Although this is a short volume, it has taken me a while to read David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (2006), which my philosopher friend Marta Tafalla recommended to me. I had assumed that reading post-structuralist criticism had prepared me to deal with most kinds of abstract thinking in the Humanities. I was wrong. Before passages such as “The meaning of The Garden, if there is one, is what exemplary gardens exemplify. The Garden is appropriate to what it means through exemplifying it” (129), I was still baffled… Also, Cooper insists again and again that he aims to discuss ‘The Garden’ as an ideal concept, beyond its socio-cultural material realities and his is a position that I found myself resisting as a Cultural Studies specialist. I ended up eventually combining my reading of Cooper’s book with the delicious documentary mini-series presented by Monty Don, The Secret History of the British Garden (BBC, four episodes, available from YouTube).

Both Cooper, emeritus professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and Don, a popularizer or horticulture famous for presenting the BBC television series Gardeners’ World (started in 1968…), are very British in their taste for gardens. This doesn’t mean that other nations do not care for gardening (just think of Japan, or see Don’s series Around the World in 80 Gardens). What I mean is that a foreign student of British culture is often mystified by the intensity of the British devotion to gardens and gardening. When I started reading English Literature in its original version one thing I noticed is that flowers and plants were very often mentioned, of types I could by no means identify in my own two languages. I marvel at how many times I have come across the word ‘nasturtium’ in fiction. As for the famous poem with the daffodils, I learned when first reading it and trying to understand all its words that the flowers are called ‘narciso’ in Spanish (I first saw one in England…).

The Spanish gardens most often named and praised are those of la Alhambra in Granada, the royal palace at Aranjuez, the Reales Alcázares in Seville–and that’s about it (I know the list of notable gardens is much longer, but here I mean popular). The city where I live, Barcelona, is a disaster when it comes to gardens and parks. Madrid boasts of the extensive El Retiro park next door to the botanical gardens, all downtown and easily accessible. Yes, we have Ciutadella, the equivalent of Retiro in Barcelona but, discounting the zoo, it’s not as big nor as popular. The mountain of Montjuïc has several gardens (one even specialising in cactuses) but, well, it’s a mountain, which means it’s not particularly accessible, no matter what the Town Council preaches. One needs absolute determination to visit the botanical gardens there… I see park Güell from my window but, leaving the crowds of tourists aside, I find no aesthetic pleasure of the kind Cooper praises in its so-called gardens, too dusty, too unkempt.

Having enjoyed daily evening strolls in the central park of the small Spanish city where I have spent my holidays I wonder what is wrong with Barcelona and its gardens. Turó Parc, a very pretty little garden which I love, designed by the city’s most revered garderner–Nicolau Maria Rubió I Tudurí–is now in a pathetic state which is hard to believe. Something then, having to do perhaps with the merciless heat of summertime, which kills so many plants and demands constant watering, has made us, Barcelona citizens, less than keen on gardening. I see the wilting plants in the few window sills adorned with plants at all and I positively want to scream… particularly when I think of what you can see in Andalucía (extremely hot, remember?) and the north of Spain, where even the palm trees imported by the nostalgic ‘indianos’ thrive.

I don’t have a garden, that is to say, a plot of land to grow plants in, but I do have (rent…) a biggish terrace, where I battle daily with stubborn plants that refuse to stay healthy and survive the season. This is why I have read Cooper’s book with a bit of scepticism, perhaps because he does not care for the down-to-earth details of actually growing a garden. I think he makes a wonderfully valid point of remarking that the pleasure we take in gardens is distinctive, and not at all a mixed pleasure derived from our parallel enjoyments of the artistic and natural values of gardens. A garden is a garden is a garden. Now, his main philosophical argument, once the rules of appreciation have been established is that “The Garden, then, is an epiphany—a symbol, in the Romantic sense—of the relation between the source of the world and ourselves” (150). He himself jokes that you might be “liable to draw a blank” (132) if you approach you neighbour with that kind of sophisticated thought. Nonetheless, he is really in earnest when he insists that The Garden (the ideal place, not any specific garden) exemplifies “a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world” and is “an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning” (145). In gardening, we strive to achieve the “good life (…) led ‘in the truth’”; in tending to our plants we learn “care, humility, and hope”, informed “by a sensibility towards a fundamental truth of the human condition” (157). If in tune with The Garden, we engage in an “appreciation of the place of human beings in the way of things” (157).

I see you, dear reader, raising an eyebrow, as I did, and thinking that this is overdoing it and that although parts of Cooper’s ideas ring true the whole argument is overblown. In taking care of one’s garden and in appreciating the beauty of someone else’s garden, private or public, we engage in a unique aesthetic pleasure, I grant that. Yet, I fail to see the epiphanic quality of that experience and I feel that it is a much more direct kind of pleasure, attuned to our love of being in places where you can relax and feel in peace with yourself and the world. Um, or is this what he means all in all?

Monty Don’s mini-series provided me with what I was missing in Cooper: a history of how the aristocratic privilege of owning a park and garden is in our times combined with the privilege of owning a few square metres to grow your own garden. Yes, privilege. As a working-class city dweller raised in a flat with just windows (and not even flowers in the windowsills much less fresh cut flowers in vases), I have always felt truly envious of people who could grow plants at home. As a little girl I felt envy of my grandmothers because they had each a tiny balcony to grow flowers in (to this day, I love hydrangeas because one grandma preferred them). Whenever we visited relatives in my mum’s village or saw some house with a garden outside the city, no matter how modest, I grew really moody and resentful. Just by chance I got my terrace, and now one of the main problems in my life is that I cannot afford to buy a bigger flat with an equivalent-sized terrace in absurdly overpriced Barcelona. Terraces, by the way, are often called ‘solariums’ by local real-estate agents, which gives you a clear idea of what people prefer doing with them: sunbathing.

The thought of giving up my terrace is simply inacceptable to me. Why? Because no matter how much effort municipalities may put in designing public gardens and parks for their citizens, the real privilege is not having to leave home to relax surrounded by bits of green. This is the privilege that neither Cooper nor Don address. The difference between Britain and Spain (or Catalonia) is that suburban sprawling gave the privilege of owning a garden to low-middle-class and even working-class British persons. In Catalonia geography is our enemy, for the terrain is mostly hilly and you see even in expensive ‘urbanizaciones’ houses placed in steep inclines, occupying plots in which there is hardly any room for a strip of grass. Having said that, I think that even when we have the space, either in a terrace or a proper garden, we in Spain lack the cultural background that makes gardening a rewarding activity, as it is in Britain or other countries. Perhaps, just perhaps, gardening is too close for comfort to the backbreaking agricultural work many of our grandparents fled as migrants to the city and we want no soil to dirt our hands.

Watching another documentary, I learned that the major British newspapers have ‘gardening correspondents’. Also that Prince Charles is a much more respected figure than you might think in the gardening world, which, by the way, has its long list of celebrities (Monty Don is one). I’m even beginning to worry that there might be already a discipline called ‘Garden Studies’ which I have completely missed (wait for Routledge to notice the gap…). The list of resources connected with gardening in Britain available online is simply staggering and has by no means an equivalent in Spanish (though I recommend the lengthy Wikipedia article on gardening in Spain, You might think that gardens make a small cultural difference, and one quite easy to overcome as everyone enjoys a beautiful garden. Yet, my impression is that this is a deeper cultural difference than it seems. Just think of how unlikely the existence of a ‘corresponsal de jardinería’ for El País or La Vanguardia is and you’ll see my point. Or try to imagine Queen Letizia showing an interest in gardens beyond the ones at la Zarzuela Palace.

One last word (or not). Here are three beautiful spots with gardens: El ‘señorío de Bértiz’ in Navarra (an extensive natural park and gardens), El Habana (a hotel with a lovely garden in La Pereda, near Llanes in Asturias) and the Casa Sorolla in Madrid, which will give you a very clear idea of the kind of privileged urban seclusion which a wealthy Spanish person might aim at in the 20th century.

