TagTranscendent/Immanent

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Shot”

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality. Owen is the character that embodies this view of reality. That Irving is not able to embrace the incarnational view is manifest in the conversion of the story’s narrator, John Wheelwright.

Wheelwright ends up believing in God in the end, but where Owen’s faith is “certain, personal, and immediate,” Johnny’s is “tenuous, ritualized and mediated in many ways” (Haynes 91).

In his chapter on conversion, Charles Taylor says that “people who undergo conversion . . . may take on a new view about religion from others . . . who have radiated some sense of more direct contact” (729). This is clearly the route of John Wheelwright’s conversion since it was the miracle of Owen’s life and death that caused Johnny to think differently about God.  As narrator, John Wheelwright declares his belief in the first sentence of the novel: “[Owen Meany] is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1); but he is certainly not the Bible-thumping warrior that Reverend Wiggins is. Although he is a “pretty regular churchgoer” (1), he “skips a Sunday now and then;” he “makes no claims to be especially pious” (2), nor does he read the Bible much, preferring the orderliness of The Book of Common Prayer.

“Jospeh–forever standing in the wings.”

Irving emphasizes this passive expression of faith by metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph. Owen chose for Johnny the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who describes Joseph, and himself by association, as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Still he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167), and again, “I, Joseph—forever standing in the wings” (214). He appears to have had very little success in getting himself out of the role for he says, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I am just a Joseph now” (439). When he finally discovers the identity of his biological father, he expresses his disappointment in the discovery by saying, “My father is a Joseph, just like me” (571). Wheelwright admits that he has a faith just like his father used to have, before he was tricked into having “absolute and unshakable faith” (571).

The Leap of Faith

So why is John Wheelwright “just a Joseph”?

Because his faith is never like that of Owen’s. The differences between the faith as lived by Owen and that of John Wheelwright are not attributable to the difference between the direct and indirect varieties of religious experience that Charles Taylor talks about. In Johnny’s case, there is something inadequate about his leap of faith.

Johnny certainly experiences a conversion, according to the criteria set out by Taylor, because he experiences “a transformation of the frame in which [he] thought, felt and lived before” (Taylor 731). However, if we look at the nature of Johnny’s conversion the reason for his passive and vacillating faith becomes clear. When Johnny is converted, it is to a belief merely in the existence of the transcendent. If conversion is “breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field” (Taylor 768), then he has a conversion experience, but the field into which he breaks is not broad.

He recognizes the transcendent but does not go so far as to see it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality,” (769) so it is necessary for us to shut out the transcendent to some degree. The extent to which an individual does this varies. Johnny’s equilibrium does not shift very much. He “shuts out” much of the new view of the transcendent; his new equilibrium is not very far from where it was when he did not believe in the transcendent. He is a believer, but this remains a fact, and never develops into a life.

Being a believer, can remain a mere fact, and never develop into a life. Click To Tweet

Given that this is the state of his narrator at the end of the novel, I wonder if John Irving himself cannot make the leap that he forced on his narrator. Although Irving seems to locate transcendence in immanence in the character of Owen Meany, he is not able to overcome his own secular framework; instead he holds to an oppositional model of transcendence–transcendence is opposite of immanence, rather than inhabiting it. So, the conversion of his narrator is, at best, only one of imposed rational acceptance.

Wheelwright never achieves a flourishing faith because he remains trapped in a secular immanence—his acceptance of the existence of God, even Jesus Christ faith is not able to provide the meaning that an incarnational faith would offer, because they are as far away as is Owen Meany.

 

Other resources:

Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Finger”

This post will not be about the finger.  You probably already figured out that through the removal of his finger, John Wheelwright joins Chief Watahantowet, the armadillo, the dressmaker’s dummy, the Mary Magdalene statue in armlessness.

By this point in the novel, we have a pretty good understanding of the person who is telling us this story. Our impressions are gleaned, in particular, from the diary-like interjections in each chapter. To understand what Irving is trying to tell us about his narrator, we can look at the contrast between the life of the adult John Wheelwright and that of Rev. Katherine Keeling, headmistress of the Bishop Strachan School.

The Mentorship of Rev. Katherine Keeling

Wheelwright comments of the thinness of Katherine Keeling. Her thinness is symbolic of her unselfishness as she gives her life away to her charges–family, friends and the students of the school. She’s very nurturing, even of Wheelwright; she takes him on family vacations to the cabin.

