Dominion of the Dead


How do the living maintain relations to the dead? Why do we bury people when they die? And what is at stake when we do? In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison considers the supreme importance of these questions to Western civilization, exploring the many places where the dead cohabit the world of the living - the graves, images, literature, architecture, and monuments that house the dead in their afterlife among us.

This work devotes particular attention to the ...

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The Dominion of the Dead

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How do the living maintain relations to the dead? Why do we bury people when they die? And what is at stake when we do? In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison considers the supreme importance of these questions to Western civilization, exploring the many places where the dead cohabit the world of the living - the graves, images, literature, architecture, and monuments that house the dead in their afterlife among us.

This 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 Vietman Veterans Memorial, Harrison 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 meditation on how the thought of death shapes the communion of the living.

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What People Are Saying

W.S. Merwin
Those who have had the good luck to discover Robert Pogue Harrison's brilliant, revelatory work, Forests, will not be surprised by the daring of conception, the range of erudition, and the acuity of the perception and expression that mark The Dominion of the Dead. His subject is vast: the whole of human culture, of the self-image of humanity as it is perpetuated in human action and imagination, all of which, is inseparable from—indeed, it arises from—our awareness that we are not self-authored, that we follow in the footsteps of the dead. This is profoundly suggestive and illuminating work, and with its predecessor it represents a contemporary mind with a vision that seems to me indispensable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226317939
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,261,696
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chairs the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University. He is the author of The Body of Beatrice and Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Dominion of the Dead

By Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Robert Pogue Harrison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226317919


One of the blessings of our planet, along with life itself, is that it allows for the disposal of its dead. The characters in a Jules Verne story realize to what extent they, like us, take that circumstance for granted after they eject a dead dog from their space capsule, only to find that the dog (named Satellite) faithfully follows them on their journey toward the moon--a veritable satellite holding close to the rocket as it travels through empty space. The dead like to stay close to the living, to be sure, yet not in this nondisposable fashion. To realize their fate and become truly dead they must first be made to disappear. It is only because their bodies have a place to go that their souls or images or words may attain an afterlife of sorts among the living. We should be infinitely grateful, therefore, for the hiding and receiving power of this terracqueous globe, which Michel Serres, reflecting on the image of Jules Verne's dog, rightly calls "a tabernacle, a receptacle for all decompositions" (Statues, p. 39).

Nietzsche once declared: "Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type" (Gay Science [§109], p. 168).Certainly to the degree that its heavy elements were formed by the death of stars--the so-called super-novae--our planet as a whole, like all solid bodies in the universe, is a species of what is dead. Yet its biosphere--host to such an abundance of life--is necrogenic in an even more pertinent sense. Through the action of fire the corpse gives itself up to air; through inhumation or simple putrefaction it returns its composite substance to the earth; through the force of gravity it sinks into the sea's underworlds. Whatever biomass it receives after the extinction of life becomes part of the planet's receiving matter--matter from which life, its imponderable origins, in turn emerges. Because the earth has reabsorbed the dead into its elements for so many millions upon millions of years, who can any longer tell the difference between receptacle and contents? Take away the millennial residues that consecrate them, human or otherwise, and our waters, forests, deserts, mountains, and clouds would lose the spirit that moves in and across their visible natures.

Human bodies, when they perish, share in this organic afterlife of the dead. They are "rolled round in earth's diurnal course, / with rocks, and stones, and trees," to speak with Wordsworth. The human returns to the humus, to be sure, yet the fact that Wordsworth wrote those verses at all or that we revisit their utterance over a century and half later shows that human culture, unlike nature, institutes a living memory, and not just a mineral retention, of the dead. Culture is the condensed residue of such perpetuation, unless we prefer to think of it as the nonorganic residue-forming process itself.

We know by now that in the great span of geological time, human history figures as no more than the briefest, evanescent instant; yet it is in that self-sedimenting instant that we nevertheless dwell insofar as we are human. If to be human means to translate our mortality into history, as I believe it does, then one could say that the ethos or dwelling place of humanity remains mortal time, which we transmute into historical durations that are themselves radically finite. We are through and through temporal, that is, finite, in our mode of being. Even our perception of space is thoroughly temporal in character. Immanuel Kant claimed as much when he threw up a barrier between the noumenal realm of nature, unknowable in itself, and the world as it appears to us phenomenally, through the so-called pure intuitions of space and time. I invoke Kant here because, according him, while all our sense data is spatialized and temporalized by these two a priori forms, there is an important difference between them. In addition to determining our perception of the external world, time also determines the immediately experienced flow of our inner lives: "Time is nothing but the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuiting we do of ourselves and of our inner state.. . . Time is the formal a priori condition of all appearances generally. Space is the pure form of all outer appearances; as such it is limited, as an a priori condition, to just outer appearances intuitions" (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 88). In short, our access to the world passes through the temporal flow of human consciousness. This explains why even our perception of space is temporal and, I would add, mortal in nature.

