A Garden is not a Metaphor

By guest contributor Timothy Young


Plate from: A Plan of Mr. Pope’s Garden: as it was left at his death, with a plan and perspective view of the grotto / all taken by J. Serle, his gardener . . . (London, Printed for R. Dodsley, at Tully’s Head in Pall-Mall; and sold by M. Cooper in Pater-noster-Row, 1745). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A garden is not a metaphor. A garden is actual. It is literal – in all the best senses of that word. It may carry meaning, but most importantly, it makes its own meaning.

Much of the writing about the garden tends to be rhetorical — in an attempt to tie the beauty and harmony found in great landscapes to higher artistic pursuits thus reducing it, however unintentionally, to a level of secondary import rather than accord it its own value. There is, however, ample historical reason to reclaim garden and landscape design as a core pursuit expressive of ideas and aesthetics.


Plate from: I. Miller, Figures of the different parts of plants (manuscript), 1781–83. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The easy positioning of the garden as a Western rhetorical trope likely extends before recorded history but it was placed there most firmly in the early modern era. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the schism between utilitarian agriculture and the pleasure garden – both public and private – came clearly into in practice. (Useful histories include: Christopher Thacker’s The History of Gardens and John Dixon Hunt’s Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory.) Francis Bacon’s influential essay “Of Gardens” [1625] jump-started a social trend across Europe for garden-making. Bacon characterized the practice as “. . . the purest of human pleasures . . . without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy-works”.

This bifurcation – the separation of the “useful” from the purely “pleasurable”— arguably biased academic approaches at the time and set scholarship in garden history apart from more strongly supported fields of study. Plant husbandry was not a part of the trivium nor of the quadrivium, nor is it commonly accorded a role as one of the practical arts.


Detail of garden sketch made by Robert Dash for Madoo, 1968. From the Robert Dash Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In academic work, gardening is described using the vocabulary of craft – not necessarily a bad thing, but a distinction that brings shadings of lesser importance. More generally, mentions of gardening in the lives of artists, writers, and other noted aesthetic creators are framed largely in terms of the work being avocational, a past-time, a distraction from real, useful work. (For an example, see: “Appreciating Edith Wharton’s Other Career” New York Times, August 29, 2012.)

Edith Wharton’s dual careers were contrapuntal to the reductionist categorization of gardening. It is easy to fall into seeing Wharton’s garden-making as what was done after her main occupation, writing, was accomplished. But for Wharton, the creation of aesthetically well-wrought spaces, both interiors and exteriors, was arguably her life’s goal. We should remember that the first volume of her adult life to bear her name as an author (with Ogden Codman, Jr.) was The Decoration of Houses in 1897 (two years before her formal literary debut, with The Greater Inclination, in 1899.) Might it be too bizarre to suggest an alternate classification of her genius – that the design and cultivation of houses and gardens were her first and longest-lived vocations, while writing was her second career? For Wharton, houses, plants and garden weren’t simply touchstones for her writing; they were the foundations for her work.


Edith Wharton’s Blue Garden at Pavillon Colombe, ca. 1920s. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

William Carlos Williams had a life-long attachment to plants and their cultivation. A scan of his poetry shows that plants appear with great frequency. True, he was using them for their metaphorical intent, viz: “The shad bush is in the edge / of the clearing.  / The yards in a fury / of lilac blossoms are driving me mad with terror.” [from “Light-Hearted Author”] but his work is also observational and testimonial. The shadbush, or serviceberry (genus: Amelanchier) was Williams’ favorite plant, one that he tended to and nurtured at his home in New Jersey for years. It had a place in his life as a continual presence, not simply as a source for inspiration.

Vita Sackville-West, a writer on most lists of gardener greats, pretty much occupies her own category in the genre. Her career resists easy categorization both because her biography overshadows her literary output and due to a refocusing of her energies towards the end of her life. While she was celebrated during her lifetime for her works of poetry, novels and various literary-historical works, the last two decades of her life were mostly spent working in her gardens and publishing writing related to gardens – their cultivation and preservation. Though Sackville-West, in the 1950s and 1960s, persisted in the eyes of many of her admirers as the strong-willed heroine who doubled as Orlando in her one-time lover Virginia Woolf’s classic novel-cum-love-letter, various demands of her later life stripped away much of this daring persona and saw her withdrawing to the one project that remained with her throughout her life. Sackville-West spent much of her adult life tilling, sowing, planting, and nurturing two gardens – Long Barn and then the monumental Sissinghurst- in an effort to find a home and natural space that brought her comfort similar to the estate in which she was raised (and ultimately denied possession because of primogeniture). Her work with gardens can be read similar to Wharton’s – as her principal biographical arc, the prime accomplishment of her life. Poetry and novels were her hobbies.


Sissinghurst garden, as seen from the tower, 2017. Author’s photograph.

But while these cases may have enough pre-existing academic interest to be argued seriously, other writers whose reputations today are based almost solely on their garden writings – Beverley Nichols, Robert Gathorne-Hardy, Gertrude Jekyll –require much deeper resuscitation for their work to be taken seriously on their own terms.  (If you haven’t yet read Beverley Nichols – and you’ve had more gardening disasters than you care to admit – prepare to be won over.)  I would suggest that the overall disregard for these authors in literary circles reflects the same academic dismissal of gardening that leads to its secondary import in discussions of Williams, Wharton, Sackville-West, and others.


Plate from: Thomas Hill, The gardeners labyrinth (London: Printed by Adam Islip, 1594). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In terms of the actual garden space, the language around gardening readily slips into rhetoric because of a much older literary antecedent. Hovering above any discussion of plant husbandry is the view that every garden is attempt to create a version of Paradise – the perfected place that is the landing spot for worthy souls, forever and ever. No more labor; no weeding; no mulching . . . But any gardener, from the simple window-ledger to the committed root-and-baller, will tell you that gardening is not actually about attaining perfection. Even as you think you’re getting close to making something that’s just right, blossoms fade and fall. The garden as a creative project cannot be accomplished – and sustained – to the level of a book or an artwork – things in fixed forms that can be kept for hundreds of years. The art of garden-making suffers from a deficit of organic survival.

Perhaps, then, we should consider a reversal to my original assertion.  Gardens, given their temporality and changeability, are bound to rhetoric. Their substance can only be described for posterity through photographs or illustrations(feeble substitutes) and language. (“You should have seen the Martagon lilies that finally opened last week . . .”) Works made out of organic material – works that have a life-span beyond our control, must be experienced in their own time frame. Communicating the aesthetic sense of a garden to those who weren’t present at the time of its flourishing demands language – a less organically bound medium that can refer and compare in ways that attempt to give a feeling of what something was like.

A garden is not a metaphor, but it is served by metaphoric language. Because its essence cannot be carried forward easily, it must be transformed and imperfectly fixed through the act of referral. But we can rectify how we see the art of gardening in the field of intellectual history by according a greater value to the craft it demands and the language it evokes .

