disease, and how it is experienced/viewed by others? By manipulating the consciousness of the characters and subsequently, the readers, Porter alludes to a larger purpose, one in which reality is distorted and dysfunctional.

Psychoanalytic Theory- Free Association (Sullivan 2015)

A ghost but more alive than she was

Edvard Munch’s illustration of Oswald, in Ibsen’s Ghosts, slumped in his chair at play’s end, the cold sunlight finally streaming through the window. More on Munch and Ibsen here.

As we transition from Ibsen to Porter, let’s take a moment to remember poor Oswald, slipping into unconsciousness just as the cold, cold Norwegian daylight finally comes streaming through that window. The ending of Ibsen’s play resonates with the final lines of Porter’s story:

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (208)

Porter — or maybe it’s her heroine, Miranda — leaves us in a postapocalyptic landscape. The silent houses might remind us of Defoe. And Ibsen’s cold light makes a comeback. If you lived my ’80s teenage life, you’d have no question about the music direction for this moment:

Morrissey, “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” from Viva Hate (1988)

“Come, Armageddon! Come!”

Compare the endings of Ghost and Pale Horse. When Ibsen’s play closes, Mrs. Alving still stands there, wringing her hands, paralyzed by her own agency. Whatever she chooses to do will certainly result in her being haunted. Will she lose herself or finally find freedom? When Porter’s story closes, Miranda comes “to herself as if out of sleep,” but it’s hard to tell how much of Miranda is left and how much she’s just being propped up by the same voices of duty, obligation, and propriety that continually dogged Mrs. Alving. When she addresses the dead, her newly awakened self becomes self-conscious, chiding: “Oh, no, that is not the way, I must never do that” (208). Has she pulled herself out of sleep or into the numbness of survival?

One set of past conveners used the question of survival — how does it feel to be left behind? — as their way to frame the reading. Miranda, like Mrs. Alving or Defoe’s H.F., finishes the story having to make sense of what’s just passed. But unlike H.F., who seems to have all the answers, or Mrs. Alving, whose survival is overshadowed by the choice she confronts, Miranda seems profoundly altered, at odds with the notion that she’s awake and in charge of a future in which everything is possible. Here’s how those conveners put it:

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.

 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.” (“Interview” 85) – The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war?

As another set of conveners explained even earlier, the figure of the survivor — charged with the work of mourning — is prefigured even by the novella’s title, a reference not only to apocalyptic imagery from the Bible but, in Porter’s story, to a song Miranda and Adam improvise based on a spiritual sung by black field workers in Texas, presumably the descendants of slaves:

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.

This isn’t the first time music mediates a crucial moment in Porter’s story. References to popular songs appear scattered throughout. The characters have their own relationships to the popular culture of the war years, the same way I, growing up in the 1980s, had my relationship to the popular culture of the Cold War West. If Miranda, at the end, seems a bit like a zombie, one of the questions the novella asks is whether, when all is said and done, we’re made up of anything more than the stories and songs and social expectations we’ve consumed. It’s another tie back to Ibsen: what is it that actually lives on in us, lodged there, that we can’t get rid of? And is that detritus the stuff that ultimately doesn’t just haunt us but shuffles us into survival?

Oscar Seagle (baritone) and the Columbia Stellar Quartette sing “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)” on Columbia A6028, recorded on January 25, 1918.

A Woman’s Right

In this article from The Guardian, the author goes on to explain the similar characteristics each of Ibsen’s female leads have within the world of their plays. The article states that Ibsen had “empathized” with his female characters and paints them out as social victims. This is shown in Ghosts with Helen Alving being a slave to the dos and don’ts of society and its perception of a well kept mother and wife. She is constantly scrutinized for her decisions made as a wife, and betraying her duty to her husband by leaving him. She is further judged by the local town pastor for her ‘free thinking’ ways that are sabotaging her son and negatively impacting his lifestyle. The play raises questions about the mother’s right over her son’s knowledge, in whether she even had the true right to keep the truth of his father from him; was she actually doing him a favor when he ends up sick in the end anyway? Does she deserved to be judged when her intentions were always in the best interest of her son, something that a mother is supposed to do?


Fighting ghosts

In Ibsen’s Ghosts, the characters most of the time refrain themselves from confronting the ghosts in their life and going against it. Even Mrs. Alving, the most “free-thinking” character of the play, only acknowledges the impact of those ghosts on her life decisions, without taking much action to remove herself from their grip.

If we look at today’s world, we seem to have more and more courage to break away from the ghosts of the past, or of public opinions. From issues like feminism to homosexuality, we are expressing more rejection of the “old defunct theories” and actively changing them to fit today’s world.

This shift in how people respond to “ghosts” reminds me of the debut novel written by Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia. I read this book more than a year ago for my writing seminar. The way that the book conveys the idea of confronting and breaking away from prejudices is very interesting, in quite a weird way.

