Author: Tom

Social Critique and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America

A clip from Angels in America performed

Hi everyone!

For the next four classes, we will finally be discussing Kushner’s Angels in America, for which the augmenters’ posts about Wojnarowicz may come into our discussion.

In class, we’ve been talking a lot about contagion narratives and how they’re structured. More specifically, we’ve identified that, for example, the disease is never the main issue but rather is the backdrop as the narrative develops, grappling with various issues related to identity, politics, race, and more. And Angels in America is no exception. In a journal article titled “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America,” Daryl Ogden argues that

Kushner makes visible a Cold War political discourse that underlines the ideological similarities between the McCarthyite 1950s and the Reaganite 1980s, calling attention to the parallels between communism and homosexuality as American identities of otherness and disempowerment. (243)

So, in other words, as Kushner tackles issues of identity and politics, namely homosexuality and communism — and although Ogden does not explicitly state it — while the AIDS epidemic serves as a backdrop.

However, what is even more interesting is that some characters in the play conflate homosexuality and AIDS, much like Reaganite politics conflates the two, calling the epidemic the “gay plague.” But through this conflation, AIDS is not only a backdrop; rather, it is brought to the foreground as a key character in play — except even more pervasive, permeating the whole narrative. In this way, AIDS is both in the background and the foreground of the narrative. As a result, we nuance the role that the disease plays here. While it serves as a backdrop and creates an opportunity to bring up Reaganite politics and communism, it also allows for a more direct engagement with the perception of homosexuality and AIDS.

To question our assumptions about contagion narratives: to what extent do you think this narrative is different from others we’ve read? Is the disease as salient in other narratives such as Welcome to Our Hillbrow?

In Angels of America, some of the narration happens through dreams and imaginary conversations. The video embedded earlier depicts an interesting scene in the play where Prior is having an imaginary conversation with his ancestors on the theme of contagion. In what appears to be a nightmare, Prior is woken up by two men dressed in thirteenth and seventeenth century clothing, claiming to both be Prior Walter. They then go on to describe how their own pestilences (the plague) have led to their demise. They detail the curse “The spotty monster” that binds a couple of Walter family descendants to be carried off by the plague. This is done to try to explain why the current Prior is suffering a similar death, one by disease. This idea of mortality combined with inescapable fate makes us question the effect of one’s ancestors has on making up their own identity, and what affect that ultimately has on a person’s life. Thinking of narration in this play, the notion of dreams is a particularly interesting form of narration. In Scene 7, Harper and Prior share a dream. Although these two characters have never met before, in the previous scene, their partners meet each other for the first time. Scene 6, Joe and Louis meet in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Federal Court. The lives of Harper and Prior are connected through the lives of their partners, and their shared dream Prior informes Harper that her husband is homosexual. In the following excerpt, Harper questions imagination and her own dreams as she cannot believe that her dreams reflect reality that she is unaware of. Harper says,

“If I didn’t ever see you before and I don’t think I did, then I don’t think you should be in here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with, that didn’t enter from experience, from the real world. Imagination cannot create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and resembles them into visions … Am I making sense right now?” (Kushner 32–33)

In the Dream of Ding Village, Grandfather’s dreams reflected real-life events and information that he was not consciously aware of. How does narration through the medium of dreams function in each piece? Are there similarities between the two?

More on Wojnarowicz

Although Teresa also decided to write about Wojnarowicz, I had originally intended to talk about this photo of his.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994. Source:

David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Buffalo)” is one of the artist’s best-known works and perhaps one of the most haunting artistic responses to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The work depicts a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths. The artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there. The work is in reality, a photograph of a diorama from a museum in Washington, DC depicting an early Native American hunting technique. Through appropriation of this graphic image, the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness, making the work extremely powerful and provocative. Made in the wake of the artist’s HIV-positive diagnosis, Wojnarowicz’s image draws a parallel between the AIDS crisis and the mass slaughter of buffalo in America in the nineteenth century, reminding viewers of the neglect and marginalization that characterized the politics of HIV/AIDS at the time. 

Description of photo. Source:

This image is ‘ghostly’ in two ways. Firstly, the image itself depicts buffaloes jumping off a cliff, in black and white — all of which creates an ominous mood. As the description rightfully says, “the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness.” Secondly, the fact that “[t]he artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there” further adds to the mood evoked since neither the source event for the image nor the context is properly explained. This ‘ghostliness’ also exists in Dream of Ding Village, since the narrator is the dead child.

It is interesting that both artists — in largely different contexts and probably uninfluenced by one another — decide to evoke a sense of ghostliness when depicting AIDS in their art, although quite different art forms. Besides the obvious reason that ghosts have a negative connotation, much like a disease does, AIDS in specific may remain dormant for a long time before emerging, as we see in Dream of Ding Village. This could be a possible explanation for the association of AIDS with ghosts — that the virus can remain invisible for long periods of time before appearing unexpectedly.