Unlike music and poetry, whose rhythms participate in, arise out of, or echo the flow itself, most visual artworks cannot directly represent the temporal flow of our inner lives, precisely because they are committed to the spatialization of form and the formalization of space. As for architecture, it belongs to a category of its own. Insofar as it builds the worlds we dwell in, architecture actually creates the places where human time, in its historical and existential modes, takes place. Such places-- be they homes, buildings, cities, or landscapes--are recesses of mortal time in which we go about inhabiting the earth historically rather than merely naturally. One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against--natural or geological time--ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them.

Precisely because it is the faculty that schematizes our intuition of time, the human imagination is also able to conceive images of the end of time. Or perhaps we are so governed by its law and so haunted by its implications that we can't help but project our finitude onto the cosmos in apocalyptic visions of ultimate cessation. Take one of oldest English poems to have come down to us, entitled "The Wanderer," which contains an extended meditation on Roman ruins in the early medieval English landscape. Evoking the implacable, destructive forces of nature, especially of the sea, whose "storms break on the stone hillside," wearing down the earth's solid mass, the poem concludes with a hyperbolic projection of the past's ruination into an ultimate, ultratemporal future: "In earth's realm all is crossed; Weird's will changeth the world. Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us, man is lent, kin is lent; all this earth's frame shall stand empty" (Alexander, Earliest English Poems, p. 51). Here a landscape of retrospection sponsors a transhuman or even inhuman vision of the eschaton, understood not only as the end of history but as the surcease of the earth itself--that same earth where history's ruins leave behind their trace. A truly extreme or self-consuming vision of annihilation takes the form of the earth's demise, for the forces of destruction, when pushed to their cosmic extreme in the human imagination, not only destroy all that human labor builds in time, they also destroy the supporting element of time, namely the land on which we erect our worlds.

In the eschatological imagination where such visions are born, earth and sea belong to different, even opposing orders. In its solidity and stability the earth is inscribable, we can build upon its ground, while the sea offers no such foothold for human worldhood. No doubt that is why the sea, in its hostility to architecturally or textually imprinted memory, often figures as the imaginary agent of ultimate obliteration. When John describes the eschaton at the end of the Book of Revelation he evokes the architectural marvel of the new Jerusalem and, in an exalted rhetoric, speaks of a "new earth" and "new heaven." He then declares, almost as an aside: "And the sea was no more" (21:1). The demise of the sea here signifies the final victory of providential history over its antagonistic element. For Revelation does not project the absolute ruin of human history, as "The Wanderer" poem does; on the contrary, it foresees the fulfillment of history and final perfection of time. In the plenitude of time--given the anthropotheistic tradition to which this vision belongs--the sea is bound to disappear.

In other types of eschatological visions, where it is the earth as such that succumbs to ruin, it is the sea that emerges as the victor. Consider a poem by Swinburne, entitled "A Forsaken Garden," which shows the extent to which the human imagination is able to strain against the bounds of its own conditions of possibility. The first of its ten stanzas sets the scene for the poetic meditation that follows:

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee,
Walled round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.
A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
The steep square slope of the blossomless bed
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses Now lie dead.
In such heavy anapests the anonymous third-person speaker goes on to describe the garden's desolation, its paths overgrown with weeds, its dilapidated structures, its bygone roses reduced to thorns. The ruined landscape lies exposed now to the remorseless abrasion of wind, storm, and sun. The speaker goes on to imagine two lovers wandering among the once blossoming garden paths a hundred years earlier, only to conclude that "love deep as the sea as a rose must wither." The poem ends as follows:

All are at one now, roses and lovers,
Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.
Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
In the air now soft with a summer to be.
Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,
When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter
We shall sleep.
Here death may not deal again for ever;
Here change may come not till all change end.
From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
Till a last wind's breath upon all these blowing
Roll the sea.
Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till the terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.
(Swinburne, pp. 210-13)
The anapests here produce an almost intolerable, pounding effect on the inner ear, evoking the harsh rhythm of the sea as it wears down the earth with its surf and storms, until rhythm itself succumbs to ruination in the remorseless paradox of the concluding half-verse: "Death lies dead." What is imagined here is something other than the triumph of geological time over human time. It is the sea's noumenal core reabsorbing the entire geophenomenal realm into its anachronic element. In its extreme projection of the fate of past ruins, the poem effectively deschematizes the forms of human intuition, with the result that the generative and degenerative law of death that informs mortal time is overturned or cancelled out in and by the sea.

