Not For Ourselves Alone: Belonging in an age of loneliness by Jenny Robin Jones (Saddleback, 2018), 248 pp., $39.99
… I grew up without a community, You went to school, you joined Girl Guides, later on the Brethren, But they never felt like communities, or at least not communities that I really belonged to, What would a community you ‘really belonged to’ look like, Utopia? I must admit, I’m interested in utopias. So how come you didn’t belong to the communities you joined? Perhaps I didn’t understand the rules or perhaps I wasn’t the kind of person they wanted.
In this book Jenny Robin Jones has invited you into her living room, where she has pulled every book out of her well-cultured bookshelf. They fall open on the floor – history, sociology, poetry, some old photo albums. She makes you a cup of coffee. She makes a new and willing friend of you. You sit down in the midst of it all and she starts talking …
Jones’ book is lively, warm, and genre-queer, a blend of memoir, interview and sociological analysis on the themes of belonging, loneliness, individuality, community. But in fact ‘belonging’ is both too general and too specific to describe this book’s contents, which are a cross-section of (European and New Zealand) history, philosophy, economics, and the author’s own memories to boot.
Yet Jones is honest that the topic is a lifelong chip on her own shoulder; a thorn in the (now battery-driven) flesh of her heart.
It’s there in the word: ‘Be-longing’. Hard to ignore the way it stokes want, summons us into dissatisfaction with self alone. Indeed this is where Jones begins: with the self as an ‘elastic, permeable marvel’ that ‘is our building block for belonging’. To make this point about self-formation, pockets of the first part of the book feature an internal dialogue rendered on the page (and as quoted above).
The writing is energetic, lush and accessible. It takes us by the hand, to lead us with great enthusiasm around time and space, pointing out places and people and events, filling in details with great oratory flair. Jones makes complex ideas sing, sets them to shine: ‘The idea of “freedom” inhabits us like a religious tenet,’ she says, before connecting this to the services of capitalism. ‘The fondue bond was not strong enough for the long haul,’ she sighs of her early dinner-party communities, making me smile.
The narrative thread of Jones’ own life unevenly stitches together a sometimes dizzying range of topics and lessons. For example, in one spot in the space of five pages, she swings from narrating the life of an 1880s New Zealand farmer, to the passengers of the Mayflower (US, 1660), to an Austrian novelist moving through Europe in the 1930s. If you begin to feel disorientated, there she is again: your tour guide warmly taking you by the hand to tug you excitedly to the next ‘exhibit’. Many of her topics grapple with areas of special significance to New Zealand: beer and belonging, wilderness, nature and colonial settlement. Rugby. She doesn’t shy from difficult parts of New Zealand’s history, although at times they are plugged into her narrative a little too neatly. The section on Tama Iti and the Urewera raids, for example. Other times more room is left for uncertainty, as with the Springbok tours.
Tied in to these sometimes powerfully, sometimes only loosely, Jones shares with us little moments from her own life upon which the world turned. As memoir it is intimate in a matter-of-fact kind of way – eschewing the confessional, the sentimental. There is death, there is divorce, there is sex, there is deep existential crisis. There is also gardening and work and doctor’s visits. It is cosy, it is human. The interviews with a smattering of her acquaintances are treated in a similar style. These are presented as straightforward transcript in long sections that somehow do not lose interest in all the ordinariness and extraordinariness of people. The sections work well, served as they are intermittently between pieces of wider social observation, political and economic theorisation, and rich renderings of historical moments, all knotted together in service of a bigger tale.
Jones likes to trace history in clean lines, from ‘back then’ to ‘nowadays’. For me this is a niggling problem throughout this book.
There used to be a time when people lived in small groups or communities that were their whole world. We were much more one with our kind then. (from a section headed ‘In Feudal Times, It Was Easy’)
‘In earlier ages’ belonging grew organically we are told, just a few sentences into the introduction. Stability, wellbeing, meaning, purpose, peace, security – Jones doesn’t hold back. A disappointingly easy (and common) meta-narrative to ride: the nostalgia of the perfect past, contrasted with the spiritual poverty of capitalist modernity. I am wary of the easy tendency to make a utopia of the past; though Jones is honest at least about her longing for such a utopia.