But then this begs the question: what do we win or lose by commenting on a certain phenomenon using a certain art form? Dream of Ding Village, as a novel, allows for various voices to be represented and creates venues for justification and explanation — What is AIDS? How does it play out in a certain village in China? And why so? What is the reason it was contracted? Is there anyone to blame? — all these questions are answered, explicitly or not, in the novel. Meanwhile, “Untitled (Buffaloes),” without any context, is quite jarring in itself, perhaps more so than a 300+ page novel. However, we tend to lose context, the point, and the answer to many questions that the photograph raises. And what does that imply for the goal the art aims to achieve? And is it the same goal?

Narrative Technique in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

One of many woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Apocalypse. It is argued that Porter derived inspiration for her book while doing research at University of Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, which house these woodcuts.

By Dürer –, Public Domain,

Hello everyone!

Since we will not have the chance to discuss “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” again in class, this post will be a bit longer than usual.

For those of you who missed the waffles and class discussion, we are first going to briefly talk about narration, which is a topic that we touched upon on Saturday.

Porter employed free indirect discourse, a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s voice is fused with the voice of Miranda as we cannot distinguish who says “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart” (208).  Miranda also imagines herself through other people, such as the young couple in the bar, and as the narrative voice is filtered through other voices, this creates another layer of obscurity. Since this narrative layer blurs the line between Miranda and the society she observes, the question of whether it is possible to separate oneself from a social formation is one to be raised.

Miranda’s voice and personality allows the reader see things from a female perspective. Her voice brings feminism to light, by showing objection to patriarchy. For instance, she showed resistance, in a male dominated society, when she was being coerced to pay the bond. She also claps back when Adam makes an allusion of roles being gender specific (157). Other parts of the text portrays Miranda’s tastes in a way the female audience can relate. Also, mentioning her tastes and ability to make sole decisions of what she wants on her shopping list shows the power the author gives the narrator, Miranda, in the text.

This contrasts with the strength of another female character, Mrs Alving, in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, that we’ve discussed in class. Mrs. Alving, unlike Miranda, cannot make sole decisions and her life is based on the norms of the society and the partriachical display of her husband and Manders. Both texts were written by authors of different genders and judging by the outcome, it becomes clear how the masculine gender sees females or the position the masculine gender wishes to place females.  This raises the question: Do we only relate to people’s struggles if we have walked/are walking their path, just as Porter is able to relate to feminism and give the female character a voice? It would also be interesting to see how a female writer portrays the character of a woman.

Building off this question of the author’s experience and whether it feeds into the short novel, something else we didn’t touch on extensively in class is the fact that this book is to a large extent autobiographical; it is reported that Porter almost died of the Spanish flu in 1918 in Denver. Given this fact, one can question the legitimacy of this work as a history — or historiography, rather — of the Spanish flu in America during the war.

In a 2013 article titled ‘Trauma, Influenza, and Revelation in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”’, Laurel Bollinger discusses this issue of autobiography. She cites some contemporary critics who read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” “as a record of the trauma itself (whether personal or communal) rather than on the degree to which Porter creates a highly structured and carefully fictionalized version of the experience” (366). Seeing the story as a psychological/traumatic narrative that explores the infected self — more of an anthropological and psychological exploration — can be well-supported by the narrative technique employed by Porter, and

However, Bollinger is interested in exploring this relationship between fiction and autobiography. She argues that is exactly that fusion between truthful societal accounts and personal experience that strengthen the narrative, which is then ultimately tied together through biblical allusions:

[H]istorian Alfred Crosby describes the novella as “the most accurate depiction of American society in the fall of 1918 in literature. It synthesizes what is otherwise only obtainable by reading hundreds of pages of newspapers” (318). Porter offers similarly precise descriptions of the impact of the flu, both on her own body and on the victims who surrounded her. Yet far from simply recording what LaCapra worries will be “confused or undisciplined thought,” Porter’s hybridized account of the events takes its power specifically from its fusion of the autobiographical and the fictional as she works through the trauma by turning to the mythic. … Looking back on her memories over twenty years later, Porter depends upon biblical allusions, particularly to the Book of Revelation, to give shape and presumably meaning to her experiences (370).

Another significant element of this book is death and its the role throughout the story. One instance where the meaning of death is juxtaposed is in one of the multiple dreams that Miranda has throughout the text. In this dream, Miranda yearns for death as it is an escape from her worldly life and unwanted relationships; she wants to be transported to a world that would rid her of these inconveniences. But it is also apparent that she flees from death when she states “This journey I do not mean to take” (142).  Here, we see her hesitation about actually facing death as well as its consequences. This is interesting as it shows the uncertainty that comes along with making decisions that are absolute as nobody really knows what the result of them could be. This juxtaposition also reveals the contemplative and uncertain nature of her thoughts — it could be interesting to refer back to religion in this case and see how much she does indeed draw from Christian beliefs when she evaluates the concept of death.

