What is a Pleasure Garden?
Transgression, Disturbance, Affect.
People have made pleasure-gardens for thousands of years. The locations, forms, and social circumstances of these gardens have been well documented, particularly since the rise of landscape archeology (Carroll- Spillecke 1992; Carroll 2003; Conan 2007; Rehman and Anbrine 2007; Ruggles 2007). Water, trees, flowers, sun, shade - and the pleasurable sensations aroused by contact with these physical elements – have been appreciated throughout the ages, and continue to be sought as valuable contributions to the quality of human lives. As a profession, indeed, landscape architecture seeks, among other objectives, to reproduce these conditions and bring the pleasure – of sensation, contemplation and imagined worlds – to greater and greater numbers of people, in both the private and the public realms.
But what is a pleasure garden exactly? How do these immensely complex and at the same time quite simple artifacts affect our lives? What is unique to them, and how do they operate – what is the nature of our interaction with these remarkable phenomena?
There are greater pleasures involved in the various modes of encounter and inhabitation that the pleasure garden offers than those referred to above, and these are what this study investigates. The 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) elaborated an influential and deeply considered theory of human pleasure, on which I will draw to show that when humans come into contact with the attributes and affections of nature (which Spinoza equated with God) through the human art of organizing encounters, they make it possible for themselves to act in such a way as to augment their own natures, and increase what he called their power of acting (Spinoza 2002: 278). I wish to show that pleasure gardens are special terrains where lived experience is an admixture of different types of relationality and encounter. The possible relations into which people may enter are in pleasure gardens both vast and delimited. The confrontation with nature as a chaotic and creative power of life is a condition of the specific operations by means of which, in these gardens, nature is disrupted and re-organized. Pleasure gardens are marked out from the processes of separation and combination that are imminent in the natural world. They are declensions from, or diversions of, natural processes.
Further, through its instantiation of social order, which connects and contrasts with the indeterminate multiplicities of nature, the pleasure garden provides an interactive milieu where, as Spinoza would put it, individual humans can compose their relations with other individuals, human and non-human. The pleasure garden incorporates a social-natural order that invites transgression. Indeed, it is through the transgressive encounter of human subjectivity with the possibility of its limits and the impossibility of its desires, that the exquisite pleasure of self-differentiation that Spinoza regards as most useful and agreeable to humans is enabled. We can see from this analysis that the pleasure garden requires of humans that they understand their limitations.
Methodologically, this study is a combination of art historical and garden historical procedures. It co-opts literature, painting, gardens, and contemporary theory in an active engagement with, and imaginative interpretation of, conventional garden history. By means of a close reading of texts and paintings that feature pleasure gardens, and phenomenological engagements with actual gardens, it explores theoretical concepts inherent in these artifacts. The concepts that emerge from this investigation are, I argue, significant for the practice of contemporary landscape architecture. The article analyses pleasure gardens as depicted in artistic production at different historical moments, making links, identifying differences, showing that there are particular ways in which gardens feature in the arts, representationally, expressively and as sites of highly developed human-human and human-nature relations. To do so it concentrates on three types of art production: classical literature, rococo painting and modern cinema. Literature, and painting and cinema are used because these arts are particularly sensitive recorders of the types of encounter that occur in landscape settings.
The relationship between landscape and human becoming is affective, a term that designates a ‘non- or pre- subjective intensity’ that ‘signals the non-rational or more-than-rational aspects of life’ (Wylie 2007). Spinoza, often called the philosopher of affect, argues that humans exist to empower themselves in their individual capacities as participants in nature (Spinoza 2007: 358-9). Pleasure, which denotes an increase in self-actualization, is a feeling of an increase in the capacity to persist in one’s own true essence – to be one’s true self. Since there is no general characteristic common to all mankind that could be designated as ‘human nature,’ when humans act autonomously they determine themselves and make themselves what they are, each according to their specific modes of being. Humans are in constant interaction with other humans doing the same (Spinoza 2002: 337-9). In landscape architecture this condition is to be regarded as having its basis in the physical encounter between human bodies and the landscapes in which they are immersed. However, there is little insistence in landscape architecture on how human bodies enter into compositions with other bodies that circulate and are transformed within the endless complex connections that comprise the world.
This is precisely why this study investigates and foregrounds the pre-personal encounter between human subjects and nature. This affective encounter may be discovered in a range of cultural productions that contribute to the history of Western landscape architecture, art and literature. An examination of the local, specific and historical conditions of pleasure gardens reveals them to be complex assemblages to which humans may connect by means of an embodied, lived practice that animates, however temporarily, the encounter between individual subject and garden conditions. The pleasure garden emerges as an unfolding assemblage of sensory, affective and perceptual interactions. These interactions register and effect the emergence of a deep sense of ambivalence, multiplicity and contingency even as they disclose the self as embodied and inextricably entangled in a world that is clearly historically and culturally constituted. This is the gift of the garden: an event that introduces disorder into ordered systems and alters them in the direction of greater complexity and openness. Landscape architecture, then, comes to be seen as an ontological practice that creates and lays out new possibilities of existence, through different ways of organizing natural processes, movement, and time.