I cringed when she willingly affirmed the ‘Jamesian insights’ of human ‘evolution’ from ‘tribal organisation and consciousness’ to a lonely globalisation. Elsewhere in a chapter on ‘Place’ she contrasts Māori ‘tribes’’ connection to, and Western ‘civilisation’s’ loss of, an orientation to place. In other places ‘tribal’ is used as an adjective. To a recently educated social scientist such as myself, this kind of social evolutionism is troubling, to say the least. Jones is clearly an avid reader and researcher, but her sociology degree from the 1960s combined with effective populist tone misses important critical nuances in some worrying ways, leaning back on cultural binaries and Eurocentric meta-narratives.
In this book Jones makes a heavy investment in the collective pronoun. This is successful in providing a congenial tone, but in too many places it is hitched to the type of sweeping socio-historical statement that teeters on the edge of a very problematic essentialism. ‘We now no longer have gods embedded in mountain, river, glen – but we know that spirit is intrinsic to what we need and value in place,’ she says. Here and elsewhere she throws grappling hooks out to her own experiences with Māori culture, or to Māori concepts more generally, to haul these in as needed to support her own narratives.
In a diverse contemporary New Zealand context, never mind the world, the ‘we’ borders on dangerous. As a middle-class Pākehā woman, like Jones herself, the ‘we’ fitted me reasonably well. But the uncomfortable awareness of its specificity, of the many it would not fit, needled me throughout.
Of course this point of my critique can be encompassed, in itself, within the wider arms of the book’s own thematic content: individuality verses collectivity. Self verses society.
But content-wise, the painful contemporary cultural politics of belonging in a post-colonial nation is one point the book has not captured – which is not a remonstration – and in fact if anything, many of the topics needed greater time and depth on specific focal points, rather than the rapid reeling in of so many points of historical and contemporary experience, to serve the central thread. I fear it would not stand up to peer review as an academic text, but then that is not its purpose.
The tug of individual versus society is presented as something of a binary. It lacks the freshness and nuance that intersectionality, as a more contemporary approach, brings to such topics. Intersectionality takes an axe to this dangerous monolithic ‘we’ (without necessarily disregarding the hopeful ‘us’). Jones presents a compelling snapshot of European history and change, threaded through her own sense-making. While capturing the parochial and domestic with some beautiful nuances, which I admire, it feels like it doesn’t quite catch up to the political present. It stands at a distance from the beating heart of the debate about belonging that appears right now in Black Lives Matter movements, Trans politics, debates about the refugee crisis, the rise of the Alt Right, and in deeply entrenching partisan politics, and the potential, power and, yes, intimacy of digital belongings, for all their flaws.
As the sun sets and our conversation with Jones draws to a close in the final of twelve increasingly sweeping chapters, she brings out the big guns. ‘Zoroaster, Socrates. Confucius, Jeremiah and Buddha – followed by Rabbi Hillel, Jesus and Mohammed … achieve insights we have never surpassed,’ she writes. They are part of a ‘human quest for meaning and purpose’ she suggests is best fulfilled in accepting the purposelessness of the universe and that our own purpose is simply ‘one part of an entire whole’. When the golden rule was somewhat flatly peddled out to close, I found myself wishing for a more personal conclusion.
Jones is an adept and lively communicator. She opens up deep and serious topics with hope, with kindness, with skill. This journey through loneliness and belonging becomes a pleasure, nothing off-limits or inaccessible, with your own personal tour guide never losing energy. At points she is desirably specific in her narrations, making vivid particular moments in her history, and others … which she later can’t seem to resist bending towards her own wistful universalism. The book reads best when the ‘memoir’ aspect is emphasised over the sociological one: when its central narratives about human society are seen as tethered to her own confessed ‘longing for what doesn’t exist’. It reads best when we take belonging not as a relational state or a historical fact, but as an affective orientation. While I cannot contend with all of the sociological meta-narratives that Jones weaves to explain her own longing, somewhat ironically – and at the risk of homogenising human experience myself – I am left with the impression that the longing itself is universal; to this, and every, age of loneliness.
SUSAN WARDELL is from Dunedin. She lectures in social anthropology at the University of Otago while raising two small humans and a few potted plants. Susan is the author of an academic book: Living in the Tension: Care, selfhood, and wellbeing among faith-based youth workers (2018). Her poetry has been published in Landfall, Takahe, and Ecological Citizen. She was placed second in the 2018 Landfall Essay Competition.