The forsaken garden is merely the preludic image of this ultimate ruination of form. For what are ruins if not the partial, still incomplete dissolution of the solidity of form? If we usually view ruins retrospectively, as metonyms of what they once were in their integrity, in Swinburne's vision they turn into prospective metaphors of an incomplete liquefaction. For all their suggestive or mimetic magic, visual artworks can't represent ruins from this impossible, transhuman perspective. The domestication of terror in the picturesque is all the more palpable in those sketches and paintings, so popular during the nineteenth century, that include the presence of human beings in their so-called perspective views of ruins. The tiny human figures amid towering ruins of bygone eras give a sense of scale and diminishment, to be sure, yet they offer the consolation, if not the security, of perspective. Not so with Swinburne's poem, where the sea overwhelms perspective and devours the framework of scale as a whole.

Consider another poem that plunges into the sea, and, in so doing, stages the shipwreck of single-point perspective. "A Grave," by Marianne Moore, begins:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.
We should give full weight to the words "it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing," which affirm that human beings need an earthly foundation for their perspectives, just as they need an earthly foundation for their buildings. The inhuman nature of the sea--of the this in the middle of which you cannot stand yet from within which the poem situates its speech act, precisely in the act of saying this--is revealed as the poem sinks beneath the water's phenomenal surface in the final verses:

men lower their nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave,
and row quickly away--the blades of the oars
moving together like the feet of water spiders as if there were no such thing as death.
The wrinkles progress among themselves in a phalanx-- beautiful under networks of foam,
and fade breathlessly while the sea rustles in and out of the seaweed;
the birds swim through the air at top speed, emitting catcalls as heretofore--
the tortoise shell scourges about the feet of the cliff, in motion beneath them;
and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses and noise of bell buoys,
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink--
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor consciousness.
(Moore, Complete Poems, pp. 49 - 50)
The light and descriptive texture of these verses makes the abyss whose surface they float upon all the more sinister in its nihilism. Moore's poem is in many ways more perturbing than Swinburne's in that it involves no hyperbolic temporal projections. The "neither-nor" of its conclusion--"neither with volition nor consciousness"--uncovers the end time in the everyday presence of the sea, whose brilliant surface veils an underworld of extinction in which no spirits carry on an afterlife. The poem perturbs in another way as well, for if the sea's subsurface element marks the limit of volition and consciousness, what are we to make of the men who are unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave when they lower their nets? Confined to their superficial perspective, caught up in their daily activities "as if there were no such thing as death," are they not in some sense dead to the mortality that defines their condition? Is it only by looking deliberately into the abyss of what we stand in the middle of that we come alive to the world? And is that what poetry is in Moore's concept of its vocation--a transphenomenal way of looking that sees an inhuman darkness beneath the phenomena themselves?

I would invoke here another remarkable poem, authored by the contemporary poet Eleanor Wilner. Like several other poems in her collection Reversing the Spell (1998), this one, entitled "Reading the Bible Backwards," envisions the reversal or undoing of the Creation story told in Genesis. What it describes is a redemption, not of history but of nature, a redemption that takes the form of a universal flood that would "reverse the spell" of human history's disasters and tragedies by submerging history's elemental correlative altogether. After describing in extraordinary visual imagery the sea's slow and deliberate inundation of the earth, the poem concludes as follows:

Now nothing but the wind
moves in the rain-pocked face
of the swollen waters, though far below
where the giant squid lie hidden in shy tangles,
the whales, heavy-bodied as angels,
their fins like vestiges of wings,
sing some mighty epic of their own--
a great day when ships would all withdraw
the harpoons fail of their aim, the land
dissolve into the waters, and they would swim
among the peaks of the mountains, like
eagles of the deep, while far below them, the old
nightmares of earth would settle
into silt among the broken cities, the empty
basket of the child would float
abandoned in the seaweed until the work of water
unraveled it in filaments of straw,
till even that straw rotted
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for,
sending their jets of water skyward
in the clear conviction they'd spill back
to ocean with their will accomplished
in the miracle of the rain: And the earth
was without form and void, and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And
the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters.
(pp. 156- 57)
It is a prehuman and prehistorical Spirit that answers the prayers of the whales here. An earth without form after the end of the world is humanly inconceivable, since we are creatures of form and perspective; yet this is as close as we will get to an image of its pre- or postformal facticity--even if, or perhaps even because, the image traffics in multiple perspectives and contains a number of anthropomorphisms. Epics, prayers, convictions, accomplished wills are all attributed to the liberated whales, whose ecstatic deliverance from human oppression we share in here only through the poem's humanization.

