Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

What Role for the Poet in the Zombie End?

The humanities in the world of the walking dead

Something is bothering me about my zombie plan.

You see, I have this sweatshirt that a friend gave me.  It is navy blue with a picture of a shotgun on the front and then sloppily scribbled words that read “Ask me about my zombie plan.” 

And at this simple inquiry I despair.

I can’t even hang a picture.  I mean, I can try, but the picture just sits there all crooked and sad and if someone slams the door hard enough it topples to the floor and shatters and then I have to start the process all over again. 

I can’t really fire a gun.  I know I can’t work a crossbow.  I can’t track animals and I can’t bake bread and I’m a lousy fisherman.

In short, I’m pretty much toast in a zombie scenario.

Sure, I’m a physician, but like most physicians, I’m not that good outside of the hospital.  Put your average M.D. at the site of something awful, and unless he or she is trained in disaster protocols, that doctor is likely to be lost.  To boot, I’m a psychiatrist…I’m sure there are quite a few who would argue that my particular medical skills might not be all that useful in an apocalyptic scenario.  There are no clumsy psychiatrists in any of the zombie video games.

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But then I got to thinking about The Walking Dead.  We’re less than a week away from the fall premier, and I think I’m worried about those guys too.  They’re missing something.

They don’t have a scribe. 

There are no poets in The Walking Dead…no storytellers.  No one is holding up the mirror of reflection that the Humanities so vividly afford. In fact, the characters on The Walking Dead are in grave danger - the same danger, it would seem, that Forbes magazine unwittingly warned us about earlier this year. 

“To Boost Post College Prospects, Cut Humanities Departments.”  That was the advice from Forbes.  No jobs for Humanities majors, so the study of Humanities must therefore lack value. 

Forbes wasn’t alone in this message.  In June, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted to cut 10% - 14 million dollars – from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  In hard economic times, we just can’t afford the luxury of studying ourselves.  No wonder the Chronicle of Higher Education asked readers in 2010 whether the Humanities could “survive the 21rst century.”

I like the concept of The Walking Dead. I like the way it uses the metaphor of a zombie plague to accentuate the best and the worst that we can be. I even like the way the outlandishness of the conceit – that the world could be over run by zombies – ironically helps us to see the many Achilles heels of our apparently mighty infrastructure.

But for the characters on the show to survive, for them to continue to not only breathe and to eat, but to hold onto as well their very identities as a collective group of enlightened human beings, they’re going to need someone to tell their stories.

Without art, they’ll stop being human…they’ll be closer to those pesky zombies that they keep trying to avoid.  Every culture, no matter how barbaric or desperate, needs its storytellers.  Otherwise, it is no longer a culture. 

In fact, there is every reason to believe that we are wired for art.  How else do you explain a blind poet like Homer?  In a time of feudal lords and near constant war, why would a helpless blind poet find himself welcomed and fed in home after home? Because he could spin a darn good tale, that’s why, and that skill held as much value as any well wielded crossbow or sword.

Every group of people, if they are to remain a cohesive and united group, must have their stories.  They must face themselves, warts and all, in the stark displacement of words or of art or perhaps through a piece of music that simply makes you hold your breath.

Every culture, even a crumbling one – maybe especially a crumbling one – needs someone to hold up the unflinching mirror of displaced self-reflection.  This is the very purpose of the Humanities.   

So I’m going to order a new sweatshirt.  Instead of a shotgun I’ll have an etching of a pen and some paper on the front.  Ask me about my zombie plan, and I’ll answer you with a story or two.  Maybe you’ll give my family some baked beans if you’ll let me be your scribe.

Steven Schlozman's novel, The Zombie Autopsies, is currently being adapted for film.  The sequel will be available sometime next year.

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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