Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison
When I was a student, my Cambridge supervisor said, in the Olympian tone characteristic of his kind, that the only living literary critics for whom he would sell his shirt were William Empson and G. Wilson Knight. Having spent the subsequent 30 years in the febrile world of academic Lit. Crit., with its lemming-like leaps from mandarin French theory to each latest fashion in identity politics, I’m not sure that I’d sell my shirt for any living critic. But if there had to be one, it would unquestionably be Robert Pogue Harrison, whose study of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992, has the true quality of literature, not criticism — it stays with you, like an amiable ghost, long after you have read it.
Though more modest in scope, this new book is similarly destined to become a classic. It has two principal heroes: the ancient philosopher, Epicurus, of whom more anon, and the wonderfully witty 20th-century Czech writer, Karel Capek, apropos of whom it is remarked that, whereas most people believe gardening to be a subset of life, ‘gardeners, including Capek, understand that life is a subset of gardening’.
Harrison’s subtitle is ‘An Essay on the Human Condition’, and the book does indeed have all the qualities of the essay form, as invented by Michel de Montaigne: it is digressive, looping, surprising, instinctive and happy rather than logical and historical in its inclusions and exclusions. The sole unconscionable omission is Montaigne himself, who wrote an essay called ‘That to philosophise is to learn how to die’, in which he argued that the best way to die would be to be struck down suddenly whilst setting cabbages, careless of death’s dart, thinking only of one’s imperfect garden.
The book takes us on a short garden tour from Eden through Voltaire’s ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ to modern poetry. There is a lovely page on Wallace Stevens’s exquisite ‘Sunday Morning’, which I’d never before seen as a garden poem. Along the way, we stroll through Boccaccio’s garden tales and the earthly paradises of classical and Renaissance epic. Harrison keeps asking fascinating, provocative questions. For instance, does Islam’s hostility to western modernity have something to do with the way that the Bible begins with exile from Eden whereas the Qur’an imagines the paradise of death as a return to Eden? As Christianity’s heaven is a new Jerusalem rather than a recovered Eden, so in public and political discourse our desired destination is the city, with all its riches. We are encouraged to regard the garden not as an end in itself, but as a place of temporary retreat and recreation before our return to the cut-and-thrust of commerce and politics, the things that are supposed to matter most. Consider the euphemism ‘gardening leave’ or the central claim of Andrew Marvell’s ode on Oliver Cromwell, in which the man who seeks to make his way in the public world must leave ‘his private gardens, where/ He lived reserved and austere’.
Aristotle said that participation in civic life is what defines the human condition. Late in the fourth century before Christ, Epicurus set up his ‘Garden School’ on the outskirts of Athens with the express purpose of teaching the opposite philosophy. Harrison points out that whereas Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum contained gymnasia that were located on public grounds, Epicurus’ garden was private property and in this it reflected one of the pillars of Epicurean philosophy: the affirmation of what Pericles had called idiocy, by which he meant apoliticism, or keeping to oneself. Epicurus was in fact a militant idiot who thought of his garden as a haven from public life … as a thinker, Epicurus distinguished himself from the mainstream of Greek thought by depoliticising the concept of happiness and dissociating it from its traditional link to citizenship.
The location of his educational project in a garden was the key to this.
Along with Montaigne, the other surprising omission from Harrison’s essay is Shakespeare. While his contemporaries pressed for preferment in the fevered world of the Jacobean court, and frequently got themselves into trouble for meddling with politics, Shakespeare kept his counsel and retired — possibly a great deal earlier than most biographers imagine — to his garden at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Harrison’s meditations have confirmed me in my view that if we must attach a philosophical stance to Shakespeare, then it should be Epicureanism. He was the greatest ‘militant idiot’ of them all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008