Within these boundaries, staked out by three grand and loveable trees, I existed. Writing, reading, when older taking a siesta, listening to music, bringing up my children, writing my PhD. The works, forty years long.


One of these trees was one of the very good reasons to buy our house, shading a comfortable garden in which summer after summer I have been studying, dozing and enjoying the generations of cats who were also buried here. A magnificent, giant sycamore with a history so weird, that I never stopped contemplating it as if seen for the first time in my life.


Then, two years ago, a so-called tree surgeon – in fact two tree surgeons – trimmed the tree thoroughly. Neighbours had complained about the amount of light it took away from their garden. I conceded. After the operation I asked them to smear ointment on the enormous wounds inflicted on it. They told me that this was unnecessary. I thought I knew better, having studied gardens and trees for at least a decade in order to write a book on the 18th century villas and their gardens around the former Wijker Lake. However, I shut up.

Last summer, that sycamore was declared finished, dead and a corpse. By now it has even shed its outer garments, by now its shroud of bark.



It has become a personal Golgotha, if only with one cross on the hill.


A month ago, the first winter storm felled the weeping willow at the corner of the ridge over the Haarlemmer Trekvaart, a water over which people in days gone by were transported by a boat, drawn by horses on trotting the bank. A weeping willow for which I now had to weep, the second of the markers of my home territory.



It felt like the storm winds taking away this beauty were now blowing straight through the chinks in my soul.


Then, a week ago, the second winter storm with gusts of tornado quality killed the third tree, the one diagonally across from the weeping willow, breaking the giant off at its roots. It fell all the way over the road towards the water, splitting open the fine flower kiosk which for all those years had provided us with the colours on our dining table.



That same day I was informed that my carousel of hospital visits for various rather unpleasant afflictions once again had to be intensified in order to be also examined for possible cancer of the prostate. No willow left to weep for me…


It now feels like residing in a Bermuda Triangle of defunct trees, fading slowly and traceless.


Sierksma 29.1.18





Having returned the friend to the speedy TGV-train that had first brought him to La Roche, to play chess and to enjoy ma douce France, now to bring him back to Amsterdam, I immediately fled the architectural horror of postmodern urbanism surrounding the railway station of Poitiers.




As I had been very tired already, the idea was to return straight to my little hamlet, some ninety kilometers into the interior. But again travelling the first thirty kilometers of that straight ugly road, passing through flat territory and endless suburbs with ‘sleeping policemen’ galore and 30 km/h signs all over the place, was frightening me. So I took a sharp turn to the right, to let my car idle through autumn delights.


Suddenly, I knew where to go.


On my way there, I found some solace in this fine Modern building, as it were a go-between, a stepping stone from ugly Postmodernity into the cherished Middle Ages, a factory built in about 1930, however now defunct:




Then, half an hour later, up there on the little mountain of Morthemer stands the Chapelle, in a hamlet of three houses and one dog – and of course that little church itself. It hides the one and only true hortus conclusus that during this life I have been in. Walking towards it, I heard cork-dry leaves lisping over the graveled place and chestnuts burst open on receptive stones.




Perchance, at their ending, believers may find heaven awaiting, that may be a secluded garden as well. For the infidel, however, this must be it: Heaven perhaps, but certainly Paradise on earth. One enters it on the chapel’s right side. Then this is what you then see:




Wholly walled in is this Garden of Eden, at most 10×20 square meters large. You walk towards this stony wall, sit down on a little chair that you have taken with you, and then turn around:




Unexpectedly, the little edifice rises sky-high – an effect of being in this confined space with no way of taking distance.




Spread out like a Persian carpet, which always represents a watered garden in the middle of the dry barrenness of a desert, there it is – my little plot.


The body being sequestered inside such small confinement, one’s mind, perhaps even one’s spirit is closing in upon itself, thus mirroring the little hortus which, as a micro-cosmos, is emulating the greater cosmos out there. Or so they say.


Is this then religion? Perhaps ‘religious’ is the better word, meaning ‘binding anew’ or a ‘rereading attentively’. Revisiting one’s life. Inside the hortus conclusus one ponders existence, that being out of oneself, now turning in upon itself.


No – religion is the denial of life, thus the denial of death. Religion is opium for those who cannot cope with the idea that all is never-ending, while one’s life does indeed terminate. Calvinism is religion’s extreme, that godless theology in which from the very start God is a Devil who, ‘in the beginning’, predestines for all beings, before they are even born, whether they will be saved or condemned.


The hortus conclusus is more catholic, thus more humane, linked through its beliefs to all that came before, like the desert, the gardens and its life-giving water. There is that feeling of continuity with life surrounding us, with other people, also with birds and with deer and with flowers – a bond. The hortus conclusus is a symbol of the Source of Life, the womb. Re-entering it may be infantile, but certainly wise as well.


Here, in this confined garden, an infidel like me ponders the tomato in his lunch box, celebrating what is probably and sadly the last fruit he will eat coming the garden of his French friend Roland. Three days ago, that man has been diagnosed with leukemia. His three weeks stay in hospital resulted in a barren desert of its own – his former vegetable garden, the alpha and omega of his life after his wife died some years ago.




Time to leave. I cannot wait for the key-stone to drop out of the little garden-cosmos. Though fall it will, one of these days.




Out there, it is already happening. Just a few minutes after descending Morthemer’s mountain, I enter the latter-day desert of France, its once gorgeous countryside ruined by remembrement, the efficient re-allocation of farmer’s territory which resulted in the destruction of a feudal tapestry of little plots by ripping out thousands of hedges and lined-up oaks.


