Death in the garden of reason
Death in the garden of reason, Nathan Childers, Varinoma Press, 2011, Hardcover, 286 pg. Available in e-book and kindle form.
It has been some years since Nathan Childers, that irrepressible doyen of literature, has graced us with another of his brilliant, albeit cryptic, novels. If he is to believed, he has been on sabatical working as a waiter at the Hotel California. In the preface he says that the attraction of being a waiter is that one overhears fragments of revealing conversations. He alludes to an old writing exercise, to wit: Given a fragment of a revealing conversation write three stories. In the first write what did happen. In the second write what could have happened. In the third write what should have happened. As usual, a careful reading reveals that he is suggesting but not affirming the truth of any of this.
In this latest novel Childers has returned to the pungent soil of post-modern literary philsophy. His protagonist, Jean-Paul Demois, is a literary philosopher engaged in deconstructing the writings of of the rationalist philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett. Jean-Paul's opus is entitled The Garden of Reason. A garden, he says, is an apt metaphor for rationalist philosophy.
A good garden is simple, beautiful, and pure ... and it is defined by what is not there. A proper garden has no insect pests, no rot, no mold, and no weeds. The gardener denies them a place. None-the-less they appear and the gardener employs poisons, fertilizers, and operations on the soil to eliminate them. In short, the simplicity, the beauty, and the purity of the garden are maintained by means that are complex, ugly, and impure.
Similarly the narratives of rationalist philosophy are simple, beautiful, and pure ... and are defined by what is not there. The messy bits of the human experience are rationalized, emasculinized, and explained away.
Dennett, he says, dwells in a self made garden of reason. What Jean-Paul does not perceive, cannot admit, is that he, too, dwells in a garden of reason. Dennett's garden is a formal garden; order is immediately obvious. Jean-Paul's garden has the semblence of nature, but only a semblence; everything within it is in a well defined place. The messy bits of life are cordoned off, pushed away out of sight and thought.
In the first half of the book we see Jean-Paul Demois in his prime. His work goes well. He publishes short essays and critiques, little forerunners for his opus. He has little spats and reconciliations with his lover, François. There are long leisurely afternoons in the cafes, afternoons spent deploring the social injustices of the world and demolishing the error s of his critics. He is content with life and his place in his universe.
And then his world changes. He learns that he has cancer. His doctor gravely informs him that it is incurable and untreatable. His doctor says he has but a few months to live. His doctor tells him that the pain will not be bad until the last month. His doctor offers him platitudes and pain medicine. That is all he does, all can do. After all doctors are only masters of life and death, and not of Life and Death.
Death has no terrors in the Garden of Reason. It is, after all, part of the cycle of life. In the Garden of Reason death is something that happens in its appointed time and place at the end of a long and productive life. It is true that early death and unexpected death comes to many, but they are only part of the surrounding scenery. In the jargon of philosophers, they are not the Other; the are merely others.
So it was with Jean-Paul Demois. He decided that his first priority was to finish his opus. If Derrida could achieve his immortality with Grammatology, so could Demois achieve immortality with The Garden of Reason. He wrote with a fever but he did his best to be precise. He didn't want the reviews to say, "He started well, but he trailed off at the end. It's a pity he didn't have more time."
Unbeknownst to him, all about him his Garden of Reason decayed, rotted, and became weed grown. The great deconstructionist was being deconstructed. The heirarchical oppositions of his life inverted. What he had never understood was that he had not made the great choices of his life. Rather he had followed the mode of the circles in which he had moved.
It began with little things, little habits that he never thought about. Without his even noticing the details of his daily routine changed. His social activities became restricted as he focussed on his writing. And then things happened that he recognized as changes. Without his recognizing it, he began making anew the choices that had once been made for him.
The most dramatic began with a quarrel with his lover. François became petulant. Jean-Paul was ignoring him. Jean-Paul had changed. Jean-Paul had given up their long hours in the cafes. Jean-Paul had done this. Jean-Paul had done that.
Such little quarrels were a normal part of their relationship, indeed were an integral part of their relationship. This time, however, the end was different. There was no reconciliation. Instead Jean-Paul stared at François as though he had never seen him before. Finally he said, François, please leave. I am a dying man. I have no time left for you, so go, just go.
And then comes one of the more startling scenes in the book. Jean-Paul goes out and has a brief affair with a cafe waitress named Françoise. In its own right there is nothing unusual in that. Jean-Paul is portrayed as a bisexual. It is the aftermath that is startling. While she lays sleeping in his bed he goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and says to himself, "I did not know. I am not a homosexual. I have always been a heterosexual and have never admitted it to myself."
Perhaps only Childers could have handled this scene. Coming out of the closet is a cliche ... when supposed heterosexuals admit their homosexuality. The converse is not so simple. The temptation is to treat as a triumph of conventionality or perhaps of religion. A lesser writer would treat this coming out as a case of a lifelong rebel realizing that in his heart he is not really a rebel. Here it is an existential matter, a man examining his defining choices and letting the alternatives be recognized. The skill with which Childers writes this scene is amazing. It almost as if ... but I digress.
Other actions are not so surprising. He stops writing and sends his opus off to his publisher. The last passage reads, "This is the end. I write no more. I have come to the end of my days and shall waste no more time on Dennett."
Step by step he strips away his old life, his old choices. In the end he retires to a small village. An old friend visits him there and asks what on earth does he think he is doing. He replies, I am a dying man. Before I die, I would like to know who I want to be.
To be honest, it is hard to know what to make of this book. The metaphor of the garden of reason is intriguing but scarcely profound. To me the entire notion is simply a useful McGuffin. The book can be read as a position paper in the politics of the intelligentsia, and has been so read judging from some of the reviews. At least one reviewer saw it as an existential commentary on the inauthentic quality of identity found in the intellectual class.
And what of Jean-Paul Demois? Should one take seriously the thought that he is or could be a repesentative French literary philosopher? One of the great plot devices is "The man who discovers he is a fraud". Some think that Childers is simply reworking that old dodge, but I do not.
In short, this work may represent incipient dementia or it may be his life's masterpiece. I don't know which.
This page was last updated Apr 9, 2011.