Reading the Dead

For some reason, out of the hundreds of times that I’ve heard the phrase “dead white men” in the context of the problematic amount of space they take up in the canon and in in public consciousness, it struck me differently when I heard it today. Of what use, I’m wondering now, is the word “dead” in there?

I can get behind the spirit of the challenge. Let’s read women! Let’s read people of color! Your reading project is yours alone, and after all, we each only get so much reading time on this earth. Still, I cannot imagine a world in which I could bring myself to read the living instead of the dead.

My dissertation advisor recently reminded me that “tradition” and “metaphor,” from Latin and from Greek respectively, have the same literal sense, a carrying-over. “Tradition” comes to mean a carrying over of the things of our ancestors to the younger generations, whereas “metaphor” is used to describe the carrying-over, or transference, of meaning from one idea to another. But even in these conventional uses, surely there is still a relationship between the concepts: on what can our metaphors subsist without the tradition? How quickly would our living art pale and wither without its inheritances from the art of the dead?

Of course, I would say this; my work focuses almost entirely on the dead, and one of my most pressing research questions is about the terms of ethical engagement between the reader and the long-dead creators of texts. And of course I see, from a practical point of view, why the word gets lumped in with “white men”: of the texts published and preserved and made available from earlier eras in western literature (not to even begin to touch on the complex cultural history of translation), a disproportionate number were authored by white men.

At the same time, the word implies a hope that lives in those who deploy it: that this will no longer be the case in the texts currently being produced by the living, that a new era is upon us, and from now on, the canon will look different. It’s a lot of hope to place on our canon, the canon of those living now, and it is, by now, a hope that has been shared by many who are no longer with us, who have joined the dead. So are they no longer part of our project? Won’t we count them among our number?

I believe in keeping company with the dead, and will continue to do so, not apologetically or as a concession, but as a point of primary interest and ethical concern for the living.


The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont

The graveyard in Grafton, Vermont