Archive for November, 2020

Fool’s Liquid Gold

“It’s the same with blood. Blood always replenishes itself. The more you take, the more it flows.”

“Dream of Ding Village”, Lianke
Blood Plasma

Yan Lianke’s Ding village is one driven by blood, the value of plasma and the promise of prosperity it provides. The HIV/AIDS crisis fueled by this fever for donation and compensation was a harsh learning lesson written into history, however the very demand created by the plasma economy that caused the outbreak is still pulsing.

A recent report analyzing the effects of the COVID-19 on the plasma fractionation economy estimated the current global value of the market to be 22.1 Billion (USD), and projected that by 2027 it would only grow to 31.9 Billion (USD). The plasma of blood, a mixture of water, proteins, antibodies, and other essential components is the liquid gold behind this industry and its continual expansion. For diseases like COVID, antibodies from recovering patients may even save the lives of others and people were actively encouraged to donate blood as the pandemic continues. Synthetic alternatives are still being developed but are unable to emulate the expansive array of functions and dynamic composition that make it life-saving. In such circumstances, what happens when a price tag is stuck on a blood bag?

Kathleen Mclaughlin’s journey as a blood smuggler caught between China and the US sheds a personal light into the consequences of this huge economy. She pinpoints an interesting parallel focusing on compensation for plasma ‘donation’:

“She gets about $300 a month for her plasma twice a week, a number determined by a formula that targets people just on the edge of getting by, where a few hundred dollars makes a major difference. The pay scale in China 23 years ago was calculated much the same way; enough to make life easier, not enough to earn your way out of selling blood.”

“My career as an international blood smuggler” McLaughlin, Gaurdian

This draws attention back to Lianke’s writing: “Rich or poor, it was their decision” (35). But this clearly wasn’t true and still isn’t. The systems designed to keep people reliant on donating are still persistent and when your livelihood depends on your ability to provide plasma, are you ever given the economic independence to ‘decide’?

Pharmaceutical Companies Are Luring Mexicans Across the U.S. Border to Donate Blood Plasma

The economies of health need to be understood better and regulated properly to ensure that the socioeconomic vulnerabilities and their security are driving factors in shaping policies, and not a means of exploitation. Whether it be the needles used for blood collection or the incentives of donation, each component in the process requires careful scrutiny and apprehension as the economy expands. The solution, then, lies in the mistakes and markets of the past.

Freedom, Chains and Dreams

If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want to do today?

For the people in Ding village this wasn’t just a hypothetical question, this was their reality. The fevered, as they lived in the village school, striving to make their last days full of happiness. We see many of them looking for ways to fulfil their lifelong desires and to tie up loose ends. We see Ma Xianglin holding on for a few more days by fulfilling his desire to put on a concert for the entire village. We also see Li Sanren looking around desperately for his precious village seal that was taken away from him in his last days. The fevered went running around to find their coffins, and when they did, they were so happy they almost forgot about the fever that had been inflicted upon them.

‘A lot of us have died already. I cheat death every day … what do I care if I get caught cheating with someone else’s wife?’

From Severance to The Plague, getting sick incapacitates people, prevents them from living their life to the fullest. But in Dream of Ding Village, it also sets people free. It gives freedom from the future. When Ding Liang and LingLing are isolated from their families, they are free to be with each other and enjoy themselves free of societal expectations. Ding Liang, even on being caught with LingLing, doesn’t seem to be ashamed of himself. Ding Yuijin and Jia Genzhu are aggressive in claiming authority over the village for themselves and living their best life. In the text, as leadership moves from Grandpa to the two of them, so the town seems to free itself of the future. People stop putting up scrolls to remember the dead. They take away everything from the school, meant for future generations, and use it for themselves. For want of more coffins and exquisite furniture, all the trees disappear overnight. The town truly lives like there would be no tomorrow. We want to bring up a relevant question here from an old conveners’ post: Do people have the right to neglect the future if they know they will not be in it?

