Life lessons from the grave

Special to The Times

The dead -- from ancient times, through recent centuries and in the contemporary world -- have long influenced the world of the living. We revere the corpse as sacred, make elaborate interment plans for our loved ones, enact formal mourning rituals, create monuments; we keep memories of the deceased alive via photographs; we enshrine their thoughts and aspirations in our libraries.

In fact, writes Robert Pogue Harrison in “The Dominion of the Dead,” his scholarly exploration of the authority the departed exert over the living, "[o]ur basic human institutions -- religion, matrimony, and burial ... law, language, literature, and whatever else relies on the transmission of legacy -- are authored, always and from the very start, by those who came before.”

“The awareness of death that defines human nature is inseparable from -- indeed, it arises from -- our awareness that we are not self-authored, that we follow in the footsteps of the dead,” he writes. Among the topics his book considers in depth are the ideas of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in his 1744 work “New Science,” from which Harrison draws major inspiration.

Harrison, a professor of French and Italian literature at Stanford University, brings an academic slant to the issues at hand. He examines such death-related elements as the sanctifying of ground, using as an example the battlefield of Gettysburg, where Lincoln ended his famous address with the words “shall not perish from the earth.”


It is not sufficient, Harrison tells us, simply to place the dead in the ground: "[I]t is also necessary to mark that burial.” Thus, Lincoln’s address becomes the grave marker and his speech “makes of that ground a place or the place where the nation finds itself, on which it must found, or refound its republic.... Henceforth the continent becomes ... a place where the idea of America can take root geographically.” Such is the power of the dead buried beneath us to imbue the living with direction and drive.

Harrison appraises the ways we mourn our dead as well as how we bury them, paying particular attention to ritualized mourning and the shared language of lament. It is essential, he tells us, that the work of grieving be fulfilled, “for if and when it fails, instead of the dead dying in me, I die with the dead”; a stunted expression of grief can lead to a number of pathologies, including identification with the corpse. Through ritualized mourning, the threat of psychic disaster is confronted and overcome.

He examines the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its incredible power to move people by the “encrypted presence of its dead.” He illuminates the seeming contradiction at the heart of Christian faith, founded on a missing corpse but also on the tomb of St. Peter. The Basilica of St. Peter, in fact, is built upon a “vast necropolis of tombs -- of popes, cardinals, bishops, and dignitaries.... How is one to account for this apparent contradiction between a theology of resurrection ... and an institutional history that visibly reappropriates the foundational power of the sepulcher?” With this question in mind, he proceeds to demonstrate how the meaning of the sepulcher, as understood in Christian belief systems, has been transformed.

The poetics of architecture are likewise contemplated. Harrison reminds us that before humans housed themselves, they housed their dead: “Is a house something that combines the closure of the tomb and the openness of nature? Is it, even for us, essentially a halfway house, a site of intersection between these two realms?” Citing Thoreau’s “Walden” and Descartes’ “Meditations,” Harrison plumbs the question “What is a house?” -- seeing it in relation to the deceased and the memories of the dead a house may contain.


Throughout this dense work, he applies the keen eye of a literary scholar to other great thinkers as well: Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hegel, Rousseau, Freud and remarkable poets and writers across the ages, including Joyce, Virgil, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Milton, Homer, Dante and Pound.

Harrison’s use of semiotic analysis and linguistics to examine the texts these writers and thinkers have left us provides insight into what is very complex intellectual territory. Though he strives for accessibility, the realm of thought that Harrison sounds is a deep one, and readers lacking a strong background in philosophy, linguistics and literary criticism may find themselves adrift in these waters.

Still, those who persevere will be rewarded with a penetrating look into the realm of the dead, to whom, he claims, we give a future so that they may give us a past: “We help them live on so that they may help us go forward.”