Author: Van

Vigilantism in Johannesburg and Welcome to our Hillbrow

In 2008, Louis Theroux traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to make a documentary about the private security situation there. As the government is unable to provide adequate security to its inhabitants, private groups emerge to reinforce the order, however, by means of crime and violence. In a short clip called “Brutal Interrogation”, Louis Theroux met a group of vigilantes who punished an accused criminal using a method called “sjambok,” in which they whip the victim with a long and heavy stick. One of the vigilantes claimed that the violence is “good for the community” because the criminal would not dare to do it again.

Is violent execution in Welcome to our Hillbrow a counterpart to the vigilantism shown in Theroux’s documentary? The Tiragalong people punish those that are accused of causing unexpected deaths, perhaps also to eliminate threats and protect their community from harm: “cleanse the village.” (43) However, it is interesting that although the punishments are not an official entity’s decision, it is a collective decision, as a story is constructed by a person, and then it is passed on, transforms, and the villagers collectively decide to kill the accused person. No single person is to blame for one’s death, just as the interconnected web between the main characters in the story. And although the villagers’ aim might be to reinforce order in the community, their actions are more driven by prejudice and gossip rather than concern for the common good.

Philosophical matters, fear and confidence in Camus’s The Plague

A video on Camus’ philosophies, especially Absurdism

In true existentialist fashion, the themes of mortality, fear and the passage of time are most overtly expressed in Albert Camus’s, The Plague. The novel confronts the reader with the notion of the Absurd and finding meaning in an inherently meaningless world. The Plague argues that the fear ingrained in the citizens of Oran isn’t much so derived from the sheer number of deaths, but instead, because the idea of death becomes tangible rather than something abstract. it doesn’t raise the question of how we should spend time? or what we should do with our time? but, rather tells us that there is meaning to be found as long as we are aware of our time is spent. For instance, Tarrou’s curious habit of taking the time in the day to sit out on his terrace and spit at cats passing by. The narrator acknowledges that the act is incredibly tedious and, frankly, a waste of time by anyone’s standards. However, it is an excellent reflection of how Camus navigated his philosophies. In The Plague, Tarrou’s actions are not seen as a waste of time because he is completely aware of how much of a waste of time it is. Camus did not believe in the trivial idea of finding a sole true purpose or meaning in life, in order to escape or have a moral meaning in death. If one were to imagine that Tarrou was completely happy in his choices to waste his time when in reality, he has found enough meaning in his tedious hobby to not be a waste of time and actually personally satisfy him. His satisfaction is all that should matter.

Moreover, it is also important to consider the role of fear in the novel. Halfway into the chapter (36), the book diverts from the narration and goes into a short reflection about how people respond to pestilences with “conflicting fears and confidence.” (37) At this point in the chapter, the reflection sums up the picture of what happened before with the situation of dead rats and foreshadows what comes after when the plague starts. There is a pattern in these two scenarios where people have a sense of what will happen but try to deny it and let it escalate beyond control. This brings a new idea into our discussion about how people respond to outbreaks. We usually see how people protect themselves against diseases (quarantines, fortune-telling, etc.). However, here in this part of the chapter, Camus explains how the way we respond to pestilences, and wars, turns us into victims. The conflict between fears and confidence is best exemplified by the authorities in this chapter. It was their denial of the plague and the reluctance to alarm people earlier that let the plague go out of control. In addition, the bureaucracy behind their decisions, such as the doctors waiting for the Prefect to issue orders or the committee arguing about how to phrase the epidemic, also aggravates the situation.

In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat? What are the effects of the plague on the idea of mortality? How do religion and fate tie in with it? To what extent is mankind’s pride culpable in its downfall?

Fighting ghosts

In Ibsen’s Ghosts, the characters most of the time refrain themselves from confronting the ghosts in their life and going against it. Even Mrs. Alving, the most “free-thinking” character of the play, only acknowledges the impact of those ghosts on her life decisions, without taking much action to remove herself from their grip.

If we look at today’s world, we seem to have more and more courage to break away from the ghosts of the past, or of public opinions. From issues like feminism to homosexuality, we are expressing more rejection of the “old defunct theories” and actively changing them to fit today’s world.

This shift in how people respond to “ghosts” reminds me of the debut novel written by Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia. I read this book more than a year ago for my writing seminar. The way that the book conveys the idea of confronting and breaking away from prejudices is very interesting, in quite a weird way.

The novel main protagonists are Bekim, a young homosexual immigrant in Finland, and his mother Emine. Emine’s relationship with her husband is somewhat similar to Mrs. Alving’s. When she was young, Emine was always taught to be a good wife when she grew up. One day, a stranger pass by Emine, was charmed by her and soon after went to her house to propose to her. Because he was very wealthy, Emine’s family agreed to marry her off. Yet the husband was nothing like she imagined. He physically abused her and even the children, but they still stayed and persisted, because Emine was always taught to be a good wife to her husband. But when all of their children have moved out and have their own life, she eventually left her husband, and never came back.

