The Dominion of the Dead
To be human is, by definition, to be aware of the dead: this, in summary, is Robert Pogue Harrison’s theme. His work is a blend of history, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy and literary analysis: a mongrel mix of disciplines. In it, he reflects on architecture, the making of music and the making of nations, the aftermaths of battles, poetry and the rituals of mourning. His book ends not in scholarly notes, painstakingly sourced, or a straightforward bibliography, but in another series of short essays of added thoughts and suggestions for further reading. His book does not so much conclude as send its readers on yet more journeys.
In his preface Pogue Harrison tells us that The Dominion of the Dead is, above all, a reader’s book:
This is modest and slightly disingenuous of him—he is a cogent thinker and the book is meticulously organized—and, also, largely true. What one thinks as one reads is as thought-provoking as what one reads. And if this book is a net, when I threw it out, Henry James was the first of my catch.
The dead mattered to Henry James, too, and I think they mattered in just the way that Pogue Harrison argues they matter to us. In so much of James’s work, the living are in thrall to the dead. Ghosts stalk his stories. His stories are imbued with “a religion of the dead.”
The phrase comes from “The Altar of the Dead," one of James’s most exquisite and morbid tales. In a blurred and spectral London, a necropolis of grey suburbs in which the living seem curiously absent, the hero, Stransom, muses on his past and on his numerous and particular ghosts. He decides to build an altar to:
Stransom builds “simply the most resplendent of altars,” and the story—composed in a period when James was adding to his own Dead; the “ghastly extinction” of Robert Louis Stevenson and the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson—is something of an altarpiece itself. In his working notes for the story he observes that his hero is “struck with the way the dead are forgotten, neglected, shoved out of sight,” and, further, that the idea embedded in the story—the necessity of displaying our fidelity to the dead—“had always, or from ever so far back, been there.” [The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, edited by Edel and Powers, p. 98]
This idea is very much, in summary, the business of Robert Pogue Harrison’s thoughtful, suggestive and finely executed book although it is not James’s psyche he unearths, but our own.
Our fidelity to the dead is what makes us human. The dead dwell before, beyond and within us. When we speak, posthumous voices shape our words. The dead anchor us in time and space. They thicken our existence. Where and when we first put them to rest, we ourselves rested; the dominion of the dead is the dominion in which we live.
I have never been happy with the sea. I am content enough to look on it but to be in it was—and remains—something of a horror to me. I thought this was because I was a wimp, or from the result of some childhood trauma, but I think now it is because I am human.
Part of my childhood was spent in Gweedore on the North West coast of Ireland. Gweedore was on the very edge of the land—the tip, indeed, of Ireland—but the people of Gweedore did not love the sea. The houses did not look towards the sea but were built with their shoulders against it. It was all around us, this sea; the salty grass made the cow’s milk yellow and savoury, and the washing on the line came back into the house smelling of the metallic Atlantic, but not one person I knew there could swim or even went out to fish. The islanders across from us did that, and they were thought strange beings, almost foreigners: they lived in the sea. We children would be beaten if we so much as paddled in it. Evenings my Granny would threaten to suck our toes to test for salt. February there would be a procession down to the strand and the parish priest would bless the sea in Gaelic, to pacify the beast.
All my life I have wondered why, in Revelations, we are promised “a new Heaven and a new Earth” and, almost as extra delight, “the sea would be no more.” I have long pondered this waterless paradise, this dry heaven; would the fish live in trees, roofs on their nests to protect them from the birds? In the Bible, the sea seldom features positively; it is there before the rest of the world, as old as God—older?—and in its depths lurk monsters.
The sea, Pogue Harrison makes clear, is not human. It is hostile to the human. We cannot mark it. Our deaths in it leave no sign. The sea does not leave holes where the dead once were.
Earth, however, is human, faithful, kind: it holds our dead; it embraces us.
The sea obliterates. It does not give up our dead—in a later chapter, discussing the Disappeared of Argentina, Harrison is particularly eloquent on our need to see the dead—and the sea denies us a rightful burial, a peaceable grave, and, with it, puts at risk the possibility of Resurrection, and that curiously waterless afterlife promised in Revelations.
The sea denies and deletes us. It dishonours us. It disables us from honouring our dead—from being human—and this is why in our literature it is so often imagined as the agent of destruction, be it of a ship in Conrad, Melville’s Pequod or the whole wide world itself in countless visions of apocalypse, it boiling water overwhelms and annihilates all life.
Earth anchors us. It is a place that we can inhabit, in which can live and in which we can die and yet remain. It provides us, as the sea cannot, with a “here.”
