– for Victor, unvanquished –
You like to grow real plants from seeds. […] You hate the desert.
William Geld in Code 46
In recent decades, cultural critics have increasingly turned to the issues of memory and ecology. On the one hand, the nature and function of history and memory has become the focus of different types of inquiries. Important themes, in this respect, are the relationship between tradition and innovation, community and calamity, literature and other mnemonic media. Consider a passage by Geoffrey Hartman, which offers one perspective on memory: “[o]ne reason literature remains important is that it counteracts […] the impersonality and instability of [a] public memory [based on visual media as well as] the determinism and fundamentalism of a collective memory based on identity politics” (Hartman 1995: 85). On the other hand, the problematic relationship between economy and ecology has also inspired new forms of literary analysis. Here, critics mainly focus on the tension between man and animal, landscape and city, not to mention science and nature. As Lawrence Buell observes, the movement of ecocriticism engages the question of “human dominance of the nonhuman world” (Buell 1999: 707) and that of the “landscape types favored by literary discourse” (706). These contemporary investigations of memory and ecology, most critics would argue, are distinct, if not entirely unrelated.
According to Robert Pogue Harrison, however, there are crucial affinities between the projects of cultural and natural conservation. A professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, he started out by writing a book on Dante, The Body of Beatrice, in 1988. In a response against the limited reception of this first book, Harrison’s later writings opted for a broader scope and more committed tone. This resulted in a study on memory in 2003, The Dominion of the Dead (henceforth: D), and two studies on ecology in 1992 and 2008, Forests (henceforth: F) and Gardens (henceforth: G). Certain differences notwithstanding, these three books form a unified project that provides stimulating lessons for critics working on memory and ecology as well as their possible interconnection. Additionally, Harrison voices interesting ideas on literature and visual media. In the following paragraphs, I will mainly focus on The Dominion of the Dead and Gardens to describe Harrison’s way of reading history, imagery and ecology. My analysis will show that these issues are inextricably connected in his oeuvre, leading to various concepts that might be fruitful for future research.
Lexification and Depth-Perception
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to [...] ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them [...] may be now and henceforth removed. (12-13)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Introduction to The Scarlet Letter
I began to speak, and therefore I spoke with the dead. Such a rephrasing of Stephen Greenblatt’s famous dictum aptly summarizes, I think, the historical programme of Robert Pogue Harrison’s work. Through the fossils of the earth, the photographs and cellars of our houses, the pasts and futures of our existences, the images and words of our cultures, we commune with the dead. Whenever we speak, we reveal our fascination and connection – however tenuous – with our ancestors. Perhaps death shall have no dominion, as the poem by Dylan Thomas suggests, but the dead shall. The Dominion of the Dead is therefore an apposite title for Harrison’s most systematic reflection on this “humic” (D x) or “laral” (D 50) dimension of human culture. This dimension is a systematic concern of his writings, moreover, as it can also be found in his studies on forests and gardens. To give but two of many examples, Forests already observed that “[h]uman beings […] are always already dead” (F 14) and Gardens still maintains that “life […] is intrinsically mortal” (G 74). His work is hence preoccupied with the lasting influence of ancestral memory.
Harrison does not simply want to catalogue various motifs associated with the dead, however. In many ways, this humic or “catacombal” (F 242) dimension of his work implies a new way of describing literary history or, in a broader and more contemporary idiom, “cultural memory” (D 31). The crucial ideas in this respect are introduced in the middle chapters of The Dominion of the Dead, which examine the Scienza Nuova of Giambattista Vico and Sein und Zeit of Martin Heidegger. As both chapters discuss the topic of death and logos, they implicitly compare the approach of both philosophers. Heidegger might be “the most important philosopher of the twentieth century” (D 77), but Vico emerges victoriously in both cases. His interest in the communal dead proves more fruitful than Heidegger’s unconvincing emphasis on the death of the individual. Harrison reaches a similar conclusion with regard to their interpretations of lex and logos, of the historical ‘gathering’ taking place in human institutions. Ultimately, Vico’s emphasis on the historical density of our words is more productive than Heidegger’s work of abstraction, which empties words of their meanings. In line with Giacomo Leopardi’s views on parole, certain words are seen to be pregnant with “latent meanings [and] etymological suggestion” (F 189). This explains why Harrison tries to rehabilitate an etymological reasoning that had fallen into disrepute because of Heidegger’s questionable results. Consider Harrison’s analyses of “sema” (D 20), for instance, or “foresta” (F 69) and “husband” (G 174). Both philosophers return in Harrison’s other studies. Forests offers a ‘poetic history’ “[i]n keeping with the spirit of Vico’s New Science” (F 92), for instance, drawing upon Vico’s ideas about “irony” (F 12) and the rise and decline of “institutions” (F 11). His name is not explicitly mentioned in Gardens, but the term “poetic character” (G 6, see F 8-9) suggests that Vico’s ideas are still present here. Heidegger’s influence also crops up in Forests, explaining Harrison’s attitude toward “humanism” (F 258) and the “wasteland” (F 261). The German philosopher returns in Gardens as well, as we will see.
