Amsterdam III: Reading the Garden

Et in Arcadia

The thing is the garden.  The vegetable garden is a square with circles in it, with a flower garden surrounding: trees, shrubs, flowers, bushes and a lawn.  I walk through the flower garden to get to the shed but I won’t plant a hoe there without consulting first with C.  There are precious plants and seedlings she has planted there.  We achieve a kind of peace when we leave each other alone in our respective parts of the garden.  She wants something done, she says and I’ll do it, but it is not my place to propose.  It’s a fit.  It’s fitting.  It fits.  Fits.

Making the fit is what reading does.  From a senseless jumble of stimuli you make a reading.  Just as Peter the Painter said you can draw with a paintbrush, shaking the categories in my teenage head, I say now, “A reader can read anything, not just books.”  In the banal everyday, reading is what you do with the newspaper or a Jackie Collins.  You take it in your hands and decipher the text so that you can get the point, which you can then pass on to your buddies who haven’t read it.  Making a reading is different.  You enter the guts of the Collins, tweezing out threads of intestine and comparing them with threads of other stuff’s guts.  That stuff could be any cultural or human artefact.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a book, still less a classic.  Reading is a movement from one space to another, a transposition, a translation and it is no surprise that Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is the patron deity of the mercurial art of giving interpretations: hermeneutics.

So, you can read a garden just as you read a book.  You can read a series of events.  You can read a face.  You can read a situation.  You can also misread all the above.  You can make faulty or over-confident readings or partial readings that show that your understanding is critically dependent on a cultural background that you yourself are only dimly aware of.  You can expose yourself brutally by making readings.  Andrew the Scientist is always telling me that my intuitive readings are just plain faulty and that I need to step back from them, put myself through some serious scientific training and only then see what is left.  He says that all this prannying around with crossing boundaries and carrying messages is a load of arty-farty pretentious crap.

But Andrew is busy with Peter the Painter in the garden.  I’ve brought them both back from Amsterdam with my seventeen-year old teenage self who I wanted to rescue from school.  I felt an overwhelming compassion and pity towards myself and that is why I held the door open.  I can tell Andrew is hitting it off with Peter the Painter.  He is like a Jehovah’s Witness with a new convert, but his religion is science, his metaphysics is physics without the meta.  He keeps taking poor Peter back to the same ideas.  He wants to tell Peter that he does not have Free Will.

“The you in the equation is quite unnecessary,” he pontificates.  “Tell me, what part of you is outside the deterministic forces that have been building up over centuries and millennia to put precisely you right here now.”

20170121_151840“Sounds logical,” says Peter, scratching his beard, “except that I’ve jumped forward thirty-five years in time and that isn’t supposed to happen.”

“Don’t ask,” intones Andrew.  “It is some of his bat shit stuff.”  He points his finger at me and I shrug.  Somewhere around here is another version of me aged seventeen, romping through the hills with a hard-on in a blue nylon bomber jacket and plastic shoes. It was probably a dumb thing to do but I wanted to get out of the cycle.  The door cracked open and I slipped me  on through.

These two can talk all day.  They are not cold even though it is January because they have come from frigid Amsterdam where the canals were iced over.  This light Spanish winter sun feels tropical to them both and they squint at their beer bottles.  Almost all the morning frost has gone, even in the shade of the yew.  These guys hardly notice.  They are half-stoned anyway.

Time and the Nature of Gardens

damonOh Damon, where are you?

I could come out of Amsterdam to here because gardens are essentially places outside of time.  Sure, if you want to be more practical than me you could say that a garden is the most time-bound of creations because it changes through the day as the flowers open and close and changes over the seasons as the plants grow and die back.  You could also say that the garden is like a river that will never flow backwards because each plant has a different rate of growth and a different life-span.  How many generations of cabbages will the yew tree see out?  At what point, will the walnut tree give shade to the back field and what then will be the nature of the garden?  I will be dead.