On the flipside, however, there are horrors and realities that cannot be escaped. The act of all the fevered in Ding Village moving to Grandpa’s (quarantine) school is reminiscent of the “escapes” we have seen in our earlier readings. For example, the Brigata in Boccaccio’s Decameron who live in a plague-free utopia outside the infested city, and the survivors in Severance living inside a mall to start a new society after Shen Fever has wiped out the rest of the world. While these characters are the survivors of their plagues, the fevered school residents are actually the ones who have a guaranteed death coming for them soon. However, as they all try to make a fresh start with their “escapes”, eventually all of them are plagued by their pasts and human desires. So while the school-life for the fevered is described as “paradise” in its initial days, the illusion breaks with occurrence of theft, greed, and power struggles – all caused due to the sick wanting to connect to their past lives and desires. In Severance, Bob’s desire to live in his own childhood haunt also leads to his death and disbanding of the survivor group. This begs the question that with the plague or AIDS or COVID-19 destroying our normalcy, can we ever forget our past lives and desires to make a fresh start? Or is it just a utopian ideal, ready to be shattered at one reminder of the past? Will you still take care of sanitizing your hands after going out as diligently as now if we told you that COVID-19 is over?

Rural tourism brings prosperity to Xihe village, Henan province -
A village in the Henan province in China
Source: China Daily

Let’s take a step back and think about an important detail in the frame of the story that deserves some reflection. The narrator of the novel is a 12-year-old boy, the son of a blood kingpin. He seems to be the only dead character in the novel who did not die of the fever. Because of it, but not from it. He is a ghost, haunted by his father’s sins. Is his purpose now to narrate the horrors that his family brought about? What does his role, and the events that happen to Grandpa due to his sons, say about family? Are we bound to our families no matter how far apart we try to be?

While we are looking at the frame, it is meaningful to delve deeper into the three dreams in Volume 1. It refers to the story of Joseph in Genesis of the bible. Joseph, who was found to be an interpreter of dreams, and was summoned by the Pharaoh to interpret his disturbing dreams. Joseph informs the Pharaoh that his dreams imply that his kingdom would have a long period of prosperity followed by a period of famine and destruction.

The cupbearers dream

Ding Village seems to have followed in the footsteps of Egypt. They have a period of prosperity brought on by the selling blood followed by a devastating period of death. At first we were unsure of the purpose of these dreams appearing in the first volume but by reading more and more we can see the similarities between the two communities. The Cupbearer’s Dream comes to the forefront when Grandma comperes the blood bags to plump red grapes:

“Throughout the village, blood-filled plastic tubing hung like vines, and bottles of plasma like plump red grapes.”

Grandpa, like Pharaoh, has the remarkable ability to foresee reality in his dreams. However, he was not able to stop many of the tragedies that fell upon the village. If only he could dream what could have been rather than what was.

The Dream of Ding Village is one that many can relate to. It is a dream to rise above, and to fulfil the heart’s desires. Amongst the chaos and tragedy, however, Ding Village chronicles a collapse of integrity, respect, honour, and the value of a human life.

The name’s Bond. Liberty Bond

Pale Horse Pale Rider is a story set in World War 1, and we see a lot of elements from the era become everyday realities for Miranda, our protagonist. One of those are the Liberty Bonds, which salesmen keep hounding her for, and she wonders what use her 50 dollars could be for the country. 

War is a military effort. It is an economic effort. It is a political effort. The Liberty Bonds were a way of making it a public effort too. It is quite interesting to delve a bit deeper into Liberty Bonds, to understand what they were and how useful they ended up being.

An explainer on how bonds work

Bonds provide a regular cash flow (in the form of interest payments), and can be very safe investments depending on the issuer. US Treasury bonds today are considered the safest asset in the world (i.e. the government will never default). The government’s reputation was very important in establishing credibility for people to buy Liberty Bonds.

A war is, beyond the display of military firepower, a stress test for the economy as well. Great war efforts need an economy that will support them. The “war economy” is the result of changes a country makes to alter its production capabilities. This means reorganising factories and mobilising extra labour (on account of increases in required production, and drafting of able-bodied soldiers).

