The Whiteness of the Zombie
What the white zombie was to Custer should be fairly clear at this point, but it was the whiteness of this white zombie that, above all things, weirded me out. I understand the reader is probably tired of all this jibber-jabber about a single white zombie when, if you’re reading this account, you’ve already encountered so many thousands or even millions of gray or red or liver-colored ones, but I don’t care how boring it may be to some hypothetical scorched soul, can’t begin to predict the tastes and preferences of the next generation of readers, can’t even assume the existence of a next generation of readers, so, no, sorry, but I won’t stop, can’t be stopped, won’t concern myself with anything other than doing what the voice in my dreams instructs me to do, which is take up my scalpel, sever the very whiteness from that whitest of white zombies, stretch that translucent epi-epidermis over some kind of wooden frame, taut as a drum skin, lean in with a magnifying glass, and scrutinize the empty membrane down to the cellular level. If I fail to illuminate something here, I fear this whole project might be for naught.
A Whiteness Primer
First, let’s dispatch with any pretenses: while I have never read the book, which is curiously absent from my bibliobunker's collection, I can't help but recall very learned people saying that the best writing on the color white, at least in the English-speaking world, was to be found in Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, without which, even I can say, from my own vantage of ignorance, that our own Moby-Dork would certainly never have received that cursed nickname, never would have become quite so notorious, but only disappeared into obscurity the way most of us do, just a few pounds more of pale flesh anonymously decomposing over time or getting all chipped up and smooshed into gray slurry in the abattoir; and since I suspect I couldn’t expect to outdo Melville’s “whiteness” chapter should I reach a hundred years, the best method here is to direct the reader to seek the primary source, demand of oneself a careful reading of the whole exalted tome, but of course for our present purposes the chapter on white known, I believe, to be titled "On the Whiteness of the Whale" or some such; this, then, is only an addendum on a number of supplementary whitenesses to which that dead white man of American letters, of novels that never seem to die for the pure gumption of them, those zombie tomes, but seem determined to pursue us until the end of days, that is, to explore those whitenesses to which old Melville simply could not access in the years prior to his wicked masterpiece.
Since Melville’s white whale first became a thing people knew about (if only peripherally), there has been an important development in whiteness: a revelation that, in art, the “white space” surrounding and intertwining with various focal subjects not only accentuates a given subject but, in fact, establishes it—makes it what it is .
This is often called white space because it is often white. Others prefer to call it “negative space” to connote that the space needn’t be white, that, more generally, such spaces—white or negative—are simply those in any work of art not filled-up with the kind of stuff an audience is supposed to focus on, as in the typography on this page, the flow of whiteness around these sentences and paragraphs.
(“White noise” was similar. Behind all the shouts, honks, beeps, gunshots, explosions, blood-curdling screams, and sudden eerie silences of civilization, there it always was: the aural signature of the void, the faint hum of the universe giving form to all things.)
Before The Collapse, some art critics and carnival barkers of the all-powerful marketing industry went so far as to say stuff like, “White space may be more important than the subject itself”; which school of thought taught these arbiters of culture to make such simultaneously equivocating yet pompous statements, I will never know, but I readily concede that, whether because their ilk was right and ample white space was objectively pleasing to the senses or because they simply overwhelmed us with enough inanities as to irrevocably change our perceptions of the things around us, there is something to the notion that there can be a feeling of overwhelming claustrophobia when one looks at too much stuff tightly packed, be that “too much stuff” too many subjects in a painting all vying for the glory of the all-watchful eye or an unusually dense and unbroken block of words, full of confusing recursions, complex, inward spiraling clauses and the like, more or less blacking out a page.
Yes, a little white around the sides or swooping through the middle can give the impression that everything is just where it ought to be.
But, despite what say-anythingers of our culture said, there were always limits to this thinking. For instance, with regards the literature of the years leading up to The Collapse, people seemed to believe that, if a writer only broke up paragraphs with enough white space, fewer words would be needed, because the reader could simply absorb the writer’s intentions, almost by osmosis. A slogan for this school of thought might have been:
Read Less, Read More
Or if so much text doth strain thine eyes, perhaps the more elegant:
(This was curious, conspicuous: it only seemed to hold for prose. But hadn’t poetry always used white space? liberally and literally for thousands of years? and yet wasn’t poetry, despite its efficient compaction, its ample use of white space, the art form most maligned by our culture?)
