Author: src441

This Is Water…

Today we were talking about how to live with the fact that we may be turning into Zombies.  In his speech “This Is Water”, David Foster Wallace might be hinting at an answer.


This Is Water

And remember: this is water.

Judging the Infirm

Philip Roth’s Nemesis tells the story of 1944 polio outbreak in Newark, where Mr. Bucky Cantor works as a playground director after being unable to join the army due to his impaired vision. The death of Alan, a 12 year old, triggers mass hysteria as villagers undertake a frantic search for the causes of polio. As the cause of the disease remains unknown, extreme measures such as “exterminating alley cats” are taken but fail to stop the spread of the illness given that they are unrelated to polio. Parents and villagers insist on “disinfect[ing] everything” and forbid play and enjoyment to an extent that seems to prevent life from happening altogether.

In this context, blame and responsibility become central themes in the novel.  First, we must consider the use of scapegoats (Italians in the beginning, Jews towards the end) and its implications given the historical context of the novel. Moreover, morality is used to cast a judgement over those infected.  For instance, many villages consider Alan had an exquisite character, hinting at the fact that there might be some divine justice in the disease. On the other hand, we must think of the character of Bucky and whether his attitudes towards his own responsibility in spreading the disease render him likable or not.  Although once an active participant of communal life, Bucky becomes increasingly isolated as he is haunted by guilt to the extent that he leaves Marcia and becomes a hermit.  All these, motivated by his desire of living with integrity:

“[H]is last opportunity to be a man of integrity was by sparing the virtuous young woman he dearly loved from unthinkingly taking a cripple as her mate for life” (Pg. 262)

Bucky is haunted by the frustration of not serving in the army and by the idea that he might have been one of the sources of the contagion, all this embedded in a quest to validate his manliness.  This, considered in the moral and historical context of the play prompts to ask: is America a place for the infirm?

The World Without Us

Animal’s People sets up thinking about post-apocalyptic scenarios.  Surfing the internet, I came across Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us in which he comments how cities and infrastructure would collapse days after humans disappear from the face of the Earth.

A few more clicks led my to these pieces by Nick Pedersen, in which he proposes an alternative view of how a post-apocalyptic world would look like.  How do these representations fit our ideas of an post-apocalyptic landscape?


Abused By Progress

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After our reading of Dream of Ding Village, it would seem only appropriate to change the “Tibet” and “Darfur” tags in the picture for “Ding Village” or “Henan Province”.  As we’ve discussed in class, the novel alludes to the ethics of China’s rapid economic growth, posing questions about the urban-rural divide, the competence of state officials and the greed of local (and national) elites.  However, we have also come to realize that Dream of Ding Village is also trying to spark a larger conversation about the consequences the commodification of life as a consequence of the new economic forces at play in the post-Cold War era.

In light of this new conversation, I thought it was relevant to post a set of questions that might inform our reading of the novel as well as enhance future discussions.

The first one speaks to the theme of community.  David Graeber is an American anthropologist who has written extensively about direct-action and the myths surrounding capitalism.  In one of his books, Debt, he explores (among many other things) the different moral rationales behind economic activity and proposes that all societies are communist at the core because communism relies on the assumption that, in eternity, accounts will even out and therefore it is only natural that we help those in need when we are able.  This contradicts the logic of humans being self-interested and profit-seeking individuals.  However, we have constantly seen how, in many contagion narratives, communities fall apart at the face of death.  It would be interesting to think about how human beings are portrayed under pressure, do the assumptions of classical economics hold true? or does Graeber’s analysis makes more sense?

Another issue worth considering is the link existing between life, bodies and money.  Dream of Ding Village maps this interaction through the idea of the Ding Dynasty, the village’s blood-boom and the different manifestations of consumerism.  In a broader sense, it is forcing us to think about the tension between reproduction and accumulation.  From one end, there is the idea of sharing one’s resources with the community be it through feasts, employment or gifts.  On the other hand, there is the notion that one must save and try to lift oneself out of poverty.  How does one reconcile this in a world where one’s culture may favor caring for other but the economic rationale prompts us to think only of ourselves? 

Our Plague…

Everybody is a bit like Sisyphus…

As the first half of the semester advanced, we were more and more anxious about Spring Break.  The suffocating deadlines, papers and readings seemed to progressively drive the whole student body into a study quarantine, as suggested by an earlier convener’s post.  A couple of days ago, I thought about why people cross out calendars; what are they waiting for so anxiously?

This made me think of none other than Albert Camus and his Myth of Sisyphus, which I have alluded a lot in class.  In this essay, Camus explains his philosophy of the absurd, which Moonie hinted at in her post.  Briefly explained, for Camus, there is no meaning to the world, and a man’s life is absurd insofar as he is trying to put together a puzzle of which there are no pieces.  Does this mean that we should then kill ourselves? No, the answer is to embrace the struggle, to rebel against the absurd.  He then invokes the myth of Sisyphus, who has condemned to carry a boulder over a hill only to see it roll down again and again.  His life is the ultimate realization of absurdity.  Camus argue that the only way Sisyphus can defeat his circumstance is by enjoying the task he was set to do, that is his rebellion.

It is true that one way of looking at The Plague is to read is as knowledge about things to do in the event of another outbreak.  It can also be read as an exercise in memory for those who parted.  However, I think there is more to Camus’s novel, and in that effort, the Myth of Sisyphus helps me to illustrate that point.  Oran’s experience of disease is an allegory of our experience of the absurdity in our lives: no one can scape death, and faced with this fate, we have only one option.  We must experience time in its full length.  We must allow “inklings” to infiltrate our routines.  We must try to play saints.  Only then we might conquer the absurd.