May you enjoy an epiphanic moment in them.

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John Stoltenberg calls himself a ‘radical feminist’ activist, though in my view he appears to be one of the few genuine anti-patriarchal male fighters. There are two reasons, however, why he prefers using ‘feminist’, as I deduce.

One is that feminism made him aware of patriarchal injustice. As he writes in his main work, Refusing to Be a Man (1989)–the volume on which I’ll comment here–“In various ways, feminism has blown like a gust of fresh air through a lifetime spent agonizing and anguishing about the place of other men in our lives”. I’m hesitating to provide this piece of information but the case is that Stoltenberg, who identifies as gay, learned his feminism from Andrea Dworkin, his partner and wife for a total 31 years. His is, then, a classic case of a man learning to defend anti-patriarchal justice from a woman he loves, though I’d rather leave aside the gossip about the actual arrangements in their marriage (I assume everyone knows that Dworkin was a leading American radical feminist). On the other hand, unlike hooks (and myself), Stoltenberg prefers calling the enemy ‘male supremacy’ rather than ‘patriarchy’. For him, all masculinity is tainted by patriarchy, which is why he calls for men to reject being a man and embrace feminism; likewise, he believes that racism can only be eliminated if white people reject whiteness. Now, if you’re a white man and you are wondering what you can call yourself if you reject these main features in your identity, the answer is ‘person’.

Reading Stoltenberg’s complaints against how Elizabeth Badinter misrepresented his position as ‘male self-hate’ in her book XY: On Masculine Identity (1992), I realised that she may have prejudiced me against his work, which is why I have taken so long to read him. However, I have found Refusing to Be a Man (which is actually a collection of essays), an extremely lucid, well-argued and sensible book, deserving to be much better known. Badinter, of course, is not to be blamed for Stoltenberg’s marginal position as an author but, rather, the immense resistance which his critique of male supremacy elicited from patriarchal men–as it was to be expected. Stoltenberg refers to “a mass retrenchment, a counter-refusal, as it were, refusing to refuse to be a man” including the “earnestly liberal academics” in Masculinities Studies. In his view, which I share in part, this discipline “does not get at the problem” of how the blatant lies upholding male supremacy survive from generation to generation. He claims that our academic approach “serves theoretically only to deceive another generation yet one more time” though I’d argue that progress is slow because there is not a male anti-patriarchal civil rights movement similar to feminism. Unlike Stoltenberg, I don’t believe that men should join feminism: rather, my view is that both women feminists and men in need of liberation should join in their common anti-patriarchal fight.

“Male supremacy”, Stoltenberg explains, “is the honest term for what is sometimes hedgingly called patriarchy” (which he limits, rather, to the father). Stoltenberg places the material penis rather than the symbolic phallus at the centre of male supremacy, complicating in this way women’s contribution to this noxious social system (see bell hooks). The biology of sex is, thus, central in his view although he stresses that both the sex itself and male supremacy are constructions. For Stoltenberg even penile sensations are socially constructed, that is to say, men do not feel during sex anything we might call natural but what male supremacists tell them they should feel (mainly, the pleasure of domination). He even denies that sex exists as a class of individuals: “The penises exist; the male sex does not”. Of course, he worries that the ‘male sex’ does exist for those who maintain it as a social construction, since this is “a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism”. In Stoltenberg’s view of male supremacy, individuals accept the “values and interests of the class”, for which the “habit” of “sexual objectification” of women is essential: “Male sexual objectifying is not simply a response to male supremacy; it functions to enforce male supremacy as well”. What perhaps surprised me most in his argumentation is the idea that “male supremacy requires homophobia in order to keep men safe from the sexual aggression of men”; without homophobia, he claims, men would be raped as often as women (think of what happens in jails).