The Idylls of Theocritus
Origins are important, but they are also multiple. The influential pleasure garden motif of the locus amoenus, however, is bound so closely to that of the locus classicus that it is useful to look closely at this figure. We begin, then, with a set of poems written in the 3rd century BC by the Greek poet Theocritus. In his Idylls, Theocritus creates a rural landscape instantly recognizable as canonical ancient Greece, a classic in the western repertoire of landscape images (Fig. 1). A pastoral landscape of rocky outcrops, bubbling streams and olive groves peopled with amorous young goatherds and shepherds who sing to each other and play truth-or-dare games, this is a simple geography that in his poems Theocritus gently but persuasively eroticizes (Theocritus 1978). In doing so he inaugurates a complex of affects that combines aestheticized natural elements and human passions. Throughout the Idylls Theocritus investigates the imaginative possibilities inherent in the association of transgressive behavior with a sensuous landscape setting.
Priapus is the god both of gardens and sexuality (Fig. 2). In Idyll I he taunts the love-sick Daphnis:
The landscape and the beings which inhabit it – or at least spend a great deal of their time in it – form a heady mixture of, on the one hand, materiality, spatiality, slow change, and on the other, mood, tone, ambience and atmosphere. The latter are occasioned by the interrelationships of the former, such as those generated by differentiations of shade and sun, silence and sounds, rough and smooth, and so on. This combination of effects makes it possible for the youths in these poems to act in such a way as to augment their own natures, and create their own charged relations with the natural world (one of the themes of this enquiry is how effect contributes to affect).
In these landscapes a range of finite but imprecise and unpredictable encounters of physicality and tone adapt to one another along a seamless continuum between humans and the world in which it is their privilege to linger. The protagonists in the idylls seem to emerge from the landscape rather than impose their will on it. These beings are in the landscape like, in Bataille’s famous phrase, water in water; they are sovereign – that is the message (Bataille 1992). Look how Lacon the shepherd addresses his sheep in Idyll V:
An intimacy is betokened by the question, asked mildly of three named sheep, not as in a master-animal relationship, but as if Lacon were simply one of the group. The use of the anthropological ‘browse’ rather than ‘graze’ continues the suggestion. The relationship between humans and animals is ambivalent - in Idyll IV the ‘rustic’ Battus is attracted amorously and erotically to a heifer - but they do not eye each other across an impenetrable divide. Animals are not yet inhabitants of a world that is ‘closed to us’ (Berger 1980; Bataille 1992). Just as the erotic nature of the relationships between humans and animals is clearly a subject of the Idylls, so is the erotic nature of the relationships between women and men, and men and men. Theocritus explores the puzzles and paradoxes that Eros, the personification of love, poses for humans. His vignettes dramatize an investment on the part of humanity in a drive that inevitably leads to an intensification of existence, a loss of selfhood and an increase in power.
Corner was perhaps the first theorist to investigate the implications of the word ‘eidos’ for landscape architecture (Corner 1999: 154-8). The Greek word ‘idyll’ (eidyllion) is related to eidos, form, and idein, to see, as well as to eidenai, to know. Corner emphasizes this association between image and idea that the word’s origins in ‘form,’ ‘shape,‘ and ‘kind’ betoken. The English word ‘eidetic’ is derived from this pattern of meanings, and refers to the vivid mental picturing of images, especially, but not necessarily visual images (Oxford English Dictionary 1996). Theocritus’ technique produces a visual effect, a scene composed of fine detail where human attitudes and dilemmas are illustrated within an intimate or at least small-scale setting in which they are deeply involved by dint of labour, custom and value: human beings relating to their landscapes. Theocritus’ poems show how an imaginative landscape, drawing both on cultural memory and close observation of actual landscapes, can be charged with eidetic power. In the Idylls humans, animals and landscape form an existential continuum. (The Germanic word landschaft gets at this engagement of human beings in the landscapes that they care for and through this caring modify.) From these poems we get the sense that their protagonists are pursing agreeable relations in order to experience a maximum of joyful affections. The shepherds and goatherds whose songs and conversations we overhear in the poems seem to gain strength and freedom through their self-affirmation, their self-determination, their self- differentiation. For Spinoza pleasure is the feeling of an increase in the capacity to persist in one’s true essence. From Theocritus we gain a strong sense of the happiness that ensues from being true to oneself, and it is this sense that carries through to the ideas, first that pleasure is a consequence of acting from passion, autonomously, from one’s own specific, essential nature, and second that this action can occur particularly in the theatre of a landscape in which mood and atmosphere are occasioned by an affective combination of materiality, spatiality and dynamic change. In short, a locus amoenus - a pleasant place outdoors, among trees and by running water.
Daphnis and Chloe
The transition from pastoral to garden rearranges the ecology of affect established by Theocritus, enabling a number of motifs to filter into the idea of the pleasure garden from Greek bucolic literature. The crossing of natural boundaries, from human to animal, from species to species, introduces a transgression, or disruption, into the otherwise ordered society of classical Greece. This declension from the perceived natural order enables new formulations to emerge. It ignores distinctions; it causes havoc. Daphnis and Chloe, a pastoral novel written by the Roman Longus in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, is a story of the awakening to sexuality of a young goatherd and the girl who tends sheep close by his home. Set in a pastoral landscape derived from the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil (the Roman emulator of Theocritus), Daphnis and Chloe reveals transgression and sacrifice as necessary elements of human transformation. At every turn the young people’s slow movement towards uninhibited sexual congress is thwarted, despite being encouraged by Eros.
