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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Armadillo”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 13, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Owen MeanyThe novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents a clash of worldviews. Owen sees and understands the world in a much different way than do the young Johnny and the other characters in the novel. The key difference is that Owen is not as strongly influenced by modern secularism as are most.

Modern secularism is the dominant worldview of the West. One of the fundamental features of modern secularism (perhaps the fundamental feature) is the radical separation of the material world from the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. Importantly, modern secularism isn’t just out there in “the world”; it has shaped the church to a large degree.

Modern secularism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, and in those cultures less affected by the Enlightenment, it is not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material. For the pre-modern mind, a tree or a person or even an act have both spiritual and material dimensions that are inseparable.   Where the modern mind believes this separation is essential, the pre-Modern mind rejects such boundaries. This latter view, because the transcendent indwells the immanent, can be called the incarnational view of reality.

In the novel, it is Owen Meany who sees the world incarnationally.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the features of the pre-modern understanding of the world that makes it different from that of the modern. Pre-modern societies live in an “enchanted” world when the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. In the enchanted world, meaning does not come from within our individual minds, but from outside of us–the meaning is already there in the object, person or event. It is not something we give; it is there quite independently of the subject, us, and it would be there even if there were no human mind to engage it. This is not the modern view where meaning is simply an operation of our minds.

The framework in which Owen Meany lives is one where the immanent is infused with the transcendent. He lives in a world of filled with enchanted objects–a world full of meaning. Perhaps this is the reason behind his surname.

The events surrounding the stuffed armadillo illustrates Owen’s vision of the world. The stuffed armadillo is an object, infused with meaning. Johnny loves the thing because it is a gift from Dan, but for Owen the armadillo holds far more significance. The narrator recounts the careful arrangement of the armadillo on the nightstand between their beds when Owen slept over. It is always placed so that its profile was perfect, but in the morning, it is turned more toward Owen. On one occasion, Johnny wakes up and found Owen awake, staring at the armadillo and smiling (62). Eventually Owen would tell John, “IT’S HARD TO GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT IT ONCE YOU GET USED TO IT” (79). It is never articulated what meaning Owen has discovered in the armadillo, but his behavior indicates he has found something

Because of what he sees in the armadillo, Owen uses it in an elaborate ritual of exchange to communicate his feelings for complicity in the death of Johnny’s mother. Owen has “no other way to articulate the way [he] felt” (84) about “the foul ball” than giving Johnny his most prized possession—his baseball card collection (another enchanted object). Johnny does not understand this gesture, but Dan Needham explains and coaches him to give something in return. Johnny chooses to give Owen the armadillo and Owen returns the armadillo with its front claws removed. Johnny is indignant at this act of violence and puzzled, for Owen loved the armadillo more than he did.

Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold the Whiteman the land where Gravesend is situated. Both the armless armadillo and the Indian totem speak from a frame of reference where “everything had its own souls, its own spirit” (86). For Watahantowet, the land was full of spirits so that when he sold it to the white men, he understood the terrible cost. According to the narrator, his armless totem said, “Here take my land. There go my arms!” (87). This might be true for Wheelwright who come across as impotent in many ways, but Watahantowet is also associated with Owen Meany who is the opposite of impotent. Owen had already formed the idea that he would later share with Johnny: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen sees his physical hands in the context of divine purpose and armlessness in symbolic of his, indeed all mankind’s, inability to resist the will of God. In this one event, we see that Owen lives out of a world that Charles Taylor calls the enchanted world.

Owen Meany’s world is enchanted, but Johnny Wheelwright lives in a secular world–they function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent is within the immanent; Johnny represents the secular view where the transcendent is so far separated from the immanent that it is irrelevant, if it exists at all. In this secular view, says Charles Taylor, “all thought, feeling and purpose, all features we normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the ‘outer’ world” (Taylor 539). As representative of the secular view, Johnny cannot understand a world where objects have meaning in themselves, that events may be meaningfully guided by a higher purpose.

Enjoy chapter 3 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Angel.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).

Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.   Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die.   Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.

In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).

It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one.   Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not.   In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.

But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories.   The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice.   She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.

Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”

Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear.   The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Introduction

In Books, Movies and Television on August 27, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Owen MeanyMy favourite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s really funny. It is one of those books that can’t be read in bed because your unsuccessfully-stifled laughter will make it impossible for your spouse to sleep. It offers the full range of humour, from ridiculous situations through extraordinary characters to profound ironies. And the more times you read it, the funnier it gets.

I also like it because it is very well-crafted. It’s full of the things students of literature like to notice: comparisons and contrast, patterns and parallels, foils, symbols, ironies, motifs and juxtapositions.

It doesn’t just make you think about Literature things, though. It also makes you think about life which is what art often does.

This novel is about doubt, but mostly about belief in God. The novel opens with “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1).