But, I still say we can escape to the garden because it is a timeless refuge, and ideal place.

saturn2Saturn pulls off Chronos’s testicles through eternity.  The seeds of the testes make the universe fecund and give birth to Love, the goddess and the principle, that animatrix of everything.  Botticelli’s Flora, The Virgin in the enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, the Garden of Eden, the Hesperides, a tapestry with a beautiful maiden sitting in a garden a bit like my vegetable garden with a unicorn in her lap.  My horny seventeen-year old self needed that refuge.  He was about to be swamped by the full awfulness of school after a three-day outing to Amsterdam.  I had to get him out of there.  And he headed up to the peaks that surround C.’s house because the very mountains are a garden to an energetic teenager.

Making a garden is not only a matter of planting vegetables I can eat, flowers I can look at.  In the peculiar mindset that descended on me in Amsterdam, everything in the garden means something else.  This is what Andrew calls bullshit but hear me out.

In the Rijksmuseum, there were still life paintings with an assortment of beautifully painted objects, including flowers, fruit, carpets, swords, feathers and glass goblets.  I gawked at the paintwork in my gormless teenage naivety.  On that skull, for example, a blob of white of a different texture to the creamy yellow around it miraculously captured the reflection of light.  You could still see three lines where the brush had passed through the stiff stuff.  The same white but whiter and liquid cascaded down a silver cup.  At the same time as I enjoyed the physicality of the paint, and congratulated myself on being smart and observant enough to notice it, I was thinking, “Slow down, boyo.  This is a skull!  I’m enjoying looking at a skull.  I am getting all smart with myself and getting ready to show off about noticing something about a skull.  That is weirdo shit.”  Weirdo shit because I hadn’t come across irony properly.  I didn’t understand the way that good art involved you in a game of interpretation that you could not quite get out of.  You were an academic knob if you said, “The memento mori is a part of the genre, serving to emphasize Time’s passing and the flux of the world.  Note also the fly on the fruit and the withered flower, etc.”  It would have been OK if the point of painting was to get 10/10 in a quiz about the symbols of flux in Dutch genre painting, but that was not the point.  That reading was about as good as listing off what’s on the TV tomorrow night.

harmen-steenwyckLooked at another way, you could say, “It’s pretty fucked up admiring a skull this way.  This painting is messing with my head.  I’d never have this particular arrangement of objects lying around at home and here it is in a mind-boggling display of technical mastery just as though it were here, but it’s not.  It is and it isn’t at the same time.  But here I am looking at a skull and somehow it seems puerile to draw attention to the fact that Picasso painted skulls as well, even though that thought went through my head.  It is as though the painting of the skull is drawing attention to the fact that I am incapable of giving my attention to the fact that it is a skull, even though it looks so incredibly real!

That is the beginning of reading right there.

cat_s_skull_by_sarembaart-d8unxwsIf you are not really into reading, none of this is going to bother you.  In fact, you can probably skip this blog altogether and find one with less text and more cats.  (That was catty.  I apologize.)

Think about this:  if you put into Google images the terms reading and garden and painting, you will come up with thousands of paintings of women reading in gardens. The paintings go from the good to the mediocre to a whole bunch of truly execrable Russians you can look up for yourself.  Technically proficient but conceptually redundant: here is another big-titted chick in a fuck-me summer dress reading something light in the garden.  What she is reading is evidently not that serious.  We do not catch her with a furrowed brow leaning over her desk with serious work in front of her.  What we get, to do a mental flip, is the equivalent of having a young male plumber in a white T shirt coquettishly reading Harry Potter upside down.  And some women like this stuff!

I do the same mental twist as when I was looking at the skull.  “Slow down, boyo,” I say.  “We have dozens of women reading in the garden.  Where are the men?  Oh, silly me.  Of course, they are doing serious things like going out to make money to pay for the garden or painting the picture itself.”  Pictures by women of women are different.  The women reading are not so godawful pretty for a start.  Pretty sucks.  I would much rather have ugly because ugly has a greater chance of becoming beautiful over time.

Think of pictures by women of men reading in the garden: they are non-existent.  Are gardens then quintessentially feminine?

Read me that!



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