Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dying For Ideas


I also have a review in The Australian today, of Costica Bradatan's Dying For Ideas: The Dangerous Ideas of the Philosophers.

In 'Live by the words, die by the sword', I examine Bradatan's notion that death can be the performance of philosophy:
Drawing on examples including Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno and Simone Weil, Bradatan argues that the destruction of the body can be welcomed, and in some cases encouraged, by what he calls the ‘‘philosopher-martyr’’. This often involves seeing death not simply as the end of being, but as a becoming: one becomes fully good, just and beautiful by leaving behind (or pulverising) one’s carnal lumps. 
This idea was expressed most elegantly by Plato in middle dialogues such as Phaedo, but has a long history. What makes Bradatan’s interp­retation especially illuminating is his attention to the performance and reception of death. For 16th-century Catholic politician Thomas More to ­become a philosophy-martyr, for example, it was not enough to simply oppose Henry VIII, then cease breathing in bed. He had to die voluntarily and publicly at the hands of his persecutor: by beheading in his case, though he was first threatened with hanging, evisceration and castration. Bradatan argues that More had to transform himself into an appropriate victim. Recognising the king’s authority as he rejected royal dictates; whipping himself, fasting and wearing a hair shirt; writing a dialogue to convince himself of his own divine mission — these rites helped Thomas the mediocre politician become More the sacrificial symbol of defiance. 
Bradatan also reveals how these ends can be inconsequential without storytellers who transform death into denouement, and without responsive audiences. Socrates had Plato and Xenophon; More his son-in-law: each made execution the last scene in new tale of heightened moral virtue. The storyteller had to ‘‘kill the live, contradiction-riddled person of the philosopher’’, Bradatan writes, ‘‘and remould him into a ... literary character’’. Receptivity is also vital. The horrifying but entrancing suicides of burning monks only wounded the consciences of those already abraded with some guilt.
Dying For Ideas will be fascinating for philosophers, psychologists and historians and, more generally, anyone curious about that inescapable possibility: death. (It is also handsomely designed and bound -- Bloomsbury have done a schmick job.)

Incidentally, Bradatan is very much alive, and in Australia right now, speaking about his ideas.

Authors performing: why meet the writer?

Portrait of the author being The Author - Sydney Writers Festival
I've a piece in The Age and Herald this weekend, 'Meet the author: why writing is no longer just about the words'

Extracted from my longer essay in Island magazine, this column explores the longing some readers have to meet authors. Not simply for entertainment, but to calm the anxiety that reading can evoke. A sample:
"In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap." – John Updike, "The End of Authorship" 
A publishing contract is now more than an invitation to write. It is also a request for performance. The author becomes, as John Updike puts it in "The End of Authorship", a "walking, talking advertisement for the book". The very year the American novelist gave this speech in Washington, a publisher told me in passing: "Of course, we'll fly you to the festivals, get you reading at shops and libraries." Of course. One does not simply have talent, which Flannery O'Connor insisted was vital for a literary vocation. Now one is a talent: an artful player, with all the ambiguity of each word. 
My point is not that there is anything necessarily vicious or vulgar about performance, or that we have lost a literary golden age: from enlightened literacy to primitive orality. The Romans regularly held public performances, in which poets tested their verse in a public laboratory. (Or lavatory. "You read to me as I shit," complained first-century poet Martial in his Epigrams.) Pliny the Younger lamented that his listeners did not obey audience etiquette: "two or three clever persons … listened to it like deaf mutes." Greek philosophy itself began with public performance; with the need to grab interest along with intellect. Put simply, we are not the first era to ask writers to tap-dance, and this request does not automatically corrupt literature. 
But Updike's observation does prompt the question: when readers book tickets for their "soiree with author", what are they paying for?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Can ideas travel?


Keeping up the travel theme, I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'Can ideas travel?'

