On a question of taste

It has been observed, in some book I was perusing which I can recommend to no one, that in the old Roman literature, the views on gardening are only those of a literate male elite, and that moreover, they have more to say on the “male discourse” about gardens than about “women’s lived experience in them.” … Well, I’ll be.

Perhaps the academic authoress understates her case. To the pagan Roman eye, I should think, a woman in a garden was more part of the scenery, than part of the conversation. Rather, her place was in the kitchen.

Not that I take this view myself. My gardens are Edenic; I am a Christian and an Augustinian and, as I proceed from the antediluvian to the historical, the garden I imagine is the one in Milan where Augustine met God. (Women he had met before.)

I daresay members of the “literate female elite” mucked about in Roman gardens, too, though we do not seem to have inherited any of their manuscripts. Only the “mansplaining.” For male-hating harpies I can imagine that’s a source of real irritation, and that the advice, “suck it up, buttercup” will never be taken well.

Well, Homer touches on gardens (ah, Nausicaä!), and I think the ancient Persians had more to say, and the Babylonians and Egyptians and Indusians and Chinese — though all oppressively male. What interests me here is not “gender studies,” however, but the Roman aesthetics. In my view, perhaps subject to modification, their gardens must have been rather ugly and awkwardly contrived, until they fell into delicious ruin.

Those Romans spoke most suggestively, it seems to me (the caudillo of this website), of the garden not as paradisal retreat, but as “art for art’s sake” — illusion for the sake of illusion. I find implicit, especially in old Pliny, the dangerous idea of an enveloping illusion — the aspiration towards a “virtual reality.”

In Virgil’s Georgics, on the other hand, I feel this encroachment being subtly resisted. In Horace, subtly satirized as he glances upon the garden of his patron, Maecenas. (In Seneca the Younger, it was satirized less cautiously.) That, and worse, the gardens of the Emperors, and others among the Roman nouveaux riches, contained many California touches, including oversized swimming pools and necropoli worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s flourishes in The Loved One.

If I am not mistaken (and I often am) our modern, Western conception of an enveloping illusion begins with those Roman writers on gardening — with Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and his adopted nephew Pliny in his Letters, too; with Columella before them, and even back to Cato the Censor, and that polymath, Varro; all, to my over-sensitive mind, conveying a notion of “escape” that is suspiciously worldly.

But forward, leaping the centuries, we come to Rutilius Taurus Æmilianus Palladius who, when the Roman Empire was winding down, wrote a most useful treatise in twelve books corresponding to the months of the year — in prose but breaking into elegiacs at the mention of trees. (I love the works of Late Antiquity, more than those of Late Postmodernity.)

And very useful it was, this last, through subsequent Darkish Ages, and into the Middling ones, too, as we find it still copied and circulating in e.g. mediaeval England. One may read it in Middle English (here), and in doing so gain partial entry to a surprisingly refined and sophisticated agricultural environment, with rural hicks far from the clod-busting oafs we suppose them to have been.

But that was the Rome for all ages; the cornucopian Rome; the Rome that is living still and always, from an Empire that was the boilerplate for Christendom.

There is decadence here, but it works in the reverse of our usual chronological assumption of a descent into decadence. The earlier writers — the more dignified and grave — are also the more infected with the desire to spiritualize their materialism. It is the more fully pagan Rome — Petronius, the somewhat sick arbiter of elegance, wrote near the prime, not near the fall, of Roman urbanity — that aspires to the trompe-l’œil, to the showy opulence, to the show-and-tell of Hollywood and Palm Springs. (I use California only as a placard, for while it is being fancifully exceeded by the stage-hands of Dubai and Red China, it remains for us the Disneyland par excellence.)

Not only in our cybernetic fantasia, but in the concrete world of our metastasizing glitz, we express a desire for enveloping illusion. It is the flip side of the old Roman, stoical gravitas: the desire for a Garden the opposite of Eden, where we may construct our own reality-denying “safe space” — apart from an inquisitive God.

In the words of the late Scottish philosophical gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”