However, a vital cog in this machine is how all of this is funded. When automobile companies produced vehicles for the US military, they called it their patriotic duty, but they still had to get paid for it. Who would pay, and how?

During World War 1, the US Government had 3 options: printing money, taxation, and borrowing. While printing money sounds like an easy fix, it actually means facing the risk of inflation in the economy, which wasn’t an exciting prospect in the middle of a war. 

Both taxation and borrowing were on the table, but having only one of them wasn’t the right option. Taxation meant that the US Government could conveniently pick the tax rate and collect a certain amount of revenue for the war. However, in an uncertain situation, it was not known how much the war would cost, and regularly increasing taxes was not something any government would be keen on.

Hence, Liberty Bonds were introduced as a way to raise an extra amount of money to fund the effort. They were supposed to be effective because of their high interest rates and the sense of patriotism one was supposed to get from buying one. It was targeted at households and individual investors, to introduce them to financial securities.

The Committee for Public Information, a propaganda office that was established to mobilise public opinion, took care of building a campaign around the bonds. 

Uncle Sam asking for the $$$

The effort was unprecedented

Here is a quote from an article by the Federal Reserve:

The loan drives were the subject of the greatest advertising effort ever conducted. The first drive in May 1917 used 11,000 billboards and streetcar ads in 3,200 cities, all donated. During the second drive, 60,000 women were recruited to sell bonds. This volunteer army stationed women at factory gates to distribute seven million fliers on Liberty Day. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed two million information sheets to farm women. “Enthusiastic” librarians inserted four-and-one-half million Liberty Loan reminder cards in public library books in 1,500 libraries. Celebrities were recruited. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, certainly among the most famous personalities in America, toured the country holding bond rallies attended by thousands.”

It did not go unrewarded. Approximately 20 million individuals purchased bonds, and they funded two-thirds of the expenses of the war (the rest funded through taxation).

Fueled by this success, the US Government also continued issuing War bonds during World War 2 (along with other governments involved in the War). Fortunately we have not seen any more world wars. However, the US government remains the most important player in the Bond market. Most financial investors looking to hold a balanced portfolio (i.e. distributing their eggs across baskets) hold about 40% of their investments in bonds (both government and corporate). US Government bonds are currently the safest investments on earth. 

Coming closer to the present, in the “war against COVID”, it’s the public that needs money, not the government. So the Federal Reserve actually bought bonds in the market, as a way to ease the economic pressure in the market.

Bonds are a reliable, frequently used tool in the arsenal of central banks around the world. Liberty or not, bonds have affected the day-to-day life of billions of people around the world, directly and indirectly.

P.S. – who can say no to Captain America?

Camus and the Postcolonial (augmenter’s post)

Albert Camus’ The Plague has widely been studied as an allegory for the invasion of Nazism in France during World War II. In the novel, set sometime during the 1940s, the bubonic plague invades the town of Oran in French Algeria, starting from a deluge of unexplained dead rats to the rapid upsurge of “inguinal-fever cases”. According to Steve Coll of the New Yorker, several writers have thus referred to The Plague as allegorical for “the virus of Fascism,” with characters such as Dr. Bernard Rieux— a Fauci-esque figure in the novel—as symbolic of the French resistance to Nazi occupation.  

But while the text can be seen as this allegory for Nazi occupation in World War II, one thing that should perhaps be emphasized is the fact that this text is situated in French Algeria; and that, in the grand scheme of the course, The Plague is the first time we are encountering a pandemic in a postcolonial setting. Keep in mind, that Algeria as a colony contributed significantly to the French army in World War II, and that not too long after the war Algeria gained its independence from France  in 1962. Therefore, in some ways, The Plague is situated within a colonial narrative. David Carroll writes the following in his essay “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran” in regard to The Plague and the postcolonial:

“[Camus] claims in fact that his choice to narrate history by means of an allegory of the plague has a decided historical and political advantage: that of suggesting a number of ‘historical referents’ or contexts for the plague and thus different forms of political oppression and injustice rather than just one (National Socialism). Camus clearly had in mind Stalinism as another form of political oppression that should be associated with the plague, but is it really possible to disassociate from the plague the forms of economic injustice and political oppression that were effects of colonialism and imply or assert that Camus intended such a disassociation?”

