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
on the trees
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
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.”
The chapter is a progression of reflections that begins with a consideration of the earth as a repository and realm of the dead and goes on to a discussion of the earth as the source of both nature and human culture. Human culture, and the human imagination from which it derives, are powerless to escape the claims of “earthly” mortality, but they have evolved a singular, expanding use of memory that allows them to carry elements of experiences from earlier lives as well as the living present into each successive mortal moment. The exercise and perceived value of memory must have been part of the eventual human sense—or imagination—of time. Early in his discussion of the place of the earth in relation to the dead, Harrison writes of the temporal arts such as music and poetry, and then of architecture as an art that makes a place in which human time, human history, happen. Thus he comes to the subject of ruins, and what we find troubling about them. “They literally embody the dissolution of meaning into matter,” he writes, and they “have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth.”
The lure, the charm, and the disturbing aspect of ruins are a vast subject with a history and arts and descriptions of its own. Harrison writes of how ruins are imagined, in literature, at the end of time, the earth standing empty (at least of us). And he writes about the image of the sea, which he examines in Marianne Moore’s poem “A Grave,” with its bleak opening lines:
Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.
He also reflects on the function of architecture both as a shelter for the living moment and as a monument, a means of continuity, for housing and perpetuating what is intimately remembered, or memorialized, the lares and penates of ancient Roman houses, the household gods in any society that recognizes and values such presences. Writing of the importance of place in human experience, he says, “[Places] do not occur naturally but are created by human beings through some sign or mark of human presence.” In establishing a place, human time “intervenes,” he says, in the self-renewing cycles of nature. “We dwell in space, to be sure, but we dwell first and foremost within the limits of our mortality.” “When we build something in nature…we create the rudiments of a world and thereby give a sign of our mortal sojourn on the earth.” The most “aboriginal” sign of this “history-making mortality,” he says, is the grave marker. Human institutions, he argues, as well as individual lives, are founded on places sacred to the memory of our antecedents, and he gives as an example Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, whose intent, he says, was the “refounding” of the republic on ground hallowed by the heroic dead.
Harrison observes the way the sense of place is rapidly being eroded in the modern world, and writes, “If cultural memory has a future, which at present seems doubtful, the twentieth century will one day be remembered as the fitful and prolonged continuation of a process that began in earnest a century earlier: the end of the Neolithic era.” This is an idiosyncratic and provocative use of the term “Neolithic,” which generally refers to the latter part of the “Stone Age,” to the era of polished stone tools, the domestication of animals, and the beginnings of agriculture. Harrison extends the scope of that era to include the continuation of agriculture and, presumably, of the exploitation of animals, through the next five or six thousand years, when “the great majority of human beings lived and toiled on the land where their ancestors were interred, where their children and their children’s children would be interred…. For the first time in millennia, most of us don’t know where we will be buried, assuming we will be buried at all.”
He asks what, in philosophical terms, is a house, as distinct from the burrows and shelters of our forebears in other species. A shelter, he writes, becomes a human abode by being the place where the dead remain with us. “To inhabit the world humanly,” he writes, “one must be a creature of legacy. That is why the living housed the dead before they housed themselves.” It may be so, and the idea, figuratively at least, is suggestive, but if the statement is to be taken literally, Harrison’s supporting examples are not conclusive. The human societies in which the actual bodies or relics of the dead are or were contained within the dwellings of the living appear to have been rare and atypical.
Mementos, reminders of the dead, and of past experiences of the living, are another matter. They are representations—not the dead but standing for the dead. Thoreau, he writes, had the “special authority of someone who not only built a house from the ground up but who also built a philosophy on that act of edification,” and he notes that Thoreau seemed happy to imagine that he was “not aware that any man has built on the spot which I occupy.” Yet Harrison points out that his cabin was crammed with the ghosts of his Puritan ancestors, among others. They congregated in his cabin, entered his words, and live on in his book. But these are “ghosts,” not buried bodies, Harrison says, and it is in this sense rather than in physical remains that Thoreau recognized the relation of his dwelling place to his forebears and to the world beneath us. Harrison quotes a crucial sentence: “The house,” Thoreau wrote, “is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.”
The palimpsest that accrues day by day, generation by generation in the dwelling (or did until recent decades), is the subject of a dense passage in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which provides Harrison with a rich and appropriately haunting image of human transience. Rilke’s character Malte is a foreigner wandering through Paris, who comes across the last remaining wall of a torn-down house. “The stubborn life of these rooms had not yet let itself be trampled out,” Malte observes.
It was still there; it clung to the nails that had been left, it stood on the remaining handsbreadth of flooring, it crouched under the corner joints where there was still a bit of interior…. The breath of these lives stood out—the clammy, sluggish, musty breath, which no wind had yet scattered…. One would think I had stood a long time before it; but I’m willing to swear that I began to run as soon as I had recognized that wall. For that is the terrible thing, that I did recognize it. I recognize everything here, and that is why it goes right into me; it is at home in me.
