The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka; Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play by Shirley M Mueller - review by James Delbourgo

James Delbourgo

Gardens of Emptiness

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism


Bloomsbury 272pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play


Lucia Marquand 192pp £32 order from our bookshop

If there are svelte hoarders and corpulent minimalists, they don’t appear in popular culture. But not everyone who bulk-bought canned goods and toilet paper during our spring of pandemic discontent can have been corpulent or incontinent. Experts in psychology readily proclaimed that the instinct to grab in times of woe is universal. Hoarding is a default response to perceptions of threat, they intoned, and it’s normal for wobbling supply chains to bring out the pack rat in us – as though affirming the naturalness of irrationality were somehow reassuring. Truth be told, I now see from a quick inspection of the bathroom the rather embarrassing quantity of dental floss I acquired in March. But psychologists need to read more history. Our pandemic hoarding seemed a distinctly modern rather than timeless phenomenon, a hysteria provoked by the very idea of want, now utterly alien to us. Supply chains were never in doubt; it was our ‘natural’ psychology that posed a threat of shortage.

Did minimalists hoard during the early days of the pandemic? The minimalist is reputedly a creature who shops and also eats as little as possible. In his 2015 manifesto Goodbye, Things, the Tokyo minimalist Fumio Sasaki confesses that as he began to purchase fewer consumer goods, his meals shrank in size. He decluttered and lost weight. Accumulation is not just an economic way of life but a form of embodiment too. Enlightenment is reduction. Welcome to the Garden of Emptiness, not quite a place where nothing ever happens, but one where nothing is the goal. This garden is, however, one of paradox. Sasaki, for example, is no digital minimalist. He has decluttered by loading much of his material existence onto his phone. No danger of addiction, bingeing or compulsion there.

The original Garden of Emptiness, Kyle Chayka explains in his pugnacious whistlestop tour of minimalism, is to be found in the 16th-century rock garden of the Kyoto Zen temple Ryoan-Ji. Chayka journeys to this sacred spot in search of the philosophical minimalism that has been obscured by today’s commodified decluttering. His book, which ranges from the Stoics and Buddhism to Mies van der Rohe, is a rebuke to the Shintoistic declutterer Marie Kondo, whose bestselling Netflix-powered KonMari method urges us to retain only those possessions that ‘spark joy’ and to practise such techniques as folding trousers vertically and not – heavens! – horizontally. Chayka warms to Donald Judd’s Plexiglas, Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’. He is irked by minimalist hipsters’ all-grey uniforms and the solipsistic sensory deprivation of the Soulex company’s amniotic ‘float spas’. But such businesses are booming. In hard times, many go minimal by default, yet others pay handsomely for the ultimate postmodern lifestyle commodity, which, Kayla observes, they can of course never possess: nothing.

Of course, not everyone loves nothing. When Shirley Mueller, MD, was stressed out by her medical career, she found that ‘reading about Chinese porcelain made me feel better!’ So she started collecting porcelain and felt better and better. Things didn’t weigh Mueller down; they made her feel great! So great that she has given us Inside the Head of a Collector, an exhibition catalogue-cum-neuroscience primer – a truly uncommon genre. In addition to her knowledge of porcelain and its history, Mueller draws on her experience as an investment adviser who has previously written on the neuropsychology of investing, ‘many of [whose] principles can be applied to collecting’. Her book features several simplified brain diagrams, but rather than documenting specific collector brains, she uses her pictures to illustrate discussions of psychological phenomena of a very general kind, such as experiences of pleasure and pain, disappointment and success. Mueller does, however, cite the intriguing 2005 article ‘A Neural Basis for Collecting Behaviour in Humans’ by Steven Anderson and Hanna and Antonio Damasio, who found that in a group of test subjects, hoarders and collectors (the article’s authors use both terms) all had lesions on the mesial prefrontal cortex of their brains, suggesting the deactivation of some natural inhibition. Collecting and hoarding, in other words, are the results of brain damage.

This is a wonderfully subversive idea. It’s both novel and entirely consistent with the enduring ambivalence towards collectors in cultural history. Collectors have often been imagined as godlike figures: think of Adam and Noah in the Bible – humans who appear masters of the entire natural world. But collectors have always been associated too with sacrilege and madness, from tomb raiders seeking forbidden knowledge to perverts displacing their desires for other people onto inanimate objects, not to mention serial killers (real and imagined) whose penchant for collecting is a sure sign of their depravity. Mueller resists the brain damage thesis, arguing that the mesial prefrontal cortex is also associated with the perception of beauty and that love of beauty rather than mere disinhibition may explain collecting. She duly comes to bury Freud, not to praise him, though she is rather late to the funeral. She dismisses Werner Muensterberger’s popular 1994 study Collecting: An Unruly Passion, in which he retrospectively psychoanalyses past collectors as childhood trauma battlers. After getting the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II on the couch, for example, Muensterberger writes him off as just another ‘anal-retentive’. But Mueller gladly imposes her own scientific theories onto the past, recasting the Indiana pharmaceutical executive Eli Lilly’s negotiations in 1947 with C T Loo, the storied Chinese antiquities dealer, as a tale of duelling mesial prefrontal cortexes.

Welcome back to the Garden of Emptiness. Mueller’s history of collecting is like Muensterberger’s in that both seek to explain the past using the science of their day. Mueller’s approach clearly reflects the trajectory of psychology since the end of the last century, from talking cures and asylums to brains and drugs. The difference is that Mueller could be a character in Chayka’s history of minimalism. Where Muensterberger’s explanations of collectors’ lives were cluttered with stories of childhood, abusive parents and sexual pathology (cluttered, that is, with meaning), Mueller’s neurohistory is chillingly reductive. Historians of psychology such as Andrew Scull have persuasively argued that our brains evolve as part of human culture, not outside it. In Mueller’s Garden of Emptiness, by contrast, the brain is an object of mythic purity – like nature itself. As for Freud, he may have been wrong, but at least he told great stories.

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