Philosophers occupy a diffident space in Australian public life. No antipodean philosopher dominates debates here in the manner of Europeans like Slavoj Žižek or Bernard-Henri Lévy, gesticulating freely between quick swallows of black coffee. Perhaps the Anglophone reluctance to teach philosophy prior to university explains this; we lack the context of a philosophical education to quite trust how philosophers might frame things.
The considerable success of Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, may be a sign that this is now changing. Melbourne philosopher Damon Young, an opinionista at the Age and the ABC’s ‘The Drum’, as well as teaching this year at the Melbourne branch of the de Botton-founded School of Life, is an increasingly active presence in public life; Philosophy in the Garden will do nothing to harm that presence.
Philosophy in the Garden gathers and examines eleven authors, with nary a gardening tip to be had. These are writers who made sense of some portion of their life and their art via their relationship to nature. As Young persuasively argues, gardens and the European tradition of framing and questioning ideas have a long shared history. Both Plato and Aristotle taught in the open air, in sacred groves, as:
… gardens are a bulwark against distraction. Philosophy is a gregarious pursuit … But too much stimulation leads to madness, not meditation.
But Young wants us to understand that a garden is not merely a quiet venue. It’s a physical testament to the meeting of two key philosophical concepts: nature and humanity. A garden is nature enclosed and put to human uses, and it is greater than the sum of its parts. The Indo-European word sak, from which the English language draws the word sacred, means to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary. At a deep epistemological and experiential level, a garden is a demarcated space, a sacred one. As Young sees it, a garden – by its very existence – presents an invitation to philosophy.
Like Socrates’ rigorous yet simple method of logical questioning, a garden does not need to be grand to inspire an author. Philosophy in the Garden visits Jane Austen’s last modest home in Chawton, which granted her ‘tolerable comfort’ enough to recommence writing after almost nine fallow years. The small replenishing routines of her kitchen garden allowed Austen to write Mansfield Park, Emma and her late broken masterpiece Persuasion. Alexander Pope’s idea that, while not everything is open to human perception, the world relies upon a deep underlying order, is a vital key to Austen’s fiction. Young demonstrates that the crystalline beauty of her comedies of manners works because the underlying social structures are as seemingly immutable and lacking in sentimentality as the order of seasons in a garden.
Referred to by Jean Cocteau as a ‘gigantic miniature’, Marcel Proust’s landscape was shrunk inside his memory, trapped as he largely was by his asthma, in a cork-lined bedroom. Young focuses on the simultaneous fascination and repulsion that Proust felt for the three ‘miserable, hideous’ Japanese bonsai given to the novelist as a gift and placed by his bedside. These crafted miniatures’ ability to evoke an age not their own was part of the process of inspiration that led to the famous revelry of memory prompted by a modest tea-cake in Swann’s Way.
Young’s carefully chosen authors reveal a range of reactions to nature. Unforced connections pulse between the chapters: the intuition of Proust and Austen that universes are contained in the smallest things; the relentless indifference of nature understood by Jean-Paul Sartre and Leonard Woolf; Emily Dickinson and Colette’s shared brittle love of the transforming power of spring and its sometimes too brief renewal.
Nikos Kazantzakis and George Orwell shared an apperception for considered austerity. Kazantzakis’s fascination with the rock gardens of Japan led him to wish his heart could be fashioned with such surety of line and intent. The ailing Orwell picked a new veggie garden out of Hebridean rock with a characteristically self-punishing directness:
… Orwell discovered ‘seed plus soil plus rain plus sunshine’ can be a surprisingly complicated equation …The garden is where hypotheses are only cautiously upheld …
Only the chapter on Friedrich Nietzsche sits uncomfortably. A mediated space like a garden seems an odd setting for the sharp elbows but increasingly frail mental health of the German philosopher. Nietzsche’s ideas met no one’s in the middle, far as they are from the periphery of conversation. Jean-Paul Sartre’s self-flattering belief in radical freedom and his detestation of a choiceless nature, on the other hand, is a beautifully turned counterpoint. The inclusion of Sartre’s deeply personal preference for the city’s flagstones over the countryside’s fields also demonstrates the range of ideas that Young illuminates; resistance to the idea of nature is just as revealing as its embrace.
Young avoids the relentless aphorisms of de Botton with a style that is often pleasingly colloquial. He sweeps up any potential clodhoppers and makes them dance; ideas are presented clearly and with a pace that makes the concepts within fizz and pop.
Philosophy in the Garden is not a book written for philosophers; it is too broadly charming and brisk for that. What it is, however, is a thoughtful invitation to a wide readership to drink from a philosophical cup. Like a city barista deftly mixing the raw materials of fine grounds, water and steam, Young’s brew is beautifully blended, revealing from its first sip a light, rich texture and a caffeinated tingle of ideas.
Damon Young Philosophy in the Garden, Melbourne University Press, 2012, PB, 208pp, $24.99
James Tierney is a freelance writer who blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye and tweets as @ViragoHaus.
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