Postmodern Conservative

Culture

Innocent Liberals among Hobbesian Zombies

Why we watch The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones

Hobbes is famous for his assertion that the state of nature was a state of war of “every man against every man.” Rousseau, by contrast, argued . . . that primitive human beings were peaceful and isolated, and that violence developed only at a later stage when society had begun to corrupt human morals. Hobbes is far closer to the truth.

— Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order

When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.

 — Circei Lannister, A Game of Thrones

Someday critics will look back at the career of George Lucas and conclude that the pivotal moment of his decline as a story teller was when he discovered the work of Joseph Campbell on mythology. Accounts contradict but it seems Lucas learned of Campbell only after the original Star Wars film was already a cultural phenomena. What ensued was the descent of a perfectly fine pop-cultural savant into a career inordinately obsessed with including Campbell’s mythological archetypes.

Youthful innocent on the verge of a journey? Check.

Encounter with wizened old man? Check.

An ominous threat calling the boy to adventure? Check.

The quality of George Lucas’ writing had devolved accordingly.

For those not old enough to remember Joseph Campbell, his phenomenally popular gloss on the role of mythology was perfectly timed for a society that, upon the collapse of the Berlin Wall, was on the threshold of the celebrated ‘End of History’ popular in the 1990’s. According to Campbell all the blood and violence that myth seemed to celebrate was really just archetypal decoration intended to communicate a deeper story that unites all diverse cultural myths. Campbell, in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, gave us a proverbial decoder ring that allowed us to decipher the deeper romantic meanings in stories that seemed to be obsessed with primitive slaughter and dismemberment. His was the perfect revisionism of the Hobbesian past allowing eager American readers an excuse to finally say good bye to all the fears and anxieties of a century haunted by invading communists and fascists. The result was a decade of Joseph Campbellian theater and literature that tended to valorize the pilgrimage of the youth-to-hero arc and caricature danger into archetypal monsters intended to signify the trials and tribulations of suburban middle class existence. Therein lay the direct path from Luke Skywalker to the Young Adult fiction phenomena that continues to this day.

But something happened on the way to Rivendell: Hobbes intervened. Despite attempts to convince ourselves otherwise, the traumatic events of 9/11 look not to be so much as a one off event but a first act of the return of Hobbesian realities to our collective awareness. While in our waking moments we may find comfort in the assurances of our politicians who tell us that we’re perfectly safe and everything is under control, the phenomenal popularity of certain kinds of darker stories suggest that, collectively, our subconscious knows perfectly well that the superegos in charge aren’t telling us the full story.

Just as historians tell us that the citizens of Imperial Rome found collective catharsis in the games of the coliseum re-enacting the struggles on their borderlands, cable channels such as HBO and AMC have hit a payload with narratives that, intentionally or not, dramatize the twenty first century equivalents of civilizations enemies in the form of mindless zombies, masochistic Machiavellians and Darwinian political disorder. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are but the two most prominent examples.

Indeed, if Game of Thrones is anything it is the systematic deconstruction of Joseph Campbell’s heroic tropes at the hands of Hobbesian realities. In the first season we are introduced to the Warden of the North, Eddard Stark, played by Sean Bean (never a good sign for a character’s longevity). The season played out according to standard political intrigue. Stark is called by the King to replace his previous Prime Minister (called the Hand of the King) who had died under suspicious circumstances. Stark soon learns his death was the result of  his discovering that the young prince, and soon to be next King, is an imposter. The villains implicated in the cover-up consolidate against Stark. A complicated game of political thrust and parry ensues culminating in a desperate plan by Stark to dethrone the now imposter King who has just attained the throne. Stark is betrayed. When told upon his capture that if he simply confesses his guilt before the young King he will be allowed to live, he confesses and then is promptly beheaded.

Lesson: this world doesn’t operate by the rules of Joseph Campbell. Heroic intentions will get you killed.

Similar lessons follow.

Season four: true love will get you killed (Rob, Ned’s oldest son, ambushed in the notorious Red Wedding).

Season five: displays of conspicuous heroism and enlightened thinking will get you killed (Jon Snow, Stark’s bastard son, ambushed by men from his own Order of the Watch).   

The writers of Game of Thrones seem to have had the most sadistic fun at Campbell’s expense with the trials of Jon Snow. The bastard son of Eddard Stark, he rapidly rises in the ranks of the Order of the Watch who man the northern wall against Westeros’ ancient foe, the Wildlings. When the zombie like White Walkers start to appear in huge numbers north of the wall Jon conceives of a plan to have the Wildlings join the Watch against the undead enemy. Before executing his plan, he seeks counsel with a wizened Maester of the Watch who affirms Snow, saying “Kill the boy and let the man be born!”

Youthful innocent on the verge of a journey? Check.

Encounter with wizened old man? Check.

An ominous threat calling the boy to adventure? Check.

The plan works fabulously. The Wildlings join the Watch in their castle. Though their arrival is met with a few resentful grumbles among the Order, Jon seems to have succeeded in introducing a brief flicker of enlightened pragmatism into this otherwise very cold and dark world of Westeros. That is until the last scene of season five, when Snow is ambushed by a handful of members of the Watch who proceed to stab Snow while uttering the words ‘For the Watch’ like a tribal incantation invoking justice on behalf of men killed by the Wildlings with whom Snow has treasonously made peace.  The episode of the last season of Game of Thrones ends with Jon Snow, surprised expression frozen on his face, bleeding out in the snow.

