BMCR 2004.03.48

The Dominion of the Dead

, The dominion of the dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xiii, 208 pages). ISBN 9780226317922 $22.50.

In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison (H.) offers a series of provocative reflections on the relationship between the living and the dead. H.’s method is decidedly non-historical; he approaches his topic through a blend of philosophy and literary criticism, drawing together a variety of evidence from throughout the Western tradition to explore the role that death and its accoutrements play in the human condition and self-conception.

In this book, H. traces some of the paths through which the dead influence the living — in his words: “graves, homes, laws, words, images, dreams, rituals, monuments, and the archives of literature” (p. x), and it is the “archives of literature” that provide the wealth of his evidence. H. culls material from a wide range of sources in the Western tradition, from the Homeric epics to the present day, and he offers close readings and insightful explications of numerous specific passages. One notable exception to his almost exclusive use of textual material is his consideration of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

One consequence of H.’s approach is that issues of concern to a particular culture are minimized. Ancient evidence, for example, is used far less to illuminate the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome than to explore and elucidate the more universal philosophical themes under consideration. Nevertheless, the wide-ranging and encompassing nature of H.’s discussion often juxtaposes items of evidence from various periods in stimulating and insightful ways.

Beautifully written in a poetic style, The Dominion of the Dead reads like a literary essay. Yet it is very well researched and offers an extensive bibliography. Although individual references are not placed in the text, detailed and useful notes for each chapter are located at the end of the book. These notes serve as a kind of annotated bibliography for each chapter. Further, it is in the notes that H. demonstrates his knowledge of and engages most directly with the details of scholarly debate on a given point (for example, the particularly extended discussion of the burial of Oedipus at Colonus, pp. 164-166).

Each of the nine chapters in this book could almost stand on its own as an independent essay (and indeed older versions of chapters two and three originally did so). Nevertheless, the chapters are connected by means of recurring themes and by frequent consideration of certain key pieces of evidence, such as ancient epic. But perhaps the main thread running through the book is an exploration and critique of Martin Heidegger and Giambattista Vico (especially the latter’s New Science).

In the first chapter H. begins by raising the question of how the earth, which bears the decaying remains of human past, is a memorial of the dead. For H., what is human is what is temporal. The ruins visible on the earth exhibit the tension between human or cultural time and geological time. Through an open-ended exploration primarily of poetry and literature, from the medieval author of “The Wanderer” and Swinburne to Mariane Moore, Eleanor Wilner, and Joseph Conrad, H. highlights the role of the earth as a record of past human culture by comparing it to the destructive and unmarkable nature of the sea. Chapter two continues by focusing on the concept of place, considering its temporal as well as spatial nature. Within the philosophical framework of Heidegger’s concept of Dasein tempered by Vico’s concern with the institutions of the past, H. considers the role of the marked grave, especially the deictic nature of the funerary marker, in defining place and in indicating possession of or belonging to a place. Among other pieces of evidence, H. examines the Greek term sema for funerary marker, the centrality of the hero’s grave in Greek hero cult, and the transportation of the penates and use of burial to mark the future Roman empire in Virgil’s Aeneid. Rather than analyzing physical grave markers, H. turns primarily to texts, viewing speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as grave markers. H’s approach in chapter two is informed in part by the connection between ancestral graves and the definition of household and property that Fustel de Coulanges attributes to the Romans in The Ancient City. Although he acknowledges the uncertainty of the historical claims of Fustel de Coulanges, H. draws on his work at several points in the book. Because of this, it is worth noting that Fustel de Coulanges’ claim, on which many of the assertions in The Ancient City are based, that in Greece and Rome families regularly buried their dead on their property or in their houses remains unsubstantiated. As recent studies have demonstrated, his perspective was based far more on the conditions and concerns of his own period than the nature of the Classical past.1

Chapter three opens with the intriguing statement that “human beings housed their dead before they housed themselves” (p. 38). From here H. takes up the challenge of Heidegger’s idea of the “house of Being” and considers conceptual connections between houses and burials, particularly the ideas of preservation and interiority. H. discusses in turn Fustel de Coulanges’ assertion of the close ties between the ancient household and the graves of ancestors (though, in passing, incorrectly attributing the use of lares and penates to the Greeks as well as the Romans), Henry David Thoreau’s construction of a house as an act of philosophy, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s concepts of house and homelessness. In this way, he considers how burials form the conceptual, and at times literal, foundation for the definition of the house.

Grief and funerary lament, particularly the extreme physical and vocal expressions of ritual lament practiced in the Mediterranean from antiquity into the modern era, form the subject of chapter four. Here H. expounds Ernesto De Martino’s compelling thesis (based on his study of ritual lament in Basilicata, Italy) that the codified and choreographed nature of the actions and language of ritual lament functioned to objectify the dead. In doing so they effect a necessary separation of the living from the dead, as well as provide a means to come to terms with the fact of mortality. To this H. introduces the idea of “the underlying nexus between grief and human vocalization” (p. 62) and Vico’s (among others’) speculation that the origin of the human voice lay in songs of joy and grief. H. concludes by pointing to the vocalizations of grief in Xerxes’ lament at the end of Aeschylus’ Persians and the contemporary poem “O” by Susan Stewart.