This is an important book because in it’s exploration of faith, it reveals some very important things about faith in a modern context. By modern, I don’t mean that we have smart phones and smart cars. To be Modern means we have a certain way of looking at the world, at the other and at ourselves. The novel doesn’t just reveal the difficulty of faith in the modern world, but the nature of that faith.   The influence of Modernism can easily produce an anemic faith. As you read the novel, you will see this limited faith held by the adult narrator of the story.   I have very little doubt that all North American Christians need to very aware of the power of the Modern worldview to significantly distort all relationships, including that which we have with God.

This all sounds rather serious, and it is, but, don’t forgot–this book is the funniest and most entertaining book I’ve ever read.

I invite you go get yourself a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and read it with me.

I’ll be posting at the end of each chapter with my commentary on how the novel might be useful to help us understand our own struggle with faith in our world today.

Be sure to read the three epigraphs that precede the narrative. These little gems are being used to help us focus on the key ideas in the novel.

The first:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians

The first points out that God is close enough to us that we can talk to him and ask things of him. It also suggests that awareness of God’s presence alleviates our anxiety

The second epigraph:

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. –Frederick Buechner

Buechner points out that in the face of absolutely certain evidence about God’s existence, the individual believer would be annihilated. Irving takes this idea very seriously; he continuously undercuts certainty wherever it reveals itself. Or does he?

The third epigraph:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. –Leon Bloy

As you read, attend to the connection between Christian faith and heroism.

My next post will be on Chapter 1: “The Foul Ball.”

 

Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.  But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests, without the transcendent, we may nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.  The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.  The collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.  In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and the zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.  The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.  The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents buffered selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth-century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.  After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.  Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.  Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.  Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2

Previous zombie posts:

Zombies ‘R Us

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2013 at 6:40 am

Zombie r usHopefully, I have made the case that the modern zombie is a monster for our time.  Like all monsters, they challenge cultural identity, but these are our monsters—our identity.

They are completely immanent; they possess no transcendent ability or power; they transgress immanent categories including between the self and the abject.  They rip our bodies apart, reminding us of our own immanence, and they kill us, which in the modern understanding of death is annihilation.

They have no cause that gives them meaning; in fact, they pretty much chew up all traditional valuesThey don’t really represent evil any more than the heroes of Romero’s zombie narratives represent good.  Further, they terrorize our individuality by annihilating it through absorption into the horde.

Zombies are unique in the monster pantheon.  They not only represent the monstrous other.  They also represent the monstrous self; they are a reflection of us—modern selves.

 

Next zombie post: Zombies and Consumer Culture

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Traditional Values: Consumed by the Zombie Horde

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Zombie Values goneNot only is it difficult to attribute the term “evil” to this most modern of monsters, it is also difficult to attribute the term “good” to the “heroes” of the zombie movie.  In fact, the primary victim of the zombie horde, is not the humans that battle the undead for survival; the primary victim is “Good” itself.  In Night of the Living Dead, each character seems to offer some gesture toward a source of fullness or a transcendent value, but these are ultimately shown to be meaningless, for in each case the virtue does nothing to improve the condition or survivability of the protagonist.  As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

All transcendent values and ambitions are consumed by the zombie horde.

The first victim: religion (and its opposite).  The film begins with siblings Johnny and Barbra making the annual trek to visit their father’s grave. Barbara’s religious devotion and respect for the dead is apparent as she kneels and prays at the graveside.  Her reverence is contrasted by the cynicism and selfishness of Johnny, who complains and mocks his sister’s observance of religious ritual.  A man lurches toward the pair and attacks Barbara.  Johnny defends her but is seemingly killed in the struggle when his head strikes a gravestone.  That Johnny is the first victim “could be taken as a dispensation of justice: Johnny pays for being a self-centered, materialistic, cynical non-believer.”  But Barbara’s initial survival does little more that insure she “will face a much more horrible and ironic fate at the hands of the undead” (Waller 282).  In the meantime, Barbara flees, pursued by the strange man, to a nearby farmhouse where she will eventually be killed.  Christian faith and devotion, then, are clearly shown to be no greater help than mocking disbelief.

As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

Christianity and religion are not the only traditional values that fall victim to the undead; the values of collective action, romantic love and the nuclear family are also useless. These traditional values are represented by characters who emerge from the cellar of the farmhouse later in the film.  Tom and Judy, a young couple, represent “sticking together” and romantic love respectively.  Tom’s advocacy for collective action in combating the creatures begins immediately.  When the two other men are heatedly debating their plans for survival, Tom says, “We’d be a lot better off if all three of us were working together” (Night).  His views are shown to be naïve and idealistic, for in the one attempt to work together he is killed and the only hope for escape, the truck, goes up in literal flames.  Romantic love suffers the same fate.  Judy, Tom’s girlfriend, cannot be without her love and runs to be with him as he attempts to fuel the pickup truck.  One of the torches used to hold off the zombies accidently gets into contact with some of the fuel Tom spills.  Tom attempts to move the truck to safety, but it is clear that it is too late.  He jumps free from the vehicle, but Judy’s jacket gets caught.  He jumps back into the truck to rescue her just as it explodes and both are killed.  Rather than being a powerful force of salvation, romantic love leads instead to the death of the young lovers who embody it.  These deaths “serve no purpose,” once again showing that “the real horror of Night of the Living Dead is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all” (Dillard [in American Horrors] 28).

