The afternoon of my imaginary interview in the Luxembourg Gardens, as I headed back to my room at the Ségur Hotel, I resolved to let my memory turn back to the events of 1938 and their disastrous consequences on daily life in Jacmel. It wasn’t the first time I promised myself—somewhat insistently—to dedicate a book to the subject. My first idea was to talk about Hadriana herself rather than writing an essay on the place and the role of the zombie phenomenon in the deterioration of Jacmel. Is it possible that my homeland was some sort of collective zombie? But after the basic off-the-cuff lesson my uncle Féfé had given me following Hadriana’s “evaporation,” my inquiries among my friends and neighbors, just like my studies and research abroad, added nothing substantial to my understanding of the zombie’s condition. Behind each mystery there were at least a hundred more . . .
In each text I read on Vodou, there was the obligatory chapter on zombies in Haiti. In every instance, the author seemed somehow to be left short of breath, chasing after an elusive ghost. There was a time when the flood of studies on this element of Haitian sorcery constituted a veritable industry, both within and outside the academic world. It went from the most frenzied sensationalism to the most erudite scholarship. I wanted to offer a personal perspective, situated somewhere between a serialized novel and a monograph—some new and well-thought-out, passionate, and organized tribute to my beloved—that I hoped would raise the debate to a higher plane.
In the early 1960s, I began reflecting seriously on the notes I had gathered. But too often interrupted and ignored over the course of my wanderings, the manuscript never amounted to much of anything. Tossed about from one part of the world to another, I carted it around with me like some pitiful reminder of my failure at Hadriana Siloé’s wake.
On the night of April 9, 1972, I unwrapped it for the umpteenth time in twelve years. I fully intended to finish the essay this time around. I began looking over the pages where I had summarized my working hypotheses. I had grouped them into nine propositions under a heading that certainly wasn’t appropriate for an essay: “The Jacmelian Adventures of a White Petit Bon Ange.”
(The Universal Historic Stage)
The zombie phenomenon is situated at the confluence of a variety of mystical trends that have left extraordinary traces at the core of the agrarian sects to which Vodou and its singular “Vodouishness” belong. The rural witch doctor, creator of Haitian zombies—like his homologue from the Middle Ages or the early-baroque era—is a dispenser of good and evil. He is capable of producing either the beneficial charm that protects and heals, or the evil charm that persecutes and destroys.
The nocturnal gangs from the sectes aux yeux rouges of our (Hadriana and my) Jacmelian childhood have their roots in either the Italian Frioul archipelago or in sixteenth-century Lithuania, with the Gascons of Henri IV, or the traditions of Latin- and German-speaking Alpine countries. One might also follow the roots of their magical prowess to societies far removed from one another in the global sphere, from the countries of Siberia and Central Asia to the Andean highlands of South America; from the Pacific islands to the Nordic territories; from the communities of Japan, Tibet, and China to sub-Saharan African societies; from the shores of the Indus River to Northern Africa.
We have credited witch doctors from all of these diverse regions of the globe with the capacity to transform their enemies into animals (werewolf, butterfly, lizard, crow, rat, ox, cat, lion, leopard, etc.), to engage in the ritual sacrifice of children, to screw and even knock up young women remotely, and to take over the vital substance—spiritual or physical—of other beings in order to increase their own power in society.
(The Historic Haitian Stage)
In Haiti, a witch doctor can steal a person’s light and his capacity to dream (his petit bon ange), which he then imprisons—like a ship in a bottle—in an empty bottle of rum, Scott’s Emulsion, champagne, or Coca-Cola, as it awaits future magico-genetic operations. During this time, the victim’s muscular energy (his gros bon ange) ends up, compelled by a whip, executing the harshest tasks in some part of the countryside. Dissociated beings like these fall, wrists and ankles bound, under the category of human livestock, subject to endless brutality.
The fate of the zombie might be compared to that of the colonial plantation slave of old Saint-Domingue. Its destiny corresponds, on the mystical plane, to that of the Africans deported to the Americas to replace the decimated Indian labor force in the colony’s fields, mines, and factories. It would make sense, for the purposes of this study, to determine whether the idea of the zombie is in fact one of the traps of colonial history—something Haitians might have internalized and integrated into their own worldview. It could be a symbol of an imaginary world borne of tobacco, coffee, sugar, cotton, cacao, or spices—one of the many symbols of the ontological shipwreck of man on the American plantations, a perfect fit in the gallery of the wretched of the earth that the writings of Sartre, Memmi, Fanon, and Simone de Beauvoir, among others, have collaged together from various portraits of the colonized (black, Arab, yellow)—not to mention women and Jews.
