Friday, January 09, 2009

Book Block: DISTRACTION by Damon Young

Today's Book Block is a bit of a different fare.. non-fiction! And philosophy at that. I present to you what I'm pretty sure is our first philosophical book to be featured in Book Blocks. Variety is good. =)

Written by Damon Young

Genre: Philosophy/Non-fiction
Publisher: Melbourne University Press
Date: September 1, 2008
ISBN: 978-0522853742

In writing Distraction, one of the chief questions for me was: How can I make the philosophical ideas come alive? It can't be patronising or glib, but it also has to avoid rootless abstraction. How can I bring philosophy back to everyday life, its challenges, anxieties and longings?

Writing straightforwardly helps, as does drawing on current events and issues - but this all-too-easily lapses into reportage. I asked myself: how can I be lively and relevant, without sacrificing philosophical depth?

Chiefly, my answer was: biography. In writing of my own life, and those of philosophers, artists and statesmen, I was able to give philosophical ideas an intimate face.

Most chapters begin with a dramatic or poignant episode: Matisse's hernia, Proust's disappointment at Balbec, Seneca's suicide, Henry James' loss of Miss Woolson. This uses stories to engage the readers' attention; to connect with their sympathy and psychological imagination.

I then tease out the themes of distraction, diversion, interruption, and use philosophy to clarify or enrich these themes, e.g. Matisse's newfound clarity, Proust's stifling education, Seneca's noble politics of character, and Henry James' slow discovery of freedom. The stories are transformed: from uplifting or tragic tales, to the adventures of living ideas.

Finally, I show how these ideas are relevant to life today. Matisse can teach us how to avoid the distractions of the art gallery; Proust offers insights on class and status; Seneca joins Foucault in resisting cynical Realpolitik; and Henry James reminds us that intimacy needn't be sacrificed to our jobs or hobbies.

In each case, my gamble was this: that biography (including my own) can afford a rich, nuanced, gripping introduction to the endeavour of thought. It shows the value of ideas - not as abstract, ghostly playthings, but as the motivating, illuminating stuff of life.

Where To Buy The Book: As this is a bit of an international book, there are a couple of different places to get it from... Amazon US, Amazon UK, Readings Bookshops in Australia, Melbourne University Press

Damon's Website:


acpaul said...

Interesting approach to a subject many find difficult. I wonder why the author chose people who are not primarily thought of as being philosophers? Or is that, in fact, the entire point, to show that philosophy can touch on and teach us through all sorts of lives?

ryan field said...

The Henry James part hooked me.

Damon said...

Yes, acpaul, you've answered your own question! I've written about all sorts: artists, writers, statesmen, dissidents, philosophers.

The basic idea is this: to show ideas at work in life.

Ryan: glad to hear it. I admire James' work tremendously. He's one of the United States' most wonderful exports!