A Lost Plot: Paradise
i. In paradise
In paradise, there are four rivers, whose names are Saihan, Jaihan, Furat, and Nil. The silver waters rush up from the spring called Salsabil and where they go, they are in paradise.
In paradise, the prime gardener is the angel Ridwan, under whose care blooms every blossom and fruits every fruit—and thornless all—in paradise.
In paradise, it is exactly the opposite of the desert: water, milk, and honey, the pure and abstract drink called sharab-un-tahoora—scent of camphor, ginger, musk purling from the fountains and the trees—pearl and ruby, silver, gold, and shade—above all, shade—in paradise.
In paradise, there are, according to the Quran, seven terraces or infinite, the highest of which is called Firdaus (from the same root that gives us the word paradise) or Illiyin (the high places) and eight gates, eight virtuous paths by which to enter جنّة , Al-Jannah, or, the Garden—eight gates—and so eight walls—the octagon imparadised.
ii. The walls of paradise
Our English word paradise derives from the Latin (paradisus), which comes from the Greek (παράδεισος), which stems, along with the Hebrew variant, פָּרְדֵּס, from the old Iranian base of Avestan (pairidaēza), meaning enclosure and often a walled garden Inscribed in the name of paradise are three concepts that hover in ambivalent relation: firstly, the idea of a lush, green space, a kind of Lustgarten, to use the evocative German word, secondly, the idea of a boundary encircling that verdant place, and thirdly the idea of the spatial itself. The word “paradise” suggests then, in the strictest sense, not deathly austerity, but life sustained in abundance; not an amorphous state but a position conditioned, if not simply by containment within walls, then by a relationship to form, rule, boundedness; not an atmosphere but a location, precise, even if unknown, like the variable in an algebraic equation. About the temporality of paradise—its duration in time, its coordinates in past, present, or future—the etymology gives us less to go on. The gardens of paradise, tended by otherworldly creatures, are often represented as an eternal, unseasonable month in which fallow and germinal periods are not required (though some labor is usually demanded, if only from an angel, as if the truly unthinkable were abundance without work). Everything grows and grows not. And plants of all description flower and fruit at once. There are, of course, exceptions. But let’s return to: liveliness, form, the walls.
Depictions of the paradise of the afterlife often inhabit this walled imaginary to an extreme. There is a curious, finicky rigidity in the poetic cartography of Dante’s Paradiso with its Ptolemaic vision of concentric astral spheres, its Celestial Rose and its Primum Mobile. Illustrations of the Comedy from the Yates-Thompson Codex to Botticelli to Gustave Doré habitually concern themselves with some degree of fidelity to these fearful symmetries. This rage for order is entirely understandable. On one hand, it gestures at the sacred frame of medieval Christianity, in which the task of interpreting the world often involved discerning a sense of divine planning, macrocosm to microcosm. On another, it reflects the explicitly hierarchical European social contexts of the same period in the form of the claim that heaven is not a relief from a tiered world but a locus in which everything has an appointed place and is in its appointed place. There, hierarchy is fully realized and functional, as it never is here on earth. Each soul revolves contentedly in its assigned place in the circumvolving spheres and does not seek to rise or sink.
This leads to the fairly banal proposition that any given image of a perfected world must exist in some relation to the conditions of the given world—its capacities for justice and injustice, beauty and terror and the rest—some relation, whether by analogy, amplification, diminishment, reaction, recombination, or reconstitution. It is tempting (certain paradises are not impervious to temptation), to imagine we might, given our vantage point in history, break free of the mental limit of relation to the material when it comes to imagining with any precision the absolute form of an absolutely perfect world. Even the thickest account of human progress forbids us that.
This is not, however, the same as saying that better arrangements of existence are not thinkable or possible. In fact, a paradisiacal imaginary, one that owes more to the specific contours of its etymology than to the denatured version of paradise as an extreme of the utopian impulse (the clinamen towards a static, unchanging perfected world) or a picture of lost innocence or redemption after death, intimates the decidedly imperfect terms under which we might represent to ourselves not the timeless form of absolute grace, which exceeds, by definition, even the most searching reach of human faculties, but the myriad better worlds hidden in the folds of our own.
There is another world and it is this one.
It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Both of these maxims have yet to be securely attributed to their first speakers. Maybe, one day, you will be the first to have invented them. What kinds of possibilities does paradise, the walled garden, open to flower or choke in weeds?
In The Divine Comedy, it is only in the Earthly Paradise, Eden-that-was displaced to the top of the mountain in the Purgatorio—the cantica of reunions and redemption—that Dante’s Pilgrim sees something of what Milton would later call the Garden’s “mazie error.” The Earthly Paradise knows itself to resemble the joys of Earth, amplified and sustained, while, to the Pilgrim’s faulty mortal eyes, Heaven is less garden than points of speeding light and rainbow.
It is, of course, impossible to represent perfection, which is one reason why Dante spends so much time, on the ascending asymptote to God’s eye, lamenting—no, exulting—that poetry is failing him. It is one reason why so many attempts to portray the good abundance of a garden-state resort to a game of brinksmanship with the limits of language, to kitsch or hieratic rigidity or the stultifying accumulation of superlative detail. Blake’s provocative description of Milton in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell hints at the problem of portraying a world that is absolutely good and lacks nothing in a notorious aphorism: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” In Blake’s account of Paradise Lost, the most wearisome material is Milton’s attempt at theodicy, the effort to justify God’s ways to man and especially to render the sovereign authority of God an optimism. Sometimes, undeniably, a synonym for flawless, immaterial Heaven or the perfected society that goes under the name of Utopia (literally, no-place), paradise, considered firstly as a place and, specifically as a walled garden, also conceals a counternarrative of imaginative possibility—and folly—we should not forget folly. It conjures, too, the question: is it possible to imagine paradise unbound—and unbounded?
Marvell, “The Mower against Gardens”:
Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air.
Walls, it must be said, are not unilaterally or necessarily wicked. Conceptually speaking, they might act as the rule that allows thought to move or a flirtatious whisper to echo more sweetly in a willing ear. An entirely unbounded version of the world might be as inimical to life as one planned on the arduous taxonomies of the order beds beloved of monasteries and apothecaries in early modern Europe.
Consider Hieronymous Bosch’s Millenium Triptych, a trio of painted panels depicting Heaven, Hell, and the Garden of Earthly Delights, frequently called, tellingly, metonymically by this last name, as if the earthly plot had blotted out the memory of perdition and Prelapsarian paradise alike. The critic John Berger reads the Hell third of Bosch’s painting as prescient of the grinding disorientation of a globalized economy: “There is no horizon there,” he writes, “no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths and no future . . . only the clamor of the disparate fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows; everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium . . . there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise.”
Left to right, the order of Bosch’s triptych is: Heaven, Garden, Hell, each world walled in its painted border. The Garden of Earthly Delights stands fast in the mediating center so that the whole might be understood not as an extrapolation of Hell’s destruction of space or Heaven’s fearful symmetry, but as an ambiguous gradient of possibility. Anyway, it is literally true that some plants, bound by extremity, require vertical surfaces to climb and (especially in harsh climates) shelter from simoom and shifting dune, inclement frost or avalanche.
And now we come to plots. One possible, useful reduction of paradise-as-walled-garden is to think of it, merely, as a special case of a plot of land, albeit one that has accumulated a staggering amount of metaphorical ore. (A shamefully partial accounting might touch on the Song of Solomon, Islamic architecture and theology, Biblical and Quranic exegesis, the hortus conclusus, the locus amoenus, unicorns, metaphysical poetry, the Inclosure Acts, women’s bodies, theories of disease, contamination, toxicity, purity, and contemporary structures of American political feeling about the nation-state, especially those related to the sanctity of the border.) Ingrained in the history of that word “plot” is the sense of “specified purpose,” whether the plot in question is a quantity of ground, a map or scheme, a kind of differentiating stain (sense now obsolete), a related series of events (as in the plot of a narrative or the of history) or “[a] plan made in secret by a group of people, esp. to achieve an unlawful end; a conspiracy.” In other words, plots and plotting share, at least, an orientation towards delimited shape or significance and, at most, a phototropism towards a telos. A plot can be a geography marked out for use (walls are a way of accomplishing this) or else a sequence that amounts to relational meaning and/or an account of causality.
Plots and plotting entail various commitments to ethics, aesthetics, and politics but these commitments vary in accordance with their contexts. In an essay called “Reality and Its Shadow,” the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who knew what it was to be incarcerated in the plot that was the German prison camp called Fallingbostel, wrote with revulsion of that frequently-plotted form of literature, the novel:
The characters of a novel are beings that are shut up, prisoners. Their history is never finished, it still goes on, but makes no headway. A novel shuts beings up in a fate despite their freedom. Life solicits the novelist when it seems to him as if it were already something out of a book. Something somehow completed arises in it, as though a whole set of facts were immobilized and formed a series.
