01 November 2010

A Culture of (Walking) Death

How fitting, that this most righteously indignant, apocalyptically angry election should come on the heels of the most luridly decorated Halloween in memory. Or at least in my adult memory. (Could they possibly have been worse when we were kids?) Indeed I doubt if anything could be more revealing of the real condition of our times - or of the true direction of our country - than today's adult culture of Halloween (which may be our children's culture of tomorrow). Anyhow, I'm sure our modern Hallows' Eve is a far more telling and accurate revelation of who we are, and of where we're going, than any fashionable jeremiad pouring forth from either Tea Party, NPR or Nancy Pelosi.

Now I know that, in some quarters, the extreme fury and ferment surrounding these elections have been touted as evidence of the Nation's hunger for moral renewal. I want to suggest that our present Halloween habits may be no less proof of an equally mighty moral renewal - one very different, I'm sure, from most Americans' conscious intentions, but perhaps for that very reason far more consistent with the underlying logic of our common positions than any of us realize. After all, whatever their differences, most media-visible Americans are all but united in extolling values like human self-reliance and opportunity, and the need of the self-reliant in particular to embrace the Future by throwing off the dead hand of the Past. What better way, then, to represent this harrowing end-time conflict of Future vs Past than with the dramatic themes celebrated by today's adult version of Halloween? And what better way to depict the suppression of a creeping, vile and malignant Past than by dramatizing the need, not just to throw but to chop off, a hand not merely dead but clutching and clawing?

But now here is a very disturbing thought, even to the unlikely likes of me. I'd like to think that Americans of, say, 100 years ago had considerably more time and patience for the dead than we more let's-get-on-with-it souls of today. But it's just possible that our American culture, what with its glorious tradition of the Alzheimerization of historical memory, has never really been comfortable with this business of ancestors. It may be that America has always regarded the dead in all their forms, both recently-deceased and long-term buried, as more or less of an inconvenience, a burden. And burdens of their nature can be very dull, inactive things, and doubly so when dead. In terms of entertainment and excitement you can only get so much mileage out of the deceased, at least this side of eternity. If anything their very ghostliness keeps most ghosts from being really formidable. How appropriate, then, to the challenging, dynamic Age we live in, that a truly ground-breaking innovator and prophet should have emerged not a second too late for our enlightenment! How fitting that, in the fullness of time (1968) a George Romero should appear, bringing in his train how many dozen other exponents of his today-thriving-as-never-before genre, to take all the dullness and burdensomeness out of being recently dead, and make even our dearest late-departed into something really challenging and dynamic! That is, into a horror and a terror. And then we go and further honor their memory by dressing up like them. O that we should live to see such times! in which our screenwriters see visions, and our film-makers dream dreams.

So it is a fair gauge, I think, both of our modern idealization of ceaseless mobility and change, and of our modern loathing of anything suggesting finality or lasting peace, that respected film artists like Romero have found their own exhilarating answers to the age-old questions of whether the dead are raised, and with what body do they come. Observe how they're not content merely with desecrating the unburied dead, or demonizing their apparitions. But no, they won't even let their bodies rest. They won't even let their physical remains bide in peace till their Savior come. And no surprise to anyone there, I should hope. Indeed, as I've suggested elsewhere, our American civilization has its own cocky, nasty, turn-everything-on-its-head rejoinder to just about anything one finds in Scripture - yes, right down to Revelation and the Resurrection of the Body. So then let's - why not? - let's imagine our bodies, not as awaiting an unspeakable glory at the hands of God, but as drifting into a state of travestied hideousness at the whims of a presumably Godless Nature. Ah, now there's an end-time struggle for us self-reliant Yanks! There's a final reckoning worthy of Stan Lee-scale superheroes, in which lonely Man is pitted against elements not only merciless but actively malignant. In short, against a universe both godless and evil. And a mighty good thing too, since that way both the resources and the saving resourcefulness are all placed right back where they belong, and where they've always been: On ourselves.

Lastly, how fitting that these strange visions, both of resurrection-as-nightmare and of radical self-deliverance and self-redemption, should have arisen in so progressive an Age as ours - one that prophets and angels of Progress longed to see. An Age filled to all fullness with every manner of dietary and sleeping disorder (proof positive of our greater productivity, no?), along with boundless dreams of human (worker-)perfection through mechanization. Because please note that, in St Romero's Apocalypse, the resurrected dead are not just compulsive eaters, but essentially sleepless eating-machines. In a word, supremely efficient for the task to which they've been appointed. And, from what I gather of the latest installments, becoming ever more efficient - and faster! - all the time. Now that's what I call time (and Progress) well-accounted-for.

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