In Praise of Gardens

By David E. CooperDecember 19, 2014

Voltaire’s Vine and Other Philosophies: How Gardens Inspired Great Writers by Damon Young

PEOPLE WHO LEAD what Damon Young calls “philosophical lives” – philosophers as the Ancients understood the term – do not need to be card-carrying professional philosophers. His book is a set of 11 elegant “portraits,” framed by opening and closing chapters, of the philosophical lives of writers he admires. With only a few exceptions – Jane Austen, Voltaire, Emily Dickinson – the 11 literary figures are not among those that first come to mind as writers who have been inspired by gardens. They do not include the authors of novels in which gardens have a prominent role – Goethe’s Elective Affinities, say, or Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There is no place for such distinguished garden essayists as Joseph Addison, Horace Walpole, and Karel Čapek, nor for garden makers – from Pliny to Vita Sackville-West – who lovingly chronicled their projects.

If Young’s selection of great writers is unexpected, it is also eclectic. Austen, Marcel Proust, George Orwell, Dickinson, and Friedrich Nietzsche cannot often have kept company within the covers of a single book. No explanation is given for this selection, and the portraits are discrete, with no attempt, until the final page, to compare and contrast the writers discussed.

Especially when the essays are as lucid and entertaining as those in Voltaire’s Vine, there should be no objection as such to an unusual and eclectic choice of subjects. More troubling, however, is that several of them really do not belong in a book sub-titled “How Gardens Inspired Great Writers.” The concern here is not that only some of the writers, as Young concedes, “regularly got their fingernails dirty.” (Though this makes it difficult to understand how one newspaper reviewer could describe the book as showing how “in working with the soil you see life’s big picture.”) For it is clearly possible to engage with, and be inspired by, a garden without wielding a spade, or even a pair of secateurs. One doesn’t envisage the refined owners of the Chinese literati gardens of Suzhou as grubbing about in the soil. The problem, rather, is that Young’s writers who kept their fingernails clean were only marginally, if at all, affected and inspired by gardens.

In the case of some of his subjects, inspiration came from plants or trees that, if they were located in gardens at all, might as well not have been – the lemon tree from which thoughts “fell” on Nietzsche, for example, or the Prunella vulgaris that delighted Jean-Jacques Rousseau on an island on a Swiss lake. In the case of others, the gardens they refer to can hardly have inspired their ideas, since these had already been formed. Nikos Kazantzakis’ enthusiasm for Bergson’s metaphysics of élan vital pre-dated his experience of the famously austere Ryoan-ji temple garden in Kyoto in which, rather eccentrically, he saw an expression of this vital force. It is especially difficult to understand the inclusion of Jean-Paul Sartre. The essay on Sartre focuses on the disgust experienced by the protagonist of his novel Nausea at the sight of the root of a chestnut tree, symbolic for Roquentin of sheer, dumb, absurd, alien “Being-in-itself.” But the chestnut tree could easily have been growing by the side of a road and not, as it happens, in a municipal park: and anyway there is no evidence that the tree inspired Sartre’s, as opposed to Roquentin’s, perception of the absurdity of Being.

Other essays provide charming portraits of the musings of Proust and the novelist Colette on flowers, bonsai trees, or shrubs. These are not, however, examples of writers being inspired by gardens but, at most, by objects that might be found in gardens. The garden, after all, is an environment – typically for flowers and plants, rocks and paths, seats and ornaments, animals, birds, and people: a “fusion,” as Young himself puts it, of nature and humanity.

It is, then, to the essays on the dirty finger-nailed figures – Austen, Dickinson, Orwell, Voltaire, and Leonard Woolf – to which readers interested in the engagement of writers with gardens will mainly attend. For it is in the lives of these figures that gardening and writing are intertwined, and in which experience with gardens reflects and confirms a philosophy of life. To be sure, the experiences and philosophies of these five writers are not the same. One reason the garden is an interesting place, Young points out, is its capacity to arouse “conceptual strife,” “jarring sensibilities.” While none of the quintet would share Sartre’s view of gardens as “somewhere between dull and disgusting,” their perception of them is not uniform. For Jane Austen, the park at Pemberley, or her own more modest plot at Chawton, demonstrated the truth of Alexander Pope’s view of the near perfection of nature being “improv’d” by the tasteful designer. For the novelist, autobiographer, and political journalist, Leonard Woolf, on the other hand, the garden in which he manfully laboured, chilled to the bone, was “an image of unavoidable conflict,” “brutality,” and “existential struggle.” Emily Dickinson’s garden was a place of private retreat, while for Voltaire – surrounded by his 23 gardeners – the estate at Ferney was an experiment in social reform.