Whatever the living do in the film . . . the result is the same: death.

The Coopers represent the nuclear family.  The Coopers, Harry and Helen and their daughter, Karen, had been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse with Tom and Judy.  The little girl Karen has been bitten by one of the undead and is feverish and weak.  Barbara, whom the audience associates with a traditional heroine or damsel, saves Helen from the clutches of the undead only to be dragged out the window by her re-animated brother, Johnny.  The family violence continues as Helen stumbles into the cellar only to see her daughter, who has become a zombie, eating her slain husband.  She is defenseless as the little girl attacks and kills her with a cement trowel.

Romero shows that “whatever the living do in the film, whether they are brave or cowardly, rational or hysterical, in love or embittered, the result is the same: death” (Cooke 168).  As a matter of fact, Dillard asserts that “those virtues that have been the mainstay of our civilized history seem to lead to defeat in this film even more surely than the traditional vices” (23).

The monsters aren’t really evil, and values and virtues are really of no good; the next post is about the hero of the zombie narrative.

Next zombie post: Heroism–Not What It Used To Be

Previous zombie posts:

 

Zombie Films Loss of Fullness

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2013 at 6:02 am

Zombie - FullnessI get it when I am sitting with dear friends enjoying good food and conversation.  Also, while walking alone in the woods on a clear fall day.  It can also be experienced when listening to music or viewing a painting.  It can be evoked in the cathedral or on the seashore.  Charles Taylor called these encounters with “fullness.”  Fullness is a sense that life is “fuller, richer, deeper more worthwhile, more admirable, more than what is should be” (5).

Experiences of fullness can orient us because they offer “some sense of what they are of: the presence of God, or the voice of nature, or the force which flows through everything, or the alignment in us of desire and the drive to form” (6).  Historically, and in the case of most religious believers, the power from which fullness flows has some transcendent source outside of the individual.

After our culture abandoned God as a source of fullness we looked inside ourselves to find an alternate source.  There are several internal sources of fullness.  The first is the power of reason.  Here there is an “admiration for the power of cool, disengaged reason, capable of contemplating the world and human life without illusion, and of acting lucidly for the best interest of human flourishing” (9).  From this view, life calls for heroic action where we accept ourselves as “beings both frail and courageous, capable of facing a meaningless, hostile universe without faintness of heart, and of rising to the challenge of devising our own rules of life” (9).  The second internal source of fullness emerges from the Romantic critique of disengaged reason.  This outlook, too, looks for fullness in immanence, but it finds reason to be inadequate and seeks it in “Nature, or in our own inner depths or both” (9).

George Romero rejects any source of fullness, whether immanent or transcendent; he denies fullness altogether.  His movies emphasizes the “irremediable nature of division, lack of centre, the perpetual absence of fullness” (10).  In the next post, I will explain how in Night of the Living Dead, this absence is apparent in the loss of traditional values as well as the loss of the possibility of heroism.

Next zombie post: Traditional Values–Consumed by the Zombie Horde

Previous zombie posts:

“I’m out of ammo!”

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2013 at 4:13 am

zombie hordeAnother important characteristic of the zombie that makes it ideally suited to terrorize our contemporary society is that it is a horde.  They attack in large numbers and overwhelm their victims by sheer weight of numbers.  The horde absorbs individuality—and we modern selves are obsessed with questions of identity (what is me and what is not me?).  And with the absorption into the zombie horde, these questions, for the victim, become irrelevant.

With absorption into the zombie horde, questions of identity are irrelevant.

An individual zombie is almost no threat to any healthy adult.  It can be easily outrun or dispatched by a decent blow to the head.  What makes zombies a threat is that there are so many of them and their bite results in the absorption of their victims into the horde.  This loss of the unique self is an affront of to our modern conception of the individual.

Charles Taylor observes that the individualism of the past was restricted to the artistic élites, but by the time of Romero’s first zombie film, it had become a “mass phenomenon” (473).  Prior to the Enlightenment, one’s identity was, in part, contingent upon one’s place in society and the honour conferred accordingly.  A shift occurred in the Enlightenment when ideas of honour were replaced with the more Universalist notions of the dignity of all human beings.  In the late-eighteenth century, the idea of universal dignity was complemented with the idea that each of us has a particular way of being human.  Thus, it became “important to find and live out one’s own [humanity], as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or previous generations, or religious or political authority” (475). Taylor considers the 1960s as the “hinge moment” (476) where this individuation became mainstream.  Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released.  Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.