Carroll, David. “The Colonial City and the Question of Borders: Albert Camus’s Allegory of Oran.” L’Esprit Créateur, vol. 41, no. 3, 2001, pp. 88–104. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Nov. 2020.

One of the questions we could ask ourselves is to what extent The Plague engages with theories and matters of the postcolonial. One of the ways we can think about this question is through the novel’s emphasis on anonymity, and a refusal to name things and/or people. The prefect, for instance, refuses to publicly name the disease, despite the evidence that seems to classify it as the plague bacillus. Then, and perhaps most significantly, there is the refusal of the text itself—at least, in the starting chapters— to name the narrator, who the novel also refers to as a “historian” of sorts given their collection and documentation of plague-related “data.” Why is that so?

If for now, as readers, we assume that Dr. Rieux is our mystery narrator— who, we might further assume, is French— what implication does that have in regard to whose voice is being heard, or whose record of plague history we are reading? As a French physician part of the seemingly wealthier classes of Oran, what does it mean for someone like Dr. Rieux to narrate the events of the plague in colonial French Algeria? Another question also worth thinking about is how does Dr. Rieux’s form of documentation compare to mysterious newcomer Jean Tarrou’s, described by the novel as “observing events and people through the wrong end of the telescope,” with “trivial details which yet have their importance”? And finally, whose voices as a result are being excluded in the novel? In thinking about the postcolonial, Camus in many ways becomes a work of plague literature that offers a lot to think about in terms of whose pandemic experiences are recorded, and whose are potentially overlooked.

The True Heroes:

Pale Horse Pale Rider tells the story of Miranda who miraculously recovers from the Influenza that plagues the world in 1918. However was it actually so miraculous? Miranda’s recovery was in fact due to the health care she received from Dr Hildesheim and Miss Tanner, his devoted nurse.

Just like in the time of the Spanish Flu (a highly contested name discussed in Yaman’s Augmenter’s Post), Covid-19 is at the mercy of its Doctors and Nurses. I found it curious that the Doctor’s name was Hildesheim. Even if the doctor was American through and through, his name indicates that he is from a migrant background. This theory is further confirmed by the fact that Miranda, in the midst of a fever dream suspects the doctor of being a foreign spy.

In was reported by the OECD that foreign doctors have been key assets to combatting the pandemic in many OECD Countries. Migrant health care workers account for up to 60% of the doctors in some countries.

88 Indian Nurses Deployed To UAE As Aid Amidst COVID-19 Start Work

Yet in other nations, health care workers are being banned from entering countries due to visa restrictions despite the fact that there are a shortage of Medical Personnel in certain regions.

Medical workers transported a patient to Lenox Health Greenwich Village in New York. Hospitals there and elsewhere have been overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus patients.
Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

We ask ourselves who are the true heroes? In Pale Horse Pale Rider, Miss Tanner is described to be the person who truly brought Miranda back to life after all the other doctors had given up hope (203). It has been reported by the ICN that 1500 nurses have died due to Covid-19 and that there are approximately 20,000 health care worker fatalities. The number of nurses who have died is the same as that of World War I (the time in which Pale Horse Pale Rider is set).

This comparison is quite fitting given the title of this post. During War time we often talk of our fallen heroes, describing the soldiers who died in the War but do we remember our doctors and nurses? There isn’t a World War going on right now yet our ‘frontline warriors’ head in to battle everyday and they deserve the utmost respect and appreciation.

What’s in a name?

