Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Zombi Did It!

"The Unknown Painter," from 1838, is the first known zombi(e) story in English. It is the tale of a slave of the painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, also called Don Murillo, who was active in Spain in the seventeenth century. Don Murillo and his friends discover that someone is altering the artist's canvases at night. They ask the slave, Sebastián Gómez, who has done this? Sebastián's answer is that it is the work of the Zombi

"Pray, what is a Zombi?" asks Gonzalo, a friend of Don Murillo.

"Oh, an imaginary being, of course," answers Sebastián.

What is unknown to Don Murillo and his friends is that Sebastián Gómez, only fourteen years old and not yet revealed to be an artist, is the unknown painter. Fearing he will be punished for what he has done to his master's work, he blames it on the Zombi. Eventually Sebastián confesses and all is well. He goes on to become a painter who even today appears in art history books.

"The Unknown Painter" was reprinted in American newspapers beginning in 1838. The story was sometimes called "The Zombi Did It!" and appeared again and again for about six decades after its first publication. The version of the zombi(e) from "The Unknown Painter," i.e., a trickster or evil spirit, disappeared from popular accounts after William B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island was published in 1929. In Seabrook's version, the zombie is one of the undead, raised from the grave by a Voodoo sorcerer either to be his slave or to be sold to another person. Unlike Sebastián Gómez, however, the Haitian zombie (or what I have called the Seabrook zombie) lacks a will of his own.

The original fear in the zombie story is not a human fear of zombies. It is the fear felt by human beings--black Haitians--of being enslaved and being held as slaves as they had been held under their French colonial masters. It is a fear not only of the zombie-maker and the zombie-master but also of being denied the chance to enter the afterlife. To become a zombie is to be a slave forever.

In the zombie story of today, zombies still lack a will of their own--they are essentially slaves to a biological imperative--but they are now things to fear, just as the zombie-maker and the zombie-master are things to fear in the original story. The difference now is that the zombie-maker and zombie-master have been combined with the zombie in the figure of the zombie himself. The zombie now is the maker of zombies, the master of zombies, a slave to his own biological imperatives, and a thing to fear, all rolled into one revolting package.

That's how things look at first glance, anyway.

The reality is that the zombie is actually made and driven by a pathogen. The maker and master of the zombie--and the thing ultimately to fear--is not human but microbial. The effect is that culpability is removed from human beings and placed on an amoral organism, thus the moral test passes from the maker and master of the zombie (a human being in the original) to the living humans who are attempting to survive in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. The zombie/zombie-maker/zombie-master (i.e., the zombie carrying the pathogen) is neither good nor evil. He is simply part of the physical environment, the backdrop for a drama acted out by its human characters.

I imagine that the absence of culpability, responsibility, or accountability on the part of zombies is a comfort to some people. There is in fact a whole side of the political spectrum that believes that human beings are not responsible for and cannot be held accountable for their own conduct. (1) The belief is that society, or the system, is to blame, or, as in the original zombi(e) story, "Society Did It!" or "The System Did It!" One of the reasons that the Soviet Union fell so far behind in the field of genetics is that leaders in that country did not believe that heredity or our genes could possibly explain human failings, including material inequality. An imperfect society or a corrupt system must instead be held to account. The solution to this problem is to create a perfect society--a Utopia--for if society is perfected, all people will be happy, and of course all inequality will be eliminated. Sadly for all of those Lysenkoist scientists of the Soviet era, their ideological heirs have cast aside their beliefs. The Western leftist/socialist/statist still believes that people are not responsible for and cannot be held accountable for their actions, but he has embraced genetics (2) as a way of saying, "It's not their fault. Their genes did it!"

I wonder, then: in the zombie story, has the pathogen that causes zombie-ism taken the place of society, the system, or the human genome? The zombie is not responsible for his situation or for his behavior. (1) Any accountability or culpability for his actions must be placed on an amoral and indifferent organism. Zombies are actually victims. They are in fact masses of victims. "You can't blame them. It's not their fault. The pathogen did it!" In fact, zombies are deserving of our sympathy. They have lost the lottery of life and we should sympathize with them. The human beings on the other hand are fascists. Is that what this argument comes to?

On the other hand, if zombies are merely part of the physical environment in a nightmarish world in which society has collapsed, then might the zombie apocalypse stand in for the human condition? Is it essentially a test of our humanity raised to a level of extremes? If so, when have those extremes existed in the world? Perhaps in times of plague or natural disaster. Those are not human-made disasters, however. The only comparable extreme is wartime, especially of the most vicious, destructive, and widespread kind of war. There have been wars of that kind throughout human history, but the wars of the twentieth century are an especially good fit for the zombie apocalypse because they were wars on such a massive scale. Competing ideologies or political systems were the fuel for those wars. So again, we're on our way back to a political interpretation of the zombie story.

There is still more regarding zombies and their meaning. A question comes to me: Where is the zombie's soul? In the original zombie story, the soul is trapped in the body, because the human being enslaved as a zombie wants to return to his grave so that he can be released into the afterlife. In the zombie story of today, the soul must be gone from the body. Otherwise, it would be sinful to kill a zombie. One way around that is to believe that killing a zombie is done in self-defense--not quite a Christian act, but generally accepted. Another is by the atheist belief that there is no soul. But if there is no soul, then there can be no substantial difference between a living human being and a zombie. Both are material. Both are animated by a material life force. Both are driven by biological and evolutionary imperatives. And neither can be considered superior to the other inasmuch as there are no moral, cultural, societal, or even biological absolutes. All things are relative. Zombies just have different ways than we do, ways that must be respected. In fact, they must have rights, too, which also must be respected. In any case, if a zombie is a type of human being but without culpability, then he becomes equivalent to a human who is mentally ill or developmentally disabled, a child or some other category of person who is held to different standards than a fully functioning adult. In other words, the leftist/socialist/statist view of human nature as of people who are not responsible for and cannot be held accountable for their own actions is confirmed, and society, the system, or civilization itself is found to be at fault and must be torn down and remade. People on that side of the political equation seem to deplore the zombie apocalypse, but isn't it just another a kind of revolution? Isn't it the means by which a corrupt system is necessarily overthrown so that we can bring about a new society, one in which all people are equal? And what greater equality is there than among zombies? 

Note
(1) I will always be grateful to Wallace Stegner in his novel Angle of Repose for pointing out the need to use the word conduct rather than behavior in reference to human action.
(2) More accurately, he has Lysenko-ized genetics so that it is no longer a science. For example, biological sex is no longer considered a matter of genetics but a matter of choice. As an aside, I'm sure you have noticed that no one ever uses the word sex anymore to describe biological sex. Gender is the politically correct and biologically inaccurate word used instead. I might add that it's a completely ignorant word.

"Murillo Surprises His Slave, Sebastián Gómez, at the Easel" by whom else but an unknown artist (of the twentieth century). I apologize for the digital watermark.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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