Friday, December 18, 2009
Book Review: Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition
It is an odd thing to read a book about gardens that is written by someone who is not actually a gardener. But, then again, this book is about much more than the growing and arranging of living plants that comprises our notion of a garden.
Robert Pogue Harrison's book is a discussion of the essence and significance of gardens in literature, including poetry, prose, and religious texts. As such, it explains how gardens reflect and embody the human soul. It ranges from different philosophical interpretations of gardens to depictions of them in Renaissance Italian literature to contrasting the symbolism of gardens in the Bible and the Koran, and much more in between. Twentieth-century and twenty-first-century garden imagery is addressed as well, creating a whirlwind of garden interpretation through many continents and centuries in barely 200 pages.
The variety of subject matter sometimes gives Gardens an uneven tempo; the book periodically lurches from an elegant, cogent discussion to a sudden critique of an entirely different era in time or aspect of humanity. Unsurprisingly, Harrison is at his best when discussing Italian literature, which he teaches at Stanford. (I must admit at this point that Renaissance Italian history was my concentration in college, and therefore my familiarity with this subject matter may bias my opinion that these chapters are the best.) Quality expositions on other writers abound, however, particularly Harrison's explanation of Epicurean philosophy and its contortion by modern readers. This chapter alone makes the book worthwhile.
I enjoyed how Gardens taught me about writers whose works I haven't read, such as Pablo Neruda and Karel Capek, the latter who shares with me an understanding of the frustrations of bad soil: "And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple rods of clay--clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes..." (31). Harrison's discussions of ancient Greek philosophy and Italian literature also informed and even enthralled me. But while I enjoy reading cantos of The Divine Comedy in Italian (or trying to, because Dante's work is so difficult), other readers might not share my sentiment. Likewise, Harrison's penchant to occasionally veer off into overly academic territory, such as the "objective correlatives" in modern literature, detracts from the garden-based interpretations rather than complementing them.
This book is a lovely read for those interested in philosophy, literature, poetry, and thought-provoking, unorthodox discussions of religious texts. A traditional gardening book it is not; a learned treatise it is.
Dear FTC: I received no compensation for this review. I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash. Thank you.