A correlative of this condition is played out in the garden lovingly described in Book IV of the novel. The sole purpose of this garden in the story is to stage a desecration of the gift, to place the transgression exemplified in uninhibited sexuality under the rule of law. Lamon’s vegetable and fruit garden is carefully described. It is an organized, husbanded enclosure replete with every kind of plant cultivated for the sustenance of humankind, all set in rows and beds, a paradigm of rational order. All its fruiting and flowering plants are named by Longus. It being just before harvest, the grapes are specifically mentioned as ‘turning dark, as if ripening in competition with the apples and pears’ (Longus 1989: 95). There is a clear view of the plain and the sea from the garden, both of which attest to the thoughtfulness and care which have gone into the selection of the site and its management to preserve the outlook. In the middle of this two hundred- by one hundred-yard, well-tempered, neatly-fenced domain is an altar sacred to Dionysus. ‘Inside the temple are some paintings on subjects connected with Dionysus …’, and these depict the real subjects of the story of Daphnis and Chloe: procreation, birth, eating, drinking, bondage, conquest, metamorphosis – annihilation in expenditure and excess. Close by is a much-loved pleasure-garden, with extensive beds of both wild flowers (violets, narcissi and pimpernels) and cultivated flowers, including roses, hyacinths and lilies. Here there is shade in summer, flowers in springtime, and ‘delight all the year round’ (Longus 1989: 96). Daphnis’ foster-father Lamon must get the garden ready for the visit of his city-dwelling master, who is coming to oversee the vintage. He works hard cutting away dry wood, tying up shoots, watering flowers. But an aggressive cowherd called Lampis is jealous of Daphnis, wanting Chloe for himself – though she has rejected his overtures. One night Lampis attacks the flower garden, pulling up plants, breaking off blooms and trampling the beds ‘just as a pig might have done.’ Lampis desecrates the flower garden only, ignoring the vines, the apples, myrtles, pears, pomegranates, figs and olives. Instead the narcissi, roses, hyacinths, lilies, pimpernels and violets are laid waste.
Lamon is afraid of what will happen when his master sees the damage, and predicts that he will hang both Lamon and Daphnis from a pine tree. Daphnis and Lamon have been charged with the care of the gift of nature, represented as the pleasure garden within the economy of the agrarian machine that keeps the master in wealth and power. The coursing of natural forces through the flowering plants has been diverted and must now express itself in their deaths. It is as if, with the development of the flower garden, the symmetrical perfection of the orchard had been upset by the incursion of pleasure for its own sake. And the small moment of excess represented by the flowers, appreciated and cultivated only for their non-productive beauty, must itself be symbolically disturbed. Just as nature’s squandering of life on non-procreative sexuality has to be bounded by social prohibitions and taboos, the asymmetrical turbulent violence of excess energy that nature expends, without profit, on the delicate, glorious production of useless flowers must be limited and constrained. Both the sexual desire of Daphnis and Chloe and the aesthetic compulsion of the pleasure garden draw into the profane world an illumination of the forbidden. Lamon’s pleasure garden, like erotica and transgression generally, renegotiates the boundary conditions of everyday life and overcomes the limits of legislation, hierarchy and rationality. It seems to manifest the madness of the rational logos itself, pointing up the requirement of the universe for order and disorder at once and demonstrating that the orgiastic expenditure of excess energy in dissipative practices such as sacrifice, art and sex are necessary components of the system of life, both regulating and generating Becoming. The pleasure garden is placed within this cycle of production and waste as a site where the truth of life may be grasped. It is a place where use-value is negated, and yet the value of this negation lies in its usefulness. Gardens, consequently, are attempts to grasp the ungraspable, to know the unknowable, to escape thecondition of things by making the object of this flight a thing. Every pleasure garden is an attempt to receive a sacred communication through the poverty of beautiful things. Although Lamon’s garden had been almost completely destroyed by Chloe’s jealous lover, ‘the few plants that had survived the outrage were still trying to flower, still shining away and looking beautiful although they had been thrown down…’ (Longus 1989: 100).
Transgression, then, is itself a kind of gift, the source of a vital entanglement of material and emotional life that, in the case of Theocritus’ Idylls, occurs in a landscape that creates and nurtures the conditions for an energetic immersion in paradox and multiplicity. In this literature we find also, as a condition of the turbulence introduced by transgression, a sensual identification of landscape and eroticism, a figuration of the locus amoenus as a sexually charged landscape where human subjectivity discerns the limitations of desire and finds the means to test these thresholds. There is an unspoken emphasis on the sovereignty of uselessness. Just as with his Greek counterparts, it seems little work disturbs the life of a Roman shepherd either. Though Lacon’s garden is productive, it is the useless flowers that are destroyed. Finally, the bucolic mode reveals a seamless immersion of human consciousness in the landscape it inhabits. Humans are there by nature. This is their realm as much as it is the realm of trees and streams, clouds and winds. The Idylls introduce the ontological identification of self and world, along with the possibility that transgression is a mode of being in the world; that, in fact, it is through transgression that we become what we are, according to our own specific modes of becoming – that, instead of concentrating on the difference between things we should attend more closely to the production of difference within ourselves. It is the beginnings of a philosophy of immanence, a philosophy that is fundamental to the idea of the locus amoenus, and through this to the development of the pleasure garden as a critical element in landscape architectural discourse.
Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera (1719) links historically and pictorially to the classical tradition of the locus amoenus, and thus provides a bridge from the trope of the erotic pastoral to the rococo fascination with imprecision and ambivalence in human relations (Fig. 3). The island of Cythera, geographically located off the south-east tip of the Peloponnese, was in classical antiquity a centre for the worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The myth of Cythera has deep roots in French and Italian culture, where the journey to it is depicted as a difficult quest. One of the most famous descriptions of the mythical Cythera appears in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili where Poliphilo describes the island as ‘benign and pleasing to the senses … a delightful place … delectable and beautiful … excellent and voluptuous’ (Colonna 1999: 292). Cythera is laid out as a vast theme-park like assemblage of gardens, including vegetable gardens, an herbarium, an orchard, a pleasant arboretum and, most famously, a pleasure garden with fountains and rivulets, lawns and flowery meadows spread under a transparent and luminous sky. Venus, or Aphrodite, dwells in a temple in a theatre at the centre of the garden that has a fabulous fountain on the side of which, etched in Greek, are the words ‘Seduction is like a spark.’ In this arena of love, after his long pilgrimage, Poliphilo receives and finally understands the sweet, transgressive agony of nature’s primitive sexual power. His breast is pierced by Eros’ arrow, and streams with hot blood from a wound that can never be healed. In order to live in perpetual bliss, the goddess tells Poliphilo, he must first be purified, ‘cleansed of every plebeian and vulgar stain,’ and ‘suffused with [her] dew.’ Only then can he and his sweetheart Polia be received into the ‘sacred college’ of the happy and festive nymphs who inhabit Cythera and become ‘servants of abundant Nature’ (Colonna 1999: 367).
The Parisians who viewed Watteau’s painting knew quite well that Cythera was a ‘euphemism for free love’ (Borsch-Supan 2000: 64). It was even associated with a real place, the park of Saint-Cloud, designed by Le Notre, in a bend of the Seine west of Paris where the Grand Cascade impressed painters who often came to the park to paint in the pastoral mode. The connection between pastoral, erotic love and the vital energy concentrated in nature imbues Watteau’s Cythera with an elegiac quality underwritten by a subtle but distinct awareness of social protocols that are being forgotten, or discarded, in the intoxication of expectation and abandonment. We sense that these people, lovers all, are on the threshold of a complete renunciation of social mores. Yet we are not convinced that they are capable of this, for the delicate configuration of gesture, glance and slightly reluctant leave-taking, particularly on the part of the women, conveys an ambivalence, an uncertainty. Even in the earlier Embarkation for Cythera (c. 1718), surrounded by imploring amoretti, the couples’ progression to love is tremulous and hesitant.
Ambiguity is a primary characteristic of the production of Watteau, and is particularly evident in his works, later than Cythera, that feature pleasure gardens. His fêtes galantes, the paintings that depict high-born groups of people lounging amorously in garden settings, are steeped in undecidability (Figs 4 and 5). We don’t know what the characters that appear in his paintings are talking about, nor do we know what has brought them together. ‘We cannot always say what exactly the figures are doing, what gestures they are making, what emotions they feel ... and ... his works carry no obvious moral message’ (Sheriff 2006: 23) . Figures congregate in gardens that are themselves undecidable as to form, status, setting. They are always on the point of slipping away, becoming some other kind of landscape. Located somewhere between park and garden, the mises-en-scene have statues, walls, plinths, urns, steps and fountains, but they always open on to larger, treed landscapes, sometimes with fields or rivers framed by trees. Or do they turn away from these wider, open spaces, acquiring a meditative and comforting inwardness? Often paved underfoot, but just as likely to be grassed, the foreground plane tilts towards the viewer in such a way as to display the courtly, decorous, even mannered – but not stilted – way in which the players in his scenes interact. Even when depicting large parties, Watteau groups his subjects into smaller trios and quartets, carefully separating them from the other groups, and at the same time relating them by the suggestion of gestures, glances, and an unerring ability to conjure music as an unheard, but distinctly felt, unifying element. Still, those who participate in these fêtes galantes are united only in a fragmentary way, like the gardens they inhabit, whose lanes and lines of trees never quite resolve into a legible design.
