An Increased Atomization of Things

“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 Slabworks sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. 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.
“Slabworks” 2019, Anthony Gormley. 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 biologist 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.
Antony Gormley’s “Slabworks”, 2019. 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 sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
Antony Gormley’s Slabworks, 2019. 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 slab work sculpture. Photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in "An Increasing Atomization of Things" on The Examined Life.
One of Antony Gormley’s 14 Slabworks sculptures in which industrially-cut steel formed pieces of a human figure. 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.

What is the Feeling of Home?

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home.”
Gaston Bachelard

Rainer Maria Rilke once excused himself for not writing to a friend by saying “I haven’t had that feeling of home in which to write.”

I have not written here in a while. I was lacking a feeling of home.

Except… what is a feeling of home? How does it affect my writing?

Do Rilke and I mean the same thing?

Engraving of Castle Howard published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Castle Howard, published in “Vitruvius Britannicus” a publication that idealized Palladian-revival architecture of the early 18th century. This was, during this time, an “ideal house.” The Howard family still own and live on the grounds. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

There is a deep human need to “feel at home” that appears across languages and epochs.1

“To be rooted,” French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in 1942, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Weil avoided the word “home” (she was never so pedantic) but advocated for a sort of metaphysical shelter for our soul.

A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots

Three decades later, fellow French philosopher Gaston Bachelard added that our need for “home” is a need for inhabited space including space we realize through imagination.

[A]ll really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home. […] the imagination functions in this direction whenever the human being has found the slightest shelter: we shall see the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection — or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts. In short, in the most interminable of dialectics, the sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter. He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams.

From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

In 1845, American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau walked out of urban society to a distant wood where he constructed a four-walled building with a bed, chair, and fireplace. Thoreau’s physical and imaginative attachment to the space turned it from shelter to home.

I lingered most about the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house. Indeed, I worked so deliberately that though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks […] served as my pillow at night; […] When I began to have a fire at evening, before I plastered my house, the chimney carried smoke particularly well, because of the numerous chinks between the boards. Yet I passed some cheerful evenings in that cool and airy apartment, surrounded by rough brown boards full of knots, and rafters with the bark on high overhead.

My house never pleased my eye so much after it was plastered, though I was obligated to confess that it was more comfortable. […] I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.


From Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

Engraving of Cliveden published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. Campbell’s book set a standard of design based on principles of balance, symmetry and Classical forms. Cliveden House is now a luxury hotel. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

It is indicative that Thoreau focused on the fireplace not simply for heat but for hearth.

The hearth is a symbol of calm, consistency, a knowable order, and a nurturing warmth. “My preferred working state is thermal,” notices legendary dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, “I need heat… it calls up the warmth of the hearth and home… which is all about feeling safe and secure.”2

“In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member,” muses Stephen Fry in his witty and rascally retelling of Greek myths, “we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did.”

Of all the gods, Hestia […] is probably the least well known to us, perhaps because the realm that Zeus in his wisdom appropriated to her was the hearth. In our less communal age of central heating and separate rooms for each family member, we did not lend the hearth quite the importance that our ancestors did […]. Yet, even for us, the word stands for something more than just a fireplace.

We speak of ‘hearth and home’. The word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’. In ancient Greece the wider concept of hearth and home was expressed by oikos, which lives on for us today in words like ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’. The Latin for hearth is focus — which speaks for itself. It is a strange and wonderful thing that out of the words for fireplace we have spun ‘cardiologist’, ‘deep focus’ and ‘eco-warrior’. The essential meaning of centrality that connects them also reveals the significance of the hearth to the Greeks and the Romans, and consequently the important of Hestia, its presiding deity.

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos

The necessity of hearth as an aspect of the “feeling of home” becomes clear when we ask: What happens to a home without a hearth?

