Archive for May, 2019


The concept of Contagion has proven itself to be a multifaceted tool. This idea of the spread of thoughts as well as disease has taken many forms throughout the course. From meme culture and Cholera to religion and AIDS, it has been interesting exploring the dynamic of such an expansion. The themes that have carried over throughout all of the books we have read include cultural influence, social class, sacrifice, shame and guilt, as well as the manifestation of reality into dreams. The interference of culture seems to be heavily present in the formation of identity and fate in Angels in America and Dream of Ding Village. Not only do these outside factors prevent the characters from forming their true identities, they also create a roadblock to them facing their well-deserved fates. Social class has been an interesting factor in some of these books as sickness knows no boundary. This is perfectly addressed in the convener’s post for Train to Busan where they describe the socially diverse group that faces the threat of death together. Another theme that is present in this film is sacrifice, this is best demonstrated by the homeless man’s heroic act of stalling the zombies in order to save the pregnant woman and the little girl. Angels in Americaportrays the idea of shame and guilt excellently as the characters are unable to live out their true identities in the fear of being judged by others. As for the manifestation of reality into dreams, Angels in Americaand Ding Villageare the perfect examples of how the subconscious can be a bridge to reality. All of these different ideas show that so much goes on behind the spread of a disease, and that sometimes, ideologies can be just as deadly and destructive as illnesses.

Excuse the stereotypical theme analysis of this post, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see the consistent ideas that were present in what we read. What would you guys add to the take away of the class and do you have any comments about what I said?

Thank you for being such an awesome group and creating such insightful discussions in class, it’s been a good semester! Have a good break!

Train to Busan

Arguably, one of the most important subtexts in Train to Busan is its critiques of Korea’s mounting class issues. Setting the main stage on a train, the film brings together a socially diverse group with essentially no barriers in between. While zombie attacks act as the main propeller of plot development, the conflicts between surviving human beings is where the true drama lies.

The elite class, represented by the early-stage father character Seokwook and the villain COO Yonsuk, become the face of self-interest, having no scruples to leaving others behind for their own safety. The film suggests the exploitative nature of this group and passes on judgement through details such as Seokwook’s troubled family life, Sangwa’s ridicule of Seokwook before his daughter, Seokwook’s company as the likely cause of the crisis and Yonsuk’s offensive treatment of the elder and teenage girl.

The working class, best represented by the married couple, the homeless man and the baseball teens, on the other hand, is glorified as the image of courage and caring. All of them showed willingness to help people with whom they had little prior interactions in life-threatening situations. Through a series of respectful deaths of the working class, the film reveals this kind group of people, sadly, are not always in control of their lives, susceptible to and bearing the bulk of consequences of the elite class’s irresponsible deeds. This parallel between elites harming the working class and the zombies attacking humans is quite provoking, almost insinuating that they are the same.

Another interesting group involves the elderly sisters, whose stories call attention to the neglected status of old people in Korea. Throughout the plot, hardly anyone noticed or cared about the two sisters apart from the innocent daughter character, Suan. Ironically, it is exactly this neglect that led to the demise of all passengers in the “safest” carriage. When the unadorned sister died, the surviving one realized she had no one at her back anymore and thus no longer wanted to live. Her theatrical choice to end her life by letting zombies in to wipe off passengers in carriage 15, reveals her disapproval of their repulsive banishment of the surviving protagonists and the somber world she lived in in general.

In addition, this film reiterates many of the themes that we have studied in our class so far, particularly questions of community versus individuality. As expected, the group of healthy people try to quarantine themselves in another car of the train from the zombies. However, a particularly striking moment is when the homeless man sacrifices himself for Su-an to escape with Seok-wo; usually it is accepted that in such situations women and children are meant to be the priority, but I do not think that it has been a question we discussed in class. In a way, the homeless man sacrificing himself raises questions of whether certain lives are worth more than others, and what determines the worth of life? It is also interesting to consider which characters draw our sympathy towards them, and which characters we do not sympathize with. For instance, the homeless character definitely draws some sympathy but at the end, Seok-wo’s death draws more sympathy than the homeless man’s death just by virtue of him being a father. Although Seok-wo was initially a distant father, but at the end, by virtue of his positionality in the situation, the audience inevitably sympathizes with him.

Our zombies, ourselves

I’m reminded, whenever I think about zombies, of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different (but related?) kind of zombie economy to the one we encounter in Train to Busan, with its blood-sucking hedge-funders. Some highlights:

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

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

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

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Train to Busan that global corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine. Lots more to talk about in relation to Busan: communication, quarantine, government, empathy, but this origin story is one place to start.