The garden is not just a place for selected cutting. It lives on its own independent means and purposes. The language that hovers over it has its own grammar, expressive vocabulary, and forms of argument, even while it is abstracted and sharpened in an attempt to record the essence and our reactions to it.


Rupert Barneby and Dwight Ripley’s garden in Greenport, Long Island, ca. 1965. From the Douglas Crase and Frank Polach Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Timothy Young holds the title of Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Beinecke Library at Yale University. While focusing on contemporary literature and intellectual and avant garde movements of the past two centuries, he also oversees specialized components of the library’s collections including economic history and children’s literature. He is the author or editor of several books including: The Great Mirror of Folly: Finance, Culture, and the Crash of 1720 (2013); The Uncollected David Rakoff (2015) and Story Time: Essays on the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature (2016). He contributes regularly to The Yale Review, writing on music and books.

What We’re Reading: Week of 12th March

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Some reading gathered for you from around the web by members of the JHIBlog team. Let us know what else has caught your eye this week in the comments!


Mary Beard, “Sex and Death in the Classical World” (New Statesman)

Jonathan Carey, “The Africans Who Called Tudor England Home” (Atlas Obscura)

Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, “Policing the Contour Lines: China’s Cartographic Obsession” (Chinoiresie, The Little Red Podcast)



Doreen St. Felix, “The National Geographic Twins and the Falsehood of our Post-racial Future” (New Yorker)

Martin Jay, “A History of Alienation” (Aeon)

Andrew Dole, “Could there be another Billy Graham?” (The Conversation)



Amy Murrell Taylor, “The historian who admired slavers” (TLS)

Josephine Quinn “Caesar Bloody Caesar” (NYRB)

Becca Rothfeld, “A Day at a Time” (The Nation)

Kyla Marshell, interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Guardian)

Heroes, Identity and the Realm of History

By guest contributor Meg Foster

Heroes are big business in popular culture. From ancient Greek and Roman legends, through to the popular Marvel comic figures of our own time, we have spent centuries on the lookout for exceptional men and women to emulate, inspire and move us beyond the familiar rhythm of our daily lives. As folklorist Graham Seal notes, heroes embody the hopes, aspirations, values and longings of their followers. They are important not so much for their existence, as their supporters. One person is negligible compared to the legion who mimic them and incorporate their views of the world into their own. Hero worship affects how people think, feel and relate to one another, but it is not just about personally held values. It also affects how people act. Our heroes affect our sense of belonging, who we feel connected and responsible to, who we are apathetic towards and who we feel the need to protect. In this way legendary figures have influenced and continue to shape the course of history. But because of their associations with mass popular culture, low brow entertainment and parochial myth making, they are frequently regarded as beyond the realm of historical inquiry.

In Australia, the heroic figures that feature heavily in the national imaginary are ‘bushrangers’. Not to be confused with park rangers or game keepers, bushrangers were nineteenth century criminals who were on the run from the law. Bushrangers were Australians’ unique brand of highwaymen; thieves who committed ‘robbery under arms’ and roamed throughout the Australian bush. Even today, white, male bushrangers are lauded as national icons, associated as they are with bravery, chivalry and ridiculing inept or corrupt authorities. Ned Kelly is the most famous of this band of celebrated white men, and despite the affiliation with crime, Kelly is a veritable national icon. To give just one example, at the opening of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, hundreds of figures clad in his famous armour ran onto the stage and introduced Australia to the world. In rural Australia in particular, there is a roaring bushranger tourist trade, and locals still commemorate significant events in the lives of their fallen heroes.


Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 (1887, oil on canvas, 29.7 x 61. cm) by William Strutt (1825–1915).

Much work still needs to be done untangling where the history of these characters has become entwined with exaggeration, fabrication and myth. But even more pressing is an exploration of the ‘other bushrangers’; bushrangers who were not white men, and never became a part of the national mythos. The fact that these figures even existed is met with surprise by most Australians (even academics) who hear about my PhD research. For bushranging to be so much a part of national identity, so pervasive in popular culture, and then to have these ‘other’ characters concealed from view shocks the sensibilities of many. There were African American, Chinese and Aboriginal bushrangers, as well as white and Aboriginal women who took up this nefarious trade; and these are only the people I have uncovered so far. When I speak about my research, people’s incredulity is usually quickly matched by enthusiasm. “Isn’t that great!” they exclaim. “A black bushranger, and women too, who would have thought?!” There is a strong push to include these ‘hidden’ figures in the national mythos, to place them as heroes alongside the likes of Ned Kelly and remark that the nation has always had a multicultural past. And while proffered in good faith, this approach is extremely problematic. ‘Other’ bushrangers were deliberately excluded from the burgeoning bushranging legend. Their uncritical, posthumous inclusion in this narrative does not reflect the reality that they lived in. And it overlooks what their experiences can tell us about colonial society.


‘Bushrangers Stuck Up’ Australian Illustrated News, 1870.

Colonial understandings about race and gender already positioned ‘other’ bushrangers on the lower rungs of the social and evolutionary ladder. That they then engaged in crime only reinforced their inferior position compared to white men. And yet, these bushrangers also disrupted colonial narratives of inferiority as they operated outside of the law and undermined white power. Aboriginal bushranger Jimmy Governor was so feared that whole towns were left deserted in anticipation of his arrival, and he survived on the run for almost three months. This was despite thousands of police and civilians joining the chase, resulting in what Laurie Moore and Stephen Williams have described as the “largest manhunt in Australian history” (iv). However, no bushranger was ever the same. While there are signs of agency and personality in the records of some ‘other bushrangers’, I am more often confronted with their absence. Other bushrangers were deliberately marginalized in their own times, and remain so today because they challenged colonial Australians’ ideas about race, sex, and gender, as well as how they saw their place in the world. But this makes the process of recovery even more important.

‘Other’ bushrangers disrupt pre-existing narratives. They complicate the idea that colonial power was ever absolute, natural or just. And their lives provide a unique lens through which to view national and transnational history. Although white, male bushrangers were (and remain) national heroes, there are other traditions that influenced the bushranging phenomenon. Sam Poo, the Chinese bushranger, was more likely to be influenced by Chinese legends of outlawry (that circulated from the twelfth century) than any emergent Anglo tradition. Mary Ann Ward may have seen her actions in light of Aboriginal strategies of resistance and freedom fighting, rather than solely in relation to her white bushranging spouse.

Heroes are important. They embody the hopes, aspirations, values and longings of their followers. They represent who we are and who we want to be. People who are excluded from this heroic status are excluded for a reason. And exploring their stories shines a unique, if not always complimentary, light on both national history, and Australia’s place in the world. Heroes are important. And challenging, analyzing and expanding upon popular mythology should be within the realm of history.

