Archive for October, 2020

Alving’s Haunt- The Form and Place of Ghosts. (Bhrigu’s Augmenter Post)

Ghosts work from home. Apart from the Flying Dutchman’s crew and the Wild Hunt, ghosts, ghouls, and other phantoms are homebodies, content to stick to one place to carry out their spooky business. Captain Alving is such a ghost, tormenting his long-suffering wife throughout the action of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Ibsen keeps Alving’s ghost in one place by structuring the play with reference to Aristotle’s “classical unities” of action, time, and place in dramatic tragedy. The time of the play is uncertain- the place however remains the same. This form of drama resembles quarantine- by enforcing strict boundaries in the form of the play, Ibsen tries to contain Alving’s sins to his lonely country estate by the fjords, a quarantine-like focus that reduces the chances of the audience catching the impression that this tragedy happened because of any reasons other than Alving’s original actions.

The setting also prevents the fallout of his sins on the larger community beyond the Alving family, burning down his memorial to society. The orphanage was destroyed quite quickly after it was constructed; something to be grateful about, for if it had survived for too long, the memories of the place would spread, and Alving’s ghostly contagion would proliferate. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, designed around “Ruin Value“, an architectural idea that called for buildings of the Third Reich to last for a long time and to remain aesthetically pleasing while ruined-the most oppressive ghosts of World War Two. Promoting Captain Alving through an orphanage built around the Ruin Value principle is a deeply distasteful thought. Thus, with Engstrand’s smoking match, Ibsen burned the orphanage.

Parthenon- an example of aesthetically pleasing ruins that have served as the revenants of Greek ideas and their ghosts.

The audience can see how structural failures in Danish patriarchal society force the necessity of a literary quarantine in Ghosts, a failure that permitted Alving to make his wife’s life a misery and brand his sins on his son’s brain. Syphilis is often called the “great imitator” (NSFW images in article, view at own risk) as its presence resembles the symptoms of other disease. Syphilis, like a ghost, is also perfectly happy to wait, as in its latent form, it can haunt the afflicted for years before manifesting in tertiary stage of the disease, a stage at which the victim is no longer infectious. Oswald cannot pass this disease on, and the contagion has been contained in his central nervous system, at the expense of Oswald’s life, Regine’s marriage, and Mrs Alving’s happiness.

Ghosts and Suddenly Last Summer (Maitha’s Augmenter Post)

While reading Ghosts, I was struck with the theme of hiding the truth for the sake of maintaining ideals and reputation. One example of this is of the characters implicitly conversing with each other on topics too taboo to be explicitly articulated (Mrs. Alving saying “Regine belonged here in this house…” instead of explaining how Regine is related to the family).

This concept of evading the truth reminds me of another play, Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, which also tackles the ideas of illness and preexisting rigid social structures, although written almost 100 years later. William’s play is about Mrs. Venable and Catherine (her niece), and it focuses on Mrs. Venable’s recently diseased son, Sebastian. Mrs. Venable attempts to have a psychiatrist perform a lobotomy on Catherine, as she claims her niece has gone mad. This is because Catherine, the only person present with Sebastian at the time of his death, reveals that Sebastián used to “procure” young males for sexual exploitation, and that he died being devoured by a mob of starving children – all of which Mrs. Venable refuses to believe.

While the illness that is uncovered in Ghosts is a sexually transmitted disease, Suddenly Last Summer grapples with the idea of Catherine’s reliability as a narrator of Sebastian’s death, hinting that she might be mentally ill. I was reminded of this play, as both illnesses aforementioned are perceived as “invisible” illnesses (up until the stage at which Syphilis becomes debilitating).

Another similarity is that both plays tackle the topic of social structures and the difficult decision of challenging them. In Suddenly Last Summer, Catherine suffers the consequences of choosing to challenge the structures by talking about Sebastian’s troubling reality. In Ghosts, on the other hand, the characters suffer the consequences of choosing not to challenge the structures and hiding the truth in the name of ideals.

