The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Why did Marcel Proust have bonsai beside his bed? What was Jane Austen doing, coveting an apricot? How was Friedrich Nietzsche inspired by his ‘thought tree'? In Philosophy in the Garden, Damon Young explores one of literature's most intimate relationships: authors and their gardens. For some, the garden provided a retreat from workaday labour; for others, solitude's quiet counsel. For all, it played a philosophical role: giving their ideas a new life. Philosophy in the Garden reveals the profound thoughts discovered in parks, backyards and pot-plants. It does not provide tips for mowing overgrown cooch grass, or mulching a dry Japanese maple. It is a philosophical companion to the garden's labours and joys.
I have always been interested in philosophy and have tried my hand at reading books on the subject over the years, usually to find myself baffled and even, if I’m to be truthful, a little humiliated. Why can’t anyone ever express themselves a little more clearly? I’d think. Is it them or is it me?
Nonetheless, I continue to be interested in ideas. I am also utterly fascinated by the lives – both inner and outer – of writers and creative artists.
Plus, of course, I love gardens. I spend a little bit of time in my own garden nearly every day. I love to see things I have grown and cared for flourish, I love the sense of creating order out of chaos, and I have a transcendental longing for beauty.
So the title of Damon Young’s new book ‘Philosophy in the Garden’ caught my eye as soon as it was released. I read it slowly – one chapter every few days or so, whilst reading other novels in between. I found it utterly engaging and most illuminating.
Damon is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and has written a number of books that bring together philosophical ideas with popular culture. His style is very readable and full of wit and personality. For example, he describes Aristotle has being known for his ‘schmick wardrobe and bling.’ Reading his work is like hanging out in a bar late at night, drinking cosmopolitans, and arguing about whether God really exists or whether He (She? It?) is just a fictive construct created to fulfil an existential human longing (whilst trying not to slur the word ‘existential’ too much).
The premise of the book is very simple. Damon has examined, in a series of short and lively essays, the lives of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis).
Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I was particularly enamoured of one of Damon’s points in this essay, regarding the scene in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in which Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time (as Damon says, this scene is ‘known across the civilised world as the home of Colin Firth’s wet shirt’). This is the one scene in P&P that I have never liked, because I thought it made Elizabeth seem to start liking Darcy more because of the wealth of his possessions. However, Damon interprets the scene a little differently. The garden reflects Darcy’s soul – beautiful, ordered, tasteful, and serene. ‘She had never seen,’ Austen wrote, ‘a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste.’ Damon goes on to show how this ordered and serene approach to gardening reflected Jane Austen’s own life and philosophy, and so not only made me see one of my favourite authors more clearly, but has deepened my love for one of my all-time favourite books. This is a true gift … and Damon repeated this revelation for me in the chapter on Emily Dickinson, quite possibly the poet I love the most.
I also learnt a great deal.
I did not know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have had a whole lot more details!) I also had never understood Nietzschean philosophy before and now I feel as if I could, with a little more reading and thinking. In fact, I went and googled Nietzsche, and spent a few hours reading up on him.
I also discovered a new author, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give me.
I had never heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the authors Damon examines, but just listen to this:
‘Words! Words! There is no other salvation! I have nothing in my power but twenty-four little lead soldiers. I will mobilise. I will raise an army.’
It’s something I could have written myself, so exactly does it express my own evangelist love of words and books. I am now searching out the work of Kazantzakis, so look forward to some more raving on him in the future.
Thank you, Damon!
You might also like to read my review of The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks: