Party, Party all Plague Long

A returning theme in our discussions is the power of disaster (of which disease may often be read as a subset). These instances cause the breaking of norms, the destruction of taboos in society, and ‘the creation’ of an increasingly liberal, and often unconventional space for people to live in. We began to explore these notions after the task of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell during the summer vacation.

This pattern of celebration in the aftermath of distress returns in both the work of Pushkin A Feast during the Plague and John Wilson’s City of the Plague — which was the original text used by the Russian writer to ‘compose’ one of his Little Tragedies. In both works, a group of men and women set up a table on the street, thus creating their own microcosm (not dissimilar to Boccaccio’s Decameron). Through a huge feast, a gathering place is formed to remember one of their friends (Jackson) who was a victim of the Plague.

What is the underlying meaning and aim of feast in these texts? What is the significance of the plague being “our guest” at this feast? Why is the impact of diseases on society a recurring motif for literary pieces? What do feasts symbolize and teach us about human nature? How is this “party behaviour” manifested in today’s society (such as in issues like alcoholism)?

The purpose of the feast in these plays is explicitly stated in the song of the Chairman: the citizens are left with only one option — to fight the plague by remaining cheerful and living in the moment:

“That’s how we’ll meet the Plague’s attack!

We’ll light the fire and fill the cup

And pass it round — a merry scene!

And after we have all drunk up,

We’ll sing: all hail to thee, dread queen!” (p. 101)

It is apparent from this passage that the characters view their situation as absolutely hopeless, and in their panic are determined to ‘laugh’ in the face of the disease; to show a last act of defiance and stubbornness when all seems to be lost. The hymn in honor of the plague sung by the chairman, is also his own (human) way of mocking a devastating force that has unknown origins, and is beyond the human ability to comprehend (“Beyond our power to explain” p.101).

The use of consumption as a device is interesting in that, much like religion, by consuming as they are, they are contributing to a higher power: in this case GDP and economic growth instead of a spiritual existence and afterlife. Unintentionally creating a better world for those left behind (for those living in the world of Keynes), or perhaps creating a disaster ready to lurk in the shadows due to the over-consumption lead by the perception of ‘finite time’ (if you prefer your economics Austrian). Both can be analysed here: in Pushkin’s Russia, trade was starting to grow and capitalism was beginning to come onto the stage internationally. This allows us to consider how people react, as the mentalities are in flux. The people have not completed the transition. This is very much representative of Pushkin’s life, his grandfather having been a Serf who gained Aristocratic station for himself and successive generations of family before his death. This was almost unheard of until this period, as innovation was not seen as a requirement for success. During the era of Pushkin, the socio-economic landscape changed dramatically. Such a leap in ability and fortune in such a short time meant education had not kept up: the fatalistic mentality displayed within the text is testament to this.

What are the implications of this ironically fatalistic mentality? How can these characters respond to imminent death with such mirth and lightheartedness? What does this mean for us, in terms of the role of news and rumour during an epidemic?

It is also interesting that the little group identifies the disease as a female being: a queen who rules over her kingdom of suffering. This idea of the “female as a source of the curse” is in harmony with the play’s references to Greek or Roman mythology (for example, the group asks for a Bacchus song, who was the Roman God of agriculture and wine), and is probably inspired by tales such as the Pandora’s Box or Medusa, the complex of Jocasta’s blame. The personification of the plague is another noteworthy point. The mere possibility that she can “knock at our windows without cease…” creates a helpless feeling among the people, leaving them questioning what they should do.

Why is the plague personified as a woman? How does this compare with history? How do the readers perceive the notion that the plague is embodied? What parallels the qualities of femininity with the effects of the plague? How does this contrast the role and portrayal of women that was seen in our previous novel, Arthur Mervyn?

Moreover, the group’s gathering can be regarded as an ‘ultimate act of consumption’, since they do not only eat up their food, but in a way their life as well, by preparing themselves for the reception of death. Curiously, in the work of John Wilson the feast has a sexual connotation as well, since the priest, who attempts to remind the group of the codes of conduct they abandoned and defines them as blasphemous, calls the gathering an orgy. This can be taken as a term used to describe the ‘lack of restraint’, where desire has overtaken sense and it is true selfishness, despite not being at the deliberate expense of others. Food is often described as inherently sexual in that it is used as both a complement and substitute for such activity. However, this term could also be derived from ‘orgiastic’, which belies wildness, a lack of control, the death of restraint — not used to define a sexual connotation at all. The question appears, was this sexually more explicit term left out by Pushkin on purpose or was it simply lost through the process of translation?