Stoltenberg’s volume is so varied in the topics it touches that it’s truly hard to summarize his main points. I’ll have to skip, then, aspects as important as how male supremacist fathers terrorize their boys into accepting the rules of patriarchal manhood. Also the shocking idea (for me) that the penile erection which confirms male supremacy is not limited to sexual arousal but to many other mundane experiences like feeling danger. I left unfinished a complicated article in which I tried to explain terrorist bombings (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as the ultimate patriarchal orgasms but, if I credit Stoltenberg, I was not really wide off the mark… Let me turn then to two central topics in Refusing to Be a Man: pornography and, of course, change.

It comes as no surprise that Stoltenberg’s views on pornography are very close to those of Andrea Dworkin in her best-known volume Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Dworkin, together with Catharine MacKinnon, defended the view that pornography should be outlawed not depending on vague obscenity legislation but because it attacks women’s civil rights. Dworkin’s views generated a massive confrontation between feminists who decried pornography and those who defended women’s rights to choose in any matter connected with sex. She and Stoltenberg describe in their works the kind of hard-core pornography based on humiliating women that any right-thinking feminist should reject; they do not even contemplate, however, the possibility now defended by many young feminists that women may create and enjoy their own kind of pro-feminist porn. When Stoltenberg claims that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice” or that “Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men” I tend to agree simply because like him I don’t believe that real sexual freedom, accompanied by what he calls sexual justice, exists. “Essentially”, he writes, “sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy” and in which porn is central. With true equality, if that ever comes, sex will not be at the service of male supremacy and only then will we find out whether porn can be dissociated from domination, humiliation and hatred. In the meantime, yes, by all means, let’s persecute abusive porn which infringes civil and human rights. And let’s question whether we need porn at all, pro-feminist or otherwise.

Another very important point which Stoltenberg also disputes is the widespread idea that men can’t express their feelings. As a “class”, men “have always expressed their feelings, eloquently and extensively”, he observes, through religion, nationalism, militarism, the diverse social institutions and even sciences such as psychiatry: “whether or not a particular man is feeling the feeling at a particular time, the feeling is being expressed through the institutions men have made”. Logically, only if the number of “men of conscience” ready to face these institutions rises can we hope male supremacy to be shaken to its foundations. Stoltenberg, is, however, quite pessimistic about the ‘man of conscience’, for “he won’t do anything until it is clear to him how it affects him and his brethren as men”. Thinking of the men of the 1990s (the men in the decade after the book’s publication), Stoltenberg makes a series of very negative predictions, which can be summarised this way: they will do nothing but will claim this is because they don’t know what is politically correct, and will feel good nonetheless for at last discussing their feelings. I’m sorry to say that this describes very well Masculinities Studies… though to be fair the current men of conscience are still facing an extremely recalcitrant male supremacy (see my post of 27 March).

I am currently reading an excellent book by American historian Adam Hochschild focused on WWI: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (2011). In this volume Hochschild examines how a variety of male and female activists opposed this brutal war in Britain (feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, let’s recall this, sided with the Government). Hochschild gives very many examples of how the patriarchal institutions behind the war were opposed at a very high personal cost, and thus pays homage to the individuals who changed the private and public view of the Great War. When Stoltenberg writes that “The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood” or that “The pride to which we aspire is not in being men but in being men who…—men who are living their lives in a way that will make a difference. We must be transformers of selfhood—our own and others”, then, what is missing is a specific programme of acts of resistance that can bring about this transformation, in imitation of other movements in other historical periods.

We might argue that the liberation movements that crystallized around the time of WWI (feminism, pacifism, anti-imperialism, communism) have failed in many ways but at least they have succeeded in others. The same can be said about the anti-racist civil rights movement of the 1950s. 27 years after the publication of Stoltenberg’s denunciation of ‘male supremacy’, however, there is not yet a visible public movement engaged in its destruction with men’s massive participation–the very existence of male supremacy or of patriarchy is still denied on a daily basis despite the evidence that links couple-related abuse and widespread military terrorism. Women are certainly divided between feminists and patriarchal collaborators but at least feminism has made us aware of the division and of who our enemy is. In men’s case, patriarchy totally prevails thanks to having convinced men that there is no possible collective action against it; I even suspect that the figure of the outsider has been glamourised to pre-empt, precisely, any collective anti-patriarchal reaction. Patriarchy tolerates the partial erosion of some of its main tenets (misogyny, homophobia, racism, slavery, militarism, capitalism) at particular points but has so far managed to survive by pretending it’s not open to change because it is basic human nature. How long for we are going to accept this appalling lie is really up to us.

