the walking dead

A couple of weeks ago Kimmie and I watched season 1 of the HBO series The Walking Dead about a zombie apocalypse. The show had been recommended to me; otherwise I would not have tried it, having been so disappointed with the 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead, which we saw as part of our History of Cinema Festival. The movie, which is rated 8.0 out of 10 on IMDb, I could give only a 3—possibly my lowest rating yet in the 4 years of our festival. We didn’t finish watching it.

The deficiencies of the 1978 movie are absent from the new TV series. The throngs of ineffectual zombies that I found merely comic in the movie have become frightening and horrible in the TV series. The few human survivors of what appears to be a global pandemic have serious problems on their hands. People who don’t know each other and don’t particularly like each other must band together for survival against the implacable cannibalistic menace. Not everyone makes it. Perhaps no one will make it.

So I’ve put season 2 on hold at the local library. But yesterday, sometime after I completed my prose sketch while on break from Christmas shopping at Park Royal mall, a new thought came to me. In my sketch I had written this fragment:

A sense of alienation: people becoming gradually more and more mutually irritating animals, each intent on his own purpose, cutting in front of each other, making no eye contact, resentfully buying gifts.

And my thought was this: my god, these are the walking dead.

The phrase mutually irritating animals was my effort to allude to a passage from Joseph Campbell’s Creative Mythology, in which he is describing our modern alienation:

The sense of desolation is experienced on two levels: first the social, in a loss of identification with any spiritually compelling, structuring group; and, beyond that, the metaphysical, in a loss of any sense either of identity or of relationship with a dimension of experience, being, and rapture any more awesome than that provided by an empirically classifiable conglomerate of self-enclosed, separate, mutually irritating organisms held together only by lust (crude or sublimated) and fear (of pain and death or of boredom).

This condition of spiritual deracination is the hallmark of the Waste Land, the terrain of the modern soul.

That is, if we have a soul. In The Walking Dead, a clinical explanation is eventually given that zombie-ism is a syndrome created by a virus that is able to reanimate the human brain-stem and some other nearby structures. The only way of putting a zombie out of action is by destroying the brain of the reanimated corpse. Until that happens, it will continue to try to feed itself, preferably on fresh human flesh. It would seem that if the human had a soul, it would have flown away upon death, and the zombie is only the machinery of the body, now acting purposively but unconsciously, kind of like a riding-mower that’s got away from its operator.

But in the Waste Land the very existence of the soul is in doubt, is it not? C. S. Lewis said “I don’t have a soul. I am a soul. I have a body.” But most of us aren’t so sure. The existence of the soul, especially if it survives physical death, seems to point necessarily to a spiritual dimension. The idea that the sentient part of us is separable from the body and has a separate destiny from the that of the body makes the question of that destiny important. The Waste Land then is the world of experience without soul; it is the zombie world, the world of the walking dead. It is our world.

A zombie is a mindless human—just like us. You say we don’t eat each other? No, not literally, not usually (although sometimes we do). But we do slaughter each other, and we do so mainly without thought or feeling. We leave each other to suffer and die, propelled by physiological drives that we mainly don’t reflect on, and don’t want to reflect on. Stretched between habit and impulse, we live in a state of suppressed misery, vaguely aware that something is wrong.

A couple of posts ago I reviewed Mortimer J. Adler’s book Intellect: Mind over Matter. In the final chapter of his book Adler addresses the neglect of the intellect, which is his definition of sloth. He describes the behavior of those who persistently avoid using the uniquely human endowment of their intellects:

Those who do not lead intellectual lives deploy their intellectual powers in the work-a-day world of earning a living for the sake of getting ahead in that world. If they were not compelled to use their intellects for that purpose, they wouuld not be inclined to do so. When they are not immersed in the economic rat race, they resort to various forms of play and entertainment for the sake of recreation from the fatigues of toil or in order to kill the time that lies heavy on their hands. It seldom occurs to them to use free time for the exacting pursuits of leisure instead of for recreation or the pleasures of play.

Adler is describing what he regards as a moral failing, not a spiritual one, but it feels like the same point.

It’s interesting that the zombie-ism of The Walking Dead is caused by a virus. There is no consensus, as far as I know, on whether viruses are living things or not. I believe that most biologists regard them as too simple to be “alive”. They don’t eat, excrete, or metabolize, and they have no natural lifespan. They inject their RNA into host cells and thus cause themselves to be reproduced. They are zombielike.

I don’t know whether viruses are alive or not. I’m inclined to say yes. But in any case they are another door opening onto the mystery of being. They act according to their nature, as do the zombies, and as do we. The viruses and the zombies are not in a position to question their own nature, but we are. The question is: do we?

As long as we don’t, then we really are the walking dead.

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