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Chinese Gardens: Raising the Spirits                 





Garden design is a matter of spatial strategy. Strategies of spatial arrangement, the disposition of matter, is key to the design of the garden. Matter disposed: but to what end?


Classical Chinese Gardens are so constructed (it is often noted) as to look like Nature, but ¡®Nature improved¡¯, ¡®Nature tamed¡¯. A culture pretending to the Nature; borrowing, abrogating, incorporating Nature¡¯s claim to universality and eternity - to being a-historical (which no being can be). As if Nature was not already historical on two counts: its process of evolution (what we call science) and the evolution or history of its concept; so already part of the debates in philosophy on the relative influences of Nature and Culture, and the very historicity of these debates in turn. Without this historical self-consciousness we repeat the errors (or fashions) of the past, believing them to be eternal verities, last words (or first principles, foundations, axioms, grounds¡­). So like all universals, concepts, cultures, all pretend to be Nature (in the sense of pretending eternity) but actually all are still just historically-bound, short-lived Culture - really only present in the present, our, my (your) eternal present (or imagination). For, if we are to be honest about it, our experience needs others to confirm its reality; otherwise put, empirical truth is always shared, inter-personal - personal experience (the place we live out our lives) is not¡­ until we agree upon it with others. Which is where science begins, with inter-subjectivity, shared experience; this is where testable ¡®reality¡¯ really begins. Not our own truth, our own experience - which is contingent. And there¡¯s the rub. Our own experience is nevertheless where we are, radically, permanently, always and unavoidably - are - our starting point and finishing point. And so imagined as a kind of permanence (and in our imagining we are right, for we are, ¡®in permanence¡¯ situated in our experience, ¡®always now¡¯, ¡®always here¡¯). This sense of the personal present extrapolated, universalised, writ large, gives eternity: a parallel ¡®world¡¯ always present but invisible (unlimited, unhistorical, untouchable), to parallel our sense of living in a kind of Eternal Present (limited to our individual existence). Yet the permanence of this shadow or imagined ¡®eternity¡¯, the ¡®eternal realm¡¯ of the heavens, home to gods and universals, the place of the nature of Nature is actually the nature of our human nature (we need to imagine such a non-place). Culture is our everyday temporal experience; what we make and do (and inherit from the past). Nature¡¯s eternity and vice versa (the eternity of nature) is also a cultural creation (witness the range from Nature to Heaven to Universals to Axioms) yet one we appear to need: whence the repeated move to deny cultural historicity or contingency and affirm, or claim natural eternity, the eternity owing to what is natural¡­ the rhetoric of eternity.


And it is the rhetoric of eternity which for centuries has motivated the aesthetics of the Chinese garden¡­


The disposition of matter (the placement of stone, the expanses of water, and ¡®the space above water¡¯, the opening and closing of space, the movement of air - and the passages and places which permit the stasis and movement of ourselves); but to what end? The disposition of the rhetoric of eternity. Incarnate in matter, in space, in place. In the sense of place.


But we are missing a step¡­ first space, brute matter and cold extension, must become place. The disposition of matter is the means, the end is the sense of place.


A sense of place¡­ by means of making sacred¡­ Raising the spirits, the spirits of the place, genius loci, but no longer, found, in Nature, rather¡­ constructed¡­ such that they, the spirits, are many, as are the places, the rooms, the populated spaces, in Nature, in this tamed nature we have constructed, such that they too are many - and all are special¡­ and all offer the combination of the living and the dead, of plants, greenery, trees and shrubs¡­ and stone¡­ like the presence of any sign - physically inert, but as a symbol full of significance.


¡®Objectively¡¯, raising the spirits (calling up the dead, or those who dwell... elsewhere). Calling up the spirits of the past, connoting myth, ancestors, nature, gods, immortals; all incarnated in stone, focused in stone, the stone shapes that point back¡­ way, way back and beyond¡­ A kind of stone worship - shared by East and West alike, Indo-European cultures and Eastern cultures (but not always Middle-eastern cultures, where object right does not prevail and often gives birth to iconoclastic beliefs). All the sources of our religious belief, ancestor worship and Nature worship, come together in this¡­ this cultivation, this practice of a mental attitude - also a ¡®practice of the self¡¯ (Foucault).


The classical Chinese Garden is a prosopopoeia in landscape, a material trope which simultaneously, in calling up from cultural memory the past, embodies a spirit in the present; our present, our spirit, ourselves.


Subjectively, to raise our spirts, our mood, which is also our current mental embodiment, our identity, raising our level (raising-up as calling-up and lifting-up) morally, aesthetically, spiritually, culturally¡­ Raising our level of civilization; culture ¡®on the up¡¯, ¡®high culture¡¯¡­ like poetry, an exercise in formalized language to uplift the reader, (see the Western ¡®courtly love tradition¡¯ for the selfsame rhetoric, part of the ¡®civilising process¡¯). A raising applied to space to provoke culture¡­ The human animal (¡®human nature¡¯) raising itself up¡­. Lifting itself toward an ideal. Into culture. An art culture which was once also an art of living¡­ A shrine to the culture of the possessor.


This ¡®third¡¯ or mediate term, ¡®middle voice¡¯ or unity of subject and object, or set which includes subject and objective positions, is our culture and its quality; our quality of life. So again, the classical Chinese Garden is a shrine to culture and a still living part of the ¡®civilising process¡¯ (Norbert Elias).


What difference then between the senses of the sacred called up in the space of a real shrine and that of a dwelling, or more precisely its garden space. What difference between a temple and garden? In the temple space, the cultural and spiritual centre is inside the building; the outside space prepares one for this, the entry, a kind of ritual passage. With garden space, on the other hand, while often integrated into halls, pavilions, walkways and other interiors, these latter exist as places from which to look out at and experience the views of garden space proper. (¡®Halfway¡¯ places, distinct from living spaces; covered but open: or open to the sky, but walled, wooden decked or paved ¨C ¡®rooms in nature¡¯). So with gardens, it is the exterior which is the spiritual centre; or rather, we should say, centres ¨C for, as argued above, all the varied outside garden spaces are designed to carry a sacred charge. So with the garden space, it is the outside that is read, is felt, to be sacred: special in the sense that each space, each section, behind its wall, is so constructed as to be found remarkable. The inside, as normal living space, does not compete with beauties of ¡®nature tamed¡¯, with its sculptural lift (but which contains a relatively low degree of eye-raising¡¯ -or hypsosis- rather the spirit is ¡®raised¡¯ by ¡®the space above water¡¯ and enticed by the many ¡®tunnel views¡¯ or vanishing points that surround a pond, or pool or lake, or descend from a pavilion on a mock mountain). ¡®Mock nature¡¯ is more symbolically powerful than culture as culture (the culture indoors¡­). Unless it is that of the tomb or the temple¡­ or of the shrine¡­ (and we might remember that many gardens once held plots, as dwellings once held corners; shrines, in effect, where the remains of the dead where both maintained and venerated¡­).


A quiet space put aside¡­



The temple is the place for mortals to make obsequies to the gods, present in effigy or in spirit; the place to offer sacrifices and make requests to the heavens. In the garden we are in Heaven; the gods (present also in Nature and in the eternity promised by the presence of stone) are ourselves¡­






Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018


Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018