There is a clear case of unease and unrest in Robert Lowell’s mid-century writing.3

During the weekends I was at home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion. Sometimes, without bathrobe or slippers, I would wriggle out into the cold hall on my belly and ambuscade myself behind the banister. I could often hear actual words. ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ Father would mumble. He was ‘back-sliding’ and ‘living in a fool’s paradise of habitual retarding and retarded do-nothing inertia.’ […] She was hysterical even in her calm […]. One night she said with murderous coolness, ‘Bobby and I are leaving for Papa’s.’ This was an ultimatum to force Father to sign a deed placing the Revere Street house in Mother’s name.

From Robert Lowell’s Life Studies

Lowell suffered complete alienation from the hearth of his childhood home; he is cold, dark, and surrounded by violence and chaos. That watchful child was toppled by depression even psychosis as an adult — both acute mental and emotional rootlessness.

Or consider the rootlessness of jazz singer Billie Holiday. Born when her mom was thirteen, Holiday lived with her mother at her mother’s job, then in a strict Catholic girls’ school, then a brothel, then in hotels while touring with the band (hotels that barred her entering through the front although she was the star singer), and, repeatedly, she “lived” in jail.

In each of these “homes,” Holiday is slapped with prejudice, trauma, and a complete lack of love and security. She also feels a constant reminder of her undesirable, unwanted, and misunderstood status as a poor, Black female.

You’re always under pressure. You can fight it but you can’t kick it. The only time I was free from this kind of pressure was when I was a call girl as a kid and I had white men as my customers. Nobody gave us any trouble. People can forgive people any damn thing if they did it for money.

From Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues

Comedian John Cleese called home “the place you do not have to strive.” Holiday, and the many millions who are rootless, disenfranchised, and alienated never had a place to stop striving.

“You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles,” warned Holiday, “but you can still be working on a plantation.”

Engraving of Blenheim Palace published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Colen Campbell’s engraving of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Blenheim is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough and birth and burial place of Winston Churchill. The Palace and its gardens, designed by Capability Jones, are still lived inhabited by the Spencer-Churchills and are a World Heritage Site. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Holiday’s writings remind us that for many people, home is not and cannot be a physical space.

We see this with singers Patti Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. When they were both young, poor, and mercurial, they created a home in the company of each other. In a nurturing embrace, their loneliness met. Smith writes: “In this space between us, home.”

Is there anyone in whose company you feel a feeling of home?

During war and throughout life, Roald Dahl put himself in a “feeling of home” by writing to his mother. His light lines (“There is nothing very wrong with me. I’ve merely had an extremely serious concussion”) and dancing prose (“All these things and many more I shall derive the greatest pleasure from doing”) seemed to say “The war might be raging out there, and there is a woefully inadequate plane waiting to take me skyward, but for this moment I’m with my mother. I’m next to the hearth.”

Dahl wrote to his mother each day he was in active duty.

Engraving of Longleate published in "Vitruvius Britannicus" 1715, featured in "What is That Feeling of Home?" on the Examined Life.
Engraving of Longleat House, Wiltshire, seat of the Marquesses of Bath. Today it offers a safari park. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Lockdown has expanded what “home” means.

When I rethink “I wasn’t in the feeling of home,” what I meant — and likely Rilke as well — was “I haven’t been myself.” I haven’t been home within myself.

I think of “home” as less of a space and more of a feeling. In that way I inhabit myself.

That is a lovely thought. Let’s sit next to it.

Soothe yourself, hug yourself. You are, quite literally, home.

Traipsing Along Like a Child

“The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”
Patti Smith

“Think…as a child might…,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke bade us when dispensing advice on how to improve creativity. There is no shortage of applying wonder, curiosity, ease—traits we associate with childhood and a childlike mind.

But what is the mind of a child as it registers the world? Can we access it as adults?

Maggie at play featured in "Traipsing Along as a Child" on the Examined Life.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I watch my daughter register her senses. What makes her run, what stops her, what draws out her hand from the safety of a pocket and back in again with chosen treasures? Trust? Newness? Innate coolness of things?

