Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Damon Young sums up his (current reading) life

 Damon Young is an award-winning Australian philosopher and author, living in Melbourne and reading widely (across centuries and continents). His books include Distraction, Philosophy in the Garden and How to Think About Exercise. Here he reflects on reading, writing and moving house. (And not incidentally provides us with a rich feast of literary stimulation.)

Last week I tweeted a short message and photo: “This basically sums up my life right now.”

It is testament to the ambiguity of reading. Which ‘this’: Dante, Calvino, a Transformer? Is it a dodgy parable about the robotic tendencies of scholasticism? A metaphor for Aristotle and Nietzsche warring in my psyche, with literature as peacekeeper?

Probably not. I’ll explain.

To begin: we are moving house. Again. After just eleven months in our current apartment, we are taking our bridge chairs, bibelots and hundred boxes of books to a new home. It sucks, but this is the reality of writing. As an author, I do well enough. Yet, as Ruth Quibell (my wife) and I wrote in Island magazine, “The harassed grind is often out of proportion to the pay cheque." Because of this, we rent. And with the lease comes insecurity. (By the way, Ruth and I also wrote about reading together.)

So, most of our books are packed, which is why Italo Calvino’s The Uses of Literature was stacked horizontally on the top of my writing desk bookshelf. (Yes, horizontally. I know. I’m not proud of this.) My yellowing copy of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, by the same author, is currently in a recycled wine carton in the pantry, next to Roberto Calasso’s masterwork The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

Fair enough: so why Calvino at all? My next book is tentatively titled The Art of Reading: the virtues of reading well. In The Uses of Literature, Calvino has a marvellous chapter, ‘Levels of Reality in Literature’, which reveals the various worlds packed into a single sentence: “I write that Homer tells that Ulysses says: I have listened to the song of the Sirens.”

There is the ‘I’ who writes and the ‘I’ of the text: perhaps not the same man. Then there is this ‘Homer. An archaic author? A legend like the stories? Shorthand for an unknown editorial committee? Homer, in turn, tells of Ulysses’ tall tales (not always wholly honest). And one of his stories is of the Sirens’ music, which is itself another reality. Calvino suggests that they might even be singing The Odyssey. And so on.

The "archaic author".
In short: a simple sentence contains worlds within worlds. And they’re invented – with the author’s help – by readers, carefully cordoning off territories of reality without thinking.

I took up Dante’s Divine Comedy for pleasure, instruction, and research for The Art of Reading. I enjoyed the narrative itself; its slow movement from ennui and near-damnation to exultant salvation. (Sorry: spoilers.) I learned a great deal from Dante’s literary version of scholastic theology, helped by generous notes from translators Jean and Robert Hollander. And I was also examining myself as I read: watching myself move from bafflement to amusement to anxiety, and the baggage of fact, theory and suffering I drag along to each page. How much of Dante’s vernacular brilliance can I comprehend? As poet and translator George Szirtes put it: “Maybe Dante is the one great classic where we are always guessing and know we are guessing.”

I read German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s Nietzsche Apostle on a flight to Europe. (He and I were speaking together at the so-called ‘G8 of Philosophy’, in Amsterdam.) It is a brilliant study of Nietzsche, language and modernity – looking at, among other things, the ways we use language to celebrate ourselves. This, obviously, touches on my manuscript: reading as a version of narcissism, not information exchange.

Julian Barnes' Levels of Life was a gift for myself, in Amsterdam. I (typically) left my copy on a train to Schiphol airport. Ruth replaced it. I hope to enjoy my present-by-proxy once it has a bookshelf to ascend to.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, part of Princeton’s two-volume collected works, will add to my arguments about literary virtues: the dispositions we need to read well. Aristotle will join his teacher Plato (out of shot, to the left), whose suspicion of writing is well known.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power is an edited volume of the German philosopher’s notebooks, what editor and translator Walter Kaufmann calls “the workshop of a great thinker”. Nietzsche kicks me in the bum to think and feel more boldly. But he was also wary of ideas gained by sitting and reading: his notes are textual inspiration and warnings against textual inspiration.

The young Quibell-Youngs (Sophia and Nikos)  reading for pleasure.
And then: Optimus Prime - the Transformer - standing stoically between purgatory and paradise. I picked him up in Woolworths to play with our kids one night. He prompts dinner table conversations about heroism, sacrifice – and generic, gratuitous monologues. (“I am Optimus Prime,” he keeps saying in the films. Soliloquy as branding.)

So: moving house, writing, reading, writing about reading (and vice versa), marriage and parenthood. That almost sums it up.

Damon Young tweets as well as writes. You can find his books and some of his reading via the postage free bookstore links embedded in his article, or above right. A small % returned from those linked sales helps this voluntary Book Club. We also welcome your comments and engagement. Comments box below. Direct links to some of his books follow. All POSTAGE FREE within Australia. Philosophy in the Garden was reviewed earlier for this Book Club by Walter Mason.
Philosophy in the Garden
How to Think About Exercise
My Nanna is a Ninja (children's)

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