The first by Amy Wilentz, explains the origins of the concept of the “Zombie.” The life of the slave in Haiti was so brutal and unbearable that the slaves often preferred suicide, which was imagined as a return to Africa (lan guinée), a phrase that in Creole even today means heaven. Against this threat, the masters devised and played on the idea of the Zombie, a species of living dead, who would never be able to return to Africa and instead would perform slave labor forever.
The second piece by Ben Mattlin opposes the Massachusetts assisted suicide law, to be voted on next week. Mattlin was born with spinal muscular atrophy. He has never stood, or walked, or had much use of his hands. Roughly half the infants born with this condition die by the age of two, but Mattlin is nearly fifty and, as he writes, “a husband, father, journalist and author.” Living his whole life so close to death he recounts the many times well-meaning doctors and relatives wanted to “spare” him, and the state. No one chooses suicide in a vacuum he notes.
The two stories make the same point: the priority of the human spirit over the body. Mattlin writes so beautifully that it is hard to imagine the wracked body from which his words emanate. It is in good part to affirm the beauty of the human spirit– in other words, of freedom– that most Americans, and citizens of other countries, gladly spend so much money on keeping the very ill, and the very old, alive. Wilentz’s story teaches the same lesson from the opposite point of view. Without a spirit, without freedom, the body is worthless. If we give up our understanding of the priority of the spirit over the body we tend to become zombies ourselves.