Author: Saideep

Fallen Angels

Angels in America consists of two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The two plays are based on the very real AIDS epidemic that ravaged the United States during Reagan era America. Millennium Approaches focuses on three sub-stories interconnected in their own way—the love shared by Louis and Prior, which is cut short by Prior contracting AIDS; Joe and Harper’s very dysfunctional marriage, and Roy Cohn’s narcissistic life. Roy Cohn is (very heavily) based on the lawyer in real life of the same name, who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, denied his homosexuality while still engaging in sexual acts with men, and who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, perished of AIDS. In Angels in America, Tony Kushner explores identity (especially relating to sexuality), religious beliefs, and death. When Kushner was writing the play, he visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and upon seeing the quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, he mentioned how he wanted Cohn’s character in the play to be similar to how he is represented in his quilt: “dialectical.” The quilt is a glimpse into just how despicable Roy Cohn was, as well as how complex his character is—in the play as well as in real life. What made Roy Cohn into the ball of hatred he is in the play (and was in real life), denying his own identity while engaging in its pleasures? And what made Joe feel he had to “kill” and suppress his homosexuality?

One of two quilts memorializing Roy Cohn on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

A previous convener post presented a character map of the main characters in the play. This map places Prior Walter in the center of 7 other circles containing the names of the other characters in the play and a brief description about them. These circles are linked by arrows explaining how each character is related to Prior Walter (lover, friend, etc.) and how those characters relate to each other (patrons, spouses, family). What’s particularly useful about a character map like this is that it places a single character as a node in a network – a very complex network with multiple layers and a lot of overlap. We started the course with a very broad and open question: are we too connected? We’d like to point us back to that inquiry and use it as one of many possible lenses to read Angels in America. Who was connected to whom and on what levels (religious, political, interpersonal relationships, spousal, friendships, doctor-patient, mother-son, and even supernatural or spiritual)? And then how did those connections and choices influence the other characters in the story? What is Kushner trying to say about the level of interconnectedness at the time ? 

Rather than attempting to trace where a disease came from (as Oedipus and Ghosts do, each in their own way), Angels in America traces the origins of the belief systems that structure life in 1980s America. (References to “America” in the play sometimes gesture vaguely towards the continent as a whole, but seem to mainly be speaking about the US.) The play opens with a funeral scene, presided over by a Rabbi with limited understanding of the particular person he is burying, but a detailed theory about the social group she fit into: “a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania …” (10). Through the Rabbi’s monologue, audiences are immersed in a conversation about inheritance and tradition before any of the central characters even speak. The instantly recognizable ritual of mourning carries the first scene, superseding the audience’s need for specificity about characters and context, and allowing Kushner to open the play with the striking warning that “soon … all the old will be dead” (11).

From the very first acts in the play we can observe how Kushner raises questions about stasis and change through the voices of his characters. As we continue reading Perestroika, it might be interesting to compare Kushner’s use of the angels in this play, with Ibsen’s use of ghosts in -well…- Ghosts. Both the angels and the ghosts can be seen as barriers between the characters, pulling them back from a changing future. 

In this text, there is no apparent belief system that unites all of the central characters. They have different sexualities, political parties, and religious affiliations. They each have individual, complex relationships with their faith and family histories. The pattern that unites them is that these relationships tend to break down when exposed to the realities of both the AIDS epidemic and the political, social climate surrounding it. Louis begins the play feeling comfortable with his own concept of an afterlife based on his Jewish belief system. But he finds that this doesn’t hold up in the presence of Prior’s actual imminent death (“not at all like a rainy afternoon in March…”) Joe has clung to his Mormon ideals of good and evil to the point of suppressing his own sexual identity, but he begins to lose his grip on them in the midst of political pressures from Roy and family tensions from Harper’s pill addiction. Though Kushner inserts plenty of critiques of the specific systems the characters inhabit, his greater focus seems to be on the way these systems clash with each other and with the realities of modernity in the US. 

And boy, these belief systems are pervasive, to the point where they forcefully shape our very perceptions of ourselves. The play touches on how society’s views can influence our self-perception through Roy Cohn’s passionate inability to accept his homosexuality. In the striking diagnosis scene with his doctor, Roy refuses to identify with the label, painting us a picture of the deep stigma Roy associates with being gay. To Roy, homosexuality is the real disease, to be avoided like the plague. As someone obsessed with power (he is described as a ‘power broker’ in the opening character list) and his position in the world, being gay is a weakness he cannot afford. 