(On the Process of the Mythological and Semiotic Vulgarization of Human Reality)
In returning to the original source of the myth, one must go over with a fine-toothed comb an eminently magical process that, over the course of the last three centuries, has allowed for the designating of Europeans of different ethnicity (Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, etc.) as “Whites”; of the indigenous peoples of the Americas “discovered” by Columbus in the Western hemisphere (Arawaks, Tainos, Caribs, Ciboneys, Mayas, Incas, Aztecs, Quechuas, Guaranís, etc.) as “Indians”; and of sub-Saharan Africans (Sudanese, Guineans, Bantus, Congolese, Angolans, etc.) as “Negroes,” “mixed-race,” “Mulattos,” and “people of color.” Under the effect of what amounts to an absurdly fantastical inversion of the hierarchy of form and substance in our species, it somehow became commonplace to insist on a causal relationship between the skin color, facial structure, and follicular attributes of various human groupings, on the one hand, and their particular cultural and natural developments on the other. As a function of these racializations of colonial conflicts, the essence of African ethnicities was reduced to a fantasy of the “inferior nature of the Negro,” while the essence of the ethnic groups emerging from Europe was elevated to the no-less-fantastic notion of the “superior nature of the white man.” Through this simultaneously mythological and semiotic vulgarization, the institution of slavery invented social types in the Americas so as to assure its own prosperity. The disguising of souls accompanied the occultation of certain geographical areas: the “West Indies” in the place of the mythical Orient that obsessed Columbus, “America” in the place of Colombia (the admiral’s star having dimmed next to that of Amerigo Vespucci). Everything happened as if the enterprising masters of colonization needed, in the magical realm, to put masks both on their field of action and on the protagonists of the triangular crossings that were mobilizing men on three continents (Europe, Africa, and the Americas).
Haiti, like the other “discovered” lands of the Americas, entered into modern history caught up in this game of masks (white, black, Indian, mulatto, etc.)—that is to say, with a false identity. At the very bottom of the pit that is the reification of men, within the boundaries of death and the separation of the passions, at the tail end of the tragedy of being, is where one encounters the existential time and place of the zombie. Without a personal life or civil status, registered with the local cemetery, torn from the bosom of the family, of the church, of pleasure, dance, sex, friendship, and life itself; bound day and night by the purely physiological and physical exigencies of harsh labor, the zombie adds a fourth episode to the three classic scenarios of black history: brute idiots with backs bent to till the earth; oversized children to be evangelized; angry Black Power militants meant to be rehabilitated en masse. Within the frame of this ternary destiny governed by the basic barbaric/civilized binary, the zombie represents the ultimate biological fuel—that which remains of Caliban after the loss of his identity, his life having been cut literally in two, his gros bon ange of muscular effort condemned to forced labor in perpetuity and his petit bon ange of knowledge and enlightenment, of innocence and imagination, forever exiled in the first empty bottle within reach.
(Portrait of the Zombie)
These are the elements most critical to fully understanding this sub-Negro—this broken being with neither memory nor vision of the future, with neither needs nor dreams, without roots to bear fruit, without the balls to get a hard-on, this object adrift in the kingdom of shadows, far from the salt and spices of freedom . . .
It would make sense, at this juncture, to provide an outline of those traits most common to beings trapped in a zombified state: zombies are recognizable by their glassy-eyed gazes, the nasal intonation of their voices, their vacuous expressions, and the fog that envelops their thoughts and words; by their halting manner of walking while looking straight ahead, indifferent to people, animals, things, and plants; by the fact that they instantly degrade everything and anything around them, even without making the slightest bit of contact.
Ninth and Final Proposition
(Zombiehood and Dezombification)
In living its zombified state to the bitter end, might there be a fresh light of authenticity and freedom waiting at the end of the tunnel for whatever is left of that man or woman? Alas, everything would seem to indicate that there is no possibility for solidarity in that desert with neither salt nor sympathy that is zombification. There is no common interest or passion among zombies. Neither the disdain nor the hostility of other “races” inspires them to forge any sort of alliance. Let us join what’s left of our animated bodies together to take action in the name of freedom! are words one is unlikely to hear come out of a zombie’s mouth. Zombiehood has no future. Even if one were to stuff a bunch of zombies full of sea salt, they would not find anything better to do than to hightail it to the nearest cemetery. Once there, just like Lil’ Joseph’s crew from Colombier, they would use their teeth and nails to dig into the rocks and dirt, all for the supreme satisfaction of liquefying—once settled back in the earth—into so many stinking carcasses!
Why zombies—and zombification—in the Haitian imagination? Is the myth of the subhuman something that belongs to the Fourth World of my country? For whom or for what is the creature a scapegoat? In a society with a pretty low coefficient of law and liberty, does the zombie’s absolute uncertainty amount to a mystical manifestation of the extreme desperation of the human condition that is life on my little half-island?
That night, reading over all that pseudo-Sartrean jargon mixed up in my vengeful and ludicrous third-worldism, I stopped short, filled with an anxiety that seemed to presage a heart attack.
What about Hadriana Siloé in all of this?
Absent the extraordinary flesh-and-bones zombie who had eluded me for more than thirty years, all I was doing was rambling on about the zombie myth and splitting the finest of metaphysical hairs. There was only one question that really needed to be answered: by what lapse of reason, begetter of monsters and of the living-dead, had the marvelous flesh and the sun-filled dream of an adolescent love story been transformed into a shadow wandering across the century?
In the margins of my draft of the essay, I had written in red pencil:
Enough with these supposedly keen insights on the mythology and sociology of decolonization. For the second time in this life, Hadriana Siloé is knocking at your door in the middle of the night. Get up and bring your beloved back to her childhood home!
From Hadriana in All My Dreams. Used with permission of Akashic Books; Tra edition. Copyright © 2017 by René Depestre.