It's not unusual to speak of ideas moving from era to era, country to country: Plato from Athens to Africa or Rome, for example. But can notions actually move? The reality is more complicated. A sample:
If Hume is right—and the general picture is convincing—then ideas cannot actually take trips. Humans can ride galleys to Londinium or jets to London; books can be shipped from warehouse to study, museum to library reading room. And these movements introduce us to new impressions, which prompt new ideas. But these ideas stay exactly where they are: within us. 
This does not mean that thinking happens inside minds, a ‘ghost in the machine’, to use Gilbert Ryle’s phrase from The Concept of Mind. It means that ideas arise in thinking beings, who are inescapably limited: situated in a given time and place, with a first-person perspective on the world. And because of this, ideas cannot take holidays—they are tangled up in the creaturely situations of the people who have them. 
For example, Plato had ideas over two millennia ago. These prompted him to write The Republic. His writings were copied by scribes, those scrolls were copied and translated into Latin, new codexes were designed and printed and, after centuries, various editions in various languages were digitised and downloaded—including the public domain one on my phone. At no point did Plato’s ideas become public, strictly speaking. Plato’s inscriptions caused impressions, which were transformed into complex ideas. And just as importantly, these became different ideas, from his early Academy students like Aristotle, to a Neo-Platonist like Plotinus, to a Christian theologian like Augustine. 
The point is not that we cannot think about Plato’s ideas. The point is that they are not Plato’s ideas, if this means some ethereal stuff that continues from fourth century Athens to today. Instead, we have to create and recreate notions, which we associate with yet another concept: ‘Plato’. Likewise, I put together the idea of London from scattered impressions of the city, and invent all that I have not witnessed. Many ideas of nineteenth century London, gained from Henry James’s English Hours, are all second-hand, fabricated from the raw materials of Melbourne: fog, carriages, sculleries. In fact, James himself had to do this, making do with invention. ‘Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot,’ he wrote in the essay “London”, ‘but in imagination, and by a constant mental act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole…’. 
In short: to say that ideas travel is shorthand for a more complicated to-and-fro. Similar concepts occur in more than one place and time, often with similar influences. Ideas go nowhere. This does not mean that philosophical continuity is bogus: from Hume to me, for example. It means we have to be aware of the subtle play of experience behind the notions. When we pick up a book like Hume’s Treatise, we cannot simply unpack the pages to find bubble-wrapped ideas: we render them as we read, informed by a lifetime of perception.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Why travel?

Nami Island, South Korea  (clockwise from top left): children's library,
cow sculpture, decorating a vase in the calligraphy studio
My latest Canberra Times column looks at travel. In 'An inquiring mind essential kit for travellers', I argue that travel is, at least in part, best characterised as a prompt for thought. It offers experiences--the important thing is what we do with these. A sample:
What travel usually occasions is the opportunity for questions, not easy certainties. I recently flew to Asia for Australian Writers' Week. One of the highlights was Nami Island in South Korea, a cultural precinct north-east of Seoul. 
Nami is brimming with artistic venues, archives and goods. It hosts rock 'n' roll and rare musical instrument museums, several performance stages, a ceramics kiln, calligraphy studio, sculptures (often made from recycled soju bottles). It hosts an international children's book fair, sponsors the Hans Christian Anderson Award for children's literature and illustration, and has a sublime library of kids' books: a wall, some three metres high, of vibrant covers. There are rabbits, peacocks and, surprisingly, emus. The famous Metasequoia Lane, with its avenue of tall conifers, surpasses its own ubiquitous publicity. 
The range of cultural events and objects on Nami is incredible, and it makes their playful secession – declaring themselves an independent republic, complete with flag and passport – all the more understandable. 
The question for me is how this marvellous ferment squares with the portrait of South Korea as a capitalist wasteland. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in Trouble in Paradise, declares that the nation is fully digitised, atomised, commodified. It was, Žižek argues, essentially razed by conflict, ripe for a new regime of precarious work and rapid consumption, with no traditions left to resist the transformation of people into well-fed but lonely, anxious workers. 
It is, writes Žižek, "a place deprived of its history, a wordless place". In his eyes, the hugely popular Gangnam Style track becomes a ritual of communal ideology, promoting a kind of thrilled disgust. It offers no escape from zombie existence, except defeated irony. 
Does this make Nami merely a comforting museum? A way to keep alive the illusion of authenticity, before returning to the office on Monday? Or might its promotion of arts, scholarship and play provide the occasional break from ideology, and allow for reflection if not revolution?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Philosophy in the Garden...in the Gardens (Brisbane)

At the pulpit in Old Government House (Photo: Megan Williams)
Last weekend I was in Brisbane to speak at the QUT Art Museum, situated in Brisbane's lush City Botanic Gardens.

The Art Museum was hosting a new exhibition, Garden, which showcases a fantastic variety of themed works: from traditional oil or polymer paintings, to sculptures, to interventions.
Sybil Curtis, 'The grey and the green'
Tyza Stewart, 'Dense plant scenes plant sculptures'
Hiromi Tango, 'NatureNurture in the rose garden'

In front of Salvatore Zofrea's
'Rock lillies with flannel flowers
and egg and bacon pea'
(Photo: Kim Woods Rabbidge)
My talk was on Philosophy in the Garden, which included a reading from my chapter on Jane Austen.