Anyway, what I was saying is this contradictory fetish for white space was one reason why so many stories and books had such short paragraphs before The Collapse: people just didn’t understand or care to understand contiguous words anymore. It was as if, unless 50% of the total space on a given canvas or page was dedicated to such whiteness, people weren’t even quite sure which direction they were supposed to read .
This whiteness, they seemed to think, was the only thing that kept the weight of literature from crushing us. That let readers exist as they were without imposing itself on them. Which dispatched all that anxiety, the existential dread that came with the territory.
Yes, white is light and airy. It lets breezes through, wafts out the fetid scent of history and decay clinging to our old, undead lexicon.
Gauzy white curtains billowed out around the words, shifting cleanly in the breeze.
Ahhhh, whiteness! it just helped people breathe again!
Yes, the explainer-awayers of our culture said, words became themselves only in contrast to airy freshness around them. Words were the anti-airy-freshness. So, if you really wanted to make a statement, you just had to strand a single word in a white space and allow its full sociohistorical baggage to unpack itself in an instant.
Consider how white space not only curates and draws inordinate attention to but lends additional power to the textual focal point below:
What from the industrial revolution ever foreshadowed millions of people walking around with little white headphones in their ears, shutting out all other sounds around them, curating their individual experience, as with a soundtrack? How could Melville, whose first-person masterpiece initially only sold something like 5,000 copies, ever have understood the massive popularity of Gandalf, the wizard in gray who fought a giant fire demon called a Balrog and triumphed and so got, as his eternal reward, a white robe and white hat in return (and, it should also be mentioned, rode the white stallion Shadowfax)? or how could he have known that there would be such a thing as a film much less one in 1932 called White Zombie about a white mesmerist running a plantation in Haiti? or that the legacy of white things appearing in horror films would lead to the pale white face of the masks of Jason Vorhees, Michael Meyers, the murderers from the Scream movie franchise, and many another villain terrorizing and torturing victims? or indeed the coming of the White Walkers, a frosty evil species from the Game of Thrones series of books and TV shows, a species that commanded the ice and snow and whole armies of zombies called wights in their quest to move south for the winter? or the white-plastic-armored “storm troopers,” the cannon-fodder of an insanely profitable franchise called Star Wars that sold more storm-trooper costumes in a given Halloween than that the great American tragicomedy, Moby-Dick, sold copies in a century? or what about Bumble? the stop-animation abominable snowman from a children’s Christmas show that aired every December for several generations unto the end? I mean, how white was Bumble? how white the pointy teeth he needed to have extracted by Hermes, the elf—who was white, of course—who only wanted to be a dentist and whose white privilege eventually allowed him to give up a perfectly good factory job in order to follow his dreams? or, for that matter, the very white magic we ascribed to Christmas, the fake evergreens weighted down with flockings of fake snow from a can? or the whitest singer ever, Bing Crosby, singing about how he was dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know? or Frosty the Snowman who, like a zombie, fell in the spring but rose again soon as the first snow fell?
What of Mark Twain, the great American satirist who wore white suits later in life and had wild white hair and not only that but penned the hilarious and poignant American satire “The Stolen White Elephant”? or Ernest Hemingway’s sublimely understated story “Hills Like White Elephants”? or Ken Kesey’s character, Nurse Ratched, the villainous white asylum nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest who donned the pure white garb signifying her infinite power over the destinies of patients? or Cormac McCarthy’s Judge character in his macabre western, Blood Meridean, Or, the Evening Redness in the West, the ruthless, giant albino with alopecia? or what about the author Colson Whitehead, who wrote Zone One, which, despite a number of technical inaccuracies re: zombies, was one of the best zombie novels from pre-Collapse culture and, not coincidentally, featured much falling white ash?
