Shelf Life | 'The Dominion of the Dead': Looking to the Dead to Protect the Living

November 1, 2003

The home, we like to think, is a haven in a heartless
world, a refuge from the dangerous and death-ridden realm
beyond its doors. But as Robert Pogue Harrison suggests in
"The Dominion of the Dead," an evocative, subtle and
occasionally difficult meditation, the home has its origins
more as a protection for the dead than as a shelter for the
living. "Human beings housed their dead before they housed
themselves," he writes, and that housing involved more than
just crypts and graves.

The dead, having been protected, also give shelter to the
living. In Mr. Harrison's account, they remain at the heart
of every home; they share their dominion. Ancient Roman
houses may have been constructed around the tombs of
ancestors, but even the modern house, for Mr. Harrison, can
be a haven for the ancestral past, a locus of tradition and

The dead protect and guide the living, in Mr. Harrison's
speculations, to "perpetuate their afterlives and promote
the interests of the unborn."

This might seem a bit overwrought. But Mr. Harrison, who
teaches Italian literature and is chairman of the
department of French and Italian at Stanford University,
has a rare poetic intelligence that does not shrink from
speculative immensity. His 1992 book, "Forests: The Shadow
of Civilization," was an ambitious poetic sojourn down
ancient pathways, examining the mythic meanings of dark
woods in a philosophical eulogy.

In examining death, this new book even becomes a
demonstration of his thesis: in a kind of literary sťance,
the voices of the dead - poets like Swinburne and Homer,
writers like Conrad and Joyce, philosophers like Vico and
Heidegger - shape the text. Along the way are a discussion
of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, an interpretation of
Christianity's vision of resurrection, and speculation
about how grief is inscribed in language.

For Mr. Harrison, in fact, the entire world of the living
is permeated by the dead.

"We inherit their obsessions," he writes, "assume their
burdens; carry on their causes; promote their mentalities,
ideologies, and very often their superstitions; and often
we die trying to vindicate their humiliations."

Mr. Harrison is also haunted by their presence.

"It is
impossible to overestimate how much human culture owes, in
principle and in origin, to the corpse," he proposes.

"The dead are our guardians," he concludes. The dominion of
the dead, it turns out, is the dominion in which we live.

This is so sweeping it may seem either obvious or absurd.
And particularly in the more labored second half of the
book, Mr. Harrison's eloquence is undone by academicisms or
the obscure Heidegerian rhetoric ("The hic of the hic
jacet," Mr. Harrison writes, "is the aboriginal Da that
grounds Dasein's situatedness and historicizes its being in
the world.") But he does not indulge in obscurity for its
own sake, and Heidegger is, after all, the ancestral god of
this book: he was a philosopher of death, who saw in its
constant and imminent presence the defining force in
shaping what is distinctively human. That is also Mr.
Harrison's belief, and it is a measure of his gifts that
despite the book's difficulties and constraints, by its end
one begins to think differently about the living as well as
the dead.

It exerts this power by shifting attention to what is
generally overlooked, even examining our familiar notions
of "place." A place, Mr. Harrison argues, is a space
demarcated by the human, as opposed to a wilderness. As he
points out, creating a place is like placing a jar on a
hill in Tennessee in the Wallace Stevens poem; the humanly
formed object transforms the natural world surrounding it.
And the archetypal marking of place, Mr. Harrison says, is
the grave, an immovable spot, the mysterious sign of
something that once was. Even in myth, gods are not the
founders of places; mortals are. Grave sites become the
foundation stones. Virgil's Aeneas buried his dead in
places that were destined to become sites of Roman triumph.


So the grave site becomes a place of immense political
importance: it defines the space of the living. Mr.
Harrison suggests that in the midst of the Civil War,
Abraham Lincoln recognized that a mere document, the
Constitution, was not in itself sufficient to establish a
nation. So in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln essentially
refounded the nation, invoking "the sacrificial basis of
the most ancient nations: the blood of the brother."
Gettysburg becomes the grave site that helps transform
Lincoln's detached, opening reference to the United States
as "that nation" into the closing reference to "this
nation," one in which all citizens are now bound.

There is a danger in Mr. Harrison's preoccupations, of
course. If untempered by other ideas, this attention to
death's potency, these invocations of history and myth and
the fetishization of the ancestral past can easily lead to
variations on the Nazism that lured Heidegger. Mr.
Harrison, without directly addressing this issue, seems to
acknowledge it, using the 16th-century philosopher
Giambattista Vico as a corrective.

Vico did not see death in a metaphysical vacuum, but
examined its presence in what he called the "universal
institutions of humanity": religion, matrimony and burial.
For Mr. Harrison, these social institutions, and others,
create values and traditions and possibilities,
establishing different sorts of relations between the
living and the dead, leading to a variety of cultural and
political worlds; the past reaches over the present to
shape the future.

So Mr. Harrison is not worried about the extremes of a
death-haunted culture; he is worried about a culture that
doesn't give enough attention to death. And that is where
he thinks we now stand in the West. For the first time in
millenniums, he points out, most people don't know where
they will be buried. This is just a reflection of an
increasingly unsteady relationship between the living and
the dead, weakening conceptions of both history and
culture. From this, he would say, the dead have as much to
lose as the living: "We give them a future so that they may
give us a past." For a while anyway, Mr. Harrison manages
to provide us with both.