In the other line of the book, Bekim, Emine’s son, is an immigrant and gay. He is so afraid of people judging him for his being an immigrant that “he starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.” (A Life Altered by War and Transmuted Into Fiction – Gabrielle Bellot)

However, one day in a bar, Bekim was charmed by a talking cat, who is anti-immigrant, anti-homosexuality, he hates everything that Bekim is. And then he brought the cat home and satisfied all its needs, despite all of its caustic remarks towards him everyday. According to the review on the New Yorker I linked to above, “This unusual relationship, … , may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Interestingly, in one particular passage in the same review, the author also employs language and metaphors related to ghosts to talk about how Emine and Bekim face their own past.

My Cat Yugoslavia” is spry and warm at first, but it hardens, becoming emotionally icier, until Bekim and his mother reach parallel breaking points: Bekim returns to Kosovo to confront the phantoms of his past, and Emine leaves Bajram. This chilliness put me off at first; the novel’s coldness made me feel cold to it. But, as I kept reading, its mood and style began to make sense. The novel is a slowly shattering and re-forming reflection of the protagonists’ corresponding descents into wintry numbness, until, near the end, they begin to revive, and to love. When Emine receives a letter from the husband she has fled, she realizes it is addressed to someone “who no longer existed.” But the past does not disappear: even as Bekim walks, near the novel’s end, with the male lover his father would never have accepted, he cannot stop thinking of Bajram, cannot stop hearing the sharp words from his former life.

Some topics to consider in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

“Bring Out Your Dead.” A street during the Great Plague in London, 1665, with a death cart and mourners, by Edmund Evans, c. 1864. The Wellcome Library, London.
(From The Zombie Apocalypse of Daniel Defoe)

For the last few weeks, we have been reading plays, articles, novellas, historical accounts about the plague. All of them are either factual or fictional. However, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is an interesting merger of fact and fiction. Although the book is presented as a personal experience of the plague in London, accompanied by statistics and research, it is categorized as a novel because it includes a great deal of hearsay and urban myths. Therefore, it is important to identify ways in which Defoe made this work of fiction become so real. In other words, how did Defoe achieve “verisimilitude” (the appearance of being true or real)?

Then, what could be Defoe’s intention to write in that manner? Was he trying to make a historical account more gripping by including urban myths? Or was he trying to make fiction seem more relatable by supporting it with statistics? To this second question, it might be helpful to consider the argument made by Nicholas Seager in the article “Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics: Epistemology And Fiction In Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year”: “Defoe moves away from a literal and absolute version of truth towards a fictional and representative one. Improbability is irrelevant, because the story tells a greater truth, signifying beyond its particulars: it is indicative, representative of the actual experience of plague.” (650).

Moreover, a large part of the novel was devoted to the irreligious practices that went on during the plague. Defoe alludes to people seeing fortune tellers and consulting with astrologers to see what fate there was for them in the stars. They did this in order to have some insight into their fate and whether they would contract the plague. These practices show that people of the time were straying away from the Christian values and traditions that involved God into the spread and fatality of the plague. Therefore, the outlet that people chose to take, such as seeking out the future, supports Boccaccio’s statement in The Decameron that, due to the chaos the Plague brought upon the people, traditional customs were evolving to suit the desperate needs of the people infected and the people around them. So, this draws attention to the fact of how much power the plague had in the disturbance it caused to draw people from one supernatural causal point, such as God, to others in search from their own comfort. Did this do any good? Did it actually bring calm to the people or give people false hope with the ‘Quack’ doctors and fortune tellers?

Another point to note when discussing the Journal of the Plague Year is the recurring motif of human suffering in the face of the tragedy. This is important because it thematically links our previous readings together, most notably Sophocles’ Oedipus, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Stearns’ “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death.” Defoe’s novel adds another perspective to our knowledge of human suffering in a plague in terms of the psychological impact of the plague. For example, he mentioned people wanting to bury themselves in burial grounds because of their loss of family members: “There was a Strict Order to prevent People coming to those Pits, and that was the only way to prevent Infection: But after some Time, that Order was more necessary, for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapt in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in, and as they said, bury themselves” (53).

The novel also raises the question of theodicy. For example, why does a good, omnipotent God allow the suffering of its people? Why do disease and death exist? To what extent can the plague be understood as a test of faith? Or is it punishment?

In summary, some topics that are worth looking into are the genre of the book, human suffering, the psychological impact, irreligious practices, and theodicy.