Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Fragility, in everything." (The Saturday Paper)


Writer and artistic gadfly Nic Low has written a generous profile of me in today's Saturday Paper.

Instead of a series of quotes, Nic offers a story of our rambling walk from the eastern suburbs to the city--with a quick sprint and jog in between:
Single file on a narrow elevated footpath, Damon tells me that from a young age he’s been aware not of death, but of his death. Paused over chilli and garlic in Little Vietnam he says: “It’s my death: no one else can die it for me.” On a suburban kerb he recalls a trip to Wilsons Promontory when he and Ruth were students. He was swept out to sea. Some time later he struggled back in through waves and rocks, bloodied but joyous in the knowledge that his body was equal to the task. “It was awesome!” Ruth thought he’d drowned. She was so furious she wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day. 
Then, amid the roar of a 12-lane intersection, Damon’s exhilaration fades. Four years ago, Ruth became gravely ill. “Bad sushi, perhaps,” he says quietly, hitting the crossing button. She contracted hepatitis A and suffered acute liver failure. The doctors talked them through the possibilities, from recovery to coma and death. 
For all his willpower, Damon had to confront his own uselessness. In such situations the temptation to find someone to blame is strong. But central to the project of the self is resisting false consolation, and recognising what is and is not within your control. Damon put his head down and did what was within his control: the exhausting, messy work of caring for his wife and their two young children. There were no self-help revelations, but the experience became one of the engines of his philosophy. “It’s not just mortality,” he says. “It’s fragility, in everything.”
Read more of 'Damon Young on thinking...fast'.

(Photo: "Squeaky Beach-Wilsons Prom-Vic" by L sale.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

On solitude

Photo: Meredith O'Shea
Last weekend I was quoted in The Sunday Age, in Jill Stark's story 'Why being alone means keeping good company'.

I note that my comments here aren't necessarily tied to modern telecommunications. The same mechanisms would work in classical Athens or nineteenth century Germany:
"When you don't have the time or energy to cultivate that sense of a separate self you're far more likely to seek it in the crowd. People don't know how to negotiate solitude so they're deferring to the most vulgar kind of pack behaviour. If you look at the kind of xenophobia that a lot of Australians are feeling it's a lot easier to define yourself against some nasty other than it is to figure out what you think and feel..." 
"It's a way of keeping you preoccupied and stops you asking those awkward questions about your own cruelty or pettiness. Much of what we do and think is opaque to us. We make all kinds of decisions without understanding why, and have quirky reactions to other human beings – whether it's fear or lust or spite – and often we don't work this stuff out. Solitude is absolutely vital for trying to become more intimate with this weird self that we are."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What is a mind? (BWF 2014/RN Big Ideas)

Charles Babbage's brain in a jar
Photo by Adam Levine
At Brisbane Writers Festival I was on a panel called 'What is a mind?' with with medical researcher Kate Richards, psychologist David Roland and novelist Sean Williams, hosted by the ABC's Anthony Funnell 

The conversation was broadcast recently on ABC RN's 'Big Ideas' program, and you can now listen to the entire show online.

(For the record, I'm not really sure what a mind is.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Fanny Price

Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in the 1983 TV adaptation
I've a piece in The Saturday Age, 'Enraptured by a world less petty'.

It's the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. I'm reflecting on Fanny Price's character, and why I love this wallflower heroine.

This is an extract from my forthcoming essay in Island magazine, which is an edited transcript of a lecture I gave at the Jane Austen Society of Australia in July.

A sample:
What Fanny finds through her window is completeness: the feeling that things are of a piece. But behind this contrived elegance is a more profound one: the world itself. This is why, for Fanny, it is greater than Turner's oils or Handel on the harp strings – even out of poetry's reach. Austen is describing the world's divine order. 
Austen herself enjoyed this vision of the universe. It is neither cruel nor random – overall, it is as perfect and as good as can be. Poetry cannot quite grasp this truth, but, as Austen suggests, it can gesture at it. In a letter to her sister, the author quoted one of her favourite poets, Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right". The line is from Pope's famous An Essay on Man, which argues in favour of a kind of Enlightenment deism. To Pope, God is somewhere between artist and engineer, fabricating this delicate machine we call the world. 
The Mansfield Park gardens hint at this, what must be. They exemplify a greater harmony: existence itself. And a reminder of this existence consoles Fanny Price as it did her creator. For a few moments, our heroine is taken away from the pettiness, malice and egotism of her family and neighbours, and shown a reality more noble, altruistic and expansive.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Seeds of Thought (Literary Review)

Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the garden
My Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies is reviewed in the September issue of Literary Review (UK).

In 'Seeds of Thought', Miranda Seymour covers the chapters neatly, criticises my Orwell and Kazantzakis chapters (for reasons that don't quite fit with my book's philosophical premise), and adds generously that "Young writes with a delightful combination of humour and insight."

I was particularly pleased by Miranda's celebration of the Leonard Woolf chapter, which is perhaps my favourite. Woolf was a mensch.

You can read the full review here.