Meg Foster is a PhD candidate in History at the University of New South Wales. Under the supervision of Grace Karskens and Lisa Ford, Meg is investigating the ‘other’ bushrangers (Australian outlaws who were not white men) in history and memory. After completing her honours thesis on Indigenous Bushrangers in 2013, Meg worked as a researcher with the Australian Centre of Public History at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, and was the inaugural winner of the Deen De Bortoli Award in Applied History for her article, ‘Online and Plugged In?: Public history and historians in the digital age’ featured in the Public History Review (2014). As well as her PhD, Meg works as an historical consultant and has a particular interest in making connections between history and the contemporary world.


What has Athens to do with London? Plague.

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich


Map of London by Wenceslas Hollar, c.1665

It is seldom recalled that there were several “Great Plagues of London.” In scholarship and popular parlance alike, only the devastating epidemic of bubonic plague that struck the city in 1665 and lasted the better part of two years holds that title, which it first received in early summer 1665. To be sure, the justice of the claim is incontrovertible: this was England’s deadliest visitation since the Black Death, carrying off some 70,000 Londoners and another 100,000 souls across the country. But note the timing of that first conferral. Plague deaths would not peak in the capital until September 1665, the disease would not take up sustained residence in the provinces until the new year, and the fire was more than a year in the future. Rather than any special prescience among the pamphleteers, the nomenclature reflects the habit of calling every major outbreak in the capital “the Great Plague of London”—until the next one came along (Moote and Moote, 6, 10–11, 198). London experienced a major epidemic roughly every decade or two: recent visitations had included 1592, 1603, 1625, and 1636. That 1665 retained the title is due in no small part to the fact that no successor arose; this was to be England’s outbreak of bubonic plague.

Serial “Great Plagues of London” remind us that epidemics, like all events, stand within the ebb and flow of time, and draw significance from what came before and what follows after. Of course, early modern Londoners could not know that the plague would never return—but they assuredly knew something about its past.

Early modern Europe knew bubonic plague through long and hard experience. Ann G. Carmichael has brilliantly illustrated how Italy’s communal memories of past epidemics shaped perceptions of and responses to subsequent visitations. Seventeenth-century Londoners possessed a similar store of memories, but their plague-time writings mobilize a range of pasts and historiographical registers that includes much more than previous epidemics or the history of their own community: from classical antiquity to the English Civil War, from astrological records to demographic trends. Such richness accords with the findings of the formidable scholarly phalanx investigating “the uses of history in early modern England” (to borrow the title of one edited volume), which informs us that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English people had a deep and sophisticated sense of the past, instrumental in their negotiations of the present.

Let us consider a single, iconic strand in this tapestry: invocations of the Plague of Athens (430–26 B.C.E.). Jacqueline Duffin once suggested that writing about epidemic disease inevitably falls prey to “Thucydides syndrome” (qtd. in Carmichael 150n41). In the centuries since the composition of the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides’s hauntingly vivid account of the plague (II.47–54) has influenced writers from Lucretius to Albert Camus. Long lost to Latin Christendom, Thucydides was slowly reintegrated into Western European intellectual history beginning in the fifteenth century. The first (mediocre) English edition appeared in 1550, superseded in 1628 with a text by none other than Thomas Hobbes. For more than a hundred years, then, Anglophone readers had access to Thucydides, while Greek and Latin versions enjoyed a respectable, if not extraordinary, popularity among the more learned.

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Michiel Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City (1652), believed to depict the Plague of Athens

In 1659, the churchman and historian Thomas Sprat, booster of the Royal Society and future bishop of Rochester, published The Plague of Athens, a Pindaric versification of the accounts found in Thucydides and Lucretius. Sprat’s Plague has been convincingly interpreted as a commentary on England’s recent political history—viz., the Civil War and the Interregnum (King and Brown, 463). But six years on, the poem found fresh relevance as England faced its own “too ravenous plague” (Sprat, 21).The savvy bookseller Henry Brome, who had arranged the first printing, brought out two further editions in 1665 and 1667. Because the poem was prefaced by the relevant passages of Hobbes’s translation, an English text of Thucydides was in print throughout the epidemic. It is of course hardly surprising that at moments of epidemic crisis, the locus classicus for plague should sell well: plague-time interest in Thucydides is well-attested before and after 1665, in England and elsewhere in Europe.

But what does the Plague of Athens do for authors and readers in seventeenth-century London? As the classical archetype of pestilence, it functions as a touchstone for the ferocity of epidemic disease and a yardstick by which the Great Plague could be measured. The physician John Twysden declared, “All Ages have produced as great mortality and as great rebellion in Diseases as this, and Complications with other Diseases as dangerous. What Plague was ever more spreading or dangerous than that writ of by Thucidides, brought out of Attica into Peloponnesus?” (111–12).

One flattering rhymester welcomed Charles II’s relocation to Oxford with the confidence that “while Your Majesty, (Great Sir) shines here, / None shall a second Plague of Athens fear” (4). In a less reassuring vein, the societal breakdown depicted by Thucydides warned England what might ensue from its own plague.

Perhaps with that prospect in mind, other authors drafted Thucydides as their ally in catalyzing moral reform. The poet William Austin (who was in the habit of ruining his verses by overstuffing them with classical references) seized upon the Athenians’ passionate devotions in the face of the disaster (History, II.47). “Athenians, as Thucidides reports, / Made for their Dieties new sacred courts. / […] Why then wo’nt we, to whom the Heavens reveal / Their gracious, true light, realize our zeal?” (86). In a sermon entitled The Plague of the Heart, John Edwards enlisted Thucydides in the service of his conceit of a spiritual plague that was even more fearsome than the bubonic variety:

The infection seizes also on our memories; as Thucydides tells us of some persons who were infected in that great plague at Athens, that by reason of that sad distemper they forgot themselves, their friends and all their concernments [History, II.49]. Most certain it is that by the Spirituall infection men forget God and their duty. (8)

Not dissimilarly, the tailor-cum-preacher Richard Kingston paralleled the plague with sin. He characterizes both evils as “diffusive” (23–24) citing Thucydides to the effect that the plague began in Ethiopia and moved thence to Egypt and Greece (II.48).

On the supposition that, medically speaking, the Plague of Athens was the same disease they faced, early modern writers treated it as a practical precedent for prophylaxis, treatment, and public health measures. Thucydides was one of several classical authorities cited by the Italian theologian Filiberto Marchini to justify open-field burials, based on their testimony that wild animals shunned plague corpses (Calvi, 106). Rumors of plague-spreading also stoked interest in the History, because Thucydides records that the citizens of Piraeus believed the epidemic arose from the poisoning of wells (II.48; Carmichael, 149–50).


Peter Paul Rubens, Hippocrates (1638)

It should be noted that Thucydides was not the only source for early modern knowledge about the Plague of Athens. One William Kemp, extolling the preventative virtues of moderation, tells his readers that it was temperance that preserved Socrates during the disaster (58–59). This anecdote comes not from Thucydides, but Claudius Aelianus, who relates of the philosopher’s constitution and moderate habits, “[t]he Athenians suffered an epidemic; some died, others were close to death, while Socrates alone was not ill at all” (Varia historia, XIII.27, trans. N. G. Wilson). (Interestingly, 1665 saw the publication of a new translation of the Varia historia.) Elsewhere, Kemp relates how Hippocrates organized bonfires to free Athens of the disease (43), a story that originates with the pseudo-Galenic On Theriac to Piso, but probably reached England via Latin intermediaries and/or William Bullein’s A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564). Hippocrates’s name, and supposed victory over the Plague of Athens, was used to advertise cures and preventatives.


With the exception of Sprat—whose poem was written in 1659—these are all fleeting references, but that is in some sense the point. The Plague of Athens, Thucydides, and his History had entered the English imaginary, a shared vocabulary for thinking about epidemic disease. To quote Raymond A. Anselment, Sprat’s poem (and other invocations of the Plague of Athens) “offered through the imitation of the past an idea of the present suffering” (19). In the desperate days of 1665–66, the mere mention of Thucydides’s name, regardless of the subject at hand, would have been enough to conjure the specter of the Athenian plague.

Whether or not one built a public health plan around “Hippocrates’s” example, or looked to the History of the Peloponnesian War as a guide to disease etiology, the Plague of Athens exerted an emotional and intellectual hold over early modern English writers and readers. In part, this was merely a sign of the times: sixteenth-century Europeans were profoundly invested in the past as a mirror for and guide to the present and the future. In England, the Great Plague came at the height of a “rage for historical parallels” (Kewes, 25)—and no corner of history offered more distinguished parallels than classical antiquity.

And let us not undersell the affective power of such parallels. The value of recalling past plagues was the simple fact of their being past. Awful as the Plague of Athens had been, it had eventually passed, and Athens still stood. Looking backwards was a relief from a present dominated by the epidemic, and from the plague’s warped temporality: the interruption of civic and liturgical rhythms and the ordinary cycle of life and death. Where “an epidemic denies time itself” (Calvi, 129–30), history restores it, and offers something like orientation—even, dare we say, hope.


What We’re Reading: Week of 5th March


Here’s what our editorial team has been reading this week—let us know what you think and what you’ve been reading!


Tim Rogan, Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism (Aeon)

Jamie Fisher, The Left-Handed Kid (LRB)

Adam Roberts, Till Tomorrow (New Atlantis)



Heather Bowen-Struyk and Norma Field, ““Art as a Weapon”: Japanese Proletarian Literature on the Centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution,” (The Asia-Pacific Journal)

Anne Enright, “The Genesis of Blame,” (LRB)

Jiayang Fan, “Can Wine Transform China’s Countryside?” (New Yorker)

Anne Mette Lundtofte, “The Kim Wall Murder Trial,” (New Yorker)

Manisha Sinha, “Today’s Eerie Echoes of the Civil War,” (NYRB)



Marta Figlerowicz, “The Disillusionment of Post-Soviet Europe” (Boston Review)

Cassidy Faust, “7 Activists of Color You Should Read This International Women’s Day” (LitHub)

Allison Keyes, “Two Museum Directors Say It’s Time to Tell the Unvarnished History of the U.S.” (Smithsonian)



Paola Bertucci, “It Wasn’t Just Philosophers Like Diderot Who Invented the Enlightenment” (History News Network)

David A. Bell, “The PowerPoint Philosophe” (The Nation)

Ian Campbell Ross, “Alas, Poor YORICK!” (Public Domain Review)

James Campbell, “Jimmy is Everywhere” (TLS)

Dana Fishkinn, “Magic and Science in Medieval Ashkenaz” (Marginalia)

The Problem of Democracy: Radical Political Traditions in the Revolutions of 1848

By guest contributor Pamela C. Nogales C.


Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848

Prompted by the experience of the second world war, historian Lewis Namier described the undemocratic birth of modern republics in his 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1944) and warned of the unintended consequences of nineteenth-century liberal ideals. On the process of nation-making, he wrote, “States are not created or destroyed, and frontiers redrawn or obliterated, by argument and majority votes;” rather, “nations are freed, united, or broken by blood and iron, and not by a generous application of liberty and tomato-sauce; violence is the instrument of national movements.” He reminded historians that forging national democracies had required men of influence and wealth, who were capable of combining their force to create a government and to defend it against imperial bayonets. Thus, if successful, the government of a democratic nation was composed of those who were victorious in seizing the political leadership of a new state and using its executive force to fight hostile forces—both from outside and within. While their final aim was a world without war, European liberals of the nineteenth century imagined that this end required a national government ready and willing to defend itself against armed invasion and domestic insurrection. It was common, for example, for liberal papers in Prussia to call for war against the Russian Empire in order to secure the success of democratic republics. Thus, already by 1848, the contest for democracy was bound up with the problem of executive force and raised difficult questions about the appropriate means to an end.

Liberals’ strategic orientation toward state governments corresponded to the political realities of 1848. The Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires, the pillars of the old eighteenth-century “Holy Alliance,” aimed to extinguish any spark of national revolution. And in the end, they were successful—this time, with the help of the soon-to-be French emperor, Louis Bonaparte. In the German states, the Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved, and revolutionary governments and rebellions were crushed by Prussian troops; Bonaparte dismantled the French National Assembly in Paris, reestablished the monarchy and helped to restore Papal rule in the Italian peninsula; and the republican Magyar government in Hungary was toppled by a joint army of Russian and Austrian forces. This international defeat was among the most formative, political experiences of an entire generation of reformers and it signaled a split in the liberal tradition in Europe and beyond. Political demarcations shifted and became considerably more pronounced after the failure of the revolutions. The republicans, socialists and anarchists of this generation drew different lessons from these conflicts. But at the center of their disputes was the role of the nation in creating a democratic society.


Ferdinand Schröder’s caricature of the suppression of the revolutions of 1848 (published in the Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849)

While the initial American response to the 1848 revolutions was overwhelmingly positive, the excitement over the French revolution was short-lived in the American capital. The Polk administration sustained the recognition of the new French republic by the U.S. Minister in Paris, Richard Rush, but several government officials preferred a mere congratulatory message—if any. South Carolina’s John Calhoun suggested that the Senate withhold their esteem until a new French Constitution was drafted and a permanent government was installed. Only then would it be possible to know if the national government deserved the Senate’s approbation. A cautious attitude was required because, as Whig Congressman Samuel Phelps of Vermont noted, “when the wheel of revolution begins to revolve, who can…tell where it will stop.”


Walt Whitman’s poem “Resurgemus,” paying tribute to the Revolutions of 1848 (published in the New York Daily Tribune, June 21, 1850).

