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.)

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.