The rococo pleasure garden depicted in Watteau’s works is asymmetrically configured, disordered in a deliberate or pre-arranged way, as if to encourage the pursuit of subtle, chancy, highly-strung intermezzos: desire played out in charming intimate spaces amongst people the nature of whose transgressions we can only guess. The gorgeously arrayed members of this worldly aristocracy seem to want to sink themselves into the oceanic, pastoral eroticism of Theocritus’ idylls, where they can dedicate themselves to the illusion of a country life that permits much more than that which is depicted in the scenes we see. Its a light-headed, light-hearted commitment to pleasure, the cultivation of sensual beauty: a refined, frivolous interpretation of human life that abandons the seriousness of heroic and celebratory themes for a transgressive dalliance with desire, held back by the cautious gentility of people who are aware they are play-acting, and an all-too-human fear of the sovereignty of complete immersion. In early 18th century France seduction was a serious crime. It was ‘a violation of what were perceived as the normal, restrained relationships between the genders, in which it was natural for a man to desire a woman, and equally natural for her to resist his advances’ (Mirzoeff 2006). Passion, says Mirzoeff, sets reason aside. It is ‘capable of carrying both man and woman to excess, beyond the limits of reason, unless kept in check’ (Mirzoeff 2006). Watteau’s lovers (if that’s what they are) inhabit a twilight zone of brittle, almost intellectual, disequilibrium where they seem content to remain. The beguilements of disorder - the enticements of seduction – are never quite succumbed to. Passion, in Watteau’s delicate garden scenes, elicits a strategy of exclusion in the form of courtly decorum, or in the rendering of transgressive practices as ‘an impossible dream-life of gay picnics in fairy parks … where [as in Fête in a Park (c. 1817)] the ladies are all beautiful and all lovers graceful … and where the life of the shepherds and shepherdesses seems to be a succession of minuets’ (Gombrich 1972). By experiencing ever so decorous a perturbation, and subsequently integrating it into their careful, careless activities, these young men and women who seem just to sit and dream, or play with flowers, as they weave their passionate Cytherean spells of what-might-be, involve the viewer in a complex reinterpretation of their conditions of possibility. Watteau puts the relations between the inhabitants of these dreamscapes (told in glances and gestures and half-mocking smiles) at the very heart of the action, at the core of their doing and becoming, driving the fragile social values inherited from the 17th century to a more open embrace of the complexities and ambiguities of human interaction. Around 1700 ‘gallantry’ had more to do with the observance of etiquette and the preservation of social distance. In his fêtes galantes, Watteau used decorous reserve as an emblem of intoxicating passion.
The pleasure gardens in Watteau’s paintings introduced a turbulence into the organized system of society. Watteau sensed, perhaps, that humans can be placed gently and craftily within these fields of multiplicity and ambivalence in such a way as to enrich and expand the possibilities of existence. Spinoza (who died seven years before Watteau was born) spoke of the art of organizing encounters as an effort of uniting and combining useful and agreeable relations (Spinoza 2002: 358-67). What are most useful and agreeable to humans are, naturally, other human beings seeking to agreeably and usefully combine their relations. In Watteau’s fêtes galantes, we find life being constructed in this way, individuals seeking what is useful not only for themselves, but for others as well, and in this way striving to be free. Watteau’s bucolic scenes extend and develop the Arcadian ecstasy of pure immanence that emerges from classical poetry through his insistence on the endless connections between bodies and bodies, and bodies and the world.
In the work of Fragonard (1732-1806) a devotion to a relatively narrow thematic territory enables a thorough exploration of the impulses of the body and the mind. He explores every nuance of the liminal zone between order and passion, whose modern version of the edgy and subtle flicker of transgression was almost, as it were, invented by him in art. Fragonard often enacted his combination of fevered sensuality and lyrical promise by means of an incorporation of the faux-innocent pastoral first drawn on to the scene of erotic encounter by Theocritus in the Idylls. Paintings such as The Shepherdess (ca 1750-52), which shows a young country-woman awaiting the arrival of her lover, and Landscape with Shepherds and Flock of Sheep (1763-65) derive from this tradition. He plays down the pastoral dimension, and begins in earnest to explore the inter-animation of effect and affect in his paintings that show people in contemporary parks, such as Blind Man’s Bluff and A Game of Cockles.
But it is in his paintings depicting young men and women in garden settings that Fragonard provides us with a compelling investigation of the nature of human-human and human-landscape relations - in particular in the series of four paintings known as the Progress of Love painted in the early 1770s for the Madame du Barry’s pavilion at Louveciennes (designed by Ledoux and sited on a rise overlooking the Seine)(Figs. 6,7,8 and 9). These paintings, The Pursuit, The Meeting, Love Letters and The Lover Crowned, were painted specifically for the salon, which let on to the garden (Dupuy-Vachey 2006: 186). They show, in each case, a young man and a young woman, sometimes with a third party, in an undefined romantic entanglement. In The Pursuit (1771-3) the young man surprises the object of his affections on a garden terrace; she recoils. The Love Letters (1771-3) shows the lovers framed by hollyhocks reading billets-doux. The young woman theatrically places a coronet upon the youth’s head in The Lover Crowned, and in The Meeting he is caught in the moment of leaping on to the garden terrace.