Discussing how earth becomes a “here,” Harrison quotes from Wallace Stevens Anecdote of the Jar:
The jar, once placed, wraps the wilderness about it, becomes the focus not just of the poem but also the wilderness itself: it took dominion everywhere. The poem is the start of Harrison’s claim that:
Our final place on earth is in the earth. Graves were the first sign of our “mortal sojourn,” our having made a “here” on earth. The grave is an anchor, a necessary condition of being “here.” Graves are signs: human markers that mark us as human, and, if Vico suggests to Harrison the connection between humanitas and humando, that the human is bound up with the humus, Harrison further suggests that the essential meaning of the “sign” is, indeed, the grave:
We housed the dead long before we housed the living, and, like Stevens’s jar, the grave takes dominion everywhere. The dead buried in it make of land a proper place—make it human, make it ours.
And, just as Greek and Roman homes were built around fires that figuratively (and sometimes literally) were the resting places of the dead, our buried forbears, our domestic gods, so nations, too, are made proper by the dead. “Nation-making” epics like The Aeneid are punctuated, made purposeful as narrative and as propaganda, by a series of burials and visits to the Underworld to appease the finally approving dead. Nations are made authentic—valid—by the dead, and Harrison, whenever he can, traces his theme back to Modern America. At this point he quotes Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg:
Harrison goes on to observe:
Lincoln’s address becomes a sema, a grave and a marker of a grave, but also of a nation. Lincoln’s own death finds its sema in Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d (for poetry, he later observes is also a coffin, a sounding box), and the way the fallen of this civil war were buried—collectively but also individually, in named graves with due recognition of the state from which they came and for which they fought—becomes a new way of honouring the dead in war, and of affirming nationhood. How this custom has developed, how our attitude to war and nationhood as well as the dead, is made apparent in his discussion of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial:
It is tempting to link Harrison’s theme to the events of 9/11 and its aftershocks, but this particular chapter predates it, and the book itself is evidently the work of long and sustained thought and research. Also, its subject is always, alas, timely.
When I am feeling mortal—as lately I have—I imagine my own funeral. I select the songs, the readings over my coffin in the church and at the grave and who will be trusted to read them well. I wonder at what flowers there will be, and in which church this will all take place. I envisage my gravestone and the fine words I will have inscribed on it. I have been doing this all my life—a morbid but not unusual hobby—but, until I read The Dominion of the Dead, I never gave a thought to one thing that matters: where will I be laid to rest? Even if I am cremated, where will my ashes be strewn? What does chill the bones—or chills mine—is Harrison’s early observation that we are part of the first generation who do not know, for certain, where we will be buried—a simple truth that has complicated and disturbing resonance.
There is little in this book that does not have resonance, that does not provoke, delight, and absorb. Sardinian mourning rituals are described with choreographic grace, and, observing that the human voice sang before it spoke, he devotes another chapter to considering how our language is shaped and determined by the dead.
Harrison is much engaged with Vico’s “tumulus” philology, and he worries away at the ontology of Heidegger and, while this is dense, admirable stuff, he enjoys himself at these moments more than this reader. His prose is often lovely, bony, agile, but it can fall into lumpiness and the jaw-breaking jargon of academe; a critic with his ear for poetry should never find himself writing a sentence such as: "It is the sea’s noumenal core reabsorbing the entire geophenomenal realm into its anachronic element". Yet it is, finally, a poet’s book, a writer’s book.
It reminds me most of those books imaginative writers love more than academics; those odd, obsessive inquiries made by maverick minds who pick out a theme and make from it an intriguing lace: Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Diane Ackerman’s The Natural History of the Senses, Charles Sprawson’s The Haunts of the Black Masseur, WG Sebald’s ghostly fiction-cum-essays, or Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: revelatory, spirited works whose true effect is not to persuade but to promote deeper, more imaginative modes of thought. The American poet, Mark Doty, said of Bachelard’s book that every page contains the matter for a poem. The same could be—and will be—said of The Dominion of the Dead.
Describing Thoreau’s project in Walden, Harrison reminds us that, if we housed the dead before we ourselves, a house is also a place to keep books; and that books are also the dead alive, in this form, for us. He imagines Thoreau surrounded by ghosts, the native ancestors of Walden but also the posthumous voices he hears in the books of Classical and Romantic writers, previous makers of national myths, heard, in this instance, by one intent on making a myth for his new nation. In Walden Thoreau counts his dead—and counts on them—as religiously as Stransom does in James’s The Altar of the Dead. In The Dominion of the Dead, Harrison does the same for us. Like Stransom’s “resplendent altar,” each of its chapters makes for “a brightness vast and intense.”