In the process of his comparison between both philosophers in The Dominion of the Dead, Harrison coins the crucial term “lexification” (D 84). This neologism is a more communal and institutional version, Harrison clarifies, of Heidegger’s “repetition” (D 95) and Sören Kierkegaard’s “recollection forward” (D 118). The latter terms refer to the existential process by which the individual appropriates the possibilities offered by his personal past, potentially tapping unrealized possibilities that might renew the present. Crucially, authentic repetition is never reduplication, but retrieval; a self-conscious weighing of possibilities that are truly considered before being either chosen or replaced. This notion of repetition is interesting, Harrison concedes, but remains too abstract and individualistic. A better term for this process of renewal, he argues, is the aforementioned lexification. Inspired by Vico, this notion refers to the process by which certain institutions bind us to the legacy of the dead and thus lend us ancestral assistance in our attempt to respond to the future. Hence, the notion of lexification refers to the productive re-engagement with past words and ideas. If we connect these ideas to another term Harrison mentions, the Leopardian “reparoliz[ation]” (D 73), it becomes clear that The Dominion of the Dead argues for a form of re-lexification, a form of reconnecting with fruitful traditions that we are at risk of forgetting through processes of “dislexification” (D 87) or Todesvergessenheit. Highlighting the importance of this issue for Harrison’s project, Forests already alludes to the process of lexification, even though it does not yet mention the term. For it introduces Leopardi’s opposition between “termini and parole” (F 188) as well as the etymology of “logos” (F 35, 202) that leads to the idea of human “gathering” (F 242). This last word, in fact, is the title of the poem that concludes the body of Harrison’s text here.
As the terms – there is no escaping termini at this level – lexification and reparolization underscore the interaction between the living and the dead, they are effective tools to rethink notions such as tradition and innovation. Harrison’s terms have a number of advantages in this respect. They indicate, first of all, that pure innovation is as impossible as pure reduplication. Artefacts may be innovative in certain respects, but they are inevitably traditional in other respects. As Harrison programmatically notes, “[t]he genuinely modern does not chase after the new; it makes the old new again” (D 75). In a different context, he argues that the Enlightenment’s “projective detachment from the past” (F 116) inevitably engenders a sense of “nostalgia” (F 155). We should therefore lexify or relexify with ancient traditions. By combining the terms repetition and lexification, secondly, we can emphasize that individual and collective factors play equally important roles in the process of historical change; repetition stresses that the individual has to choose one or some of the already existing possibilities, lexification stresses that those choices are always articulated in communal practices. These terms therefore avoid the over-general and deterministic overtones of institutional approaches – for the individual has to appropriate those practices in which he is embedded – and the universalistic and naïve overtones of existentialist approaches – for the individual is always embedded in communal institutions. To coin a new term, Harrison’s approach allows us to investigate existential institutions. Thirdly, the emphasis on the dead offers a convincing explanation of why this historical mechanism keeps going; every generation has to commemorate their dead and retrieve their legacies. In this sense, the law of memory counteracts the negative effects of history, this “natural disaster” (D 9) fuelled by the “death drive” (D 10).