Left are these vast and miserable prairies. No escaping this, in front of me as well as from behind the desert is chasing me.




The Claws of Capital, stretching out into the vaster landscape, yet also piercing the finer texture of our consciousness. Everything Mondrian-straight, all Corbusier-flat.




Out there, in the far distance, the threatening towers of our modern castles loom high, chimneys of an atomic plant dominating the horizon.


Perhaps, that capstone has already fallen from its setting…


Sierksma La Roche 26.9/2017


France, known for its architecture produced by a Swiss immigrant, is also known for its architectural schools pouring out landscapists and urbanists galore, who really should get a Nobel Prize for their brilliant destruction of its small towns, lovely little squares and venerable streets – if such a prize were existent.


I have seen sweet little villages sublimely fucked up by way of rond-points and sleeping policemen, bordered by ghastly coloured pavements, everything completely out of place and out of sorts. Must have been, each time again, a stroke of urbanism’s genius of the man or woman commissioned by some fool of a mayor or his grandiose adjoint to modernize the hamlet and make it ripe for future tourism.


To make this magnificent mess of things, one surely needs an education at the highest level. Of course the landscapist and urbanist must also be liberally equipped with spikes on their elbows, to be able to compete with the many colleagues in order to get the job and get the job done in this manner. An aggressive breed it is…


Especially for the tourist season they have now invented a whole new field of architecture, called roadscaping. The main object of this science is to allow for the creation of shit alleys all over Ma douce France. Observet the great results of the relief provided for their many customers:




To get the shit precisely where it is intended by your roadscapist, he has made a study of what in architecture schools is known as ‘routing’, the placing of shields and captions in such a manner that all and everything arrives at its proper place in the right time.




Now, of course, my reader knows from experience that this is indeed quite an endeavour, needing lots of special intelligence. Who has not lost his way inside a hospital, or for that matter driving in foreign territory, simply because of ill-placed signs and signals!


All the greater should be our admiration for the splendid job these roadscapists are doing in inner France, directing masses of shit precisely where it is meant to be expulsed:


Reserved for road-travellers


You can actually observe papers and turds precisely placed behind this sign. Even here the genius of French intellectualism so well fits in with the chef complex residing in the mind of the general public.


A worthy symbiosis it is.


Sierksma 4.9.2017


The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.


D.H. Auden, Stop all the clocks…

Thus, in spring, a farmer walks his fields – later, in the summer, the traces of his paces have been blown over by the blessing of the corn which he has sown.

Joseph Roth, Radetzky Marsch




For literally ages and ages this path has been used by Cistercian monks. Oxen, donkeys or horses – animal power pulling the wooden carts first up the hill and then down again, towards the vast pond called Les Fourdines.

Observe the enormous stones, their flat side on top. Even now, walking this little road is difficult; it demands an efficient navigation of the servile feet. Driving a car here is dangerous to its health. This path is now primarily used by farmer’s vehicles whose giant tires are capable to manage the rough surface.


You also see that in those ages past the path was smaller. It has been broadened for the use of those modern sized engines. On the side of this stone path the surface is more flat, when I do not walk it but use my bike, that part of the road is where I ride.

Having walked the easy way down, you would enter a narrow, hollow and shaded road covered by trees, thus approaching the lake as one should – in awe, as if a woman, kind enough to let you enter her body.



Don’t you forget, Kind Reader of mine, that already so long ago water was considered the source of life and grace, springs deep down in hidden grottos. The Etruscans knew, they celebrated these wells, covering them with their gentle domes!


I call these waters My Great Lake, since long considering them part of my back yard. I open the little northern gate to my court, pass through and after passing two farms begin the climb, then to descend again towards my lady. Serenity is the word, heaven another. And why not balm. It is my place to be pensive and weigh the imponderables of existence.


For eighteen years now, this has been the spot to which I retire when the mind is in turmoil. A last vestige of tranquillity, a place that with some help of the imagination and one’s wilful suspension of disbelief returns the soul to the Middle Ages, a time in which it was at least reasonable to belief in that substance’s existence.


Like in the old days, each year on the first Monday of November, people from the village still gather in long-legged rubber boots. After the sluices have been opened in September, two separate locks that keep the rainwater inside the lake, over weeks and weeks the waters have already been emptied into the river down below. The fishermen enter the circle of deep water that remains, then start fishing the thousands of carps that have gathered there.


It is done in a fashion monastic as it were, little has changed. The men, till their middle in the water, fill small float after float with these enormous fish-bodies, then push these towards the edge of the water where they are emptied by others, who put them into case after case. These in their turn are hauled up onto the dike which shuts off the pond.


Here it is, finally, where Modern Times have changed things. Nowadays no carts, no horses and no monks are awaiting the catch to transport the fish to the monastery. In the old days, most of the fish were put up into special basins, lying at the opposite side of the dike and still filled with water, as only so many carts and so many monks and so many horses could transport so many fish in one day.



Nowadays these basins are never used again. Two or more lorries are waiting on the dike, on each a row of huge aquaria in which hundreds of living carp will be fed oxygen, kept alive to be transported and slaughtered elsewhere. In the past their destiny was Germany. In autumn, carp is one of the delicatessen on the dining tables of the restaurants with a Gut- Bürgerliche Küche. Once filled up, the lorries climb back on the hill to disappear towards the East, with them the fish.


