Mark Haber’s (2019) Reinhardt’s Garden is the perfect book for 2020. Not only escapist and absurd, the novel vacillates between polar extremities and coupled realities so reminiscent of my and many others’ emotional and physical life in this bizarre, terrifying, turbulent year. The novel is deeply philosophical, leading one to contemplate so much of what we call reality, obsession, and life truths.
The narrator, a hypochondriac, lives in constant fear of severe illness, plague, and death. There are phantom headaches and trepidation over even the slightest change in bodily temperament. A throbbing toe, an aching back, “a catastrophic illness is always only a breath away” (p. 30). Who, in this year of COVID-19, can’t relate to any shift in our body as fear? The novel even opens with the narrator in a state of fever-induced hallucination: “I could hardly understand a word he said, my brain coated in the gauze of the fever or disease or whatever it was I’d been afflicted with, and I was certainly dying, I had to be dying, because the tremors, the aches, my burning flesh, none of it boded well for my recovery” (p. 5).
Of course, this is not a novel about the plague. But, I first read this book in December 2019, the BC (before-COVID) period of time where many of us might recognize but laugh off such fears of illness. In re-reading the novel this month, preparing for the Brazos Book Club discussion of the text, I could not but relate differently to this hypochondriatic narrator. I so much as wheeze or sneeze and my mind begins racing toward fears of imminent illness and death. It’s a scary time to be alive.
Which is why Haber’s book is so perfect for these times. This is a novel of absurdities and contradictions, and everything about our world right now feels contradictorily absurd. The plot of the novel centers on Jacov Reinhardt’s obsession with melancholy, and a particular scholar of melancholy, Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla. Reinhardt studies the philosophical works of Carrasquilla, who actually wrote about joy and happiness. Reinhardt is convinced Carrasquilla was actually a “philosophical humorist” (p. 127) and that though his written work was about joy, contentment, and happiness, Carrasquilla was actually writing about sadness, discontent, and melancholy. Reinhardt reinterprets all of Carrasquilla’s works as opposite. Carrasquilla’s Pathways to Contentment becomes Reinhardt’s Boulevards of Grief; The Abstinence Sequence becomes The Fornication Sequence. This just feels like our world right now — everything unbalanced in reasonable absurdity. Cases of COVID19 are going up? Throw a political rally or orgy. Police continue gunning down Black bodies in the street? Provide them more funding and greater military equipment. Absurd. The total opposite of what we should be doing.
There is levity to this absurdity, however. The book will actually bring you joy and happiness. One cannot help but laugh at a particularly rollicking section of the book where Reinhardt visits Tolstoy in Russia. Tolstoy’s land is overtaken by stray dogs, and the story is not only imaginative, it is just funny. One also laughs at Reinhardt’s house, described almost as a funhouse of mirrors, hallways, and staircases to nowhere. A scene where Sonja, Reinhardt’s lover and companion, falls through the floor and loses a leg is particularly funny. And the scene where Reinhardt confronts Carrasquilla’s translator, tying her to a chair and interrogating her for days on end about Carrasquilla’s whereabouts and sudden suspension of writing, adds levity to Reinhardt’s obsession, while also raising more deeply philosophical questions discussed further below.
Underneath it all, Reinhardt’s Garden is a deeply philosophical novel, reflecting on questions about the human condition, our obsessive instincts, and some timeless truths worthy of contemplation in our time.
Chief amongst these is really how we deal with melancholy in our lives. In a culture where happiness, contentment, and joy are seen as bellwethers of mental and emotional stability, we are not individually or collectively adept at dealing with any form of sadness.
“Melancholy. The melancholic soul. Every single one of us is melancholic, we’re inherently constructed this way, but we spend our lives busy in the act of denial, trying to deflect our most natural state, yet, if left alone long enough, melancholy surfaces; it’s always there, inexhaustible, unconquerable. Philosophers have labeled melancholy a disease, claimed it is sadness without reason, yet I was certain it was the sadness of reason. When one is melancholic, one sees reality with complete lucidity.” (p. 23)
Our individual and collective inability to contemplate the role of sadness in our lives seems prescient at this time. Certainly, this year feels melancholic. 2020 is a torpor of melancholy, and while I cannot wait for this time to be over, perhaps I/we need to stop running from all this melancholy I/we feel. The world has changed, and I/we miss many aspects of our old lives. Yet, not all that we face in this time is shrouded in grief. Many of us have found new joys: increased solitude, time with our partners, family, pets, and loved ones, a renewed appreciation for music, film, nature, cooking, and relational life. Really, the deep sadness of so much life loss in 2020 — from Black lives to COVID-19 — is not something we can turn away from. As we contemplate these collective, societal, global losses, we might build a more joyful and connected world. This is the great hope of Black Lives Matter, doctors, nurses, politicians, artists, and youth in this time, urging us to harness the melancholic to imagine and enact a new world. We need particular moments of melancholy to embrace the richness of life’s joyful possibilities. Reinhardt’s Garden seems bent on forcing contemplation about these twin, inter-related realities.
