Mr. Harrison’s subject in The Dominion of the Dead is suggested by questions posed on his book’s jacket: “How do the living maintain relations to the dead? Why do we bury people when they die? And what is at stake when we do?” We might think at first that these themes have seldom been directly addressed. Then of course we begin to remember, and Mr. Harrison artfully reminds us, that they have indeed been the subject of virtually constant and occasionally desperate consideration throughout the history, known and postulated, of our species, and in fact they comprise a subject underlying all the others.
The theme—not only of death but of the continuing influence of the dead—as he presents it to us is so vast and pervasive that after he has outlined his approach to it in a distilled preface and indicated aspects of it that he intends to ponder, he concludes by handing over the entire subject to the reader to complete or at least augment, suggesting by doing so that the scope of it exceeds any single author’s, any one person’s, ability to address all of it. What might appear to be no more than a graceful, if unnecessary, gesture of self-deprecation in fact emphasizes the ubiquity and continuity of his subject, the kaleidoscopic presence of death in individual awareness and in cultural heredity. “While it is true,” Harrison writes in his concluding chapter, “that we speak with the words of the dead, it is equally true that the dead speak in and through the voices of the living. We inherit their words so as to lend them voice.”
Mr. Harrison uses words with the care and regard of a lover of poetry in at least four languages, and of a perceptive and original literary critic and student of philology as well as of history, anthropology, and philosophy. His principal thesis, as he tentatively describes it, turns upon the act of the burial of the dead by human beings. His reading of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, and particularly Vico’s The New Science (1744), which he calls “the major inspiration for this study,” has led him to believe that the custom of burial marks the beginning and provides the definition of what we think of as humanity. Humanity, as he conceives of it, “is not a species (Homo sapiens is a species); it is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.”
Vico, he tells us, has “reminded” us that humanitas in Latin comes first and properly from humando, burying. By properly he means “essentially and irreducibly.” However subterranean and tributary that etymology (both words are presumed to come from a root, dghem, which was the source of the Greek word khthon and meant “earth”), the relation between the words is essential to Mr. Harrison’s argument. He appears to take Vico’s antique etymology without question and literally when in fact …