The audience asked some excellent questions, including one I'd still like to answer properly (paraphrased): why do some create gardens for themselves, and some for others? This might be a question about talent, but it can also be about existential orientation: a garden for experience or status, for private pleasure or public good?

The trip also gave me a chance to meander in the City Botanic Gardens themselves. Moreton Bay figs, mangroves, dragonflies, ibis, lizards and waterlilies -- all in the middle of the CBD.

Moreton Bay Figs, City Botanic Gardens

Waterlilies, City Botanic Gardens
Fountain, City Botanic Gardens

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Think About Exercise: Dutch Edition

Following shortly after Philosophy in the Garden and Distraction, my How to Think About Exercise has been translated into Dutch, and will be published in the Netherlands in August of this year.

More information here (in Dutch).

Philosophy Salon: Nietzsche

Not pictured: Übermensch
Last night I hosted another philosophy salon for The School of Life.

This time it was held at Shebeen, a café/bar that sends profits to overseas development projects.

The evening's star was Friedrich Nietzsche. I discussed the will to power, Superman and eternal recurrence.

Some good questions about Nietzsche's elitism, the relationship between his illness and his ideas, and his motives for writing. Given his suspicion of followers, and contempt for the 'herd', why did he put so much of himself into his work?

There was also discussion of Nietzsche's working habits -- some of which I detail in Philosophy in the Garden -- and the ties, if any, between Nietzsche and My Nanna is a Ninja.

The evening was sold out, but the next salon on David Hume is on 13th May.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Launch: My Pop is a Pirate

With my hardy buccaneer, Sophia
This weekend we launched my second children's picture book, My Pop is a Pirate.

Again hosted by the marvellous Little Bookroom in Carlton North, we had a hearty afternoon of piratical fun.

Gestures of piracy: the YES
and the NO
It began with a quiz, in which the audience had to run to one of two signs: YES or NO.

I asked fiendishly hard questions about pirates, like 'Did they fly helicopters?' and 'Did pirate flags have skulls and bananas?' (Nikos played sceptic and answered '...that we know of...' and 'perhaps'.)

The quiz also involved me dancing around like a drunk monkey with its limbs tied together.

Then it was time for a reading, and all of the kids joined in to yell 'pirate' as I said it.

Listening for the cry, 'PIRATE!'
There was a marvellous face-painter, who decorated kids with rainbows, pirate flags, lightning strikes and Elsa from Frozen.

Deathstroke and his curls
Nikos (of course) asked for a Deathstroke mask.

There was also some excellent dress-up, including Tucker who rocked some impressive pirate haute couture.

As always, Leesa from The Little Bookroom was entertaining, leading a rousing pirate singalong and thankyou.

There were also chocolate bunny pirates, which were handed out with a generosity perhaps missing in your average sea dog.

I closed the day by signing a stack of books, and then changing out of my cerise outfit of doom.

Signing the stack (note box of chocolate treasure)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Who is the author?


The newest Island magazine is out now, and it features a schmick new old essay from Marshall McLuhan. (See the dashing cover model.)

It also includes an essay from me: 'Who is the author?' I'm discussing the longing some readers have to meet authors. Who exactly are they hoping to meet? And why? Here's the introduction:
‘In my first fifteen or twenty years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author’s photograph on the back flap.’ – John Updike, “The End of Authorship” 
A publishing contract is now more than an invitation to write. It is also a request for performance. The author becomes, as John Updike puts it in “The End of Authorship”, a ‘walking, talking advertisement for the book’. The very year the American novelist gave this speech in Washington, a publisher told me in passing: ‘Of course, we’ll fly you to the festivals, get you reading at shops and libraries.’ Of course. One does not simply have talent, which Flannery O’Connor insisted was vital for a literary vocation. Now one is a talent: an artful player, with all the ambiguity of each word. 
My point is neither that there is anything necessarily vicious or vulgar about performance, nor that we have lost a literary golden age: from enlightened literacy to primitive orality. The Romans regularly held public performances, in which poets tested their verse in a public laboratory. (Or lavatory. ‘You read to me as I shit,’ complained first-century poet Martial in his Epigrams.) Pliny the Younger lamented that his listeners did not obey audience etiquette: ‘two or three clever persons…listened to it like deaf mutes.’ Greek philosophy itself began with public performance; with the need to grab interest along with intellect. Put simply, we are not the first era to ask writers to tap-dance, and this request does not automatically corrupt literature. 
Instead, Updike’s quip makes ubiquitous performance look rightly contingent, and so puzzling. The publishers’ motives are straightforward: selling stuff. But when readers book tickets for their ‘soirée with author’, what are they paying for?
Island is available in good bookshops across Australia. You can also subscribe, and have it delivered to your door. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Tale of Three Cities: Taipei, Beijing, Seoul

Outside the humble Beijing Capital Library
I've just returned, woozy and a little waxen, from Australian Writers Week (AWW) 2015. I have an extra suitcase for gifts. And business cards.