Our awareness of continuity is rooted in the constantly recurring awareness of loss, past, present, and to come, and upon grief, the seismic emotional response to being deprived of those we love, and of all that seems indispensable to us. Harrison’s discussion of the expression and ritualization of grief, from “primitive grief” (Vico’s phrase) through archaic Greece and the evolution of Christianity, is indebted, as he makes plain, to Ernesto de Martino’s Morte e pianto rituale (1958). To ritualize grief is to “depersonalize” it, and so prevent it from becoming uncontrollably destructive of the person stricken with it and of his or her surrounding social ties. Harrison’s discussion of the distancing process leads him to theories about the origins of language itself.
Vico says that “men vent great passions by breaking into song…and formed their first languages by singing,” and he had thought that both grief and joy might have been the possible causes for the creator of song. He also connected the most primitive forms of articulation to stammering, which he considered to be a kind of singing broken up by consonants, a sound, or chain of sounds, born of the strain to dominate an emotion. In Harrison’s view the death of a loved one is the most likely origin of the emotion and of the consonants that interrupt the ululations of the human voice in its primal phase. Furthermore, it is from the grieving self’s anguished longing to be united with what death has removed that “the quest for meaning first gets under way.” If this line of reasoning is correct, it may be that the dirge, the elegy, with its expressed anguish and its distance, is the original, the basic and primordial mode of all poetry.
Harrison goes on to examine the evolution of language, and etymology, the study of the histories of words and of the meanings that they carry with them, usually in a subterranean sense, in current usages. He invokes Giacomo Leopardi, who “maintained that a plurality of bygone worlds come alive in the mind of a native Italian speaker who hears…words with Latinate roots that reverberate in deep latent recesses of cultural memory.” Leopardi distinguishes between parole, that is, words that bear with them their figurative and evocative past, and termini, terms, which are abstract and, although they may have a certain precision, do not have what Harrison calls “the parola’s genetic bond between word, world, memory, and time.”
Leopardi’s distinction between parole and termini and his allegiance to parole, with its sense that any living word contains within it some abiding residue of the experience that has provided the source of its former usages, seem a recognition of something basic to poetry, and to the language of poetry, whether that is always apparent or not. His fidelity to parole appears to be inseparable from the perennial poetic impulse to revive and renew.
Mr. Harrison cites other Italian examples, among them Petrarch’s aim of turning Italian “into an ancient language and thereby into the first modern language of Europe.” It was the poet Ungaretti who particularly admired Petrarch’s “Latinate elegance” and called Petrarch’s use of it “a language recovered from the grave,” asserting that “through Petrarch’s merit Italian suddenly became an ancient language.” The italics are Harrison’s, and highlight, in fact, a debatable statement, since Petrarch’s poetic fore- bears, the troubadours, had written a large and immensely influential body of poetry in Occitan, beginning in the twelfth century some two hundred years before him, in the lifetime of Guilhem IX, Duke of Aquitaine.
Mr. Harrison ponders, and departs from, Heidegger’s excursion into the etymologies of Greek words, and once again Vico provides him with a seminal, alternate notion. Harrison looks at his proposed etymology of the Latin word lex, now usually translated as “law.” Though Vico’s etymologies, Harrison reminds us, often amuse those who read them now, he finds grounds to take his treatment of lex seriously. “First,” Vico wrote, “it must have meant a collection of acorns.”
Thence we believe is derived ilex …the [holm] oak…for the oak produces the acorns by which the swine are drawn together. Lex was next a collection of vegetables, for which the latter were called legumina. Later on, at a time when vulgar letters had not yet been invented for writing down the laws, lex…must have meant a collection of citizens, or the public parliament; so that the presence of the people was the lex, or “law.”… Finally, collecting letters, and mak- ing, as it were, a sheaf of them for each word, was called legere, reading.
Harrison notes that the Indo-European root leg was indeed a primal source for words to do with gathering and binding together, though Vico could not have known that. Harrison traces Vico’s original insight concerning the derivations of the Latin legere to the
mysterious genetic logic by which the gathering of the lex is gathered within the word itself, in such a way that its accumulations of past meanings perdure, however latently, in its various derivatives ….It is the lex itself—understood now as the principle of synthe-sis in general—which holds together and interrelates the order of ideas and institutions…. Vico’s genealogy of a dead word…uncovers in the word lex the principle itself.
Vico, Harrison writes, “believed that the first symptom of the decline of nations into what he called ‘the barbarism of reflection’ was not the corruption of morals but the corruption of language,” a conviction that Confucius had expressed centuries earlier. “One could say,” he observes,
that in the age of the new barbarism words lose their moral memory. For even our morality—indeed, our morality above all—depends on the historical resonance of its foundational words: liberty, duty, sacrifice, compassion, equality. The “false eloquence” of the times exploits the traditional charisma of such words while at the same time emptying them of their historical memory.
