Zombies and Nazis and Men, Oh My!

…and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. - Ezekiel 37:26

“Almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. Only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.” Patricia Graynamore, Joe vs. the Volcano

It is a known joke to say that our societies, our civilizations, are full of zombies, the walking dead. A Jungian might look at the many zombie movies made in recent years and surmise that we have a collective awareness of a deadness in the hearts of people, or perhaps that we are projecting out a deadness in our own hearts. Someone else will note the ubiquitous marketing, the festering neon-distraction (TOOL) that promises life in the form of products or vapid eye-catching entertainment. The omnipresence of porn, with its genuine dark power, is expanding the borders of the dead territory, turning sex, that most living thing, into so much dead and regrettable meat. What do the living dead – and here, and throughout, let’s assume that to some degree the living dead is us – what do they, what should they do? Some are ‘born-again.’ Thoreau went to the woods to “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” E.M. Forster told us that we need “only connect.” But many wanting to feel alive, if only for a weekend, have found that ‘only’ difficult to come by.

First, let’s recall: zombies eats brains and won’t stop eating brains. The dead feast on death, including the dead space within themselves, to keep as far from themselves as possible reminders about living; and their curse is to mistake death for life. They are “necrophilic”, to use Erich Fromm’s word. The idea that a person is ‘necrophilic’ is that they have come to love what brings death, not only physical death, more than they love what breathes life. A whole society that has come to love what thwarts life has been described as a ‘culture of death.’ One is possibly taken back. Death is a strong word, and the suggestion that we might love death, especially that an entire society might come to love death, will seem excessive. Still, evidence abounds, on reflection. (I note, fearfully, that self-reflection is not a personality trait found in a zombie.) Fromm, in the “Humanistic Credo,” asserted that life is in a sense a choice. He writes, “(humanity’s) basic alternative is between life and death … it is (a person’s) task to … strengthen the conditions which are conducive to life as against those which are conducive to death … if the individual will not choose life and does not grow, he will necessarily become destructive, a living corpse.” I’ve recently been introduced to Susan Griffin’s extended essay “Our Secret,” in which she also dwells on the living and the dead and the living dead. I’ll draw from her from here on.

Zombies are the genus and Nazis the species. The Nazi is a high functioning zombie, of a most deadly kind. It tends to bureaucracy and crisp uniforms, and is always on the cutting edge in developing new and more destructive weaponry. It loves marching and glory and moving masses of humanity that are not only a cloak over what is rotten in their society but are a negative, reciprocal image of the vitality of the truly living. We talk about Nazis endlessly. It has been noted that, in much the same way everyone is to have fifteen minutes of fame, everyone will, at some point, be compared to Hitler. In the prevalence of meaningless talk there is a danger that we will fail to be serious. That, in this most pernicious case, darkness will lose its ability to frighten us. So, it is worth our time to look closely and truly, again and again: in what foul bed is the Nazi-zombie born?

There is an equation that goes something like this: sin equals darkness equals death. In addition, the doctrine of Original Sin has taught us that we are created on the side on sin, and so of death. We are born flawed and must be, from the moment we enter the world, corrected. Listen to Susan Griffin eloquently set herself against the idea of Original Sin in this description of a young child:

“Curled and small. Innocent. The skin soft like velvet to the touch. Eyes wide open and staring without reserve or calculation, quite simply, into the eyes of whoever appears in its field of vision. Without secrets. Arms open, ready to receive or give …”

Heinrich Himmler, prototypical zombie, the man responsible for keeping the machinery of the Nazi’s mass exterminations running, had, as a child, a face that, according to Griffin, “… resemble(d) the face of his mother … soft.” She describes him dressed in the gentle white robes that babies, male and female, wore in those days. He, too, contained the beautiful constellation of potentials that we sense in the infant. Yet, if the child is born on the side of darkness and sin, one cannot begin to correct it too soon, or, perhaps, with too extreme a measure. According to Griffin, German “child-rearing experts” had advised parents for more than a generation to “Crush the will. Establish dominance. Permit no disobedience. Suppress everything in the child.” The general instructions became for Himmler specific burdens and restraints to his natural growth: a constant guardedness, a lack of free space mental or physical, constant discouragement of the personal response, at each moment a bending of his personality to fit his father’s will and the will of society at large. The emerging life was instructed away. In all this there is much more than a gentle acknowledgment that children need models of behavior, saying please and thank you and, in general, adapting to civilization. There is a deep mistrust in the nature of the child that says it must be frustrated, that it laying there helpless and harmless is in a state of sin, a nascent zombie.

It takes more than an unfortunate father to make a zombie. As Griffin acknowledges, “(no) event has a single cause … childhood experience is just one element in a determining field.” We also know that many people with horrifying childhoods become vital, wonderful people. But we continue to find exploration of childhood useful because if we know a things earliest history we might also have the ability to turn it about at its most essential point. Here are some instances from Griffin’s description of Himmler’s treatment at the hands of his father:

beside the name of each (schoolmate) he writes the father’s name, what the father does for a living … his life is strictly scheduled … at this hour a walk in the woods so he can appreciate nature … a game of chess so he can develop his mind … piano, so that he will be cultured …

One is struck by the lack of anything organic, how nothing is allowed to breathe, how nothing is explored as a thing for itself but only as a means to an end. This is a more thoroughgoing manifestation of darkness and death than one might first see. An inability to experience the world as full of things that have value independent of utility ultimately includes extending that same blindness to people. Himmler is not allowed to see a potential friend but only how that potential friendship will situate him socially. There is not even a tentative exploration of the possible meanings of what Himmler experiences; meaning has been predetermined according to the presumed needs of the family, culture and class into which he has been born. The substance of art and nature that might have nourished the life in him is eluded in the mechanistic pedagogy. Heinrich is never encouraged or allowed to take a personal, solitary joy. While everything is meant to become a part of Himmler’s character, Himmler is strangely not allowed to become anything. Griffin describes the resulting frail personality as having “no connecting thread, no integrated whole … standing in an odd relation to gravity, a rickety, perilous structure.” But where life failed to take root, an emptiness and a numbness did emerge. In that emptiness, he waited to be filled. When the death dealing ideas and the arch-zombie arrived, he was ready for them. Himmler described himself as “an instrument of the Fuhrer’s will.”

Where the child was “open…“we can reawaken to that openness again. In open and immediate experience we can, contra the dead, discover again the dazzling variety and beauty of life. One remembers Griffin’s child, “eyes wide open and staring without reserve or calculation, quite simply, into the eyes of (whatever) appears in (the) field of vision.” There are great difficulties, psychological and social, that inhibit our open and truthful viewing and communicating. But in each instance that we choose eyes wide open, when we see that each living thing is for itself, and not only a link in an ecology or an economy, we push back against the zombie territory. We place ourselves on the side of love. A quiet and truthful commitment to wakefulness and to life, potent for its loyalty to its source, against the “abomination of desolation”, contra zombie, contra missiles and pogroms, great and small, and, in short, all reduction of life to utility, may prove the only revolution that matters.

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