“Like all labels, they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?” (46)

A second quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, referring to his anti-communist work with Mccarthy which turned into a homophobic hunt of gay men in government.

Roy’s raging hatred of his own homosexuality is a manifestation of society’s perception towards gay people at the time. We see a similar internal conflict manifest itself in Joe, a closeted homosexual Mormon man, who votes for Reagan. We see Joe torn between upholding the beliefs of a ‘good’ Mormon versus his personal sexual liberation. His truth is unspeakable to him, so he chooses to live in denial, spending a large part of his life suppressing his identity. Even so, his truth comes to speak to him through dreams, as he describes to his wife:

“The angel is a beautiful man with blonde hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights I’m…It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart” (52)

We similarly see Joe depict his refusal to self-identify as a violent battle, when Harper questions his sexuality directly: 

“Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it…As long as my behaviour is what I know it has to be. Decent. Correct.” (40)

However, even speaking the truth isn’t liberating for Joe. When Joe attempts to accept his identity, such as in the scene where he calls his mother at 4am and confesses his sexuality, he is met with flat denial. 
This brings up a question we have been returning to throughout the semester: how do we know which beliefs are actually originally ours, versus what have been inherited from our ancestors, environment or social circumstances? How much of the character’s beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing, or the politics of the time? Angels in America suggests that our inherited belief systems are deeply tied to our sense of self, yet not always sufficient means of navigating the many contagions of the modern world—whether it be physical contagions such as AIDS or other forms of contagion plaguing society, such as homophobia and greed for power.

Asma, Maja, Mary, Saideep

Censorship, and The Bible

After writing Dream of Ding Village, and with the recent rise in the book’s popularity, Yan Lianke has given several interviews to provide more insight into the book and into his writing in general, and several articles about him have been written. One of these articles written in 2006—the year the book was published—especially interested me.

The article focuses on Dream of Ding Village being censored in China, and how that affected Yan Lianke. Despite his efforts to rigorously self-censor his book and avoid topics that would result in a ban, Dream of Ding Village was quickly banned anyway. Yan Lianke talks about how he regrets this self-censorship, as he feels he could have written a better book if he did not need to worry about censoring it. I think this ties back to Mary’s post. Nearly 14 years later, he told his students to write their own stories from their own experiences, without worry about “nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories.” He tells them that, if they cannot speak out loudly, then they must be whisperers.

I think Yan Lianke’s message here is based on his reflections on his experience with Dream of Ding Village. In the time he’s had, I think he’s realized that rather than trying to appeal to those who want his writing to conform to a certain message, it is better to write as he wishes.

The Cupbearer’s Dream

And now, for something completely different that I also wanted to mention. I regret that we completely ignored Volume 1 of the book. I very much want to hear others’ thoughts on the significance of the biblical references in Volume 1. What do each of the three dreams signify?

The Cupbearer’s Dream seems clear cut—it represents the residents of Ding Village, the cupbearers, squeezing ripe grapes and giving a full cup (of blood) to Ding Hui, the Pharaoh.

The Baker’s Dream

The Baker’s Dream, I’m not too sure of. What first came to my head was that the birds again represent the villagers, while the bread (“bakemeats”) represents the trees of the village (or the furniture of the school—it seems to be a general theme throughout). Or does it represent the bloodheads feasting on the people’s blood? Or maybe it is specific to Ding Hui (represented by the birds), who eats the bread (the coffins, or maybe the money from selling blood) carried by the baker (the government) intended for the pharaoh (the villagers).

The Pharaoh’s Dream

Last, there is The Pharaoh’s Dream. Do the ill-favoured cows represent the Ding Hui and the other bloodheads, feeding on the well-favoured cows that represent the people selling their blood? (Especially in the case of Ding Hui, who takes every single opportunity he can get to feed on others and fatten himself up, which is clear when Grandpa at the end sees that Ding Hui has more money than he knows what to do with, stored away in a vault.) Or does it instead represent Ding Hui using the authority of those more powerful than him (who in this case would be the well-favoured cows) to exert his own power over the village? (Ding Hui maintaining a garden with spicy mustard greens solely to curry favour with the deputy governer, and also marrying his dead son to the daughter of a wealthy man both come to mind). Or maybe the dream even represents the villagers as the ill-favoured cows, who repeatedly go to the rich and well-favoured Ding Hui for his help, who ransack Ding Hui’s house when he leaves, and who robbed Ding Liang’s and Lingling’s graves).

