Deep thoughts on nature's way
Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the natural environment isn't a lawmaker.
There's a new Bond film out, and my mind is turning to gardens. This might strike readers as odd. After all, the British superspy was always too busy killing villains and bedding dames to water wilting saplings, or notice the vermilion Super Star roses growing in London's Regent's Park.
''As for birds, bees and flowers,'' wrote Ian Fleming of his hero, ''it only mattered whether or not they bit or stung, whether they smelled good or bad.''
But in his novel You Only Live Twice, Fleming offered an arresting portrait of the garden and its darker side, courtesy of Bond's melodramatic nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Blofeld bought a large palace, which he fortified, and protected with hundreds of armed guards. And behind the castle, on the edge of a sheer cliff: a deadly garden. Fed by Japan's volcanic geology, boiling sulphur springs bubbled in lakes, while ponds filled with piranha awaited trespassers.
Most disturbing of all was the flora. Growing in small bushes was yellow oleander, with its delicate curled petals - one leaf ingested can kill a child. There was elegant vine rosary pea, with cheerful pink flowers and bright red seeds, which can induce coma and death.
There were dangerous hallucinogens, intoxicants, convulsants, depressants, and others, all secreted by harmless-looking trees, shrubs, seeds and flowers. While in the garden stalking Blofeld, Bond watched a man affected by one of Shatterhand's [Blofeld] prized plants.
''Down the path,'' wrote Fleming, ''came staggering a man, or what had once been a man. The brilliant moonlight showed a head swollen to the size of a football, and only small slits remained where the eyes and mouth had been.'' This grotesque imagery marks Blofeld's garden as a savage, terrifying place - a Disneyland of death, as his wife put it.
Gardens are often seen as unequivocally good: hospitable, benign, kind. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote in his seminal essay Of Gardens, they're ''the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man.'' Whether it's the Classical ideal of mathematical, military precision, or the Romantic vision of primordial, rambling splendour, gardens are treated as perfections of nature and human nature.
And indeed, it is nature that is at the heart of their appeal - the cultivated and beautified landscape is where we encounter and enjoy nature at its finest. It offers the ineffable joy of reverie and the sublime, and the tangible goods of food, exercise and economy.
Blofeld's estate seems to overturn these impressions of a caring universe. His garden presents us with a very different face of nature: indifference at best, and malice at worst. Why?
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche helps. He believed that we'd spent far too long idolising nature. We speak of good things as natural - we treat nature as our guide to ethics and politics. In an urban, fast-paced society, nature becomes the great saviour of civilisation: all that is beautiful, right and correct. Because we're ''so fed up with one another'', wrote Nietzsche in Daybreak, we seek ''a corner of the world into which man and his torments could not enter: good nature''.
For some, this means lauding the unspoilt perfection of the land. For others, it's the basic principles of the cosmos; the so-called laws of nature, offering us wisdom.
Nietzsche would have none of this. He argued that the natural environment isn't a lawmaker - it issues no commands, gives no proclamations. ''Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature,'' he wrote in The Gay Science. ''There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses.''
And what's more, even if it were a cosmic judge, nature's ruling would be chaotic. ''Think of a being such as nature is,'' he wrote, ''prodigal without measure, indifferent beyond measure … without mercy or justice … how could you live according to such indifference?''
For Nietzsche, it was absurd to always look to nature for peace and righteousness, as he had once done as a child. To ask it, ''red in tooth and claw'', to furnish an ethical philosophy was simply futile.
''You have compelled yourselves,'' he wrote, ''for too long and with such persistence and hypnotic rigidity, to view nature falsely.''
If nature isn't evil, it's certainly violent and uncaring.
And we too are part of nature. To be human is to seek authority, possession, mastery, and safety; to make and remake the world. If we're more sophisticated than the yellow oleander, we're also more ambitious: we assert ourselves by transforming, in fact and imagination, the world we inhabit.
In this way, the vital urge of nature is transformed into culture; the enterprise of education, cultivation, and the encouragement of character.
''Culture is liberation,'' wrote Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations, ''the removal of all the weeds, rubble and vermin that want to attack the tender buds of the plant.''
If Bond missed the gardens, he certainly would have recognised this ambition.
Damon Young's Philosophy in the Garden is out now, published by Melbourne University Publishing.