All ponds in this region of the Brenne seem to function according to the same Five-Year Plan. After four years the pond is left to dry, grain is sown, the dikes are repaired with tar that is put into the holes that been have eaten into the dam. While dry, you can now see the various levels of the lake in the other years, varying with the amounts of rain filling it up again after each November.


This is my eighteenth French year, I live here for six months and I almost always wait for the fishing before I leave for The Low Lands again. It is either on All Souls or a day very close to it. So in summer time, quite a few times I have also witnessed this emptied and dry Great Lake of mine. Each fifth year, however, it surprises me again, like I have never seen anything like it before in my life. It is purely and simply a thing counter-natural.


Walking the floor of the dried-up lake is surreal; it gives one the same feeling as when suddenly observing, in the middle of the American desert, fossil rests of a fish that are carved in the surface of a rock. It is moonlike.



I felt like an explorer of extraterrestrial territory, looking for life. What I found was death, at least the semblance of it in the form of a shell of an eerie size, quietly lying in the new-born grass.



Like China porcelain of good quality, the earth was broken like an old woman’s face. Terre craquelé.


I was overwhelmed by a counter-punctual feeling. Only last year did I visit Lac Vassivière, situated at the edge of the Auvergne plateau. Not all too long ago this had been a canyon. After they built the barrage, it was flooded. Walking the footbridge to what is now a little island with a castle on top, I looked down on the water’s surface well aware that deep down there lay a village drowned.


So drowned I was now, on the bottom of the world, in those gorgeous air waves spread by an early summer’s wind. From the bottom of the world I looked up against what had turned into a mighty wall of high, shiny reeds. All of a beautiful sublime.



The lake, when full, is delicately sculpted into planes that are now a sixty meters wide, then again no more than thirty. Filled to its brim, it spreads out as far as the eye reaches. However, to my left was now to be found the last residue of water left of this vast lake, its surface normally covering some sixteen thousand square meters.



Then, only a few days ago, early on a Sunday morning, I decided to make my walk to the Great Lake again. Turning the familiar curve in the path, I almost fainted. Expecting the shaded tunnel leading onto the water, a white glare hit me. I instantly noted that on one side the trees and shrubs had been slaughtered.




The glare was caused by a plane of enormous white cobble stones. I walked on, to find the floor of the pond excavated like an enormous parking lot, again extravagant rocks overlaying the once argyle floor, draglines and other machines standing on the side, waiting for the Monday morning.



From what it looked like, this cemetery would become even larger. A few days later I came back and found that this is indeed the case. The dam, instead of being repaired with picturesque patches of tar, has suddenly been cemented away completely. An eye’s sore. My lake has been completely ruined, thus the beautiful world that holds it like a sapphire in its setting.



Sic transit gloria mundi.


Water is Woman. My lake, my maîtresse, raped. It felt like looking at Duchamp’s Étant donné…, an installation consisting of a sturdy door with a hole in it. Once the eye is properly in place, the Peeping Tom perceives the lush body of a woman raped, thighs wide open as well as dead.



It goes even deeper than this. They have found that our innate feeling of personal space, socially conditioned as it also is, performs strange tricks with our experience. The moment someone enters that space, one feels like threatened. Once inside a car, this personal space is unconsciously widening into a much larger circle, extending around the automobile’s body which now feels like it is our own. Media, the extensions of man…


I have always identified so much with these waters, that I myself am raped. This Great Lake, c’était moi! For the first time in my life, the fact that I am an Aquarius has acquired meaning.


Am I, then, a late-late-late Romanticist, deploring so-called progress as ruin, always à la recherché du temps perdu? Perhaps. However, even though I do indeed find the ways of the world more and more distasteful, I also know of the panta rheï. There may be talk of an ‘eternal return’; it sure takes odd curved round-abouts of devastating changes to get there…


The Keatsean notion of a chaste, never ending chase after girls eternally unravish’d as the poet described his women visible on the Elgin urn, it is a stranger to me. My kind of beauty is un-urned. Yet, true enough: Progress, the great forgetting.


Thus, change it shall be. But why call it so mistakenly progress? Change is indeed most often ruinous, though of course it depends on the eye of the beholder whether he applauds or deplores it.


How well I understand these people here, out in the campagne of La France Profonde, that agricultural working class once communist, now voting for disgusting Marine Le Pen. Once they opted for a new kind of communal life, against the social ruins of capitalism. That communist illusion gone, now faced with postmodern agricultural industrialism, these people look back and nostalgically desire the old communality of the days past, which they now unexpectedly consider Paradise Lost…


To speak in sober sadness, this is how I perceive all this. Since two years the buyers of the carps are not German any longer, but British. Those blasted lorries, loaded with fish, have to be on time for the ferry that leaves Calais at its appointed hour. These buyers cannot afford to be late. Thus the carp-sellers have been put under pressure. Either provide for easy loading and a turning place for our lorries, or we’ll find ourselves another fishing pond!


The farming of fish has been turned into a capitalist exploitation of the environment, thus into the ruin of my aesthetic pleasure. Not only have they raped My Great Lake, I am quite sure that the manner of fishing itself will change. Through some kind of machinery those carps will be hauled straight from the pond into the basins on the lorries. Fishermen? What’s that?


Progress as ruin. Secretly, I hope that Brexit will posthumously and financially kill the whole endeavour. It deserves its own ruin.


Sierksma 28.7/2017


An early photograph of Rome shows a deserted Piazza del Popolo in the year 1850. That day nothing ought to move, the camera eye had to be open for a long stretch of time. Pictures then taken always bathe either in early morning’s lustrous light or in the sunshine of a Mediterranean high noon. The times that people out there sleep and the photographer can secure his lonely hit.

