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The Gardens Gide Saw

Verena Conley on Exoticism, Europe, and the Jardin d’Essai

Verena Conley teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. She is currently at work on a project entitled “From Colony to Ecology: Theory and Practice of the Jardin d’Essai,” a celebrated colonial garden in Algiers, and another on “The Care of the Possible: Ecology, Technology, Sensation, Worlds.”

Brief Q&A with Verena Conley

In your talk you mentioned literary perspectives on the garden, specifically the writer André Gide, who I know has a curious little book, The Fruits of the Earth, that talks about gardens. What is his experience with the Jardin d’Essai?

Well it’s a very brief moment—I think it’s in book three, when he travels to North Africa—and he mentions this garden, just in passing, really, and he says he has never tasted fruit, dates, like this before. And the dates that he tastes are probably not indigenous; the trees would have been imported. Gide is one of the first who doesn’t simply say, “Oh, wow, here’s this magnificent tableau.” He actually describes how he moves through the North African landscape, how he experiences it through his senses and how it affects him—what the smells are, the sights, the tastes. Gide’s sensuous text made a big impression on young Jacques Derrida, who says in interviews later on that when he was growing up The Fruits of the Earth was a formative book for him; he said he knew it almost by heart.

And I don’t know if you’ve read Gide’s The Immoralist? There, too, the protagonist goes to North Africa. In the book, the narrator relates how he went south, first to Italy and then to Algeria. He tells his interlocutor how, in the course of his journey, he completely lost himself and sacrificed everything to the senses. And it’s dicey—he has these encounters with young boys—but in The Fruits of the Earth, it’s just a discovery of the landscape, especially gardens, through the senses.

 

Is the visiting of these gardens a sort of cultural phenomenon? How does Gide relate to that?

There’s this whole obsession in Europe with going south. The north is always seen as a very repressed place; the place of books and culture. As the exotic counterpart, the south is the realm of the body and the senses. In many ways, southern Italy is the same as North Africa—I don’t think Gide necessarily distinguished between the two. But in The Immoralist, you have a married couple, and they go down to a place in Algeria called Biskra. He is sick, but recovers with the help of his wife and the place. But when his wife becomes sick, he loses interest in her; instead he becomes obsessed with a young boy.

 

In your talk you mentioned the conscious exoticizing of gardens—how is the Jardin d’Essai connected to cultural understandings of the exotic over time?

Colonial gardens—and especially the Jardin d’Essai—are really a way of showcasing empire, of exhibiting what a country possessed from all the different parts of the world. The empire is always global; it’s expansionist, and then it tries to show you, to display, how it possesses all these lands, and how it can take from them and acclimate its new possessions. The creation of the Jardin d’Essai in 1832, that is, two years after the French conquer Algiers, is a clear gesture to mark the territory, to appropriate the land. The Jardin was a farm, a test garden, before it became a garden of acclimation and also a public garden.

The theory of acclimation, as it’s embodied by the garden, will be really important. You know, there was a whole craze in Europe around this theory, which led to the infamous attempts at anthropological and zoological acclimatization that culminated with the exhibits in Paris in the 1930s, where you construct entire street scenes from the colonies to showcase people and animals; and the French and other Europeans walk by and just gaze at them.

To come back to the Jardin d’Essai: it still exists today. A very popular public and botanical garden, it reopened in 2009 after several years of extensive work. It’s also a garden that is popular with artists and intellectuals. Many philosophers, writers, and filmmakers have written about the Jardin (Hélène Cixous, Assia Djébar, Jacques Derrida, and others). It’s now more of an ecological garden where children learn about water conservation, indigenous plants, and the ecological importance of Algeria and the Mediterranean basin.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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