Sunday, August 28, 2016

Philosophy in the Garden...ing Australia (ABC TV)


Last night I was on Gardening Australia, the long-lived and much-loved ABC TV series. 

I spoke about Philosophy in the Garden, and my own experience of horticultural reverie and speculation. It was filmed in Melbourne's gorgeous Botanic Gardens (including one of my favourites spots: Guilfoyle's Volcano.)

I'm not sure how long the video will remain available, but for now you can watch the show here. It'll be repeated today (Sunday) at 1pm.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Byron Bay Writers Festival 2016

Earlier this month, I tripped off to Byron Bay for the Byron Writers Festival.

It promised a welcome break from Melbourne's wet squalls. And honoured its promise: on the day I arrived. Minutes after my shuttle bus stopped in Byron, I picked up boardshorts and sunglasses, and headed to the gorgeous beach. Then tortured locals and tourists alike with my white glare.

Follow me round perdition's flames: white whale and sea
And then the clouds came: dense, dark, and not sparing their soak. The festival site was damaged by high winds, shredding tents and damaging books. Kudos to the festival staff, who worked tirelessly to keep the events running.

video

Bibliophiles immersing themselves in literature
My first gigs were over the next two days, Primary School Days with over a thousand kids from the region. Illustrator Peter Carnavas and I offered tips on writing and drawing, a fiendish quiz, and a reading of My Sister is a Superhero. Some clever questions from the kids, alongside some outstanding illustrations.

Wednesday night fever: Primary School Days
Five hundred students, two authors, one book: My Sister is a Superhero
First on Thursday was my philosophy workshop, which included a brief lecture, some exercises and discussion. The class discussed Seneca, Nietzsche, alongside poetry and essays--and the relevance of each to everyday life.

On Friday I spoke on the "Writing for Kids" panel with Anna Fienberg and Nick Earls, chaired by the lovely Ashley Hay. We spoke about the ties between reading and writing, the value of reading aloud, and much more. Fascinating to hear about the origins of these hugely popular tales from Anna and Nick.

Grown-up kids, AKA children's authors: Ashley Hay, DY, Anna Fienberg, Nick Earls
Over drinks on Friday night, I received an upgrade to my name-tag from illustrator Tony Flowers.

Werewolves of Byron
The next day began with "Reading: Portal to a Thousand Worlds"--a title taken from Geordie Williamson's review of my The Art of Reading. Geordie chaired the panel, which starred Charlotte Nash, Catherine KeenanJeffrey Renard Allen and me. It was intriguing to hear about the value of reading for each: from Catherine's brilliant work at the Story Factory, to Jeffrey's emancipating escapism.

The (Relatively) Famous Five; Geordie Williamson, Catherine Keenan, Charlotte Nash, DY
Later on Saturday was "The Art of Walking", with Ailsa Piper and John Faulker, again chaired by Ashley Hay. Much of the session was devoted to seemingly foolhardy feats of pedestrian adventure, but we also touched on the psychological and intellectual rewards of walking. At one point, John described me as the maddest person he'd met--high praise from a career politician.

A truly pedestrian panel: John Faulkner, Ailsa Piper, DY, Ashley Hay
Sunday began with the Kids Big Day Out, and I spoke to a huge marquee full of kids, parents and grandparents. A great buzz in that room, and lots of enthusiasm for My Sister is a Superhero, which was heartening.

Not born in a tent, but comfortable in one: The Big Kids Day Out
Finally, my last gig was a panel with Peter Stuchbury and Wendy Whiteley: "Creating Sacred Spaces". I began with a definition of the sacred from my Philosophy in the Garden, though the conversation wandered with a combination of vagueness and reverie. I tried to introduce a little quotidian detail to the chat: the sacred in urban life, rather than just in 'natural' landscapes or high art.

Creating sacred spaces, then filling them with talk: Janet Hawley, Peter Stuchbury, Wendy Whiteley, DY
All in all, a busy and rewarding week away, which included some gobsmacking local food, handsome landscapes and memorable conversation.

A glimpse of the sublime: Byron Bay beach at dusk
Great to meet other authors in various genres, including Nick Falk, Luke Stegemann, Osamah Sami and Rosalyn D'Mello. I'm reading Rosalyn's Handbook For My Lover, an intelligent and fiercely sensual memoir.

