If you are old enough to have taken a Western Civilization course when it was still a staple of the cirriculum, one of the first items that confronted you in the freshman syllabus was the familiar story of the Garden of Eden from Genesis. You saw it again at the summit of Dante’s Purgatorio and later in Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Whatever your personal reactions to the story of the garden, it was intended on the literary and theological levels to be a mysterious archetype of gift and loss: a paradise given to the highest of God’s creatures, man and woman, which they lost because of their rebellion. The garden story constitutes the first chapter in the grand narrative of the human race, a narrative that necessarily involves us all, believers and unbelievers alike. This story has been told again and again, with variations on its theme.
Each generation has been compelled to consider what the archetypal loss of the garden means in its own time. The garden of the Genesis story clearly made inconvenient demands upon its residents. It was the work of a Gardener who was superior to the creatures that lived within it and could command them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
So let us have the garden, some later generations came to think—but this time without the by-laws that came with it the first time. Other generations asked instead why the garden had to be created at all: Why couldn’t it always have been there? Still others asked, Why can’t we create our own gardens?
None of these responses is unreasonable. Because we are beings of sense before we are beings of reason, perhaps our garden should begin by satisfying all our sensual desires—and to accommodate that wish, some commentators have invented a garden quite at odds with prelapsarian Eden: the Garden of Earthly Delights, such as we find in some of the tales told by Ovid, Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims, and Rabelais (to say nothing of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch). Is this not, in fact, the way most of us wish to live our lives: in morally uncomplicated gardens of earthly delight? Is it ignoble to agree with Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, who taught in his Athenian garden that pleasure is the highest good and pain the worst evil?
But second thoughts intrude. To follow Epicurus we would have to deny the spirit, and when we deny spirit we reduce life entirely to the material—which forces us to admit that death is final. At that point we are shaken by Hamlet’s question when he considered the finality of his own life: “To die, to sleep, no more.” Hamlet, too, had second thoughts: “To sleep? perchance to dream. Ay there’s the rub; / for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / must give us pause.” What we find when we examine the promises of the Epicurean garden is not a particularly consoling or satisfying story. Embrace Epicurus, deny spirit, allow twenty centuries of stony sleep to bring his materialist doctrine to a head, and you may wake up to find yourself in the garden of the Playboy mansion, a garden where the approach of death pollutes every pleasure with a sense of desperation.
There are other gardens to consider. One of the most compelling in a time of moral exhaustion like ours is the garden with which Voltaire ended Candide. Candide, the incorrigible optimist, is separated by war from his beloved Cunegonde. His attempts to recover her take him to three continents where he is visited by unbelievable suffering. Wherever he goes, he finds a world that is thoroughly corrupt and irredeemable, the very opposite of what his philosophical mentor, Pangloss, had described as “the best of all possible worlds.” By the end of his futile journeys, the only sane option left to Candide is to retreat from the world. With a few friends and a retrieved Cunegonde, who is now old and ugly, Candide leads his little group away from the multiple betrayals of Christendom to Constantinople. There he tries to start over by heeding the advice of a Muslim holy man, who informs him that the three great evils are boredom, vice, and poverty. This is the highest wisdom that Voltaire’s Enlightenment can offer: Il faut cultiver notre jardin—“It is necessary to cultivate our own garden.”
This is not the garden of earthly delights, not the enchanted garden, but the garden of resignation, of suffering unfulfilled, the garden of disenchantment. It is a signal that the world, which is too much with us, has finally defeated us. Although monasticism also represented a retreat from the world, its motto, ora et labora (“pray and work”), taught that to pray and work is to pray and work for the world and its redemption. In Candide’s garden, we must work not in contemplation or prayer but in order to distract ourselves from the boredom, poverty, and vice of the world. Work as distraction—that is the summa of Voltaire’s wisdom.
The garden of the postmodernists—the post-Enlightenment garden—is captured in Jorge Luis Borges’ seminal story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” This is certainly not Eden, nor an epicurean garden of earthly delights, nor a Voltairean garden of resignation, but a contemporary garden of ambiguity, of epistemological indeterminism and moral relativism. When the Chinese narrator-spy arrives at the house of the English sinologist whom he intends to kill, he discovers in his host’s garden that the central symbol of all knowledge and literature is the labyrinth. All the paths of this garden fork—one leading to another and that to still another, ad infinitum.
This postmodern labyrinth has no exit and claims no final answers because its forks divide and divide again into infinity. By contrast, the labyrinth of classical myth had surrendered to the ingenuity of human intellect. Remember Theseus, who enters the labyrinth of Crete and kills the minotaur imprisoned there, but who would himself have been imprisoned by the labyrinth had Ariadne not given him the thread by which he is able to retrace his steps to the entrance. Whereas the classical story dramatizes Greek confidence in the ability of the human intellect to resolve the dead ends of the labyrinth, the postmodern mind has given up on any such claim. No human intellect can negotiate the labyrinth—so wander along, says Borges, and enjoy the forking paths.
This garden of postmodernism has its allure, but perhaps we should contrast it with another garden you may remember from your old Western Civilization course: the Garden of Gesthemane. Here Christ’s passion begins. Here he sweats blood and prays that mysterious prayer: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). And while Christ agonizes, his disciples remain fast asleep. Disappointed at their frailty, he asks them, “Could you not have watched and waited an hour with me?” What follows is worse than frailty: it is betrayal by a man whom Jesus had chosen as one of his closest disciples. The grand narrative that began with gift and loss in Eden seems to have come full circle to a futile agony in still another failed garden.
But there remains one final garden that demands our attention. “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden there was a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (John 19:41). All four gospels mention Mary Magdalene and other women going to the tomb early in the morning to anoint the body of Jesus, but John’s account specifically alludes to her discovering the empty tomb alone and her running to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple that the body of Jesus had been taken away. The two men run to the tomb, find it empty, with the shroud and head cloth lying there separately, and, astonished, they return to their dwelling.
But Mary Magdalene does not leave; she remains there—weeping. The weeping Magdalene has become an icon of Western art, of course; the image has even penetrated our language with the corruption of the name Magdalene into our word “maudlin.” But then “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him off tell me where you put him.’...Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni’” (John 20:14-16).
Thinking that he was the gardener—as, indeed, he was, regaining by his death and resurrection the Garden of Eden for a humanity that had foolishly lost it. One remembers other redemptive gardens: Augustine’s in Milan, for instance, or Kierkegaard’s in Copenhagen. But the great story that puts the Garden of Eden at the beginning and the Garden of the Resurrection at the end—that is the grand narrative of Western civilization, its alpha and omega.
Rodney Delasanta is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island