Wilner's image of restored formlessness reveals, meanwhile, that the form the earth takes under the dominion of humans brings only death and enslavement to its other creatures, and mostly misery to the offenders. For Wilner the sins of the seed of Adam are sins against nature, not God, hence the guilt of history is neither punishable nor atonable. It is only oblivionable through the miracle of the rain. If history is at bottom a natural disaster, the general extinction of human volition and consciousness in a sea that preexisted the anthropogenic nightmare is the accomplishment of an elemental, planetary will. Wilner's sympathy with--and personification of--such a will is of course deeply human in its impulse insofar as it turns against the impulse of history. Such a turn is itself historical in nature, even and especially when it projects a diluvian, humanly depopulated universe that is at once beyond, below, and above history as we know it. And who knows whether the end of time, if and when it were ever to come about, would in fact be the accomplishment of a human, not natural, will? I mean the death drive that lurks at the heart of history itself.

Let us query one more text about the sea, this one in prose, authored by someone who actually earned his living on it for several years before going on to become a writer. Joseph Conrad's book The Mirror of the Sea describes a very different kind of ruin from the sort I have discussed so far. This work of nonfiction, composed in 1904- 6, a decade or so after he retired from his seafaring career with the British merchant marine, contains a loosely interwoven series of reflections on seamanship. Conrad, we recall, never set eyes on the sea while growing up in Poland, yet as a young boy he was seized by an irrepressible desire to become a seaman. It was a wildly romantic fantasy that he had occasion to realize when, at age 17, he left for France and enlisted in the French merchant marine. Chapter 36 of The Mirror of the Sea recounts what Conrad called his "initiation," an incident early in his career that caused him to lose his youthful illusions about the sea. On a calm and luminous morning in the mid-Atlantic, "when the might of the sea indeed appears lovable," the crew aboard the ship on which he was serving as junior officer spotted the ruins of a brig on the horizon--a fragment of a ship, smashed up and completely dismasted. When they discovered through the binoculars that there were men aboard it waving rags at them, a silent yet frantic "race against time" got under way as the ship's two rowboats set out toward the wreck across a languorous and becalmed sea. It was a race on both sides of the placid divide, for while the men in the rescue boats pulled at their oars with superhuman efforts, their brothers on the Danish brig were working at the pumps, "bowing from the waist to each other in their back-breaking labour." They won the race, but only barely.

The survivors had been adrift for weeks, working the pumps day and night after their ship had sprung a leak and broken apart in a hurricane. Their travails had reduced them to an almost inhuman condition. As the rowboats made their way back to the mother ship with their human booty, the rescued captain of the brig suddenly "stood up with a low exclamation." Conrad:

He was steadying himself on my shoulder with a strong grip, while his other arm, flung up rigidly, pointed a denunciatory finger at the immense tranquility of the ocean. After his first exclamation, which stopped the swing of our oars, he made no sound, but his whole attitude seemed to cry out an indignant "Behold!" . . . I could not imagine what vision of evil had come upon him. I was startled, and the amazing energy of his immobilized gesture made my heart beat faster with the anticipation of something monstrous and unsuspected. The stillness around us became crushing.
Let's freeze the Danish captain in his demonstrative gesture for a moment and remark that he is pointing to the this in the middle of which one cannot stand. The account continues:

Something startling, mysterious, hastily confused was taking place. I watched it with incredulous and fascinated awe, as one watches the confused, swift movements of some deed of violence done in the dark. As if at a given signal, the run of the smooth undulations seemed checked suddenly around the brig. By a strange optical delusion the whole sea appeared to rise upon her in one overwhelming heave of its silky surface where in one spot a smother of foam broke out ferociously. And then the effort subsided. It was all over, and the smooth swell ran on as before from the horizon in uninterrupted cadence of motion, passing under us with a slight friendly toss of the boat. Far away, where the brig had been, an angry white stain undulating on the surface of steely-gray waters, shot with gleams of green, diminished swiftly without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun. And the great stillness after this initiation into the sea's implacable hate seemed full of dread thoughts and shadows of disaster. (The Mirror of the Sea, pp. 257- 58)
This was Conrad's initiation into the sea's irresponsibility, its refusal or inability to respond to human appeal. On that day he realized that "the sea has no generosity. No display of manly qualities--courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness--has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power" (p. 251). In short, he realized that the sea is unearthly. Whereas the earth sympathizes with human virtue, in the sense that it rewards backbreaking labor with generous harvests, or gives us the ground on which to build our destinies, commemorate our achievements, and honor our dead, the sea is dumb to human petition. It defies any and all humanization. "The amazing wonder of the deep," writes Conrad, "is its unfathomable cruelty" (p. 259).

The insight into this cruelty comes at the climactic moment when the sea swallows and covers up all traces of the floating ruin. The shocking or "monstrous" aspect of this spectacle consists in the sheer punctuality of the brig's demise as it disappears "swiftly without a hiss," leaving only a "smother of foam" at the spot where it sank. The eschatological erasure that Swinburne's and Wilner's poems envision over the course of geological time here takes place locally and in an instant. We are thankful to the sea that, unlike empty space, it receives, hides, and reabsorbs the dead. It is its passion for erasure that makes it inhuman. Erasure does not mean disappearance only; it means that the site of disappearance remains unmarkable. There are no gravestones on the sea. History and memory ground themselves on inscription, but this element is uninscribable. It closes over rather than keeps the place of its dead, while its unbounded grave remains humanly unmarked.

As for the loved ones of those who sink into its unfathomable grave, they suffer a special form of anguish. Before embarking on the Pequod, Ishmael visits the Whaleman's Chapel in Nantucket and reflects on the numerous marble tablets inscribed in commemoration of so many whalers who never made it home. The chapel is full of women who "wear the countenance if not the trappings of some unceasing grief " (Melville, Moby Dick, p. 130). Their grief is unceasing in that it lies at an enormous, untraversable remove from their husbands' remains, almost as if the intimacy of human time at the heart of natural time depended on keeping one's dead close by, within an earthly realm of presence. Ishmael exclaims: "Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say--here, here lies my beloved, ye know not the desolation that broods in hearts like these" (ibid.). Even as they commemorate those who perished at sea--"This marble is placed here by their surviving shipmates," "This tablet is erected to his memory by his widow," and so on--the inscriptions only aggravate the cause of so much anguish, confirming and, as it were, sealing the unearthly exile of the seamen in question. Hence Ishmael's reaction: "What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes. What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrection to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave" (ibid.). The very hypothesis of resurrection depends on an earth that receives and holds the place of our mortal remains. It is almost as if these frigid testaments were written in water, for it is the vast and inhuman sea that wells up in the empty space between the words and lines chiseled into the memorial stones, whose placement in the chapel has no effective bearing on their adventitious horizon of reference. Ishmael: "As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here" (p. 52).

But let us return to the Danish captain who stood up in the rescue boat and pointed to the spot where his ruined ship was sinking beneath the surface of a calm yet treacherous sea. If it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, it is human nature also to mark the passage from life to death in some way--to give meaning to the matter of it, as it were--even when, as in this case, it is a ship, and not its mates, that dies. It was left to the captain to answer the ship's passing with passing words:

The captain of the brig lowered his rigid arm slowly, and looked at our faces in a solemnly conscious silence, which called on us to share in his simple-minded, marvelling awe. All at once he sat down by my side, and leaned forward earnestly at my boat's crew, who, swinging together in a long, easy stroke, kept their eyes fixed upon him faithfully.
"No ship could have done so well," he addressed them firmly, after a moment of strained silence, during which he seemed with trembling lips to seek for words fit to bear such high testimony. "She was small, but she was good. I had no anxiety. She was strong. Last voyage I had my wife and two children in her. No other ship could have stood so long the weather she had to live through for days and days before we got dismasted a fortnight ago. She was fairly worn out, and that's all. You may believe me. She lasted under us for days and days, but she could not last for ever. It was long enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was left to sink at sea on such a day as this." (Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, p. 258)
Conrad remarks that there was "nothing wanting" in the captain's improvised "funeral oration"--"neither piety nor faith, nor the tribute of praise due to the worthy dead"--and that "by the merits of his sea-wise forefathers and by the artlessness of his heart, he was made fit to deliver this excellent discourse" (ibid.). Brought forth by the captain's human breath, that discourse would have dissipated in the air and been forgotten long ago by now had Conrad not written down its intent for us. Indeed, The Mirror of the Sea as a whole could be read as an expansive dilation of the captain's "excellent discourse," given the book's stated intention to honor the dead--be they seamen of the past or the worthy ships in which they had served. In his author's note of 1919, Conrad declares that "this book . . . is the best tribute my piety can offer to the ultimate shapers of my character, convictions, and, in a sense, destiny--to the imperishable sea, to the ships that are no more, and to the simple men who have had their day" (p. 135).