The principles of organization of the Progress of Love series are not to do with sequence, or causation, or linear narrative. What we have instead are moments of complexity within an overall pattern of organization that emphasizes combinatorial and relational promiscuity. Despite the confinement of the pictorial space in which they are depicted, the lovers are caught in a tangled network of connections that define a vast and constantly changing semantic space illuminated by themes of disturbance, transgression and uncertainty. As with Watteau, there is something here of the rococo era’s blurred, slightly frightened etiquette of erotic immersion in things.
If we discard sequence and narrative, and even the (mostly posthumous) titles of the works and consider the four paintings in their capacity to come in and out of relationships with each other, viewing them in any configuration of four, we find an insightful reflection on the way human beings relate to each other and how their environments enter into combination with these relations. These people are not depicted in ‘settings,’ or ‘against a backdrop’ of garden or park. They are shown as gathered forces; the various conditions of being human are understood as conditions of being natural-social. Any distinctions between nature and culture are dissolved in arabesques of symbol and meaning that weave what it is to be human together with what it is to be social and what it is to be part of nature. Gardens are natures-cultures; humans are natures- cultures. Nature-culture is not a continuum, but a matrix or field. The pleasure garden, indeed, is revealed as a field in which intensities occur, or coagulate, solidify, as – bodies, yes – but also as affect and raw, powerful emotion. People, very young people, are seen in various states of combination with each other and with the turbulent, fluid environments in which these awesome moments of complexity occur. These are not drawing room scenes. Gardens provide the order/chaos structures that make the vivid emotionality of human encounter entirely natural.
Fragonard’s masterpieces, now hanging in the Frick Museum in New York, eerily but dramatically draw up the indefinite and ambiguous condition of the rococo in a painterly tumult of passionate color and movement. But the subjects of the paintings are very precise. In The Pursuit, an elegant lover surprises a young girl who romps with her friends, offering her a rose, the ancient symbol of love and eroticism. The garden in which this occurs is an emotional correlative of the unscripted encounter: it explodes, too, just as the girl, who dissimulates and dramatizes, throws herself into the situation with the knowingness of adolescence. In The Love Letters, a young man fondles his girlfriend who sits archly on a pedestal reading his (or perhaps another’s) words of love, enjoying the rapt attention of the boy. The scene is quiet, focusing inward, but it is charged with an erotic electricity that energizes the couple, the flowers, the trees and the sky, all depicted as one system, one condition, one congeries of affect.
In The Meeting, the terrace is part of a larger garden, which is itself set within an encompassing landscape of large trees and unkempt plantings. The walls, plinths, urns, sculpture and flagstones that give the terrace its structure seem slowly to be sinking into a tide of horticultural excess. Vines and tendrils prize apart the stones; roses and other flowers engulf the architectural components of the scene in waves of color and the surrounding trees toss foliage on to the terrace like the spume of wind-driven seas. All is movement and wind. But the real drama of the scene is focused in the electric tension of two lovers caught in a secret moment of transgression. A young man pauses above the balustrade over which he is about to leap, frozen on the threshold of an erotic realm in which a girl, awaiting his entry, but also transfixed by a disturbance, as it were, off stage, stretches her arm towards him. Initially a gesture of welcome, the outstretched hand is becoming a signal to stay, to retreat, to disappear.
Both are looking wildly and helplessly towards the left of the scene. Every feature of the composition is angled to emphasize the source of the turbulence - an intruding element, an unwanted visitor – even the statue of Venus which towers over the terrace is turned toward the interloper, and the putto at her feet is drawing her attention to the disruption. A potential transgression is being held in check. Something, initially excluded from the event about to take place, is making an entrance into the configuration of secrecy, intimacy, sensuality and illegitimacy that was about to unfold in the garden. A garden world saturated with nature, potentially with ecstasy and sin, is about to be returned to the order of things. If, as Bataille argues, ‘The sacred is that prodigious effervescence of life that ... the order of things holds in check ...’ (Bataille 1992: 52) then it is in The Meeting that Fragonard most explicitly depicts the relationship between pleasure gardens and the sacred.
In the rococo period humanity, increasingly divided from nature by the advance of the modern, finds in the motif of the garden crawling with life, implacable and unpredictable, a figure that shows how something beyond the everyday, beyond control, like nature itself, is always with us. Like the unconscious, laughter, violence and love, carnival and crime, the uncanny, the sublime, the open, it emerges through the normative social and spatial practices from which it is excluded. Gardens are always separate. Bounded by walls or fences, they are themselves declinations from nature, sites of deviation where specific garden operations – horticultural, hydrological, genetic - divert nature towards human purposes. It is by suspending the order of nature that the pleasure garden permits the entry of a transgressive element through which a link can be made to something beyond the everyday.
Last Year in Marienbad
Two gardens that the Bavarian Elector Max Emanuel made at the time Watteau was painting his fêtes galantes feature in French film director Alain Resnais’ L’Annêe Dernière à Marienbad (1961), known in English as Last Year in Marienbad. Resnais combined a number of Bavarian chateaux gardens into the setting for his cinematic exploration of memory and desire, but the most prominent and recognizable in the film are those at Schleissheim and Nymphenburg. Construction on both began between 1684 and 1705 by Henrico Zucalli and continued by Domenique Girard, whom Max Emanuel engaged from Versailles (Reinardt 200/1991). The gardens were initially designed in the classical style exemplified by the work of Le Notre, but developed away from the hard clarity of central axis and subordinate cross-axes towards an organization of individual garden zones arranged parallel to each other.
