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Zombie genealogy

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 10, 2009 02:43 PM

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Marina Warner

Speaking of zombies, 3:AM Magazine (motto: "Whatever it is, we're against it"), an online British publication, has an interview with Marina Warner, the novelist and scholar of myths, in which the subject comes up this way:

3:AM: I want you [to] talk about zombies.

She's game! Among other things, Warner describes her efforts to trace how the concept of the zombie migrated from Caribbean culture to Europe. During that journey, she contends, the zombie mutated from a figure of potency into a metaphor for the degrading effects that industrial capitalism had on the life force of working men and women:

"When I looked in the OED," Warner says,

I found the first entry for 'zombie' was given as Southey, History of Brazil, 1819, I thought nothing of it, but then someone said to me that it was by Robert Southey, the poet, and that made it sound a little more interesting because he was a very literary man so I went and had a look. I found that the copy in the British Library had been given by Southey to his brother-in-law Coleridge. I brought it up on the computer and found that it had also been annotated by Coleridge. Southey uses the word 'zombie' and Coleridge annotates it and he says Southey hasn't really understood the meaning of this word.

Southey's describing an uprising of runaway slaves against the Portuguese colonists of Brazil. And the runaway slaves were all massacred. And Southey says that this was a Utopian society ruled by an elected chieftain, filled with wisdom and justice, who is called Zombi. 'And this word in their language means devil,' writes Southey. But Coleridge writes in the margin -- No, this word does not mean the devil, it means a devil. Meaning Coleridge's idea of the daemon. The indwelling spirit. So he's basically telling Southey that he's giving the mistaken impression that this man is the devil, but it doesn't mean that, it means that he's a spiritual force, a vital essence, he's a life principle.

What's interesting is that that's not the modern day meaning of zombie, which means someone who has been robbed of life force or spirit. But obviously this chimed -- I've argued -- with something that Coleridge knew very very well, what happens when the life force is taken.

To see how Warner connects this with Coleridge's interest in the abolitionist movement, and with "The Ancient Mariner" -- and for her thoughts on the racial subtext of "Night of the Living Dead" -- read the whole thing.

(Photo via 3:AM)

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