A.N. Here’s a short clip of a film adaptation of Suddenly Last Summer

Whether Patriarchy be old or mere…(Augmenter’s Post by Mingu Cho)

             In the most recent convener’s post, Mrs. Alving is described as a character that embodies a “progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood.” However, the latter part of the play shows how her approach does lack progressiveness at some points, particularly in regards to motherhood. When Oswald says, in Act III, that he has nothing to thank his father, Mrs. Alving admonishes her son by saying, “surely a child ought to love its father in spite of all.” In contrary to how in Act I Mrs. Alving contends with Pastor Manders, who claims that a child’s proper place is the “home of his fathers,” the mother of Oswald in Act III treats familial or filial love as an indisputable obligation.

             Note the following exchange of words between Mrs. Alving and Oswald on page 158:

Oswald: What if a child has nothing to thank its father for? Never knew him? You don’t really believe in this old superstition still, do you? And you so enlightened in other ways?

Mrs. Alving: You call that mere superstition..!

             While Oswald considers unconditional love towards his father as “old superstition,” Mrs. Alving responds to her son’s claim by replying to how such belief could be a “mere superstition.” Here the ‘old’ and ‘mere’ do not correspond to each other, suggesting that Mrs. Alving could have added a different layer of connotation to the word used by her son. Considering how she has arduously attempted to guarantee how Oswald inherits nothing from his father, Mrs. Alving might have liked to mask the eventuality of how the sins of the father are destined to haunt the son. Hence, a distortion of how the mythical unconditional love is characterized, from being ‘old’ to ‘mere,’ could be an unconscious slip of language that reveals Mrs. Alving’s desire to not accept a faith that she understands is bound to occur, and also a momentary but interiorized capitulation to patriarchy.

Mona Hatoum, Performance Still (1985–95) © Mona Hatoum​

             Patriarchy, however, whether you put ‘old’ or ‘mere’ in front of it, can neither be ignored because it is a centuries-old practice, as a system that ‘has always been there,’ nor because of its detrimental effects on the progress of society can be trivialized. Perhaps, Mrs. Alving’s respond to Oswald shows how easier it is to ‘react’ to a possible allusion to patriarchy than to break away from its chains or internalizations that may unconsciously be registered to an individual, as demonstrated by Mrs. Alving’s subordination of her son’s brutal honesty as a “terrible thought.”

             No different from Mrs. Alving and Oswald, our generation is inherited the undesirable heritage of patriarchy. Whether our thoughts, actions, decisions, and language knowingly or unknowingly take patriarchy with us or vice versa, the ultimate solution to patriarchy would be to petrify it and purge it, so that its ghosts stop from hunting us and preventing our progress. However cliché it may sound, it is 2020, and we all must wake up from patriarchy.

Invisible Contagion

“When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.”

(Ibsens, Ghosts, Act II)

This quote said by Mrs. Alving stuck out to all four of us. She highlights the idea of old societal beliefs and values that eerily live on within us in ways we aren’t aware of, and are passed down in ways that we aren’t aware of. The way these “old defunct beliefs” were presented as a “ghost” was intriguing, especially because the concept of contagion seems to be embedded in this idea.  This is evident when she says, “I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.” Yet, the way that she uses ghosts to describe a kind of contagion is not the primary way we have been thinking of contagion in this class. Contagion has been described in visible, physical and tangible terms. It felt powerful to have the invisible contagion of values of beliefs wrapped in the metaphor of a ghost. Ironically, through this line, she gave visibility to the invisible. She voiced, really clearly, intangible structures in a really poignant way.  

A 1987 televised version of the play directed by Elijah Moshinsky has very interesting visuals. The whole action takes place inside the Alving house, in its dark walls, dark furniture and sparse light. Its visuals, especially its colours, are somewhat suggestive of the paintings that have emerged out of earlier pandemics. 

“Titian’s last painting, Pieta, from 1575. In 1576 he succumbed to the plague that was raging in Venice.

