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Unusual Gardens: Towards a Poetics of Cultivated Earth

11, fall 2021
Issue Editors:
Vered K. Shemtov, Vincent Barletta

Byzantine literature by and large reflects the experiences of the urban elite who comprised its patrons, authors, and audience. As a result, much of this cultural production elides the experiences of the agricultural workers whose labor in palatial pleasure gardens and vast rural farming estates supplied these aristocrats with much of their food, wealth, and leisure. In Eumathios Makrembolites’ twelfth-century Hysmine and Hysminias, for instance, the novel’s central aristocratic couple meet in a garden that is described in great detail, though the presence of the gardeners themselves goes unnarrated. This paper argues that contemporary critical theory drawn from Chicanx Studies and African and African American Studies; which have long foregrounded the subjectivity of slaves, migrant laborers, and other marginalized agricultural ­workers; offers models for recuperating the lives and experiences of agricultural workers in Byzantium. These recuperative models, applied to other elements of the Byzantine archive (such as the court decisions recorded in the sixth-century Novels of Justinian and farm manuals such as the tenth-century Geoponika), demonstrate the physical, economic, and personal hardships endured by agricultural workers, and can thus offer a corrective to a scholarly tradition that has too often reflected the bias of its sources in this erasure.

From a European perspective, gardens and power have long gone hand in hand. Much of this has to do with the surprising resilience of coloniality and the arborescent notions of personhood that support it. In the present essay, I explore other models of personhood (and thus other gardens), drawing on ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the Talmud, and Emmanuel Levinas. At the center of my analysis is the brutal (and seemingly unanswered) murder of a Black gardener in Joanot Martorell’s 1490 prose masterpiece, Tirant lo Blanc.

This article discusses German and Persian poetries by exploring the poetics of the garden. The approach of this article is dialogical: the garden provides the scenery for an encounter, one that never took place, between the poets Goethe and Sa’di. Through comparative reading, the essay attempts to reveal the garden’s conceptions, associations, and reflections as a poetic trope and as a (Eurasian) plan of world literature. Its point of departure is a brief discussion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s gardens as incorporated in his works The Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities. The garden in Goethe’s work is a realm of desire in which not only the surroundings are reshaped but the human subject as well. Reading Goethe’s later work, the West-Eastern Divan, leads us, in a step back, to a short discussion of the opening of the Golestān, the Rose Garden, of the medieval Persian poet Sa’di. In Sa’di’s work, the garden serves as an “entrance” to the field of poetry itself, associated with education and friendship. Exploring the poetics of the garden in both German and Persian literature offers a critical reflection of subjectivity attached to the notion of Bildung/Adab  — the esthetic education of man. As such, the garden provides us with substance for reflection on translation, world literature, and ecological thinking.

Gardens abound in the Persian poetic imaginary and have been the site of symbolic overdetermination for more than a thousand years. Unlike the classical gardens of (other)wordly desire, however, there is a garden that resists domestication to the allegorical order: the stone garden is no self-contained utopia onto which our own longing for shelter from hostile forces can be projected. Instead, it stands as a sacrificial dance frozen in time, memento to an individual passion and the ravages wrought by history on a subject without voice. The present paper offers a modus legendi of both the stone garden itself and the film it inspired. Drawing on Michel de Certeau’s insights on the nature of mystic speech, I seek to unfold the relationship between the individual mystical experience and the sociopolitical outside that constitutes the other origin of the garden. It is the friction created by the passage of different social structures, institutions, and, ultimately, epistemological orders that gives rise, I argue, to a work of visionary art which ruptures conventional frameworks of interpretation.

The present essay explores the place of gardens in the interplay of theology and hermeneutics in a range of Jewish mystical sources, from the classics of medieval Kabbalah to the devotional worlds of early Hasidism and the dazzling poetry of the twentieth-century author Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (known to her readers simply as Zelda). I am particularly interested in how such sources tie the act of scriptural exegesis to the kabbalistic understanding of the garden as a place of intimacy and connection, the encounter with which brings the worshipper to a radical awareness of the interconnectivity of God and world. This project is as much constructive as historical, however, as I am interested in the relevance of these religious teachings for building a robust, poetically engaged environmental humanities that can appreciate and address the gravity of the looming catastrophe. I suggest that Jewish mystical sources offer a potential wealth of narrative, myth, and ritual that predate extractivism and carbon capitalism, challenging the mindset that has neither the values nor the vocabulary to deal with the climate disaster. These classical Jewish mystical sources assert the centrality of humanity while underscoring our fundamental, even pre-ontological, obligation to ensure the flourishing of the nonhuman world. As a literature addressed to those charged with tending the sacred gardens both heavenly and terrestrial, I aim to read the teachings of Jewish mysticism as demanding that we take an active role in preserving the beauty and biodiversity of a created world filled with God’s presence.

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and The Woodlanders (1887) not only portray characters’ woodland cultivation work but also shift the nineteenth-century novel form to accommodate arboreal time, or the timescale and biorhythms of trees’ lives. Hardy’s novels engage with arboreal time in two ways: first, they reflect on trees’ longer lives compared to those of humans, and second, they attempt but ultimately fail to adopt coppiced and pollarded trees’ recurrent tempo as the rhythm of their marriage plots. Through his attention to trees, Hardy challenges both the anthropocentric focus and linear progression of nineteenth-century realist plots of marriage and bildung. Critics have recently stressed Hardy’s portrayal of ecological entanglement, which is particularly apparent in his blurring of character and setting. Here, I shift attention from character to plot, and from spatial contiguity to temporal disjuncture. I argue that by portraying the competitive interplay between human and arboreal time, Hardy’s arboreal fictions teach their readers to accept the unknowability and inimitability of arboreal lives.

In the midst of the inferno we’ve created on this planet, Thomas Woltz seeks vestiges of the Eden our earth could re-become if only we could reimagine how to go about inhabiting it. That reimagining begins with the reconfiguring of our environments. In its higher vocation, landscape architecture does precisely that. It seeks to heal the wound that history has inflicted on this little threshing floor that makes us so fierce, as Dante calls our planet when he looks back at it from the heaven of the fixed stars.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University