‘The desire to collapse in on ourselves’

Scott Beauchamp writes on the causes and consequences of a “world without kith or kin,” a culture where family and friendships, and the sacrifice and cost associated with both, are understood to be the barrier to, rather than the primary means of achieving, a meaningful life:

The Japanese word kodokushi roughly translates to “lonely death.” The term might be a touch poetic for what it actually describes, conjuring as it does the romantic image of an individual stoically riding off alone into oblivion. An existential cowboy leaning in his saddle towards the darkening horizon, embodying all the heroic maverick energy that our contemporary world so highly values. The apotheosis of freedom in current Western society being a complete atomization of self, an undoing of all the bonds which constrain us, kodokushi almost sounds like something to aspire to.

The material reality of the “lonely death” is grim. Disgusting, even. It is an odor the neighbors do not notice until it is already too late. It is the kinetic hum of maggots digesting an undiscovered corpse. It is the slow accumulation of “past due” notices in the mail, piling up until a stranger comes to query the “customer” in person and finds their liquefying remains. It is the cagey instinct of the entrepreneurs who have capitalized on kodokushi as a business opportunity, monetizing their lurid and sad deaths by offering special cleaning services for the tiny apartments of elderly folks who have died alone and unnoticed and are well into decomposition. In a phrase, it is the complete thing-ification of people who have outlasted their use-value. It is the fate of people who, as Simeone Weil quoted from The Iliad in a similar context, have become “dearer to the vultures” than their loved ones or community. Kodokushi is the process of humans being reduced to garbage. And it is not unique to Japan. As the first generation of humans “liberated” from kin-connections ages and dies, kodokushi becomes a global phenomenon.

Scholars who study demographic shifts refer to what happened in relatively wealthy, Western countries after the Industrial Revolution—a decline in both death and birth rates—as the First Demographic Transition. You can basically sum it up as the process of large, extended families, shrinking down to the nuclear unit. What is occurring now—the epidemic of loneliness, the severing of deep familial ties, kodokushi, etc.—is known as the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). …

Either way, and however far back in the dim memory of the human story you might trace the lineage of the drive to sever connection to and responsibility for one another (we can certainly go back at least to Cain), when taken to its logical conclusion the result always seems to be the same: people are transformed into refuse. …

The desire to collapse in on ourselves like dying, solitary stars, might be older than ancient. But more recently we can see it manifest in last centuries various ideological turns against both tradition and, more importantly, the notion of a transcendent reality. …

Any number of contemporary songs or movies come to mind where the family is seen as something to liberate oneself from in order achieve a deeper contentment and truer sense of self. Few examples exist of art which conveys the horror of the isolated individual, imprisoned by solitary desire. French author Michel Houellebecq might be the rare example of an artist who unflinchingly gazes into the abyss of modern self and, with a cold eye, catches sight of all the ways in which constructing a world composed simply of desire sated and desire thwarted contributes to profound human misery.

A question we ignore in our obsession with achieving greater levels of autonomy and self-actualization is something like: What is the liberated individual liberated for?

When we break free from our family and friendships and communities, what other world is it that we’ve broken into? Breaking away from the personal and social and moral and ethical constraints of daily life and into a place of abstracted individuality is pre-civilizational. It’s regressive.