- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

THE DOMINION OF THE DEAD

By Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press, $22.50, 208 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

As Robert Pogue Harrison writes in his new book, “To inhabit the world humanly, one must be a creature of legacy.” Being about “The Dominion of the Dead,” the book does indeed concern the legacy of those who have gone before — which is to say, their continuing, vital influence on virtually everything about and within us.

Not a sentimental indulgence in nostalgia or fashionable morbidity, this is an insightful, scholarly and philosophical treatise. Its scope is not narrowly or predictably confined to, say, burial rituals (as broadly significant as these are).

Rather, it is a study of architecture, ecology, morality, theology, poetry, sculpture, philosophy, history — and it draws especially upon linguistics and the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Giambattista Vico (Mr. Harrison is Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University).

The book’s dedication is “To a feast of friends and the giant family.” This is clear enough regarding the friends, of course; but the “giant family” part isn’t clarified until we come upon a reference to “the giant family of the dead” — a most telling reference, indeed, for the dead are part of our family, after all, and silently live on in us, interpenetrating our lives, often in ways that seem at first surprising.

I found one such surprise in Mr. Harrison’s insistence upon the connection of“humanity” with “humus,” the decomposing organic matter in the earth. While the two are distantly cognate, I found his emphasis fanciful; and yet, in a telling passage comparing burial at sea with earth burial, he develops an argument of some cogency: We are earthly creatures, after all, one indication of which is simply that the earth “remembers” its dead in a way that the sea, being “unearthly,” cannot.

The emphasis upon the locality of our ancestors’ graves or burial urns is a primary mode for locating us in space and time, thus important to our human need for continuities and our hunger for a sense of belonging.

Mr. Harrison’s argument is insistent and at times eloquent: “To be human,” he says, “is to come after those who came before.” Of course; and yet how little of our daily lives seems to reflect the least understanding of this elemental connection.

And where is it and how is it that the dead express their “dominance”? “Our institutions, laws, landscapes, cities, statues, scriptures, houses, books, ideologies — these are among the many places in its secular topography where the human mind stores both the past and future of what it retains.”

And interpenetrating all of these is language, “acting as the house of being” — the house where the dead live on, for our language is inherited along with our genes.

An important and insightful book, “The Dominion of the Dead” is nevertheless human, therefore imperfect. The imaginative vigor of the writing is sometimes a problem, as when the slaughter of animals for food is referred to as a “holocaust” (I point this out as a carnivore myself); then, too, there is an occasional logical tangle, as in the phrase “Even if this were true, it is far from certain.”

A deeper and more interesting problem is what might be casually dismissed as “semantic,” although it is far more critical than what people usually mean by that term. Consistently, Mr. Harrison refers to the “dead” as if they were a more-or-less homogenous and definable entity — which is obviously not the case, for the great shaggy populations of generations that constitute the “dead” are far more diverse than the human race as it exists today in all its heterogeneity.

Part of the problem is simply a necessary convenience in light of the book’s theme; part of it is a poetic hypostatization, simplifying that which is bewilderingly complex and, for the most part, inaccessible. Both of these reasons help legitimize the packaging of so much into a four-letter word.

But even though the problem may be insoluble, it nevertheless remains a problem and even if a satisfactory definition is impossible, an acknowledgment of the fact would have been useful.

In spite of these quibbles, “The Dominion of the Dead”belongs to that seminal class of books that open more than they close; it is, in Mr. Harrison’s phrase, “a reader’s book rather than a writer’s.”

It is a significant and learned treatise on something that should concern all of us, even in our contemporary world, which relentlessly cultivates mindlessness as it wallows in its troughs of vulgarity and decadence.

Perhaps the book’s greatest problem lies not with the book itself, but will prove to be a lack of mature readers to take in its rich harvest of perceptions, thus enabling it to become “a reader’s book,” indeed.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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