- Garden DisputesPostmodern Beauty and the Sublime Neighbor: A Response to Judy Lochhead's "The Sublime, the Ineffable, and Other Dangerous Aesthetics"
It may surprise some of you to know that Theodor Adorno authored the following: "Every thought resembles play." For those who feel that thought should remain beholden unto the job at hand, "divergence from the facts becomes mere wrongness, the moment of play a luxury in a world where the intellectual functions have to account for their every moment with a stop-watch."1 Well, the stopwatch is definitely on, another academic year having begun for me but a week ago; the facial lines (wrinkles) that summer's play had erased have recrevassed themselves. But before the semester's work turns every sentence I write into a mere function of a deadline, I'd like to create a bit of outrage in your scholarly imaginations (to invoke Kant on the sublime) and waste your time by playing about with something other than what I immediately ought.2 It will be like eating dessert first—beautiful, perhaps.
Although I seem committed to presenting myself as arch and urbane, I am in fact a fan of gardens and gardening. It is one of my more pleasant neuroses. Nevertheless, a neurosis it is, for, to malappropriate Hegel, the cunning of my unreason seems to have arranged the decisions I've made in my life precisely so that the realities of both noun and verb (garden and gardening) have always remained just beyond the reach of my desire. I have lived my whole adult life in rented apartments above the first floor. "I like to look down on things," I quip for the benefit of friends accustomed to my dismissiveness. But this is merely a momentary deflection from the [End Page 75] somewhat irrational aspect of my horticultural interests. After all, the evident fact that I want to play at being the princess in my tower doesn't preclude the possibility of indoor gardening. But of course it does. What princess do you know will settle for the ersatz? Indoor gardening is like indoor fireworks or decaffeinated coffee or pornography, a substitute that spitefully fails to make you forget the shaming injunction that you should be doing the real thing. Anyway, I don't have any success with indoor plants. I own only one, given to a partner of mine long ago when he left work (euphemistically to "get better," in reality to die, as subsequently he did), and so I want it to die, for it is an uncanny offense: a living growth from a dying death, like Eliot's lilacs growing out of the dead ground. But there it sits, permanent as a psychological symptom; a reminder that everyone else might now be a substitute, a reminder of what has been lost; as unsatisfying as an indoor pot plant when all one wants is a garden. Maybe as the late Lacan concluded, all that is productively available to the subject at the end of the day is to identify with one's symptom.3 At any rate, I certainly won't be throwing away my plant anytime soon. The question, however, is whether I should.
How quickly the beauty of play in the garden fades; in but one paragraph the bloom of my happy self-containment in blithe irrelevance has withered from exposure to cold thoughts of truths blowing in from elsewhere. Maybe, with Hamlet, we should just retort,
Fie on 't, ah fie, tis an unweeded gardenThat grows to seed, things rank and gross in naturePossess it merely.4
Or alternatively, with John Donne, admit that certain things cannot be brought into the beautiful. In "Twickenham Garden" the poet, "Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears," comes to the garden to "Receive such balms, as else cure everything." But the extremity of the contrast between his love-wounded self and the garden's beauty merely works (at least initially) to attack him with a self-loathing for not being beautiful. Beauty, after all, not only placates, it also torments us with our failure, inspiring in us the desire to destroy it and perhaps...