Sometimes a lens stayed open for too long.

That day a donkey, oblivious of the agreement, had its own rendezvous. Halfway the shot it emerged, a fuzzy shadow strolling through the image, its destiny a standstill at the fountain. The smile of a shadow, immortalized in the Eternal City – like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, a phantom lingering in the tree while its bearer has already disappeared.


The source of that photo I’ve lost. This 19th century image, though, gives an impression:




Perhaps this epiphany serves as upbeat for a little essay on the Genius Loci or the Spirit of Place.




To occupy space, something or someone needs at least one neighbor. Completely alone one is nowhere. Aristotle defined a place as the inner surface of what immediately surrounds it. Beautiful, yet a little obscure.


In sharp contrast to Newtonian physics that antique philosopher was convinced that all and everything is on the way to its predetermined, final resting place. Here memory seems superfluous, everything previous finds its destiny and then, perhaps, disappears. Rest or stasis, in Aristotle’s philosophy, is self-evident, only movement demands explanation.


In our modern perspective nature is always already under way. Not movement is exceptional, stagnation is. Permanently on the road we are, never completely ‘at home’, even in our dreams in search of we often know not what – the source of history. History is what is not any more, at least not here immediately. Only its shadows linger, as documents, monuments, artifacts, music and ruins. The past, when present, resides in our ordered social habits.


In my half year in Rome I hoped to find that ass, if only in a mist of make-believe. Rome’s Genius so I thought. That magnificent city contains an overdose of mementos, so many documents are available. The visitor must decipher palimpsest after historical palimpsest. It seems imperative to transform the ‘site’ into a ‘place’. Place is time gone by, now experienced as a moment with momentum – a power in place.


In his book on the Etruscans* Christopher Hampton attempted to gauge a ‘vision of life’, to eavesdrop on ‘hints and echoes’ and listen to ‘the voices of silence’ dwelling in their artifacts and ruins. That is all that is left – no literature exists, no historical documents, no music. Only ‘the eloquence and expressiveness’ of things bring out ‘shadows’ that Hampton’s mind might meet.


Perhaps in an Aristotelian manner we may consider the seeker Hampton to reach his destiny in Etruria. Yet, how much of the Genius Loci is theirs, how much of it resides in the eye of this alien beholder?


In olden days the Spirit of Place – why not its Imp – resided in the Head of the Household. It was pretty much sedentary. Did that Spirit die with The Man? Or is his spirit able to migrate into the tangible things of the habitat, wandering amongst them, turned into an illusive entity? If so, could this then be the famous Genius Loci the traveler desires to meet?


In its long history, though, the Spirit of Place must have suffered metamorphosis. We latecomers are cleansed by Feuerbach, Nietzsche and, why not, by Marx, Hampton’s great ami. The Spirit of Place has come down to earth. Der Mensch ist was er it – Man is what he eats. The ‘inner surface of what surrounds us’ is of our own projective making.


It remains a reassuring illusion, the idea of a Spirit of Place awaiting the inquisitive visitor. A guarantee as it were, that the anthropologist’s work is not in vain. Yet, we can never discard the assumption that, after all, the Genius Loci resides in that visitor, yearning to find some things rather than others. We are a projecting race.


The Genius Loci – it is one’s Self! One’s biography, one’s knowledge and the literature read jointly compose ‘a site’ which, when visited, may prove to be the place. If, to be sure, one is fortunate enough to find it.


Always hope for this meeting of minds – the concurrence of the Genius Loci with what one hopes to find out there.


* The Etruscans and the Survival of Etruria, 1969


Sierksma, Haarlem December 2015



Since his wife died – a socialist who still held him in check – my French neighbour and friend in our very small hamlet has refused to vote. In his eyes all politicians are robber barons and cheats.


Now that the battle for the French presidency between Macron and Le Pen is on, I listen to his same old song, this time with some cute different little lyrics: Choosing between these two – so he says – is ‘voting for either the pest or for the cholera’. The difference – my neighbour and friend then adds, this for my pleasure – is that the cholera at least has some antidote.


But voting he won’t.


When still in the Netherlands I pondered the same question, even though with us it is not the presidency which was at stake, but the size of political fractions in parliament and the possible participation of a party in a coalition government. A few months long I claimed not to go and vote. In the end I did.


Abstentionism, if I may coin that word, always favours the wrong guys. The Brexit Referendum is a perfect example. So many young people whose interest it is to stay in Europe did not put their fiches into the urns. Also the cheating of those into voting wrongly will be sourly remembered. In the Netherlands it is that silly man with his platinum-whitened hair who seduces the fools, together with some other nationalist intellectuals.




Now, the interesting thing about France this Sunday is the still great contrast between La France Profonde – farmers’ territory – and the towns. France has always known a strong anarcho-syndicalist movement. And anarchism in whatever shade tends to be against parliamentarism.


Enzensberger – in his fine book on Spanish anarchism The Short Summer of Anarchy – argues convincingly that this anarchism is the result of the existence of a vast labour force that is or not all too long ago has been made up of agricultural workers. Anarchists always splinter and by not voting they let right-wing forces come into governmental power.


Such traditions have a long life and extent into  the present. This tradition holds that power should be ‘with the people’, that no hierarchy or parties should be organized. Action now and here is their motto.


So, with this anarchist mood in Deep France still very much present, one may expect that Le Pen gets more votes than might first be expected from the results in the first round. Many of those in the campagne who voted for left-wingers the first time, will now follow their root instinct and probably abstain.


