Belmont Club

The Rediscovery of Monsters

Posting will be light today due to unexpected traffic interruptions downtown.





Authorities say the situation will be normal momentarily.

Zombies? Monsters?

Dylan Charles says zombies are what we have instead of Homer. “Myth and metaphor play an important role in constructing our culture and creating purpose in our lives. They are tools that help the subconscious mind to digest the happenings of a world that is too complex for our five senses alone. … When we hear tales of Homer and his Odyssey we also receive cues we need to uncover the strength and perseverance required to face personal challenges.”

Today these challenges are mostly posed by ourselves. Charles enumerates them: nearly Unconscious Plebs on the Loose, an army of nearly undead pharmaceutical users, media hypnotized automatons, violence as the solution for everything and every man for himself. These are what we mean by ‘zombies’. In that sene we’re in World War Z already and have been for a long time. And no, the smooth flow of mental traffic will not return momentarily.

The Atlantic Wire, writing in a much more sober vein, says: “The zombie apocalypse has emerged as the metaphor of the decade for all sorts of things, from emergency preparedness to estate planning, and for good reason: It’s a catch-all for the end of humanity and an uninhabitable world, with none of the political ramifications of real scenarios like terrorism or global warming.”

The Centers for Disease Control made headlines in 2011 by launching a preparedness campaign for the zombie apocalypse, urging people to stock up on water, clean clothes, blankets, documents, first aid gear, and so on. …

in a seminar with FEMA’s Citizen Corps organizers, “Emergency planners were encouraged to use the threat of zombies – the flesh-hungry, walking dead – to encourage citizens to prepare for disasters,” the Associated Press reported. …

Buildings play a big role in the zombie apocalypse. Don’t forget that basically all of Dawn of the Dead takes place in a shopping mall. And the end-times metaphor holds true for the three-year-old Zombie Safe House competition, in which architects compete to design the best zombie-proof architecture. “A zombie-proof house needs to be secure—not only structurally strong but also with limited openings on its perimeter that are all closable, lockable and impenetrable,” architect Warick Mihaly, who won this year’s contest, explained to the Economist.

It sounds like a survivalism that has gone mainstream. But more importantly it suggests  the authorities and even Hollywood secretly agree with the Tea Partiers: yes we do have a reason to worry. Yes there is a crisis. And Zombies and Kaiju are our way of sending you this subliminal signal even if on the talk shows we’ll tell you that the sun is shining, the birds are singing, employment has never been so good and traffic will return to normal in a few hours

The line between truth and fantasy, or perhaps more appropriately between the conscious and the subconscious, was probably crossed when the Hornady company offered special ammunition for killing zombies. They have as yet not offered any products to knock down kaiju, but its probably only a matter of time. The British Daily Register reports with some alarm:

Special ammunition optimized for fighting zombies is selling like hot cakes in the USA, according to reports, following sensational media coverage of incidents involving flesh-eating and similar undead-esque behavior…

All this has apparently been extremely fortunate for US ammo maker Hornady, which last October brought out its “Zombie Max” line of cartridges (“make dead permanent”). We hear courtesy of WWJ Detroit that Zombie Max rounds are flying off the gun-shop shelves.

“This is probably one of the only [products] that we’ve seen when people who are not in the hunting and shooting industry will go out and they will purchase this,” Hornady spokesman Everett Deger told WWJ.

Things can happy really quickly. This is what Sydney Harbor looked like only earlier this week (own photo). Too bad it’s gone according to the movies.

All Quiet on the Southern Front

All Was Quiet on the Southern Front

Yet humanity has lived through not one, but many Zombie apocalypses. Barbara Tuchman, who chronicled the Black Death of the 14th century, noted that some contemporaneous accounts believed the plague was literally the end of the world.

By January 1348 it penetrated France via Marseille, and North Africa via Tunis. Shipborne along coasts and navigable rivers, it spread westward from Marseille through the ports of Languedoc to Spain and northward up the Rhone to Avignon, where it arrived in March. It reached Narbonne, Montpellier, Carcassonne, and Toulouse between February and May, and at the same time in Italy spread to Rome and Florence and their hinterlands. Between June and August it reached Bordeaux, Lyon, and Paris, spread to Burgundy and Normandy, and crossed the Channel from Normandy into southern England. From Italy during the same summer it crossed the Alps into Switzerland and reached eastward to Hungary. … In 1349 it resumed in Paris, spread to Picardy, Flanders, and the Low Countries, and from England to Scotland and Ireland as well as to Norway, where a ghost ship with a cargo of wool and a dead crew drifted offshore until it ran aground near Bergen. From there the plague passed into Sweden Denmark, Prussia, Iceland, and as far as Greenland….