Asymmetrical layouts were preferred in which a deliberately planned disorder reigned, and numerous small, intimate garden spaces could reveal the development of a pure, unrestrained delight in play and entertainment. The gardens shut themselves off from the countryside and turned inwards. They were less easily seen as a whole, and no longer contained a single viewpoint from which the overall scene could be taken in. On the contrary, the various parts developed a strong individuality, and sometimes seemed to split off into autonomous areas, only loosely linked by axes’ (Reinhardt 2000/1991: 298)
The relationship between the baroque landscape multiplicities that Reinhardt describes, Resnais’ modernist take on emotional ambiguity and the complex conditions of pleasure gardens come together in Last Year in Marienbad, scripted by nouvelle roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (Robbe-Grillet 1961).
The film is an investigation of the relationship between feelings and affections, and therefore of the very conditions of pleasure. Resnais seems to interpret human subjectivities as, in Reinhardt’s words above, ‘asymmetrical layouts in which a deliberately planned disorder reigns.’ The thinking, feeling human cannot be seen ‘as a whole’ and ‘no longer contains a single viewpoint’ from which an overall sense of the interactive field of forces and movements in which they are entangled can be taken in. In his novels, such as Jalousie (1957), Maison de Rendezvous (1977), and Topologie d’une Cite Fantome (1976), Robbe-Grillet famously, and controversially, elides subjectivity altogether.
Last Year in Marienbad presents a situation. An unnamed man X, and a woman, A, are brought together in a palace that has been converted into a hotel. X tries to convince A that they have met before, last year in Fredericksburg, or Marienbad, under similar circumstances, and that something critical happened between them; but the woman cannot or does not want to remember. It was a brief encounter, according to X. They met by chance in the corridors of the hotel, and in its garden where they conversed about everything and nothing (Fig. 10). While X is very precise, there is nevertheless a general sense of vagueness, perhaps because of some impropriety, or simply because A is not playing this game of “We’ve met before …” Eventually she does begin to remember, or construct a memory of what happened. Something momentous: a declaration of love, a seduction, or a rape, a murder even. X maintains that A convinced him to wait a year before they should meet again, perhaps in the same place, and at which point, he says she said they would leave together. For much of the film A prevaricates but, finally, at midnight X and A do indeed leave the hotel but only, as the voice-over says, to ‘get lost forever’ in its garden. The film depicts A’s hesitation and X’s insistence. For the viewer there is no way to decide whether X is telling the truth, or whether it is A that is dissembling. It asks, can we ever know, between two persons, which is the way to the truth, or are we always ‘lost forever’ in unknowing?
The vast pleasure garden that the protagonists alternately view from the terrace or wander through as they speak, is not a mere backdrop to human frustration and bedevilment (Fig. 11). The garden is dark foliage and bright paths. The characters are in black and white evening dress throughout the film. Resnais’ stunning black and white images, comprising deep dark blacks and crisp, vivid whites, involve the actors in the mise-en-scene as much as in the 18th century the new geometries of the baroque ordered the placement of trees on the open planes of the garden. This configuration of geometry and affect within the rational diagram of a baroque garden emphasizes the – in Wylie’s words – ‘pre- or post-rational’ overlapping of temporalities in which they are depicted. X and A are caught up in a set of co-existing mutually necessary realms – the now, the then, the quotidian, the extraordinary, the spoken, the unspoken, the banal and the horrific. None of these layers of human experience can be separated one from the other. They are intensive, of course – how can you measure emotion? But Resnais reminds us that affect has an extensive dimension. This is one reason why the pleasure garden features in his film. More than this, the chateau gardens represent the movement of the multiple beyond its instantiation in ‘subject’ and ‘object.’ Despite the pain and doubt that X and A suffer, Resnais seems to be saying that it is better that life is lived in a more open – albeit undecidable – economy of affect and disorder. By contrast, the fragile social framework within which the guests at the hotel are caught is a rule of law that permits only a limited response to an existence that is fraught with contradictions. The encounter of X and A dramatizes the dilemma: while at the same time depending on, and perpetuating this social order, they are acting in ways that transmit their own doubt of this stability, and which express an awareness of their vulnerability to prevarication, misprision, loneliness and loss (Fig 12).
It is no accident that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet chose 17th century baroque gardens in which to explore the geometry of affect. The new ideas of nature and rapidly developing representational technologies of the 17th century were used by garden designers to lay out palace grounds through the application of procedures which permitted the introduction into garden space of an explicit connection to something beyond the material conditions of the garden itself. Seventeenth century pleasure gardens expressed the new rules of nature by ordering landscape elements (visual axes, vegetal planes, serial points of conifers), and then disrupting them by means of the introduction of the infinite, the anamorphic diagonal and the theatrical projection of the human body through space. Le Notre, for instance, organized the tensions produced by a precise marking out of terrain into a human confrontation with the baroque loosening of the sacred from religious life. This different order of reality - encountered on the flatbed of the baroque garden - becomes implicated in human life in a new way.
