An excerpt from
An Essay on the Human Condition
Robert Pogue Harrison
The Vocation of Care
For millennia and throughout world cultures, our predecessors conceived of human happiness in its perfected state as a garden existence. It is impossible to say whether the first earthly paradises of the cultural imagination drew their inspiration from real, humanly cultivated gardens or whether they in fact inspired, at least in part, the art of gardening in its earliest aesthetic flourishes. Certainly there was no empirical precedent for the mineral “garden of the gods” in the Epic of Gilgamesh, described in these terms: “All round Gilgamesh stood bushes bearing gems… there was fruit of carnelian with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea” (The Epic of Gilgamesh, 100). In this oldest of literary works to have come down to us, there is not one but two fantastic gardens. Dilmun, or “the garden of the sun,” lies beyond the great mountains and bodies of water that surround the world of mortals. Here Utnapishtim enjoys the fruits of his exceptional existence. To him alone among humans have the gods granted everlasting life, and with it repose, peace, and harmony with nature. Gilgamesh succeeds in reaching that garden after a trying and desperate journey, only to be forced to return to the tragedies and cares of Uruk, his earthly city, for immortality is denied him.
More precisely, immortal life is denied him. For immortality comes in several forms—fame, foundational acts, the enduring memorials of art and scripture—while unending life is the fabulous privilege of only a select few. Among the Greeks, Meneleus was granted this special exemption from death, with direct transport to the gardens of Elysium at the far end of the earth,
where there is made the easiest life for mortals,
For all her unmatched beauty, it seems that this was what the great fuss over Helen was really all about: whoever possessed her was destined for the Isles of the Blest rather than the gloom of Hades. Men have gone to war for less compelling reasons.
By comparison to the ghostly condition of the shades in Hades, a full-bodied existence in Elysium is enviable, to be sure, if only because happiness outside of the body is very difficult for human beings to imagine and impossible for them to desire. (One can desire deliverance from the body, and desire it ardently, but that is another matter.) Even the beatified souls in Dante’s Paradise anticipate with surplus of joy the resurrection of their flesh at the end of time. Their bliss is in fact imperfect until they recover in time what time has robbed them of: the bodily matter with which their personal identity and appearance were bound up. Until the restitution of their bodies at the end of time, the blessed in Dante’s heaven cannot properly recognize one another, which they long to do with their loved ones (in Paradiso 14 [61û66], Dante writes of two groups of saints he meets: “So ready and eager to cry ‘Amen’ / did one chorus and the other seem to me / that clearly they showed their desire for their dead bodies, / not just for themselves but for their mothers, / and fathers, and the others who were dear to them / before they became sempiternal flames”). In that respect all of us on Earth, insofar as we are in our body, are more blessed than the saints in Dante’s heaven. It is otherwise with the likes of Meneleus and Utnapishtim and Adam and Eve before the fall. The fantastic garden worlds of myth are places where the elect can possess the gift of their bodies without paying the price for the body’s passions, can enjoy the fruits of the earth without being touched by the death and disease that afflicts all things earthly, can soak up the sunlight so sorely missed by their colleagues in Hades without being scorched by its excess and intensity. For a very long time, this endless prolongation of bodily life in a gardenlike environment, protected from the tribulations of pain and mortality, was the ultimate image of the good life.
Or was it? Certainly Meneleus is in no hurry to sail off to his islands in the stream. Telemachus finds him still reigning over his kingdom, a man among men. There is no doubt that Meneleus would opt for Elysium over Hades—any of us would—but would he gladly give up his worldly life prematurely for that garden existence? It seems not. Why? Because earthly paradises like Dilmun and Elysium offer ease and perpetual spring at the cost of an absolute isolation from the world of mortals—isolation from friends, family, city, and the ongoing story of human action and endeavor. Exile from both the private and public spheres of human interaction is a sorry condition, especially for a polis-loving people like the Greeks. It deprives one of both the cares and the consolations of mortal life, to which most of us are more attached than we may ever suspect. To go on living in such isolated gardens, human beings must either denature themselves like Utnapishtim, who is no longer fully human after so many centuries with no human companionship other than his wife, or else succumb to the melancholia that afflicts the inhabitants of Dante’s Elysian Fields in Limbo, where, as Virgil tells the pilgrim, sanza speme vivemo in disio, we live in desire without hope. As Thoreau puts it in Walden, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality” (61). If Meneleus took that craving for reality with him to Elysium, his everlasting life there is a mixed blessing indeed.