It can be said that Katherine experiences “fullness” in her life where Wheelwright does not.

Charles Taylor describes “fullness” as a sense that “life is richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more than it should be” (Taylor 5). Fullness, whether we recognize the existence of the supernatural or not, is “a reflection of the transcendent” (769).  But fullness also has its “negative slope; where we experience above all a distance and absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity to ever reach this place” (6).

SPOILER ALERT (but not really, as you have probably already guessed where the novel is going.)

It is clear through the narration of this story that John Wheelwright experiences fulfillment in his relationship with Owen Meany.   Indeed, it is likely that the reader experiences something of the same thing while reading the novel.  Wheelwright has not experienced this fullness since Owen’s death.

Oppositional or Incarnational

There has never been another encounter with a richer and deeper life for Wheelwright because he still holds the transcendent as oppositional rather than incarnational. With this chasm between immanent and transcendent realities, Wheelwright’s perspective is laden with a host of other oppositions—the United States “must either be perfect or damned;” Owen must be either divine or human” and his own life must be “either wonderful or terrible.”   In the absence of an incarnational perspective, he does not encounter fullness in the transcendent, instead, he often experiences a “self-exile into bitterness, childishness, self-pity and nostalgia” (153)—the negative orientation of fullness.

Most of the characters continue to oppose Owen’s faith, particularly in his belief that “the dream” is a vision of the future. Owen tells the story of his dream with “the certainty and authority . . . of a documentary, which is the tone of voice of those undoubting parts of the Bible” (473).

According to Johnny, to treat the dream seriously is infantile; as he puts it to Owen, “this is so childish. . . . You can’t believe that everything that pops into your head means something! You can’t have a dream and believe that you ‘know’ what you’re supposed to do” (472). Johnny repeats, “It’s just a dream” and declares it “a stereotype” (475). Johnny argues from a psychoanalytical perspective that in the dream the nuns, the palm trees, and the children are tied to unresolved psychological conflicts.

Owen insists that his faith is not childish, or irrational. He tries to explain reasonable faith to Johnny using the statue of Mary Magdalene that was near the basketball court where they practiced “the shot” until it was dark. Owen would ask, “YOU CAN’T SEE HER, BUT YOU KNOW SHE’S STILL THERE, RIGHT?” He repeatedly, and annoyingly, returned to this question, “YOU’RE SURE . . . YOU HAVE NO DOUBT . . . YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE?” until Johnny screams, “Yes!” Then Owen says, “NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD” (451).

Not every human being experiences fullness, but it is perhaps something we all seek.  This novel shows that it is decidedly easier to experience with an incarnational view of reality.

When you have finished the chapter entitled, “The Shot,” read my commentary on the final chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Other resources:

Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.

A Prayer for Owen Meany – “The Ghost of Christmas Future”

In chapters 4 and 5 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen fills two roles in the dramatic productions of Gravesend 1953 Christmas season.   He assumes the role of the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant in the Episcopalian church and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Gravesend Players annual presentation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the former, with a little irony, Owen embodies the fusion of the transcendence and immanence as Christ did in the Incarnation. In the latter, Owen confronts the question: Is the future completely determined?

Joseph and Jesus

Owen Meany casts himself as the Christ child in the church’s Christmas pageant. As we’ve said before, Irving makes very strong connections between Jesus and Owen, so it makes perfect sense for the incarnational Owen to play the lead role in the annual celebration of the Incarnation.

Perhaps not quite as predictable, Owen also chooses a role for Johnny–the role of Joseph. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who strongly identifies with Jesus’ earthly fahter, whom he describes as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Further, he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167). By metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph, Irving emphasizes this passivity with which John Wheelwright engages questions of faith.

Predestination and The Ghost of Christmas Future

Chapter 5 centers on Owen’s part in A Christmas Carol where Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the three ghosts. Owen Meany ends up playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The key to the visitation of this final ghost is in Scrooge’s question: “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question: Are these the shadows of the things that will be or are they shadows of the things that may be only” (197). We know the question because Mr. Fish, who plays Ebeneezer Scrooge, gets to ask it during Owen’s remarkable audition, but this key question is not asked in the final performance because Owen faints. He faints because he sees on the tombstone his own name and, we can assume, the date of his own death. The question, it seems, is never asked because the answer, at least according to this particular Ghost, is clear.   Since the “FATED” foul ball, Owen has accepted his future as determined.  The narrator tells us that “on the subject of predestination, Owen Meany would accuse Calvin of bad faith” (102).

