|Text (Part of The Dominion of the Dead)
|Robert Pogue Harrison
|Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)
“The Earth and Its Dead” is the first chapter of Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead, a meditation on how ideas of death have shaped (and are still shaping) the interaction between the dead and the living world in Western civilisation.
The thing that struck me the most within the chapter was Harrison’s descriptions of how differently we process death because signs of it are hidden from plain sight. For instance, Harrison writes that “Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter.”1 The quotation suggests that a person, when coming across a ruin, witnesses the decay of man-made meaning in the form of buildings into the seemingly neutral substance of dirt. An ancient building implies human intervention in the form of creation and art. Dirt and other natural elements such as plants do not do the same thing as easily. As such, a ruin represents the decay of human creation and by extension, human civilization itself.
More terrifying than the earth, Harrison offers the even scarier option of the sea. He notes that “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.”2 When I read this, I got the image of a seaman faced with the vast expense of the sea. There is a distinct lack of landmarks within this image, which means that any instinctual navigational skills used on land are immediately rendered useless. As a result, the sea within this image seems timeless. There are no human marks of age in the same way that the earth preserves layers of buildings that one can peel back with some effort. One also cannot re-dig up evidence of the dead that were thrown in. This image of the sea is both terrifying and comforting to me, terrifying in that it feels disorienting because its nature rejects my understanding of it within the scope of the timeline of my life, and comforting in that within a post-industrial world that is changing at the speed of light, the apparent consistency of the sea appears to be a form of constant that one might rely on.
As a result of these two images of the earth and the sea, I felt that I wanted to do a work that touches upon this image of death presented by this text, something that might present the same feelings of wonder I experienced when I read about how the earth and the sea hide the dead from us, and something that was disturbing and humorous at the same time.
Before this course, I had always rejected the reflection on death to cling on to the stagnant notion that it is something to be avoided. This opinion was convenient but also gave me a lot of fear due to an inability to reflect on the deaths surrounding me in my life. I took this course as an attempt to evoke some reflection and bring about some process of personal mourning. This text was a wonderful beginning for the course because it posed the notion of the perception of death being a product of environmental forces as much as them being a product of society in a way that I could still see around me.
I took inspiration from a number of artworks that focus on the reexamination of rather severe situations through the bizarre. The first work I looked at was a short film called Possibly in Michigan3, Cecelia Condit’s 1983 short art musical that discusses the issue of sexual violence through the presentation of cannibalism. One of the things that stood out to me was its reversal of roles between the stalker and the victim. We expect, if anyone, for the man (stalker) to kill and eat the woman (presumed victim). Yet, the beauty ends up the beast as the woman and her friend kill and eat the man instead. The women’s thorough job at cleaning his bones and disposal and their discussion of their friend’s consumption of her own dog suggest a prevalence of women killing and eating creatures around them. I found this to be particularly relevant to the above presentation of death because I wanted to explore a situation where one might be able to regain some control over the loss of human creation through the decay of ruins.
The second work that I looked at was of a collage by Richard Hamilton titled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?
What I love about the collage is the unexpected nature of it. At first glance, it appears to be a hastily pulled-together image of a modern home with the latest appliances. One might go a step further and say that the couple and the appliances represent the ideal American home. Yet any observer who lingers for a second longer might notice how the figures appear to almost be caricatures of the highly sexualized tropes of masculinity and femininity, which seem to be at odds with the conservative nature of the traditional household. As a result, the contrast seems to be an alluring yet unsettling update to the notion of a household. I wanted to create a collage that presented this image of a traveler moving through ruins from the work but with elements that did not seem to match the tone of the original work. I sought to create a strong feeling of unsettlement and confusion that forces the viewer to slow down and perceive the artwork.
CREATIVE PROJECT BY WAN JIA LING (’23)
Possibly On Earth
An Interpretation of “The Earth and Its Dead”
Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)
For this collage, I wanted to make something that touches upon both the idea of death in the sea and on land. I decided to place the ruins of the buildings underwater to create the inversion of the notion that one cannot build anything within the sea. Within the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that humans are capable of locating some things within the ocean. I hope that the setting under the sea and delocalized buildings are disorienting to the viewer in a way not to suggest the destruction of a particular city, but to suggest that the destruction of places is universal.
Within The Earth and its Dead, Harrison presents the image of a modern traveler coming across a ruin from a time before themselves. I loved this image of the disconnection between the cultural context that the traveler comes from and the guesswork involved in trying to incorporate this bit of human history into the traveler’s own cultural context. As a result, I tried to force the viewer to consider that through the usage of ruins of architecture from this century and the whimsical painting of a couple on a romantic boat trip from what appears to be the 1800s. The cheerful image of their trip stands in stark contrast to the ruins, but also inverts the timelines. This seems to present the travelers not as pilgrims, but as tourists to the location of destruction. Their ornate boat and clothing suggest a personal intent to have an enjoyable trip set in the context of past destruction. The grey and bland color palette of the ruins is a familiar image from movies of apocalypse, which gives the modern viewer a feeling of dread and grief as one can easily imagine the loss of lives. The cheerful couple seem almost sadistic in their ignorance of this destruction around them. This was done intentionally to encourage the viewer to consider how we view ruins of today. One tries to fit them into their own context or tries to be educated through the wide availability of sources today. Yet we cannot deny that we often visit sites of old ruins with an odd cheerful fascination, while a survivor from the time may only see the complete collapse of their meaning of civilization.
The hand reaching in to pluck mushrooms was made with reference to the elements of absurdity in Possibly In Michigan. Harrison talks about the uncaring nature of the sea, which is not bound to human understanding of grief and loss. Amidst the terrible nature of the destruction and apparent casual cruelty of the couple, the giant hand and mushrooms suggest a world larger than this destruction. When we see the ruins, we see a loss of life as we know it. When the owner of the giant hand sees the ruins, they see a source of food. As a result, the viewer is forced to understand that the humans within this picture can hardly be considered the center of the picture. Other organisms continue with their lives against the backdrop of man’s attempts to grapple with and understand their own losses.
Finally, I made a version that moves because I enjoyed how the elements flew into frame one by one. It gave this collage an additional layer of artificiality, which it should. I made an artificial portrayal of nature, designed to evoke emotions and present my take on Harrison’s writing. Harrison, too, has created a way of examining death that others attempt to peer into. I simply wanted to comment on the artificial nature of the eternal human struggle to understand the collective history of one’s people that made this course so enjoyable.
1 Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
3 The story centers around a young woman who meets her friend at the mall. They shop around and discuss their friend, who killed and ate her own poodle. They are stalked by a man who is disguised by a number of human and animal masks. He stalks the woman home and assaults her. Before he can kill her, he is killed by her friend with a gun. The two women cut him up and eat him. The film ends with the woman dumping a garbage bag with what one may presume to be the remains of his body onto her driveway for the trash-collector.
4 “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, May 13, 2021), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_what_is_it_that_makes_today%27s_homes_so_different,_so_appealing%3F.
“The Dominion of the Dead.” University of Chicago Press, May 1, 2005. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo3617929.html.
“Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_what_is_it_that_makes_today%27s_homes_so_different,_so_appealing%3F.
CONTRIBUTED BY WAN JIA LING (’23)