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In Praise of the Garden

A professor celebrates literary cultivations.

Photo: L.A. Cicero

LIKE A SONNET: Harrison finds poetry in Kingscote.

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In the hush of hidden greenery, Robert Pogue Harrison crosses over a low arched footbridge and heads for his favorite stone bench. This may be an age of increasing virtualization of experience, but the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature prefers to savor silence and absorb his surroundings.

“Human eyesight is deeply historicized,” he suggests, almost in a whisper. “I have no doubt that the physical world appears to us in a completely different manner than it did to the Greeks or the early Christians.”

Harrison walks past this secluded campus garden—Kingscote—every day, on the way from his home on Gerona Road to his office on the Quad. What he sees in the elegant landscaping and blooming perennials is, well, poetry. “It's not a garden that requires you to wander around in it in order to get a narrative unfolding of its design,” he begins. “Since virtually the entire garden is visible from any particular angle within the enclosure, I call it a quintessentially lyric garden. It's meant to be read, like short sonnets, as a whole unit, as opposed to a narrative story that has an unfolding plot, where you have to go chapter by chapter, with character development and surprises and reverses, and then by the end, the whole gives itself in one glance.”

For all his McDreamy flair and European fashion sense, Harrison is no ivory-tower daydreamer. When he's not sitting for a spell on his bucolic bench, he's often charging across campus on his Vespa, which he can park, with envious efficiency, within 20 meters of his front door. “It's a very Italian prejudice of mine,” he says about his silver steed.

Fluent in Italian, French and Turkish, Harrison is a man of many cultures, a latter-day Renaissance figure who has just published his third book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 246 pages, $24). Dip into an eloquent chapter on “Boccaccio's Garden Stories,” “Monastic, Republican, and Princely Gardens,” or “The Paradise Divide: Islam and Christianity,” and you quickly see why Harrison's courses—including the required freshman Introduction to the Humanities sequence he teaches every autumn—draw big enrollments. After all, he can make Dante accessible to today's young chasers-after-avatars.

“At first, you say, well, Dante's medieval, Christian, allegorical world is so difficult to get into, and yet somehow Dante's Inferno speaks to them immediately,” he says of freshmen in his IHUM Epic Journeys, Modern Quests track. “The characters in the Inferno are endlessly fascinating, and it's hard not to be fascinated by sin, which is so immediately recognizable.”

Born in Turkey to an Italian mother and American father, and moving to Italy when he was 12, Harrison absorbed the classics of his several homelands. The essays in Gardens are an education in history, philosophy, religion and the arts, with constant surprises, such as the work of Karel Capek, Czech author of The Gardener's Year. “I just resonate with everything about him—his gardening ethic, his undying republicanism, his concerns about the excesses of modern technology, his very dim view of totalitarianism,” Harrison says.

Capek and Epicurus, it turns out, are Harrison's heroes. “When I set out to write about gardens, I realized that I had to deal with the Garden School of Epicurus, and as I started researching, I found that popular conceptions of Epicureanism were really misconceptions; that when you got into his system, it was far from the hedonism that we take to be Epicureanism—a gratification of appetites, or a 'Live for the day, for tomorrow we die.'”

On the contrary, Harrison says, “it was all about living the life of philosophy in a way that was a systematic cultivation of certain virtues and morals—serenity, friendship, conversation, gratitude, patience.” Epicureanism, the Stanford essayist discovered, was “also a self-cultivation, so analogous to the literary cultivation of the soil, so there is soil and soul, and both are made of a substance that can be cultivated.”

That brings Harrison back to the “work of cultivation” that he believes “is the garden at the heart of the university.” He has taught at Stanford since 1985, returning each summer to Rome, then spending much of August writing at his campus desk and pondering in Kingscote garden.


There is a “real” garden I would gladly call my own, even though I have no proprietary rights to it. It's called Kingscote and is located on the Stanford University campus, where I teach. I have sought out its recess on several occasions, hoping to gain greater clarity about what a garden is in essence, and I have indeed accessed thoughts and insights there that, had the place not existed, probably never would have seen the light of day, or the light of consciousness, if you prefer. If it is true, as Mallarmé once wrote, that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” I'm more than happy to let Kingscote end up here, in this one. For some reason, it is almost always empty. Too small for recreational activities, with nowhere really to sit except on a low-lying limestone bench that is more ornamental than sedentary, it seems to have no purpose beyond its sheer self-affirmation as it lies there gathered within itself. It is neither ostentatious nor withdrawn, yet it has the aura of a secret. Few people, in fact, when you ask them about it, are aware of its existence, and in the various volumes about the history and architecture of Stanford in the university bookstore there is no mention of it. It is almost as if it didn't exist, yet once you step into it you get a sense that you are in the quietly palpitating heart of the university and that everything somehow radiates out from here.

Reprinted by permission from Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Copyright 2008 by The University of Chicago.

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