“Reflection” in Vico’s sense refers to the blind, unimaginative, mechanical repetition of reliquary patterns from the past, a meaning which is contained in the etymology of the word “superstition,” and whose recurrence one can see clearly in the obstinate addiction to fundamentalism, not to mention the language of contemporary politics.
In considering the distinction between the awareness of death and the awareness of the dead, Harrison notes that both Freud and Jung believed that the unconscious did not, and probably could not, on its own, envisage its own mortality. Jung suggested that the idea of the immortality of the soul may have grown from the psychic lack of a sense of one’s own end, and that only the evidence of the deaths of those we love, those near us and known to us, brings us to a recognition of our common destiny. Heidegger was convinced that the living retain a feeling of irredeemable debt toward the dead, which is bound up with the rest of their mortal dread.
The dead, Harrison writes, maintain a “tenacious, subterranean authority over our lives, mentalities, behavior, motivations, psyches…genes, personalities, dispositions” and the quality of our relation to that authority within ourselves is the measure of what he terms our “authenticity.” That relation is a complex matter, for it entails recognizing, acknowledging, and taking up the legacy of the dead and making of it something at once indigenous and new, without denying or falsifying the past or piously repeating it. Heidegger writes of the authentic relation with the dead as a kind of conversation with the past, a “reciprocative rejoinder” which allows for the possibility of an awakened disavowal of past patterns and their proven errors. Harrison’s example of “dead” repetition of antecedents is taken from Virgil, from Aeneas’ descent into the underworld in Book 3 of the Aeneid. There Aeneas sees “a little Troy, a Pergamus that mimes the great one, and a dried-up stream/that takes its name from Xanthus.”
Harrison writes, “This dried-up stream tells us all we need to know about the sterility of this ghostly place….” On the other hand, an authentic self-liberation from the claims of one’s forebears, Heidegger wrote, opened not only the possibility of avoiding the destructive patterns of one’s antecedents but gave one a chance to choose one’s ancestor, one’s adopted forerunner, as Dante, for example, chose Virgil.
The invention of Christianity begins in a sense with the myth of Easter morning and the discovery of the empty tomb, and with the subsequent doctrine of the resurrection of the body, starting with the words “he is not here.” The claims (in every sense) growing from this myth animate the entire history of Christianity, and so of the Christian West, from Paul and his emphasis on “the evidence of things unseen” to the present. The Western world in that period is unimaginable without them. The central place in that history of the image of the empty tomb, of the absent dead, is pivotal in Harrison’s thinking, and he contrasts, finally, two views of it, one expressed by Nietzsche and the other by Walter Pater in Marius the Epicurean. Nietzsche, in The Antichrist, described Christianity as a slave rebellion, life-denying and earth-loathing. Pater saw Christianity as a great “retrieval” and renewal, a view of it based on the fact that the Roman church, like the Roman religion of Numa before it, built its house on and around the tombs of the dead. However imperial the Pauline myth may have become, it is, as Harrison concludes, and as the broad spectrum of culture testifies, only one of many ways that the human psyche has evolved to sanctify individual, momentary life and to maintain a conversation with the dead that is capable of providing guidance to the living.
In his final chapter, on the afterlife of the image of the dead, Harrison comments on the debt that Heidegger believed the living owe to the dead. Once more he turns from Heidegger and his darkened image of “guilt” to Vico and something more Latinate perhaps, a “contract between the living and the dead that has traditionally been one of mutual indebtedness.” For “the dead,” Harrison writes, “depend upon the living to preserve their authority, heed their concerns, and keep them going in their afterlives.” He continues, “In return, they help us to know ourselves, give form to our lives, organize our social relations, and restrain our destructive impulses.” They do this through whatever images of them survive in the minds and expectations of the living. Indeed, Harrison is less interested in particular theories of the afterlife (which he does not discuss) than in the earthly keepsakes and memories that the living have of the dead—“the multitude of recesses where the shadow images of the dead maintain a privative presence: dreams, books, portraits, houses, art, and so on.” This, to Harrison, is the spirit realm.
The Dominion of the Dead is a daring and ambitious book. Any approach we take to the continuing presence of the dead is certain to be directed by our own projections and inventions, and by the influence of the past, which determines our recognitions, our aspirations, and our expressions, and what they mean to us. It may be that, with so inchoate and amorphous a subject, as with “most theories about the origins of language” (in Mr. Harrison’s words), any theories “say more about those who promote them” than about, in this case, the influence of the dead. Mr. Harrison’s subject begins everywhere, before the first impulses to find words for it; and words, as they are summoned to it, represent the legacy of all those who have used them before we did. At the end of his excursion the reader may recall Harrison’s invitation in his preface to “establish independent connections, leap over abysses …and, through the tracings offered here, discover the topic for him- or herself.” The subject is one in which the reader participates, and it will not end as long as there is someone to ponder it.
April 8, 2004