Thank you to the very welcoming Byron Bay Writers Festival staff and volunteers, with special thanks to Edwina Johnson, Sarah Ma, Cherrie Sheldrick and Coralie Tapper.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lucky Oedipus


The latest New Philosopher magazine is here, and this is extremely good...

The theme is luck, and the editorial team has put together a fascinating collection of essays, interviews and illustrations.

My essay, 'Lucky Oedipus', uses the ancient Greek myth to reflect on the nature and existential value of luck:
Luck is not just accident, since it does not require intent. Suppose the fight with his father was close, and what gave Oedipus the advantage was a gust of wind that blinded Laius with grit. A lucky win, but not accidental.  
And luck is not simply chance, since rare things are always happening somewhere, at some time. Luck suggests consequence. Perhaps while Oedipus was blinding himself with Jocasta’s brooches, three trees in the Black Forest lost their leaves in spring. Neither lucky nor unlucky for him or anyone else, but certainly an unusual happening. 
So luck is a rare but significant event. It brings together two parts: first, something relatively unusual occurs; second, this something matters. Importantly, luck does not depend on knowledge of it. Oedipus, in a more naturalistic interpretation, had terrible luck well before he realised his woes. And this luck is not absolute. Had Oedipus and Jocasta’s marriage been childless, audiences might have said ‘lucky they didn’t have kids’. Not because their coupling would be redeemed, but because it would be better if died with them. Luck is judged, not simply by what happened, but by what might have happened: its likelihood and desirability. 
In this light, it often makes no sense to call a whole life lucky or unlucky. If someone’s life is predictably sublime or abysmal, then something less exotic is usually going on. The ancients might call it a curse, we might call it socioeconomic class or genetics: the forces that nudge individuals to wealth or poverty, calm or anxiety. ‘None can be called happy,’ says the chorus famously in King Oedipus, ‘until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.’ Mortal life is fragile, yes. There really is chance and happenstance. As tragedy teaches, even the best souls can be cracked by the force of unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and we cannot reckon their consequences until the casket is closed. But luck itself is unusual, by definition. 
You can pick up New Philosopher in all good bookshops and newsagents, or subscribe to increase your chances of good literary fortune.


(Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c. 1805)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Good Reader (Netherlands)


The Dutch translation of The Art of Reading will be published in late November in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Here's an early peek at the cover: a striking blue version of the local edition. They've also changed the title to The Good Reader, which is more faithful to my approach.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stupid Idiots

'The Orator', Ferdinand Hodler (1912)
I've an essay in the new Island magazine, 'Stupid Idiots'. It's on Australia's political slurs, and how unambitious they are.

I'm suggesting we try harder to insult one another, starting with these two recommendations: 'stupid' and 'idiot'. A sample:
Of all the disappointments falling from the low-hanging piƱata of Australian politics, the most banal are the insults. From the snarling sexism of ‘ditch the witch’—it rhymes, so it must be true and clever—to the clumsy class analysis of ‘spiv’, we are making a graveyard of slurs. Mark Latham offered the occasional zinger-like ‘conga line of suckholes’, but his recent diatribes are less like witty ripostes and more like midnight texts from a jilted lover after major surgery. 
Putting aside the political professionals and pundits, more disillusioning are the average fusillades from social media and casual conversation. Not sad because they are mean (see what I did there?), but because their standards are so low. Wanker, moron, fuckwit, loser – the epithets often express contempt and little else. 
The point is not that contempt is inappropriate – it takes a cruel bastard, for example, to endorse indefinite detention of children – but that it is inarticulate. It turns political debate into a stalemated contest of equally intense and unpersuasive smears. Perhaps this is apt, working well with a democracy that is becoming, as philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis put it, ‘a society of lobbies and hobbies’: competing special interest consortiums, and privative individuals. 
Nonetheless, the misery of things is no mandate for giving up. My humble contribution here is to offer a couple of choice political insults, together with an explanation of their worth. If not for immediate circulation as slights, then at least as a small investment in an ongoing debate between people who are not manic ideologues or venal parasites.
You can pick up Island in all good bookshops, or subscribe here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

'Sorry, I can't' (Meanjin)

Illustration by Lily Mae Martin
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Four Quarters'.

