Fragments of paradise: gardens like those of Friedrich II at Sanssouci help us to read the world.

Author:Manguel, Alberto

Welcome into the world as reading animals. Our first impulse is to decipher what we sense around us, as if everything in e universe carries meaning. We try to decode not only systems of signs created for that purpose--alphabets, hieroglyphs, pictographs, social gestures--but also the objects that surround us: the faces of others and our own reflection, the landscape through which we move, the shapes of clouds and trees, the changes in the weather, the flights of birds, the spoors of insects. Legend has it that cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by copying sparrows' footprints found in the mud of the Euphrates 5,000 years ago, prints that must have seemed to our remote ancestors not just casual markings but words in a mysterious and divine language. We lend moods to the seasons, significance to geographic settings, symbolic value to animals. Whether as trackers, poets, or shamans, we have intuited in the unfolding of Nature an endless book in which we, like every other thing, are written, but which we are also compelled to read.

If Nature is a book, it is an infinite book, at least as vast as the universe itself. A garden, then, is a scaled-down version of that universe, a comprehensible model of that endless text, glossed according to our restricted capabilities. According to Midrash, God put man in the Garden of Eden "to dress it and to keep it," but "that only means he is to study the Torah there and fulfill the commandments of God." Expulsion from the Garden can be understood as a punishment for willful incorrect reading.

Gardening and reading have a long association. In 1250, the chancellor of the Cathedral of Amiens, Richard de Fournival, imagined a book-cataloguing system based on a horticultural model. He compared his library to an orchard wherein his fellow citizens might gather "the fruits of knowledge." He divided it into three flower beds corresponding to three major categories: philosophy, the so-called lucrative sciences, and theology. Each bed in turn was divided into a number of smaller plots (areolae) containing a summary of the books' subject matter. Fournival speaks of "cultivating" both his garden and his library.

Not surprisingly, the verb cultiver retains in French these two meanings: to grow a garden and to become learned. The tending of one's garden and the tending of one's books require equal devotion, patience, persistence, and a serviceable sense of order. Cultiver denotes seeking the truth hidden in the apparent chaos of Nature or the library and rendering visible its attendant qualities. In both cases, truth is subject to review. Gardener and reader must be willing to shift purpose according to the exterior or interior weather, to yield consequences of new discoveries, to reorganize, redistribute, reconsider, redefine, not according to overwhelming absolutist notions but to individual and quotidian experience.

To a certain extent, the French Revolution is the consequence of a loss of confidence in absolutes. Rather than maintain that universal metaphysical categories rule human lives, or that ideas override experience, or that figures of divine power have the right to rule over individuals, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment preferred to argue what Kant was later to call "the categorical imperative": that every human act at its finest should in principle become a universal law. This would be a splendid if impossible achievement. A century later Robert Louis Stevenson noted: "Our duty in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits."

Voltaire would have agreed. Voltaire, above all the philosophers of the Enlightenment, wished us to act as if we ourselves, and not a divine commander, were accountable for the consequences of our acts. For him, no human action is independent of another. The philosopher Pangloss tells Candide at the end of his adventures that "all events are linked in the best of all possible worlds.... Had you not...

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