Previous AWW tours have focused on Beijing and other Chinese cities, but this year's itinerary was enlarged: I jetted to Taiwan and South Korea alongside China. We stuffed a great deal into the little meat sack of Damon.

With Cathy Raper
My first stop was Taiwan, staying at the Woolloomooloo guest house and restaurant.  My Japanese-style tatami room was small but very comfortable, and I enjoyed the best coffee of my trip in the café downstairs: a neat short macchiato. Hats off to the owner, Australian-Taiwanese architect Jimmy Yang.

I met with the Australian Representative in Taiwan, Cathy Raper, and had a short chat about the island's history and politics.

Then I was off to the National University of Taiwan, to give a workshop and lecture on philosophy. The chief point of my talk and questions was to get students thinking about the relationships between scholarship and everyday life; how each informs the other (or doesn't). I used examples from authors including Seneca and Nietzsche. (I wanted to introduce them to the poetry of Alison Croggon, but language made it awkward.)

One of the discussions, nudged along by Professor JJ Yuann, concerned the verbosity of the safe: how freedom often encourages a certain bellicose chatter, as opposed to the stoic quiet of those struggling with empire.
With Professor JJ Yuann and students, Taiwan National University
After the class, Professor Yuann joined me for a casual meeting with Taiwanese academics, publishers and arts professionals. Then it was time for a quick radio interview on my How to Think About Exercise.

Sweating at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial
Fittingly, I then took myself off for a brief jog to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, then a jaunt on the subway to the amazing Palace Museum, which holds an enormous collection of Chinese antiquities and art. My favourite part: the extraordinary 'Along the River During Qingming Festival'. Somewhere between Bruegel, Pepys and Where's Wally, it's an incredible historical document.

My next gig was at Woolloomooloo: a reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, plus some games. My host was children's book guru and local author Charlene Lai.

After this, but not before an sumptuous Taiwanese lunch (highlight: mullet roe with gourd and radish slices) with Jimmy Yang and Charlene, was another My Nanna is a Ninja reading: at the Taipei Public Library. Then it was time to leave this intriguing Chinese island...
Lightning moves at Taipei Public Library
*

...for the Chinese mainland. And not just China: Beijing, the enormous capital. I say 'enormous', though of course I saw chiefly the Opposite House hotel, taxis, shops and the festival rooms. But what Henry James wrote of London seems apt for Beijing:
Practically, of course, one lives in a quarter, in a plot; but in imagination, and by a constant mental  act of reference the sympathizing resident inhabits the whole--and it is only of him that I deem it worth while to speak. He fancies himself, as they say, for being a particle in so unequalled an aggregation; and its immeasurable circumference, even though unvisited and lost in smoke, gives him the sense of a social, an intellectual margin. 
My first events were two more readings of My Nanna is a Ninja, for the Bookworm literary festival. One at iQiyi cafe, then another at the huge Beijing Capital Library.

The former was relatively quiet; the second, a riot. Their discipline seemingly undone by my games, the children took to the stage--quite literally. My translator, Christine, worked tirelessly to explain the ideas and words, and control the crowd.

When 'an intimate reading' means toddlers on your knees: Beijing Capital Library
That night I had dinner with novelist AJ Betts, author/illustrator Frané Lessac and author Mark Greenwood. We had Peking duck. In Peking. (And it was very good.)

Portable magic: keeping oxygen in
a dome
Next was a session on How to Think About Exercise, with final years at the British School of Beijing. Some fascinating reflections on embodiment and social values, including a revelation: teenagers don't like to sprint alone. Part of the class was inside the school's dome: a sealed gymnasium, so the kids can do sports without breathing in Beijing's polluted air.

From this quite privileged institution, I was off to Mingyuan: one of Beijing's migrant schools. These were the children of rural parents who had moved to Beijing looking for work, forfeiting medical and educational access. The Migrant Children's Foundation, a charity, provides schooling, basic equipment and uniforms.