When studying the underlying meanings of the feast, we must not forget about the religious implications it can carry. Is it possible that this last ritual of eating in the works of Wilson and Pushkin is a reference to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and his apostles? If yes, then does their fate contain a hope of resurrection? Or are they going to be resurrected through their stories that lead to eternal remembrance, which; in fact, is implied in the first lines of the play:

“But he’s gone away

To a cold lodging underground…

Although that tongue of wondrous eloquence

Has not yet fallen silent in the grave” (p. 96)

We hope that we have provided enough topics to talk about in the upcoming days, and haven’t been too ambiguous for a Pushkin text. For vagueness is a trait of his works, leaving the reader yearning for a definite answer and simultaneously teaching us that we must be comfortable with the unknown: much like how his characters respond to the looming, unfamiliar world of death.

These short texts demonstrate a possible method of dealing with bad news and with disease. Rather than lamenting the tragedy, the characters use music and entertainment to lighten their hearts, practically mocking “this rude visitor the Plague” (Wilson, 44). Ultimately, just don’t take things too seriously, and remember to party orgiastically whilst you can!

Azmyra, Laura, Maisie and Sharon


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  1. Reading this play, we have to take into account the fact that Pushkin was a poet who belonged to the Romanticism. Thus, it is expected to find in this play a strong lyrical subjectivity, and this could facilitate us the identification of the writer with his own character: Pushkin is Walsingham. Wanting to escape from his own world (full of despotism, censorship, injustice) he transposes himself into a fictional world through his character. But this world has also its own big problem: the plague. And, to solve this issue, he finds salvation in his song (not in the feast as the rest of people or in prayers as the priest). The song, as the poetry or the storytelling represents an act of creation. And, as all great writers, Pushkin understands that the only way to escape from the difficulties and monotony of everyday life is by creating his own universe.
    But this universe is full of contradictions (as we can easily observe even in the title): the life and the death, the Mary’s mournful song and the Walsingham’s hymn (which even it presents plague’s effects has an encouraging tone) or the attitudes of the priest and the party people. Could these contradictions be seen as an attempt of Pushkin to delineate his free spirit (life, party, optimism) from the constraints of the Czarist regime (death, sadness, the priest)?
    But let’s take a look to the final line of the play: “The Chairman remains, plunged in deep contemplation”. Is this the moment when Walsingham doubts his beliefs? Is this the moment when he doesn’t know anymore what to choose: to continue the party or to follow the priest advice and to respect the memory of his mother and wife? Despite the fact that it seemed that priest intervention had no result, the final of the play is ambiguous. Why is the chairman affected by the priest’s word? Reading the play from a Christian point of view, the menace of priest has a deep meaning (“Halt this monstrous feast, if ever/You hope to meet again in Heaven/The souls of those whom you have lost.”) Thus, Walsingham is almost sure that he will die, but now he understands that the death is not the end and the way he reacts to the plague and to the memory of those affected by it, could affect his afterlife. Can this promise of eternal life, of meeting the love ones, be interpreted as a hope of Pushkin that the Russian Empire will change in better?
    Summarizing the above-mentioned, I think that the world of the play is a transposition of Pushkin’s Russia, a sick Russia, wherefrom he, as his character, tries to escape through creation, but despite his demarche, he is still keeping a hope that the Empire can be saved.

    • I find it interesting that you read from a Christian perspective, given that Pushkin himself deliberately veered from this style by the introduction of oral linguistics within Russian literature, which is in direct opposition to the literature of the Church at the time. I think it would be particularly fascinating to be able to consider this from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, given that is the predominant religion in Russia at the time. I think the political reading unearths an enormous new layer, so I did a little research of his exile and post-exile years under Nicholas I. By 1830, he worked for the government, whilst the play was written in the same year. I think it is interesting to consider that he had more freedom at this point in his work, working to support serfdom rights within Russia, so perhaps he was building a prequel to the turn, though it was slight, towards a more equitable society.

  2. This post highlights key elements in the reading, especially the purpose of the feast. I can pretty much agree on what’s been touched on in the post. The feast is a way for the survivors of the plague to get their minds off of what is their probably inevitable end. Walsingham has seen the death of his wife and mother, and has taken refuge in the feast, that with lively songs and companionship, helps him forget his pain.