Ebola Outbreak In the Republic of Congo

This video discusses the major outbreak and severity behind the outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is described as a ‘satanic’ inhibition of the body. It eludes to the fact that Ebola takes control of your body in a physical sense, because after all, it is an ailment, but also takes hold of your soul in a divine sense. The satanic comparison illustrates a narrative for Ebola, allowing it to be understood as an unholy hold over the identity of the person. In a literal sense, the interpretation may mean that the severity and consequences of the virus are so large that it seems to be sent by the devil himself, but it is interesting to look at the virus as something that has satanic qualities and has an identity of its own while it attacks the body and identity of another person.

Ebola ’76 paints Ebola as a quiet, lurking character, about to pop out at any time, brewing and manifesting behind the scenes. This matches well with the idea that the virus is “satanic”. The evil qualities of the virus are highlighted in this video, and the community is making the effort to eradicate it. Funnily enough, the only way to take the step forward in eradicating it, is to have a little piece of the devil inside of you; in the form of a vaccine.

Writing the Disease: Ebola ’76

Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus, an RNA virus (filovirus) causing haemorrhagic fever.

Ebola ‘76 tells a story of Ebola’s arrival to Sudan through Lewis, a factory worker who is infected in Kinshasa (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and takes the virus back to Nzara, in Sudan —now South Sudan. While the novel talks about society and contagion in ways similar to what we have read before, there is a crucial difference: Ebola is a character. Although some texts, particularly The Ghost Map seem to portray their disease as a character, none personify it like Ebola ‘76 does. Ebola in the text is very much a personified character that seems to have its own agenda.

Furthermore, the way that the author describes Lewis and many other tragedies within the book, strips away the need to empathize to such a story where a disaster of an outbreak happens due to a mere mourning factory worker. What this does for a reader is create is sense of discomfort because our natural approach to these kinds of uncontrollable situations is to empathize, yet that is difficult with the narrative of Ebola ‘76.

The narration of Ebola within the book causes us to question who really is the protagonist in this novel? Yes we have a main character that is present for most of the novel, but Ebola is certainly always present in all the scenarios, serving more than just a disease. Ebola here is humanized with human-like qualities, such as to smile and migrate along with the human it infests, forcing our attention to its entity as we read this novel. Ebola has much more of an impact than just being a pathogenic and contagious disease, it dominates the narrative to its what some may say its “malicious intent.” What we make of this change of interpretation is unclear.

It is important to highlight, too, that Amir Tag Elsir is a doctor. Which leads to the question, what is Ebola?

This video by Kurzgesagt  — In a Nutshell explains the nature of Ebola succinctly.

The video above provides a window into Ebola and aspects surrounding it: while most of the video talks about how Ebola works in the body and the way in which it spreads —albeit the video is a bit Western- or American-centric. The last minute, however, hints at a minor detail that’s also present in Ebola ‘76: societal spread of an idea. The novel presents the spread and parody of the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen! You are kindly requested to refrain from shaking the performer’s hand, whatever the extent of your admiration” (13), the spread of terror after the epidemic reaches Nzara (87), rumours that specialists were coming (93). Ideas spread like disease, and Kurzgesagt’s video mentions this too, by comparing the Ebola epidemic of 2014 to malaria: the news of the Ebola epidemic spread fear and worry due to Ebola’s rapid —albeit localized— spread and its brutality.

A prominent aspect of Ebola ’76 is the focus on the individual transmissions of the disease within the community. Elsir highlights the general apathy and ignorance of the characters towards the illness, and he demonstrates how this obliviousness to the threat contributes to the ability for it to spread.  Characters’ disregard for cautionary measures – such as protected sex or avoiding physical contact with others – shows how simple decisions can have life-ending implications. Elsir’s emphasis on these interactions between two people and the infection is one that has been unencountered in other works we’ve studied. He seems to intend this as a warning: even in this modern day, Ebola remains a threat that can cross borders and infect communities. Its ability to do so is enabled through a chain of personal poor (and deadly) decisions.

The Role of Song in Roy Cohn’s Death Scene (Angels in America: Perestroika, Act 4, Scene 11)

The song Roy Cohn sings at the beginning of the scene.

Roy’s death scene in Perestroika, though short, contains two songs in it. The first comes as the scene starts, as Roy is singing John Brown’s Body softly. The song is a marching song dating back to the American Civil War, sung mostly by Union (the Northern States) soldiers and abolitionists opposed to slavery. John Brown was a famous abolitionist who thought armed uprising was the only way to liberation. He was the first person hanged for treason in the United States.

“I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

John Brown, last words.

As for why Roy Cohn would sing this song, it seems to be part of how the song describes John Brown’s march to Heaven, as Roy himself is soon to make that trip, according to him. He doesn’t seem to be convinced of abolitionism in any way.

The other song in the scene is sung by Ethel Rosenberg, at the acting of Roy, who pretends to be so delirious that he’d confuse Ethel with his mom, and she sings Tumbalalaika.

Tumbalalaika is a Yiddish/Russian folk song. Its title comes from two words, Tun, which is the Yiddish onomatopoeia for a sound, and Balalaika, which is a Russian stringed instrument.

