In the Garden – a conversation under the boughs with Damon Young


“I’m not at home to anyone, except for this triangular forget-me-knot, for this rose in the shape of a wishing well, for the silence in which the sound made by the mind when searching for the word has just died away.” Colette


Recently I finished reading Damon Young’s Philosophy in the Garden and I found it an intriguing and beautiful read. It is the sort of book that illuminates a little path to follow – brief lives, deep thoughts – before another is offered for the reader to walk down. The sign of a good book I believe is if it leads you to hungry questions. So partially encouraged by the ‘leafing’ section at the back of Philosophy in the Garden, I decided to appease my curiosity and put some questions to Damon myself.


What was the kernel or seed that got you started thinking of writers and gardens?

Curiosity, really. It began as I wrote Distraction. The garden kept popping up in the lives of philosophers (like Plato, Cicero, Friedrich Nietzsche) and novelists (like Henry James, Marcel Proust), I began to wonder: what is it about the garden that provokes thought and reverie?

There was also a hint from childhood. I grew up on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula. Our house backed onto a scrubby creek: all melaleuca, pittosporum and blackberries. A walk from creek to beach required a machete. Between thorny scrub and the blue carpet lounge was the garden: a small pocket of humanised nature, with turf, corn, tomatoes, chard, sunflowers and flowering gums. This, to me, was the ‘third space’ of the garden.

How long did it take to write? Do you write in a flash or mooch an idea along?

The book officially took a few years, but some of that was lost to journalism, parenting and serious illness (Ruth, my wife, was gravely ill in 2010). The bulk of the book was written in about a year.

Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process?

I start with bafflement, a less high-minded version of Aristotle’s philosophical mood: wonder.

Then I choose an author, either by hunch (Ruskin), suggestion (Colette) or hint from another book (Woolf). I read biographies, as well as their own works: Ruskin’s essays, for example, and Colette’s novels and short fiction. I read their letters, diaries, and sometimes the memoirs of friends or acquaintances (like Proust’s maid). I also read historians or theorists who talk about the writer’s era and themes: Germaine Greer on Colette, for example.

The idea is to grasp their psyche and its era: Jane Austen’s deism, for example, which I discovered in her Pemberley description, letters and quiet religiosity. Sometimes I turn to other thinkers, like Schopenhauer with Colette, to illuminate their basic motivating ideals and values.

All the while, I reflect on my own life: how true is this idea? How helpful? What does it reveal or obscure, celebrate or denigrate? Am I less baffled now?

And all the while, I’m writing, printing, editing, transcribing, printing, and so on. I also make notes, in longhand, in a notebook reserved for the manuscript.

Where is your favourite place to write?

With one kid at home (and two in the holidays, or when they’re ill), writing at home can be hard at times. (I just stopped writing, for five minutes, to make cereal for Sophia. Now she’s complaining that it’s not corn flakes. Now she’s apologising for being grumpy. As am I. The sentences run on — you wouldn’t know ten minutes have gone by.) So I often write at my local cafe. It is a fairly dull suburban cafe. No mood of hipness or intellectual ferment. It is, as Sartre put it, a “milieu of indifference” — which is just how I like it.

Are there any writers whose gardens didn’t make the final book? How did you decide who was in and who was out? Will there be a sequel?

Henry James and John Ruskin were paired in a chapter on Hyde Park, looking into the aesthetic value of gardens, and their strange power to lift us out of ethical and political care. Ruskin was too close to other idealists, and Henry James did not merit a whole chapter alone. There was also a chapter on the Roman general, Lucullus, which was just not long enough. Each of these was transformed into a shorter column or feature.

Some readers have criticised the book for having a lack of writing about gardens in the book, how do you respond?

Philosophy in the Garden devotes many passages to gardens, real and imagined: Jane Austen’s mock oranges and apricot, for example, or Nikos Kazantzakis’s Japanese rock garden. I note Emily Dickinson’s favourite seasons, and Colette’s favourite flower (the rose, of course). I also talk about gardening habits: Leonard Woolf’s frozen winter pruning, Voltaire’s epic landscaping.

Alongside the descriptive passages are ideas: chiefly philosophical, but also historical, psychological, sociological. This is what most intrigues me: these great authors’ ideas about humanity and nature, and how these combined in the garden to inspire, console, confront.

To me there was quite a difference in writing about chapters of Philosophers and Writers – did it feel different in writing those?

Not terribly. All of the philosophers featured also wrote in other genres. Nietzsche, for example, wrote poetry. Sartre and Voltaire wrote plays and fiction. Kazantzakis wrote the lot. Strict poets or novelists sometimes provide less theory to work from, but usually their works are philosophically suggestive — Dickinson on ‘immortality’, for example. And Austen was most illuminated, not by an academic, but by a poet: Alexander Pope.

What difference did you feel?

For me, with the Philosophers it felt you had spent a lot of time in their company and they were fellows you had already had spent time unravelling. With the Writers i.e Proust and Colette, I felt that you were in newer territory. Is it really that hard to understand Proust? Or is that where Philosophy needs psychology?

By ‘understanding’ I mean something more visceral than analysing or categorising. In ‘Bonsai in the Bedroom’, the Proust chapter, I certainly reveal the strange value of the bonsai for Proust; for his life and literature. But can I feel as he did? His shrinking from the future, and covetous clinging to the past — they are foreign to me.