When graveyards filled up, bodies at Avignon were thrown into the Rhone until mass burial pits were dug for dumping the corpses. In London in such pits corpses piled up in layers until they overflowed. Everywhere reports speak of the sick dying too fast for the living to bury. Corpses were dragged out of homes and left in front of doorways. Morning light revealed new piles of bodies. In Florence the dead were gathered up by the Compagnia della Misericordia – founded in 1244 to care for the sick – whose members wore red robes and hoods masking the face except for the eyes. When their efforts failed, the dead lay putrid in the streets for days at a time. When no coffins were to be had, the bodies were laid on boards, two or three at once, to be carried to graveyards or common pits. Families dumped their own relatives into the pits, or buried them so hastily and thinly “that dogs dragged them forth and devoured their bodies.”

Amid accumulating death and fear of contagion, people died without last rites and were buried without prayers, a prospect that terrified the last hours of the stricken. A bishop in England gave permission to laymen to make confession to each other as was done by the Apostles, “or if no man is present then even to a woman,” and if no priest could be found to administer extreme unction, “then faith must suffice.” Clement VII found it necessary to grant remissions of sin to all who died of the plague because so many were unattended by priests. “And no bells tolled,” wrote a chronicler of Siena. “and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.’ “

Well humanity is here still. But it was a near run thing. The ability to fear doom was part of human culture until recently, before advancing technology and the long Pax Americana created the illusion of invincibility. In early 20th century JRR Tolkien was still able to evoke the mental chord and he played it masterfully.

‘Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom,’ said Faramir. And they said no more; and it seemed to them that as they stood upon the wall that the wind died, and the light failed, and the Sun was beared, and all the sounds in the City or in the lands about were hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath could be heard; the very beating of their hearts was stilled. Time halted.

And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. And still they waited for they knew not what. Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suddenly again.

Today we can no longer accept catastrophe as part of normal human history. And so we invent giant monsters and zombies in their place.  When in 1996 John Leslie reasoned that mankind had nearly run its course he was working off the Copernican principle. “He was calculating the probable future duration of the human species, basing his argument on the Copernican principle, which says that the situation of the human observer in the cosmos should be in no way exceptional. Copernicus gave his name to this principle when he moved the earth from its position at the center of the Aristotelian universe and put it into a more modest position as one of the planets orbiting around the sun.”

Leslie argued that the Copernican principle should apply to our position in time as well as to our position in space. As observers of the passage of time, we should not put ourselves into a privileged position at the beginning of the history of our species. As Copernican observers, we should expect to be in an average position in our history, rather than close to the beginning. Therefore, we should expect the future duration of our species to be not much longer than its past. Since we know that our species originated about a hundred thousand years ago, we should expect it to become extinct about a hundred thousand years from now.

Freeman Dyson, responding to Leslie’s thesis wrote:

When Leslie published this prognostication, I protested strongly against it, claiming that it was a technically wrong use of the theory of probability. In fact Leslie’s argument was technically correct. The reason I did not like the argument was that I did not like the conclusion. I thought that the universe had a purpose, and that our minds were a part of that purpose. Since the goodness of the universe was revealed in our existence as observers, we could rely on the goodness of the universe to allow us to continue to exist. I opposed Leslie’s argument because I was a better Platonist than he was.

The antithesis of John Leslie is David Deutsch … Deutsch is a professional physicist who uses physics as a basis for philosophical speculation. … He likes the many-universe interpretation of quantum mechanics, invented in the 1950s by Hugh Everett, who was then a student in Princeton. Everett imagined the quantum universe as an infinite assemblage of ordinary universes all existing simultaneously. He called the assemblage the multiverse….

According to Everett and Deutsch, the multiverse contains a universe for every combination of choices. There are so many universes that every possible sequence of choices occurs in at least one of them. Each universe is constantly splitting into many alternative universes, and the alternatives are recombining when they arrive at the same final state by different routes. The multiverse is a huge network of possible histories diverging and reconverging as time goes on.

If you buy Everett’s world view, then in at least one of these universes we beat both the zombies and the kaiju and the plague. We may even beat our own predisposition to self destruction. But hope that lies ahead. To reach it one has to advance past  fear to the rediscovery of redemption, the flip side of the presentiment of doom. Tolkien knew this too.

‘No,’ said Faramir, looking into her face. ‘It was but a picture in the mind. I do not know what is happening. The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. Eowyn, Eowyn, White Lady of Rohan, in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!’ And he stooped and kissed her brow.

And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell.

Perhaps the rediscovery of monsters is a necessary prelude to the recovery of hope. You can’t have a dawn without the night.

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