Philosophy in the Garden
By Damon Young
Melbourne University Press, $24.99
READING this book is like strolling in a luxuriant garden with an erudite friend, although one of a literary rather than horticultural bent.
Our first encounter is with Jane Austen at her beloved Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where flowering peonies and columbines prompt ''quiet, domestic enjoyment: the rhythms and gestures that shape everyday life''. Damon Young observes that Austen ''adored the discipline of writing, but she also saw the garden as vital to her well-being''.
Leonard Woolf, a far darker character, tortured by his wife's encroaching madness and without the solace of religion, saw his Sussex garden as a necessary retreat from a hostile world: a familiar-enough response, except that Woolf's garden, much as he loved it, compounded rather than relieved his misery. After all, what could be more death-laden than a garden?
Meanwhile, across the Channel, an ageing, bedridden Colette, gazing down from her window at occupying German troops in the Jardin du Palais-Royal, dreamt of a more innocent world where pansies, lilies and tuberose flourished and the air hung sweet with the scent of Japanese allspice.
For many writers, then, the garden is a refuge, a place of memory and longing. But not for Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek.
He saw the famous rock garden of the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto as the perfect expression of the elan vital - a life energy he believed flourished only in the most austere environments, without the enervating distractions of comfort and satisfaction.
His nihilistic (although far from pessimistic) philosophy - a sort of virile Buddhism - provides a refreshing antidote to the sentimental view of gardens as little Edens.
Other writers we call on briefly are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom botany offered training in empirical observation; George Orwell, whose final days were spent coughing up his lungs in a bleak Hebridean vegie patch; Emily Dickinson, who during her lifetime was better known for her posies than her poesy; and Voltaire, whose famous exhortation, ''Let us all cultivate our gardens'', takes us into the realm of politics.
The most unexpected encounters, however, are with Proust, Nietzsche and Sartre, three figures we do not associate with the joys of cultivation. Yet the sickly Proust, cowering in his musty chamber, apparently kept two ''miserable, hideous'' bonsai by his bed that, Young assures us, were central to his celebrated vision of life and art. ''The very Proustian point is clear,'' he writes, ''from tiny things, grand memories and fantasies unfold.'' Although perhaps he exaggerates the significance of these arboreal madeleines, it is a nice conceit.
Nietzsche is more of a long shot. Although he did a lot of thinking under the shade of an Italian lemon tree, his interest was surely in wild nature rather than the garden's cultivated spaces. Granted that this is a book about philosophy in the garden rather than about gardens, the distinction is an important one Young is not always clear about.
When Sartre (or at least his alter-ego, Roquentin, in Nausea) sat under a chestnut tree, he felt only revulsion. ''He hates the country,'' Simone de Beauvoir observed of her famously unlikeable companion. ''He loathes - it isn't too strong a word - the swarming life of insects and the pullulation of plants.''
So why does he pop up in this book? Simply because, for Sartre, freedom is consciousness - or ''will'' - which the natural world does not possess. That dumb chestnut tree just lives and reproduces itself because it has no choice. While this is unlikely to make most of us nauseous, it does cast Jane Austen's pretty peonies and columbines in a stark new light.
Sartre, as anti-gardener, turns out to be an inspired choice.
All the same, explaining complex philosophical ideas such as existentialism or the Nietzschian Ubermensch in two or three pages is not an easy task, and the uninitiated reader might come away wanting more. Young's brief vignettes are better suited to the relatively uncomplicated emotional attachments to gardens of writers such as Austen, Dickinson and Colette.
Nevertheless, by concentrating on personalities rather than philosophical systems, and through his use of engaging anecdotes, he manages on the whole to lead us safely through the thickets of theoretical thinking.
What he sacrifices in depth he makes up for with enthusiasm and lightness of touch. Think of this engaging little book, then, as a philosophical primer, an approachable introduction to ideas about gardens and the natural world, of which at least some are bound to be unfamiliar and counter-intuitive.
■ Peter Timms' most recent book, Hobart, is published by New South at $29.99.