Lesson: we’re not living in Joseph Campbell’s 1990’s anymore.

An argument could be made that the entirety of House Stark exists to demonstrate that if Mr. Campbell’s liberal heroes actually existed in an authentic pre-modern world they would be as helpless as a liberal who brought only good intentions to a sword fight. The culminating scene of season five drives this point home (pun intended).

But a fuller understanding of what is at work here requires a greater appreciation of what underlies Joseph Campbell’s ideas. Campbell didn’t so much as offer an insightful re-reading of mythology as a re-visioning of mythos to align with what narrative psychologist Dan McAdams describes as the underlying American narrative of self-realization. In his book The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, McAdams traces from the cultural roots of the Puritans and African slaves to the upward mobility narratives of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger a common and very influential American cultural narrative of self realization now made most popular in the cartoonish form found in the vast literature of self-help and popular business books. The outline of this storyline begins with the self as having some sense of latent potential combined with an awareness of misfortune in the world. The self, by dint of discipline and latent talent, works to create something that ‘gives back’ to the world and find redemption in the achievement. This arc has roots that precede Campbell by centuries and yet anticipates his gloss of the heroic myth with suspicious accuracy. In short Campbell didn’t discover something new in mythology, he re-processed popular understandings of mythology to fit the popular American narrative of self-help. And the self-help literature has returned the favor by ensuring Campbell’s ideas are referenced in their pages ever since.    

Among Dan McAdams criticisms of this American narrative is the fact that it conspicuously evades the reality of irremediable tragedy in the world in its conviction that everything can be made to be redeemed. I submit that what underlies the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead is the irreconcilability of this conceit with the reality of the world televised to us from the slaughter houses of the Middle East, the rape chambers of ISIS and the refugees now flowing into Europe.

But whereas Game of Thrones explores the political intrigues of the Hobbesian realms, The Walking Dead delves into its intimate psychology. Set in the immediate aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead follows a motley group of survivors led by the resourceful former sheriff Rick Grimes as they attempt to stay alive long enough to find some sanctuary in the undead haunted landscape. After five seasons viewers learn that the zombies are not nearly as dangerous as humans in this world which has been set back twenty thousand years to the age of primitive roving bands and tribes warring against each other for scarce resources. As the seasons progress the protagonists learn that as dystopic as the world they inhabit is, the most dangerous dystopia is what happens in their own psyche. How does one survive in a Hobbesian world without succumbing entirely to a Darwinian psychosis red in tooth and claw?

The landscape of The Walking Dead is populated by humans who have tried to hold on to their civility but succumbed to the inner savage out of necessity. When the group happens upon the city of Woodberry, a pleasant looking town walled off from the zombies, it proves too good to be true. The charismatic leader, nicknamed The Governor, turns out to be a psychotic who quickly turns on Rick and his people. Two seasons later the group happen onto another Woodberry by the name of Terminus, they discover Terminians have acquired the taste of human flesh and the group is scheduled to be the next course. Each of these towns are run by a skillful leader who seem to always have a motto handy to justify their compromised humanity.

Woodberry: In this world you kill or you die or you die and you kill.

Terminus: You’re the butcher or you’re the cattle.

But in season five The Walking Dead happens upon perhaps the most terrifying town of all, Alexandria, a town that out of dumb luck happened to be a prototype of a completely self sustaining city (with solar panels!) and a steel wall (thanks to the town architect!). But as a result of this fortunate situation the people have not fully absorbed the Hobbesian realities that exist outside their borders. Now Rick Grimes and his group suffer from another kind of terror, of losing the sanctuary they have because the inhabitants are clueless about the threats outside.

Recent data indicates that, unlike Game of Thrones, viewership of The Walking Dead appears to have crested. I suspect this may be because unlike its fantasy counterpart, The Walking Dead is hitting a little too close to home. As Rick Grimes surveys the steel walls of the town it’s as though he recognizes that the stronger the wall the more effective the security and therefore the less aware the townsfolk are of their vulnerability once an adversary equal to the wall attacks them. Rick Grimes is the faint neo-conservative voice that continues to haunt America’s dreams.

Perhaps the most profound insight of the series is that more dangerous than the zombies or the calculating humans outside the walls, is the paralyzing fear that comes too easily to those who have lived too long inside the protective confines of safety. When a team is sent out to get supplies at a store over run by zombies, things go south and it’s a citizen of Alexandria who flees and gets people killed.

The Walking Dead is entering an uncomfortable realm for us Americans, just like a very different kind of story, American Sniper, did. Both dealt in different ways with the problem of being civilized in a world that seems overrun by Hobbes’ children. In contrast, Game of Thrones appears to be putting the pieces together for a more statist solution to the Hobbesian problem. Across the Narrow Sea from Westeros, a group of powerful and politically talented outcasts are conspiring to invade Westeros and institute a civilization around broadly liberal aspirations. The writers of Game of Thrones appear to be arguing that if you can’t beat Hobbes, join him. The answer to liberal weakness in a Hobbesian world is to kill Rousseau and let the Statist Machiavellian be born. Narratively speaking this is an efficient way to tie up the now obvious problems of Joseph Campbell’s romantic naivete, the appeal of which is probably not limited to our appetites for fiction.

Either way, as the important electoral season of 2016 approaches and we hear our candidates tip toe euphemistically around the ever more dangerous world outside our steel walls, our conscious selves may find comfort in talk of ‘smart power’ and ‘the need for negotiation’ but our viewership habits reveal what our subconscious is really fearful of:

Winter is coming.

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