The novel main protagonists are Bekim, a young homosexual immigrant in Finland, and his mother Emine. Emine’s relationship with her husband is somewhat similar to Mrs. Alving’s. When she was young, Emine was always taught to be a good wife when she grew up. One day, a stranger pass by Emine, was charmed by her and soon after went to her house to propose to her. Because he was very wealthy, Emine’s family agreed to marry her off. Yet the husband was nothing like she imagined. He physically abused her and even the children, but they still stayed and persisted, because Emine was always taught to be a good wife to her husband. But when all of their children have moved out and have their own life, she eventually left her husband, and never came back.

In the other line of the book, Bekim, Emine’s son, is an immigrant and gay. He is so afraid of people judging him for his being an immigrant that “he starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.” (A Life Altered by War and Transmuted Into Fiction – Gabrielle Bellot)

However, one day in a bar, Bekim was charmed by a talking cat, who is anti-immigrant, anti-homosexuality, he hates everything that Bekim is. And then he brought the cat home and satisfied all its needs, despite all of its caustic remarks towards him everyday. According to the review on the New Yorker I linked to above, “This unusual relationship, … , may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Interestingly, in one particular passage in the same review, the author also employs language and metaphors related to ghosts to talk about how Emine and Bekim face their own past.

My Cat Yugoslavia” is spry and warm at first, but it hardens, becoming emotionally icier, until Bekim and his mother reach parallel breaking points: Bekim returns to Kosovo to confront the phantoms of his past, and Emine leaves Bajram. This chilliness put me off at first; the novel’s coldness made me feel cold to it. But, as I kept reading, its mood and style began to make sense. The novel is a slowly shattering and re-forming reflection of the protagonists’ corresponding descents into wintry numbness, until, near the end, they begin to revive, and to love. When Emine receives a letter from the husband she has fled, she realizes it is addressed to someone “who no longer existed.” But the past does not disappear: even as Bekim walks, near the novel’s end, with the male lover his father would never have accepted, he cannot stop thinking of Bajram, cannot stop hearing the sharp words from his former life.

19th Century Immorality & Co.

A clip from Ghosts, from the 2014 Richard Eyre production at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring Lesley Manville as Helene and Adam Kotz as Manders.

Ghosts is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and was first staged in 1882. The play is shown to have critical views on 19th century immorality, which then breaks off to further factors that follow underneath this main idea. The overarching theme of immorality forms a throughline across the various topics the play touches on, the larger of which are STDs, sins, incest, and euthanasia. Not counting euthanasia, the way the play talks about these topics draws on the language of inheritance and links it to the wider motif of ‘ghosts,’ forces from the past that have a force on the present. Thus we know that Oswald wishes his illness was inherited instead of acquired, that his interest in Regine is immoral because they both have the same father, and that the shadow of the father’s sins seems to materialize itself in fire with the burning of the orphanage built using the money Oswald would have inherited.

Another underlying theme related to immorality is the role of ethics in this play. With the sins of one’s parents, the act of unfaithful affairs, and the role of ending one’s suffering, we should ask to what extent are all these situations and themes ethical? Both in modern day’s time and in the 19th century? Additionally, try and think about the transmission of not just disease, but of sins and tragedies as well. How can we connect the affairs of Oswald’s dead father to his own tragedies? Of Mrs. Alving keeping all her husband’s affairs secret and away from her own son, to Oswald’s shortcoming in the end? There is a line and history we can connect between immorality and the transmission of disease that can illustrate different perspectives and aspects of the story within Ghosts.

We should also consider the ethics and role of euthanasia within the text, the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and/or painful disease. In the end of Ibsen’s play, Oswald requests his mother the difficult task of ending his life through a morphine overdose, if the time of his utmost suffering shall come. In addition to the ethics of one given the role to end a person’s disease-ridden life, what does it mean to have one’s own mother fulfil that role? Does the immorality of a person ending another’s somewhat vegetative life suddenly lessen if it is the mother ending her own son’s suffering? How can we even consider and determine a person’s suffering if we ourselves are not that person?

Overall, the overlying theme within Ibsen’s Ghosts is the topic of 19th century immorality. We break immorality within this play into different mini-themes, such as the transmission of STDs, the act of sinning, incest, and euthanasia. Moreover, we discussed the interplay of ethics and morality within all these themes and question what is the difference between ethics and morality? Are they different or the same?

Who’s to blame?

While reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, I was reminded by a piece of literature that addresses a very similar issue, Typhoid Mary. This book written by Susan Bartoletti shines a light on an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon. Mary became a reliable cook as she made her way through several establishments upon her arrival in New York city in the 1880’s. But there was something that quickly destroyed her career and reputation as one of the greatest cooks, she carried a pathogen associated with typhoid fever. Mary was the first person in the United States to be an asymptotic carrier of this pathogen. This made her infect everybody that came in contact with her, but did absolutely no harm to Mary herself.

Mary Mallon has been presumed to have infected over 50 people, three of which suffered the unfortunate result of death. Sadly, Mary suffered the same fate. Nobody could comprehend that she was merely a carrier of the disease that was not infected, but could infect others through contaminated food or drinks. Mary was sent to prison for her determination to keep working as a cook for families. She died of pneumonia on the floor of her room, alone.

In Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon was blamed heavily for infecting the people around her. She suffered many harsh consequences such as being sent to prison several times. The public hated her and saw her as a danger to society, and therefore treated her terribly. This is contrasted by the events that happen in The Ghost Map where the idea of blaming somebody for the spread of cholera is barley discussed. The difference between these two events are very drastic. One is centered around blame and getting rid of the human that is causing the disease without trying to understand the situation, while the other builds the investigation of the epidemic slowly and collects facts and evidence for proof.

The difference between these two strategies is very interesting, it brings up the question of who is to blame for the spread of an epidemic. Is it a metal pump that distributes the contaminated water? The government officials who let the public throw their waste in the water? The baby whose diaper was thrown in Broad Street? Or the oblivious cook who ignorantly infected her employers? Another reason why Mary was potentially blamed for unknowingly infecting others was because she was an immigrant. This is what she believed, which is not out of reach as similar occurrences have happened today. Ignorant people generalize and blame entire groups for something that is out of their control. These questions force us to place the responsibility of the death of many on one reason. Should this be the case? Or should we all collectively assume the authority of the situation?

Topographies of disease

John Snow’s “ghost map”: “Map 1.” Printed map, 37.9 × 40.4 cm. From Snow’s Snow on Cholera . . . (1936). The map originally accompanied the second edition of Snow’s Of the Mode of Communication of Cholera (London: John Churchill, 1854). via Princeton University Libraries

Snow’s 1854 map of cholera deaths in proximity to the Broad Street Pump is one of several examples of attempts to visualize data about an epidemic’s spread. The other examples featured on this Princeton University Library site are fascinating too. See the online exhibit at large for other early thematic mapping projects as well as this UCLA page dedicated to Snow’s influence.

Armed with science/knowledge, are we completely safe from disease?

Armed with science/knowledge, are we completely safe from disease?

Our safety depends on being able to predict the evolutionary path that viruses and bacteria will take in the coming decades…” Stephen Johnson (pg 255)

Irrespective of man’s knowledge of the spread of various diseases, man is still locked in a battle with diseases. Not just any disease, but viruses and bacteria that have previously occurred which means science is aware of their evolutionary path and mode of spread.
For instance, Snow paved the way for understanding vibrio cholera, the bacteria that causes cholera, and ever since, there has been massive research and a vast degree of knowledge on cholera. Yet, the disease keeps ravaging the society. Yemen in 2017, recorded 500,000 deaths caused by cholera (much more deaths compared to the London epidemic). Seeing cholera (and other disease) outbreaks in various parts of the world raises the question: are we completely safe from diseases when we have knowledge of the evolutionary pattern and mode of spread of these diseases, just as Stephen claims?

Thinking About Anthropomorphism in The Ghost Map

Last class, we discussed various topics relating to The Ghost Map, one of which was the anthropomorphizing — or what we called personification in class — of the bacterium in the book. Indeed, the book’s preface states the following: “This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. …” (emphasis mine). This demonstrates Steven Johnson’s conscious decision in giving the bacterium Vibrio cholerae agency in the narrative. And while we debated about the reason that it is personified and whether it is personification to begin with, the fact that it is explicitly categorized as a protagonist by the author himself is significant. This statement is indeed validated throughout the book, in which the bacteria are described to have strategies and desires.

What is more interesting to me, however, is Johnson’s decision to make the bacterium a protagonist; in other words, what does he achieve from a narrative point of view through the anthropomorphizing of the bacterium?

In an article entitled “Using Anthropomorphism and Fictional Story Development to Enhance Student Learning”, Kari A. Brossard Stoos and Madeline Haftel describe an experiment in which they have control and experimental groups; the former group are taught a science lesson without anthropomorphizing “agents of disease”, while the latter group are taught the same lesson with anthropomorphizing said agents. The results are described as such:

Students within the experimental section demonstrated increased competence in mapping and explaining pathological pathways on exam questions following lessons delivered using fictional characters, compared with students who had lessons delivered via traditional lecture alone. Additionally, student feedback on this approach was very positive. Students reported feeling more alert, attentive, and engaged, and they experienced increased enjoyment in the learning process.

Linking this back to The Ghost Map, one can consider the bacterium’s anthropomorphizing as a narrative tool to keep the readers engaged, as well as to enhance their understanding of the disease’s spread.

Another article that goes into the cognitive aspect of anthropomorphism in children could help us explain why anthropomorphizing non-human objects helps us make sense of the world:

An analysis of animism in children was extensively performed by Piaget (1926/1929). He maintained that children have a spontaneous animist attitude that develops through different stages until around the age of 12. Piaget distinguishes two periods in children’s animism. The first, lasting until the ages of 4 and 5, is characterized by what he calls an integral and implicit animism. When a child adopts this attitude, “anything may be endowed with both purpose [intention in the original] and conscious activity according to the occasional effects on the child’s mind of such occurrences as a stone which refuses to be thrown on to a bank, a wall which can hurt the hand, etc.” (p. 213). In the successive period, implicit animism progressively disappears, and the process of systematization begins to follow discernable stages.

All of this is to say that we have an almost instinctual urge and affinity to anthropomorphizing interactions with non-human subjects, which helps us understand the world better; and Johnson makes use of that in his narrative technique.