It's a collaboration with artist Lily Mae Martin, which looks at failure: parental, artistic, bodily, existential.

A sample, from the passages on the body:
‘Shit, do that again.’ The doctor prods my neck bulge, and my arm burns: down my elbow, to my forearm and fingers. Pinky and ring finger tingle. Physiological ventriloquism, and I am dummy and audience. ‘Mr Young, this is serious.’ Possible paralysis, she says. Possible quadriplegia, she says. Days later, the registrar adds more detail: ‘If the disc ruptures completely, the vertebrae will grind against each other.’ Bruised spinal cord. Bruised nerves. ‘You have already lost strength in that hand,’ he says, two fingers squeezed in my palm. 
Strength was familiar: the mass I threw around, in the playground at five, to the judo school at thirty. After my son was born, I took up the martial art at nights, pinning and cartwheeling on three hours’ sleep. My falls were clumsy. When I tell the stories, it seems like an epic throw damaged my spine. But the truth is: it might have been months of forward rolls—or decades hunched over books, like TS Eliot at Lloyd’s Bank, ‘stooping, very like a dark bird in a feeder’. Either way, I will never quite recover. 
But recover what? The easy languor of falling asleep on my back, every limb cushioned. The comforting force of my oldest friend’s arm, hugging my neck. The gentle fit of my baby son to my forearm. (‘Mr Young, don’t lift anything over three kilograms.’ Nikos was 3.65kg at birth.) 
For a while, I cannot type without voice recognition software. I’m writing my debut book. My head perfectly still, I talk at the old laptop, elevated on balsawood IKEA drawers. ‘Alienation’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘ALIENATION’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘FUCKING ALIENATION.’ Truck in violin nation. What the nerve damage begins, the Ibuprofen ends. My mind is slower, more vague. And so is my manuscript.  
It is psychologically neat to say ‘my neck is damaged’. But existentially, things are messier: I am damaged. Parts of my psyche are caring, dutiful, sensitive and exciting—but they are at odds with the parts that are selfish through fear, weak after sleeplessness, anaesthetised by pain, and dull because of drugs. I am not what I was, and certainly not what I hoped to be. 
Eventually I can travel, and I take the bus and tram to the university. A teenager in a purple choker nods her head to Kanye’s “Gold Digger”, and I wince with each thud. The bus bounces over potholes in Richmond, and I do the same. Toward the end of my route, a young mother with a pram stumbles as the tram stops, then rushes to get her baby off onto the platform. There is a drop from the tram’s step to the concrete, and she asks me to help her by taking one end of the pram. 
I say ‘sorry, I can’t’. And I recognise the look of astonished contempt in her tired eyes: this is how I feel about myself.
You can pick up Meanjin online or from bookshops. My advice is to subscribe.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mininature superheroes (and villains) at All-Star Comics

Quizzing, reading, drawing (the dinosaur didn't bite once)
Yesterday I took My Sister is a Superhero to Melbourne's Eisner award-winning comics shop, All-Star Comics.

They were launching their Kids Club, and the Queen Street shop was packed with tiny heroes and villains. There was face-painting, show-bags and guest writers (including Ned Collett, creator of Fabulous Tree Frog).

I began with a quick quiz ("Does Spiderman wear a cape?"), gave a drawing demonstration, then launched into a reading. The kids drew sketched some fantastic crime-fighting sisters, and yelled "SUPERHERO!" with verve.

A great morning of high geekery.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sydney Writers Festival 2016

Jane Gleeson-White, putting up with me, with characteristic grace
I just returned from another enormous Sydney Writers Festival.

This year I didn't host the 'Curiosity' series -- they had a posse of custodians to do this. Instead, my gigs were chiefly about The Art of Reading.

My first event on Thursday was a talk at the State Library of New South Wales. I discussed the genesis of The Art of Reading, did a quick reading from the chapter on patience -- 'Boredom at Buckingham Palace' -- then gave a brief overview of other chapters.

In ur library talking to ur readers
Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss
all the heavenly glory
We ran out of time for questions, but folks had some corkers during the signing.

That afternoon I finished Maggie Nelson's exceptional The Argonauts. Memoir, but also a careful study of gender, love, parenthood--and the language with which we speak these. It stands on the cliff's edge of the sayable--and what a view. Brilliant.