Despite these diverse sensibilities, however, several themes are common to the lives of Young’s gardener-writers. These themes are largely left implicit by Young, but a more explicit articulation helps to confirm the garden’s capacity to shape and reflect philosophies of life. To begin with, the garden is recognized by these writers as what Young calls “a bulwark against distraction.” This may sound odd given that for many people, pruning or mowing seems to be a welcome distraction from worries about work, money, and the frenzied world beyond the garden wall. But by “distraction,” Young means what gets in the way of reflective thought or meditation. It is not just the outside world against which the garden is a bulwark. Colette, it seems, found in gardens and flowers relief from the intrusions of her powerful passions for sex and food. A different distraction that the garden helps to defend against is that of airy-fairy idealism and utopian abstractions. Woolf, Dickinson, Orwell, and Voltaire were, Young shows, all good empiricists, for whom gardens were an object lesson in realism, the need to test ambitions against experience, and recognition that the world is inhospitable to ideas spun in one’s head. “Muddy gumboots,” as he puts it, may be as fundamental as a pen or a typewriter for that “rational, sceptical, experimental habit of mind” to which Orwell aspired.

One reason why the garden favours a healthily empiricist habit of mind or meditation is what the author calls its “ordinariness.” Gardening as practised by most of us requires no esoteric knowledge, special education, or remarkable talent. Despite the skill and care shown by a competent gardener, it remains a modest, “ordinary” activity. This is only apparently contradicted by Young’s remark that the garden has an aspect of the “sacred,” in the sense of what is “set apart” from “the ordinary.” That the garden is a place of retreat from the everyday world of ordinary business, goals, and desires does not mean that it is a site of the extraordinary, or that it is disjoined from natural human practices. This was recognized by Young’s gardener-writers. For Jane Austen, it was the “homeliness,” simplicity, and naturalness of her “horticultural pursuits” that made the garden essential to her thinking, writing, and well-being. Voltaire’s Candide, disillusioned with grand idealistic projects, famously tells us to “cultivate our garden,” precisely because of the modesty and feasibility of the “attentive custodianship” that this requires.

The practical wisdom required and encouraged by gardening is an intellectual virtue. But the garden is also both an arena and a symbol of ethical virtues. “Scything brambles and shovelling dead dirt” on the island of Jura, where George Orwell lived for three years, were for him integral to “the good life,” which he identified above all else with hard work and commitment. For Voltaire, Young tells us, “gardens … were symbols of [his] ethical project,” places where the responsible gardener practises the care, good will, and determination essential to any moral endeavour – including opposition to the “horror” of religious fanaticism and political absolutism. (Young’s book gets its title from a line in a letter of Voltaire’s, “Tend your vines, and crush the horror.”) It was in the “dignity” and “nobility” of Pemberley’s grounds, rather than in a wet shirt, that the heroine of Pride and Prejudice saw an expression of Mr. Darcy’s virtues. Leonard Woolf found in the garden both a symbol of human struggle with an indifferent, brutal natural world and a place to exercise the virtue of continuing this struggle with grit and resolution. In Voltaire’s Vine, Woolf – especially during the years after his wife Virginia’s suicide – comes across as a horticultural cousin of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, fired up by an “Up yours!” attitude towards a recalcitrant universe.

With the possible exception of Woolf, Young’s gardener-writers recognize gardening as both requiring and nurturing the virtue of hope. They would agree with Karel Čapek on the need for confidence that “the best is ahead of [them] … each successive year will add growth and beauty.” This confidence or hope really is a virtue, or better perhaps is presupposed by the rest of the virtues: for there could be no point to exercising compassion or courage if one believed that good could never result from it, that the world was irremediably obstinate in the face of our best efforts. For Emily Dickinson, spring in the garden is when hope is most visibly rewarded, when people, birds, and plants alike may enjoy “a cordial interview/With God.” In the case of Voltaire, Young explains, success in “cultivating the earth” encouraged the hope that people might “assist one another in supporting life,” and confidence that it was worthwhile to “keep labouring” on behalf of “rational progress.”

What, finally, of the important theme briefly sounded in the opening chapter of the book – the garden as a site for the “fusion,” “combination,” or “interdependence” of nature and humanity? Is this a theme developed in the writings of the figures discussed in the book? 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.”


David E. Cooper is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Durham University, UK. His many books include A Philosophy of Gardens, Oxford University Press 2006.

LARB Contributor

David E. Cooper is professor of philosophy emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malta, and Sri Lanka. He has also been the chair or president of several learned societies, including the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Some of his most recent books are Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (2017) and Animals and Misanthropy (2018). Cooper is also the author of several novels and short stories. He lives with his wife in Northumberland, England.


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