Apologies for the late post! But if anyone is willing to share their thoughts, I’m very keen to read them. It’s unfortunate we never discussed the biblical references in class. I am curious to hear thoughts on the interpretations of these dreams, the significance of them being included, and Yan Lianke’s choice to introduce the book with these dreams (and maybe why he considered them important enough to separate these dreams as their own volume).

Memories of the Fallen Riders: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Red Cross volunteers assembling influenza masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Content source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers us a glimpse into the psyche of young Americans during World War I and the raging 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu”. Widely assumed to be based on the author’s own life experiences, the novella tells the story of Miranda, a reporter who covers the “routine female job” (149) of theatrical reviews. Even before Miranda contracts influenza, she cannot escape death; she is literally surrounded by funerals and death permeates even her most inane conversations through constant references to the war. However, it is not until she herself becomes sick and nearly dies that she experiences a fundamental shift in her relationship with her own mortality, returning to consciousness with the impression that “the body is a curious monster, no place to live in…” (203). In a world so full of death, what does it mean to live—to escape the pale rider?     

A past convener’s post explores the impact of Porter’s choice to employ the narrative style of free indirect discourse, aptly described as “a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters.” Throughout the story, it is often unclear whether we are hearing Miranda’s direct thoughts or the reflections of an outside narrator; this is part of what contributes to the hazy treatment of time in the novel, which Professor Waterman reflects on in his article “Plague Time (Again)”. The overall narrative structure of the piece is also worth considering as we try to piece together what Porter is showing us about death, war, and society. If this story is essentially a narrative about surviving an illness, why does Porter choose to start the action so long before Miranda actually falls ill? Why give us so much information about war bonds and newspapers? One answer lies in Miranda’s resistance towards returning to normalcy after she recovers. She puts off reading the letters that her loved ones sent while she was sick, lamenting, “They will all be telling me how good it is to be alive, they will say again they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to that?” (205). Even these positive threads of her communicative network pull at Miranda in unwanted ways, demanding a response that she feels she cannot give. By dedicating more than half of the story to Miranda’s life prior to the illness, Porter allows readers to see more clearly what has changed here. Once a vibrant, active figure within a social network, Miranda now feels alienated from others due to her new perspective on life and death. The disease has not just impacted her physical contact with others, but also her desire to engage in emotional, intellectual contact.

Adam and Miranda’s relationship has a doomed fate from the start, as Adam is readying for deployment overseas, a fact that the couple is acutely aware of: “She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death.” What they don’t know is that it will be the virus that gets them first.  Still, that doesn’t stop the couple from enjoying their precious moments together. They spend their 10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz under the stars, sharing stories, going to plays, talking about their past lives and reflecting on futures that can never be. Their love adds a vibrance and light to the story, contrasting with the context of death and darkness they are surrounded by. Funeral processions pass regularly through the streets with seemingly growing frequency, but Miranda is determined not to disturb “the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty four years old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.”  Similarly to the community in A Feast During the Plague, human connection provides escapism, a symbol of the goodness remaining in the world. Miranda is portrayed as using her relationship with Adam as a shield against the war and the virus, substituting and interweaving one set of experiences for another.

The relationship between the living, the dead and memory is presented as a recurring motif in the text (Severance, is that you?). At one point, Miranda and Adam discuss the eponymous traditional spiritual Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which death steals the singer’s lover, mother, father, siblings, and eventually, the entire family. Because the dead in the song, like the dead in the war and the victims of the influenza pandemic, have no memory, remembering them becomes the survivor’s responsibility. Miranda identifies with the singer in the spiritual when she tells Adam, “but not the singer, not yet. Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190). As mourners at the feast, Miranda and Porter eventually each become bearers of memories that would otherwise be forgotten. 

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that just as much as the story is about escaping death, it is also about accepting death. In the case of Adam, he tries to make the best of his life and his time with Miranda because he wants to make use of what little time he has left before he goes to fight in the war. He has already accepted his death and does not run from it. He treats the war to be the same as his death (for example, he explains that he smokes despite knowing how bad it is because the state of his lungs in the future does not matter when he is going to war anyway.).

Despite this, however, he did not harbour any ill emotion for being made to fight in the war – he views it as his duty, saying he could not “look himself in the face” if he didn’t go (177). Miranda views him as a sacrificial lamb, marching to his death without fighting against it, having accepted it. This is quite similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, where Oswald accepts his inevitable (brain) death, although in his case, there is nothing he can do to fight against it. We can say that Adam has more agency than Oswald, and he gives up what little agency he has and accepts his fate. Another interesting, coincidental connection with Ghosts is that the sun represents death in Oswald’s case, while in Miranda’s case, it represents her coming back to life.

When discussing agency, we can revisit The Decameron, where the privileged ten have all the agency in the world to abandon their city and live in a countryside mansion. Here too, the ten main characters are running from death that surrounds them in the city, fighting against it, although it is much easier for them than for Adam.

In the concluding passages of the text, as Miranda regains consciousness to find that the war has finally ended, she is confronted with an atmosphere of jubilation in stark contrast to her individual story of deep loss. Amidst the celebration, Miranda’s reaction to the news of Adam’s death reflects on the purpose and meaning of her life without her lover: “Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?” (208). Now, rather than accepting her own death, she has to accept Adam’s, which is hard for her to do. As an ode to Severance, we see Miranda adopting consumer rituals, marking her survival and as an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, however her psyche remains haunted by the ghost of her lover, who is ‘more alive than she is’. 

To Miranda, her recurring struggle over Adam’s memory seems to be driven by three key reasons: because it is her responsibility, because it connects her to other survivors, and because she loves Adam. At the moment Miranda comes closest to death, “a thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh the dead, where are they?” (201). As she asks this question, she feels excruciating physical pain – the first returning sensation of life – and she begins to recover both her health and her memory. We view this connection between pain and forgetting as not accidental. Porter, who has experienced both her own near death and the actual death of her lover due to influenza, warns the reader that only the fragile, vulnerable thread of memory connects the living to the dead. Forgetting is presented as the psychological analog to physical paralysis, so remembering and pain, although negative states, are preferable to lack of memory and lack of sensation. Ultimately, Porter leaves us with the questions: why is it important to remember the dead? What is the relationship between the living and the dead? And what do those left behind owe to those taken away by the Pale Horse, when “now, there would be time for everything” (208)?

Maja, Mary, Saideep, Asma

Defiant Drunks Fearlessly Feasting

When discussing A Feast During the Plague in class, we briefly went over some reasons why the group might be throwing a feast in the middle of the street during a plague. We talked about how it was a way for them to mourn their loved ones that they lost and to forget about their sorrows through hedonistic indulgence. We (sort of) concluded that Walsingham was probably a madman and that the translation didn’t do a great job of showing that.

We did briefly mention how in Walsingham’s hymn, he sings about a war against “queen” pestilence. It seems like he is challenging the plague to battle, with the rest of his group as his fearless soldiers who are ready to die.

Photo Credit: Igor Zehl, Czech News Agency

In this photo is a young gent who’s ready to party, who seems like he’ll fit right into Walsingham’s feast, standing amidst rubble. In June 2021, a tornado struck the Czech Republic and caused much damage. Despite the carnage, Moravská Nová Ves, the town in the image that was severely affected by the tornado, still held the Feast of St. Jacob, with the family of the boy featured in the image having lost their home to the tornado. Despite the damage, they throw a (Christian) feast to restore people’s spirits, as if challenging nature itself (or maybe God) to battle.

Similarly, Walsingham and the others also seem to be showing off a defiance of sorts — to prove to either society, the dead, or God that nothing can stop them. They seem to want to represent a hope that life can be lived normally and with joy.

It could also be that the Czech feast was a way for people to forget their sorrows brought about by disaster, similar to what Walsingham seems to be doing in the play, or maybe as a plea to God (which is definitely not what happens in the play, as we can see from the priest that gets driven out).

Maybe defiance, hope, raising morale, and forgetting sorrows are just excuses for people to get drunk and party. No matter what, feasting in the face of disaster seems to be a human thing to do. Living life with hedonistic pursuits even when it is dangerous to do so is something that has happened before, and will happen again.