    The feast also serves as a type of close-knit community, a support system to get through the hard times. Although the feast and the way of celebrating is not approved at all by the priest, it is the coping mechanism of many. As also highlighted in the post, this type of coping mechanism is very much reflected in society. In Colombia, it is very common to have a party, to go out drinking, or to find refuge in a sea of people when something bad has happened. Grief is handled differently everywhere, but in Colombia when someone dies, people try to be the most cheerful as possible, to sing the songs that the dead person loved, and to dance. We try to honor the dead, and make sure that, if they’re watching us in any way, they don’t feel bad because we’re sad, but instead see us going on with our lives. This may be what all the people taking part in the feast are doing, being happy because being sad will kill them faster.

  3. In reference to the question as to how these characters can respond to imminent death with such mirth and lightheartedness, I feel it is appropriate to link the behaviour of the revelers to the metaphor of a crucible. A crucible is defined as a situation of severe trial or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new. In relation to Pushkin’s text, which documents the revelers unconventional response to the plague, it can be seen that the allusion to a crucible is at play. The way in which this works is as follows: the event of the plague itself generated tension, friction and pain – though none of which are recounted in Pushkin’s work, it is evident that this was the case, given the explicit references to the deaths of Jackson and the Chairman’s mother and wife – which serves at the severe trial of high intensity. As per the mechanism of a crucible, these experiences of sustained friction and pressure resulted in catharses, which in turn brought about this attitude of the revelers that they should in fact celebrate life and should not let death, even within their small community, prevent them from their daily tasks and deeds. It is evident in times of disaster or pain (a crucible), that alongside the emotional purification that comes with cathartic experiences, comes the stripping away of all things superficial and insignificant, and the end result is something that has been condensed to a pure essence. In relation to ‘A Feast During the Plague’, we see that this essence is the lifestyle that these revelers have chosen – one that is free of sorrow, fear and hopelessness, but is instead full of gaiety. So perhaps, it is not that the revelers are responding to death with lightheartedness, but maybe it is their experiences and their own private catharses that have instilled in them a new outlook on life, and thus their perspectives on death deviates from the norm.

    • Simi,

      I think that your analogy of the play as a crucible is a highly interesting and enlightening one. I do agree that the larger context in which the play is set can be interpreted as a mechanism for change, in which the characters are the elements that undergo tension and friction. Evidently, the entire company present at the feast experience emotional stress through the loss of loved ones, which is an unarguably difficult and draining experience. However, if we continue with the metaphor of the plague as a crucible, there must be the creation of something new. The characters’ gaiety and “party behaviour” could be the result of this tensive situation, but it could also be a temporary reaction to the pains of the plague. In my opinion, the members of the feast are exhibiting symptoms of reaction formation, a type of defense mechanism in which an individual expresses the opposite emotions to the ones that are actually felt, as a means of coping with the situation. In Pushkin’s play, the characters feel sorrow from the deaths that surround them, but instead, they try to stay merry and act joyfully rather than dealing with their sorrow. Thus, the characters are experiencing the crucible of the epidemic, but instead of forming something new from the situation, they hide from it, donning a temporary mask rather than changing into a new costume.

  4. When a new character makes an entrance in Arthur Mervyn’s narrative, he does not seem to prioritize beginning the introduction with the character’s name. In fact, we often have to wait quite a few paragraphs (or one volume of the novel) before we are finally given their name. I previously counted this as a peculiarity exclusive to Arthur Mervyn’s narrative. However, Pushkin (or his translator) also uses a similar formula in A Feast during the Plague.

    Young Man:
    Mr. Chairman! I call to mind
    Someone whom we all know well,
    A man whose jokes and funny stories,
    … (9 lines later)…

    Borrowing ideas from A Paradise built in Hell again and when considering the plague as a disaster, the formula makes sense. It would be odd to see people stuck in the buildings during the San Francisco earthquake break ice by exchanging names. Their dialogue would rather be more relevant to the situation and proper introduction might arbitrarily happen in that course or as an afterthought when the situation has resolved. The same might be translated to the people mourning (or feasting) together. Their introductions would not sound the same as our introductions did in Marhaba.

    Also consider how it is called a “feast”. We usually share our meal with people we know and share a certain level of comfort with. This seems to drive to a point where disaster could possibly not only breakdown and restructure social classes but also social norms. These restructurings of social norms might be more spontaneous like ridding the need for a proper introduction before accepting a fellow human into your life or more drastic like completely disregarding accepted methods of mourning.

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