Owen explicitly states his views when Johnny declared it a coincidence that they were beneath the trestle bridge just as The Flying Yankee crossed it; Owen chastised him. The narrator explains that “Owen didn’t believe in coincidences. Owen Meany believed that “‘coincidence’ was a stupid, shallow refuge sought by stupid, shallow people who were unable to accept the fact that their lives were shaped by a terrifying and awesome design—more powerful and unstoppable that The Flying Yankee” (Irving 186).

That Owen Meany saw the date of his death, he has no doubt. He also has no doubt that this cup would not pass from him.

Modern people, Christian or otherwise, don’t take naturally to the notion of predestination. We put a lot of stock into our personal power to choose our destiny. This is easily done if one believes that God and the rest of the transcendent is so far away that, if he exists at all, the best he can do is provide the odd parking space in front of the Christian bookstore during the Christmas rush. Owen doesn’t see the world in this way, so it is not much of a stretch to see God managing everything, big and small, in our lives.

Modern Christians don't take naturally to predestination. We believe in the power to choose our destiny. This is easily done if one believes that God is far away. What if he isn't?Click To Tweet

Read the next chapter, “The Voice,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and then read my commentary here.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Little Lord Jesus”

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live.  The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.

This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room.  When he inspected a room, Owen

looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (155)

Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).

Owen blurs the line between spiritual and physical

In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.

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 made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him in such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. 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 shows that Irving 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.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany.   In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.

Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,”  in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

A 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 of past events to comment 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 it in the first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.

Death is perhaps it the best place to start the story of one’s 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.

An Incarnational Reality

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

Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is Modern, which means, among other things, secular.  One of the main characteristics of the Modern view of the world is that there is a radical separation between two worlds–the material (or immanent) and the spiritual (or transcendent).

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 mind necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany 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 than just giving Owen pre-Modern belief; Owen is not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural.

The Transcendence of Owen Meany

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).

Owen Meany: Blurring Boundaries

Owen is transcendent, but Irving grounds Owen in such a way as to blur the boundaries between 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.

Armlessness

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.”

Atonement with the Father

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.”

Zombies (16): Loss of Fullness

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Experiences of Fullness

I 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.

It’s called “fullness”–a sense that life is “fuller, richer, deeper more worthwhile, more admirable, more than what it should be”

(Charles Taylor, Secular Age 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.

Sources of Fullness

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).

Zombies call “Bulls**t” on fullness

Zombies movies have three basic characters.  The zombies, bad guys, the would-be survivors.

Zombies don’t experience fullness because they lack consciousness.  In one sense, zombies are a mirror image of humanity if the material secularists are right.  Taylor says, that even if they are right, fullness still might be experienced within immanence.  Romero’s zombies call bullshit on that.

Well, what about the living?  Can’t they experience it?

I doubt if the bad guys experience fullness, it is never presented because the point of view is from the perspective of the would-be survivors.   This is the only place where we might glimpse it.  Some zombie narratives soften the zombie apocalypse be delivering meaningful moments celebrating family or friendship or loyalty or courage, but these are not necessarily fullness.  And George Romero doesn’t even give us these.  He rejects any source of fullness, whether immanent or transcendent; he denies fullness altogether.

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 and the Zombie Horde

Zombies (8): Challenging Modern Boundaries

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombies are thoroughly and completely physical monsters.  There is nothing spiritual or supernatural about them.  They aren’t even superhuman.

They are a very modern monster.

All Monsters Transgress Boundaries

Monsters basically do two things that trouble us.

First, they make us dead.

Second, they cross boundaries.  And not just literal boundaries like doors and fences in order to do the first thing that troubles us.  They transgress abstract and psychological boundaries as well.

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.  In doing so, according to Richard Kearney, monsters 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 self.

Like all monsters, the zombie kills and transgresses boundaries. Its uniqueness lies in the boundaries 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.Click To Tweet

The Monster: From Supernatural to Superhuman . . .

The monsters of old transgressed different boundaries that do our monsters today.  People lived in the ordered wholeness of the cosmos, filled with 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).

The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man.

Our monsters “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.

. .  .  to not super at all.

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.  We will be exploring how they are different in upcoming posts.

Next zombie post: Why are zombies are so disgusting?

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