Left: The cover of Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Right: Antal Strohmeyer, The Philosopher's Garden, Athens, 1834, oil on canvas.

Robert Pogue Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University, is a literary scholar and translator whose interests include the Italian lyric, Dante, Renaissance humanism, and phenomenology. The University of Chicago Press has just published Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Here he discusses that book.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I was invited to write a catalogue essay for an exhibition of photographs of gardens by contemporary artists, I had no intention to embark on a book on the garden. After writing a twenty- or twenty-five-page essay, though, I realized I had only scratched the surface of the topic; there was a rich cultural history waiting to be told. In a way, I could almost use the metaphor of the gardener going into the ground as a way to describe my own research. One thing I discovered is that gardens are the places where appearances draw attention to themselves as appearances. What appears in many gardens is put into relief in a way not dissimilar from how many artworks put into relief their own phenomenality. Gardens, like art, invite us to take the time to learn how to see them; they offer an education in ways of seeing.

In retrospect, I see that this book has enough in common with my two earlier books, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, to constitute a trilogy. All three can be seen as a sustained reflection on the humic foundations of culture. In the case of Forests, however, I had undertaken a more comprehensive history, moving through the epochs from ancient to contemporary. I wanted to avoid repeating that strategy with Gardens; I didn’t want this book to be a history, but more of a reflection or meditation—hence the subtitle. An essay evokes the sense of essaying, of trying to look at something thoughtfully but from a nonexhaustive point of view.

This created a number of problems about what to include and exclude. Since no one methodological principle seemed more justifiable than another, I felt free to wander. I learned a lot about things I didn’t know; I wasn’t just going over old ground. Two of the big heroes of the book were not well known to me before: Karel Capek and Epicurus. I lingered on Epicurus in chapter 7 because I found his philosophy has extraordinary relevance for our own times. I think our age is ripe for a creative rediscovery of Epicureanism.

In the book, I suggest that Epicurus’s garden was a place where human and social virtues, trampled on by the so-called real world, could reflourish under carefully husbanded circumstances. The arts can play a similar role today, I believe, especially when considered in light of the broad reduction of a three-dimensional world to two-dimensional forms, the impoverishment of the real through media technologies and new forms of virtuality. While certain forms of contemporary art make interesting use of those technologies, my belief is that one of the most important vocations of art in our age is to restore to reality its full-bodiedness. You can call this a rehumanization, a cultivation of the human in the midst of dark times.

The conversation of philosophy, or exchange of ideas, idealized or exalted by Plato, Epicurus, and others, remains, for me, one of the richest sources of human happiness. Writing—and criticism—can be understood as a prelude or preamble to the conviviality of that conversation. The fact that so much of it took place in gardens is not by chance. Conversation, philosophy, friendship, conviviality, serenity of mind—these are virtues that call for a sustained, almost daily cultivation of the self and its community. The garden for me is also a figure for this kind of cultivation—of taking into one’s care something that is not one’s self and being responsible for others and for the earth. The gardener does this in a way that is symbolic for many other human activities.

Gardening, like art, can counter the frenzy of our age, which is characterized by an aggravated consumerism that entails as its necessary correlate endless production and endless productivity. The daily turbulence that today’s capitalist economy requires militates against the sanctuaries of repose that I discuss throughout the book, of which gardens are typically a figure. My last chapter is titled “The Paradox of the Age.” The paradox is that, while the system is in a complete frenzy, what seems to be driving it is a desire to re-create a passive Edenic condition in which all the fruits of the earth will be provided for without care, labor, or pain—as if we could be consumer enjoyers of endless bounty. But the stories and myths that have come down to us through the ages, and which I treat in my book, tell us that the true source of human happiness is not consumption but cultivation, is not passive gratification but the assumption of active responsibility. That is why it’s all the more important to revisit the myth of Eden and to relearn its lesson, which I take to be the lesson of care. In my reading, the Eden story tells us that we needed to get out of that sterile, deathless environment in order to realize our human potential as mothers, fathers, husbandmen, statesmen, artists, friends, and caretakers of the earth.

— As told to Brian Sholis