Or what about the many white tigers of Siegfried and Roy’s magic show that only occasionally attacked them in public? or Snow White who shacked-up with a bunch of lonely dwarves, not a single one of whom was anything but white? or how ignoramuses from America’s past heard her name and naturally wondered whether she was related to the longtime gameshow eye-candy Vanna White or the meth-dealing TV character Walter White? And let us not forget Elvis Presley who, in his later years, entered some kind of weird karate phase and wore a gi of purest white, while, on stage, sporting white rhinestoned jumpsuits. Recall that another American music icon, Michael Jackson, was born black, but transitioned slowly over the course of his life toward a strange kind of whiteness, a skin condition, we were told, though it seemed somehow too perfect, that this brilliant, young, black artist might slowly succumb, body and mind, to the pressures of the greater culture’s black-fearing, black-despising whiteness. Or what about the country music icon George Jones’ rockabilly ode to hillbilly moonshine, “White Lightning”? or the mustached crooner Marty Robbins’ squeaky clean song about being stood-up for a highschool dance, left all alone in “a white sportcoat and a pink carnation?” how an iconic British band named The Beatles, which swept the American charts pretty much forever, had a triumphant ninth record that came in a plain white sleeve and was known only as the White Album? or how the Velvet Underground had an album called White Light/White Heat thematically linked to white amphetamines or, alternately, cocaine, the whitest drug of all? or Jefferson Airplane’s famous song, “White Rabbit,” about Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland all anti-zombified on hallucinogens? or that Billy Idol’s anthem “White Wedding” informed a generation of mostly white listeners that “it’s a nice day to start again?” or the very white fandom of 1980s buttrock bands like Whitesnake and Great White—names meant to evoke a level of extreme awesomeness that their music, unfortunately, never quite achieved? or that some rockers danced around on stages wearing white leather pants or chaps? or that some eccentric weirdos named Jack White and Meg White had a hugely successful rock duo called the White Stripes, a name apparently evoking the iconic three white stripes of a certain kind of popular shoe? or how there was once a heavy metal band called, of all things, White Zombie?
Or what of Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White, an oil painting of white space adorned with a square of a subtly different shade of white turned at an angle? or Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 solid white paintings, White Paintings, which were a number of panels painted with white latex? or Jasper Johns’ White Flag (1955), a slightly distorted American flag rendered in white on canvas, using wax, oil, newsprint, and charcoal? or the work of Robert Ryman whose painting, Untitled (1961), a painted white canvas adorned with various white brush strokes, received a lot of press coverage when Sotheby’s sold it for $15 million just a few years before The Collapse. The catalogue note offered a quote by Ryman: “There is never a question of what to paint but only how to paint. The how of painting has always been the image—the end product”—which, in this case, was white.
Would such notions have surprised a 19th-century writer obsessed with the color white? or would such a person, hopping in a time machine and suddenly appearing in our century, have been too busy gawking at all the white cars zipping around? or the exclusively white trucks driven by oilfield workers? or craning his neck to look up at the sky and behold the white planes crisscrossing the skies and their white twin contrails slowly dispersing into stratolinear clouds? or the white words of skywriting? and if aeronautics would have blown his mind, how much more flying in such a contraption as so many of us did before The Collapse, gazing in awe out the window at almost endless expanses of white clouds? or far above the clouds a white space shuttle looking back down at earth from such a distance as to flatten out and render featureless the endless white Himalayas? And speaking of mountains: don’t forget the whiteness of ski resorts with all their snow and the endless parade of snow bunnies in tight white pants and white coats with white ruffs or the white tablecloths in the cafes or the white linens and plush white towels in their suites. And let’s not forget the ever-abiding hero of megacult film The Big Lebowski, that is, the Dude, and his penchant for a beverage called a White Russian. O, and household appliances! because how many of those were white? And what about sneakers? A decent percentage of those were really white, too. And what about how, for a short time just a few years after the turn of the millennium, certain cool kids were wearing white belts? or how some percentage of teenage boys always wore white tuxedoes to prom in order to stand out in the sea of black tuxes only to realize that a great many others had the very same idea? or how doctors, particularly those in TV infomercials, wore super white lab coats? There are just so many other predominantly white things that could be mentioned here that the mind reels: most of the paper we used, a lot of Apple computer products, 95% of Google’s home page, various conceptions of the Christian God decked out head-to-toe in a white toga, whitey tighties, granny panties, Storm Shadow (an evil ninja who wore a white shōzoku in a cartoon called G.I. Joe), Gloop and Gleep (weird white blob characters from another cartoon called The Herculoids), Mormon temples in Utah, the consecrated underwear Mormons allegedly wore during sex, the white Thunderbird F-16 fighter jets that flew around at air shows getting Americans all pumped-up about war, most of the pills we took (from Aspirin to the prescription opioids we abused to avoid our pain), or the tooth-whitening strips that made our teeth seem like our teeth were movie-star perfect and would—like us, like the empire we’d created—last forever.