Pastor Manders’s character in the film is particularly similar to Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait during the Spanish Flu.

It’s very useful to the action of the play taking place in dim, spacious, yet claustrophobic rooms, never leaving the indoors, a quality that has come to be associated with the current pandemic. Moreover, in this version of the play, a model of the house is securely stored inside a glass box, placed in the living room. Manders is seen constantly resting his hands on this box as though protecting and relying on this structure. This can be seen as a metaphor for Mander’s insistence on closely following the established rules/structures of the world. 

Ibsen uses the symbolism of “ghosts” to illustrate the idea that remnants of practices from a bygone era continue to haunt us, sometimes preventing our society from progressing. The struggle between the craving for a new social order and the rigid shackles of the past are perfectly exemplified in Mrs. Alving. She embodies a progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood — ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions. As Mrs. Alving explains, ghosts are “all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs…”, which in her life have been the gender norms imposed on her of being a “good”, supportive wife despite being stuck in a toxic marriage. Reading this in 2020 was alarming as many of the issues she raises surrounding expectations from women continue to be salient, which begs the question: when do these “ghosts” finally terminate, and when do these ideas stop propagating across generations? What does that mean for us, as people participating in the world today? Is the core of what we have constructed as life infected by patriarchal structures of the past?

In “Severance”, Candace held herself to the immigrant work ethics not because she found meaning in her job, but only because she wanted to uphold the legacy of her deceased father. Duties and responsibilities are passed down from generations, and they are just as contagious and sins and diseases. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.” is what the doctor told Oswald Alving about his illness. 

So, where does the contagion originate? What is the source of it? Did it come from Oswald’s father when he passed on the illness of his mind and body to his son, who now has to face the ghosts of his late father’s life? Or did it come from even before this family, did it come from structures of “law and order” that Helene talks about? Do these rigid structures birth and sustain this contagion? What makes these structures so contagious, what makes them so compelling to pass on, why do they continue to haunt us? 

In this particular course, we learn about the current pandemic that we are facing by reading about all the great plagues that have happened in the past. Within these materials we are bound to see similarities. Patterns are concluded, feelings shared, and history seems to repeat itself. Humans have been studying history since forever. Why is that? What is the point of us living in the present and looking back into our past, into our collective memories? Do we ever learn from it? 

Is it only a numbers game?

Johnson’s talk at Google regarding his book The Ghost Map celebrates the mid-19th century physician John Snow and a local amateur Henry Whitehead’s effort in finding the reason for cholera outbreaks in the city of London. At the centerpiece of their efforts is the construction of a map — a map of all cholera-related deaths near a neighborhood water pump, bounded by the walking path around the neighborhood. Johnson tells us how this map spectacularly illustrated Snow’s theory that cholera was caused due to drinking contaminated water, going against the commonly accepted miasma theory of diseases being caused by bad smells, or the airborne particles that caused them, and not carriers such as water.

Snow and Whitehead’s Map of cholera deaths around Broad street water pump- each black bar marks a cholera death in the house and the area is bounded by walking path. Image via

However, in his paper titled “Incorporating Quantitative Reasoning in Common Core Courses: Mathematics for The Ghost Map,” describing quantitative reasoning approaches that could be included while reading or teaching The Ghost Map, the Beloit College Professor John R. Jungck urges Johnson’s readers to ask whether these quantitative tools such as the cholera map actually just spit out the truth as Johnson seems to suggest?

He reminds us of Florence Nightingale, who herself had pioneered in the practice of data analysis and visualization, and is credited to have invented the famous coxcombs to illustrate the mortality causes for British soldiers in the Crimean war and successfully advocated in the parliament for better nursing practices and sanitation. But as a contemporary of Snow, even after seeing the map, Nightingale did not believe in Snow’s theory of cholera being waterborne.

