Culture Rover

#162 - In the Garden of Sediment and Sentiment

Focusing on the layered histories of an English garden estate, Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia reveals how the the supposed binary of reason and feeling is a false one.

At first, as best-selling-novelist-turned-historical-detective Hannah Jarvis sees it, the organized, rational, orderly garden of Enlightenment England gave way to the decadent nineteenth-century trend toward Romantic ruins. Reason gave way to emotion. Order gave way to an obsession with the sublime feeling of decay.

But slowly, as the play unfolds, we begin to see how the logics of Englightenment reason and Romantic feeling in fact flowed into and out of one another surreptitiously, like underwater channels beneath the landscape.

The rationality of characters such as Jarvis peels away, revealing pools of powerful emotion. Meanwhile, the characters who defend Romantic feeling, such as the pompous Byron scholar Bernard Nightingale, prove how cold calculations often drive the insistence on Romantic ideals.

Ultimately, Stoppard's play suggests that Romantic sentiment always pervaded Enlightenment rationality, and that when Romanticism emerged in full, the older sediment of Enlightenment reason always seeped into its outpouring of instinctual emotions.

There's no cleaving reason from feeling, or feeling from reason. There is only the grafting of new hybrids, the wending of new pathways, the viewing of new vistas.

In the meantime, while these profound insights wash over you in Stoppard's garden meander through time, you can always appreciate a play in which a character declares: "Lending one's bicycle is a form of safe sex."

11 July 2007

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