While Calhoun prioritized the stability of the American republic above the risky upheavals of the Parisian workers, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass argued that to abandon the people of France because they demand freedom, jobs and better wages, amounted to a betrayal of America’s revolutionary roots. But Calhoun’s perspective was more representative of the majority of the Senate than those held by the radical abolitionists.

Ambivalence toward the European socialists was common among the liberals in the United States. Of special concern were the French National Workshops, a state program designed to facilitate the employment of all laborers. Whig Senator Daniel Webster commented on the new constitution, which guaranteed “to all Frenchmen, not only liberty and security, but also employment and property.” For Webster this was an impossible task, “How can any government fulfill such a promise?”

The New Orleans Daily Picayune wondered why the French would riot after they were given the vote. Why rebel against their own constituent assembly? Charles A. Dana, a Boston novelist and European correspondent for the New-York Tribune, offered a radical interpretation. He explained that the Revolution of 1789 aimed to destroy feudalism, while the new revolution was “to destroy the moneyed feudalism and lay the foundations of social liberty.” New England poet James Russell Lowell shared Dana’s interpretation when he called 1848 the first social revolution of the modern world. Lowell wrote that the “first French Revolution was only the natural recoil of an oppressed and imbruted people.” In contrast, “the Revolution of 1848 [was] achieved by the working class,” and “at the bottom of [it] lies the idea of . . . social reorganization and regeneration”.Faced with armed citizens in the streets of Paris, the French liberals were forced to confront the “social question” squarely.

The forceful confrontation with the social question was provoked from outside liberal circles. Outside of France, European liberals were supporters of constitutional monarchies, that is, they were the defenders of parliamentary sovereignty over the dynastic power of kings. But they displayed outright contempt for the uneducated masses and had no intention of giving working people the vote. During the revolutions of 1848, it was those who fell under the label “social democrats” who were alone in demanding the extension of the franchise beyond the propertied classes. Among them was a motley crew of utopian socialists, Christian communists and “red Republicans” who rejected an elite democracy for a greater vision of political participation. These radicals were also in conversation with anarchists of different stripes, as well as women like George Sand, the revolutionary French socialist, who included women’s emancipation as part of her utopic demands. These radicals targeted the problems posed by the “hungry ’30s,” the rampant famine in the countryside, the rise in unemployment among city laborers and the decline of the artisan system of production. They argued that contemporary social inequality was hardly a natural outcome of talent, rather, it was a problem of society and thus could be resolved if made subject to politics. The disparate political tendencies grouped under social democracy were thus connected by the belief that the democratic revolutions of previous centuries promised a vision for human emancipation yet to be realized, but one that was receding from view amidst the changing social relations of the nineteenth century. While trying to recover past promises, radicals began to demand a future otherwise unimaginable from the perspective of European liberals alone.

What is the role of the modern nation in the long battle to achieve democracy? This was the question posed in 1848.  Liberals, anarchists, and socialists all attempted to answer this question in thought and political practice. Their ideological differences did not correspond to sociological demarcations—they did not “express” a class position. Rather, the differences between these traditions must be found in their intellectual histories as well as their political practice. And we can hardly understand the meaning of these differences without a grasp of the shared concerns across these traditions.


Thibault, “Barricades After the Attack, Rue Saint-Maur” (June 26 1848)

It has become commonplace over the course of the twentieth century to imagine the political traditions of anarchism and socialism as fundamentally opposed to classical liberal values. From this perspective however, it is impossible to understand why an insurrectionary anarchist like Louis-Auguste Blanqui spoke of the French liberal Benjamin Constant as “one of the firmest upholders of French freedom”; why Karl Marx felt indebted to Adam Smith and John Locke for their conception of civil society; why during 1848 and ’49, the red flag was carried sometimes in opposition to but sometimes as a supplement to the tricolor of French republicans; or why the radical tailors of the 1840s reading Gracchus Babeuf out loud in their Parisian workshops still supported small-property ownership as a fundamental right of all free citizens. What we miss by setting up a strict antinomy between these political traditions are their embedded intellectual histories and their entanglement in the revolutionary history of the nineteenth century. We overlook how these ideas were tested, reconfigured and revised in response to the on-going attempts to transform society. And we do a disservice to intellectual history by treating political ideas as static concepts (as hardened “ideology”), rather than deriving their hermeneutic force from the transformative potential they carried at the time of their articulation.

Pamela C. Nogales C. is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at New York University, working on radical political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, with a special interest in the mid-nineteenth century crisis of democracy, the social question, and the contributions by nineteenth-century European political exiles in the United States. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Reform in the Age of Capital: The Transatlantic Roots of Radical Political Thought in the United States, 1828–1877.” She is based in Berlin and can be reached at pam.nogales@gmail.com

A Story of Everything

By guest contributor Nuala F. Caomhánach


Nasser Zakariya, A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

In his A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (2017), Nasser Zakariya pries open a Latourian black box to reveal how natural philosophers and later scientists constructed “scientific epics” using four possible  “genres of synthesis”—historic, fabular, scalar, foundational—to frame all branches of scientific knowledge. Their totalizing aspirations displaced outliers, contradictions, and obstructions to elevate a universal, global history of the universe. Zakariya highlights the paradox of the process of science from the 1830s to the present.  He shows how the parallel forces of narration and scientific explanatory methods merely continued to confirm discursive, epistemological and ontological pluralism. The desire to tame this pluralism legitimized the boundaries of science through pedagogy, priority and authority. A panel of historians recently met to discuss the book at New York University, including the author (UC, Berkeley), Myles Jackson (NYU), Hent de Vries (NYU), and Marwa Elshakry (Columbia University), moderated by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU) (an audio recording of the event is available above).


Prof. Myles Jackson (NYU)

Jackson agreed that the invention of a myth or tradition “usually deals with origin stories and tend to be universal.” Tradition “result[s] from some sort of conflict, or debate, shaken identity, boundary dispute and…[has] a moral dimension.” Jackson emphasized how critical the 1820s and 1830s proved as science began to specialize alongside the invention of the term ‘scientist’ (1834) by William Whewell. He wholeheartedly agreed with Zakariya’s interpretation that for such natural philosophers as John Herschel, the “scientific context is irrelevant, precisely because science is universal.” Jackson elaborated on the conflictual divisions between artisans and natural philosophers whereby makers of scientific instrumentation—crucial for advances in science—were denied the status of philosophers themselves.  This division proved social, cultural and political at the turn of the nineteenth century, as knowledge became commodified, and natural philosophers legitimized their role as creators and curators of science. Jackson mapped out the “contextual moral” for this transition, and pointed to the Industrial Revolution and its effects on Handwerk and Kopfwerk. Natural philosophers insisted that artisans “should reveal their secrets so that their knowledge could be managed and applied universally, a great Enlightenment trope.” Their interest in economic efficiency focussed on replacing artisan skills and human calculators with controllable machines. For these natural philosophers “the key was the unity of science serving as models for other forms of knowledge.” Yet, as Jackson concluded, “there is an ethics for scientific imperative….the usefulness of useless knowledge….a moral argument that we must do it because it is about knowledge itself.”