(Photo: courtesy of the Keynes family)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Tale of Three Cities: Melbourne, Christchurch and Brisbane Writers Festivals

The rage monster and the Hulk, Brisbane Writers Festival 2014
August began with moving house (again). It ended with moving me (again): to festivals in Australia and New Zealand, then back to Australia again. Here is a quick summary, as I withdraw into my manuscript like snail eye stalks...

*

Late last month was the Melbourne Writers Festival, in which I had two gigs: an exercise 'walk' over Melbourne, and a Q and A at The School of Life.

'Torso of an Athlete'
The walk began at the National Gallery of Victoria, where I gave a lecture prompted by 'Torso of an Athlete'. Then we strolled to the Janet Clarke Rotunda in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, chatted about memories of PE (chiefly bad) and sprinted while thinking of mortality. (One dude yelled 'DEATH!' before he ran.) 

KL and DY, exercising minds
A couple of hours later, still in my Lycra, I was interviewed by School of Life director Kaj Lofgren. 

Kaj had read How to Think About Exercise carefully, and his questions prompted some great conversation. 

While at the Festival I had a chat to Paddy O'Reilly, whose new novel The Wonders is aptly named. Do read it.

*

A few days later I was off to Christchurch, New Zealand, for the Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. 

Sweating in Hagley Park,
Christchurch
I had five events, but my first job was straightforward: to enjoy a quick run in Christchurch's gorgeous Hagley Park. Plenty of paths and turf for boundless bounding. Rejuvenating after hours sitting, and lost to longitude.

My first event was 'The Stars Are Out Tonight', in Christchurch's stunning cardboard cathedral, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.

The line-up included poet Anis Mojgani, singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, and novelists Meg Wolitzer, Noviolet BulawayoDiane Setterfield and Eleanor Catton.



I gave a reading on swimming and the sublime, from How to Think About Exercise (more in the The Guardian).

Philosophical hand waving at the cardboard cathedral
The Townend Conservatory,
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
On Saturday was a talk and reading from Philosophy in the Garden, hosted by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. In the audience were some devoted diggers, pruners and Jane Austen fans. ("Did she garden, or just point?") Diane and I were also given a special tour of the gardens. My highlight: the alpine conservatory, with its rows of cyclamen.

Later that day I read My Nanna is a Ninja to a room of curious, chatty kids, and received a hug from one little girl. (She also told me that "cake is on the top of the food pyramid".) Reading before me were Gavin Bishop, Melinda SzymanikCharisma Rangipunga and Kristin Hersh.

Sunday morning saw me chatting to lawyer Marcus Elliot about How to Think About Exercise. Half of the interview was actually about philosophy, including the dangers of commercialising curiosity, and corrupting the autonomy of scholarship. (I had Bourdieu's work in mind, but didn't cite him). All good questions. Then we chatted more casually about mind and body, and the pleasures of striving.

JK, KH, DY, DH, with
festival director Rachael King
Photo: @ChristchurchLib
My fifth and final event at Word Christchurch was 'Capes and Tights', a panel on superhero comics with comic writers/artist Dylan Horrocks, novelist Karen Healey and filmmaker and comic artist/writer Jonathan King

It was a pleasure to see Dylan again, and to pick up his typically nuanced new collection: Incomplete Works. Karen and Jonathan were insightful and hilarious.

Avon River, Christchurch
Christchurch is a marvellous little city, and this 'little' isn't pejorative: perhaps my favourite town in Australia is Hobart, which is noticeably smaller than Melbourne. Christchurch is, for me, walkable civilisation. And breathable. And drinkable. (Amazing tap water.)

Having only briefly visited the city, I'll not pretend to comprehend the trauma of Christchurch. But from only a handful of conversations, it's obvious that the anxiety, grief and frustration remain -- everyone has a story about the earthquake and its consequences (immediate and ongoing). 

But there are also surprises: all about the city are pop-up gardens, exhibitions, artworks and more. The poetry slam, held on Friday night, was moving and fierce. In short: Christchurch folk are tough and innovative. 

I was, to be honest, very moved by the city's generosity and hospitality, and I hope to take Ruth and the monsters back if we can afford it. (My very small 'thank you' was a donation of signed books to the Christchurch City Library.)

*

On Monday I flew straight to Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers Festival. Leaving New Zealand I gained two hours and a few kilograms of books.

Sweat and light, Brisbane
To begin: an evening run along the river. The warmth, water breeze and lights: damned sexy.

My first four gigs were for the 'Word Play' program: sessions with hundreds of school kids, from all over Queensland. (The children from Chinchilla had driven four hours to be there.) 

DY and PC playing onstage
Illustrator Pete Carnavas and I taught poetry and illustration techniques, asked kids for their nanna suggestions ("jumping into a volcano with a duck on her face") and ran a quiz. 

It was a joy working with Pete, meeting the students and hearing them yell 'NINJA!' We also did an online session with kids across Queensland, which was strange but fun. 