For Levinas, the plot of the novel and the plot of the prison yard analogize one another. They cage movement and close off the possibility that things might become different. (No matter when you encounter the book, no matter how often you return to it, the characters in a novel will make the same decisions and come to the same end.) Moreover, Levinas argues that the impulse to novelize springs out of a sense that fate has trumped freedom and the only thing left to do is mimic that constriction in art: so you write a book, you plot.
In Levinas’s knot garden, which rings with a kind of caustic laugh, plots are not consonant with imaginative agency or subversion, they are an illustration of the intuition that resistance is futile. Like certain spiders, this form of plot kills by paralysis the hopeful tenses: the counterfactual, the conditional and the future. A novel is not, of course, the same as a prison. But something might still be learned from the extremity of the comparison. In order for the full horror of this vision of plotting as the convergence of physical confinement and fate to register, we might consider the idea that three contemporary forms of American containment—the prison (aroint thee, Foucault!), the border, and their closely related corollary, the detention center—are so often framed as historically determined, the plots of necessity rather than materially contingent accretions. Why: cages, criminals, nation states (novels, adds Levinas, why novels?)? Plot answers: because it could not have been otherwise. Paradise Lost, though it’s not a novel is, it’s worth noting, a narrative epic whose foregone conclusion, like that of its sequel poem, Paradise Regained, is spoiled for you in the very title. That story—born to lose—born to die—the garden plot.
iv. Garden plots
It is not the only garden plot. Consider the charbagh (from the Persian for “four gardens”), a garden-form diffused throughout the Islamic world in both public and private contexts: the charbagh features a cross-axial plan that results in quadrants, a characteristic that has suggested to subsequent generations of gardeners, garden-goers, and scholars a strong association between this kind of garden plot and Jannah, the Quranic garden of paradise with its four rivers of water, milk, wine, and honey. And yet, as art historian D. Fairchild Ruggles points out in her work on garden design in the Islamic world, the quadripartite garden precedes the existence of Islam and so the text of the Quran. Ruggles conjectures that the conflation between the heavenly Paradise-plot and the earthly ones owes something to the fashionable multiplication of tomb-gardens, whose designs often linked themselves, self-referentially to Quranic descriptions of Paradise and invited visitors to reflect on mortality.
An honest philologist would note that the Quran itself tends to mark real distinctions between earthly gardens and Jannah, the garden of paradise. In passages that figure the gardens of the world we know not as pale echoes of the life after death but as plots immanent with God but fitted for human pleasure, cultivation, and use, the Quran sings of “the green foliage, the grain lying close, the date palm trees with clusters of dates, and the gardens [jannah] of grapes, and of olives and pomegranates, so similar yet so unlike.” It is not the form of Paradise that provides the blueprint for the Quranic description of the afterworld but those earthly paradises of form called gardens that give the pattern for the best we can imagine of the world to come. The cross-axial gardens of the Islamic world were not born Paradise, but became it. And if the direction of imaginative causality is, here, reversed—paradise parents Paradise—this may not be diminution but, rather, the merest suggestion of the kind of poetry Marianne Moore wisted after in the form of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
For many of the paradise gardens of the world encode in their materials certain tensions among reward for pious and ethical behavior in a life to come, the sensuous delights of the physical now, and all forms of worldly authority. To dwell in or on these earthly paradises (all too often reserved, anyway, for the use of the powerful), to live too closely with the things of this world, might lead to damnation. Not all gardens invited obedience to divine mandate. Indeed, the architectures of the charbagh and its variants often play, explicitly, with this flickering between earthly pleasures and dreams of the afterworld. In the Alhambra are alcoves for prayers in which there are inscriptions that beckon their readers to look away from Mecca and the hereafter (dar al-baqa) and towards the glories of the here-and-now (dar-al-fana). What P/paradise is this? 
What makes a garden plot? And who are the gardeners? Gardens in the Islamic world serve a variety of purposes, are intended for a variety of audiences, and are sustained by a variety of labors. It is difficult to make claims about them as a universal category. The plot of the charbagh proper, its languages of design and use, is wildly divergent from the plot, say, of the Appalachian provision garden (a form of subsistence cultivation particular to its landscape), a “captured garden” whose history reveals, as Steven Stoll puts it, the “contested grounds between the poor and the powerful over who controlled food and the terms of labor.”  And the plot of the provision garden is not, for example, the plot of the botanic garden and its array of geographically diverse plants, which has, at various points in its history, been: a democratic appeal to the value of a commons in which perfume and beauty and leisure are not the sole provenance of the rich; a producer and keeper of horticultural knowledge; a pedagogy in non-human life; a means of reinforcing imperial ideology that concentrates, for garden-goers in the center, flora and fauna from the margins, as if this arrangement were harmonious and natural; a verdant obscurer both of the sustained labor of gardening and of expropriative and exploitative cultivation-work in colonial contexts. (The shadow of the European botanical garden of the eighteenth-century is the plantation.). And the plot of the botanic garden is not the plot of the physic garden, with its concern for the medicinal properties of herb and flower, leaf and bark and fruit—pharmakon—poison and cure.
It would be possible to go on indefinitely. (Il faut cultiver notre jardin.) The garden plot, more properly spoken of in plural—plots—is and are prolific. They grow in many directions. If they share anything, it is three aspects: firstly, the problem of purpose, that the human relationship to land so often—and so often necessarily—turns on questions of use and uselessness (Plots, remember, have ends, just have paradises have some kind of notional connection to an encircling wall.). How, if we must use, can we use better and more wisely? And if complete disinterest is impossible, how can use be prevented from becoming the limit of association with respect to persons, things, and ecologies? Secondly, plots entail (an entailment is a kind of plot), a claim (a claim is a kind of plot) to the engimas of definition and often of mapping, whether this means the notional transformation from ground into territory, the organization of impulse into the intent of the plan, or the philosophical or poetic attempt to arrange the world in schema of concepts, analogies, comparisons, figures (to say, in short, that some things are like other things and some are not and what it all means). Thirdly, plots share, to one degree or another, a stake in the set of vital questions about (among other things) the ethics of cultivation, the politics of property (whose is the plot and who gets to call it a plot?), subsistence and abundance, human relationships to the non-human, labor and leisure, agency and causality, imaginative procedures of sense-making by demarcation, and the precarious sense that the materials of this world are thick with the potential for different forms of life, the flourishing of fruits and flowers of a kind we’ve not yet tasted.
v. All places thou
J.M.W. Turner painted his Vignette Study for the Expulsion from Paradise (c. 1834 the same year he watched Parliament burn from the south bank of the Thames.  Turner, who had been capping his landscapes with quotations from John Milton’s work from the late 1790s on, seems to have understood better than almost any other illustrator (save, perhaps, for Blake), a key facet of the poetics of Paradise Lost: “poetic description,” Turner writes with reference to Milton in one of his lectures on perspective, “most full, most incidental, and displaying the greatest richness of verse is often the least pictorial, and hence hasty practice or choice, to use a more harsher term, are led astray.” Even as he worked on the images for an edition of Milton’s poetry, Turner was exquisitely aware of this problem of representation: that the images of Paradise Lost are sensuous without necessarily being visualizable.
The moiré, watercolor eddies of Turner’s expulsion scene, which depicts the final exile from Eden, whisper a few palm fronds into sight, call into minimal contour two rose-touched, transparent figures in the lower quadrants. I think they are Eve and Adam (typically, I have never been able to make out the angel hiding there, official according to the gallery description). Lucent, liminal, tremulous, pastel is less color than a quaver of temperature evaporating from sketch’s surface. (The Goodall engraving of Turner’s Expulsion study loses this quality entirely, too finished, too unambiguously representative, too heavily molded to tempt, a pious orthodoxy changed out of mist.) The sketch is inscribed “118” in a hand that belongs to John Ruskin. The sketch is inscribed CCLXXX in an unknown hand. The sketch is stamped in black, ‘CCLXXX 118.’
Paradise, here in Turner, departs from Milton’s description, not so much walled in its foliage as cradled, trailing off like an unfinished thought (and so it is). I recall—though I don’t know if Turner did—that one of Milton’s implacable angels is careful to tell us that the Flood washes away the mountain on which Eden is poised like a chance-caught star,
…verdure spoiled and trees adrift.
Down the great river to the op’ning gulf
And there take root an island salt and bare,
The haunt of seals and orcs and sea-mews’ clang,
To teach thee that God attributes to place
No sanctity if none be thither brought.
An island, “salt and bare,” anthropocenic, replaces the Garden. Reading somewhat against the grain (I do know it!), I can see this substitution as a form of relief from the terrible responsibility of bearing sanctity, wriggling under the heavy thumb of God’s love. Beyond Turner’s palm fronds is the welcome blankness of the empty page.