But why are we posing hypothetical questions to Meneleus when we can consult Odysseus directly? Kalypso’s island, where Odysseus was marooned for several years, is in every respect a kind of Isle of the Blest in the far-flung reaches of the ocean: a flourishing green environment with fountains, vines, violets, and birds. Here is how Homer describes the scene, which is prototypical of many subsequent such idyllic scenes in Western literature:
She was singing inside the cave with a sweet voice
This is the enchanted place that Kalpyso invites Odysseus to share with her permanently, with an offer of immortality included in the bargain. But we know the story: cold to her offer, Odysseus spends all his days on the desolate seashore with his back to the earthly paradise, sulking, weeping, yearning for his homecoming to harsh and craggy Ithaca and his aging wife. Nothing can console him for his exile from “the land of his fathers” with its travails and responsibilities. Kalypso is incapable of stilling within his breast his desire to repossess the coordinates of his human identity, of which he is stripped on her garden island. Even the certainty that death awaits him after a few decades of life on Ithaca cannot persuade him to give up his desire to return to that very different, much more austere island.
What Odysseus longs for on Kalypso’s island—what keeps him in a state of exile there—is a life of care. More precisely, he longs for the world in which human care finds its fulfillment; in his case, that is the world of family, homeland, and genealogy. Care, which is bound to worldliness, does not know what to do with itself in a worldless garden in the middle of the ocean. It is the alienated core of care in his human heart that sends Odysseus to the shore every morning and keeps him out of place in the unreal environment of Kalypso’s island. “If you only knew in your own heart how many hardships / you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, / you would stay here with me and be lord of this household and be an immortal” (5.206û9). But Kalypso is a goddess—a “shining goddess” at that—and she scarcely can understand the extent to which Odysseus, insofar as he is human, is held fast by care, despite or perhaps even because of the burdens that care imposes on him.
If Homer’s Odysseus remains to this day an archetype of the mortal human, it is because of the way he is embraced by care in all its unyielding tenacity. An ancient parable has come down to us across the ages which speaks eloquently of the powerful hold that the goddess Cura has on human nature:
Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: “Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called homo, for it is made out of humus (earth).”
Until such time as Jupiter receives its spirit and Earth its body, the ensouled matter of homo belongs to Cura, who “holds” him for as long as he lives (Cura teneat, quamdiu vixerit). If Odysseus is a poetic character for Care’s hold on humans, we can understand why he cannot lie easily in Kalypso’s arms. Another less joyful goddess than Kalypso already has her claims on him, calling him back to a land plowed, cultivated, and cared for by his fathers and forefathers. Given that Cura formed homo out of humus, it is only “natural” that her creature should direct his care primarily toward the earth from which his living substance derives. Thus it is above all the land of his fathers—as Homer repeats on several occasions—that calls Odysseus back to Ithaca. We must understand the concept of land not merely geographically but materially, as the soil cultivated by his ancestors and the earth in which their dead bodies are buried.
Had Odysseus been forced to remain on Kalypso’s island for the rest of his endless days, and had he not lost his humanity in the process, he most likely would have taken to gardening, no matter how redundant such an activity might have been in that environment. For human beings like Odysseus, who are held fast by care, have an irrepressible need to devote themselves to something. A garden that comes into being through one’s own labor and tending efforts is very different from the fantastical gardens where things preexist spontaneously, offering themselves gratuitously for enjoyment. And if we could have seen Odysseus’s patch of cultivated ground from the air, it would have appeared to us as a kind of oasis—an oasis of care—in the landscape of Kalypso’s home world. For unlike earthly paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call it the mark of Cura.
While care is a constant, interminable condition for human beings, specific human cares represent dilemmas or intrigues that are resolved in due time, the way the plots of stories are resolved in due time. Odysseus experiences the endless delays that keep him from returning home as so much wasted time—for it is only with his return home that the temporal process of resolution can resume its proper course. His story cannot go forward in Kalypso’s earthly paradise, for the latter is outside both world and time. Thus it represents a suspension of the action by which his present cares—which revolve around reclaiming his kingdom and household—work toward an outcome. No resolution is final, of course, and even death does not put an end to certain cares (as Odysseus learns when he talks to the shades of his dead companions in the land of the dead). Yet in general human beings experience time as the working out of one care after another.
Here too we find a correlation between care and gardens. A humanly created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always “the constant gardener.”
