Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Anybody who has even cursorily browsed the greatest works of world literature will know that “gardens” occupy a singular status in the human imagination. Their repeated occurrence in tales across geographies and eras is not a coincidence but suggestive of something important and profound about our psychological and social situation. In his thoughtful and wide-ranging 2008 book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of literature at Stanford University, examines gardens of all sorts – real and mythical, most mundane to most majestic – and sheds light on our relationship with them, telling us why do we need them and love them so.

Medusa by Caravaggio (1595), Wikipedia

Human beings, Harrison says in the beginning, are not ultimately made to look too intently at the head of Medusa [monster from Greek mythology], that is, at rage, death, and endless suffering. He writes:

This is not a shortcoming on our part; on the contrary, our reluctance to let history’s realities petrify us underlies much of what makes human life bearable: our religious impulses, our poetic and utopian imagination, our moral ideals, our metaphysical projections, our storytelling, our aesthetic transfigurations of the real, our passion for games, our delight in nature.

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison (2008, University of Chicago Press)

Gardens are a mechanism by which we make life bearable. They protect us from the frenzy and tumult unleashed by history. They counter annihilating and anarchic forces. Gardens have been with us – or we have been with gardens – forever. Some say they emerged after agriculture. But if gardens are to agriculture what poetry is to prose, who knows, gardens might well have preceded agriculture – if one were to take the analogy seriously. Perhaps “gardening is not a subset of life but life a subset of gardening”, as the acclaimed Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890-1938) – author of a beautiful book called The Gardener’s Years (1929) – is said to have believed.

“For millennia and throughout world cultures,” asserts Robert Pogue Harrison, “our predecessors conceived of human happiness in its perfected state as a garden existence.” Gardens can take various forms. They may be:

as far away as Gilgamesh’s garden of the gods or the Greeks’ Isles of the Blessed or Dante’s Garden of Eden at the top of the mountain of Purgatory; or they may be on the margins of the earthly city, like Plato’s Academy or the Garden School of Epicurus or the villas of Boccaccio’s Decameron; they may even open up in the middle of the city, like the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris or the Villa Borghese in Rome or the homeless gardens in New York City.

But the purpose always remains the same. If not a kind of heaven, they are a kind of haven. Also, they are not private concerns but a common enterprise. This is something that the French philosopher Voltaire understood. Il faut cultiver notre jardin – we must cultivate our garden – he said at the end of his satire Candide (1759). Notre jardin is that plot of soil on the earth, within the self, or amid the social collective, where “the cultural, ethical, and civic virtues that save reality from its own worst impulses are cultivated. Those virtues are always ours.”


The restorative function of gardens is clearly on display in The Decameron (1351) by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). In the summer of 1348, seven young women and three young men leave behind the desolation and destruction of a plague-ravaged Florence to take refuge in a villa in the surrounding hills. Here is a scene – The Enchanted Garden – painted by the English artist John William Waterhouse (1917).


Another scene from The Decameron by John William Waterhouse. For two weeks the ten characters engage in conversation, leisurely walks, dancing, storytelling, and merrymaking. In several ancient, medieval, and modern texts, gardens frequently appear as sites of conversation, dialogue, friendship, storytelling—in short, communalisation. Harrison remarks: “A story, after all, is like a garden. It has its distinct shape, its articulated rhythm, its byways, its unfolding perspectives, its intrigues and surprises, its sinister undersides, its changing appearances, and its transitive relationship to the “real world” beyond its imaginary bounds.”


The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio, Brancacci chapel, Florence, Italy (1401-1428), Wikimedia Commons

In the garden, appearances are lush. Everything seems as if it is freely given, originating from some hidden, mysterious source. That is why in literature, they are often sites of epiphanies – spiritual or erotic or otherwise – gateways to other worlds or orders of being.