Next on Friday was 'What is a Mind?', with medical researcher Kate Richards, psychologist David Roland and novelist Sean Williams, hosted by the ABC's Anthony Funnell. It was an intense conversation, often touching on illness and stress. There were also lighter moments, courtesy of Sean. 

I spoke about dealing with confusion and powerlessness (philosophy copes well with doubt), the horror of 'foreignness' within us (footnoted to Kant), and the importance of seeing the collectivities behind minds: organs, other selves, objects, landscapes.

BM, SW, AS, DY sharing the Who love
Photo: @nickystrickland
My next gig was a panel with actor/writer Ben McKenzie, novelist Angela Slatter and Sean Williams. The topic: DR WHO. 

I've not laughed so much in a long time. Bravo to my fellow panelists, and to the Brisbane Writer's Festival for programming such a groovy event.

My seventh and final event was a philosophy 'masterclass' (BOW TO THE MASTER, NOUS SLAVES). There were many more students this year, which is promising: perhaps philosophy is growing in popularity. 

The drama of philosophy: sitting
and thinking at BWF14
The point of my class was not just to talk about philosophy, but to do it: with essays, aphorisms and 'The Wind' prompted careful analysis and speculation.
poetry. Some excellent debate -- and once again Alison Croggon's 

*

After four writers festivals in three weeks, I've the numbness of a long run -- but my legs are still jittery. My ambivalence about conversation remains: every time I shrank into silence, I met another novelist or poet to talk with. (And, for the most part, did not regret it. To paraphrase Willy Vlautin: how often am I around book people, you know?)

Before I sign off to quietly play Father's Day in our domestic jumping castle (yes, that's a metaphor), my thanks to those demiurges of literature, the festival directors: Lisa Dempster, Rachael King and Kate Eltham. I'm also grateful to the producers, program managers, coordinators and volunteers for their ongoing logistical (and psychological) support.

Special thanks to Marianne Hargreaves, Julie Beveridge and Megan McGrath for their 'above and beyond' labours; and to Xanthe Coward for fuelling my masterclass with fruit bars when my credit card failed.

Back to the manuscript. Snails eat paper, don't they...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Coming up: three festivals

The audience for last year's Jane Austen panel, Sydney Writers Festival
Last weekend I was at the new Word For Word nonfiction writers festival. Over the next fortnight, I've gigs at three literary festivals here and in New Zealand. Click below for the details:
Melbourne Writers Festival.
WORD Christchurch.
Brisbane Writers Festival/Word Play (kids' events)
Both of my Melbourne events are sold out, but the others are still available. If you're nearby, do drop in for a chat about philosophy, minds, exercise, ninjas, Dr Who, superheroes, and more.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I think, therefore I exercise


In today's Australian Financial Review, Geoff Winestock discusses exercise, health and philosophy in 'I think, therefore I exercise'.

With a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek attitude to matters philosophical, Geoff nonetheless gets to the heart of my arguments in How to Think About Exercise:
Young quotes J.R.R Tolkien, who said that a “real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state of secondary belief”. Tolkien added that as a spectator he could never experience the same thing. “I, when I watch a match, am on the lower level. Willing suspension of disbelief.” 
Jogging is of course a brilliant way to develop a sense of consistency, and Young quotes the writing about running by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. He invokes 18th century conservative philosophers writings on “the sublime” to extol the virtues of sea swimming. 
None of these forms of exercise will suit everybody and Young suggests switching between sports can tone up different aspects of our personality. His basic line is that “intelligent exercise” is not an oxymoron.
(Photo: Walter Miller, Library of Congress)
 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

ABC Sunday Profile: exercise, gardens, ninja and philosophy


I was interviewed by Richard Aedy on ABC Radio National's Sunday Profile.

As always, Richard was a pleasure to speak with (he first interviewed me six years ago, for Distraction).

We chatted about exercise, gardens, ninjas, martial arts -- and philosophy.

You can listen here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

It's true: "grandmothers are loads of fun"


The literary editor of The Australian has an excellent write-up of kids' books this weekend.

In 'Wrath, greed, sloth ... and zaniness', Stephen Romei (with his son's help) details some corkers, including The Last Viking Returns, which sounds like enormous fun. (A dog called Wolverine wearing a colander helmet.)

Pig the Pug also sounds hilarious, in an 'I don't care about your niceties' kind of way.

Stephen also gives a nod to My Nanna is a Ninja, writing:
Shock tactics are the order of the day in My Nanna is a Ninja (UQP, $24.95), by Melbourne philosopher (and dad) Damon Young, with illustrations by Peter Carnavas. We’re told lots of nannas do lots of different and variously interesting things, but only one, it seems, dresses in stealthy black, carries a sword and is accompanied by a bemasked cat. That sword comes in exceptionally handy when there’s a watermelon to share — though I had to dissuade Syd from trying this at home. This is a lively book that reaffirms what every kid knows but adults tend to forget: grandmothers are loads of fun.
I can't argue with this. (By the way, if you want a copy of My Nanna is a Ninja, hang on - it's sold out across Australia, and is being reprinted. Huzzah.)