Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Emperor's Garden

Frustration, whether occasioned by loss or the result of unfulfilled aims, is difficult to bear. Substitute satisfactions will always be sought to mitigate the pain of loss or to soothe the grief of disappointed ambitions.


It is said of Napoleon, for example, that in exile on St. Helena, he took to gardening, attacking its problemswith martial courage and discipline. Historians note that he conscripted his entire colony to join in the enterprise of digging, carting, planting, watering, and weeding. Napoleon is said to have consumed with delight the fresh vegetables that the well-watered garden produced.

Perhaps, for Napoleon, gardening provided a substitute satisfaction, a replacement for a lost empire. I have no doubt that for my aunt, gardening was a substitute for something she never had -- children.

For thwarted dictators, regardless of hue or shade -- those who have lost an empire, or those whose desire for an empire has been frustrated -- gardening provides a sublimated fulfillment of a childish wish to dominate. The garden is a world that accepts the authority of its master without question -- a world in which vigilant cultivation, a sort of horticultural discipline meted out by the gardener-as-master to his slave empire, the garden, generally assures the realization of the ideals of rigid compliance and luxuriant perfection.

Invoking Nietzsche, and a little German philology as well, we learn that "slavery is, as it seems, both in the cruder and in the more subtle sense, the indispensable means of spiritual discipline (zucht) and cultivation (zuchtung), too."

My aunt inhabited a psychological world in which the concepts of cultivation (i.e, zuchtung, in the form of compulsive pruning and weeding -- really horticultural castration) and discipline (zucht) merged; a world in which the distinction between the cultivation of plants and the disciplining of children was blurred so that reasonable pedagogic limitations on the feasibility -- not to mention desirability -- of molding absolute perfection and compliance in children were incomprehensible to her. Failure of the child to respond to cultivation would be perceived by my aunt as the thwarting of the will of the gardener, and would suggest the need for pruning -- i.e., castration -- the preferred means of dealing with weeds, overgrown plants, and obstreperous children (and troublesome males of all ages, for that matter). My aunt's motto: "If it offends the subtler taste, prune it!"

The gardener despises weeds and recalcitrant plants ("nature's rank and gross") just as the dictator abhors political dissidents; nonconformity with the established norm -- really the narcissistic ideal -- is highly threatening for both the dictator and the earnest gardener.

The presence of weeds in another person's garden -- and my aunt never failed to notice the weeds in other people's gardens -- was always an occasion for stern condemnation of both the gardener and his lax methods of cultivation. One could expect, also, a lecture on the inferiority of the species of plant, tree, and shrub found in other people's gardens, as well as a critique regarding the placement and arrangement. "That tree is too close to the house," my aunt often said, pointing to her neighbor's dwelling, "a storm might cause it to topple and damage the property." Her neighbors were obvious miscreants.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

I wrote this in 1985. I started working at Akin Gump in 1988. Uncanny!