In his De l’infinito universo e mondi (1586) Giordorno Bruno (1458-1600) described as perfect, not the circle or sphere, but that ‘which consists of many parts, disposed in a fixed sequence and closely joined together…There is,’ he writes, ‘a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow; this space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, sense-perception nor nature assign it to a limit …’ (Lovejoy 1964: 126). Bruno propounds an infinitely extended universe that has no need for a hierarchical structure, neither centre nor boundary.
The baroque garden as exemplified by Le Notre combined the rigid geometrical organizing capabilities of astronomers like Copernicus and Kepler with Bruno’s rhizomatic spatiality. But these gardens’ affective potential is only fully realized when the vital energy of courtiers and nobles courses across their mathematical fields. The sacrality of the ancient sense of the stable, immutable, metaphysical infinite of God is merged here with Bruno’s fluid, unbounded network of innumerable objects in space. The result is a garden model that, like the universe, is atomistic, polycentric, and autonomous, but also dynamic and open. It is this new garden spatiality – an innovation of the French formal garden - that permits a specific and unique interplay between the human body and the designed landscape. But Resnais’ allegory of modern life needed more than this. It required a setting that generates difference by staging the ongoing, unending negotiation between rationality and lived experience.
This negotiation can be traced through the work of Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who postulated that atoms had materiality and a spark that moves them, an internal force (Debus 1977: 115). According to Gassendi, atoms were endowed at Creation with an internal principle of motion, a ‘natural impulse,’ or ‘force,’ which always maintains their motions. A force that could transfigure the human body (as in the sculptor Bernini’s St Teresa) was an active, essential component of a substance, not an external vis insita or vis impressa (Debus 1977: 115). Gassendi’s physics imply a baroque body ablaze with a concealed fire which at its highest pitch could convey the intensity of a physical force. If we combine this conceptualization of immanence with the fundamental insight of philosopher Gottleib Leibniz (1647-1716), we discover what it really is that drew Resnais to the baroque pleasure garden as a setting for his film. Leibniz saw forces as local properties within a dynamic system; individuated non-self-identical points, each of which is spatially related to other points and communicating with them through the godhead, a medium by means of which they stay connected (Leibniz 1973). Each of these ‘monads’ expresses each other, registering through its internal law (calculated by God) every change that has occurred in other monads and responding to them. This formulation precisely describes the body that moves through the spatial matrix of the baroque garden. Versailles, for instance, was created to receive, display, divert and control absolutely the monadic subjects of the King of France. It is just such a subject, calculating, watchful, aware, that glides across the stage of the garden, moving in and out of infinitesimally fine relationships with other subjects, never motionless, always following delicate, carefully observed protocols, cautious never to transgress, and yet transgressing always. The trajectory of this body through the space of the baroque garden simultaneously constructs and destabilizes the ideals of proportion, closure and projection that inform both the garden and the courtly etiquette and ambition that propel the king’s subjects across it. As Weiss argues, the courtiers’ experience of the baroque garden is a continual negotiation between lived and mathematical space (Weiss 1998). Individual people enter this environmental calculus as beings detached from each other, or at least connected only by a kind of human mathexis, whose trajectories through the spatial field of the baroque garden can also be plotted and predicted. The logic of the garden is synaesthetic, not purely visual (Weiss 1998: 49). It serves to activate the tension, complexity and ambiguity that characterize the intersection of the mathexis and the social.
If, as suggested earlier in this essay, and following Spinoza, a body is defined by the possible relations into which it may enter and, in fact, develops desires for relations, then the multiple relations (visual connections, power politics etc) that criss-cross the spectacle-space of the garden in Last Year in Marienbad can be delimiting of an individual’s power of acting, or enhancing of it. What unfolds in Last Year in Marienbad is a vital process of differentiation that occurs between X and A, a movement that links an indefinite temporality (Last Year …) with a half-remembered spatiality ( … at Marienbad) in a rigorously structured here and now. Robbe-Grillet says that the film occurs in ‘ a perpetual present,’ it is ‘a world without a past, a world which is self-sufficient at every moment and which obliterates itself as it proceeds’ (Robbe-Grillet 1965: 152-3).
The application to gardens of a theory of pleasure other than that of Spinoza’s would necessarily yield a different interpretation of pleasure gardens. But Spinoza, if anything, is a philosopher of life. That gardens are places where human beings may discover and experience what human life can be, is one of the fundamental insights of Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. In this treatise Harrison explores the ancient wisdom of the philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus – who taught in gardens especially created for this purpose (Harrison 2008: 55-81). These are places, Harrison writes, which are ‘at once removed from and open to the world’ (Harrison 2008: 70). It is just this openness to the world, a function of the garden’s separation from it, that Spinoza’s explication of human pleasure permits us to realize. Spinoza affirms the productive dynamic of the world and places humans within this dynamic as participants in the constitution of its life. If life, therefore, is constantly being constructed, then in pleasure gardens we find a process of world-composition that dissolves the difference between thinking, feeling and living.
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