What Am I Reading? Dr. Amit Baishya on Zombies (Part Two)

In the second part of his post, Dr. Baishya examines the relationship of zombies to the history and literature of European colonialism.  Part one of this post can be found here.

…It is no wonder then that one of the first appearances of the zombie in cultural representation is in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1902. Conrad witnessed the instrumental reduction of “natives” to the level of the living dead during his sojourn in King Leopold’s territories in the Belgian Congo. Here is the famous passage where he describes his narrator, Marlow’s, encounter with the limit figure of the living dead in the “Grove of Death” (focus carefully on the passages I italicized below):

“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young—almost a boy—but you know with them it’s hard to tell…

Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.

I didn’t want any more loitering in the shade, and I made haste towards the station. When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision…I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company’s chief accountant…”

In this passage, language strains to describe the living dead in “human” terms—there is a constant relapse to associations with animal-hood or thing-hood (“creatures,” “bundles of acute angles”). To the “human” observer, the reality outside appears in all its uncanny dimensions. The living dead appear to the observer as spectral, ghostly entities devoid of any substantial presence (“black shadows,” “brother phantom”).  The reality described seems so unreal and horrifying, that the spectator cannot bear to look any longer. He turns his gaze and walks away, and is almost relieved to come across the “miraculous” presence of the white station overseer. Marlow here is in the position of a witness to a form of absolute otherness that he cannot associate with any form of humanity. To be sure, Heart of Darkness is, as Chinua Achebe observes, a racist text. Marlow denies the Africans a coeval status, as is evident from the following passage:

“It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They (the Africans) howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly!”

Yet, even within the orbit of this racialized gaze, there is still the consciousness of a “remote kinship.” In the case of the living dead, this consciousness is totally absent. There can be no consciousness of “kinship,” as these figures are incommensurable with the notion of a “human” self. There is an absolute disjunction of the speaking and the living self in these figures. Reduced to forms of insubstantial matter, they are representations of what Primo Levi would later call “plant-men.” How does one react to and contend with these figures, the progenitors of the Muselmänner in the concentration camps? How does the spectator mask his/her shame and inadequacy when s/he is placed face-to-face with such figures? This is the crucial ethical question that Heart of Darkness raises at the turn of the twentieth century—one which has become increasingly relevant in the aftermath of Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur…

Moreover, the zombie metaphor works both ways. The line between the victim and the executioner, subject and object is blurred in the zombie economy, bringing to mind Jean Paul Sartre’s famous injunction—“…this arrogant individual (the colonizer in this case)…has difficulty remembering that he was once a man; he thinks he is a whip or a gun…He disregards the human memory, the indelible reminders; and then above all, there is this that perhaps he never knew: we only become what we are by radically negating deep down what others have done to us.” Heart of Darkness is a pioneer in this representation of a retroactive shuttle from being a human subject to a status of pure objecthood (the fictional precedents here are Sade and Poe). Think about the first physical description of the “phantom” Kurtz—does it not seem zombie-like? Don’t we notice a disjunction between the speaking and living being here as well?—

“His covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him (italics mine).”

Think also of the chilling portrait of Kurtz overall—isn’t he a magnified early portrait of a kapo presiding over his block in a concentration camp? I leave the last word to Dr. Millard Rausch, a major character in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and a late twentieth century echo of Kurtz:

“The normal question, the first question is always; are these cannibals? No, they are not cannibals. Cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an intrapecies activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other, that’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Intelligence? Seemingly little or no reasoning power, but basic skills remain…remembered behaviors from normal life. There are reports of these creatures using tools. But even these actions are the most primitive, the use of external articles as bludgeons and so forth. I might point out to you that even animals will adopt the basic use of tools in this manner. These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions…They must be destroyed on sight!”

“Exterminate all the brutes!” and “They must be destroyed on sight”—are we not in the same territory here?


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