In Katherine Ann Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider, the protagonist Miranda Gay has a near-death experience with the 1918 influenza pandemic . However, “influenza” was not the only name which was used for this globally spread disease and the pattern of naming it across the world is actually quite interesting. The British science journalist Laura Spinney writes in her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World:

….people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 

As wartime censorship suppressed the reporting of the flu in allied countries, the news of its spread in Spain (which was neutral in WW1) went across and countries like America, France, and Britain were quick to assign the name and the blame- “Spanish flu”. Thus, as the disease arrived across nations, the practice of blaming an already existing common “national enemy” or a particular group was followed.

This also relates to what we read earlier in the Justin Stearns’ 2009 essay “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death”. Stearns writes:

One irony deserves to be mentioned in this context, namely that where Jewish authors at times refer to the plagues God sent upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a sign of God’s ability to punish sinners, Muslim scholars at times cite a Prophetic tradition explaining that the origin of plague lies in a punishment that God sent down upon the Jews long ago, and Pope Clement VI noted in a mass the example of David’s sin resulting in the punishment of the people of Israel by plague (Second Samuel 24:15–19).

Stearns, Justin. (2009). New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death 1. History Compass, vol. 7(5), p. 1363-1375.

Religious groups also promptly assigned the blame of the plague on other groups, finding a common enemy and cause for their own group (reminds me of this meme). For example, with the current pandemic in India, this was done by blaming Muslims, an already persecuted minority, by pointing to a Muslim religious gathering as the root cause of the infection’s rampage in the country.

This practice of blaming gives a persona to the hitherto unfamiliar and strange disease and provides an unjustified but easy channel for venting out the anger and hate against the disease by putting it on the blamed group. To prevent such unjustified names (and to some extent the blames) from sticking around or even making it to official proceedings, the World Health Organization (WHO) has instated naming conventions that prevent the use of specific identifiers such as places, people or animals. The naming COVID-19, shorthand for COronaVIrus Disease – 2019, does follow these protocols. However, we are all also familiar with the American president calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”. Hence, it is up to us and especially leaders in power, to be careful of the implication of the names we do use in our vocabulary.

P.S. On the lighter side of things, sometimes this name and blame game does not have to come down to a particular group as was the case when the 1918 influenza pandemic came to Spain:

So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spinney, Laura. (2017). Pale rider: the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Vintage. p. 36. 

Denialism is No Foreigner (Conveners Post)

    Donald Trump may be (outwardly) the most powerful COVID denier in the world, but he is not the only one. Denialism runs deep inside the minds of people, whether due to their distorted allegiance to rationality (or rationalization) or thanks to the conditioned privilege of not encountering catastrophes on a daily basis before the disaster kicks their doors open and tells them to wake up. In Camus’s The Plague, we encounter denialism through witnessing the plague unravel from the perspective of Dr. Rieux, who unmasks the reality of the sickness taking over the French-Algerian city of Oran.  

Figure 1. Variations in the book cover for Albert Camus’ The Plague

Premiere et derniere de couverture depliees de l’edition en 1955 dans le “Livre de poche” du roman d’Albert Camus “La peste” (n°132). Il s’agit de la premiere publication en livre de poche d’un ouvrage de Camus. “L’etranger” y sera publie en 1959, malgre les reticences de Camus a voir ce livre figurer dans cette collection. L’illustration de couverture de La peste est signee CS, un portrait photo de Camus, yeux baisses et cigarette aux levres, figure au dos du livre, avec la mention “l’un des plus grands romans de nortre epoque”. ©Gusman/Leemage

Figure 2. First and last cover unfolded from the 1955 edition in the “Pocket Book” of Albert Camus’ novel “La peste.” ‘L’un des plus grands romans de notre epoque,’ is translated to ‘One of the greatest novels of our time.’ / Â © Gusman / Leemage