In an age when the dignity of all human beings translates into the importance to being true to oneself, a zombie’s bite obliterates that unique self.  The zombie horde is a mass in which all individuality has been eradicated; it is an ironic caricature of the “mass phenomenon” of modern individualism.  There are small differences between zombies, like clothing or “degree of putrefaction,” but these “only exacerbate their similarity, since they are markers which refer to the state of their corpse when they died, not anything that has been chosen to create individuality since reanimation” (Cooke 167).

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.  This is yet another source of horror that the zombie horde embodies for the modern self, who considers itself, above all things, autonomous.

Next zombie post: Zombies Can’t Be Evil

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Zombies and Intimacy

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2013 at 4:04 am

Zombies - intimacyZombie Posts:

The type of death one can expect from a zombie is nothing if not intimate.  They use no secondary object, like a knife or even a rock.  They use only their own teeth and hands.  Victims are frequently shown having their abdomens violated by a group of zombies who proceed to then put the vitals into their mouths.  Like I said—intimate.

In our culture we resist intimacy.  There was a time when servants would bathe and dress their betters, but nowadays we have a hard time carrying on a conversation with someone standing next to us at the urinal.  Charles Taylor observes that our culture is characterized by a “withdrawal from certain modes of intimacy, as well as taking a distance from certain bodily functions” (Taylor 137).  Taylor cites the work of Norbert Elias in his book, The Civilizing Process, where he describes a shift involving a “steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust” (Taylor 138).  Where once people were advised not to blow ones nose in the table cloth, we now insist on leaving the table to perform the same act.

In a world where the buffering of the individual from intimate connection to others has resulted in a convention where bodily functions are not even mentioned, how much more offensive is the disembowelment and consumption of entrails witnessed regularly in a zombie film. Clearly, this is a monstrous affront to our modern sensibilities.

Next zombie post: Zombies are Funny

 

Zombies as the Monstrous Other: Challenging Modern Boundaries

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Zombie boundariesPrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are physical monsters, there is nothing in them that is spiritual or supernatureal or even superhuman.  We can therefore call the zombie an immanent monster.  In the immanence of the monster, in the ordinariness of the setting, and in the ambiguity surrounding the presence of the horde, the zombie film reflects reality as it is understood by modern man: one bereft of transcendence.  Ideally suited to shamble through a purely physical world (the closed immanent frame), the zombies terrorize the residents of this world–that’s us, modern secular humanity.

Monsters basically do two things that worry us.  First, they make us dead.  Second, they always transgress boundaries.  People have an idea about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s “us” and what’s “them.”  Monsters challenge these categories reminding us that they are pretty flimsy.  According to Kearney, monsters evoke fear because they transgress “the conventional frontiers,” and in doing so they remind us “that we don’t know who we are” (Strangers 117).

Like all monsters, the zombie kills victims and transgresses boundaries.  Its uniqueness lies in the particular boundaries that it blurs, the nature of the death it brings and in its presentation as a horde; each of these is a particular horror for the modern secular identity.

Ideally suited to shamble through the closed immanent frame, the zombies terrorize the residents of this world.

The monsters of old transgressed the ordered wholeness of the cosmos by transgressing boundaries between categories that ensured order and held meaning.  The monsters, through supernatural means, transgressed boundaries between human and nonhuman and between living and dead.  These monsters were demons, ghosts and witches.

Later, post-Enlightenment monsters lost the spiritual dimension that the monsters of Christian mythologies possessed.  Asma says these more natural monsters “came under the new umbrella of a mechanistic worldview, and spiritual monsters (e.g., demons and devils) were sent packing, along with diviners, priests, and theologians, never to return in any significant way to the pages of the natural philosophers” (149).

As modern monsters, zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.

The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man—and “usually possess the worst but most potent qualities of both species: brute strength, diabolical intellect, deceit, lechery, lust for power, and savage disregard for life” (Paffenroth 7).  As the idea of the mechanistic universe strengthened at the expense of the old cosmos, the monsters lost much of their transcendence but were still superhuman. Frankenstein’s creation, the wolf-man and Count Dracula are such monsters.

But in the zombie we see the absence or irrelevance of the transcendent.  Monsters threaten identity because they transgress boundaries, and as modern monsters zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.  Immanent categories would include individual/group, humourous/horrific, self/other, conscious/unconscious, consumer/consumed, human/not human and most significantly, life/death.  Zombies are monsters, but they are a very different kind of monster.

Next zombie post: Why are zombies are so disgusting?