Chapter five continues with the idea of vocalization and speech in a much broader fashion by considering linguistic legacy as a kind of afterlife of the dead. Here H. places Heidegger and Vico in direct dialogue on the topic of etymology, emphasizing the importance Vico places on the depth that the history of universal human institutions, including burial, brings to the meaning of words. Chapter six resumes the exchange of ideas between Heidegger and Vico. H. focuses on Heidegger’ s concept of “authentic repetition” as a means of understanding the connection between the past and the future. The future is made up not only of future generations but also of the legacy of the dead, a legacy that must be selected and remade to be “authentic.” H. explores the results of altering Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein’s connection with death to its connection with the dead. As part of this, H. considers, among other examples, the description of past and future generations in Aeneas’ experience of the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid.

In chapter seven, which pulls together several threads from earlier chapters, H. investigates the role played by the empty tomb of Jesus in Christian tradition, particularly in the texts of the Gospels. He identifies an apparent tension between how the concept of the empty tomb worked to free the Christian worldview from the bounds of a particular earthly spot, on the one hand, and how, on the other, the role of Rome (the site of Peter’s tomb) and the cult of relics countered this by constructing Christian institutions on a foundation of the dead, symbolically as well as literally (recalling particularly the ideas raised in chapter three). For H. it is the combination of these two perspectives that constitute the Christian conceptualization of the relationship between the living and dead, which is one of mutual impact and optimistic outlook. In this chapter H. takes up from Marius the Epicurean, a book written by Walter Pater in 1885, Pater’s interpretation of how the ties to family and ancestors in Roman religion infused early Christian practice, an illustration of Heidegger’s “authentic repetition.” Although Pater’s perspective offers insight, his 19th century novel is a rather idiosyncratic and historically unsatisfactory way of discussing the relationship between early Christianity and traditional Roman religion. Nevertheless, the importance for H. lies more in the articulation of key concepts, whatever the period, than on their historical circumstances, though some concern with historical veracity is also present. H. puts forward his sources for the latter in his notes instead of the text of the chapter.

H. presents a compelling analysis of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. in chapter eight. He begins by delving into the fascinating variants in Western thought of the image of falling leaves as individual representatives of the collective past generations of dead, considering Homer’s Iliad (the conversation between Diomedes and Glaukos), Virgil’s Aeneid (the visit to the underworld in book 6), Dante’s Inferno, Leibniz, James Joyce (here snow rather that leaves) and the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. Having established this concept, H. turns to the memorial itself, comparing its low level and downward sloping to a kind of a descent into an underworld, showing how the changing height of the wall reflects the course of the Vietnam war, exploring the strain between the horizontal and the vertical expanses of its structure, and, most of all, revealing how the use of individual names on such a wall expresses simultaneously the collective and individual in the memorialization of the war dead, echoing the concept found in the simile of the falling leaves.

The final chapter explores the necessity felt by the living to bury the corpse of a loved one, considering the theme of the horror of the unburied dead and the peace that comes with the retrieval and burial of the corpse both in Homeric epic (especially with the corpse of Hector) and among responses to the “disappeared” in late twentieth century Latin America. H. offers the following explanation for the imperative obligation the living feel toward the corpse of the dead: “…the work of getting the dead to die in us, as opposed to dying with our dead, is all the more arduous if not impossible when the dead body goes missing…” (p. 147). H. thus concludes with the long-standing interpretation of the funeral as a rite of transition that separates the dead from the world of the living, offering one modification, namely that the funeral first “separate[s] the image of the deceased from the corpse” (p. 147). H. cites here the Roman imagines, or funerary ancestor masks, more contemporary use of funerary portraiture and photographs, and the Greek concept of the eidolon. For H., perhaps the ultimate “image” of the dead is found in the voices of the dead preserved in literature and other cultural manifestations, which will speak for as long as the living enable them to.

At the end of the preface H. describes this text as “a reader’s book,” that is, as H. states, “it calls on its interlocutor not only to think along with the author but to establish independent connections, leap over abysses, pursue his or her own paths of inquiry, bring to bear adventitious considerations, and, through the tracings offered here, discover the topic for him- or herself”(p. xii). It truly is such a book — with all of the strengths and appeal, as well as the limitations and disadvantages that such an approach entails. Above all, Dominion of the Dead is a work of philosophical reflection, one that strives to ground what H. characterizes as Heideggerian philosophical truth by means of Vichean philological certainty (p. 77). H.’s thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of how the living experience of the dead, that is, the death of others, perhaps ultimately concludes that it is this experience that humanizes us.


1. A. Momigliano and S.C. Humphreys, “Fustel de Coulange, The Ancient City” in The Family, Women and Death. Comparative Studies. 2nd ed. S.C. Humphreys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 135-147; Cynthia B. Patterson, The Family in Greek History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 12-15, 65.