This may all sound rather abstract, so let us briefly consider a few examples. The first passage that I want to single out is a single sentence that summarizes the process of repetition and lexification in its paratactical and nevertheless cyclical sweep:
Just as Thoreau’s vital heat is the descendant of Descartes’s great fire of the First Meditation, so too the latter – whether it burned inside or outside the sanctuary of the thinking self – is the modern descendant of the fire by which Heraclitus warmed himself in his humble kitchen, much to the astonishment of a group of curious visitors, the likes of which would drop by Thoreau’s cabin at Walden from time to time. (D 41)
What connects these three figures is not simply their preoccupation with the ‘vital heat’ of human beings, Harrison suggests, but also the idea that this heat is fundamentally connected with the institution that is the human house. A more extensive example is the fascinating analysis of the ‘humans falling like autumn leaves’-motif in The Dominion of the Dead. Here, Harrison points out how various authors retrieve earlier treatments of this motif and creatively transmit it to future generations. In the end, even the haunting Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington seems to fit into this historical sequence. A final example is the supposedly revolutionary emergence of the Christian Church. As Harrison’s illuminating reading of Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean demonstrates, this was not a revolution but a renovation of pagan ancestor religions and “epicureanism” (D 122), and hence a true example of lexification.
In the light of these ideas, one cannot help asking the following question; which ancestral voices is Harrison interacting with? His general studies mainly retrieve three cultural traditions. As the previous paragraphs suggested, his work is indebted to existentialism or thinkers associated with existentialism. Apart from Heidegger, Harrison refers to authors such as Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and Beckett and frequently uses notions such as death, “authenticity” (F 127, D 102), “repetition” (D 95), human “ecstasis” (F 201) or “ecstatic self-extension” (G 27), “bad faith” (F 64, G 159), “boredom” (G 166), “Sorge” (G 200), and the “absurd[…]” (F 97, D 89, G 81). These notions notwithstanding, his discussion of existentialism in Forests is fairly critical; Sartre’s anti-traditionalism and residual rationalism, after all, lead to a deplorable “forest phobia” (F 145). A similar claim might be made with regard to modernity. Harrison concedes that the “Enlightenment is [very] much a part of our cultural heritage” (F 120) and that he is “an heir to the cultural history of modernity” (G 159). He is highly suspicious of “modernity” (F 91) and “modernism” (G 150), however, both in the socio-economic and artistic sense. Sometimes, it seems as though he is simply attacking a “false modernity” (D 35) that does not include the likes of “Rilke” (D 44) or “Pound” (F 150). “That modernism lost its center fighting the world”, he notes, “was no doubt a ‘destiny’ that unfolded, at least to some extent, independently of human agency” (G 161). In other passages, however, he suggests that all modern authors are implicated in his critique of the anti-traditionalist “spleen” (F 187) of modernity, the “aimless drivenness of our age” (G 150).
Christianity and religion in general are also important touchstones of Harrison’s work. Drawing upon Vico, Forests suggests that the very founding of human institutions is caused by a religious impulse. Similarly, The Dominion of the Dead describes the “Hic Non Est” of Christianity and its complicated relationship to the “Hic Jacet” of pagan burial rituals. Gardens, finally, discusses both the beginning and ending of man according to the Christian worldview, namely Eden and paradise. Again, this tradition influences Harrison’s terminology. Forests speaks about the modern age as “the post-Christian era” (F 164) and uses terms such as “conversion” (F 67), “grace” (F 156) and “revelation” (F 240). Similarly, The Dominion of the Dead mentions the “covenant” (D 16) and “conversion” (D 50) of the earth. Harrison likens one of his chapters to a “meditation” (D 69), moreover, and associates a literary scene with the “last supper” (D 135). Gardens also talks about “conversion” (G 30) and uses terms such as “[v]ocation” (G 1) and “[m]iracles” (G 125). It offers “a real-life parable” (G 44), furthermore, and a slightly ironic remark about a religious “visitation” (G 56). Perhaps, Harrison notes, “nothing is more needed at this juncture in history than the advent of a new religion” (F 239). Interestingly, he associates this “new god” (F 242) with a “new ecology” (ibid.). In fact, he argues that “the hypothesis of God […] becomes less and less absurd the more one learns about the everyday miracles of [the] natural world” (D 133). This religious dimension notwithstanding, Harrison criticizes the Christian conception of paradise, arguing that modern restlessness has its roots in the “unquiet heart” (G 136) of Christianity. In this sense, Harrison’s critical return to these traditions – existentialism, modernity, Christianity – should be seen as a “reciprocative rejoinder” (D 102), in which earlier ideas are reused but also critically questioned. His own work is hence teeming with lexifications.