Prof. Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

Zakariya agreed that there are “still richer contexts” in the analysis of “matters of material practices.” He acknowledged that his actors “were deeply engaged in reconstruction of both technical craft they were working through, and the theorization of that technical craft.” Discourse drew Zakariya away from material practice, toward his actors’ resistance to a historical synthesis. Their anxieties rested with who they imagined had the expertise to undertake this synthesis. Therefore, the synthesis “starts to construct… despite their democratizing impulses… a particular kind of elite that will carry out that democratization.” For Herschel, an author like Alexander von Humboldt in his Kosmos suggested that “if [synthesis] were possible… people like Humboldt [were the philosophers] to do it and yet we find Humboldt is insufficient to be able to do this.” For Zakariya, the discursive maneuvers in trying to articulate “what is and what is not possible” within these genres is at stake. His actors are not stating that synthesis is not possible, only that a historical narrative of the universe was not possible.


Prof. Hent de Vries (NYU)

For de Vries what is at stake is contemporary scholarship that has returned to the “age-old appeal to myth.” He met Zakariya‘s use of the term “myth” with suspicion, albeit agreeing with its premise. Zakariya echoed Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s concerns in Dialectic of Enlightenment by arguing that “[J]ust as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth” (10). Myth and enlightenment co-evolve into a constricting knot, despite the notion that the foundation of the inductive sciences was based on “the rejection of tradition, mythic authority” (10). With additional knowledge of the physical and natural world, de Vries pointed out the possibility “that there is “a final story” to be told about the emergence of the frames or “genres for synthesizing” knowledge in question.” He emphasized this as “a meta- or mega-narrative, a myth of myth” but problematized that final theories of stories “offer just that” because they are built on  “empirical finalities that are… particular, not general and decidedly partial, but also on account of a fundamental, call it transcendentally grounded, incompleteness, of sorts.” “Or is it?” he asked.


Prof. Marwa Elshakry (Columbia)

Elshakry also probed at Zakariya’s categories of “myth”, “epic” and “universal histories,” out of “genuine curiosities.” She found the main tension was conceptual, not semantic, and was “connected ultimately to [the] alpha and omega of universal history, with myth concerning ultimately and uncomfortably the notion of final ends [and] epic… primarily a concern with origins.”  The quest of the scientists as they vacillated  “between the known and unknown” is to begin to recognize that “this very heroic quest” may also reveal the “story of self-destruction rather than point the way to cures and wonders or the idea that being human… engages us in an extended historical  process of self-destruction.” She wondered about the logic behind the pursuit of “scientific realism as a Hegelian process of negation and  death.” Surely this pursuit suggested that humans can “induce and deduce our own ultimate species death and extinction… and yet we cannot.” Therefore, there was an inherent tension between “the secular humanist order and a sacred one.” She concluded with a tantalizing question “what is the final story—if in our own minds own science narratives or cosmic epics, come up with a good origin, but [we seem in our] collective species being imaginaries incapable of dealing with the problem of death itself.”

Zakariya tackled these questions eloquently. He explained how these scientists did not endorse myth uncritically, acknowledging their awareness of the paradoxes they had adopted. This paradox was a “tendency to have this eruption of a kind of mythic status to the project of knowledge, despite the project of knowledge seeing itself often as undercutting the grounds upon myth stands.” These natural philosophers’ and scientists’ totalizing ambitions forced them to question the very axioms with which the framework was constructed. Zakariya noted the constant reinscription “of the work of doing the totalizing” as these men argued that science was the most effective and natural discipline to tell this scientific epic. Their frameworks were limitless, but as they enlarged these structures, the edges became frayed, and they were forced to brood over questions that “[brought] us back to critiques of reason.”

In response to Elshakry, Zakariya revealed that she had uncovered “a number of elements [he] hadn’t quite thought about.” In answer, he discussed Hermann von Helmholtz ‘s views on the idea of universal history. In a period where thermodynamics was emerging around the contradictory concepts of entropy, enthalpy, and conservation, it began to reflect the impossibility of an infinitely old universe. By integrating thermodynamics into a scientific epic, Helmholtz realised that one must “bear up to this idea that it spells a conclusion of ourselves.” Similarly, these epics, for Zakariya, “forc[e] us to dwell on our mortality as a species.”

This book is a must for scholars in both the sciences and the humanities. Zakariya’s intervention, fusing the physical, natural and human histories, shows how the historical narrative in epic form was not self-evident, and a “strict chronology was not the ultimate arbiter” (126). Political contexts and contests influenced competing worldviews of humanity, the Earth, and the universe, in the professional and the public sphere. He demonstrates how a scientific worldview grows from the kind of questions asked, how these physical and metaphysical spaces are symbiotic, complementing and contradicting at the same moment, and how many universes can emerge. At the core of this narrative is a selection of personalities, from Mary Somerville to Steven Weinberg, who oversaw the totalizing visions circulating between professional and popular epics. As they shoe-horned these visions into a single narrative, some made the synthesis, many others sank, and some were transformed, leaving behind the forces, traces, and circumstances they had come up against. Slowly, the “suburban position of humanity and the earth” revealed the real limits of science (313). In this anxiety, the voice of the scientists metamorphosed into the only voice for the planet itself, thus claiming hegemony over the history of the universe.  The reader travels through Zakariya’s mindfully researched and vividly written tales of the attempt to stage the construction of a whole of knowledge, of everything. Thus, “whatever the future condition of species being and knowing, the universal human story must be maintained in the generic form of an epic” (339).

Nuala F. Caomhanach is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at New York University, and research associate in the Invertebrate Zoology Department at the American Museum of Natural History.

What We’re Reading: Week of 26th February


Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


What is the purpose of art criticism?

This question has been on my mind for several weeks, ever since I read Ben Davis’s “State of the Art Culture, IV: Why the Art World as We Know It is Ending.” In this piece, Davis argues that art criticism is rapidly changing. Pointing to parallel shifts in fashion, he writes, “If the main point of culture writing is just what Renata Adler once disparagingly called the “consumer service” function—“this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable”—then getting attractive people to show up and show off for their many followers may actually be preferable, from an institutional point of view, than critical appraisal.”

In this world, where does the critic fit?

Davis points to a number of publications that are “trying to innovate” in this new art world/ecosystem. Tellingly, two of the new initiative are sponsored by for-profit entities—the Gagosian Gallery and Art Agency, Partners. In this context, art criticism, or what Davis calls “culture writing,” has been fully assimilated into commerce. Here, the purpose of art criticism seems to be performing Adler’s “necessary consumer service,” offering “a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes vote or a no vote; and a somewhat nonjudgmental, factual description or account,” perhaps also contextualizing the work in the broader history of art.