Florence Nightingale’s famous coxcomb charts. Image via

While Johnson blames Nightingale’s disbelief on factors such as ideology, social prejudice, and limited imagination, in essence pointing that she did not understand Snow’s data, Jungck urges us to ask whether this data and its visualizations might actually support multiple clashing interpretations? He argues that the process of finding the truth is not just as straightforward as its revelation using the data but that it involves argumentation, controversy, and reconciliation with multiple alternate interpretations of the same data, a lengthy but robust process.

Jungck’s argument reminds me of my own changing interpretations of the COVID-19 case numbers over time. While the numbers remain the same, I see 1000 daily cases very differently now than I did a month ago. This interpretation can change from person to person, while Nightingale might have found 1000 COVID-19 cases normal (the new normal I mean), maybe Snow might have thought them to be extremely high. And even beyond that, behind these numbers is the story of how they are even generated: How many tests were done that day? What kind of tests were they? Where in the country were they done? Can we actually trust these numbers?, questions that require even further query than just the daily case numbers. Thus, varying interpretations and seemingly endless questions that ask for even more data are sufficient to remind us that a data set and visualizations alone cannot completely represent the truth.

Finally, tying back to the mortality bills we read about in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, at the start of the plague when the deaths are quite low, the narrator H.F. interprets those deaths as being caused by the spread of the infection rather than dismissing them as just normal variation. I want to leave you to think about how much of his interpretation was caused due to his anticipation of the coming of plague?

In Loving Memory

Oh, come not near then to your Jenny,
No last kiss on her pale lips lay,
Watch, but watch you from afar off
When they bear her corpse away

Feast During the Plague, Lines 60-64

What does it mean to grieve in a pandemic?

All over the world, burial rituals have changed, and people are experiencing grief not only for the loss of their loved ones, but also for the loss of customs they were meant to remember them by. Families in Wuhan have not been able to pick up the cremated ashes of their loved ones for two months because of lockdown. Filipino wakes normally last up to three days, but the pandemic has enforced all cremations to take place within 12 hours of death. Big public funeral processions that were once so vital in many faiths of South Asia are now complicated by social distancing. When the best one can do is Zoom into a friend’s funeral, a great deal of human connection is lost.

I find Pushkin’s exploration of coping mechanisms and grief particularly relevant to this modern concern. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a similarly story to Pushkin’s called “The Masque of the Red Death” where a group of rich people also throw themselves a feast in the middle of plague, but while Poe’s play was about confronting mortality head on, Pushkin is more concerned with those who have to consider it second-hand.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Red Death imagery also reminds me of the personification of plague in Pushkin’s work.Source

Pushkin through the Chairman and other characters, considers the emotionally turbulent experience of restricting our reactions to loss. Though Mary seems distraught over the empty churches and schoolyards and burials and conveys her sadness through song, her companions are perhaps equally distraught but a little better at hiding it. “So for the Plague a hearty cheer!” says the Chairman. Though his mother is dead and so is his wife and dear friend, a cheer, he says. His grief is expressed in the active denial of hurt and sadness. He turns to alcohol and merriment as a cheap way of coping with tragedy. It makes one wonder how much of this reaction was imposed on by the plague? Would he have reacted similarly if his mother had died in more normal circumstances? If he had been allowed to see her and mourn? Or did the plague amplify his grief?

Interestingly enough, it is not those who have been those most heavily hit by loss of loved ones that are out there partying today. The only parties I ever hear of are these so-called COVID parties. While Pushkin’s feast was about grief and respect for the tragedy of plague, the modern COVID party (if it does exists) is centered on the active denial of plague. It makes me wonder, maybe plague-denial is in itself is an expression of grief. Or maybe not. Who knows.

Facing Death

A common theme that interconnects multiple readings, and perhaps becomes more apparent in Defoe’s work and matures in Pushkin’s “A Feast During the Plague” is the personification of death. We are introduced to different descriptions of mortality and the plague and more importantly, further understand characters, figures and viewpoints through how ‘it’ is described.

To bring you back to the feast table, as Louisa revives (line 112), she states:

I dreamed I saw

A hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes…

He called me to his wagon. Lying in it

Were the dead-and they were muttering

In some hideous, unknown language.