In line with other criticism on cultural memory, finally, Harrison frequently addresses non-literary media; television – “Twin Peaks” (F 124) –, painting – the work of “John Constable” (F 202) –, film – “Aeon Flux” (G 167) –, architecture – Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” (F 232) –, and horticulture – “Versailles” (G 109) –, et cetera. Additionally, Harrison hosts a riveting talk show on Stanford Campus radio, called Entitled Opinions and freely available on iTunes. At the same time, literature still occupies a preferential position in terms of his inquiries into the earth and its dead. Forests, for instance, refers to a literary “‘truth’” (F 143), “the sort of freedom and insight that belong to literature alone” (F 97). Literature, it seems, is our way of coming to terms with the ambiguities of the linguistic state that is the human condition: “[l]iterature, unlike philosophy, finds words for what words cannot express” (Harrison 1996: 431). As The Dominion of the Dead puts it, Harrison prefers “philological certainty” (D 93) – wisdom or insight – over “philosophical truth” (ibid.). In line with Hartman’s essay, furthermore, Harrison is fairly critical concerning the virtualization taking place in contemporary media.
Consider the provocative contrast between image and appearance in Gardens. In contrast to superficial “images” (G 20), Harrison claims, “[a]ppearances owe their poignancy – their […] beauty and power of evocation – to the time-boundedness that attunes us to the fleeting moods of nature [and] the phenomenon” (ibid.). Gardens should evoke humic appearances, not the reified images of a sanitized society like that of Aeon Flux. Summarizing his views, Harrison argues “that eyesight does not equate vision, that vision’s ‘inner gaze’ correlates with the latency of the phenomenon, and that vision’s perception of the visible world is both determined and altered by the historical unfolding of the ages” (G 123). In other words, there is a difference between animal eyesight and human vision and the latter is shaped by historical modes of visibility. As contemporary modes of visibility are being impoverished by “a plethora of pulsing images” (G 116), human vision is increasingly threatened. For these images flatten the depths of the phenomenon as well as the depths of the beholder’s mind. Our images, in other words, are flattening the “deep time” (G 57, 118) that is necessary for the “depth perception” (G 121) of appearances. Our sophisticated images and technologies notwithstanding, we are gradually going blind.
These ideas might prove fruitful for future inquiries. Of course, Harrison uses the term ‘depth perception’ in the context of gardens and he stresses that gardens should not be equated with artworks. They imply a different regime of “time” (G 39); gardens may slow down time by triggering appearances but they are designed to be impermanent. Artworks, conversely, are made to become lasting “memorials” (ibid.). Whereas artworks transcend a merely biological labor to become forms of “work” (G 41), moreover, gardens are ultimately forms of public “action” (G 46). The final difference is especially interesting for our purposes:
Artworks also stand before us as humanly created things whose principal purpose is self-exhibition; they too draw attention to appearance. Yet however much art may play a role in their design, gardens have a natural life of their own which exists independently of their formal determinations. (G 56, emphasis added)
Even if our interest in art is disinterested, our “biophilia” (ibid.) implies, our interest in gardens is not. As the italicized passage suggests, however, it might still be possible to extend the idea of ‘depth perception’ to our experience of visual artworks. After all, they also draw attention to appearances. If it has similar ‘lethic’ depths, visual art can also function as a privileged site for the evocation of appearances. Actually, that seemed to be the effect of Constable’s paintings in Forests. In the end, the idea of depth perception might therefore be seen as an ecocritical update of Roland Barthes’ famous observation in La chambre claire regarding the ça a été-effect of photography. If photographs portraying people confront us with their spectral, possibly defunct existence, artworks portraying nature might confront us with our finite relation to its infinite cycles. These natural phenomena will perish, but they will also return, even if we will not. Ça a été, peut-être, mais ça va retourner aussi.