And yet I think the thing that most thoroughly binds all this white shit together in the end, and not only binds it together but affirms it as a kind of high intellectual pursuit, and not only makes it a high intellectual pursuit but renders that pursuit monolithic, is that, before The Collapse, a person could visit a number of university campuses across the United States and find a door, sometimes, I suspect, even a white door, that opened into a bona fide Department of Whiteness Studies—whiteness not only as creation but as creator, spawning itself and its own field of study.
Back in 1851, when Melville was writing, there were white things a writer simply could not write about and still hope to be published, as tastes and social mores were very different then, but let us consider how far we’ve come in that regard or, depending on one's views, how low we have fallen. For instance, back in the day, one couldn’t write about sex except rather obliquely. So it was that a white man writing in 1851 about a white sperm whale couldn’t explicitly compare that whale to a sperm cell—indeed, if he even knew sperm cells were shaped like tiny sperm whales—though obviously that is what it is shaped like and the comparison heaps an additional, rich layer of Eros as counterpart of Thanatos upon the symbol. Much less could that writer point out that the men harvesting spermaceti (a.k.a., whale oil) from slaughtered sperm whales were, at the time, up to their elbows in that substance not unlike semen (a.k.a., cum, jizz, spunk, baby batter). How shocking then to confront that 19th-century priggishness by writing an interminably long sentence describing an intentionally titillating, explicit, and deeply troubling contemporary cultural artifact that bore the spirit of the same culture he was lampooning; for instance, if he were to write about seeing a high definition video featuring any number of pearly white ejaculations, or, more specifically, one of any number of scenes in which a girl with pale, milky skin and light blond hair, no older than 19 or maybe 20, maybe five feet tall, no heavier than 90 pounds, was sitting on a sofa beside a large, muscular black man, when he reached out, and put his massive hand on her white-as-the-driven-snow thigh, and slid it up so that the hem of her white summer dress shifted up and ever up, exposing a strip of whitest cotton between her legs, so that she turned to him, and with big blue eyes, and the whitest southern-girl-accent imaginable, told him her family would never approve of her "dating" a black man, and he told her he didn’t give a fuck what her daddy thought and, with no further ado, instructed this little white girl, rendered all the whiter for the contrast so carefully curated between them, to get down on her knees and suck that dick, so she gasped, shocked by how forward he was being, sexual forwardness rendered as an exotic otherness, at which point he stood, looming above her, large, dark, menacing, and told her again to get on her knees, and now took her hand, and guided her to the floor, to unzip his pants, at which point she pulled out a partially erect phallus, already nine or ten inches long, which she found cause to call the black "mambo"—not mamba, like the African black snake, but mambo, evoking the dangerous snake but more exotic, like voodoo, or mojo—which she clutched in one of her tiny, white hands, held against her arm for comparison, and commented, again, that it was bigger than her arm, and then, of course, tried to fit the whole thing into her mouth, though it didn’t quite fit, so that she kept stopping and commenting, again, about how he was too big, how she couldn’t take him very deep, that mambo, and licked it up and down for a bit, and kissed it tenderly for a bit, and gagged herself on it for a bit, and pulled back, the white parts of her eyes now all red and wet and watery, bewildered, stunned, voodoo hypnotized, lost to her ancestral whiteness, saying such a big thing, that mambo, it would never, ever fit inside her little white thing, so then, of course, they had to find out, so this large, black man, blackness defined according to the rules of her whiteness, helped her to her white feet, which she didn't thank him for, slave as he was to her needs, and laid her back on a white sofa, and pulled up her white dress, and peeled off her white panties, and pushed her tiny, white frame back onto the white sofa, and spread her nubile, white legs, all the paler by contrast with his