The Particular and the Universal in Robert Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead

I recently finished Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead, one of the most purely enjoyable reads I’ve had in quite some time. Within his broader project of exploring how the vitality of our human culture is dependent on the dead and our ongoing interaction with them, Harrison engages in a wide range of discussions: the relationship of burial to building and dwelling; Heidegger’s account of repetition and authenticity and how this brings us into relationship with the dead; the re-sacralising potential of Christianity and the nihilistic, “stifling” melancholy of Stoicism; and the fundamentally relational nature of death, to name just a few that I found particularly interesting.

Of these various discussions, I found Harrison’s discussion of the simultaneous universality and particularity of death in chapter eight to be the most profound and thought-provoking. The chapter is divided into two parts. The first explores the literary image of death as like the harvest of leaves each autumn. Noting the subtle but significant differences between their uses of it, Harrison traces this image from Homer, through Virgil and to Dante. He notes that it presents death as the ultimate generalizing principle, subsuming all specificities as each generation falls to be replaced by the next. However, also contained within this image is a specification of the individual, precisely as located within this generic, generational fall. Harrison identifies the most striking feature of Dante’s use of this image – as souls are shipped one by one across the Charon and into hell – as “his individuation of the falling leaves….By insisting on the singularity of each leaf (or sinner) Dante in effect reminds us that every individual who comes of age in the Christian era chooses, and does not merely suffer, his or her posthumous fate.” (Harrison, 131-132). Under Dante’s touch, “the individual has become a universal” (Harrison, 132). The universalizing harvest of leaves has found focus in and, in fact, has pointed back to the individual leaf, each one of which, Harrison reflects, is likely unique.

Noting the similarities between this “generic diversity” and the maxim that ‘no two snowflakes are alike,’ Harrison concludes this with a reading of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Here, deeply disturbed by a premature, “unfair” death, the main character notices a few flakes of snow falling outside of his window; this evokes a vision of the snow falling throughout Ireland adding to the blanket of snow already covering the country. The individual flakes evoke the universality of a blanket of snow, symbolizing “the vast accumulation of the dead over untold human generations” (134). But, in Harrison’s reading, this vision, as generated by a colourful individual unfairly killed, also contains a certain power of individuation. Precisely by pointing to the universal, this individual makes individuals (or at least potential individuals) out of what at first appears to be an homogenized and colourless humanity.

This theme continues in the second part of the chapter, in which Harrison undertakes an examination of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Simply containing the names of the 59 000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam, the wall, stretching into the horizon, evokes the sense of a generic multitude who were slain. At the same time, spatially represented, with each name carved into stone, the wall particularizes each generic death. Harrison puts it eloquently: “The genius of the monument lies in the way it particularizes the general at the same time as it reflects the general back upon the particular by simply listing the names of every man and woman who never made it back from Vietnam. The chronological order of the listing, according to the dates on which these soldiers met their deaths, drives home the reality that they fell one by one, first one and then the other.” (Harrison, 139). We can see this relationship between the universal and the particular in the reactions of those who visit the monument. Upon approach they are often awe-struck, immobilized by the sheer weight and abstraction of 59 000 killed; but then they move on and read, touch, and sometimes even kiss individual names on the monument. The universal makes “real” or “present” the individual (and each meaningless individual death); and the individual does the same for the universal, making real the horror of 59 000 men and women who fought and died for nothing.

Launching off from this powerful analysis of the relationship between the universal and particular, I want to briefly articulate some implications I think it holds for Christian thought and practice. First, it provides insight into how the Christian story puts us into the world here and now. Harrison writes that  “human beings have access to a measure of (a human life) time – call it death, eternity the afterlife of the dead, or the posterity of the unborn – by which we take cognizance of our being in time” (Harrison, 136). Our sense of broader time (Heidegger would say our historicity) is what locates us in the particular. I have heard a number of people say that what draws to them to Christianity is that it forces them to engage in the particularities of our concrete existence. Harrison can help us to see that emphasizing the universality of the story of Jesus is not in opposition to, but goes hand in hand with this particularizing force. However, this is only half of the lesson; with Harrison we can also learn to see how the particular stories, characters and activities of those around us might point, however fleetingly, to the person and work of Christ. As with Joyce’s snowflakes, the particular (incarnation), points to and is the universal, which in turn makes the particular (our incarnate activities) possible, not as a sort of linear key, but much more like a linear pattern.

Harrison’s analysis might also inform our understanding of the universality of the church. It is often thought that, as the church universal, the church can simply become embodied in any place; the church is not tied to a particular government or culture, but takes place wherever the sacraments are performed. Harrison does not contest this point, but, I think, his account of universality does emphasize that it is not only the universal church that can fit into any context, but also the particular church (or church member) that informs and reflects the church universal. I think that this, among other things, opens up doors for the possibility of the strong, dissenting voice of the individual church or Christian. While we do often struggle with a destructive individualistic ethic, this individualizing, prophetic voice is often sorely needed among we who speak so strongly of “community” and the strong, dissenting identity of the Church universal.

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