One does not choose between the pest and the cholera – their alibi.


6.5/2017 La Roche





OUTOPOS – Herder in Wörlitz

You may say, that thanks to his remarks the park grew and became richer. In advance already did he recognize what the new and growing plantings promised to become like. No spot was neglected where some thing of beauty could still be made to stand out or added to the garden.

Goethe, Die Wahlverwandtschaften



One thing is certain – Utopia is nowhere.

Some have designed their utopias to exist – one of these days. Others are invented never to come alive. Then again, there are also utopias expressly intended by their creators to realize a dream. In all cases, however, Utopia is simply nowhere, a non-place and thus pure future. No jam today, always jam tomorrow.

There is no way of testing the truth of a Utopia, no manner of predicting its effectiveness. Only what meets today’s requirements and needs can possibly be verified. Anyone claiming that art is an experiment with history is using a metaphor. The elusiveness and largesse of art’s objects exclude all testing. After all, an experiment presumes the possibility and ability to vary a number of variables. Art as such, however, is completely variable and always individual. Art is always utopian.



One chilly April day, sitting in my hotel room in French Fontaine-Chaalis, I wrote the following words on the back of a postcard showing an autumnal garden:

How strange, a world so bitter and cruel, yet covered with so many genuine paradises. Oh Garden Artists throughout the ages, Thou painters with brushes large as weeping willows and pigments fragrant as hyacinths – You are the greatest utopians ever!

That very day my colleague and I had already visited the gardens of Beloeil in the south-west of Belgium, now we were a stone’s throw away from the park of Ermenonville. The noble creators of these two parks, Messrs De Ligne and De Girardin, enjoyed their gardens thoroughly, they were considered a resting place for lost souls who wandered in from faraway cities.

Their owners, moreover, regarded these parks as true topoi, each a locus amoenus or beguiling spot which should encourage and spur its visitors to organize their own lives and their own society in accordance with the polished version of ‘nature’ as they found it here.

Intended not as ou-topos they were- a spot that never had existed and never would exist anywhere – but rather as a sort of zone liberated by guerrilleros from which goodness would spread throughout the whole wide world. Prince Franz wanted the realm of his Anhalt-Dessau to be ein Gartenreich, one great garden empire covered with paradises that would one day spread out to become Paradise period.

A noble guerrilla, for sure.




Curiously enough, it was precisely in the fact of their practical expectation of realizing such dreams that the unrealistic and utopian aspect of their ideas may be explored. When in the second half of the 18th century such noble Gentlemen began to lay out their first wild English Gardens, their social class – the aristocracy – was already doomed, certainly in France but if seen in a slightly longer time perspective also elsewhere else in Europe. Even in their own eyes all evidence pointed that way.

While in 1790, under the glorious Provence skies and in the very year after the beginning of the French Revolution, the Seigneur of Gémenos Jean Baptiste Albertas was giving a party in honour of his villagers, they murdered him in of all places his own garden. Yet, a slaughter of this kind still had the charm of being personal, bearing in mind that hundreds of kilometres further north not long after this gruesome event the nobility was to be killed en masse and almost anonymously.

This was done on the assembly line of the scientifically developed guillotine, a device that as a contemporary aptly remarked cut off heads with the speed of a wink. Perhaps, those who killed Jean Baptiste thought that with their Lord still alive the ‘better society’ as represented by his garden could simply not be realized.

Even before that time though, the gardens of Prince Franz and Jean-Baptiste were already ou-topoi or non-places. After all, their views on an ideal society and the notions entertained by ‘their people’ were rather different. The ‘modern age’ that was about to dawn or had perhaps already started was urban and industrial rather than feudal, rural and idyllic.

Meanwhile, the paradises – or rather the miniature paradises in the shape of gardens like Wörlitz, Ermenonville, Beloeil and Le Désert de Retz – had lost their exemplary function. They no longer stood for a ‘better society’ but had degenerated into places of pilgrimage for nostalgic visitors who no longer possessed the allegorical power of their 18th-century predecessors.

Despite his misgivings the gardens of De Ligne survived the Revolution unscathed, however somewhat later they yet disappeared. Utopian as they always had been, they now became an ou-topos in a double sense: not only were they no longer kept, along with the Revolution ‘people of sentiment’ whom their designers had in mind had also disappeared. Nobody could understand the deep meaning of all those follies any longer…



All is flux – one cannot step into the same river twice, however one can do so twice in the River Rhine. Even when walking the gardens of Beloeil today, you are not walking in the gardens of De Ligne. In full bloom, yet nature morte. This even applies in a stronger sense to all the gardens that became incomplete, where follies or fabriques were not maintained or even have been demolished.




Just as the rise of the genre of the English Garden was not an instantaneous affair, its specimen in Wörlitz was not created in one stroke. The garden revolution began with a rather Dutch-sounding text, written in 1685 by William Temple:

In laying out the gardens, great sums may be thrown away without effect or honour if they want sense in proportion to money; or if nature be not followed; which I take to be the great rule in this, and perhaps in everything else …

 Whether the greatest of mortal men should attempt the forcing of nature, may best be judged by observing how seldom God Almighty does it himself, by so few true , and undisputed miracles as we see or hear of in this world.

This process of slow transformation of the French style of gardening – in England often known as Dutch Garden – into the natural English version involved the disappearance of a garden confined within walls with its formal flower beds, fruit trees, neat rows of plants and bushes, in favour of an idealized ‘total landscape’ sometimes called a ‘country park’.