More and more, art criticism also provides another essential consumer service—placing the work in question within the art market, helping the reader come to economic, as well as aesthetic, judgments.

But is this economic dimension of art criticism truly something novel to our age? Or have economic judgments always been a part of art criticism’s purpose?

Dave Hickey believes that the biggest shift has been the art writer’s complete absorption into the art market. In an interview with Sheila Heti, Hickey described the change this way: “[Art magazines] want touting. In twenty years we’ve gone from a totally academicized art world to a totally commercialized art world, and in neither case is criticism a function. We’re all supposed to be positive about art. Nobody plays defense! I mean, my job, to a certain extent, is to be in the net. My job is to mow stuff down.”

This seems, at least to me, too dark a vision. I don’t want to argue too strongly for art’s economic exceptionalism (though David Beech is happy to do so in Art and Value—incidentally, this is probably the only academic book I’ve ever read that features an endorsement by the artist Jeff Wall). In any case, economic value seems to be just one of art’s selling points, if we can believe the 2017 UBS Investor Watch Pulse Report’s claim that collectors are “driven by passion, not profit.”

We might locate the origins of art criticism—at least, as it is practiced in the Western tradition—in the Greek concept of ekphrasis, in the practice of describing a work—and its experience—to another subject. Art criticism is necessarily intersubjective. Thomas Crow described the process:“Faced with a mute work of art, any interested observer enters into a process of translation, making sense of it by some form of paraphrase in thought or words. No one assumes any such substitution to be adequate to the original object in need of explanation; rather, the purpose of the exercise is to offer a vantage point from which salient aspects of the object can be mapped. Going from there entails further translations or substitutions to capture aspects and features of the object missed by earlier ones. These successive approximations accumulate until seriously diminishing returns set in, at which point the object should be nearly as intelligible as it can be.”

Jed Perl describes the process—and the relationship of the writer to the work—in slightly different terms: “What we want in criticism is a particular person confronting things. And, over a period of time as you read that critic, you begin to have a sense of where that person is coming from. I’ve had people say insightful things to me about my sensibility which they’ve deduced not from knowing me personally but from reading me over the years. When I’m sitting down to write a piece of criticism, the first question is, “What did I think and feel about it?””

From here, the writer moves to the interpretive and critical task, though of course these strands (description, interpretation, criticism) are not easy to disentangle. For most writers, they happen all at once. T. J. Clark strikes me as one of the best examples of this practice. Everything happens all at once in his writing–though I wonder if he would take kindly to having his writing filed under the rubric of “criticism”? David Salle brings the intelligence of a practicing artist to his criticism, an ability to inhabit the various ways of making—and knowing—deployed by each artist, an intelligence that shapes the experience of looking into pointed, precise judgments. See, for example, this paragraph on Laura Owens.

In all of these models of criticism, the work of criticism mediates between the universal and the particular. The critic’s work is grounded in a specific, individual, particular body, and yet in the work of writing, the critic must transcend that particularity, and yet not float so far and so free that the work of criticism becomes a litany of banalities.

Of course, a cynic might say that these qualitative judgments and valuations merely mask the quantitative ones—and in a capitalistic society, those quantitative ones are the ones that matter. Perhaps UBS had it wrong. It’s both passion and profit—but mostly profit, all the way down.



Reply All,, “The World’s Most Expensive Free Watch” (Gimlet Media)

Adam Tooze, “A Modern Greek Tragedy”  (NYRB)

Doreen St. Félix “The Otherworldly Concept Albums of Janelle Monáe” (New Yorker)

Nick Richardson, “Even What Doesn’t Happen is Epic” (LRB)

Matthew Engel, “Malta: An Island of Secrets and Lies” (New Statesman)



Hilston Als, “The Color of Humanity,” (New Yorker)

Angus Dalton, “Blood on the Pavement: an interview with novelist and 78er Jeremy Fisher,” (Overland)

Pankaj Mishra, “Why do White People Like What I Write?” (LRB)

Samuel Moyn, “Mark Lilla and the Crisis of Liberalism,” (Boston Review)

Jacqueline Rose, “I am a knife,” (LRB)



Maria Rosa Menocal, “Writing Without Footnotes: The Role of the Medievalist in Contemporary Intellectual Life [2001]”.

Frank Pasquale “Strange Elegies” (Commonweal).

Elaine Showalter, “Imagining Violence: “The Power” of Feminist Fantasy” (NYRB).



Edward Thornton, “Two’s a crowd” (Aeon)

Anthony Gottlieb, “The Ghost and the Princess” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Sophie Putka, “Stuck on the Chaise Lounge” (Lady Science)



In honor of the season, Happy Holi to our readers!

Victoria Finlay, “The Meaning Behind the Many Colors of India’s Holi Festival”  (Smithsonian)

Paul Laudicina, “Holi, Inclusive Growth, and India’s Future” (Forbes)

Krzysztof Iwanek, “Amul: the Pun-dits of Indian Advertising” (Diplomat)

William Souder, “The Fantastic Beasts of John James Audubon’s Little-Known Book on Mammals” (Smithsonian)



Steve Paulson, “The Critical Zone of Science and Politics: An Interview with Bruno Latour” (LARB)

Shalom Auslander, “Opposite of Modern” (TLS)

John Banville, “The Impossibility of Being Oscar” (NYRB)

Deepanjana Pal, “How Bollywood’s Sridevi Should Be Remembered” (The Atlantic)

A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

Image 1

Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5

Image 2

Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (https://www.himalayanart.org/items/30508)

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

A Man Walks Into A Bar; or the possibilities of the individual in international history.

by Editor Sarah Claire Dunstan.

One summer’s afternoon in 1923, a French barrister was enjoying a drink in a Parisian café.  A man of broad experience and education, the barrister was also a medical doctor who had served in the First World War. This service had allowed him to become a French citizen in 1915, a privilege denied previously because he was a native of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now a French colonial territory. Kojo Tovalou Houénou


Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Francaise

was not just from Dahomey, he also claimed the title of Prince on the basis that his mother was the sister of the last King. Contemporaries and later scholars doubted the veracity of this claim but it made him of much interest to the Parisian dailies. In their pages, tales of his exploits amongst bohemian circles – notably his on-again, off-again affair with the Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Française – were reported with glee.

On this particular August afternoon, Houénou was simply a French man. Or at least he was until a group of drunk Americans sat down at a table nearby. He thought little of them until they began to object, loudly, to his presence. The waiters, virtuous Frenchmen one and all, refused to eject Houénou from the café but the Americans grew rowdier. Finally, the foreigners stood up, dragged him from the café, beating him up and throwing him in the gutter. This example of American racism shocked Houénou, awakening him to the reality of black experiences outside of la belle France. He resolved to do all that he could to extend and uphold the principles of French civilization and to protect the less fortunate amongst his race. To this end, Houénou founded the Ligue Universelle pour la défense de la race noire and its journal, Les Continents. This very tale was printed in one of the early issues and reiterated as the origins story for the Ligue by other press outlets such as the African American journal the Crisis and Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, the Negro World, as well as by Houénou himself in speeches delivered to mainly black audiences in Paris and New York.

