People turned to literature to frame their response, to seek solace, to organize chaos into meaning. Medical science? Modern management? None of those solutions even existed. But literature did, and offered something more important: a reason to keep going. A reason to live. The Western world survived literally because a single city survived:Â Constantinople. But the people behind those great walls still had to keep believing.
Jewish,Â Christian, andÂ MuslimÂ writers all lived through these times, and they tapped into the climate of fear and dread. But their “apocalypses” actually had a different practical utility. AsJohannes FriedÂ writes, “such rhetoric is neither hysterical nor the result of panic but rather is a discourse of action, one that urges specific kinds of action … in response to belief in the imminent end.”
Apocalyptic lit helps us conquer fear. And when we are no longer afraid, we canÂ do. So zombie tales tell us what we have to do in the next bottleneck, no matter what form it takes or how bad it is. It is not the message here that counts but the taking onboard of the message–repeatedly–that actually preps us emotionally and intellectually.
World War ZÂ captures the big threat:Â people give up hope.Â
More onÂ WorldÂ War Z.
For we “exceptional” Americans, Brooks offers a final literary service, like Tolstoy to his Russia: The gift of prospective national renewal.Â World War Zshows us nothing less than how a corrupted nation can find itself again and redeem humanity.
Like Tolstoy, the main purpose ofÂ World War ZÂ is the celebration and reinforcement of collective meaning and belief. Tolstoy was building a narrative of Russian identity that would transcend the venality and ruling impoverishments of his time. He hoped it would show the way to something true and beautiful for all Russians.
Max Brooks does this for us inÂ World War Z, offering a believable path to reclaiming ourselves. For Americans this path has always been about sacrifice and the rediscovery of civic virtue. At novel’s end, those remaining Americans, whose way of life is now back to something like 1920, are yet better Americans for their privation and sacrifice.
But most important, the Americans inÂ World War ZÂ have cast off their former narcissism, today’sÂ it’s-all-about-meÂ mentality. The faux elective wars and their remorseless cheerleading too are over.
But how do we get there? Here Brooks reminds us that there is no escaping American altruism. Yes, nations have interests, and we can boast endlessly about being the world’s last best hope. But in the end we have to really come through.Â America saves the world. Period. If America does not–if someday itcannot–then there will be no salvation.