If you made it all the way through here — thank you! We hope this post generates some questions and food for thought. Enjoy your break!

Thinking About Anthropomorphism in The Ghost Map

Last class, we discussed various topics relating to The Ghost Map, one of which was the anthropomorphizing — or what we called personification in class — of the bacterium in the book. Indeed, the book’s preface states the following: “This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. …” (emphasis mine). This demonstrates Steven Johnson’s conscious decision in giving the bacterium Vibrio cholerae agency in the narrative. And while we debated about the reason that it is personified and whether it is personification to begin with, the fact that it is explicitly categorized as a protagonist by the author himself is significant. This statement is indeed validated throughout the book, in which the bacteria are described to have strategies and desires.

What is more interesting to me, however, is Johnson’s decision to make the bacterium a protagonist; in other words, what does he achieve from a narrative point of view through the anthropomorphizing of the bacterium?

In an article entitled “Using Anthropomorphism and Fictional Story Development to Enhance Student Learning”, Kari A. Brossard Stoos and Madeline Haftel describe an experiment in which they have control and experimental groups; the former group are taught a science lesson without anthropomorphizing “agents of disease”, while the latter group are taught the same lesson with anthropomorphizing said agents. The results are described as such:

Students within the experimental section demonstrated increased competence in mapping and explaining pathological pathways on exam questions following lessons delivered using fictional characters, compared with students who had lessons delivered via traditional lecture alone. Additionally, student feedback on this approach was very positive. Students reported feeling more alert, attentive, and engaged, and they experienced increased enjoyment in the learning process.

Linking this back to The Ghost Map, one can consider the bacterium’s anthropomorphizing as a narrative tool to keep the readers engaged, as well as to enhance their understanding of the disease’s spread.

Another article that goes into the cognitive aspect of anthropomorphism in children could help us explain why anthropomorphizing non-human objects helps us make sense of the world:

An analysis of animism in children was extensively performed by Piaget (1926/1929). He maintained that children have a spontaneous animist attitude that develops through different stages until around the age of 12. Piaget distinguishes two periods in children’s animism. The first, lasting until the ages of 4 and 5, is characterized by what he calls an integral and implicit animism. When a child adopts this attitude, “anything may be endowed with both purpose [intention in the original] and conscious activity according to the occasional effects on the child’s mind of such occurrences as a stone which refuses to be thrown on to a bank, a wall which can hurt the hand, etc.” (p. 213). In the successive period, implicit animism progressively disappears, and the process of systematization begins to follow discernable stages.

All of this is to say that we have an almost instinctual urge and affinity to anthropomorphizing interactions with non-human subjects, which helps us understand the world better; and Johnson makes use of that in his narrative technique.

Reflecting on Decameron by Boccaccio

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353)

While the context of the Decameron is rather macabre, its story is rather uplifting and it revolves around the brigata made up of ten storytellers, predominantly women. We would like to bring to your attention the framing of this story: the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden, which brings to mind the question whether this was a form of escape or therapy for the brigata? The brigata secluded themselves in an almost utopian garden and embarked on several techniques to prevent bad humors from entering their body.

More importantly, we would like to ask what is the role of storytelling in Decameron? This question potentially links back to our last reading where Harrison argues that “the more important question, perhaps, is how these epidemics were understood by contemporaries” (58). Perhaps then the narrative framework provides us with a depiction of the public opinion at the time, which could really enhance our understanding of the plague as Harrison suggests.

Additionally, in class, we have discussed that at the time, many people believed that the plague was a form of punishment by God and hence appealed to religion to try to stop the plague. In the introduction to Decameron, the narrator mentions that “in the Face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken” (7). And we also learn that people abandoned their friends, neighbors or even refused to help their own children. In this setting where people died like animals, was the brigata spiritually blind? To answer this question we may want to consider the numerology and the belief system that the brigata agreed upon.

Building on the theme of religion, Decameron employs several themes, the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) being some of which stand out. With a setting that is infested with disease and death, many have resorted to indulging in their urges and succumbing to worldly pleasures, almost as a way to avoid reality. It seems as though people have disregarded their religious beliefs and are unaware of the consequences of their actions in the afterlife.

Conversely, what would one make of the fact that the plague interrupted people’s religious rituals? Describing the decline in communal/familial burial rituals, the narrator says, “But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared entirely and was replaced by different customs” (10) (see header image in which people are buried in large numbers due to the amount of deaths). This example is one of many that illustrates the plague’s intrusion into people’s rituals. When people are robbed even of their rituals, are they to blame for abandoning everyone and everything and seeking happiness?

As we’ve seen in the various issues raised above, relevant themes to be raised include reality vs. escape, storytelling, religion, rituals, and spirituality, all of which link, somehow, to the socio-psychological effects of the plague on the people at the time.