Sometime in 2011 the total number of film plots with the keyword “zombie” passed the number of film plots with the keyword “cowboy,” according to the Internet Movie Database. One might argue that the zombie has become the great American archetype of the postmodern era, as the cowboy was the American archetype a century ago. With the release of Brad Pitt’s $200 million zombie epic World War Z, what used to be the stuff of low-budget shockers has entered the American cultural mainstream. Therein lies a lesson.
“The history of the world is the history of humankind’s search for immortality,” I argued in my 2011 book Why Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). Human beings can’t tolerate life without the hope of some existence beyond our brief mortal span of years. Cultures that know they have made it past their best-used-by date tend to die for lack of interest. Extreme examples are the neolithic tribes that walk out of the Amazon to encounter modernity, and succumb to alcoholism and other vices in a matter of years. Less extreme examples are the radical Muslims who declare that they love death more than we love life, or the European nations whose fertility rate is so low that their national survival is questionable at the hundred-year horizon. I argued in Civilizations that the so-called Arab Spring was a paroxysm of cultural despair, the prelude to societal breakdown with appalling consequences; watching the dreadful events in Egypt and Syria, few today can dismiss this thesis as alarmist.
Dying cultures are the living dead. Half of the world’s 6,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century. They are zombie cultures. But we Americans are gestating a zombie culture inside what used to be a “country with the soul of a church,” as G.K. Chesterton put it. The hedonistic narcissism that took over popular culture during the 1960s produced a spiritual deadening like nothing in American history. That’s why we are so fascinated with zombies. We identify with them.
Few living poets express this spiritual deadening as eloquently as the Syrian Ali Ahmad Said, who writes under the pen name Adonis. He maintains that the Arabs already are an extinct people, as I reported in my Asia Times column some years ago: ”We have become extinct. … We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world. … The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct.” Adonis hauntingly conveys the sense of living death, as in these extracts from his poetry:
Each day is a child/ who dies behind a wall/ turning its face to the wall’s corners.
When I saw death on a road/ I saw my face in his. My thoughts resembled locomotives/ straining out of fog/ and into fog.
“We must make gods or die./ We must kill gods or die,”/ whisper the lost stones in their lost kingdom.
Strangled mute/ with syllables/ voiceless,/ with no language/ but the moaning of the earth,/ my song discovers death/ in the sick joy/ of everything that is/ for anyone who listens./ Refusal is my melody./ Words are my life/ and life is my disease.
Americans don’t read much poetry, but they do watch movies. There is something especially compelling about the image of dead people walking, I wrote in a May, 2012 essay for Asia Times. We understand this more clearly if we consider the opposite, namely the concept of eternal life arising from God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants and embodied in the Temple at Jerusalem. In a brilliant 2008 book, Resurrection, Harvard professors Kevin Madigan and Jon D. Levenson argue:
The ancient Israelites, altogether lacking the materialist habit of thought so powerful in modernity, did not conceive of life and death as purely and exclusively biological phenomena. These things were, rather, social in character and could not, therefore, be disengaged from the historical fate of the people of whom they were predicated.
Contrasting the promise of eternal life with the fear of living death, I argued, helps make sense of our fascination with zombies, as we’ll explore after the page break.