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The Dominion of the Dead

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Tom Palaima reviews a new title on the deceased and how they have influenced primitive man to twentieth century society.

The Dominion of the Dead
Robert Pogue Harrison
University of Chicago Press 224 pp  £11
ISBN 0226317919

Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead , says its cover, poses a few clear questions. 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? What Harrison really explores is how dead people and dead things live among us and determine who we are and what we do, and why and how we let them exert their influence.

Harrison correctly argues that the dead ‘indwell’ in almost everything human: ‘graves, homes, laws, words, images, dramas, rituals, monuments, and the archives of literature’. To be human is to bury, for, as Vico observes, ‘humanitas in Latin comes first and properly from humando, burying’.

Harrison’s scope is wide. He tracks the dead from primitive man and early cities to the twentieth century, in Homeric Greece, Vergilian epic, Renaissance literature, nineteenth-century Sardinian mourning ritual, and the philosophy of Kant and Heidegger. He demonstrates that from well before recorded human history onward, the dead have controlled the living.

Harrison offers an astute reading of the famous confrontation between the Lycian Glaucus and the Greek warrior Diomedes in Homer’s Iliad. He links the genealogical obliteration of Glaucus with the radical form of memorialisation of dead soldiers in Maya Lin’s Vietnam veterans’ memorial in Washington, D.C.

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