Saturday, December 20, 2014

In praise of gardens (LA Review of Books)


My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies has been reviewed by David E. Cooper in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Cooper is the author of the excellent A Philosophy of Gardens.

In 'In praise of gardens', Cooper takes issue with my selection of authors (among other things), but engages carefully and fairly with many of the ideas. A sample:
The claim that the garden is a fusion of the human and the natural is not the dull one that a garden is the result of natural processes, such as photosynthesis, and of human effort. The point, rather, as Young indicates, is that gardens make explicit the interdependence of culture and nature: they exemplify it and render it salient. This interdependence exists even in the case of playing the cello or solving crossword puzzles – but not in the salient way it does in the case of gardening, which therefore serves as symbol and reminder of the inextricable entwinement of human practice and natural process. What the garden shows is that we could not be what we are except through the grace of nature: but nor could nature be experienced as it is except through the cultural and creative practices in which we engage. 
This is a truth that some, at least, of Young’s great writers appreciate. Orwell’s gardening was “a realist’s enterprise” not least because of “the practical candour”of recognizing the dependence of the enterprise on “soil, sunlight, humidity, acidity.” At the same time, he knew how the practice of gardening – its delights as well as its toil – could correct the false perceptions of the world that abstraction, convention, and an impoverished language have helped to create. Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Woolf were certainly men who were acutely sensitive to – and either celebrated or bemoaned – the severe constraints that nature placed on human endeavours, but were aware too how these endeavours shaped perceptions of nature. Rousseau’s “noble savage,” Nietzsche’s “natural aristocrat,” Woolf’s Ceylonese farmer in his novel The Village in the Jungle, experience the natural world in a manner quite unlike that of urban sophisticates belonging to a very different kind of culture. 
Candide’s custodianship of his garden, writes Young, “nurtured the community as well as the soil,” while Voltaire’s own garden, or estate, demonstrated the mutual dependence of the human good and the good of the earth. A community cannot flourish that does not respect the soil, while the soil becomes barren without the care of a community. It is another aspect of the fusion between culture and nature that Emily Dickinson exposes when she writes of her poems as “blossoms in the brain.” The poems are not autonomous creations, but grow out of the poet’s experience of nature, while this experience, in turn, is informed by a distinctive poetic sensibility. Here we have an example of the way in which, as Young describes it, writers “have made the garden their intellectual and artistic collaborator.” 
Time was when the garden was a subject of significant interest to French philosophes, English Romantic thinkers, and even German metaphysicians. (Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer all discussed gardens.) After two centuries of neglect, there has been, over the last 20 years, a welcome revival of philosophical attention to the garden. Professors of Aesthetics, for example, who once confined themselves to art works or “wild” nature, now write about “human” or “hybrid” landscapes, gardens included. But there is revived attention as well to questions about the modes of meaning that gardens express, their contribution to well-being, and the virtues (and perhaps vices) of gardening as a practice. These are questions that – through the prism of the great writers he portrays – Damon Young has, with style and lightness of touch, invited his readers to consider. The book could have benefited from a more rigorous criterion of selection of its subjects, and perhaps from a more discursive concluding chapter that brought together, and brought out, themes implicit in the essays. Despite this, Voltaire’s Vine is an enjoyable and erudite addition to a burgeoning literature. It is also a testament to the fascination of places whose “mystery,” as the author concludes, is “rarely far away.”
(Photo: Guilfoyle's Volcano, Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, courtesy RMBG)

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