    Among the many book covers (Fig. 1) of Albert Camus’ The Plague, the one at the bottom left corner, a 1955 version from the first paperback publication of the author’s work (Fig. 2), seems to best reflect the environment where the plague of denialism can spread among the denizens. The pastel roofs of the houses in the city Oran, painted lightly in blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, etc., aptly corresponds to how the town is pictured by Camus, with “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning,” where “all seemed well” (58). The soft colors belie how at the beginning the people of the city take the progression of the plague ‘lightly,’ in the tranquility that is “so casual and thoughtless [that it] seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague,” allowing the rats, as depicted in the cover, to infiltrate the town, just as soldiers during the war would conduct their surprise-attacks (39). Rats aside, the optimistic colors of the city are in contrast with the foreboding figure in the foreground. Could the figure be an anthropomorphized representation of a plague, a secondary one that is birthed by the epidemic of denialism? Why is the figure positioned at the outside of Oran, as if he is a foreigner to the city?

The figure of the plague is always a migrant, someone that arrives from abroad, rather than something in the population itself. That’s true for COVID- it jumped from animals to humans, a taxonomic leap that destabilized the entire human colony on earth. Yet barring the foreigner from entry is the most appealing tactic in a time of plague- that’s the first, measly step President Trump took to stem the flow of the contagion in February, and he focused only on China. That was never going to be sufficient, but the denier in chief of the US thought it would be enough. Denialism is no foreigner to us.

This previous conveners post touches upon denialism in society in The Plague through framing it as a “conflict between confidence and fear”, highlighted in the interaction between the authorities and the doctors and the reluctance to alarm people about the pestilence in concern of spreading fear. Adding to this previous conveners post, it is crucial to account for the dynamics between doctors and political authorities, and the roles each assume (which are still concerningly relevant to this day), described accurately in the following  excerpt: 

“… It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”

While doctors are concerned with protecting citizens and taking the necessary precautions to curb the spread of a contagion, authorities, in their PR-full roles, worry about image, response, and appeal. With a clash in intent and concern, citizens are often left in a state of confusion caused by a lack of information (and the abundance of misinformation). This could lead to difficulty in understanding the true extent of the plague, even when presented with numbers and official notices. 

“And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. ”We see similar issues taking place today with how people are becoming numb to COVID death counts, despite more creative efforts in explaining to the populace how many people have died. COVID no longer surprises us. COVID is no longer a foreigner.

The Past and The Present

In the pale horse, pale rider Katherine Anne Porter recalls her experiences with the 1918 pandemic. I couldn’t help but remember the countless articles that emerged where we compared COVID-19 with the influenza pandemic, even though the strains of virus for both these diseases are biologically very different, the Spanish flu was caused by the H1N1 virus and COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, knowing the past can help us draw lessons and equip us with information we need to fight current epidemics. 

The 1918 pandemic is known to be the most severe pandemic in modern history, this is due to the rapid spread of the disease like wildfire, infecting around 1/3rd of the world’s population and claiming the lives of around 50 million lives most of which were lost during the second wave.

Red Cross Ambulance Demonstration- Washington DC

During the influenza pandemic many cities also locally mandated the use of masks and carried out some sorts of social distancing measures, this definitely helped reduce the spread of the disease and improved how economies recovered after the pandemic. We also had a fair share of anti-maskers during the 1918 flu claiming the masks as a nuisance and unnecessary. These people caused more chaos and spread of the disease much like what’s happening today (lesson: wear masks please). 

Headlines from newspapers in Chicago

Additionally, during that time we also did not have antibiotics, ventilator, and other healthcare equipment, combined with the fact that because of the war the governments themselves had fewer resources to divert into fighting the pandemic, the mortality rate of the disease was very high. The flu pandemic then ended in the spring of 1919 when the immunity of people increased greatly to the virus, this gives us hope that perhaps soon we might be able to find a way to increase our immunity to SARS-CoV-2 and the current pandemic can end. But until then we need to closely follow the guidelines set by the CDC and WHO to ensure that the current pandemic doesn’t get worse like Spanish flu before the situation improves. 

Sources used: CDC image gallery and

Here’s an interesting video that talks about the economic effects of 1918 and what we can learn from it:

The Lone Singer

Death always leaves one singer to mourn.