dark, glistening phallus, and pushed himself inside her whiteness slowly, slowly, inch by inch, the whole long length of it captured practically in slow motion to accentuate the contrast of dark penetrating light, in and out, until eventually he was all the way inside and they were really going at it, up to and including four different positions—missionary, cowgirl, reverse cowgirl, doggy style—before he eventually pulled out and, overcome by his primal urges, no longer subservient, a slave uprising, told her to get back on her knees, tilted his head back in ecstasy, and shot blob after glob of pearly white goop all over her skinny white neck and powdered white chin and fair cheeks and whiter-than-white teeth and outstretched tongue so that she might be nourished by whiteness and more on her other cheek and even a little dollop on the white butterfly clip in her bleached blond hair….
Perhaps 19th century sensibilities are preferable; maybe the aversion to such vulgar, pornographic talk has always been warranted; my point, however, is that the old white-man writers of Melville's day never could have written such words even if they’d wanted to. Yet, even as I feel ashamed to record it, I feel obligated to document, to bear witness to the very particulars of our culture's excesses, here a cliché, racist fantasy, procreatively plunging itself over and over again into an infantilizing, patriarchal one, a scenario that must have played out in hundreds if not thousands of videos before The Collapse—exposing us, as it were, not so much the sins of our human origins as our national.
Science has come a long way since 1851. For one, we better understand the nature of whiteness, that, at least regarding skin pigmentation, it’s all a matter of melanocytes and melanin. Albinos, such as the white zombie, produce little or no melanin. In that sense, the chief characteristic of Moby-Dork, like his namesake, the fictional Moby-Dick, was the distinct absence of something naturally occurring; but science taught us about other white things as well, and it bears consideration how wrongheaded it is to think of white light as an absence of light, as you hear some people say sometimes, or that it is an invisible kind of light, because in truth white light is rather all the visible colors of light combined, which is why, if you shine a white light into a prism, it splits into a rainbow of component colors. I don’t profess to really understand the physics behind any of this, but I did read it in a book in my bibliobunker, and I don’t quite know what to make of it with regard to the white zombie. Because the one part of me wants to imagine him as a being devoid of something we have, which, as I said before, is the case in one sense, but then I think of the white light and the prism, and I think perhaps the white zombie was, at least in a metaphorical sense, not the white zombie at all, but the rainbow zombie, the coming together of any number of other colors with all their accumulated associations so that, in the end, he was not an absence at all, but an abundance—not a nothing, but an everything.
Similarly, science has also taught us about the cycles of the earth, the coming and going of great white ice ages throughout the Pleistocene, and how certain patterns were only discernible when pulling back and looking at the earth from the removed perspective of geological epochs, which is how, in the years before The Collapse, scientists were able to say with great certainty that the planet was heating up much faster than it ever had before and that we humans were contributing greatly to this acceleration, so that, as science also taught us, the white but faintly blue polar icecaps and the glaciers reaching back into fjords were disappearing faster than ever, and that the sea ice to the north wasn’t solidifying the way it once had, and was disrupting the feeding patterns of creatures like the great white polar bear, which science told us was white despite the fact that its fur was not white, but hollow and translucent, and only created the effect of whiteness, the way crinkled clear cellophane or plastic wrap gave the impression of whiteness; anyway, these bears were going extinct, and are probably almost all dead now as you read this, unless, that is, the coming of the zombie age came soon enough to prevent the larger catastrophe—or unless they adapted to the world white men created and, moving south, interbreeding, as they were known to do, with brown bears.
