Shelf Life | 'The Dominion of the Dead': Looking to
the Dead to Protect the Living
November 1, 2003
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
The home, we like to think, is a
haven in a heartless
world, a refuge from the dangerous and death-ridden
beyond its doors. But as Robert Pogue Harrison
"The Dominion of the Dead," an evocative, subtle and
occasionally difficult meditation, the home has its
more as a protection for the dead than as a shelter
living. "Human beings housed their dead before they
themselves," he writes, and that housing involved
just crypts and graves.
The dead, having been protected, also
give shelter to the
living. In Mr. Harrison's account, they remain at the
of every home; they share their dominion. Ancient
houses may have been constructed around the tombs of
ancestors, but even the modern house, for Mr.
be a haven for the ancestral past, a locus of
The dead protect and guide the
living, in Mr. Harrison's
speculations, to "perpetuate their afterlives and
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
has a rare poetic intelligence that does not shrink
speculative immensity. His 1992 book, "Forests: The
of Civilization," was an ambitious poetic sojourn
ancient pathways, examining the mythic meanings of
woods in a philosophical eulogy.
In examining death, this new book
even becomes a
demonstration of his thesis: in a kind of literary
the voices of the dead - poets like Swinburne and
writers like Conrad and Joyce, philosophers like Vico
Heidegger - shape the text. Along the way are a
of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, an
Christianity's vision of resurrection, and
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
ideologies, and very often their superstitions; and
we die trying to vindicate their humiliations."
Mr. Harrison is also haunted by their
impossible to overestimate how much human culture
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
This is so sweeping it may seem
either obvious or absurd.
And particularly in the more labored second half of
book, Mr. Harrison's eloquence is undone by
the obscure Heidegerian rhetoric ("The hic of the hic
jacet," Mr. Harrison writes, "is the aboriginal Da
grounds Dasein's situatedness and historicizes its
the world.") But he does not indulge in obscurity for
own sake, and Heidegger is, after all, the ancestral
this book: he was a philosopher of death, who saw in
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
despite the book's difficulties and constraints, by
one begins to think differently about the living as
It exerts this power by shifting
attention to what is
generally overlooked, even examining our familiar
of "place." A place, Mr. Harrison argues, is a space
demarcated by the human, as opposed to a wilderness.
points out, creating a place is like placing a jar on
hill in Tennessee in the Wallace Stevens poem; the
formed object transforms the natural world
And the archetypal marking of place, Mr. Harrison
the grave, an immovable spot, the mysterious sign of
something that once was. Even in myth, gods are not
founders of places; mortals are. Grave sites become
foundation stones. Virgil's Aeneas buried his dead in
places that were destined to become sites of Roman
So the grave site becomes a place of
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
nation. So in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln
refounded the nation, invoking "the sacrificial basis
the most ancient nations: the blood of the brother."
Gettysburg becomes the grave site that helps
Lincoln's detached, opening reference to the United
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
course. If untempered by other ideas, this attention
death's potency, these invocations of history and
the fetishization of the ancestral past can easily
variations on the Nazism that lured Heidegger. Mr.
Harrison, without directly addressing this issue,
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
institutions of humanity": religion, matrimony and
For Mr. Harrison, these social institutions, and
create values and traditions and possibilities,
establishing different sorts of relations between the
living and the dead, leading to a variety of cultural
political worlds; the past reaches over the present
shape the future.
So Mr. Harrison is not worried about
the extremes of a
death-haunted culture; he is worried about a culture
doesn't give enough attention to death. And that is
he thinks we now stand in the West. For the first
millenniums, he points out, most people don't know
they will be buried. This is just a reflection of an
increasingly unsteady relationship between the living
the dead, weakening conceptions of both history and
culture. From this, he would say, the dead have as
lose as the living: "We give them a future so that
give us a past." For a while anyway, Mr. Harrison
to provide us with both.