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You Can Take It With You

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 it may simply offer a valuable suggestion. The ghats on the Ganges, the platforms erected on the empty plains for the bodies of some indigenous North American tribes, the widespread practice of cremation in many cultures, the ritualized dismemberment of corpses in several societies, are all formalized ways of disposing of the remains of the dead and marking their separation from the living, but they can hardly be called burials unless the word, by metonymy, is thought of as a reference to any customary, preordained valedictory treatment of the remains of the dead by the living.

Mr. Harrison’s other principal “psychopomp,” or guide to the dead, in this study is Martin Heidegger, whose discourses on the subject, principally in Being and Time, tend to be more intricate and rarefied than Vico’s and at times seem to serve Harrison as part guide, part foil. Besides these two writers, Harrison cites a long and distinguished list of others who have written on the subject, from Homer through Conrad and Beckett.

The Dominion of the Dead is a sequel, a kind of extension, logically and metaphorically, of Harrison’s earlier work Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), an exploration of the place of the forest, its presence and image in human culture. In his preface to that book Harrison wrote of nascent civilization, “A fringe of darkness defined the limits of its cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its institutional domain; but also the extravagance of its imagination.” In his new work the “fringe of darkness” that is the forest, the realm of the unknown surrounding human construction and cultivation and social life, becomes the unknown and unknowable country of the dead, a bourne of immeasurable, untouchable authority. The forest, of course, was not literally a place of burial, but for ages it represented to the living the encircling and ever-present unknown which the dead seem to inhabit.

In her review of Forests* Anne Barton identified the “fringe of darkness” as the forest that the Red Queen told Alice she would come to, and where the absence of light, indeed, troubled Alice when she arrived there:

Well, at any rate it’s a great comfort,” she said, as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the—into the—into what?” she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word…. “I do believe it’s got no name.”

Whether or not it is an actual place apart from us, this unknown darkness is an awareness, a projection; Harrison speaks of it as an “indwelling” wilderness. Even the trees that in their green selves are forms and instances of life are at the same time participants in the great darkness in which life happens as mortality. In the eighth chapter of The Dominion of the Dead, a section devoted to the names and figures that represent the dead, Harrison sets before us a series of references to leaves in poetry (the pun on the word “leaves” that has evolved in English, making it also a reference to departure, is part of its full, ambient current meaning). The first of them is a very short poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti written during World War I, entitled “Soldiers”:

One is as
in autumn
on the trees
the leaves.

It would be hard not to associate that poem with Wallace Stevens’s “The Death of a Soldier” with its lines:

Life contracts and death is expected
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls…
Death is absolute and without memorial.
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops…

The next leaf image that Harrison cites, after Ungaretti, is from the Iliad:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

Here the warrior, Harrison comments, “speaks as an indifferent member of his species, aware of the futility of distinctions among men, all of whom share a common mortal fate….”

He turns to an image of leaves from Homer’s heir, Virgil, taken from Book 6 of the Aeneid, where Aeneas enters the world of the dead:

And here a multitude was rushing, swarming
shoreward, with men and mothers, bodies of
high-hearted heroes stripped of life, and boys
and unwed girls, and young men set upon
the pyre of death before their fathers’ eyes:
thick as the leaves that with the early frost
of autumn drop and fall within the forest.

Harrison views the passages as a progression: “In Homer the simile seems to naturalize the human generations. In Virgil, the correspondence between humanity and the natural order seems troubled and compromised.” This is so in part because of Virgil’s “drawing attention primarily to those who died prematurely” and to the sense of what Harrison calls “the scandal of death” and its finality. He does not indicate what he means by the word “scandal,” but I would guess, following his train of thought, it is the opposite of an acceptance of death as part of the natural order, and instead is the sense of death as an insult, an outrage, shocking both individual sensual life and the continuity of social and moral community. “These leaves,” he writes, “do not grow and die. They only fall in the autumn’s ‘early frost.’”

Dante’s use of the leaf simile, almost certainly an intentional allusion to Virgil’s image, augments the “scandal” of death, if I have understood his use of the word correctly. In the Inferno Canto 3, 112–117, Dante describes the souls of the dead waiting to be ferried across the Acheron to Hell:

As in the autumn, leaves detach themselves
first one and then the other, till the bough
sees all its fallen garments on the ground,
similarly, the evil seed of Adam
descended from the shoreline one by one,
when signaled, as a falcon—called—will come.

Harrison writes of the increased complexity of the image of the leaves’ descent, and their “individuation,” coming down one by one to the isolation that is among the distinguishing characteristics of the infernal condition, which “accords well,” he writes, “with a theology that puts so much of the burden on the individual’s free will.”

Milton, Virgil’s later heir, echoes the image in Paradise Lost, Book I, 302–3:

Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa…

and in his poem the “scandal” of death eclipses natural mortality altogether and the fate referred to is a moral termination, an absolute fall from grace, for the leaves of Milton’s simile here represent the fallen angels in Hell.

The sequence of leaf images appears in a chapter entitled “The Names of the Dead,” in which Harrison goes on to consider the snowflakes and snow in the final passage of Joyce’s story The Dead. There the snow, Harrison writes,

unlike the images of autumn leaves…is not a simile but a symbol…. This snow, “falling faintly through the universe,” evokes, among other things, an idea of the vast accumulation of the dead over untold human generations…. It falls…upon all the living and the dead.

The progression brings Harrison to the chapter’s predominant image, and one of the most telling and immediate evocations of his subject, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, with its “magnetic power, its ‘gravity,’” “the encrypted presence of its dead.” Here again the living descend and confront, though in their names alone, the fallen, and also the “unresolved tensions” associated with that war. The black stone of the wall, the “fringe of darkness,” gives back, besides those names, the reflected image of the passing visitor, from the side of the living, and also, apparently, from the other side, the side of the names, or “the viewer” instead of “the reflection.” Harrison’s discussion of the memorial wall as a metaphor of mortality beyond the possibilities of judgment is close to the heart of his whole subject, though I am not sure what he means by saying that “the wall’s purpose is not to bury the soldiers, nor even to mourn them. Its purpose is to mark their absolution as mortal individuals.”

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    The New York Review, May 26, 1994.

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