We take delight in gardens, true, but fundamentally we desire only a particular sort of garden. We want to be able to, to some degree, “engineer” the enchantment they provide. If history without gardens would be a wasteland, a garden severed from history would be superfluous. In a garden where everything pre-exists spontaneously and perfectly, we would surely succumb to ennui. This was, in a way, the problem with Eden. The Fall may have been a curse for any number of reasons but it was a blessing in so far it made Eve and Adam engaged cultivators of the world. It saved them from mindless and feckless bliss. It endowed them with a depth and a density. It enabled them to earn heart. With the possibility of mortality, came the prospect of “natality” – the initiation of new beginnings through human action [a concept used by the influential German-Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)]. Mentioning a painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden by the Italian Renaissance artist Masaccio, Harrison writes:

It is invariably Eve who is moving toward the exit first, as if in eager anticipation of her new future, while Adam, looking forlorn, seems in dread of what’s to come. Adam, no doubt, did not hear the call of natality as intensely as Eve. Indeed, it is doubtful that he ever would have taken the initiative when it came to the forbidden fruit. Eve’s transgression was the first true instance of human action, properly understood. It was in itself already an act of motherhood, for through it she gave birth to the mortal human self, which realizes its potential in the unfolding of time, be it through work, procreation, art, or the contemplation of things divine. God should have foreseen that by endowing Eve with a potential for natality, he made it painful for her to endure the sterile mirror which the garden reflected back on her.

Like Eden, the garden mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey – on the island of Ogygia wherein the nymph Calypso keeps the hero Odysseus captive for years – though exuberant and captivating, isn’t enough to excite the human soul. Such a magical garden needs no intervention of any kind. No wonder Odysseus rejects Calypso’s offer of immortality and decides to return to Ithaca to his aging wife Penelope – to the more challenging and uncomfortable life of commitments and concerns.


Odysseus and Calypso (1616) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons


On the other hand, gardens that are too strictly regimented and stick to iron laws of symmetry can feel somewhat oppressive (at least to the author) – take the meticulously manicured lawns of the Palace of Versailles that are more representative of monarchical control than democratic participation.


The Gardens of Versailles, Pixabay [Public Domain]

We hold dear the activity of gardening because it is an opening of worlds—of worlds within worlds— beginning with the world at one’s feet. As Karel Čapek knew,

the cultivation of soil and cultivation of spirit are connatural, and not merely analogical, activities. What holds true for the soil—that you must give it more than you take away—also holds true for nations, institutions, marriage, friendship, education, in short for human culture as a whole, which comes into being and maintains itself in time only as long as its cultivators overgive of themselves.

Take education, for instance. The soul of the student is very much like soil, in which the teacher can plant his/her seeds. There is a reason why institutions of higher learning have a long history of association with the garden, be it:

the parks and groves of the famous Greek schools, the Roman villa, the bowers of Sainte-Geneviève in medieval Paris, the Italian garden academies of the Renaissance, the British “college garden,” or the idyll of the traditional American campus.


The Scholars’ Garden, Clare College, University of Cambridge by User “Ed g2s”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia


So from a “gardenly” point of view – where do we stand? What is our situation today? According to the author, we are living in an age of paradox. Capitalistic and technological forces have engendered a frantic cult of consumerism, have laid before us an inexhaustible inventory for human consumption. The dominant impulse of the system is to perpetuate its own dynamism rather than to fulfill an end. We want to re-Edenise the world but, in our restlessness and heedlessness, are doing so by mounting assault after assault on Creation. “Our action does not so much bear fruit as devour fruit,” notes Harrison. “Thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of seeking to re-create Eden by ravaging the garden itself—the garden of the biosphere on the one hand and the garden of human culture on the other.” Towards the end, he quotes from the novel Under the Volcano (1947) by English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957), in which a character – the Consul – suggests another – Mr. Quincey – that perhaps Adam secretly loathed the garden and that God punished him by leaving him there “alone,” “unseen,” “cut off from God.” Then Harrison continues:

I have suggested—and Genesis invites that speculation—that it is far more likely that Eve was the one who secretly loathed the place and that it was the primal wife, rather than the husband, who found a way to get us expelled, putting humanity on the path to maturity. In the final analysis Eve is the mother of the story. Whether she actually got us out of Eden or whether she merely got God out of Eden, the result is effectively the same. In either case we were handed over to our self-responsibility; in either case we were left in a garden we were called on to keep; and we’re still there, in este jardín.

All we must and can do is remember and learn back our pre-lapsarian vocation of care; there is no alternative. And for this we would first need to slow down and recover the lost art of seeing and registering the splendor of nature.


I leave you with a talk by Professor Robert Pogue Harrison on literature and philosophy:


Image Credit:

Featured: Detail of The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man or The Earthly Paradise with the Fall of Adam and Eve (1617) by Peter Paul Rubens (figures) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (flora and fauna), the Mauritshuis, the Netherlands, Wikipedia.



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