Refuse being a man, and refuse being a woman. Let’s all be persons.

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[I’m still enjoying my three-week summer break, which is why I feel today particularly rusty. In academic terms, my holidays consists of a) not answering work-related email and b) not thinking of my extremely busy agenda from next week onwards. Beyond this and as all academics do, I’m reading all I can manage between outings. Above all, I’m enjoying the luxury of thinking about what I read in leisure, which is why we academics should have much longer holidays… The holiday also explains why this post comes in two instalments.]

Today’s post will turn out to be intensely personal for I wish to deal with the thorny topic of patriarchal man’s recalcitrance in the face of necessary change and I know of no more recalcitrant patriarch than my father. His unwillingness to change despite the universal criticism and rejection of his appalling private and public behaviour is the colossal rock against which my own personal feelings and my training as a Masculinities Studies specialist crash again and again. This is why I always find some kind of comfort in reading about other Gender Studies male and female activists who also have the misfortune of having terrible, unmanageable, uncaring fathers. In this case, the volume providing some solace this summer is bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004).

I find myself quite comfortable with bell hooks’ ideas for I share many points in her own brand of feminism, which she calls, perhaps excessively, ‘visionary’. To begin with, I do agree that 1970s radical feminism was too angry “to imagine a culture of reconciliation where women and men might meet and find common ground”, based on forming a shared front against patriarchy. Like hooks, I stress all the time a most basic point: one thing is patriarchy and another masculinity–there’s no reason at all for masculinity to be always patriarchal, and it is in men’s interests as much as in women’s to get rid of patriarchy, the ugliest system of social organization ever invented. Patriarchy needs to be outed and named again and again as our common enemy, for its most insidious piece of social engineering is pretending that it is simple human nature, thus pre-empting any possible alternatives.

Like hooks, I have often placed myself in the very uncomfortable position of telling other feminist women that hating men (that is, engaging in androphobia or misandria in response to misogyny) leads nowhere, for we happen to share the planet with them. Some radical feminist SF writers have imagined in many stories what life would be like without men and, tempting as some of these stories might be, I don’t wish to participate in the extermination of the male half of the human species if only in our imagination. Like hooks, I’d rather build bridges among what often feels like separate alien species. At the same time, I do belong to the collective which wishes on a daily basis that particular men die so that the suffering they cause may end. This is our only hope in a situation in which patriarchal men simply refuse to change though, here’s the downside, wishing that someone dies feels terrible–a black hole sucking into the void the positive energy required to build those necessary bridges.

“Men cannot change”, hooks writes, “if there are no blueprints for change”. Here’s the question, though: who will provide the blueprints? We, the feminist women who believe in men, have been trying to help for decades now with an alarmingly low rate of success. hooks argues that, paradoxically, women love patriarchal men despite their not loving us back (“they would cease to be real ‘men’”) because our longing for “father love” overwhelms our better judgement. Also, I would add, because we believe against all evidence in the power of love to transform men–you see how cheesy this sounds. Thus, hooks plunges fearlessly into total sentimentalism when she argues that “the deep inner misery of men” springs from a “longing for love” that we, “feminist thinkers” must dare “to examine, explore, and talk about”. Patriarchal culture “really does not care if men are unhappy”, which is why it provides no outlets for the expression of feeling and, so, “The masculine pretence is that real men feel no pain”. Quite provokingly, hooks accuses women of not wanting “to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire” for a ‘real’ man.