That is why I believe that the other equally inexplicable and improbable drive that defined Conrad's life--I mean his drive to become a writer--had its genesis in the initiation incident described in chapter 36. The sea is indeed imperishable, but "the act of blackening pages," as he called it, was Conrad's act of piety toward the perishable--his response to the sea's irresponsibility, its hostility to memory, its impatience with ruins, and its passion for erasure. In the final analysis Conrad's career as a writer represents his allegiance to the earth, not the sea, for the earth is our ultimate stone, tablet, or inscribable page. The words on Keats's grave in the Protestant cemetery of Rome--"here lies one whose name was writ in water"--were not written in water but on a headstone that continues to hold the place of its reference. Just as we build on the earth, so too we write in its element, regardless of the medium.

With the exception of Eleanor Wilner, all of the authors whose testaments I have visited here are dead. This is evidence enough that the act of blackening the page constitutes a gift of the dead to the future. Even if the "bleak tablets" in the Whaleman's Chapel "sympathetically cause the old wounds to bleed afresh" (Melville, Moby Dick, p. 51) in the widows who obsessively return to their inscriptions, Moby Dick, as a gift of literature, recalls the irreducibly human character of those wounds. In giving voice to the wound of mortality itself, literature houses or gives a home to even the most desolate kinds of grief. It gives us back that which we keep on losing, namely a cognizance or recognizance of our passionate and mortal natures. Hence the intrinsically posthumous character of the literary voice, which I insist on time and again throughout these pages. Works of literature, then, are more than enduring tablets where an author's words survive his or her demise. They are the gifts of human worlds, cosmic in nature, that hold their place in time so that the living and the unborn may inhabit them at will, make themselves at home in their articulate humanity--all thanks to the ultimate gift of the earth, which renders their testaments possible.

If the intuition of time is in fact schematized by the imagination, as Kant believed, then one could say that these various visions of ruin and annihilation I have reviewed--be they imaginary or real--throw the imagination back upon its source in human finitude. Ruins are in that regard apocalyptic, or revelatory. As images of posteriority they reveal the primordiality of the temporal law that holds sway over their obsolescence. Certainly in some of the visions I have discussed, ruins and the sea have at least this much in common: just as ruins have outlasted the worlds to which they once belonged, the sea will outlast the earth on which they stand. Yet I believe this is an anticorrelation, in the way the Antichrist is a false or deceptive semblance of Christ. The spectacle of ruins reveals the fact of destruction, yet at the same time it also reveals the fact of survival--the survival not so much of the ruins themselves as of the earth on which they stand or fall. I have insisted from the start that this is the true correlation: time and earth. While human worlds in their built character succumb to the law of finitude, the earth where they lay their foundations, and where the law finds itself at home, persists. It persists not merely as the material substrate of human dwelling but as the elemental correlative of the coffer from which human beings retrieve their legacies from out of their futures. History is made of and written into this conservative element that outlasts its bygone worlds even as it allows for the opening of crypts and folds of human time in the midst of nature's transcendence.

If the issue is the persistence of time and not persistence in time, and if time has an earthly correlate, then one could say that the sight of ruins in a landscape offers images of the postdiluvian covenant between God and humankind.


Excerpted from The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison Copyright © 2003 by Robert Pogue Harrison. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Those who have had the good luck to discover Robert Pogue Harrison's brilliant, revelatory work, Forests, will not be surprised by the daring of conception, the range of erudition, and the acuity of the perception and expression that mark The Dominion of the Dead. His subject is vast: the whole of human culture, of the self-image of humanity as it is perpetuated in human action and imagination, all of which, is inseparable from—indeed, it arises from—our awareness that we are not self-authored, that we follow in the footsteps of the dead. This is profoundly suggestive and illuminating work, and with its predecessor it represents a contemporary mind with a vision that seems to me indispensable.
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