It is the year 1918, four years after the death of Franz Ferdinand. Russia ends its participation in the war, the United States wins Battle of Cantigny, and a deadly strain of influenza quietly sweeps across the globe infecting a third of the world’s population and claiming approximately 50 million lives. Katherine Anne Porter survives this pandemic. She had been working as a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News during the height of the virus in Denver, Colorado while also seeing a young soldier who was about to be deployed overseas. After she falls ill, the soldier nurses her until her editor manages to squeeze her into a hospital. The hospital is so overcrowded that she is left lying on a gurney running a forty-degree fever for nine days. After her miraculous recovery she finds out that the young soldier she had been seeing died because of the virus weeks ago. So it goes. Pale Horse Pale Rider is therefore a testimony to Porter’s own unique experience caught between both one of the deadliest wars and one of the deadliest plagues in history.

The Motor Corps of St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross on ambulance duty during the influenza epidemic, October 1918.

It is easy to see how Porter’s personal encounter with the virus shapes the way the story is told. The entire novella is written as a fever-dream, full of vivid and almost surreal iconography but disjointed in its sense of time and place. The story opens for instance with a dream within a dream, emphasizing the delirious nature of our protagonist, perhaps emulating for the reader what it is like to feel influenza first-hand.  She also incorporates language of memory — “remember”, “forget”, “remind”, ”forgotten”–  throughout the piece, frequently moving in and out of flashbacks between strings of monologue and moments of lucidity. Through her writing, Porter aims to reflect on Miranda’s psychological reaction to tragedy and how the plague and war changed her. The story becomes about how Miranda is meant to process trauma, loss, and confront her own mortality. Porter said of the pandemic in a 1963 interview:

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.

Katherine Anne Porter (Interview)

The eponymous Pale Horse and Pale Rider is, of course, a reference to the Biblical Book of Revelations. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in Revelations are Conqueror on a white horse, War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and Death on a white horse. In this way, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is also a story about the end of things, a combination of factors that lead to great tragedy.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an 1887 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. From left to right are Death, Famine, War, and Conquest; the Lamb is at the top.

The theme of war is pervasive throughout Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It pervades every facet of the characters’ lives, and furthermore seems to divide society into the “combatants” and the “noncombatants”: those who actively fight in the war and those who are the “stay-at-homes” (171), encouraged to “do their share” by purchasing Liberty Bonds (147). While patriotism is severely emphasized by both combatants and non-combatants alike, whether that be direct or performative, Miranda herself views the war as more of a harbinger of death. Especially in regard to her relationship with Adam, Miranda sees the war as something that merely send these soldiers— these “sacrificial lambs” (177) — out to die. 

In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, however, these themes of war and death are further complicated by the simultaneous unfolding of a plague. Throughout the novella, the language of contagion and militarism seem to overlap to the point where it becomes difficult to separate the war and the plague from one another. Adam, for example, says to Miranda that “the men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat” (158). In many ways this statement is unclear on whether Adam is referring to the war or the plague, as both in their own right are claiming lives. Another example would be the ways in which Porter describes the nature of the two through the character of Miranda. Miranda, for instance, describes the war as such: 

“The worst of the war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet…. It frightens me; I live in fear too, and no one should have to live in fear. It’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two— what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” .

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (176-177)

These notions of mind, heart, and body also come into play throughout the time Miranda falls ill to the influenza. What seems to weaken Miranda is not necessarily her physically ailing body, but her deteriorating mental state. Her claim to fighting the illness is not through her body but through her mind, where “a clear line of communication… between her and the receding world” is considered her “small hold” on her life (194). The parallels in language imply that war and the plague can be seen as one and the same thing. 

Another key theme that Porter focuses on are the ideas of mortality, asking what does it mean to live and to die? Particularly for Miranda, the decision to live seems to be made for her: “…,the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and waster flesh to its feet…” (204). Her wanting to die and feeling empty as a result is not well accepted. The story ends on a melancholy but conflicting note: “…the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there will be time for everything” (208). What does she mean by ‘everything’?