But then so again did science instruct us that, even inside of us, there was always an epic war going on. When tiny, microscopic invaders invaded, what forces did our bodies send to defend us? White blood cells, of course. Leukocytes. Produced in the whiteness of our white bones, down in the marrow. To be sure, microscopic organisms had been killing humanoids for millions of years, but always, all the way back to the dawn of our upright ancestors, those white blood cells must have been more or less winning, if not every battle, then at least the war. How else to explain how we were still here invading all the world the way influenza had always invaded us, replicating and replicating, consuming everything in sight, until perhaps something turned inside us, some supreme potentate of humanoid existence looked out at the world crumbling and melting and burning and screaming and said Enough is enough, and commanded all the white blood cells of all the people of the world, en masse, to surrender, to go turncoat against us, to turn us against ourselves? Is it really too much of a stretch to wonder if the whiteness of the zombie is not akin to the whiteness of the blood cell, or that the white zombie was but a cell marshaled by the earth to fend off a virus called Man?
People back in olden times got sick of getting torn apart by animals and murdered by rivals who wanted their stuff; they got sick of their children dying for no apparent reason; they got sick of battles in which people hacked each other to bits with stone shards, then bronze blades, then steel blades; they got sick of getting shot with crude musketballs that shattered their leg bones and went gangrenous almost immediately and of doctors sawing their legs off with no way to escape the blinding white pain. So they civilized. They banded together into bigger and bigger groups, formed elaborate systems of rules, established political (rather than geologic) boundaries, harnessed the power of the atom, got bobble-head dolls of Jesus for the dashboards of their cars, etc. But our ancestors never could have guessed what other more disconcerting corners of the human psyche such “progress” might lead to, which is why I can say, with all certainty, that, though humankind has clearly proliferated as a result of these strategies, the horrors of history did not improve after Melville’s time, but in fact deepened in ways the ancients never could have fathomed:
Think about the Ku Klux Klan, the horrors of white terrorism, of flaming crosses and the flickering of orange light on the sweaty black body dangling at the end of a white rope, and all around, a devil’s playground of white men in white robes gazing out black-eyed as demons through pointy hoods bleached to an impeccable white; and think about the Catholic church, the gilded white Vatican, the white-clad Pope from the sanctity of his bulletproof white Pope-mobile covering up the rapes of children by so many predominantly white men in white vestments and white collars ever-signifying to innocent children God approves of this man; and think about white phosphorous bombs bursting like terrible white squid in the sky, deadly tentacles extending down to melt through so many people’s skin easy as acid through wads of taffy; and think about the mushroom clouds in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, white people delivering white blasts so big and powerful that they instantly vaporized scores of Japanese citizens, including children, many of whom were undoubtedly wearing white the day their little shadows were permanently cast in final terror against whatever white walls they happened to be passing by; and think about the white jacket of Stalin, who sent so many millions of dissenters to toil and die in Gulags and in the freezing white tundra of Siberia; and think of the fanatical whiteness of Nazism and the white circle that gave the black swastika its sinister form, or the white lightning-bolt insignia of the SS, or the whiter-than-white lab coats of white eugenicists who concocted heinous sterilization experiments such as pumping women’s reproductive organs full of cement and letting them fall out once it quickened, or those who euthanized thousands of people for having congenital defects, or transplanted bones or nerves without anesthesia, or sewed young twins together just for the fun of seeing if they could make a conjoined twin, or the so-called Final Solution, the white quicklime poured over mass graves, and the smoke billowing out of stacks and millions upon millions of people—not zombies but actual living, breathing human beings—reduced to hills of off-white ash; and think about the resurgence of white nationalism in the West in the years before The Collapse, the hoisting again of Nazi and Confederate flags, the denial of all the evidence of the Holocaust, the denial of the horrors of slavery, the denial of white-moderate complicity, and the ahistorical self-pity contorting the face of the white man I saw one day in downtown Seattle, not a week before everything went to shit, strutting around with a semi-automatic pistol in a holster on his hip, daring people to look at him askance, itching to prove just how racist his intentionally provocative WHITE PRIDE t-shirt was not.