Biologist Rachel Carson delighted in showing nature to her young nephew, and as she watched him traipse about on Maine’s shores, she noted:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. […] There is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.

I think of a young David Attenborough traipsing along in the fields “just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath.” Stones that Mary Oliver lamented sat deep beneath the surface, waiting to be touched.

When naturalist Gerald Durrell was nine, he moved with his family from Britain to the Mediterranean island of Corfu. Unburdened by school or supervision, he began his great love affair with the out of doors. Durrell became a professional writer and naturist, and even as an adult his books are flooded with childlike wonder and delight.

At first I was so bewildered by this profusion of life on our very doorstep that I could only move about the garden in a daze, watching now this creature, now that, constantly, having my attention distracted by the flights of brilliant butterflies that drifted over the hedge. Gradually, as I became more used to the bustle of insect life among the flowers, I found I could concentrate more. I would spend hours squatting on my heels or lying on my stomach watching the private lives of creatures.

A child-like mind registers the world with interest, energy, and an overall lightness of being.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What allows that? Free time, unstructured play, unburdened by feelings of consciousness?

Physicist Richard P. Feynman makes the case that it is the desire to know that can drive children about (and that this “pleasure of finding things out” lingers, if nurtured, in adults too).

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means to be without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described.

But knowing as a child is not nearly the same thing as knowing as an adult.

Rachel Carson saw first-hand that childlike knowledge centers on how things relate to what the child already knows. My daughter reminds me of this as she tells us a van, tree, telephone pole, and even cloud is either a “Mommy” or a “Daddy” specimen, occasionally “baby.”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Children seem to possess highly curious minds coupled with tunnel vision as they grasp knowledge and enter it into a puzzle that adults have formed: a sense of self, a sense of the world, a sense of the people they know.

“For children, it’s the distance that holds little interest,” observed Rebecca Solnit.

There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever; for a child, the time until a birthday is endless. Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of a medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall.

When British writer Laurie Lee mentions tracing the knots on his bedroom ceiling and how that space was his entire universe, it was the entire universe, it shows not only Lee’s absorption in the immediate but also his disinterest in everything else.

These knots on the bedroom ceiling were the whole range of a world, and over them my eyes went endlessly voyaging in that long primeval light of waking to which a child is condemned. They were archipelagos in a sea of blood-coloured varnish, they were armies grouped and united against me, they were the alphabet of a macabre tongue, the first book I ever learned to read.

To me that narrow scope is the essence of Patti Smith’s few lines: “The mind of a child is like a kiss on the forehead—open and disinterested. It turns as the ballerina turns, atop a party cake with frosted tiers, poisonous and sweet.”

The connections we might make as an adult—we see a flower, which tells us it is spring, which tells us the days will be longer, which tells us we might be happier… etc. etc.—for a child becomes I see a flower, I will grab it! (And invariably I will bring it home with me!)

So, can we adults ever narrow our universe and traipse along like a child?

“My child self is unreachable,” Penelope Lively wrote in her generous study of memory, a sentiment echoed by Wislawa Szymborska in her beautiful poem about reaching out to her younger self, a self that will neither listen nor understand.

Of course, these writers are writing as mature adults about childhood, not within a state of childhood. Excellent memories and reality notwithstanding, it is imagination that fuels their narrative. Imagination and memory.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A childlike mind is a bitterly beautiful thing that is unreachable, but that does not mean it is unavailable.

Rather than look at it as “I was a child, now I am an adult,” like it’s a past we have to claw forward, what if we look at our current selves as children to the future?

More specifically: What if we imagined ourselves ignorant?

What if we acknowledge our limits of consciousness and embrace them? What if we traipsed into the complex field of the unknown slowly, eagerly, with narrowed focus? It is exceedingly difficult as an adult to accept not knowing something. But might it happen if we did?

I don’t know. Do you?