Conversing with the Dead:
A Musing & Interview with Robert Pogue Harrison
Intro and outro: "Beautiful Piece Again" by Andrew David, used with permission
Recorded on the campus of Stanford University
Recorded on the campus of Stanford University
Sometimes I think the dead lead me to the scholarship, podcasts and writing of Stanford University professor of French and Italian literature, Robert Pogue Harrison.
In February 2017, I had recently submitted a completed draft of my doctoral thesis. Retreating to a tiny cottage in Watergang, The Netherlands, this online platform – Amuse – began, and I started to imagine bringing my work to a wider audience beyond the walls of an institution. My web-based magazine came alive – Musings: On the Creative Life – and I launched a complementary online course on creativity and contemplation based on the original Boeotian muses. Part of what I imagined for this platform was an interview series with "Modern Muses," thinkers, artists and writers that in some way inspire my own life and work.
Cows grazed the wet grass in my backyard. Herds of geese settled in the distance. Swan glided on the strooms, or streams connecting the tiny towns around Broek en Waterland, north of Amsterdam. The snow fell, settling temporarily on the wetlands. Spring lay around the corner. Nearly finished my degree, I felt a mix of fear and anticipation of what followed my academic odyssey. Signs of the job market signalled rough waters. I missed the intellectual stimulation of writing my dissertation along with the rich, inspiring conversations and friendships that working tightly within the a network of artists and scholars allowed me. When teaching and living in London, UK, I had indulged in attending lectures, exhibitions and performances at the many universities, the museums and public halls in the city.
So as if by happy happenstance, Robert’s interview series, originally aired on Stanford radio KZSU and released as a podcast on iTunes, found its way into that tiny cabin in Watergang. I began listening feverishly. From talks with Werner Herzog on “The Peregine” and the Power of Reading to Marilyn Yalom on Female Friendship to Robert himself musing on Dante and J. Alfred Prufrock, Entitled Opinions, served up what it promised: “high-octane” discussions, ones the host refuses to “dumb down.”
“Thank God,” I thought.
Training in marketing online introduced me to a new set of rules: my online business teacher had told me to dumb it down. Only weeks before, Donald Trump, a reality TV star, had just been inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
I needed an antidote! Plus, I truly think there is a place for education everywhere -- beyond walls, on the radio, words that enlighten and inspire and refuse to dumb down.
So Entitled Opinions turned into an addiction of mine. It felt like a welcome balm on those winter days of writing and course creating.
Nearly as pleasurable was the discovery that Robert’s numerous publications coincided somewhat with my own research interests. I had investigated the ruins of my maternal ancestors and responded to them with visual erasure and procedural poetics, film and dance rituals based on honouring my mother’s life and death from breast cancer 1988. My own investigation involved bringing back to life the maternal, metaphorically, in my imagination, and enlivening a sense of physical and ecological vitality through art after my own battle with breast cancer.
Robert’s first book The Body Beatrice (1988) emerged from his own dissertation on Dante. He followed with what he has called a trilogy of sorts: Forests: A Shadow of Civilizations (1992); The Dominion of the Dead (2003); and Gardens: A Cultural History of Our Age (2008). His latest publication – Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age (2014) – explores what he coins “heterochronicity,” or the matrix of generational conflict. He also writes prolifically for The New York Review of Books.
Interviewing Robert Harrison felt a bit like conversing with a living library. If Robert is an interlocutor with the dead, he moves fluidly in converse among them. Up until recently, Harrison played lead guitar in Glass Wave, a rock band that reconfigured the classics of Western literature. From the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to Lolita to the lover left waiting in T.S. Eliot’s The Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, canonic literary personas wail in ephemeral voices and guitar solos that he and his university colleagues revitalize.
When I sat down to interview Robert Harrison, the first question that came to mind was what he thought of the epiphany at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in his 1914 collection The Dubliners. It had had been haunting me since I first read it at the age of 17.
"The Dead" narrates the story of a dinner party with dancing on the Irish feast of The Epiphany, January 6th. Gabriel, a college teacher and book reviewer for The Daily Express, confronts the dead in a way that reinvigorates his own life. The memory of a dead man’s passion for his own wife, a passion he cannot seemingly feel, moves him to “generous tears.” In the final paragraph, Joyce describes the "snow ... general all over Ireland,” which acts as a kind of memento mori falling softly everywhere: on the "dark mutinous ... waves” and upon "every part of the lonely churchyard.” Whenever I see a snowfall, I think of that story, and wonder of the many ways the dead inform us through nature, through memory, through art.
I didn't ask Robert about Joyce's "The Dead." Instead, I picked Robert’s brain about his own interest in “the dead” as figured by one writer he has studied in depth and writes about in The Dominion of the Dead – Giambattista Vico – and how Vico’s ideas of "the dead" compare to ideas of death in Martin Heidegger. I was curious about Robert's interest in ruins, memorials and sites of burial and how our contemporary culture navigates, or perhaps copes, with a loss of "the dead" informing our lives.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, Robert Harrison reminds us that we converse daily with the dead. Every time we open a book – by Virginia Woolf, Plato or Ludwig Wittgenstein – we act as interlocutors with those beyond the grave.
And the dead speak not only through books, he tells us, but in the objects and beings all around us. The dead lie embedded in digital technologies; their discoveries assemble the working parts of streetcars; antiquity flows in the water pipes of modern plumbing. Google rare footage of Isadora Duncan or Francesca Woodman, and you'll peer at the ghosts of those dead women dancing, clad in white togas or nightgowns.
No matter how modern a new Tesla might feel, the source of its energy is as old as the Sun.
No matter how slick the latest model of a Bose headphones might sound, the beat of Steve Reich’s Drumming is as primeval as it is postmodern.
No matter how state-of-the-art that “Next Generation” iPhone XS might appear, somewhere in China human hands have molded its tiny parts, all composed of the substances of the earth, imagined and crafted by the living and – the dead.
Thank you, Robert Harrison, for sharing your insights, intellect and wisdom. Hope the chance comes again to converse in the not-too-distant-future.