'he watched bodies floating outside the city walls ... much as the deforested trees floated down from Lebanon.'
July 26, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Ross Andersen interviews Robert Pogue Harrison in the LA Review of Books: Deforestation in a Civilized World: ' In my reading of it, the epic stands for the angst or dread we have within the walls of civilization, and the hero Gilgamesh embodies that angst in many ways. In fact, Gilgamesh's first antagonist is the forest; he sets out to slay the forest demon Humbaba, the poetic stand-in for the cedar forests of faraway lands.'
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.
Gardens, an essay on the human condition.
posted by the man of twists and turns (3 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, whilst I enjoy this kind of Freudian-Jungian-tinged semiotic exercises when it comes to texts, I'm always very leery of applying that as a rationale across groups or people in real life. I feel like there's a tendency - as there is in this piece - to develop your thesis first, and then subsequently seek examples that map to it.

You can end up with these twisty, allusive arguments, studded here and there with examples like rhinestones in an old leather jacket - but closer inspection reveals innumerable black holes.

I felt that interview demonstrated some of that: many of the attributes he ascribes to forests could equally apply to nature as a whole, to borders, to dark places and so on. Also, his analysis - as this kind of close reading almost invariably is - is basically wholly Western in character. He says he knows nothing about the Redwood forests and their mythology, there's nothing mentioned about jungles really at all, or Asian, or African attitudes towards forests and nature. It makes the universal assertions in the piece look a bit specious - again, as is often this case when this kind of close reading wanders from one or a group of closely-related texts into more heterogenous territory. And that's not even getting into the shakey psychological foundations this analysis is based on - and I say this as someone who enjoys this kind of thing, and regularly practicised it academically and professionally for a time.

Nonetheless, however, an interesting, and thought-provoking interview. I love forests, and in some ways I feel that love - which I and the author are hardly alone in possessing - is the ultimate refutation of his argument.
posted by smoke at 12:21 AM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love forests too: my regular charitable donations are to Trees in Cities and The Woodland Trust (and to Marie Stopes, for related reasons.) I think he's right on regarding forests (I would say woods: forests are industrial settings for me) as enormously important in defining the other, the primitive, the untamed in Western culture. Which would make sense, given the Western (Northern European) environment before deforestation: lots of woods that had to be cleared with bronze axes before farming could begin. (You can't burn down Northern European forests very easily - too damp)

But I agree with smoke: wildness and nature in general are what are awe-inspiring and peace-making and mind-expanding. The actual nature of that wildness - whether desert, or wood, or plain - is secondary to its, what, non-humanness?
posted by alasdair at 5:56 AM on July 27, 2012

I've enjoyed his podcast "Entitiled Opinions" for several years. Dr. Harrison is an interesting individual...and apparently a rock star.

Thanks for the links.
posted by incandissonance at 6:37 AM on July 27, 2012

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