Early 18th-century German literature was trying to express this growing feeling for ‘nature’. Such intensification, however, was not yet reflected in the period’s aristocratic gardens which, longer than those in England, remained formal and organized according to ‘the French taste’. One of the reasons for this was the fact that at the critical moment – around 1750 – the German antiquarian Winckelmann’s plea for ‘the Greek taste’ gave rise to a new German classicism, preventing the change towards the ‘English’ style.

The Wörlitz estate – the first German garden to become ‘English’ – consists of several gardens, a few of which are still geometrical, while the rest is in the English style. Work on them started in 1764, the geometrically laid out gardens being established first. The work on the much larger English park followed in stages, this after in 1770 great floods around the Elbe had occurred which actually triggered this garden revolution. A flower garden, several lakes and large areas of arable and pasture land were incorporated, bordered by a variety of trees.

Around 1770 you would still find French styled gardens at all small German royal courts, either stretched to its high-spirited rococo limits, or with a Baroque Garden fragmented into a number of smaller gardens, however still  geometrically designed. By that time, in England the type of ‘natural’ garden had already become quite popular. Prior to and during the construction of his gardens Prince Franz von Anhalt-Dessau and his advisors had even made four study trips to that British Isle. The Prince also considered to settle there with his maîtresse. However, regal form triumphed over bourgeois frivolity and folly so in the end he married a real Princess.

A remarkable contrast exists between model and imitation it was – between on the one hand his English ‘colleagues’ and on the other hand the German minor monarch Franz. The English landed gentry was largely made up of nouveaux riches, upstarts who had seized both the opportunity to become capitalist industrial entrepreneurs and take hold of a title, this at a moment of history, when the system of feudalism was definitively breaking down and parliamentary democracy began to take root, however not yet giving all too much power to the common people.

In Germany, by contrast, the top layer of society felt most uncomfortable about the bad example which rebellious people in France and elsewhere had given their own nationals, even though there was no revolutionary zeal in Germany yet. Smaller states, such as Weimar and Dessau, were ruled by ‘enlightened’, albeit still ‘absolute’ princes who had succeeded in buying out their nobles’ competition while brushing them aside. However, quite a few of these small princes did contemplate the handing over some influence to their people. They could afford the promotion of the arts and attempted to raise their people’s health, knowledge and skills.

Purveyors of culture, often members of the nobility, pursued Winckelmann’s classicism; the progressive bourgeoisie was looking mainly to English comfort. Prince Franz somehow managed to represent these two different levels of his population in his one royal person.




Apart from a Country Seat in Park Wörlitz built in the classical Palladian style, the Prince had also planned a Gothic Mansion. Here he withdrew himself among his old treasures and the family memento’s. Like the entire park, this country house was also open to the common man. His contemporary Boettiger wrote in a commentary: Man genoss doppelt, denn man genoss mit Hunderten. [You were enjoying yourself doubly so, as you enjoyed it with hundreds.]




In his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften Goethe described (1809) this transformation of countryside into country park as mainly the pastime of a bored aristocracy. This, however, does not apply to Wörlitz. Prince Franz’ Gartenreich is rather unique, because he radicalized the inclination already present in the works of the Brit Pope, to unite the Useful with the Beautiful and the Pleasing.

Anhalt-Dessau under Franz’s reign presents us with the picture of an educational project integrating culture, medicine and farming. The primacy of the Beautiful, which had applied since Horace, was now reversed. There is nothing in this park purely for its aesthetic effect – everything is either immediately useful, with cultivation, grazing and growing going on right in the park; or indirectly so, with every scene designed to educate the people.

In a letter from 1770, addressed to the philosopher D’Alembert, the Prusian King Friedrich wrote rather egotistically,

that it is a waste of energy to enlighten humanity. One should be content with being wise oneself, provide of course that one is capable of it. Folly must be left to the rabble, and one must keep them form crime because that disturbs the social order.

While, in the same vein, ‘enlightened’ David Hume believed that the common people could be irrational and religious; while Voltaire wondered how far one could go in trying to fool the people; while Schiller believed that, despite his proposal fort a Aesthätische Erziehung des Menschen [Aesthetic education of Man], it would take centuries to enlighten the common people, Franz and his advisers begged to disagree.

In contrast with these insights they adopted a strategy in which, also contrasting with the British solution, the park was there not only for the pleasure of its owner. They allowed the garden to descend the social ladder and invited ‘their people’ to enjoy it. The garden was expressly aimed at public education.




In Wörlitz repression was ‘trained to fit the Zeitgeist’, to use Sloterdijk’s words. It was most certainly not the intention of Prince Franz’ Gartenreich to instigate a revolution.

With an inscription on an imitation urn atop an imitation island in the Wörlitzer park, Franz praised the Frenchman Rousseau:

He instilled common sense into foolish fellows, he instructed the sensualist in genuine pleasure, he referred erring art back to the simplicity of nature, the doubter to comfort and revelation – all with manly eloquence.







The German philosopher J.G. von Herder was also given a memorial island. He had rewritten the ideas Rousseau on individual education, turning them into a pedagogy of the people which he interpreted as ‘an education of the heart’ as well as an ‘education of the whole of humanity’.

Bildung in short, a process that naturally unfolds in stages, each one taking up a whole ‘era’. This should have heartened good Father Franz, as he was sometimes called – after all, Herder was interpreting 18th-century despotism in a positive way. He called it the ‘fatherly hand’ so needed by ‘the childhood of humanity’.

