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Book Reviews

Without Death we are Inhuman

Paul Yonnet, Le recul de la mort. L’avènement de l’individu contemporain (Gallimard, Paris, 2005).

‘The decline of infant and early mortality, the decline of the risk of death which threatened women at the moment of childbirth…and its reduction in society achieved by the revolution of Pasteur and the demographic devolution…are without doubt the most important phenomenon of the whole of the history of mankind.. This, in summarising form, is the principal thesis of a book that offers itself as a multi-disciplinary exercise of more than 500 pages. The author in its pages engages in a study of the dynamic of modern individualisation as the outcome of a radical restructuring of the family, a consequence in its turn of the decline of death. The principal corpus of sociological reflections on the family (fertility, reorganisation of family roles, the birth of a new psychology of the adolescent) is accompanied by chapters which address the consequences of the decline of death from a legal point of view (chap.1), from the point of view of literature or history (chap. 5) and from the point of view of political philosophy (chap. 8). Although he is more at ease in his own specific field of competence, Yonnet offers a very rich overall picture. In a positive way he draws our attention, from the first pages onwards, to the anthropological dimension implicit in sociological interpretations: an oasis in the desert of current so-called scientific sociology. But the greatest virtue of the author is his capacity to bring out certain contradictions of contemporary society. To the supposed freedom promised by the modern critique of authority Yonnet answers that ‘this liberation of the ego is not a liberation [given that] the ego does not exist and cannot be built outside filiation and transmission, against which adolescents can naturally rebel’ (p. 312). ‘Society has idealised the individual as perennially immature and imposed on adolescents a never exiting from this stage’(p. 339), the author acutely observes. In discussing the dynamic of the ‘wanted child’ – the child who is exclusively the fruit of the wishes of the parents, ‘the realisation of a precise wish to have that child, that child and none other’ (p. 240) – Yonnet asks how it will be possible not to transform that child into a kind of divinity. And as regards the crisis of prohibition, the author asks himself by what right it is possible to seek something from a person who can always answer: “if you wanted me, why do you oppose my wishes?” (p. 360).

 

 

Another central theme of the book is the analysis of the disappearance of awareness of death in Western societies. The decline in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy have removed a figure who was a part of the human drama for the whole of history. ‘In the oblivion of death man forgets his own humanity’(p. 459), