Sunday, July 27, 2014

Civilised leisure: capitalism, free time and the garden

While I was in Amsterdam for the 'G8 of Philosophy', I gave a talk on capitalism, free time and the intellectual value of the garden.

Drawing on the life of Leonard Woolf, detailed in my Philosophy in the Garden (Filosoferen in de Tuin in the Netherlands, Voltaire's Vine in the UK), I showed how the garden's combination of humanity and nature is an invitation to reflection and reverie. It is, in short, a kind of civilised leisure.

You can now watch an edited video of the talk, produced by Jos de Putter, on De Correspondent.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Happy two-hundredth birthday, Mansfield Park

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's adaptation
of Mansfield Park (1999)
Happy birthday, Mansfield Park.

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen's first work of maturity.

To celebrate this, the Jane Austen Society of Australia held a day-long conference in Sydney, to which I was invited. (My Voltaire's Vine/Philosophy in the Garden devotes the first chapter to Austen.)

My essay, 'Fanny Price in the Garden', will be published later this year. For now, a short extract on my love of Mansfield Park's quiet heroine:
Jane Austen’s genius was character: painting subtle portraits of selves. Not just the saved and damned souls of Protestantism, but a variegated gallery of virtues and vices.  
And it is testament to this talent that Austen can make Fanny Price loveable. Fanny Price the wallflower. Fanny Price the wowser. Miss Price is not a charming Lizzy Bennet: “as delightful a creature,” as Austen put it, “as ever appeared in print.” Fanny is not even a Catherine Morland, with her verve and simple boldness. Fanny’s families do not hate her – they just barely notice her. And when they do, she is simply the moth to make their butterflies brighter. One Victorian critic, George Saintsbury, had the right word for Fanny: “insipid”. 
No quips. No harp performances. No flirty repartee. Miss Price has, Austen writes, “faults of ignorance and timidity.” This ignorance is remedied with Fanny’s own good sense, alongside her cousin Edmund’s careful education, and the household’s lessons of elegance and taste. The timidity is tempered by age and company. Still, on the surface, Miss Price lacks charisma.  
And yet: I love her. Now, this is neither capital ‘R’ Romantic love nor Georgian lust – the carnal love of Boswell’s alleyway trysts. I do not have a ‘thing’ for Fanny Price as I do for Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. (She was never “only Anne” to me.) This is love in Hume’s eighteenth-century sense: pleasure. I get pleasure from Miss Price. 
This reads cynically to modern eyes, but pleasure need not be mercenary. In his Treatise of Human Nature, published a generation before Austen was born, Hume argued that love is an “indirect” emotion. We hear someone’s words, see their gestures, smell their scents, and these impressions give pleasure. They might suggest trustworthiness, gentleness or generosity, for example. These impressions, in turn, are associated in our minds with the idea of character. So we never really see, smell or touch the psyche – we imagine it. And this fantasy borrows the pleasure offered by the senses. 
So my confession of love for the heroine of Mansfield Park is a revelation of delight: in her “constant little heart” as Edmund puts it (with some condescension), and her sincerity and warmth. These suggest the idea of a beautiful soul, which I happily imagine. I see past the surface, in other words – there are depths to Miss Price, to continue the metaphor, of moral loveliness. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Journey to the centre of the turf

Not couch grass - grass couch: Emilia on her turf seat
I've an essay in the new Australian Garden History journal, 'Journey to the centre of the turf'. (The puns. They burn.)

I'm investigating grass in general, and 'fake grass' in particular: synthetic turf. What is so special about lawn? And is artificial turf just a simulation, or can it be its own real thing? A sample:
Grass is primal. In Genesis, as soon as there is dry land, the Lord says: “Let the earth bring forth grass,” alongside herbs and fruit trees. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, delivers a rare paean to the Athenian countryside, including “grass, thick enough on a gentle slope to rest your head most comfortably.” This is a common celebration: of the sacred grove outside the city, with spring, scented flowers, shading canopies, and lush grass underfoot.  
In the gospels, Jesus feeds thousands of followers with bread and fish – they all “sit down by companies,” reads Mark 6, “upon the green grass.” Grass decorated Roman villas and medieval seats: the so-called “turf bench”, often graced by virginal maidens.  
This was not a lawn, of course: vistas of cut grass were for fields, not gardens. Christopher Thacker, in The Genius of Gardening, reports that thirteenth century estates “could have open grassy spaces only by laying new turf, cut from downland pasture, and beating it down firmly with mallets.” Theologian Albertus Magnus, a student of Thomas Aquinas, wrote of the “green cloth” of hammered grass, including seats so that “men may sit down there to take their repose pleasurably when their senses need refreshment.” This tedious job continued for some five centuries.  
Then technology and mobility intervened: by the end of the nineteenth century, after the invention of the mechanical mower, lawn become common – but not vulgar. Grass retained its suggestion of idyllic comfort. It can be wild but benign, fecund but not smothering – part of a vision of what Bloomsbury author and publisher Leonard Woolf, with some irony, calls “snakeless meadows…wildflowers, and the song of larks.”  
There is labour, of course. But this is all part of the charm: turf is necessity constrained by artful freedom. This is the luxury of the Touchett estate in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, with its “delightful” afternoon tea: “the flood of summer light had began to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.” Smooth and dense: this rhizome is thick with fertility, yet firmly lopped and cropped by the staff. For over two thousand years, grass has accompanied civilisation as an intimation of divine blessing or proudly tamed wilderness. 
And good news: you can now download the whole glossy, thought-packed issue of Australian Garden History (Vol. 26, No. 1) here.

