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No Hortus Conclusus, My Seaside Garden. On the Writings of Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman

EssayPart of Issue #7: Show and Tell

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave or thee.

— Sonnet I

for Michiel, little bruiser

I. Auguries of Innocence

Wittgenstein notoriously remarked in his Tractatus that death is not an event. One cannot experience death because in order to experience one has to live. Although this might be true from a phenomenological point of view, the writings of Derek Jarman, four volumes of which were reissued in 2018 by Vintage Publishers, seem to contradict this statement—or rather subvert it in a way—since they seem to show us how the event, perhaps not of death, but of dying can be experienced and, even more, lived through, written down and captured on celluloid even, provided one finds the strength to look one’s own demise straight in the eye and take note of the beauty flowering in its shadow against all odds.

The four volumes consist of two journals, a book on color and an exploration of gay life in the second half of the 20th century, subtitled A Saint’s Testament, but in each book Jarman uses the same methodology towards his subject, which could be summarized as the whole of life experienced by one man in a particular epoch, but with a bottoms-up approach. Rather than trying to fit the entire complexity of existence into one grand scheme, Jarman merely—an understatement—weaves together observations, memories, theories, gossip (that underrated methodology of knowledge), citations of his favorite writers and every other flight of fancy that passes through his minds and days. In what has been called “the true mark of the naïve,” everything that catches his eye, from the budding of his gardenias to the grand political movements that try to diminish all that his life tried to attest to, gets the same focus and attention as a reminder that not only will the center not hold, it may not even be there, but the view has always been more colorful and incisive from the fringes anyway.

Since these books were all written in the last years of Jarman’s life, before he would succumb to what was at the time a benign virus, were it not for the social and political context that decided to use this disease as an excuse for genocide. The physical deterioration, as described in meticulous detail through lists of medicaments—almost channeling the rhythm of liturgies—that have to contravene the ebb and flow of stigmata until the handwriting becomes unintelligible and the record ends tellingly and abruptly with a declaration of true love a mere few weeks before Jarman perishes. Like sparks through the rubble.

Prospect Cottage

II. Garden of Delights

The map might not be the territory but the writing is always the landscape.

After having received his dormant death sentence in 1986, Jarman relocated far from the madding crowd, to the vast horizons of Dungeness, a shingle beach on the coast of the United Kingdom. As if the Sword of Damocles hanging above his head needed an extra visualization, the local skyline was dominated by two Nuclear Power Stations, one of which is still active today. In this most remarkable of environments, Jarman decided to stage the final act of his life as an apotheosis of everything he had done before. The lyrical cinema for which he is still most widely known seems to have a predilection for metaphors, but only in so far as they can be grounded in carnal imagery. Be it by embodiment through human figures or the sensuous presence of color itself, the poetry at the core of his work was never merely an idea but the result of a sensibility rooted in a generous receiving of what is at hand.

The last great metaphor Jarman decided to give (back) to the world is the garden he cultivated in this no-man’s-land, as a final retribution of the odds that were stacked against people like him from the beginning. All his works, and possibly his writings most explicitly, smolder with the melancholy sense his life was never meant to be lived, let alone be jubilantly celebrated, by the powers that were and could not even imagine him. In establishing his garden, Jarman took his tender revenge against the restrictions imposed on him by the tradition of conceived ideas known as straightness. His garden was as open and polymorphously deviant, with its hospitality towards trespassing visitors and unexpected inhabitants, as was his life. Jarman’s modus operandi had always been one of slipping through imaginary boundaries, the biggest being that delusional one between life and art.

Closely following the cyclical movement of nature with its seasons, Jarman records for posterity the mind-blowing events of roses coming into bloom at long last and thieving magpies swiftly swirling through the sky. The meditative tranquility with which these log entries succeed and repeat each other leaves a lot of room for the reader to imbed his own personal experiences and memories in this loosely knit patchwork. As accommodating as Jarman is to his friends and lovers who wander through the pages as they did through his life, dropping in and out but always welcome to stay, the reader finds himself offered this same sense of hospitality. It is by now a tired cliché that queer people get to choose their own family, but the writings of Jarman give a first-person account of the necessity through which this cliché was born. To choose one’s family meant to strengthen the changes of staying alive by making a home for oneself on one’s own terms.

The Garden (Derek Jarman, 1990)

III. Queer Genealogies

Even though Jarman has the reputation of a radical rebel whose life epitomized the sexual (and other) liberations of the sixties, reading his texts unveils a side of his personality that had always been hidden in plain sight. A caring conservatism galvanizes his attempts at finding new means of expression or bringing new subjects into the old ones in much the same way one can only break from tradition by acknowledging it. This is the man who made movies about the Sonnets of the Bard, Renaissance theatre and painters, the Holy Scripture and a Requiem. His interest for subjects from the past of Western Civilization is anything but nostalgic. By lurching himself and his desires back in time he actively tries to bring it back into the present, where it had always lain dormant, in hopes of safeguarding it from death by simplification. He revives and enriches the stories of his ancestry with a defiant life force (shaped by meticulous research) that seems to have been prompted by the desires of a child left to his own devices in the grey postcard stillness of post war England. His weaving together of the personal and political, the poetical and the musical, the observational and imaginable, resembles an evocation of the childlike universe in which everything has its place and, more importantly, self-evident meaning. A puppy frisking toward two men walking on the beach need not have less importance than the Fall of Rome and those two events might enrich each other even when edited into the same minuet.

The same goes for death perhaps, the shadow lingering in so many images and words on these pages. “Et in arcadia ego,” Jarman repeats like a refrain time and time again, yet the books bulking with more lust for life than these volumes can be counted on one hand. If we only look at the productivity of these last years in which he completed four books, five films, dozens of paintings and the garden from which they all seem to have sprung, one might ask how he found the time to die? Until steadily and less slowly each year the color diminished in the space between the words when the names of flowers are one by one exchanged for those medicaments and the descriptions of the garden become reports about hospital visits. The reader feels life dripping away between the palms of his hands.

The Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote, “symbols become cymbals in the face of death.” The four books Jarman wrote in the last years of his life attest to this poetic truth as few others have done. These are explorations of life by an adventurous mind, showing us how beautiful this world can be, especially when it will not last forever. What should have been a death sentence became the propeller of an enormous amount of energy channeled through a mind dedicated to find beauty in the smallest conceivable fractions of light. “Despite everything,” Jarman says, “I am still alive,” and in doing so he showed us what it means not to experience but to survive one’s own death.

Modern Nature, Smiling in Slow Motion, At Your Own Risk and Chroma were reissued by Vintage Publishers in 2018. Hopefully they will continue this revival of a Renaissance man.