I remember, too, that Milton follows the less popular account of Adam’s creation, in which the first man is not formed within the walls of Paradise but in some other unspecified earthly elsewhere, brought thence to Eden by his Maker. You could, if you wanted, understand this as a rebuke to the idea that Paradise is any kind of birthright: humanity, there, was always transplant—and Paradise no point of pure origin but only ever proving ground, greenest trial for greenest things. (Eve, created of Adam in the confines of Paradise and coming to consciousness of herself reflected in one of its clear pools, has, arguably, the better claim to belonging in the Garden: “Must I thus leave thee, Paradise . . . O flowers, /That never will in other climate grow…”), her final, delicate chiasmus, too, the last words in the poem spoken in a human voice, which enfolds the gorgeous half-line (addressed—oh dear—to Adam): “all places thou.” Coward soul, I stop there, undiscerning (the end of her speech unbearable to me), stop there, in the first analogy that wants me, between the adumbrated reaches of Turner’s watercolors, where the tint etherealizes like angelic matter, and that petite phrase: “all places thou, all places thou, all places thou!” That blankness of the sketch not negative space but the possible of all the world (no perfect thing) imaginable so happily (!) so sadly (!) in our others and through them and with them. That place—caught in the fugitive act of becoming permeable to itself—where we have lost paradise to lose the plot—of paradise, for paradise, in paradise.
 “Paradise,” Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/Entry/137340?rskey=B4F8Qh&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.
McKenzie Wark, “There is another World, and it is this one,” Public Seminar, January 14, 2014, http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/01/there-is-another-world-and-it-is-this-one/.
 Milton, Paradise Lost, book IV, line 239.
 The Earthly Paradise is the place where Reason (in the allegorical form of the poet Virgil) bids the wanderer, “lo tuo piacere mai prendi per duce,” “let your pleasure be your guide” in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. In purgatorial Eden grows a “forest dense, alive with green, divine” where songbirds practice their arts “just like the wind that sounds from branch to branch/along the shore of Classe, through the pines/when Aeolus has set Sirocco loose.” Order itself unlaces itself just a little at the top of Mount Purgatory. It is possible, for a brief moment in Eden, suspended between reason and grace, to take pleasure as your guide. Even then, the Pilgrim must leave the rational behind (in the allegorical form of the poet Virgil) and pass through a wall of fire to find his way to Beatrice (grace) and the garden. (The Comedy invokes, at this point, Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers divided by a wall.) Even, then, he is only passing through, that Pilgrim, having drunk of Lethe—the waters of forgetting—on his way to the best thing, which lies elsewhere.
Dante, Purgatorio: Second Book of the Divine Comedy, trans. Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), Canto XXVII, li. 131 and CANTO XXVIII li. 19 – 21.
 William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 35.
 Andrew Marvell, Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (London: Penguin 1972), 105.
 John Berger, “Against the Great Defeat of the World” in The Shape of a Pocket, (New York: Vintage 2001), 210.
 “Plot,” Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/Entry/145915?rskey=Ym5edJ&result=1#eid .
 Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Séan Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 139.
Though it is a useful reminder that the novel need not always be conceived of as autonomous or escapist, Levinas’s orientation towards this kind of literature (and, in “Reality and Its Shadow,” towards art more generally)—as a kind of arid, formally enclosed space—is hardly the only one possible and, indeed, it’s helpful to remember that literature may offer models of attachment, reciprocity, emancipation, knowledge, confusion, and sheer otherness that compel precisely because they do not seem possible outside an experience of art; useful, on occasion, to remember that “escapism” is not and should not be reducible to a form of sinning.
 6:99. Quoted in D. Fairchild Ruggles, Gardens, Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 219.
 Marianne Moore, “Poetry” (original version) in The Complete Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 257.
 Ruggles, 219–220.
 The joke of many courtyard gardens was the play of illusion they made out of precious water: reflecting fountains, streams, and pools, solid forms that verged on an illusory fluidity (All that is solid melts into air), statues of animals, animated by water, that seemed to move and sing or roar. In the Alhambra, a fountain supported by stone lions betrays the name of its immediate environs: the Court of the Lions. On its basin is a poem that pictures the stone of the fountain as a cup of ice filled with its vivacious liquid, different phases of the same material, so that “it is impossible to say which of the two is really flowing.” In the Alhambra, secular verses may be found on doorways and walls, among plants and watercourses, an element integrated among other elements. (Ruggles, 210 – 213).
 Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2017), 214.
 J.M.W. Turner, “Fourth Lecture on Perspective,” quoted in Sharon Lambert Church, Lynn Matteson, and Laura Landau, and Max F. Schulz, Ut Poesis Pictura: J.M.W. Turner’s Illustrations to the British Poets (Los Angeles: University of Southern California/Fisher Gallery, 1997), 52.
 Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI, lines 832–837.