Although primarily concerned with abuses being perpetrated towards the indigenous populations in the French colonies, Les Continents became one of the first francophone print forums for collaborations between African American activists and thinkers and their French counterparts, crafting a bridge between Harlem and the Parisian left bank. The Ligue itself had a mission statement that articulated its desire to ‘develop the bonds of solidarity and universal brotherhood between all members of the black race.’ Celebrated Harlem Renaissance figures from Alain Locke and Langston Hughes through to Countee Cullen published in the journal.  Under Houénou’s leadership, the group built relationships with the American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. As a result, the Ligue has received some scholarly attention as an institution that fostered black international solidarity (most notably in Brent Hayes Edward’s wonderful The Practice of Diaspora, Christopher L. Miller’s Nationalists and Nomads and Michael Goebel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis.) More than that, Houénou’s neat origin story has much in common with those employed contemporaneously by other black activists as they attempted to leverage the potential of French civilization against the specter of American racial discord and to agitate against racism in France. Insofar as the existing scholarship is concerned, Houénou tends to appear in histories of black internationalism that focus upon institutional organization or ideological mechanisms. Where his activism is given credence, it is as a corrective to the scholarship’s tendency to focus upon the African American presence in movements towards black internationalism. Always, Houénou’s experience is subsumed in the institutions he founded or participated in.


From left to right: Marc Quenum, Kojo Tovalou Houénou and Marcus Garvey in Harlem, 1924.

This is due in part to the scarcity and nature of remaining sources. No archive holds Houénou’s personal papers. Fragments of his life have to be pieced together from newspaper articles from his heyday in the Parisian social landscape, or from letters appearing in other collections such as that of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Service de contrôle et d’assistance des indigènes, established by the French Minister for the Colonies Albert Sarrault in 1923, offers perhaps the most comprehensive chronology of Houénou’s life. Given that Sarrault utilized the Service for surveillance of those deemed threatening to the French imperial system, this tends to emphasize his involvement in black activist organizations rather than pay heed to his individual behavior. All the more so given the French authorities’ tendency to conflate all Pan-Africanist organization with Garveyism and all Garveyism with insurrectionist and usually Bolshevik politics. When Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne successfully sued Les Continents for libel in 1924, the paper and the organization folded, leaving Houénou bankrupt. He was forced to leave Paris and to renounce his diasporan affiliations (specifically any connection with Marcus Garvey) before he was allowed back into Dahomey. Black international solidarity at this moment, then, appeared to crumble in the face of the machinery of French Third Republic.

Inverting the study to map an international history through Houénou’s individual perspective, however, changes the narrative from one of failure at the hands of unstoppable empire. Instead it allows us to re-position the way we think about the spatial geography of black internationalism which is often characterized in terms of experiences in Northern hemisphere metropoles. Houénou himself participated in the construction of this narrative with his repeated telling and refashioning of the café incident. The Ligue and the other black activist organizations he participated in certainly were rooted in Paris and New York. Moreover, the freedom of speech permitted in Paris as opposed to the colonies created a space for black internationalism that would not have been possible elsewhere. However his own individual experiences belie the story he constructed.

In 1921, two years prior to his ‘racial awakening’, he had visited Dakar. Whilst there, he spoke to the Senegalese tirailleurs who had been abandoned by the French Government after fulfilling their conscripted duties. The reality of their exploitation was only too visible and Houénou spoke out to local authorities about it. He was ignored. Soon afterwards he published a little-read book entitled L’Involution des métamorphoses et des métempsychoses de l’univers. In it, he attacked European assumptions of cultural superiority by arguing that each people and culture comprised equal parts of a universal civilization. Early in 1923, in the aftermath of rioting in Porto-Novo in Dahomey, he criticized the colonial administrators’ handling of the issues, to little avail. True, neither incident was quite so personal and dramatic as being beaten up in a Parisian café but they do indicate a public engagement with the question of race on an imperial, if not an international, level much earlier than narratives focusing upon the Ligue or his UNIA support allow. It also locates the site of his racial awakening outside the colonial metropole.

This reframes our understanding of the valency of a racial awakening in Paris rather than Porto-Novo or Dakar, pointing to the way that gestures of black solidarity were sometimes easier to perform in the metropole than elsewhere.  In particular, it demonstrates the crucial symbolic role that examples of US racism played in francophone black activism at this time. This is especially clear when one looks beyond Houénou’s sanctioned version of the story to the one relayed in other sources such as the Parisian press: it was a French bartender who threw Houénou from the premises and beat him, not the crowd of racist Americans who bayed for his removal.  Moreover, Houénou’s activities after the collapse of the Ligue and his departure from Paris lead the historian away from the print formulations of universal black brotherhood found in Les Continents to their application on the ground in Africa.

Hardly a year after his relocation to Dahomey, Houénou and a group of unnamed allies attempted to overthrow French colonial rule there. His movement was small, ill-equipped and failed spectacularly. Forced to flee to Togo, Houénou was quickly caught and imprisoned. Some reports indicate that he was incarcerated for five years, others three. What we do know is that he was never allowed to enter Dahomey again. Instead, he went to Senegal by 1930, possibly as early as 1928, and became heavily involved in Senegalese politics. At first he supported Ngalandou Diouf against Blaise Diagne in the elections of 1932. He would switch candidates for the following election of 1934, supporting Lamine Gueye against Diouf. In both cases, Houénou applied a committed Pan-Africanism of the type that the French colonial authorities feared Garveyism represented: the call for the recognition of the equality of all races and the independence of African territories from colonial rule. Neither Diouf nor Gueye were quite so radical in their views. Indeed, Houénou’s platform was far removed from the Parisian story that played American racism off against la belle France. His early cries for universal black brotherhood had transformed at the hands of the treatment of colonial authorities to his support for the total independence for Africa.

Houénou’s involvement in Senegalese politics is usually not considered in the context of black internationalism. To be strictly honest, it has not exactly earned him a noteworthy place in the annals of Senegalese history either. He met an ignominious end in the electoral campaign of 1936 when the meeting he was running exploded into violence. Nevertheless, by focusing on Houénou’s own story, rather than solely upon his involvement in the international and diasporic institutions he helped to build, it is possible to shift the geography of black internationalism away from imperial metropoles back to the African continent.

Sarah Claire Dunstan is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow with the International History Laureate at the University of Sydney (@IntHist ). She is an intellectual historian of 20th century France and the United States with a particular interest in questions of race, rights and gender. She can be found on Twitter  @sarahcdunstan .