Your focus on Colette as a creature of appetites – do you think Colette’s interest in gardening/food was a remnant of her growing up in a rural community?  i.e the working class association of gardens equalling food?

In part, yes. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted how taste often runs along class lines: the lower the class, the higher practicality is valued. Colette also carefully cultivated this portrait of herself as an ‘earthy’ sort — it was part of her literary persona. Having said this, Colette’s willingness to gratify her appetites (for food, wine, sex) was unusual — not something common to girls she grew up with. There is also the stamp of Colette’s mother, Sido, which I talk about in the book.

Leonard Woolf strikes me as a very private man – what do you think he would make of the loss of privacy in the 21st century?

Horrified but not surprised. Woolf had a life-long respect for individuality: for life itself, but also for each unique psyche. He also was well aware of the failings that destroy this psyche: greed, selfishness, laziness, weakness and so on. He’d have been contemptuous, not only of the corporate and government invasion of privacy, but also ordinary citizens’ willingness to give it up from fear or boredom.

I found it curious that the young Leonard had a severe anxiety over this childhood garden growing over with ivy and spiders.  Was he a very controlling person? Was gardening for Woolf a way to create order in chaos?

He certainly was a man of order; of methods, strictly applied. But his childhood “world pain” (as he put it) was more than order meeting disorder: it was the recognition that even the most beautiful and innocent achievements are ultimately doomed. Many buttoned-up anal retentives fetishise certainty — Woolf knew it was only ever a brief achievement.

It was very charming how Woolf named trees, the apple tree named Mr Prothero in one instance and two trees named for themselves. This reminded me very much of the Ovid’s myth of Baucis and Philemon, a story of a loving couple rewarded by the Gods, turning them into trees together? Do you think Woolf was aware of this? Do you know what happened to the trees named Leonard and Virginia?

Writing about Virginia’s death, Leonard certainly didn’t mention Ovid. But his biographer, Victoria Glendinning, notes a poem that both Woolfs quoted: ‘Luriana Lurilee’, by Charles Elton. She quotes the last two stanzas after describing Virginia’s burial:

Come out and climb the garden path

Luriana, Lurilee.

The china rose is all abloom

And buzzing with the yellow bee.

We’ll swing you on the cedar bough,

Luriana, Lurilee

I wonder if it seems to you,

Luriana, Lurilee,

That all the lives we ever lived

And all the lives to be,

Are full of trees and changing leaves,

Luriana, Lurilee.

How long it seems since you and I,

Luriana, Lurilee,

Roamed in the forest where our kind

had just begun to be,

And laughed and chattered in the flowers,

Luriana, Lurilee.

How long since you and I went out,

Luriana, Lurilee,

To see the kings go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea,

With their palm leaves and cedar sheaves,

Luriana, Lurilee.

Swing, swing, swing on a bough,

Luriana, Lurilee,

Till you sleep in a humble heap,

Or under a gloomy churchyard tree,

And then fly back to swing on a bough,

Luriana, Lurilee.

Both elms blew over in storms. (A very ‘Leonard Woolf’ conclusion.)

Dickinson’s reclusion takes on an almost sanyasi flavour ( a religious recluse), with her writing ‘blossoms in the brain’ and her consciousness ‘living in language’, but her writing reveals quite an intense and passionate personality. Why do you think her retreat from public life became so extreme?

She was raised by her father to believe in her own fragility; to define herself in a conservative, private way, away from public life. Public contributions — including politics, but also publishing — were for men. Dickinson took up this persona, but transformed her privacy into a world of philosophical, aesthetic and linguistic freedom. Her passion, discipline and courage, with no public outlet, turned inwards — she made the most out of the spaces (literal and metaphorical) reserved for single women.

Many of your subjects are childless  – in what way do you think these writers and philosophers used their pens and gardens for enduring immortality?

Well, Emily Dickinson certainly longed for immortality — it was one of her poetic and philosophical hallmarks. Yet she was also doubtful; she had the strength to say ‘maybe’ about poetic afterlife. This is true of almost all the featured writers: they had no illusions about eternity. (Perhaps Rousseau had fantasies of his own lasting fame or infamy.) But childlessness certainly gave them more hours and energy to invest in their art. Even those with children — like Colette and Rousseau — gave the responsibility to someone else. (Which is not to equate Colette’s aloof parenting with Rousseau’s selfishness.)

Your next book is about Exercise – but what subject to you have a hankering to cover next? Will you return to Gardens?

Gardens may turn up in books and essays, but as supporting cast rather than main characters. I’m writing a longer essay on comics, for Meanjin. I’ve started a book on the value of deception. But I’m a little myopic right now. My mind is on my work-in-progress on exercise, so thoughts turn to jogging, Karate and Yoga, and little else.

Damon Young is a philosopher and writer, and Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at The University of Melbourne. He is the author of Distraction (2008), described by the United Kingdoms’ Financial Times as ‘lucid and optimistic’. His new book is Philosophy in the Garden (2012). Damon has written for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, ABC and BBC, and is a frequent radio guest. Damon has also published poetry and short fiction.

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February 19, 2013 · 10:25 am

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