Desertification and Serenification
The trees [of an orchard] possess a domestic character; they have lost the wild nature of their forest-kindred, and have grown humanized by receiving the care of man […]. (1130)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to Mosses from an Old Manse
Apart from his work on cultural memory, Harrison is also concerned with ecology. Because of his study on Forests, in fact, he has been referred to as an ecocritic. However, Lawrence Buell maintains that Harrison is not “an insider to the ecocritical movement” (Buell 1999: 701). That reaction is not surprising, for Harrison has an ambiguous attitude with regard to nature. His general studies are unmistakably shaped by ecocritical concerns, think of their emphasis on ecological problems – the “greenhouse effect” (F 148), “[a]cid rain” (F 177) and “deforestation” (F 247) –, on the earth and its soil – the fact that our age lives under “a veil that obscures not only the source of our foodstuffs but also the source of our relation to the earth” (D 32) – or on care versus consumption – the fact that our age is paradoxically trying “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” (G 166). As the final passage suggests, however, these studies do not simply deal with nature, but with man’s place in nature. Harrison rejects the idea of “a pure nature ‘untrammeled by man’ which stands beyond the reach of history” (Harrison 1999: 673). In Forests, for instance, he demonstrates that even the relatively pristine medieval forest was already humanized, being cleansed of truly dangerous animals before being preserved for the king’s hunting pleasure: “[a]fter such extinction came conservation [...] [t]he surviving beasts of pleasure, once hunted by other ravenous beasts, are now hunted solely by the lupine monarch within the protected confines of his forests” (F 75). The idea of a pure nature is a pure illusion.
Emphasizing the importance of nature, in other words, does not have to imply a neglect of the human world. One of the striking stylistic features of Harrison’s studies, after all, is their repeated attempt to define the human; these books abound in formula such as “[t]o be human means […]” (F 201, D xi, G 94), “[w]hat distinguishes us in our humanity is […]” (G 9) et cetera. Harrison might therefore be seen as the most human of ecocritics, focusing on human ‘worlds’ rather than natural habitats. And yet, he continually connects the human and the humic, the earth and its dead. We should neither focus on nature nor on man, it seems, but on their inescapable interconnection. As Harrison puts it, “[n]ature always already appears in its relation to human beings” (F 207) and, conversely, “human nature, for all its indeterminacy, is determined by its relation to nature” (Harrison 1996: 436). That is not to say that man is simply part of the natural realm; in contrast to the “naive” (F 200) claims of certain ecologists, Harrison does not believe that humans are “ontologically continuous” (ibid.) with the rest of nature. Our “linear mortality” (F 194), after all, excludes us from the cycle of death and rebirth. Because of “language” (F 200), moreover, we are not only outside of ourselves but also outside of nature.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the relationship between man and nature, memory and ecology is a troubled one. Nature poses dangers to human memory, as Harrison’s analysis of the sea’s “erasure” (D 14) in The Dominion of the Dead points out. But man also poses dangers to nature, as it confronts him with his mortality; we “can turn against the earth, precisely because it is home to our mortality” (G 176). History and nature appear to be opposed, then, as “Vico” (F 57) seemed to believe. But that is precisely why Harrison attempts to reconnect them. The “relational bond” (F 208) between both realms, he argues, should be seen “in terms of the marriage of history and nature, where history does not mean the grand events of the past but rather the human appropriation of the earth as a place of dwelling” (ibid.). We should examine, in other words, “the mysterious genetic link that binds human historicity to nature” (F 238). Nature and culture originate from the same source, Harrison claims, and therefore “it is the relation between nature and history which accords to each its specific dimension of being” (F 242). That is why forests, for instance, are not only sites of natural growth but also of “cultural memory” (F 62). A pure nature untainted by man is hence not only impossible, it is also undesirable. In general terms, then, Harrison is a conservationist in the natural ánd cultural sense of the term. Or, from a different perspective, he seems to be developing a new, ecological – as opposed to a “triumphalistic” (F 11) or “triumphalist” (G 94) – form of humanist thinking. A humanism of care, as we will see.