Next on Friday morning was my sold-out Art of Reading Q and A with Jane Gleeson-White, who ran the conversation beautifully. We chatted about my literary childhood and cravings for Star Trek novels, the literary surfeit of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and more. Jane also asked about the very Englishness of my personal canon -- this is true, and something I hope to remedy. Thanks, Jane, for a great chat.

Reading aloud and talking too much with Jane
Audience questions touched on: reading as a conversation; my parents' library and what they offered the young Damon; my own children, and how freely they roam in my library; and the importance of Batman (more here).

I was on the signing table next to Julian Barnes, which prompted the realisation that our sessions were on simultaneously. WHY DID YOU COME TO MINE, SYDNEY? (But seriously: chuffed by all the goodwill.)

After a short break, I bumbled off to Science House to teach my three-hour 'Everyday Philosophy' workshop (which was also booked out, I think). We discussed some basic ideas of philosophy from David Hume, Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey and others, then analysed some short texts from Seneca, Nietzsche and Alison Croggon.

Philosophy in action
Then I was briefly back to Pier One, then off to the airport to eat dubious sushi and have Call of Duty tarmac flashbacks.

Because of my short stay, I didn't get to see any other sessions, but I did at least catch up with some old festival mates, and meet some new ones. One of the highlights of every SWF is the behind-the-scenes conversations. Not just the book trade stuff (although that's always illuminating), but also the literary ideas and general observations. Writers do good talk. Cheers to John Birmingham, Kate Tempest, Kate Forsyth, PJ Vogt, Petina Gappah, David Henley, Marie Darrieussecq and Ashley Hay for their company.

Congratulations to Jemma Birrell and the SWF gang for another great year. Thanks, once again, for making me feel so welcome.

Sydney, you smouldering sexy thing

Monday, May 16, 2016

From Star Trek to Schopenhauer...


I was profiled by the The Age Sydney Morning Herald this weekend.

In 'Damon Young: From Star Trek to Schopenhauer, with love and enthusiasm', Jane Sullivan discusses my childhood, authorial motives, and more. A sample:
Some of his inspiration is autobiographical. Young clearly owes a lot to his father, a psychologist, and his mother, a teacher and musician. They introduced him to reading: "They'd go through books and change the American spelling and words to English. They expected me to figure it out, and that if I wasn't old enough I wouldn't understand the sex and violence. There were so many books, just like food. Kids snack, and I think I read like that." He lies down on his chair to imitate his son Nikos on the couch, the way he picks up one book after another and devours it. 
Young taught himself to read with the Asterix comics, which his parents refused to read to him because it was too hard to do the speech bubbles. When he was 11, Sherlock Holmes loomed huge in his psyche: "He was sort of debonair in a weird, crusty, drug-addled way. He had an extremely charismatic mind combined with social distance and awkwardness. That left me proud of what my own mind could do. And it was then that I felt I'm a reader, I'm in charge, I'm responsible for bringing this into existence." 
A little later, his hero was Batman in the DC comics, a figure he still reveres. "It was the classic teenage power fantasy, but it was also that sense of being psychologically broken in some way. The best thing to do was to take all these extreme impulses and sublimate them, make them beautiful. You're not going to be well-integrated and happy, but you can give your life precision, take care of yourself. You can have style." 
All of which suggests that when young Damon felt isolated and unhappy, he sought consolation in the heroes of his reading. This was why he became a philosopher, he says. "There was social estrangement and awkwardness, and bafflement at the world. I felt at a distance from ordinary life, not knowing what it was all about and where I fitted in."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Fitzroy Library talk (and parachutes)

Bald white men, talking again
Last week, at the Fitzroy Town Hall reading room, I had a chat to ABC presenter and Meanjin editor Jonathan Green about The Art of Reading.

It was a wide-ranging discussion, with some good questions afterwards (e.g. whether my ideas apply to television and film, and whether you can read too much).

But one of my highlights was the sight of Nikos and Sophia, before the gig, playing with a toy parachuting soldier. The evening light, the shouts of awe, the rhythm of the throw and fall--parenting done briefly right.

What goes up... (But it's still a thrill when it descends.)