An Increased Atomization of Things: What Holds Us Together When Things Fall Apart?

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.”
Joan Didion

What happens when we fall apart? Physically and otherwise? What if everything falls apart?

In her essays about 1960s America and the failure of the American Dream, Joan Didion writes about the ‘atomization’ of things. The things America promised but did not deliver, the resultant scramble to fit oneself into the mold, the overwhelming failure of all things at all levels.

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
One of Antony Gormley’s fourteen Slabworks series sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. The series was on display in London, 2019 as part of an exhibition designed to “encourage present, first-hand experience” by making visitors recognize their own forms. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was rooted in Didion’s own wordlessness and details this falling apart from the front line.

It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.

From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“The center falls apart….” she wrote, borrowing from the Irish poet W. B. Yeats who shouted the same anthem during World War I.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From William Butler Yeat’s “The Second Coming”

When society falls apart it settles at the level of the individual.

Does that mean all individuals for themselves? The raging of one need against another? The diminishing of cries into corners and corners into hollows where there used to be fullness?

"Slabworks" 2019, Anthony Gormley. Featured in "The Unlikely Strength of Corners" on the Examined Life.
“CORNER V”, 2019, one of Gormley’s Slabwork series at The Royal Academy in London, “I see this show as a really important test ground for what can sculpture do,” expressed Gormley. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Fundamentally, argued French philosopher and brilliantly wide-hearted human Simone Weil, the country that connects us must be a country that includes us.

Thus, although one’s country is a fact, and, as such, subject to external conditions, to hazards of every kind, in times of mortal danger there is none the less an unconditional obligation to go to its assistance. But it is obvious that, in fact, the people will show all the greater ardour in its defence the more they will have been made to feel its reality.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

There is a nurturing relationship between the parts and the whole or neither exists. Didion would agree.

Things fall apart. Atomization is on the rise, at many socio-political levels. What happens when this atomization is mirrored in the human being? What happens when a person falls apart? Physically and mentally?

Physically and biologically speaking to break apart and still retain life is to exist as a cell. Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse outlines our living self.

A critically important part of a cell… is its outer membrane. Although just two molecules thick, this outer membrane forms a flexible ‘wall’ or barrier that separates each cell from its environment, defining what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’.

Both philosophically and practically, this barrier is crucial. Ultimately, it explains why life forms can successfully resist the overall drive of the universe towards disorder and chaos. Within their insulating membranes, cells can establish and cultivate the order they need to operate, whilst at the same time creating disorder in their local surroundings outside the cell.

From Paul Nurse’s What is Life?

Fortunately for us, this rarely happens without a commensurate loss in cognition so if our bodies break apart significantly, we usually don’t experience it. But there are days I feel a conglomeration of cells and that certain cells (those of my eyeballs, and the part of my brain that falls asleep easily, my liver) are leaning a bit too heavily on the others.

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“FOLD” 2019. For this show Gormley created work around the notion of “the body in space: firstly, the viewer’s body, through a series of proprioceptive environments that enhance awareness, alertness and sensorial space, and secondly in the presentation of discrete objects that evoke what it feels like to inhabit a human body.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Of course, the cell is not where we stop, were we to atomize our bodies entirely. The atom is where we stop. The key is in the name. “The smallest part of us is stardust” ruminates physicist Alan Lightman. Atomic stardust.

Around the 5th century BCE, a Greek philosopher named Democritus proposed that all matter was made of tiny and indivisible atoms, which came in various sizes and textures.

Democritus’ writing has not survived – the paper it was written on has returned to its atomic state – but it exists in Aristotle’s keen observations.

Democritus thinks that the nature of eternal things consists in small substances, limitless in quantity, and for them he posits a place, distinct from them and limitless in extent. He calls place by the names ’empty’, ‘nothing’ and ‘limitless’; and each of the substances he calls ‘thing’, ‘solid’ and ‘existent’. He thinks that the substances are so small that they escape our senses, and that they possess all sorts of forms and all sorts of shapes and differences in size. From them, as from elements, he produces and compounds the visible and perceptible masses. The atoms struggle and are carried about in the empty because of their dissimilarities and the other differences mentioned, and as they are carried about they collide and intertwine in a way which makes them touch and be near one another but which does not produce any truly single nature whatever from them; for it is utterly foolish to think that two or more things might ever become one.

From Aristotle’s On Democritus

If things are atomized there is no center. There is no hold. No tenuous, marginal relationships. There are cracks into which settle corrosive things like water, oxygen and doubt.

Two or more things can never become one.

There is something to be said about the value of component parts. Maybe we shouldn’t fret about things falling apart per se, maybe we fret when things fall apart that shouldn’t, and no one cares.

When Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published, Didion bemoaned the complete lack of understanding upon its reception “I have never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.”

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people hid the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

From Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

If we care, it shouldn’t matter what kind of congregation we assume. I am all atoms. I am all cells. I am all muscles and nerves and bones and wonky eyesight. I am all Ellen. I can and will break apart.

Farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry suggests things must be valued individually and independently before they are valued as a whole, otherwise there is no whole. “There has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth.”

Antony Gormley slab work sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“BRACE” 2019. One of Antony Gormley’s fourteen Slabworks series as part of the exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2019. “I want this exhibition to encourage present, first-hand experience.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, there is Whitman.

Was there ever such a celebrant of atomic individuality and simultaneous oneness as Walt Whitman? “What I assume you shall assume” Whitman questioned as early as 1842, “…every atom of me also belongs to you.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

From Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

In her soul-soothing When Things Fall Apart Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön defined peace as the coexistence, not the smoothing over of contradictions.

We cannot attend to all of our atoms, or cells, or organs, or friends but there is some unity here and now, between me, you and the medium that is these words. Here.1

Antony Gormley sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
“What is the point of an exhibition?” asks Gormley “To ask that question: what can art do?” Read more from Gormley here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The parts and the whole in one wild, colliding, intertwining, radiant gyre.

I will make space for your associated atoms. My atoms look a lot like yours. They might not be one, but they are same. That is the force that holds us tight.