Kent’s pioneering English Gardens contained multiple perspectives involving scene after scene. 18th-century garden theorist and neo-Gothicist Horace Walpole commented on them in his essay On Modern Gardening:

Prospect, animated prospect is the theatre that will always be the most frequented. An open country is but a canvas on which a landscape might be designed.

Kent’s individual scenes each have their own viewpoint or a line of sight without becoming overly forceful. However, the natural transition from one scene to the next also manages to give them a common harmony. We know that before they started on Wörlitz, Franz and his advisers had seen Kent’s gardens. Herder, who had his own unique views on the relative value of different cultures, appears to have been a solid source of inspiration for the pedagogical theory that fed the Wörlitzer set-up. Here then Herder’s cultural relativism was married off to Kent’s garden  philosophy, both connected with Franz’ Gartenreich.

To anyone who asks which has been the happiest nation in recorded history, Herder replies that every nation has its own high point of happiness – one sort of happiness is not ‘happier’ than another. The measure of happiness is certainly not technological progress, but rather the happiness of each person and the contentment of the whole of humanity. This point of view considers Winckelmann’s idea of a privileged Classical Greek period as being superior to others just as stupid as placing one’s own epoch on a pedestal, as did the Enlightened philosophers of the Age of Reason.

Italy is the theatre most instructive as to the various epochs of the world … Here you come upon the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans an Etruscans … Travel provides us with a catalogue of what survived.

Herder’s own trip to Italy, made in 1788, ended however in major disappointment. Face to face with the remains of Antiquity, he suddenly found these to be stagnant pools in a dead sea. His own philosophy, by contrast, focused on the living ideas of each period. He rejected as ‘foolishness’ all forms of nostalgia and Sehnsucht for the past.

Herder’s aversion to France and ‘French taste’ is remarkable. He called it Gallicomania and regarded it as the glorification of an ideal of life that is certainly not part of the German national tradition. In Germany it can only be borrowed and thus unnatural. Cynically he noted with regard to the French fashion: Every little Court must be a Versailles. Included in his scorn Herder had also the French Garden style in mind. For him the Gothic manner of construction is the true metaphor for natural growth of both language and folk culture – little by little, unplanned, everywhere each in its own individual way.

What nature cannot stop, the gardener cannot curb.

A wise prince must therefore take the responsibility of managing nature; he must not go against her. Herder’s God is to be found both in nature and history, two entities connected by a spiritual bond. Against this background his rejection of any revolution may be understood. When it comes to the regeneration of humanity, the buzzword ‘revolution’, en vogue at that time, is completely unacceptable for him: it is unnatural because it upsets the vibrant circulation of sap in the Tree of State.

Given that radical intervention in naturally evolved cultures is totally unacceptable, Herder recommended education through character formation, this by way of the measured guidance by what he calls a wise Father-Gardener. His concept of individualization is rather broad. Each nation is considered as the individualisation of the whole of humanity; within a single nation every person needs to be individualized and have a character. Individualisation of nations takes place under the pressure of their particular climate:

An atmosphere that surrounds us, an electric lake in which we live. Both are in perpetual motion … There, in the place were their sons have migrated and settled over thousands of years, they take root – like trees that have special leaves and fruits suited to the climate.

The true man of God is – still according to Herder – more likely to feel his weaknesses rather than to wallow in his positive powers. In other words: such a man is educable. Education is not about disciplinary regimentation, it is all about formation of individual character.

Social class merely produces puppets; personality, however, provides value and merit, to be understood as a person’s full value, his civic usefulness … full of healthy ideas and warm and joyful tendencies instead of external morality.

In this context, the influence of the arts on people is crucial, in particular the influence of the art of gardening. In his critical debate with Immanuel Kant, Herder emphasized that art is not just an artistic game played with our imagination; it is instrumental in forming character. Natural beauty is absolute, our feeling for it is innate. However, its shape in the forms of people’s tastes is determined by the environment. Art, then, is an vital part of these surroundings considered as our cultural climate.

Herder’s analysis of the significance of the various senses in relation to the arts is important. The philosophers tend to give primacy to the visual. This, however, is our most detached, our coolest sense. Hearing and touch bring us far more directly in contact with the substance and form of things. Kant, in his Aesthetics, had already claimed that the essence of architecture and of the art of gardening lies in the drawing. Undoubtedly, he had the formal French garden in mind.

Ideally, one may conjecture, a Formal Garden must indeed be viewed from a static point, situated on the platform in front of the House, that is: as if the garden were a drawing. For Herder, however, perfection is the essence of any art, including the art of gardening – perfection as the essence of form. For Kant, on the other hand, aesthetic satisfaction is merely a play of forms.

Among the five liberal arts Herder registers the gardener’s art, while according to Kant could never be a real art at all, being too useful, too utilitarian.

In this context Herder’s unique consideration of the sublime is of interest, i.e. the experience of the many in one. The more unity in the experience there is, the more for him it is sublime. For Kant the visual sense is especially susceptible of the sublime, so painting, architecture and sculpture can best achieve this effect. Missing in his list is gardening.

For Herder the garden is abundance of the many par excellence, the involvement of all the senses, particularly those of smell and touch, but even those of taste for anyone who quenches his thirst with a few dewdrops or honey leaves.

Unity effects the sublime, as seen in the unity of the French Garden; multitude and abundance however provide us with the beautiful, which for Herder happens in the English Garden, presented as something organically grown and therefore not primarily sublime. However, one can still get this uplifting sublime experience while observing the great House and also the pensive follies and sculptures that are scattered in the park.




For Herder, then:

 …every prince is a gardener taking care of  the education of the first,

tender human shoots – this in a favourite garden of God.

