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Spengler

The Zombie Apocalypse — Ours and Theirs

July 3rd, 2013 - 6:35 am

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.

Responding to Madigan and Levenson in my Asia Times column, I argued:

The Temple at Jerusalem was the physical manifestation of God’s promise in this world, “a paradise-like place where God, for all his purity and holiness, is nonetheless available on earth and his blessing as abundant.” It is the antipode to the grave, a “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). In ancient Israel the whole male population was required to present itself at the Temple for the three annual pilgrimage festivals, and sang (Psalm 115): “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore.”

Much of what we know about Temple ritual clarifies ancient Israel’s understanding of eternal life. A member of the hereditary priest-caste, the Kohanim, couldn’t preside over Temple sacrifices if he had come into contact with a corpse, which causes ritual defilement. Nor could a priest with a physical defect officiate at the Temple, presumably for a similar reason: nothing that bespeaks physical corruption has a place in the Temple service. No animal with a blemish or a defect might be sacrificed, and no priest with a physical defect could perform the sacrifice. The Temple service, the “fountain of life,” excludes all contact with death and the appearance of physical corruption.

Christianity’s salvific claims, in turn, rest on continuity with the Temple. In Matthew 12, for example, Jesus asserts that his disciples have the authority to break the Sabbath and gather grain, by the same authority that allows the priests in the Temple to perform sacrifices on Sabbath. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus states, in the first explicit Christological declaration in the Gospels. He claims that his person embodies the Temple as the source of eternal life. Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth emphasizes this passage, citing the work of Rabbi Jacob Neusner.

The biblical symbolism of the Temple – the embodiment on earth of God’s promise of eternal life to Israel – is worth contrasting with images of the walking dead. I do not mean to suggest that the makers of zombie films intentionally set out to pervert the symbolism of the Bible – I doubt any of them bother to read Leviticus 22. Nonetheless, the death-ravaged features of the zombie herd convey the concept of collective death just as vividly as the Kohanim represented the ancient Israel’s collective life.

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, to be sure, the priestly ritual was suspended. Rabbinic Judaism transplanted the holiness of the Temple into synagogue and home. The detailed attention that observant Jews devote to the rules of the kosher kitchen may seem strange to the casual observer, until it is considered that the Jewish home is intended to be a sort of Temple in exile, and its Sabbath table an extension of the Temple altar.

Among Christians, the identification of holiness with bodily integrity persists in the notion of incorruptibility of saints among Catholics and especially Orthodox Christians.

How quaint, how superstitious these ancient notions of eternal life seem to the secular modern world, and how strange and primitive the rituals which sustained the Psalmist’s conviction that God would not abandon his servants to the grave. Modernity tells that nothing in the universe cares whether we exist or not, and where the meaning of our lives is concerned, we are all on our own.

We think of ourselves as rational folk. And yet we find almost 10 million pairs of eyes glued to the television screen each week when a new episode airs of “The Walking Dead,” enthralled by the same images, but in reverse: the walking dead in place of the dead awaiting resurrection, animated corpses instead of wholesome priests or uncorrupted saints, a terrified band of survivors huddled against encroaching death instead of the happy procession of God’s people to the source of eternal life.

We have dismissed the Jewish and Christian hope of eternal life as superstition offensive to reason, but instead, we find ourselves trapped in a recurring nightmare. We know that we will die, but (as Woody Allen said) we don’t want to be there when it happens. We act as if exercise, antioxidants and Botox will keep the reaper away, but we know that our flesh one day must putrefy nonetheless. The more we try to ignore death, the more it fascinates us. The more we tell ourselves that mortality doesn’t apply to us, the more it surrounds us. And the more we try to fight off the fear, the more we feel like the beleaguered survivors resisting the zombie herd.

Academic research tells us that nearly 150,000 languages have been spoken on this planet since the dawn of humanity; 6,000 remain. We can decipher fewer than 100 of the extinct ancient languages. The historical norm is for cultures to sink into the zombie herd and disappear. The survival of only one culture between the Indus and the Nile over the past 3,500 years is the exception.

 (Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)

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Top Rated Comments   
As I've mentioned in comments to you before, I maintain that the proliferation of vampire and zombie stories is basically a sublimation of political issues: fear of a political class that feeds on us now; fear of an entitlement class that will continue to feed on the living long after the entitlement beneficiaries have died. The vast income transfer --the greatest act of theft ever recorded-- from the young to the old that is Social Security, et al, is impossible to address politically or often even spoken about. Thus it turns up sublimated into the samizdat of art.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (44)
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Wow. Very nice. How great thou art, Spengler.
..."The survival of only one culture between the Indus and the Nile over the past 3,500 years is the exception."
What a great advertorial talking point!