Her recipe, then, looks something like this: find unhappy men, listen to them, sympathise with their woes, explain how patriarchy works, offer comfort, provide the blueprint for change. Been there, done that, and quite often, since I was a teenager. However, and this is where I diverge from hooks, a woman needs to be careful when choosing who to invest her sympathy on. As she notes, the only emotion that patriarchy values is anger and, as most victims of couple-related abuse can tell you, this often bursts out when the woman is offering emotional empathy: if there is a thing which recalcitrant patriarchs hate is being exposed as (in their view) weak men before ‘inferior’ women. Quite logically, then, “Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love” for too often our attempts to approach these men have been rebuked with violence, either verbal or physical.

Unlike hooks, then, I have learned to distinguish between deserving and non-deserving men, that is, between potential allies in the anti-patriarchal struggle and downright patriarchs. The former are the object of all my love, respect, interest and attention. The others I hate with the passion of 1,000 radical 1970s feminists for there is NOTHING to love in them. I have made mistakes in my life, like any other woman, but at the ripe age of 50 I am experienced enough to know when argument (whether emotional or rational) will make no inroads into patriarchal brains. I no longer speak, then, of ‘men’ in general but of two classes of men: ‘patriarchal men’ and (hopefully) ‘anti-patriarchal men’, or, simply, good men. To make my point clear, suppose you are an anti-Nazi person trying to survive in 1940s Germany: surely, you would try to find allies of your same ideology to build a common anti-Nazi front and would never make the mistake of trying to persuade Nazis that all they need is love. So, yes, hooks does sound quite naïve by proposing that we learn to love men in general…

“To create loving men”, hooks writes, “we must love males”. Obviously, as she highlights, this passes through loving boys, of which the highest measure is teaching them to avoid the patriarchal pitfalls as soon as possible. As things are now, families, including new-style fathers, have learned to love their boys much better; however, as everyone knows, patriarchal society is so all-pervading that an anti-patriarchal father’s love provides hardly any protection against the bullies his boy will find at all levels. We women can love men as much as we can but if men still hate each other in order to prove their patriarchal credentials there is little we can contribute to changing their ways. It’s really up to men… Like hooks, I’m aware that women contribute much to upholding patriarchy, whether as victims or as perpetrators and it is true that often sons who wish to free themselves from patriarchy have to fight both father and mother. Indeed, few fathers and mothers understand that their behaviour is conditioned by patriarchy’s need to renew itself; this is why the monster needs to be named, exposed and destroyed. The point of the brutal patriarchal psychological violence parents inflict on children is to “reinforce a dominator model” of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” which few see with as much clarity as hooks. So, yes, let’s name it as often as we can.

I must also agree with hooks when she writes that patriarchy “promotes insanity”. Patriarchal men lash out against children and women because they cannot get satisfaction out of their lives, having been promised a degree of power and respect they never earned nor deserved. “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not”, hooks sentences, adding that “by the time this awareness emerges, most patriarchal men are isolated and alienated”. Rage serves “as the perfect cover, masking feelings of fear and failure”; anger, she observes, “often hides depression and profound sorrow”. It is also a formidable barrier. My own father appears to be a textbook case: nothing any member of my family can say to help him out of his rage resonates with him; he sees himself, rather, as a deeply misunderstood man, a victim of our collective ill-will against him.

“To this day,” hooks writes, “I hear individual feminist women express their concern for the plight of men within patriarchy, even as they share that they are unwilling to give their energy to help educate and change men”. I close this post with the same thought I closed her book: a man can only wish to be educated and change if a) he understands what patriarchy is, b) he is willing to abandon it. Yet this is a classic example of tail biting: a man dazzled by patriarchy will reject all attempts to be re-educated and, as patriarchy works now, already baby boys are too stepped in its mystique to embrace an alternative. So, when exactly are we to save boys from patriarchy? And how does hooks expect to establish any kind of conversation with the adult patriarchs? Going back to Nazi Germany, this is charging the Jews with the task of convincing Hitler and company to abandon their evil ways.

It seems to me that we, feminist women, can help to educate the good men we come across into our anti-patriarchal stance. Then it’s up to them to take the front line in the fight against the patriarchal aggressors. Turn now to my next post to see what happens in this case…

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