The Dominion of the Dead
Robert Pogue Harrison
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This elegantly conceived work devotes particular attention to the practice of burial. Harrison contends that we bury our dead to humanize the lands where we build our present and imagine our future. As long as the dead are interred in graves and tombs, they never truly depart from this world, but remain, if only symbolically, among the living. Spanning a broad range of examples, from the graves of our first human ancestors to the empty tomb of the Gospels to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Harrison also considers the authority of predecessors in both modern and premodern societies. Through inspired readings of major writers and thinkers such as Vico, Virgil, Dante, Pater, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Rilke, he argues that the buried dead form an essential foundation where future generations can retrieve their past, while burial grounds provide an important bedrock where past generations can preserve their legacy for the unborn.
The Dominion of the Dead is a profound meditation on how the thought of death shapes the communion of the living. A work of enormous scope, intellect, and imagination, this book will speak to all who have suffered grief and loss.
CHAPTER FIVE down to their descendants. We share with animals our thrownness into gender and into our species-being, but in addition to those determinations we are also thrown into the authority of the past. By the same token we are thrown into the history as well as historicity of the word. Language is possible only where lexiﬁcation has already bound the temporal ecstasies humanly. Heidegger calls on us to “think through” the historicity of our basic words. Vico calls on us to restore their
“dislexiﬁcation” of the order of institutions, the primary symptom of which is a corruption of the word’s historical, signifying power. Many poets in the modern period have given voice to what they believed was an ultimacy of this sort, a sort of darkening of history with its concomitant loss of the word’s capacity to mean anything more than its failure to mean. One such poet who situated himself at the extreme end of history, in the night of thick darkness enveloping not the earliest antiquity
of Being and Time Heidegger goes to considerable lengths to demoralize the concept of existential guilt and redeﬁne it in terms of the primary meaning of the German word Schuld, namely 98 CHAPTER SIX “debt.” Guilt now refers to the debt I owe to my future. As long as my life has not reached an end I remain existentially insolvent, burdened with a debt, guilty with respect to my “outstanding end,” as Heidegger calls it, alluding to an outstanding debt. Such guilt is the very stuff of ﬁnitude.
lacking in the prolonged, excruciatingly boring account of the dinner party at the Morkans’. Suddenly all of those unexceptional, eminently forgettable characters at the party become translucent. They now appear to us as individual snowﬂakes in their common descent toward oblivion, and their dinner party ﬁgures as a last supper of sorts. Yet through their portraits as individuals shines the light of something more generic and epic, so to speak—something like types of the Irish people as a whole,
Jean-Thierry Maertens, Le Jeu du mort. On the widespread, presumably nondiffusionary phenomenon of the so-called double burial in both primitive and modern cultures, see Robert Hertz’s foundational study, Sociologie religeuse et folklore. See also Philippe Aries’ invaluable magnus opus, L’homme devant la mort (in English The Hour of Our Death), which offers an encyclopedic history-anthropology of changing Western attitudes toward death from the medieval period to our own times. For a more