The novel also deals heavily with the role of literature, translation, and art juxtaposed against science, philosophy, psychology, and religion. Reinhardt “believed the most candid and pure poetry of humankind was the poetry of psychology and science and of course the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism” (p. 67). The narrator and other minor characters of the book, however, also find great solace in poetry and literature. There are great sections of the book that contemplate the role of literature in translation, and Reinhardt himself seems particularly obsessed with reading every translation of any work by Carrasquilla. Further, a physical translator, Javier, accompanies Reinhardt, the narrator, and others on a search for Carrasquilla through the South American rainforests. Javier is defined as an imbecilic translator throughout the novel, often “confus[ing] words like exorcism with river or monkey” (p. 106). Haber, whom I know personally, has an intense interest in literature in translation, and these questions about language, translation, and literature are deeply philosophical. How are science and literature related? What is the role of translation, and how do we determine if a particular translation is worthy of our time and energy? What books are we reading in translation?
Which leads to a particular treatise and reflection on the act of writing itself near the end of the novel itself. Carrasquilla, it appears, “had come to the conclusion that writing itself was an illness” (p. 133) and therefore had given it up. When a talented writer like Haber incorporates a philosophical treatise on writing into the narrative plot of a story, a careful reader’s antennae will attune. “Many people believe writing is a single act. . .an exercise in and of itself, but it’s not that at all, it’s three or four, perhaps six different acts, because there’s the idea of course and then one needs the words to carry that idea because without the words the idea simply sinks or suffocates” (p. 133). Writing is hard. It brings me unmeasurable anguish, fear, despondency, and tension. Though the prose of Reinhardt’s Garden is eloquent, euphoric, and flows with indescribable ease, seemingly without difficulty, one cannot help but recognize Haber is contemplating in these closing pages the difficulty of committing an idea, or sense of idea, to paper: “no one mentions the discipline or the self-motivation and self-belief nor the energy and agony of having to sit and write about what. . .was essentially life” (p. 133).
Contradiction in life’s journey is the great philosophical idea at the heart of Reinhardt’s Garden, perfectly summed up in two key ideas near the novel’s end. First, “not until one has traveled the dark and menacing paths of pathos, the bramble-infested corridors of anguish, does one learn that happiness and melancholy are two words for the same thing” (p. 128). We must embrace the rocky paths of melancholy to find happiness. Second, “Jacov explained that melancholy, in its purest form, was merely realization of one’s own insignificance” (pp. 144–45). We often center ourselves in the narratives of our lives, but we are ultimately tiny specks of dust in a vast universe. This is not a new philosophical, psychological, religious, or literary idea. Reinhardt’s Garden is not the first to contemplate this timeless truth.
Yet, Haber’s invocation of these truths appear pressing philosophical contemplations for our time. How does meditating on our insignificance open our lives? Perhaps some key contradictions emerge that are beyond needed in a deeply flawed, physically, and socially diseased society and world.
First, that we are actually significant. Sometimes our seemingly insignificant actions portend profoundly significant results for our lives and the lives of others (i.e., social distancing). Often, the lives of those deemed so insignificant as to not even measure an amplitude of societal care — Black lives like Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd; as of this writing, the lives of over 120,000 citizens in the United States and 440,000 globally who have died from COVID19 — are not really insignificant at all. Their lives may be the most profoundly significant of our times.
Second, though we may be suffering from deep philosophical, social, cultural, and political malaise, though we may be facing individual and societal manifestations of melancholy, this year of profound disappointment, sadness, and discontent will bring us clear vision — one might say 2020 vision — for a world with greater happiness, joy, and contentment. We might feel a desire to give up at present. But this is not the narrator’s conclusion at novel’s end, and it should not be ours either. “Melancholy was the emotion of contemplation and reflection. . .and somehow I knew I would survive, and the world itself would advance, and neither one of us would ever face a sad day again for the rest of our lives” (pp. 149–150).
Haber, M. (2019). Reinhardt’s garden. Coffee House Press.