A Balalaika

The song itself is a love song about a boy who has to make his mind up about who to be with. The body of the song is a to-and-fro where the boy riddles a girl, who answers in kind. The full text can be accessed here.

Tumbalalaika, the love song Ethel sings, as performed by The Barry Sisters.

The part that’s included in the play reads, in English:

A young boy stands

And he thinks,

Thinks and thinks

A whole night:

Whom to take

And not to shame,

Whom to take

And not shame,

Tum-ba-la, tum-ba-la, tum-balalaike,

Tum-ba-la, tum-ba-la, tum-balalaike,

Tum-balalaike, play balalaika—

Though nothing is said about it, the fact that it’s a love song explicitly between a boy and a girl seems to point towards Roy Cohn’s hidden sexuality, as it is the ghost of Ethel that sings it. The answer remains ambiguous.

The Role of Fear in Angels in America

There are a lot of factors that make up Angels in America by Tony Kushner, such as social expectation, labels, sexuality, disease, and so on, but what really ties them all together is the presence of fear. As is said in Als’s summarizing article ‘“Angels in America”: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary‘, “fear defined the times.” Roy Cohn, the highly recognized lawyer in the novel that is despised by some, is diagnosed with AIDS by his doctor but refuses to be called a homosexual, due to his contraction of AIDS. As he claims, “AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer” (47). There is a level of fear in Roy as he starts to realize his place with the disease growing in him, as well as having death loom over him more and more each day. He also fears the reception of people if they were to know he is somewhat a homosexual, especially in his career and with his colleagues.

Joe is scared of what his actual sexuality means in terms of his religion, marriage, and standing in his life at that moment. He takes all those walks in the park instead of immediately coming back home to his wife in order to contemplate, even when he wasn’t in full realization of his homosexuality. Harper is scared of facing reality and thus indulges herself in Valium, reality being that she is actually alone in the world and probably the only person she ever has is Joe, but even he’s leaving. Louis leaves Prior because he is scared of the inevitable of Prior’s condition, and for himself. Prior is scared of what this prophecy means to him and to the world, scared of death due to his contracting AIDS as well. Fear is what drives certain people to do certain things, and perhaps this is what really pushes the narrative forward in Angels in America: people are scared and they do irrational things to relieve that fear, not knowing that those actions can harm other people.

Why Perestroika?

When talking about the second play of Angles in America, I could not help but think why would Perestroika be a title for this piece.

To begin with, this video gives a brief history of how perestroika came about what were the consequences of such a policy. Perestroika was a policy which aimed to bring economic reforms to the Soviet Union, allowing it to compete with other capitalist countries, such as the United States. This policy introduced free elections in the country and created warmer relationships with the US. Yet the policy brought with it a lot of unintentional effects such as the democratization of other countries in the eastern block and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Perestroika is a Russian word that literally means “reconstructing” and this notion of reconstructing is prevalent in Angels of America. The characters in the play are reconstructing, for example, Joe takes off his temple garment that symbolizes his religious devotion and Prior becomes a prophet. In our class discussion and the convener’s post, we spent some time talking about progress and this notion of reconstructing also speaks to the idea of progress and what does it actually mean to progress. Is progress analogous with advancement?

Arguably, one of the biggest, yet the unintended effect of Perestroika was the downfall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of the countries behind the iron curtain. Since the effect of Perestroika was rather unintended, so what does this suggest about progress? Is progress an unintended side effect?

Angels wrap-up resources

For some reason I always want to make a Talking Heads playlist when I teach these plays.

Here’s what else I want to share:

For a decade before we both moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyrus Patell and I taught a course on the Square called Writing New York, for which we generated a pretty substantial amount of online content about Kushner and Angels. I’ve written a little about it elsewhere too. I hope some of this proves useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights.

For WNY, I routinely delivered two 75-minute lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era) and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. For a similar approach that pretty thoroughly mines Kushner’s material, see this piece by the critic David Savran, which informed my earliest thinking about the play, as well as this piece, written by a Mormon literary critic named Michael Austin, which I actually commissioned for publication when I was a graduate student in the mid-’90s. We’ll continue to discuss some of the issues these critics raise as we wrap up our discussion of the play.

On the WNY course site, which is inactive now that Cyrus and I no longer teaching our course, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience. Earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he has taught at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this, too, and this). As a sidenote: in 2011 Cyrus first invited me to NYUAD to help him teach Angels; by the end of that week I had requested a teaching assignment here for the following year. We’ve never gone back.

Remember that you can always search “Angels in America” on this site and see what past Contagion students have come up with: there’s a lot of great material from conveners and augmenters. And If you really want to get hardcore, an older version of this post includes a live-tweet from the last time I lectured on this play at NYUNY in spring 2011.

More reading! Which is to say, more life!