The details that Louisa highlights raise an interesting question about how we choose to visualize death and how that may vary between different cultures, religions and time periods. Particularly in art history, death plays a key thematic role and the Art History Project’s Curated portfolio takes you through different cultures and pieces of artwork guiding you through how the depictions and the perceptions have or haven’t changed.

Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” is perhaps one of my personal favorites, along with Hugo Simberg’s “Death Listens”. The contrast between life and death is more recognized in Klimt’s, but what surprises me about Simberg’s depiction is how patient and almost respectful death looks as he is listening to the boy playing the violin. Additionally, straying slightly away from art history and towards modern cinematography, one of my favorite scenes from the Harry Potter films captures death’s persona through an eerily interesting tale (spoiler alert).

It seems most curious then, that such a rich and vibrant track record of work has led us to the modern COVID era, where the killer is now the image of a spiked virus that has become ubiquitous all around the world.

Religion and the Plague

Walsingham in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague is first seen as feasting with his friends. Later the Priest comes a criticizes their actions, especially those of Walsingham, who is revealed to have lost both his mother and wife.

Religion has traditionally served as a way of finding comfort and hope for people during hard times. Walsingham in this play however, goes against those ideals and attempts to forget the pain by celebrating in the midst of the plague. We eventually do not know how well this worked as the play ends with him “plunged in deep contemplation.”

I think it is possible to observe a similar trend with COVID and how as of late, religion has been very frequently targeted for having accelerated the spread of the virus, at times perhaps rightfully so as described by events in this article.

However, the article also mentions the role that religious institutions have been taking such as, providing help for marginalized groups, tackling fear through trust and battling discrimination heightened by pandemics. Given this, simply pushing back religion is not going to be a solution. There need to be ways to guarantee that these activities are carried out, though being cautious about the downfalls of blind faith.

Mr. Walsingham: Breaking Sad

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really…I was alive.” –Walter White, Breaking Bad

The play begins with everyone making a toast to their friend who has just died. Mr. Walsingham is the chairman at the table, enthused to celebrate in the middle of the pestilence. Later, we find out that he lost his mother and his wife. That begs the question: How can he celebrate? The whole scene feels like a classic drown your sorrows in alcohol narrative. The Priest certainly tries to be the voice of reason for him.

“Why have you come here to trouble me?
I cannot, I must not
Follow after you: I am bound here
By despair, by terrible remembrance,”

Was Walsingham entirely wrong in doing what he was though? How justified is what the priest did?

We have seen a recurring theme in the works discussed thus far of victims of plague needing to find ways to cope. Many flee from the plague in search of some normalcy and often the greatest source of normalcy is festivity. We see it in Boccaccio’s Decameron where the characters flee the city and insist on making merry in the countryside. We see it in Severance where some of the characters drink booze and get high every night and we see it here in the Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. Yet this does not necessarily mean that their actions are justified.

This old conveners’ post brings up a similar question, and offers an explanation through Pushkin’s own life. Mr. Walsingham and the Priest serve as Pushkin’s two conflicting states of mind when he himself was dealing with the epidemic of cholera and seeing his friends either die of the pandemic or be politically persecuted.

What we see with Mr. Walsingham and his sadness, or suppression of it, is the struggle between mourning irreparable losses and pursuing happiness in life. This is something everyone at the table is going through, since they all lost their friend. Moreover, if one reads closely the lyrics of all their songs, while they may be celebrating, the songs speak of tragic events.

We ourselves refrain from answering this question but rather like to further ask: what is the best way to honor the dead? Does it have to be solemn and sincere or can it also be open-hearted and celebratory?

Amidst the celebration, a black wagon passes by filled with bodies. In an instance we are reminded that countless lives were lost to the pestilence. Lousia’s fit is a jolting return to reality, if only for a moment in the play.

