Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Paperback)

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Humans have long turned to gardens—both real and imaginary—for sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult that surrounds them. Those gardens may be as far away from everyday reality as Gilgamesh’s garden of the gods or as near as our own backyard, but in their very conception and the marks they bear of human care and cultivation, gardens stand as restorative, nourishing, necessary havens.

With Gardens, Robert Pogue Harrison graces readers with a thoughtful, wide-ranging examination of the many ways gardens evoke the human condition. Moving from from the gardens of ancient philosophers to the gardens of homeless people in contemporary New York, he shows how, again and again, the garden has served as a check against the destruction and losses of history.  The ancients, explains Harrison, viewed gardens as both a model and a location for the laborious self-cultivation and self-improvement that are essential to serenity and enlightenment, an association that has continued throughout the ages. The Bible and Qur’an; Plato’s Academy and Epicurus’s Garden School; Zen rock and Islamic carpet gardens; Boccaccio, Rihaku, Capek, Cao Xueqin, Italo Calvino, Ariosto, Michel Tournier, and Hannah Arendt—all come into play as this work explores the ways in which the concept and reality of the garden has informed human thinking about mortality, order, and power.

Alive with the echoes and arguments of Western thought, Gardens is a fitting continuation of the intellectual journeys of Harrison’s earlier classics, Forests and The Dominion of the Dead. Voltaire famously urged us to cultivate our gardens; with this compelling volume, Robert Pogue Harrison reminds us of the nature of that responsibility—and its enduring importance to humanity.

"I find myself completely besotted by a new book titled Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. The author . . . is one of the very best cultural critics at work today. He is a man of deep learning, immense generosity of spirit, passionate curiosity and manifold rhetorical gifts."—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

"This book is about gardens as a metaphor for the human condition. . . . Harrison draws freely and with brilliance from 5,000 years of Western literature and criticism, including works on philosophy and garden history. . . . He is a careful as well as an inspiring scholar."—Tom Turner, Times Higher Education

"When I was a student, my Cambridge supervisor said, in the Olympian tone characteristic of his kind, that the only living literary critics for whom he would sell his shirt were William Empson and G. Wilson Knight.  Having spent the subsequent 30 years in the febrile world of academic Lit. Crit. . . . I’m not sure that I’d sell my shirt for any living critic.  But if there had to be one, it would unquestionably be Robert Pogue Harrison, whose study Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, published in 1992, has the true quality of literature, not of criticism—it stays with you, like an amiable ghost, long after you read it.

“Though more modest in scope, this new book is similarly destined to become a classic. It has two principal heroes: the ancient philosopher Epicurus . . . and the wonderfully witty Czech writer Karel Capek, apropos of whom it is remarked that, whereas most people believe gardening to be a subset of life, ‘gardeners, including Capek, understand that life is a subset of gardening.’”—Jonathan Bate, The Spectator

About the Author


Robert Pogue Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and chairs the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University. He is the author of The Body of Beatrice, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, and Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, the latter three published by the University of Chicago Press. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also host of the radio program Entitled Opinions on Stanford's station KZSU 90.1.

Praise For…


“The year’s most thought-provoking, original, and weighty garden book is Gardens. . . . Reading Harrison’s book is like strolling down a path through a well-cultivated, richly sown, light-dappled woodland. . . . Just as in the making of a garden, there’s no end to the wonder; the journey is everything.”



"The rabbis of the Talmud counseled you that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, you should finish planting your tree and then go out to investigate. Robert Pogue Harrison implies something similar in his rich and beguiling Gardens. Gardens, though they offer peace and repose, are islands of care, he writes, not a refuge from it. That is why they are important, since care is what makes us human. . . . In many ways Gardens is a personal essay as much as it is a work of scholarship. Mr. Harrison has planted his own garden of beautiful quotations and provocative speculation, and it is an absorbing and stimulating place to spend time."

— Jonathan Rosen

“In this book’s two great predecessors, Forests and The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison took two preoccupying images of the human psyche and considered them with a depth and originality that revealed their unlimited and unbroken presence in every assumption and moment of our lives. Gardens he describes modestly as an essay, but it has, or at least suggests, the same kind of pervasive presence of an underlying human impulse in our relation to the world around us. He does it with eloquence, grace, and erudition rooted in the literatures of his four native languages (including Turkish) that informed his earlier books. The range of his perspective on the human myth suggests that he may be our Bachelard.”

— W. S. Merwin

"Gardening, to me, is foreign soil. . . . And yet I find myself completely besotted by a new book titlted Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. The author . . . is one of the very best cultural critics at work today. he is a man of deep learning, immense generosity of spirit, passionate curiosity and manifold rhetorical gifts. . . . As I read this exraordinary, luminous book, I found myself envying my green-thumbed buddies and their serenity-inducing, life-affirming ritual—earthworms and all."

— Julia Keller

"This book is about gardens as a metaphor for the human condition. It is not about the history of designed gardens or of gardening as a practice. Harrison draws freely and with brilliance from 5,000 years of Western literature and criticism, including works on philosophy and garden history. . . . Harrison is a careful as well as an inspiring scholar."

— Tom Turner

"Harrison is a cultural historian alive to the poetry of science as well as insights poetry offers to the natural history of humankind. In Gardens, he explores the meanings of gardening, from the lofty height of Homer and the Bible to the poignant plots tended by homeless people in New York. Our fascination with gardens endures, even as the gardens themselves come and go with the seasons. They're not meant to last, Harrison reminds us; it's their job to 'reenchant the present.'"

— Matthew Battles

"Harrison's engaging, verdant prose invites reads in, much like flowers and fountains encourage visitors to linger in resplendent gardens, and the extensive bibliography encourages reads to continue their education."


"I'm not sure that I'd sell my shirt for any living critic. But if there had to be one, it would unquestionably be Robert Pogue Harrison, whose study of Forests . . . has the true quality of literature, not criticism--it stays with you, like an amiable ghost, long after you have read it. Though more modest in scope, this new book [Gardens], is similarly destined to become a classic."

— Jonathan Bate

"The Year's Best Nonfiction"

— Matthew Battles
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226317908
ISBN-10: 0226317900
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: September 15th, 2009
Pages: 264
Language: English