I arrived while the younger grades were napping, but my class were year fives--and they were awesome. After the quiz and games, they were quick to identify English words, and answer questions about the characters and story of My Nanna is a Ninja. Their questions, like their drawing and colouring, were careful but fun. After a sneak preview of My Pop is a Pirate, we ended with a quick photo outside, alongside the whitewashed buildings and hard playground.

With the kids from Mingyuan migrant school, Bejing
Then I met with AJ Betts and novelist Brooke Davis to chat with two Chinese authors: A Yi and Miao Wei. Nicky Harman, from Paper Republic, was also taking tea with us. While Paper Republic translator Eric Abrahamsen was relaxed and very clear, it took some time to warm up: the mediated talk does not come naturally. Nonetheless, we learned a little about the logistics of writing life in China, as well as some history of literature. A great and rare chance to peer behind the glossy stickers, including at the twin censorship pressures of politics and commerce. Another radio interview followed, with 774 Beijing. (I cannot remember what I said, but I know I said it quickly.)

Reading from Voltaire's Vine, with
DV, XNE, CA and MC
The final event of the day was a panel at the Bookwork literary festival, with fiction writers: Mary Costello from Ireland, Clare Azzopardi from Malta and Xi Ni Er from Singapore. Daniel Vuillermin was our host.

I can't convey the variety and nuance of each, but all were marked by a masterful brevity; the willingness to let the audience work, instead of condescending with detail.

Discussion turned to gender in the Q and A afterwards, and it was intriguing to hear the debates cross several continents.

The next morning I took myself off for a jog: just a few kilometres to a local park. But what was green on the map was actually concrete: an artificial lake (with real ducks). It was nice to actually get a brief feel for the neighbourhood, as well as testing my mask.

Jogging in Beijing on an officially 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' morning
(the highest level isapparently 'Crazy Bad')
After this, AJ, Brooke and I were back together at Renmin University's Centre for Australian Studies. We each gave a reading, punctuated by autobiographical notes, then answered questions.

There was a strong note of grief and horror to the stories, which gave a depth to laughter when it happened (and, with AJ and Brooke's well-balanced novels, it wasn't long coming).
At Renmin University with AJ Betts, Brooke Davis, staff and students
At the soirée, doing soirée things
The evening ended with a soirée at the Australian ambassador's residence, where I chatted briefly to the ambassador Frances Adamson and others, and finally met author Jennifer Mills, an Australian expatriate in Beijing. There was chicken, and it and I got quickly acquainted.

My final evening in Bejing, after the soirée, was a poetry reading by poet, translator and raconteur Willis Barnstone. Having just devoted weeks to Borges, it was a nice surprise to meet someone who knew the Argentine author well--who lived across the road, in fact.

*

Busy stillness: Yeonhui art space,
view from the stage
And then: Korea. After a chat with staff from the Australian Embassy, including the Australia-Korea Foundation, I visted the Yeonhui art space, in Seoul.

A combination of writers' residence, library and school, Yeonhui is a perfect retreat: close to amenities, but quiet and cultivated. (There is a photo of Nic Low, who interviewed me for The Monthly, on the window of the foreign writers' building.)

The next tour was Nami Island, which is ludicrous: a resort isle, artificially divided from the coast, about an hour's drive from Seoul. It has everything. A museum of ancient and international musical instruments, a pop music museum, several performance stages, public artworks, restaurants, wild animals (including emus), galleries, pottery kiln, gardens a massive children's library, and more.

The children's library, Nami island
Originally planned by founder Mr Min as a resort for American officers, it is now a cultural centre of Korea, and a very popular tourism spot for locals and others in Asia. It is basically a city of art, which has comically declared its cultural independence from the rest of Korea. I was invited to decorate a vase, choosing to paint a pen and message: wanted: good readers.

The next day I had two more My Nanna is a Ninja gigs: at Kimpo and Incheon kindergartens. Hosted partly by Awesome World, who've published the Korean translation, these events were hugely entertaining. The children and teachers of Kimpo kindergarten had clearly devoted many days to the visit, and I was gobsmacked by their letters, drawings, buntings and written questions. I had discovered the world of the ninja nanna--ten thousand kilometres from home. It was a blast to hear my story in Korean, and the children reading along in parts.

Reading "Ninja Halmeoni" (Ninja Grandmother) to the Kimpo kindergarten kids
Drawings, letters to the ninja nanna, and questions for the author, Kimpo kindergarten
After this I had a free day, which was devoted to recovering from the previous days, finding gifts for my family, and not collapsing.

Which brings me to today: grateful for the chance to enjoy so many impressions, curious to know more, and sharply aware of my own position as one of Henry James's 'particles' in a much larger collection.