Tranquillity and Ruin by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria University Press, 2020), 176pp., $30; Love America: On the trail of writers & artists in New Mexico by Jenny Robin Jones (Calico Publishing, 2020), 211pp., $36.95
Having read Danyl McLauchlan’s Tranquillity and Ruin, I more completely understand why Kim Hill is such a fan; he’s erudite (verging on the polymathic), darkly hilarious, self-deprecating, supremely uncertain—and willing to excavate the depths of those uncertainties. These winning traits feature not only in his frequent Saturday Morning appearances, but also in his comic noir novels and now this essay collection. He’s a superb thinker and writer.
Tranquillity and Ruin opens with a disarming uncertainty, and an enthralling fixation on that uncertainty. McLauchlan confesses that, while writing the book, the thematic label of uncertainty ‘sounded important and cerebral while being vague enough to mean anything’. And he was definitely onto something. Each essay is a well-thumbed bead on his personal rosary of doubts/obsessions, untethered from certainty by constant reflection. Even his similes are uncertain: hedging their bets, riddled with qualifications (‘Having a mood disorder is a bit like having a bad back.’) From a mall-rat’s self-indulgence to a meditation retreat, from the forbidding philosophising of Heidegger to the cognitive science of Tversky and Kahneman, from Philip Larkin to existential risk, McLauchlan makes rapid leaps, but never implausibly. And without once losing his reader. The titles of the essays (‘Arise and Pass Away’; ‘The Child and the Open Sea’; ‘The Hunger and the Rain’) sound like fragments of Buddhist koans in themselves—which is apt, given that koans are riddles, puzzles or statements used in Zen Buddhist meditation to provoke the ‘great doubt’, uncover great truths about the world and ultimately to test a student’s progress in Zen. Or perhaps, equally fitting, they’re more like Leonard Cohen lyrics. Whatever the analogy, each essay warrants close reading and analysis, offering fodder for hours of discussion.
The first two essays focus on mood disorders, medication and meditation, as supplementary means of managing depression and anxiety—meditation being something McLauchlan notes is ‘good for my mental health but terrible for my identity as an arch-rational sceptic’. Regardless of how much it improves his life, McLauchlan still feels quasi-cynical about it, describing meditation as ‘like something I bought off a sinister old man in an antique shop’. Part of the impetus for this collection is therefore to provide conceptual tools for the similarly disposed, ‘to build a palatable-to-sceptics framework around meditation’ and its effects. Essentially, these essays attempt to help and persuade the subset of people like himself—‘whose problems involve information and distraction and uncertainty’—that ‘mindfulness is an effective long-term way to manage our illness’.
The third essay reacts against ‘political hobbyism’, whereby activists are intellectually and emotionally engaged with political issues but materially detached from them. Trying not to slide further into political apathy, McLauchlan investigates effective altruism (EA), a movement that focuses on how individuals can make the biggest positive difference in the world, and is defined by its self-doubt, self-critique and ‘uncertainty … about the efficacy of what you’re trying to do and why’. Following his experiences at the national EA retreat, McLauchlan realises that ‘one of the few things [he is] now more certain of is that this uncertainty and self-doubt is an important component of real change’. This is perennial uncertainty not as purgatory, or debilitating weakness, but as strength, as means of empowerment.
The final essay is set at Bodhinyanarama monastery in Stokes Valley, not far from McLauchlan’s home. However, highlighting ‘the radical difference between the monastic life and the secular world’, it opens with a blissful Happy Meal in the Westfield Queensgate Mall. Through distinct but strangely united case studies, McLauchlan constantly reminds us that ‘the way we live now is not the only way to live. We have options.’ Our self-loathing and outrage at ‘the consumerism, the environmental collapse, the inequality, the grand wrongness of it all’ doesn’t have to end with self-loathing. Instead, it can mean changing your life. Thus, this essay attempts to help ‘sceptics to be more sympathetic towards religious communities and spiritual value systems’. As McLauchlan notes in his introduction, none of these subjects are original. But his strength is his ambidextrous ambivalence, his probing uncertainty, measured against the ‘maximal certainty’ characterising most other writing on this subject-matter.
In many ways, Tranquillity and Ruin resembles Emmanuel Carrère’s latest work of autofiction, Yoga (2020). Like McLauchlan, Carrère attends a silent meditation retreat, comprehensively describes meditation and what he desires from it, details his mental disorders and treatment, and interprets canonical Buddhist texts. Both authors are candid about the disappointments that often follow ‘bad’ meditation sessions. And both are honest about what McLauchlan calls the ‘hard work’ of ‘being secluded from sense pleasures and unwholesome states of mind’ (McLauchlan focuses on forsaken culinary delights, while Carrère is preoccupied with foregone carnality). But McLauchlan’s offering is so much more enjoyable than Carrère’s. Although occasionally dark, McLauchlan’s essays are never overwhelmingly so, and remain light-hearted, stimulating and transformative. McLauchlan is also far funnier and displays a broader, deeper intellect. He romps from academic texts on neuroscience and cognitive psychology to the tenets of secular Buddhism and the writings of Peter Singer, Derek Parfit and Amia Srinivasan (among others), weaving these together to explore the hidden truths uncovered through meditation. It is also a meditative, literary work centred in Aotearoa, rather than Paris, and there’s a delicious pleasure in moving within one essay from the ‘wet beauty’ of a weka to musings on the functioning of the brain’s temporoparietal region, all within a retreat in the Southern Alps.
Whether discussing the trials of drying socks in a frozen monastery (‘a very low point on [his] spiritual path’), or summarising Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, McLauchlan is at ease, jovial; he is an eloquent and empowering friend on the page. Despite descriptive hurdles (how do you narrate infinitesimal neural transitions?), McLauchlan forges ahead and attempts to capture the workings of the submind, trying to reveal ‘the alchemical moment when the electrochemical signals in the brain transform themselves into conscious thought’. A weighty challenge, it’s one he tackles with vulnerability and openness to failure. Writing against ‘the default emotional tone of the twenty-first century’, a blend of ‘hyper-informed hysteria and trance-like inertia’, McLauchlan’s latest book is a transformative, soothing, jolting read: an antidote to all lazy forms of hobbyism, scepticism and apathy. Although very much more than a self-help book, it just might prompt you to change your life (without necessarily giving up on doughnuts or chocolate eclairs: see ‘The Hunger and the Rain’).
In Love America: On the trail of writers & artists in New Mexico, we follow Jenny Robin Jones to the eerily beautiful desertscapes of Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as she feels her way through encounters with the Indigenous Pueblo peoples and the architectural and artistic residue of creatives including D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, Willa Cather and others. The book is partly a love letter to this specific part of the United States, fragmentary biographies of the writers and artists she traces within their bohemian coteries, and an exploration of her changing relationships with travel, literature, stereotypes of the US and one man in particular: her pseudonymised, platonic partner, ‘the o-m’ (‘the old man’, posthumously honoured in her dedication).
She is both cagey and unflinchingly open about the o-m (even admitting to some ‘slightly awkward’ details around the relationship and the missing sex component), yet he seems like the ideal travel companion. He does everything to try to make this the trip of a lifetime. He knows a great deal about the region and its history. And yet Jones often ignores, dismisses or outright shuts down his historical explanations, because she doesn’t feel ‘ready’ or equipped for them. Near Los Alamos he is barred from sharing information by Jones’ blatant disinterest: ‘perhaps I didn’t want to know, perhaps this wasn’t what I had come for’. But once safely home again, she suddenly does want to know. This wildly perplexing dynamic replays itself multiple times throughout the book. And there is something deeply counterintuitive about Jones’ methods of being and writing: she cannot bear to learn about things when they are in front of her; only once she is safely back home can she ‘ignore reality no longer and reluctantly [take] to the internet’. Her physical proximity to sources of fear or discomfort (for example, Indigenous peoples) as obstacle to learning is quietly instructive. She admits this attitude means she misses things right under her nose, because she hadn’t known about them before hitting up Google at home. It also means a coldness grows between the travelling duo, and the reader does not benefit from the o-m’s own knowledge. I want to know more about the o-m. I want to read the book he would have written. Getting to know him—albeit aslant, through another’s eyes—through the course of Love America, and learning what we do in the epilogue, it feels a great loss that his book will never exist.
I wonder, also, whether ‘pilgrimage’ is really the right word, if much of what you learn and appreciate about a place and its peoples comes well after the event. We spend much of this book riding on the comet-tail of Jones’ travels, following the arc of her ‘year or so of fruitful enquiry’, her post-return research. Following a writing process that she likens to ‘a game of roulette’, Jones asserts that ‘chance brought before [her]’ certain people and places, with each roll of the dice determining the next chapter, the next limb of research. While this is a cute structural conceit, in reality, there was no chance, no roll of the dice or spinning wheel: the trip was entirely planned, and Jones deliberately selected her subjects upon returning home. She chooses to start with Lawrence, just as she chooses to move onto his host, Mabel Dodge Luhan. Jones’ insistence on this framing device shouldn’t matter, really, except that its misalignment with reality means we instinctively trust her observations and conclusions less.
Jones’ knowledge is admittedly thin on Native Americans, which in turn leads to a sense of disconnection and alienation. She finds their buildings ‘incomprehensibly strange’ and their lives ‘sad … in the way that a white person living a comfortable, purposeful life thinks sad’. Hungry for a sense of Native American ‘consciousness’, Jones shuts herself off from several avenues to that consciousness, deliberately zoning out when the tour guide shares history connected with the pueblo (village) and refusing to speak to any Pueblo citizens, feeling she has ‘no idea how to’, no ability to do anything but revere the Indigenous populace. Finally, however, she fulfils this ‘need’ by buying a necklace from a Pueblo woman and has a kind of ‘noble savage’ moment, literally (beatifically) telling the pure woman to keep the change. Worse still, she publishes the woman’s name, feeling it was a ‘gift’ to her, despite earlier having noted that the publishing of their names causes members of Taos Pueblo to suffer ‘a sense of personal violation’. In a bizarre instance of wilful blindness to simple tenets of cultural safety and respect, Jones’ publishing of this name contradicts everything she claims to have learned through reading Frank Waters’ novels and New Mexican history. If Pueblo peoples were to be engaged with directly or indirectly, I had hoped for something more from this book, something less colonial.
Still, Jones provides a fascinating summary of New Mexican history and twentieth-century Puebloan activism against the legislative expropriations and depredations of Washington elites. Her close, contextualised reading of Waters’ novel, The Man Who Killed the Deer, is a highlight. The chapter on the Millicent Rogers Museum is also strong in its exploration of aesthetics, and the epilogue—returning to the o-m and their relationship of both ‘physical coldness’ and powerful love—is a hugely emotive mic drop.
Both works share an affinity for research, for deepening one’s experience of the world through reading and learning. But McLauchlan’s research and writing is tethered much more closely to one’s experience, to one’s life in real time, and thus to growth, self- and other-awareness and meaningful change.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in New Zealand history at the University of Cambridge, and is a research fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law.