“He called me to his wagon. Lying in it Were the dead – and they were muttering In some hideous, unknown language”

An illustration of Cholera in Palermo, Italy, 1835

Source:  Wellcome Collection

The Black Man could also have just been someone in black clothing and a plague mask, which were pretty grim reaper-ish.

Mr. Walsingham tells Louisa that the black wagon can go wherever it pleases.  This is compounded by the fact that the plague is referred to as a guest shows how the plague is being personified. This can be compared to Dafoe who uses the term ‘visitation’ . Again, we see a recurring theme throughout various Contagion texts where the Plague almost becomes its own persona – the antagonist.

This ties well to our final point of comparing a pandemic to war, something that Linh also brings up in her augmentor’s post for Defoe. In Mr. Walsingham’s poem, he uses the words of a war against plague. Today, we refer to essential workers as the Frontline ‘Warriors’.  Can the language of war and personifying the plague as the enemy help us better cope with the abstractness of it all? It’s either we pretend that disease is something tangible that can be combated, or we resign ourselves to our miserable fates and make merry where we can.

Bangalore and London: the city exposed

A Journal of the Plague Year is situated in a city that is forced to change, and reveal itself. Defoe details this drastic transformation of this city he once was familiar with by describing stories of people who now have to contend with the socio-economic structures that were never built to sustain them. This reminded me of an interview with Abhishek Majumdar that was published in the Indian Express: Pandemic made me realise Bengaluru is a labour camp with a few apartments: Abhishek Majumdar

Abhishek, who is also my playwriting professor, has lived and worked in Bangalore for a good part of his adult life. Through his involvement in relief work (to provide food to communities who couldn’t afford/access any food due to the pandemic), he now explores and interacts with a city that was designed to “swallow” certain communities, who are forced to become visible now under the strain of the pandemic. 

Indian Express: He cannot recognise a familiar city. It is pricked with hidden holes; people it had swallowed are being disgorged from its bowels and the cracks are showing up in its gleaming construction. “On my regular route — my house to the office or to my daughter’s school — you can hardly see a slum or a labour camp. This says something about how cities are built. It has taken a pandemic for me to be certain that, if we have a view from the sky, Bengaluru is essentially a labour camp with a few apartments. The picture I had was quite the opposite,” he adds.

I was very moved by these questions about the city that Defoe and Abhishek raise, about the massive structural inequalities built into the city, and how a disease might expose and exacerbate those. 

Defoe: Surely never city, at least of this bulk and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation, whether I am to speak of the civil preparations or religious. They were, indeed, as if they had had no warning, no expectation, no apprehensions, and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way. For example, the Lord Mayor and sheriffs had made no provision as magistrates for the regulations which were to be observed. They had gone into no measures for relief of the poor. The citizens had no public magazines or storehouses for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor, which if they had provided themselves, as in such cases is done abroad, many miserable families who were now reduced to the utmost distress would have been relieved, and that in a better manner than now could be done.

Earlier this summer, Abhishek also wrote a play called Salt for the ‘Urgent Drama’ programme of Folkteatern Goteboerg, Sweden, about a family in a slum in Bangalore struggling with hunger. Abhishek reveals through this short narrative how a sense of nationalism is prioritised over actually providing resources to those who need them – providing food to those whose daily incomes have been taken away. The poor have to bear the force of the pandemic even though, as Abhishek writes, they weren’t the ones who first introduced the diseases into their cities. 

Abhishek: For the last 45 days or so, I have been involved in a food relief initiative in our city of Bangalore. Millions of workers have gone completely out of work and they are receiving very little support from the government in terms of food and essentials. Consequently, hunger is as much an epidemic as the virus is a pandemic. Also, the virus has been brought into the country by the rich. It came through people who would have flown to other countries, but its harshest price is being paid by the poor.

Lastly, I would just like to quickly mention this conversation with Abhishek, Anurupa Roy and Shahid Nadeem. They talk about how their experience of the city has drastically changed, and about theater’s role in activist/social/relief work (now that theaters themselves are closed).