"Worried about Death?
Are you scared of Turning into a Zombie?
Turn to Judaism! Convert. Be a Jew!
Fighting the Zombie Hordes for over 3,500 years.
Judaism - your guarantee of never becoming one of the Walking Dead!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I Love your take on the zombie phenom.
But I've tended to believe it speaks to a different aspect of our current culture. We want ever more violent entertainment yet we still need to have some justification for the violence so we can sleep with good conscience at the end of the show.
In action films of old Stallone could rack up huge body counts and we could still root for him because they were bad guys and they were attacking him. But the action hero was always limited in his action because he could only kill or maim bad guys, and could only do it in defense of himself or other innocent.

We want more action, more gore, more gratuitous violence, more gruesome ways of dispatching people. How do we get that without having us root for truly evil or monstrous heroes? Enter the zombie.

In zombie movies the hapless zombies are killed off in huge numbers in ways that tax the most creative special effects guys.
There it is! Kill it! the more gory the dispatching the better. And yet we're not being sadistic--they're zombies. We get violent, sadistic, gory, and often gratuitous killing and can still feel good about rooting for it because they're not real people, just disease ridden zombies and walking dead.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We want ever more violent entertainment? Who is "we"? I don't. I actively avoid it. So do most people. That's one reason Hollywood is foundering so badly. They're out of creative ideas and anything genuinely artistic or meaningful. So they serve up violent pap in the hope we won't notice.

The zombies from Hollywood are themselves.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One aspect of zombie movies is that it gives liberals an enemy that they can engage with moral superiority. Liberals have been telling us that no one is really right, no one is really wrong, we just have different views.

How can a liberal kill someone who just has a different view? No, they need moral clarity to kill and liberals have done their best to destroy moral clarity and moral absolutes. Well, how can they have an enemy then? Answer: ZOMBIES!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In Athens

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Footnotes:

Acts 17:28 From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides
Acts 17:28 From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus
http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2017:16-32&version=NIV
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To get how this relates to zombies, consider that how greeks did not dispute with Paul until he got to the part about Jesus rising from the dead. How to interpret this? Consider 2 Corinthians 2:14-16

New International Version (NIV)

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As it happens in World War Z the zombies like werewolves and vampires reproduce themselves by biting humans. however, unlike werewolves and vampires --the zombies are the way they are because of a virus. The way the virus is thwarted is by giving the humans a disease that puts the stink of death on living humans. This works a camouflage. The zombies can't see humans so camouflaged. So humans are not attacked. Its very very unlikely that the writers were thinking of St Paul when the drew up the screenplay for WWZ. But once again consider his words. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A truly wonderful piece, Goldman. Bravo!

You've helped to open my eyes as to *why* so many people have such a love/hate relationship with the Jews.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting analysis.

Zombies also represent the socialist system. It starts out small with a few dependents and could be stopped, but soon it consumes more and more producers turning them into zombies as well. Eventually only a few are left. An often unmentioned trait is just how often dangerous psychopaths are amongst the survivors and they are an even greater threat than the zombies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Zombies are, quite simply, a metaphor for mortality. The dead -- death -- will find you no matter where you go, how fast you run, or how prepared you are. The good, the bad, the honorable, the traitorous, the young, the old, the healthy, the ill -- zombies/death find them all.

In the 80s/90s there was a resurgance of vampire lore, as the generations that screwed its way through the 60s and 70s found themselves confronting sexually transmitted diseases that couldn't be cured. Vampires were originally symbols of disease, and still carried that through the Hollywood movies, but the movies had added a gloss of sexuality and appeal.

Then those generations got older, and realized that no matter what they did to stay healthy, they'd end up dead. And so, zombies surged back into popularity.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The "gloss" that vampires picked up actually began in the old days of live theater. Unlike today most actors were poor and would often wear their own clothes whilst performing on stage. Some of the actors playing Dracula in stage versions of Stoker's novel would wear their finest clothes so they could go carousing as soon as the performance was over. This began the change in the vampire's image.

The next major shift was probably Anne Rice's novels and the movies based on them. Since then they've become sex symbols. I find this (and the Twilight saga) rather amusing because it is the equivalent of a sheep cozying up a wolf and expecting not to become dinner.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To inject a little politics here, while watching the Democratic National Convention on TV, during the finale the roving telephoto camera's eye came to rest on numerous audience members that had glassy-eyed zombie-like expressions on their faces.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I wonder if the audience for zombie-related entertainment includes any noticeable numbers of people over the age of 30? The last zombie movie I intentionally watched was the 1968 version of "Night of the Living Dead." I did not find that one entertaining, and after watching two minutes of the current TV "Walking Dead" series, still am not entertained.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The original "Night of the Living Dead" is probably the best of the lot. The thing to note is that Zombies were only the driver of the story. The real action and intent is the interaction amongst the people. It is the same with most of Romero's movies, though the last couple of the series weren't that good. Aside from that one and a couple of others, zombie stories don't do much for me either.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Shaun of the Dead is pretty good, too, but it's a comedy and plays the zombies as mostly a backdrop to a sort of rom-com.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That is some piece of thinking and writing, Sir!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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