Hearts and Brains – Humanity in Times of Crisis

In class we talked a little bit about the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor and the way it can be replaced by any other disaster. We also asked whether World War Z is an anti-empathy novel or a pro-human factor novel. I would like to discuss the two questions in tandem – in other words, while the zombie apocalypse can serve as a metaphor for natural disaster, pandemic, or war, I think we also need to read it as a specifically zombie war. In the case of this war the enemy that humans face is something that is fundamentally inhuman though it takes on the, albeit mangled, form of a human.

If we are superficially comparing the anatomies of humans and zombies we can reduce the most essential parts of each entity into the heart and the brain respectively. In WWZ, some emotions are expressed in relation to the heart. Kondo Tatsumi expresses surprise or realization as “something that almost stopped [his] heart” (216); Saladin Kader describes his excitement as a heart that is “about to burst” (43); Father Sergei Ryzhkov describes a “tingling sensation that began to work its way up through [his] heart and lungs” (297). On the other hand, zombies rely solely on brains to function; it is the “only measurable difference between us and “The Undead”” (35). Max Brooks depicts a scenario where the consequences of ‘heartlessness’ or inhumanity are hyper-violence, brutality and aggression, suggesting that without human empathy we will quite literally eat ourselves into extinction. Thus, it is important to note that the fear propagated in the novel is not one for a general apocalypse, but one that is specifically directed at zombies, or in other words it is a fear directed at the possibility of humans existing without their humanity.

At the same time, Brooks posits that in order to win war it is necessary for a group of people to take on attributes of their enemy. In the Robben Island section, the interviewee describes the Redeker plan, an “eminently logical but insidiously dark” (109) plan that was formulated by Paul Redeker, a man of “no feelings, no compassion, no heart” (110). The plan was so brutal that Redeker was psychologically unable to live with the identity that created it post-war but was also necessary and was adapted by several other countries during the war. Or, in the interview at Odessa, Bohdan describes the use of chemical weapons to wipe out large groups of people as a way to differentiate/separate the infected from the others (120). In order to eliminate the zombies and to prevent the further spreading of infection, the military not only ‘heartlessly’ killed the uninfected but also did so using a weapon that is prohibited by international law for being inhumane. Thus, Brooks presents in WWZ the paradox of humans fearing the loss of their humanity but simultaneously needing to shed their humanity in order to confront the enemy that threatens their humanity.

If war is an act that diminishes humanity, then the narrator/interviewer’s writing becomes a way to regain the lost humanity – to re-incorporate the ‘human factor’ into the history. To return to the question of whether WWZ is an anti- or pro-empathy novel, I interpret the novel to be pro-humanity. Though humanity may be necessarily shed, it seems the interviewer feels that in the end it is essential for humans to return to their ‘default’ state of intimacy, feelings, and opinions.

Another thing I noticed about the novel was the ambiguity of the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We discussed in class about how, despite having a common enemy, humans would still turn against each other and sometimes those that do the most damage to humankind are the people trying to save it. Several times throughout the novel we see interviewees use the pronoun “they” or “them” as opposed to specifying exactly which party they are referring to. For instance in the dialogue between the interviewer and Breck Scott, Scott says “…that’s what they said it was, right, just some weird strain of jungle rabies… You know, “they”, like the UN or the…somebody” (56). In this case it is ambiguous just exactly who is propagating lies or withholding truths. In the section with Mary Jo Miller, the interviewee describes how a neighbor always referred to everything that’s happening as “them” (65). In this case, the pronoun is used to describe the general state of society. Lastly, Maria Zhuganova describes “they” as “everyone: [her] officers, the Military Police, even a plain-clothed civilian” (77).

This ambiguity of “they” results in an ambiguity of who exactly the enemy is. This is also shown in the title of the novel “World War Z”, which is curiously not the moniker that the narrator/interviewer prefers for the disaster (“The Zombie War”). The title connotes the two other ‘World Wars’, wars between countries and between humans. Thus, in titling the book “World War Z” the author not only indicates that what occurred is a zombie war but also that it is a ‘World War’, a global war between nations.

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