Could Prince Franz, the gardener and educationalist, have thought of a finer motto for himself and his Wörlitzer undertaking! Herder’s God resides in the unity of history and nature. Only in the English Garden, and this through the senses, do these two come directly together. An enlightened educationalist could find fulfilment in this. It was at the time the pretext for control by the gardener of the cultural climate.




Prince Franz succeeded in combining the aesthetic guideline contained in the Englishman William Kent’s series of relatively autonomous scenes, each with their own perspective, with Herder’s philosophy of history. In his  Wörlizter park Prince Franz collected models from various periods in human history, giving each of them their own ‘scene’ which symbolizes their intrinsic cultural value – not a hierarchy, not the one above or below the other, but all cultures beside one another.

Thus in his park you will find a Jewish synagogue in a classic guise, a Gothic mansion, a British version of the Palladian Villa, an Egyptian base for a Pantheon, a Classical urn – and so on.


Golden Urn, Woerlitzer Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site Dessau-Woerlitzer Gartenreich, Woerlitz, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, Europe


That these several cultural periods should not be interpreted as fragmented pools in a dead sea is proven by the fact that long sight-lines between certain key elements in the park have been created, giving them an overriding, but at the same non-hierarchical coherence. From the terrace of the Schloss you can simultaneously observe from afar all the various historical highlights; the same applies to the positioning of the Urn, the Monument, the Gothic House and the Temple of Venus.

Sometimes, this solution is found in one and the same building, as for instance das Fremdenhaus in the Georgium, one of the other parts of the Dessauer Gartenreich.




It is a design from the architect Erdmannsdorff, who was responsible for a significant portion of the classicist buildings in Anhalt-Dessau. This building, once a ruin, now restored, has four different façades: baroque, gothic, renaissance and late classical. It stood secluded in the garden and none of these façades took precedence over the others. For the connoisseur a stroll around it was like walking through the history of humanity, however without making any progress. One might, as it were, walk on an on in the same circle.

This deliberate choice for various types of garden and its follies, all next to one another, seems to express Herder’s cultural relativism, which is typical also of Wörlitz. After elsewhere in Europe the Garden Revolution’ had taken place, whole French Gardens were suddenly dug up completely to make way for the English variety. In Wörlitz it was there from the start, itself naturally evolving over the years.

The enlightened, yet absolute little Princes of Germany anticipated the possibility of their people getting revolutionary ideas and therefore began to educate them properly, that is gently pushing their imagination in another direction. They had always that beautiful example in their mind of the a non-violent revolution in England.

What better to do in this context but hold up to them a static tableau which, albeit showing a variety of real historical cultures, completely dispenses with that notion of progress which elsewhere in that same period was so richly praised. All this in a park which assembles these cultures under the aegis of a Prince whose aim it was to improve the living conditions and the character of his people, of course according to his own design.

What we have in Wörlitz is Herder’s ‘the many and the one’ and why not: the many in one, many ages in a single age, even though it is impossible to survey these in there entirety. However, the variety of perspectives do give it the nature of a baroque collection of cultures, like the baroque library aimed at the creation of a collection of all possible sorts of knowledge, with no less the figure of God himself high in the lofty roof of the library, in his ultimate wisdom overseeing and encompassing it all – something, of course, not given to a mortal intellectual down there at one of the reading tables.

The main function of the classical English Garden in Wörlitz was the stabilising of an existing order and of immobilising time. Refinement is the maxim, not progress. Whereas in England a landed gentry made the countryside productive and profitable in a capitalist manner so as to provide the growing cities with enough food – by order of parliament, believe it or not – Anhalt-Dessau was a Bedarfsdeckungsgesellschaft, a society based on the principle of the fulfilment of need, with a Prince who needed to make its preservation his function.

The Wörlitzer Gartenreich – a conservative utopia, a garden in which the future of the past was designed. Here Herder’s ideas took precedence over the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau. A collective and conservative pedagogy was more than a match for a progress-oriented individualism.




Prince De Ligne and prince Franz were convinced that a well-designed garden could attract only people of the right kind – people who would leave it as better men than as they had come in.

What conclusions should we draw from this experiment with history, an experiment based on the art of gardening? Should we say that Wörlitz failed because it was unable to save an enlightened absolutism? Or claim that – if only more people had been ‘exposed’ to the park – its loss could have been avoided? I believe that Herder has taught us a wise lesson. Each work of art is utopian and unique – the great grasp of an artist can neither be verified, nor falsified.

Herder in Wörlitz – Herder not in Wörlitz. Who knows? I’ve had my say and perhaps my reader could follow my argument. But to verify my reading of these gardens – once again impossible.

When in 1787 Prince Franz was constructing the Dessauer cemetery he was still considering death as a form of sleep. By the time he had created his Herder Island – in 1797 – he seemed to have changed his opinion and moved to Herder’s more melancholic position.




The first of the inscriptions on the philosopher’s cenotaph is taken from his work:

 We are mortal and so are all our wishes

Sorrow and joy, they pass as we pass

It would appear that during the long decades in which the Wörlitzer park was laid out, Franz moved closer and closer to Herder’s view of the world. The second inscription on that cenotaph reads:

We must learn to play,

for without play life is doom and gloom.

With this, just like Franz, Herder meant the serious play with Beauty which is considered at once the Good and the Truth. Not the frivolous play of mere sensuality. That only leads to revolutions and the like.





This essay was first published in The Architecture Annual 1996/1997, 010 Publishers Rotterdam (1998)


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