Saturday, March 16, 2013

Proust, terrariums and haiku @ The School of Life

A terrarium, from Bosky
This afternoon I ran a 'philosophical gardening' class at The School of Life, Melbourne.

We began with Proust, who features in Philosophy in the Garden. He had three bonsai at his bedside, in his apartment on Boulevard Haussmann, Paris. Why?

I spoke about Proust's love of miniatures; his fascination with small or humble things--bonsai, pith toys, paving stones--that evoked larger worlds. I concluded with two passages from the Proust chapter:
[T]he ideas that Proust saw in his bonsai are distinctive and valuable. His example confirms once again that gardens need not be grandiose and expensive— in fact, they need not be gardens at all. Not everyone has the hours, dollars or knack to cultivate PrĂ© Catalan; not everyone has the lungs or nimble fingers to make their hawthorns thrive. But what Proust achieved in his dark bedroom can be mirrored in poky rented flats or paved backyards. The principle of the bonsai works for olive trees in a courtyard, or potted geraniums on a porch. Austerity of landscape does not mean poverty of mind. 
Proust’s bonsai philosophy also makes a broader point. It is a simple but direct call to take notice of, and to celebrate, the most ordinary stuff of life. It is, in other words, a warning against the anaesthesia of familiarity. Small details, tiny things, half-seen instances, can offer surprising insights and impressions if we look closely enough. This is, first, in the craftman’s sense: decades of clipping, pruning and wiring offer the gardener the pleas- ures of mastery, preoccupation and beauty (or clumsi- ness, confusion and dead saplings, in my case). Second, it rewards in the art-lover’s sense: intricate, delicate, graspable things can be more enriching than their size sug- gests. This is the lesson of Proust’s ‘miserable, hideous little trees’, but it is also a habit of curious, unhurried consciousness. The bonsai is a living reminder: to rediscover the miniature universes that hide in plain sight. 
Patrick Ryan from Bosky then brought some of his evocative terrariums to the school, and actually made one in the classroom -- complete with a small plastic goat. 

Talking Proust (with terrarium)
Then I introduced haiku poetry, including the works of Issa (1763-1828). Haiku are playing with that same Proustian theme: miniatures that suggest larger worlds. (Literary  bonsai.)

Haiku virtues -- tactility, simplicity, intimation -- are also helpful for contemplation: in writing a haiku we can become more focused. (Pocket-sized anti-distraction devices.)

After a few minutes of brainstorming words ('lichen', 'thin', 'climbing'), we all sat down and wrote terrarium haiku for twenty minutes.

It worked: the poetic discipline had us looking more closely at the terrariums, and our responses to them. While there were some common themes -- imprisonment, escape, tranquility, llamas--it was an exercise in variety: moods, details and outlooks.

Some of the poems -- including mine -- will be on display at the School of Life soon.

At the end, James from Gardenworld, who supplied the School with its amazing succulents, introduced some innovative miniature or domestic garden goods: compostable pots, a dwarf lemon tree, and a home vegetable plot (complete with water gauge and overflow tank). Thanks to James, everyone went home with a herb (I took a luminescent basil -- and ate it with tomato and sunflower seeds not long after).

A stimulating afternoon in the garden -- and all done indoors. (Very Proustian.)

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