The Truth Will Set Us Free… Or Will It?

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Ghosts tells the story of the Alving household.  Oswald, a young artist living in Paris, comes back to his mother’s house just in time for the inauguration of an orphanage in memory of his father, Captain Alving.  Shortly before the opening, widow Helene Alving confesses to Pastor Manders that she has been hiding her husband’s vices in order to save her family’s reputation, and that the orphanage is a way of ending the rumors about his debauchery.  A chain of lies is then revealed and we are confronted with the inheritance of guilt, the appeal of immorality, and with the tension that arises when society compromises the truth in order to maintain the social order.

Oswald states that “all [he remembers] about [his father] is that he once made [him] sick” (pg. 158). through imposing him the smoking of a cigarette. The smoking and cheating that went on in the house caused Mrs. Alving to fear that her son “would somehow be poisoned simply by breathing the foul air of [the] polluted house” (pg. 118). Captain Alvin’s debauchery ends up not only polluting the household but also the inside the of his son’s mind, Oswald, in the form of Neurosyphilis. The play’s failure to identify Oswald’s disease, Syphilis, acts as a social commentary criticizing society’s taboo against immorality.

“Ghosts. 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.” (pg. 126)

A universal truth is explained: we are afraid to face the truth and come to terms with our hypocrisies. After the truth is set free, the sun finally appears in the play. The legacy of Captain Alvin contributes to the echo of immoral practices that plagues the Alving household, but the ghosts do not stop there. The ghosts that haunt us are our own selves and our tendency to act immorally. They plague Mrs. Alving when she lies to cover up the ugly truth with ideals. They plague Oswald when he pursues a level of incest with Regine — regardless of the knowledge (cue Oedipus). They plague Engstrand when he blackmails Pastor Manders to fulfill his dreams of creating a Seamen’s Home.

In the climax, Mrs. Alving untangles the web of lies she has set up around her. Regine finds out she is Captain Alving’s illicit child, and Oswald gets to know that his syphilis is inherited. Mrs. Alving can finally be at peace. She broke the shackles of social norms that expected her to be an obedient wife and protective mother and that oppressed her for so long. However, the revelation that Mrs. Alving makes is bittersweet. Once sweet Regine turns out to be a calculating woman, who hoped “to make the most of things” and enjoy “this joy of life” (pg. 156) by getting involved with Oswald. Oswald admits plainly that although he doesn’t love his mother “at least [he] knows [her]” and she could be “extremely useful” to him. And as the sun rises and “the glaciers…and mountains gleam in the morning light” (pg. 163), Oswald suffers a major relapse, which leaves him mumbling “the sun” (pg. 164) repeatedly. The lies were unraveled, but did this bring any good? Mrs. Alving loses her orphanage, the services of Regine, and the support of Pastor, and is faced with the decision to euthanize her own child. She is a ruined woman.

Ibsen criticizes the lies that pervade society, but he leaves us with a question: Was the outcome of revealing the truth favorable over concealing the truth with ideals? There may be something attractive about Ms. Alving’s world of lies relative to her new state: lies are contagious because they are so sweet.

The Origins of Yellow Fever in Arthur Mervyn

Some of the stories we have encountered about contagion so far stress the nature of the disease as an extraneous agent.  Thucydides specified that the pathogen causing the Plague of Athens came in through Africa and H.F. took note of the rumors about the Plague of London of 1655 coming in from Holland.  Although Yellow Fever is a key element in Arthur Mervyn, characters do not dwell too much on its origins. 

Take a look at Harvard University’s portal on historical views of diseases and epidemics (conveniently called Contagion) to learn more about Yellow Fever and 1793’s outbreak, the rotten coffee anecdote included.  Moreover, the YouTube series Philadelphia: the Great Experiment looks into various aspects of the city in which Arthur Mervyn takes place and offers various insights about the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793 and how it affected not only the urban landscape but also the collective memory.

This video mentions sugar and slaves coming from the Caribbean as the culprits of bringing the pathogen into Philadelphia.  The following passages from the book make allusion to these trade routes but do not relate them to the Fever.

On page 91, Mervyn finds Watson’s correspondence.

The fourth letter was open, and seemed to have been very lately written. It was directed to Mrs. Mary Watson. He informed her in it of his arrival at Philadelphia from St. Domingo; of the loss of his ship and cargo; and of his intention to hasten home with all possible expedition. He told her that all was lost but one hundred and fifty dollars, the greater part of which he should bring with him, to relieve her more pressing wants. The letter was signed, and folded, and superscribed, but unsealed.

On page 274, which we analyzed in class, he encounters a Frenchman and his slaves.

I mounted the stage-coach at daybreak the next day, in company with a sallow Frenchman from St. Domingo, his fiddle-case, an ape, and two female blacks. The Frenchman, after passing the suburbs, took out his violin and amused himself with humming to his own tweedle-tweedle. The monkey now and then munched an apple, which was given to him from a basket by the blacks, who gazed with stupid wonder, and an exclamatory La! La! upon the passing scenery, or chattered to each other in a sort of open-mouthed, half-articulate, monotonous, singsong jargon.

With all this in mind, how can we think of Arthur Mervyn in terms of Contagion-themed literature? Is it a novel about contagion or one in which contagion works as an element adding to the network of relationships among characters and characters and their environment?  How do the author’s strategies differ depending on our answer to this question?