A pandemic can be thought of as a collection of millions of personal traumas and explorations of mortality occurring simultaneously. This personal and psychological account is able to shed light into individual decisions and actions more deeply. Adam was supposed to die because of war, but most probably Miranda ended up giving him the flu that killed him. To what extent is she responsible for Adam’s death? How does she consolidate the guilt if at all?

Finally, mortality is presented as a war against time and the body. Throughout the text, Miranda is running out of time and she is constantly calling attention to this. Why is time almost a third main character? Additionally, as she ‘fights’ the flu, what parallels exist between the language of war and the war against a pathogen within the body?

There are ways in which this story reminds us of our situation today. It is not new to see the media and governments using war metaphors when discussing pandemics, given how convenient it can be. It can be an easy way of evoking emotional response and a sense of urgency, both of which make people more accepting to make sacrifices.

Soldiers fighting in the front lines of the First World War are today’s social workers combating the pandemic. Trying to provide care for patients in the face of failing institutions and lacking infrastructure is most likely a war of its own and both have their lives put at risk in trying to fight. There is even glory in going out to fight, shown more through the bitterness of Chuck who, unable to go, does not care about “how it started or how it ends” (170).

Of course, sacrifices are still made away from the front lines as well. However, Miranda is skeptical of the ones made in her home front. She acknowledges that “it wasn’t so much her fifty dollars that was going to make any difference” (147) and that much of actions of their part “keep[s] them busy and make[s] them feel useful.” (171) COVID revealed the importance of the actions of everyone involved in preventing the spread, though many proved either equally as skeptical or incompetent. 

Ghosts of STDs (Ryoji’s Augmentor Post)

When I was reading Ghosts, I did not immediately understand that Oswald had inherited syphilis from Captain Alving until I did some readings about the play. In the play, they never mention the word “syphilis”, but unlike me, apparently, the audiences who saw the play in the late 19th century immediately understood its reference, as syphilis had become a widespread disease at that time. In a Guardian article, Richard Eyre, an English theater and film director who also wrote his own adaptation of Ghosts, recounts some of the initial responses of the play: 

In England the lord chamberlain, the official censor, banned the play from public performance but there was a single, unlicensed, “club” performance in 1891 on a Sunday afternoon at the Royalty theatre. It detonated an explosion of critical venom: “The experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon Ghosts as regards public performance was both wise and warranted”; “The Royalty was last night filled by an orderly audience, including many ladies, who listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital”; “It is a wretched, deplorable, loathsome history, as all must admit. It might have been a tragedy had it been treated by a man of genius. Handled by an egotist and a bungler, it is only a deplorably dull play”; “revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous”; “a dirty deed done in public”.

Richard Eyre

Eyre explains that these responses were due to the play’s attack on religion, defense of free love, mention of incest, and syphilis. The stigma surrounding the topic of STDs has always been around, and this stigma is a very prevalent issue we witness today with the coronavirus pandemic. We see this stigma carried out in different forms. One would feel the discomfort in telling others that they have gotten the virus. We saw the discriminatory behaviors against people of certain ethnic backgrounds, especially to East Asians during the pandemic. One might face a loss of status because of the perceived link with a disease.  (See the WHO’s guide on Social Stigmas associated with COVID-19)

I found myself pondering the question of how these social stigmas affect us when talking about contagious diseases. Does that make us more vulnerable to the disease, or does it provide us with comfort in not having to openly discuss it? What does the euphemism mean to Oswald? Does Mrs. Alving keeping Captain Alving’s true nature secret from Oswald benefit him? In response to the initial responses of the play, Ibsen said, “It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles; but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it.” Although Ibsen seems to encourage us to speak of the stigma, whether it is related to STDs or patriarchy, is he himself still haunted by the shadow of the “ghosts”, by not mentioning for once the name of the disease and simply describing Captain Alving as “debauched”? Do we see ourselves today giving different reactions compared to the ones given to the responses that were given in England in 1891?