The account of the creation of humankind in the Cura fable has certain affinities with, but also marked differences from, the account in Genesis, where the Maker of heaven and earth created a naive, slow-witted Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden, presumably so that Adam could “keep” the garden, but more likely (judging from the evidence) to shield him from the reality of the world, as parents are sometimes wont to do with their children. If he had wanted to make Adam and Eve keepers of the garden, God should have created them as caretakers; instead he created them as beneficiaries, deprived of the commitment that drives a gardener to keep his or her garden. It would seem that it was precisely this overprotection on God’s part that caused Adam and Eve to find themselves completely defenseless when it came to the serpent’s blandishments. Despite God’s best intentions, it was a failure of foresight on his part (a failure of gardening, as it were) to think that Adam and Eve could become caretakers of Eden’s privileged environment when he, God, went to such lengths to make sure that his creatures had not a care in the world.
Indeed, with what insouciance Adam and Eve performed the momentous act that gets them expelled from Eden! “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Genesis 3:6). It was not overbearing pride, nor irrepressible curiosity, nor rebellion against God, nor even the heady thrill of transgression which caused them to lose, in one mindless instant, their innocence. The act was committed without fear and trembling, without the dramas of temptation or fascination of the forbidden, in fact without any real motivation at all. It was out of sheer carelessness that they did it. And how could it have been otherwise, given that God had given them no occasion to acquire a sense of responsibility? The problem with Adam and Eve in the garden was not so much their will to disobedience as their casual, thoughtless, and childlike disposition. It was a disposition without resistance, as the serpent quickly discovered upon his first attempt to get Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.
It was only after the fall that Adam acquired a measure of resiliency and character. In Eden, Adam was unburdened by worries but incapable of devotion. Everything was there for him (including his wife). After his exile, he was there for all things, for it was only by dedicating himself that he could render humanly inhabitable an environment that did not exist for his pleasure and that exacted from him his daily labor. Out of this extension of self into the world was born the love of something other than oneself (hence was born human culture as such). For all that it cost future humankind, the felix culpa of our mythic progenitors accomplished at least this much: it made life matter. For humans are fully human only when things matter. Nothing was at stake for Adam and Eve in the garden until suddenly, in one decisive moment of self-revelation, everything was at stake. Such were the garden’s impossible alternatives: live in moral oblivion within its limits or gain a sense of reality at the cost of being thrown out.
But did we not pay a terrible price—toil, pain and death—for our humanization? That is exactly the wrong question to ask. The question rather is whether the gift of the Garden of Eden—for Eden was a gift—was wasted on us prior to the price we paid through our expulsion. As Yeats said of hearts: “Hearts are not had as gifts but hearts are earned / by those that are not entirely beautiful” (“Prayer for My Daughter,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 188). In Eden, Adam and Eve were altogether too beautiful, hence also heartless. They had to earn their human hearts outside of the garden, if only in order to learn what beauty is, as well as what a gift it is. Through Adam and Eve we lost a gift but earned a heart, and in many ways we are still earning our heart, just as we are still learning that most of what the earth offers—despite its claims on our labor—has the character of something freely given rather than aggressively acquired.
Eden was a paradise for contemplation, but before Adam and Eve could know the quiet ecstasy of contemplation, they had to be thrown into the thick of the vita activa. The vita activa, if we adopt Hannah Arendt’s concept of it, consists of labor, work, and action. Labor is the endless and inglorious toil by which we secure our biological survival, symbolized by the sweat of Adam’s brow as he renders the earth fruitful, contending against blight, drought, and disaster. But biological survival alone does not make us human. What distinguishes us in our humanity is the fact that we inhabit relatively permanent worlds that precede our birth and outlast our death, binding the generations together in a historical continuum. These worlds, with their transgenerational things, houses, cities, institutions, and artworks, are brought into being by work. While labor secures our survival, work builds the worlds that make us historical. The historical world, in turn, serves as the stage for human action, the deeds and speech through which human beings realize their potential for freedom and affirm their dignity in the radiance of the public sphere. Without action, human work is meaningless and labor is fruitless. Action is the self-affirmation of the human before the witness of the gods and the judgment of one’s fellow humans.
Whether one subscribes to Arendt’s threefold schematization or not, it is clear that a life of action, pervaded through and through by care, is what has always rendered human life meaningful. Only in the context of such meaningfulness could the experience of life acquire a depth and density denied to our primal ancestors in the garden. To put it differently: only our expulsion from Eden, and the fall into the vita activa that ensued from it, could make us fit for and worthy of the gift of life, to say nothing of the gift of Eden. Adam and Eve were not ready—they lacked the maturity—to become keepers of the garden. To become keepers they first would have to become gardeners. It was only by leaving the Garden of Eden behind that they could realize their potential to become cultivators and givers, instead of mere consumers and receivers.
