Launching Tranquillity and Ruin by Danyl McLauchlan

We launched Danyl's new book Tranquillity and Ruin on Tuesday 23 February at Unity Books Wellington. Below is what editor Ashleigh Young had to say about the collection.

Thank you for coming to the launch of Danyl’s new book, Tranquillity and Ruin. Danyl has requested that in this speech I lightly roast him. I don’t know how searing my roasting will be because I like his book a lot and it’s hard not to be earnest about it. I also quite like Danyl. Indeed, when we were editing the book I believe we had only one real disagreement. It was about whether scientists hate philosophers and vice versa, but the whole argument was really just us apologising to each other. Danyl was also too polite to speak up when Fergus suggested putting a photo he’d taken from his office window on the book’s cover, and just went along with it until Kirsten put a stop to the whole thing. The book is, though, in a way, about the things you can see if you look out of an ordinary window, from where you sit hunched over the work that feels so important, and let yourself wonder: What else is there? How should I live? Am I a self, or am I just a cacophony of neural algorithms? Am I just one of the many paths through genetic space that leads nowhere? How many l’s are in ‘tranquillity’? Should, in fact, the editor be the person who is lightly roasted here tonight? Or should we roast the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary?

Along with exploring those questions, and contemplating madness, uncertainty and doom, the book is a portrait of a man. A sleepless man. A well-read man with sophisticated and informed views on a range of subjects. A hungry man. As fearlessly cerebral as the essays are, as confronting and insightful as they follow various paths that might lead to a happier life, they are also written by an ill-prepared man who desperately wants to dry his only pair of socks – orange, medium-thickness. One of the joys of the book is that all of its seriousness springs from, or is in spite of, the ordinary struggle of being Danyl. He may be able to explain Heidegger’s Metaphysics to us, and Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and Plato’s Republic, but here he is, trying to stand up to introduce himself after siting down for too long and veering off on unplanned trajectories as his legs malfunction. Some people have their apocalyptic visions after taking mushrooms; Danyl has his visions in the Westfield Queensgate mall after eating a Happy Meal. So, in his hands, Heidegger, Parfit and Plato seem a little less imposing; they come across as human. Maybe those guys were just trying to dry their wet socks as well.

Danyl has written two previous books – both excellent comic novels, both set in the Aro Valley. The most recent novel culminates in a scene where the hero, named Danyl, rides a bathtub down a muddy slope to flee a mass of cartographers. The book also features Danyl getting trapped inside three different bathrooms and making dramatic escapes from all of them. The Saturday before last, Kim Hill asked Danyl, of Tranquillity and Ruin, ‘Is this your serious book?’ and he said, ‘I think it might be.’ Not that there aren’t serious themes in the novels. Both hint at a deeper realm of infinite possibility just out of sight of the everyday world, a notion that this book also wrestles with. The hero of Mysterious Mysteries also has serious depression, and for a time he takes medication, which momentarily transforms him from a lowly grub ‘into a beautiful, soaring but heavily drugged butterfly.’ Of course, for comedic purposes Danyl had to leave out some of the madness and pain, but in this book he’s putting it all back in. So there is a sense in which this book is a part of the shadowy world that lies beneath the comic novels.

If you’ve ever been depressed or anxious you’ll be familiar with the dance we perform when we talk about mental health. Mostly we just reach out. Sometimes we ‘take a step back’. Or we ‘go home’ so we can ‘pull ourselves together’ because we’re probably ‘just stressed’. Danyl’s account is a very candid one that involves anhedonia, medication, brain zaps. It is a disorder that drenches every thought. He writes of both the consoling and the frightening aspects of Buddhist thought. ‘We are never free and never can be, and this realisation is liberation,’ he is told by a helpful monk. He writes of Heidegger’s perspective of the world as a dark and endless forest in which human beings are clearings in space and time, where existence suddenly opens up, glimpsing itself. And he writes of blinking back tears while trying to cross a road and not being able to find a gap in the traffic, and so now whenever I am waiting for a gap in the traffic, which is often, I think of Danyl, and of everyone else who might be struggling to cross at that moment.

When people write about depression we tend to say the writing is brave, or powerful, or beautiful, but Danyl’s is really none of these things. I think it’s better: it’s straightforward. It says: there is nothing very special about having a mood disorder in itself. What’s more interesting is what this disorder might tell him about consciousness. What’s interesting is that the very thing that helped him was long periods of meditation, and what this might mean for his identity as an arch-rational sceptic.

But also, it is a relief to be allowed to laugh about this stuff. A relief to laugh along with Danyl sitting in his GP’s office with his trackpants covered in mud after a sleepless night jogging the trails looking for the source of some choral singing before realising he’d hallucinated it. Maybe we are just a cacophony of neural algorithms, but – unlike butterflies battling each other for sunlight – at least we can laugh, even if robotically. Danyl talks about meditation as offering a ‘small window of freedom, through which we can start to control who we are and what we do’, and the many funny moments in this book also feel like small windows of freedom. Freedom from the unbearable weight of ourselves. They’re also windows through which we can wave at each other.

Having got to know Danyl a little bit, I was surprised by how hopeful this book is. It is hopeful because of its intellectual restlessness and its rabid pursuit of a happier life. It is hopeful because he shows that all of the people grappling with hard philosophical questions are also right down here embroiled in the business of living, like a monk shovelling concrete and learning to code, and effective altruists chopping onions as they argue about existential risk. The book is hopeful, too, in its willingness to be proven wrong, which, if you only know Danyl from the internet, you may also find surprising. In one instance, he makes an offhand comment to the Abbot at the monastery about how annoying he finds all the chanting, and is told, sharply, ‘Singing brings people together. If you want to build a community, then the values and practices of that community have to be meaningful to a broader group of people than just sceptical intellectuals.’ And later Danyl reads a study that shows that the Abbot is right: singing in a group is really good for you; the timing of the music synchronises the heartbeats of the singers.

You could even describe this book as defiantly joyful, in places, especially considering the more harrowing philosophical ideas and stories you'll encounter here. We spiral with Danyl, but then we come right back up. We see him stealing a mini chocolate éclair under the watchful gaze of the Abbot. We see him with his skull briefly flooded with light. Following a summation of Dawkins’s view that religion is parasitic, that it infects the mind, Danyl describes a scene in which monks are hanging up banners of prayer flags, amidst baskets of flowers – and then a scene in which someone hits their head on a concrete Buddha. The world is, at once, so much more than we can ever know, and also just a bit less, to the point of profound silliness.

If you are looking for a self-help book, this probably isn’t it. But as Danyl says, if you have ever wondered about other possible paths through the forest of existence, then this very much is the book for you.

Finally I would like to thank Danyl for being very nice to work with during the editing of Tranquillity and Ruin. Also, in the spirit of deep uncertainty that informed the writing of this book, I find myself wanting to both apologise for and defend the second ‘l’ in tranquillity. I want to both hold it aloft triumphantly and also bury it forever like a bad childhood memory that maybe one day, inspired by these essays, my brain will dredge up once again during a deep meditative trance.

—Ashleigh Young

Tranquillity and Ruin by Danyl McLauchlan (paperback, $30) is available at good bookstores, including VUP's online store.