The relation between man and nature is most explicitly discussed in Forests. The Shadow of Civilization and Gardens. An Essay on the Human Condition, as their titles and subtitles already indicate. As the humanistic counterpart to that other study on the importance of forests, Jared Diamond’s 2005 Collapse, Harrison’s work engages with various “forest scenes” (F x) and their clues to the cultural function of that which lies beyond the borders of city and society. The ecological agenda, here as in Diamond’s work, is crucial. Throughout cultural history, after all, the forest seems to recede ever further, to the point that we seemed to have lost the “provincial edge” (F 247) of civilization. Harrison introduces an important notion in this respect; the greenhouse effect, he claims, is part of “the ecological legacy of the twentieth century: desertification” (F 148). Seeing that poetry registers changes to the external as well as internal world, it is only logical that the “wasteland” (F 149) becomes such an important motif in modernist literature. The alternative is obvious. Just as some of Ezra Pound’s writings aim “to defy the growing wasteland in a mad attempt at cultural and historical reforestation” (F 150), we should counter the natural and cultural desertification of modern times with a natural and cultural reforestation. In the light of these remarks, it might seem strange that Harrison later turns to gardens. Gardens, after all, are not forests. As the earlier study points out, a “garden” (F 69) is always an “artificial garden” (F 86), a “groomed forest” (F 130) or park, in which the wilderness of the forest is mastered by man. The associated “academy” (F 38, 246), similarly, has negative connotations in this earlier study. Ultimately, however, the turn to gardens is perhaps not that surprising. By turning to the academy, after all, Harrison completes his Vico-like investigation of human institutions; whereas Forests dealt with the “forests” (F 11) and The Dominion of the Dead with the “huts [and] cities” (ibid.), Gardens examines the final institution, the “academies” (ibid.).
In a similar fashion to the study on forests, Gardens compares various garden scenes – different “revision[s] of the Eden story” (G 175), to be more precise – throughout history and simultaneously offers a loosely constructed typology and phenomenology of gardens. In the process, Harrison introduces several distinctions that allow us to separate good gardens from bad ones. He refers, for instance, to the opposition between real and figurative gardens, earthly and Edenic ones, “open” (G 108) and closed ones, “lethic” (G 110) and “representational” (ibid.) ones, Italian and Japanese ones, et cetera. These distinctions ultimately reveal the political and pedagogical programme underlying Harrison’s work. Regarding the political and ethical ideals, these are deliberative republicanism or “civic humanism” (G 98) on the one hand and grateful patience or serene “ataraxia” (G 125) on the other. Harrison’s study also implies a pedagogical programme, as his analyses of epicureanism and of modern university campuses – the academy – indicate. Apart from articulating these ideals, the book also advocates their implementation. If the terms lexification and desertification appear to be crucial in The Dominion of the Dead and Forests, in fact, the Epicurus-inspired notion of “serenification” (G 160) seems to be the message of Gardens. Whereas the earlier imperative was “lexify!”, the present one seems to be “serenify!”. In contrast to the idea that our current hedonism is a form of epicureanism, Harrison concludes, we should become proper epicureans, cultivating values such as “[f]rienship, conversation, gratitude [and] spiritual tranquility” (G 81). We should become, in short, actual and figurative, political and ethical gardeners. In the final analysis, this serenification can be seen as a new solution to the problem of modern desertification mentioned earlier.
But does this argument not lead to certain problems? Is Harrison not all too eager to include non-botanical phenomena under the rubric of gardens? Surely there is a difference between gardening and governing, gardening and teaching? And is this ethical and pedagogical programme not self-defeating? Consider a passage from Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar that is not treated in Harrison’s analysis, in which the narrator asks: “[m]ust the conclusion be that the Zen mental techniques for achieving extreme humility […] require as their necessary background aristocratic privilege, and assume an individualism with so much space and so much time around it […]?” (quoted in G 189). The narrator ultimately rejects this “familiar lament over a paradise lost in the spread of mass civilization” (G 190), but Harrison’s study cannot help raising the question of how certain ethical ideals require forms of affluence that may be difficult to reconcile with these very ideals. How can the garden of learning avoid social exclusion and political isolation? Does the need for space and time associated with gardening not require a form of otium that has unavoidable aristocratic associations? A garden, after all, is not a farm. A similar problem already plagued Forests, where Harrison observes that the tyranny of medieval Forest Law unintentionally served ecological goals. He therefore concludes that “an ecologist today cannot help but be a monarchist of sorts” (F 69). The question is therefore simple: can an ecological programme based on forests and gardens be reconciled with a social agenda or does a world with rising populations and dwindling resources not afford that luxury? In short, Gardens seems to include extraneous political and pedagogical issues under the notion of gardening and fails to see that this very notion leads to political and pedagogical problems.
