Learn­ing to grow af­ter leav­ing the gar­den

Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE lan­guage of agri­cul­ture was once in con­stant use: one had a cul­ti­vated ac­cent, cul­ti­vated po­ten­tially use­ful ac­quain­tances, hus­banded one’s re­sources. A cul­ti­vated per­son was a model of hu­man ac­com­plish­ment. The ver­bal habit lasted sur­pris­ingly long into the ur­ban­i­sa­tion of the West. In­hab­i­tants of the mod­ern world used it; only in the post­mod­ern world are the terms su­per­an­nu­ated. The idea of a cul­ti­vated per­son to­day seems quaint at best.

This, Robert Pogue Har­ri­son might ar­gue, is be­cause we have thrown our­selves into a li­bido­driven and con­sump­tion- ori­ented ex­is­tence of cease­less but largely mean­ing­less ac­tiv­ity. In crack­ing open the rot­ting mess of tra­di­tional power struc­tures and moral­ity, modernist artists, philoso­phers and other so­cial crit­ics failed to pro­vide a plan for clean­ing it up and restor­ing or­der. They shook the foun­da­tions of the West­ern world and, as its walls crashed down, all they could say was ‘‘ See?’’.

Against the re­sult­ing emo­tional and eth­i­cal vac­uum, Har­ri­son projects the im­age of the gar­den: a source of beauty and calm, of phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual nour­ish­ment, which pro­vides the gar­dener a pur­pose­ful rhythm to his life. The gar­den is a ubiq­ui­tous sym­bol. In Per­sian and Arab cul­tures, it is the earthly em­bod­i­ment of the last­ing peace to be found, af­ter death, in par­adise.

And yet, there has al­ways been an edge. In The Epic of Gil­gamesh , the gar­den is gor­geous but ster­ile, fash­ioned of fab­u­lous jew­els. In The Odyssey , beau­ti­ful gar­dens such as Circe’s were also ar­ti­fi­cial, a sooth­ingly so­porific con­trast with dan­ger­ous and dirty re­al­ity and some­thing for he­roes to beware. For peo­ple of the Book, that am­biva­lence starts from the start: in the Gar­den of Eden.

The Greek philoso­pher Epi­cu­rus es­tab­lished his school on a gar­den prop­erty out­side Athens. He turned his back on the tur­bu­lent pol­i­tics of the Greek city states in the 4th cen­tury BC. War was a con­stant back­beat to do­mes­tic power pol­i­tics and Epi­cu­rus thought that if the city no longer con­cerned it­self with the hap­pi­ness of its cit­i­zens, then cit­i­zens should stop de­vot­ing their finest en­er­gies to the state and work on their private hap­pi­ness. His gar­den was a daily re­minder of the need for con­stant vig­i­lance in the cul­ti­va­tion of the self and a liv­ing me­mento mori: as the sea­sons came and went, flow­ers bloomed and faded, fruits rot­ted even while en­sur­ing ge­netic sur­vival, so hu­mans came and went from the world.

The Epi­cure­ans cul­ti­vated them­selves so that they could be good friends to oth­ers. They prac­tised mod­er­a­tion in their ap­petites, hon­esty in speech, con­sid­er­a­tion, jus­tice, courage and pru­dence. They ad­vo­cated grat­i­tude for the past, pa­tience in the present and hope for the fu­ture. They be­lieved the mind and body were a col­lec­tion of atoms that dis­si­pated af­ter death, so hung out for no re­ward in an af­ter­life. They were, it must be said, the most at­trac­tive of the

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