Regarding that potential, we must not forget that Adam, like homo in the Cura fable, was made out of clay, out of earth, out of humus. It’s doubtful whether any creature made of such matter could ever, in his deeper nature, be at home in a garden where everything is provided. Someone of Adam’s constitution cannot help but hear in the earth a call to self-realization through the activation of care. His need to engage the earth, to make it his place of habitation, if only by submitting himself to its laws—this need would explain why Adam’s sojourn in Eden was at bottom a form of exile and why the expulsion was a form of repatriation.
Once Jupiter breathed spirit into the matter out of which homo was composed, it became a living human substance that was as spiritual in essence as it was material. In its humic unity it lent itself to cultivation, or more precisely to self-cultivation. That is why the human spirit, like the earth that gives homo his body, is a garden of sorts—not an Edenic garden handed over to us for our delectation but one that owes its fruits to the provisions of human care and solicitation. That is also why human culture in its manifold domestic, institutional, and poetic expressions owes its flowering to the seed of a fallen Adam. Immortal life with Kalypso or in Elysium or in the garden of the sun has its distinct appeal, to be sure, yet human beings hold nothing more dear than what they bring into being, or maintain in being, through their own cultivating efforts. This despite the fact that many among us still consider our expulsion from Eden a curse rather than a blessing.
When Dante reaches the Garden of Eden at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, he brings his full humanity with him into that recovered earthly paradise, having gained entrance to it by way of a laborious moral self-discipline that took him down through the circles of hell and up the reformatory terraces of Purgatory. Nor does his journey reach its endpoint in Eden, for it continues up through the celestial spheres toward some other more exalted garden: the great celestial rose of the heavenly Empyrium. Yet never once during his journey does the poet-pilgrim lose or forfeit the human care in his heart. Even in the upper reaches of Paradise, the fate of human history—what human beings make of it through their own devotion or dereliction—remains his paramount concern. In particular it is the fate of Italy, which Dante calls the “garden of the empire,” which dominates the poet’s concern throughout the poem. To speak of Italy as a garden that is being laid to waste through neglect and moral turpitude takes the garden out of Eden and puts it back onto a mortal earth, where gardens come into being through the tending of human care and where they are not immune from the ravages of winter, disease, decay, and death. If Dante is a quintessentially human poet, it is because the giardino dello ’mperio mattered more to him in the end than either Eden or the celestial Rose. If we are not able to keep our garden, if we are not able to take care of our mortal human world, heaven and salvation are vain.
To affirm that the fall was a repatriation and a blessing is not to deny that there is an element of curse in the human condition. Care burdens us with many indignities. The tragedies that befall us (or that we inflict upon ourselves) are undeniably beyond all natural proportion. We have a seemingly infinite capacity for misery. Yet if the human race is cursed, it is not so much because we have been thrown into suffering and mortality, nor because we have a deeper capacity for suffering than other creatures, but rather because we take suffering and mortality to be confirmations of the curse rather than the preconditions of human self-realization. At the same time, we have a tendency to associate this putative curse with the earth, to see the earth as the matrix of pain, death, corruption, and tragedy rather than the matrix of life, growth, appearance, and form. It is no doubt a curse that we do not properly value what has been freely given as long as we are its daily beneficiaries.
Achilles, who had a warrior’s contempt for life while he lived, must die and enter Hades before coming to realize that a slave living under the sun is more blessed than any lord of the dead. When Odysseus attempts to console him during his visit to the underworld, Achilles will have none of it: “O shining Odysseus,” he says, “never try to console me for dying. / I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another / man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, / than be a king over all the perished dead” (11.488û91). The slave is happier than the shade not because he is laboring under the sun but because he is under the sun, that is to say on the earth. To the dead Achilles, the former seems like a small price to pay for the latter (“I am no longer there under the light of the sun,” he declares regretfully ). That such knowledge almost invariably comes too late is part of care’s curse. Care engages and commits us, yet it also has a way of blinding us. Achilles’ eyes are open for a moment, but even in death they close quickly again when his passions are enflamed. In no time at all, while speaking to Odysseus, he imagines himself back in the world of the living not as a slave but as his former formidable and destructive self, killing his enemies and perpetuating the cycle of reciprocal violence: “[I] am not the man I used to be once, when in wide Troad / I killed the best of their people, fighting for the Argives. If only / for a little while I could come like that to the house of my father, / my force and invincible hands would terrify such men / as use force on him and keep him away from his rightful honors” (499û504). That our cares bind us so passionately to our living world, that they are so tenacious as to continue to torment us after death, and that they blind us to the everyday blessings we so sorely miss once we lose them—this suggests that there may be something incorrigible in our nature which no amount of self-cultivation will overcome or transfigure. It is impossible to know for sure, for the story of human care has not yet come to an end.