Harrison attempts to parry both forms of criticism, however. Despite claiming that “gardens are ‘figures’ for many cultural activities that are not literally connected to gardening” (G 51), he continually emphasizes that the notion of the garden in the spiritual domain “is not just a casual metaphor” (G 59). There can be a conjugation of place and mind, he argues, “that remains irreducible to the logic of objective correlatives” (G 131) and that should rather be seen in terms of “fusion” (G 130) or “infus[ion]” (G 129). The sphere of the garden is not simply a metaphor for, but the natural habitat of specific cultural and ethical ideals. Gardening requires time and effort, furthermore, but that does not imply that it is an aristocratic activity. The moving example of the homeless gardens in New York effectively belies that argument. Gardening is not an escape from the political realm either, or does not have to be. Serenification does not imply quietism. Here, Harrison reminds the reader of Hannah Arendt’s claim that a flight from reality remains acceptable as long as it does not ignore the cause of that flight. He distinguishes between a so-called “Medusa effect” (G 153, see ix) and “Circe effect” (G 153). The garden promises to be a paradisiacal refuge from the petrifying effects of reality – the Medusa effect of history –, but that refuge can quickly turn out to be an equally stifling trap – the Circe effect of gardens. In that sense, we have to navigate carefully between Medusa and Circe. In Harrison’s interpretation of Genesis, for instance, the garden of Eden promises to be a refuge for postlapsarian man, but is actually a trap for the prehistorical couple of Adam and Eve. It might now seem like a way to escape from the Medusa effect of history, but that presupposes notions of good and evil that only arose because of Eve’s reluctance to accept the seductions of Eden’s Circe effect.
These rebuttals are further clarified by the two terms that underpin Harrison’s argument in Gardens, namely ‘action’ and ‘care’. First of all, Harrison’s study is heavily influenced by Hannah Arendt; her study on The Human Condition provided the book with its subtitle and her notion of “action” (G 10) explains why the activity of gardening is politically productive rather than problematic. In proper gardens, “[t]heir composition turns both deed and word outward, into [...] the public sphere where human beings acknowledge one another’s humanity” (G 46). Secondly, Gardens returns to the ideas of Heidegger. In a similar fashion to The Dominion of the Dead, this study draws its inspiration from the German philosopher – it begins with the anthropogenic myth of Cura also discussed in Sein und Zeit and ends with his critique of modern technology and consumption – but again corrects his approach. Harrison wants to approach human care or Sorge “not through its abstract concept, the way Heidegger does [but] through one of its living personifications, namely the human gardener” (G 25). This notion of care is ultimately what connects Harrison’s reflections on the garden, the self and the student. It also underscores that gardening is not an elitist endeavour, but characterizes human existence as such. Again, this notion highlights the connection between Harrison’s studies on memory and ecology. For it is already present in Forests (see F 159) and The Dominion of the Dead (see D 154). In the final analysis, it seems, human memory and natural ecology can be connected via the workings of human care.
In conclusion, the previous paragraphs have shown that Harrison’s studies on memory and ecology are related. The studies on nature also discuss mortality and the study on the dead also discusses ecology. His ideas on literary history provide the starting point for new inquiries into the ancestral dimensions or lexifications of culture. Additionally, his views on visual media lead to the idea of a depth perception that confronts the viewer with his mortality and relation to nature. Harrison’s ideas on ecology, furthermore, combine a plea for nature with an interesting plea for what is truly human, leading to a more human – though not anthropocentric – form of ecocriticism. We should not return to Eden, but rather cultivate earthly gardens, as their serenification might remedy the desertification of our nature and culture. These three ideas – lexification, depth perception, serenification – are fruitful tools for wandering through the cultural archives. The brief allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne that preface my argument here are but a few examples of the fecundity of Harrison’s horticultural criticism. In a way that will undoubtedly inspire other analyses – the process of lexification, again –, Harrison reminds us that human memory and natural ecology are two sides of the same coin. Our memories of ecology in the cultural archives, he suggests, might help us to serenify our careless utilization of nature. Perhaps this memory of ecology might help to ensure that ecology does not become a mere memory.
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