6. Burial and Memory

“The human mind rethinks its prior modes of synthesis and carries them over into its subsequent modifications” – Vico

Vico writes that places and on places, society, are founded upon the dead.  In his account, it is the act of burial that marks a place as a place and from this marking comes the claim to a place.  We are who we are and belong here because our ancestors are here, literally beneath and incorporated into the place itself. 

An aside (perhaps): Vico’s account of origins deserves to be discussed in greater detail.  On it, man after the flood degenerated into a bestial, gigantic state.  Giants roamed the forests, wild, until post-Deluge meteorological conditions brought about the first instances of lightning and thunder.  The bravest, most robust of the giants, who had summitted mountains, and were consequently closer to the sky, were terrified by these storms and were driven by fear of the divinity they ascribed to the newly-tumultuous sky and a newly awakened fear of death to institute the first human institutions: marriage (because they no long coupled freely in the open, now believing themselves to be in the sight of the terrifying sky-god of thunder, and because they feared the loss of their companions) and burial (motivated by the fear of the dissolution of the self in death).  Burial places were then marked to show possession of the land, the first signs (as mentioned in the previous post) were grave markers establishing dominion over place on behalf of the dead and their still living descendants, thus alleviating the fear of the loss of place in death (see how unburied shades in Homer or Virgil roam the Earth, placeless and swept around like dry leaves).*  I’m not doing Vico justice here and will try to explain him more clearly in future posts.

Some additional examples to give the flavor of what I’m getting at, the first is myths of the chthonic origin of peoples as in the noble lie of Plato’s Republic.  The people of this place sprang from the earth, the predecessors who lie beneath it.  We come from the earth because we came from them with a gesture towards the gravestone. 

The second is the importance of burial in the people-founding myths of Genesis.  Why is it so important that Jacob is buried in the Promised Land?  Why so much attention to Sarah’s burial ground?  Why do the Hebrews bring Jospeh’s (interestingly mummified) body with them on their long sojourn in the wastes (no-place)? 

Harrison also cites the Gettysburg Address: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”  The nation is refounded through death and burial on the fields of southern Pennsylvania (not far, incidentally, from where the nation was first founded, supposedly upon a document, but needed to be consecrated by the blood of the revolution before it came into being). 

This is all an act of commemoration, of retention, and indeed we retain vast amounts.  And it is this retention that allows us to share in the words of the dead, to understand and participate in the world from which words come, to create civil society through that participation.  Society is thus founded on death, burial, and memory. 

But this retention is not merely or even primarily present in the individual memory, for the sheer mass of it outstrips the capacity of any individual to hold within themselves or to pass on to others.  It’s all too easy to forget, and therefore our retention must be externalized.  We’ve already mentioned the grave marker as the first sign, the first emergence of human-created symbolic consciousness, and alongside the grave marker comes statues (of the dead, perhaps, “immortalized”), houses, cities, laws, books.  This exteriorization of retention is world-formation, a self-transcending act of memory which engenders and founds the world around us. 

The persistence of this memory in words and things is what licenses Vico’s (semi-, maybe I can explain more later) novel etymological exploration of historical-philosophical method (insert another promise to explain this more at a later date, at the risk of promising that every future post will be on Vico), and what allows us to live in continuity as a society that transcends our individual existence.  Concretely, it’s because of the consecration of the earth at Gettysburg described by Lincoln that we can justly claim to be American. 

Vico’s view of history was a cyclical one, civilizations inevitably decay and collapse, and, given what we have said above, that decay is rooted in forgetting, a process that begins with the corruption of language.

I’ll end with a final promise to elaborate more on the final, collapsed stage of civilization, the “barbarism of reflection.”  Perhaps tomorrow, or maybe I’ll talk about Moby Dick.  We’ll see.

*Interestingly, in Dante it is not the unburied who suffer this fate, but those who refused to commit to Heaven or Hell.

2 responses to “6. Burial and Memory”

  1. […] mentioned yesterday that, for Vico, the degradation of civilization was tied to a sort of forgetting which began in the […]

  2. […] Recall that Vico imagined the beginning of society as a consequence of the giants, degenerate humans in the aftermath of the Flood, first encountering thunder and lighting.  This encounter terrified them and motivated the institution of marriage and burial.  The god of thunder, of the sky, was the first god.  Alongside these institutions, and I didn’t mention this in my previous post, the practice of divination also came about as a consequence of the transformation of consciousness engendered by the storm.*  Since, the giants communicated by signs, they took lightning and thunder to be signs of the sky god to be physical words, and that nature, therefore, was the language of the god.**  Sacrifice follows on the institution of divination, “which were offered to ‘procure’ the auspices, that is, to interpret them correctly.” […]

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