(Illustration: 'Arcita and Palemone admire Emelia in her Garden', c.1460, from an illuminated manuscript of Boccaccio's Teseida, courtesy Austrian National Library.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Revelling in bodies - "How to Think About Exercise" on BBC6

Putting on weight (but not enough)
I was recently a guest on BBC6 with Maryanne Hobbs, talking about How to Think About Exercise.

For one of Maryanne's 'Three Minute Epiphanies', I discussed the intellectual and emotional rewards of fitness -- how to revel in our bodies, instead of just tinkering with them out of duty.

You can listen here.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"thought-provoking...fine book"

The June Gardens Illustrated (UK) has a review of my Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies.

Rory Dusoir, head gardener at Stud House, succinctly summarises many of the chapters, and rightly notes the lack of false finality in my book: "This thought-provoking book fuels...speculation without attempting anything so crude as a definitive response." Nicely put.

And I like Rory's conclusion: "I will not expect my own musings to reach a conclusion any time soon, but thanks to this fine book, we may think in the company of some great minds."

Click here to read a (dodgy) copy of the review.

Friday, June 20, 2014

An Australian Superman

Matthew Kelly, the Australian 'Superman'
Illustration by Daniel Keating
I've an essay and very short story (of sorts) in the new Island magazine, 'An Australian Superman'.

I was asked by Island's editor, Matt Lamb, this question: ‘What would have happened if baby Superman had landed in outback Australia?’

I answered this question in an essay, but also in a fictional biography, which celebrates the life of one Matthew Kelly, Australian superhero.
At twenty, Kelly joined the police force. According to his diaries, his powers began to show themselves more frequently: he ran faster than any man or animal, took a blackjack to the jaw without harm. He could see, he wrote, ‘the nice folds of pale skin and patches of fur’ under the ladies’ straight-up-and-down dresses. Kelly was directing traffic on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Sts when he first used his powers in public: he was hit by a Studebaker. The car was smashed in half. Kelly arrested the driver for drunkenness: he could ‘see the alcohol in the bludger’s blood’. 
In court, the young driver’s defence accused Kelly of prejudice, and asked: ‘Were you, Mr Kelly, inebriated at the time of the accident? You say you were hit by Mr Luthor, but you are unharmed, while my client’s vehicle is destroyed.’Lex Luthor was freed. 
Kelly continued to work in the force, but was never zealous: he spent his days arresting fellow Irish Catholics for petty crimes. His diaries reflect chronic resentment. ‘The same class of bastards who ordered us over the trenches,’ he wrote in 1921, ‘now hold up my promotion’. He saved his money, and took care of his mother, widowed by alcohol earlier that year. 
In 1922 Kelly began punishing criminals at night. He ignored petty theft but was severe with violence. Fire- arms melted in criminals’ hands. Rapists were frozen where they stood. He left tips for detectives: anonymous phone calls about opium, bookmaking, insider trading – often involving Melbourne’s Protestant elite. A judge was found tied up in an illegal brothel. A politician was photographed, from above, in a dry area buying crates of cheap whisky in Camberwell. (No charges were laid, but his career as a ‘temperance’ leader was over.) 
In the thirties Kelly’s surviving army comrades began dying of lung cancer and emphysema: partly smoking, partly mustard gas. He wrote in his diary that he could ‘now see the tar and tumours in the lungs of the cop shop secretaries’. He stopped smoking soon after. 
Kelly developed a reputation as a ‘fair, tough copper’. He met returned diggers who tried to recruit him into their nationalist paramilitary, who, as he wrote, ‘sing the praises of hardworking white men, without Europe’s decedance [sic].’ A handful of unionists invited him to their communist meetings. Kelly derided their talk of ‘the brotherhood of all men in socialist Australia’. He rejected both as hopelessly utopian. 
While he was not given to philosophical speculation, Kelly believed men were too corruptible, too weak, too stupid for any political solution. ‘Hope,’ he told Archbishop Mannix after his mother’s funeral, ‘is the enemy of a good life.’
The fantastic illustrations are by Daniel Keating, who also illustrated the Australian editions of Distraction and Philosophy in the Garden, and my recent Meanjin essay on superheroes.

Happinez (Or: Damon at the Vondelpark)

I'm featured in the new edition of Happinez, the European lifestyle magazine.

It's an interview with Dutch novelist and writer Susan Smit about my Philosophy in the Garden.

Aside from an occasional word, I've no idea what it says. But the photos -- taken in Amsterdam's lovely Vondelpark -- are quite schmick, and Susan was an engaged interlocutor.

A short précis of the feature is here. (In Dutch.)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bahçede Felsefe (Philosophy in the Garden in Turkey)

Just arrived today: my author copies of Bahçede Felsefe, the Turkish edition of Philosophy in the Garden.

Can Yayinlari have done a splendid job with design and layout. They've kept Dan Keating's illustrations, and the overall 'green' mood, but paired these with a khaki colour scheme, a sharp serif font, and cover of Nietzsche-as-topiary.

Obviously I can't speak to the translation (by Esra Birkan), but apparently "Aristotle had a reputation as a dandy" (my first line) is this in Turkish: "Aristoteles züppeliǧilye tanınırdı."

Added bonus: my very own Bahçede Felsefe bookmark.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The existential comforts of football

This weekend I was quoted in a Financial Times essay by journalist Simon Kuper, author of Soccernomics: 'Fandom - it's bigger than football'. As the FIFA World Cup begins, Kuper asks: why be a fan? What is so appealing about fandom?

It's a big question, and Simon and I spoke at length about sport and community. Simon has distilled the finer points into a sharp commentary:
Being a fan...connects you to your own past. In life, everything changes: you grow up, and people divorce, move away and die. Only your football team is for ever. The England team in 2014, for instance, is still recognisably the same animal as the England team of 1954. Football allows you to be eight years old again. 
Another joy of fandom: it offers a reassuringly comprehensible world, says the Australian philosopher Damon Young, author of How to Think About Exercise. Young explains: “The rules are clear. You know what it means to score a goal, get sent off, to win or lose. Sports decrease the painful ambiguity of life. They give us existential clarity. When you invest in your career, or your family, you get a constant sense of disappointment.” Only sport offers clear wins.  
And the final reassurance: you know that football doesn’t really matter. When England get knocked out in Brazil, the TV cameras will pan to stricken spectators, heads in hands. But to some degree, these extreme emotions are a performance – even a rather enjoyable performance. The next day, everyone in England will come to work, grumble, “Typical!” and get on with life, fortified by the communal experience. Except for a few damaged fanatics, fans lose and move on. 
“I would tend to say that fandom is not life-and-death,” says García. Young adds: “It’s a world that you can walk away from. It’s part of a consoling fantasy: this isn’t really your life.” In fact, fandom is rather more appealing than life.
(Photo: The FA via Getty, courtesy of The Guardian)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sydney Writers Festival - 2014

I just returned from a very busy Sydney Writers Festival.

David Braddon-Mitchell feeling the love
For the first two days I hosted the new 'Curiosity' lecture series: fourteen lectures on an astonishing variety of topics from cooking, to offence, to living and dying well. (I hosted twelve, then scampered off to my own panel.)

Highlights for me included Luke Russell on evil (see his essay here), David Braddon-Mitchell on love, and Chris Andrews on the Oulipo group.

(Chris' lecture also included my very favourite audience question. Inspired by Oulipo, I joking said the question had to be five words, and no 'e's. The commenter asked, quickly: "Why such a boys' club?" Brilliant.)

Tara Moss, Joker, Angela Meyer
I then spoke on a panel, 'Writing Bodies', with novelists Tara Moss and Irvine Welsh, hosted by the ABC's Rafael Epstein.

When I conceived the panel, I hadn't read Tara or Irvine's latest books: The Fictional Woman and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. But they are just spot on: Tara reflects on the stigmatisation and commodification of women's bodies, while Irvine brilliantly satirises the media cult of the fit physique. These themes, and others, complemented those of my How to Think About Exercise.

You can read a short Guardian review of the panel here.

"But my nanna is a..."
My next gigs, on Sunday, were for the festival's Family Day: a reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, and comedy storytelling (basically ten minutes of gross standup), alongside kids' authors James O'Loughlin, Tristan Bancks and Oliver Phommavahn.

My story involved diarrhoea, mucus, a bruised nose and dog biscuits. Good times.

I had little time to myself between gigs, and tried to avoid book-bloating (my European trip required a new backpack, just for books). But I did get to buy myself Captives, the handsome new book of flash fiction by Angela Meyer. Some marvellous awkwardness and uncanniness packed into those few words.

Kudos to the festival's artistic director Jemma Birrell, and all of the hard-working and astonishingly patient staff and volunteers.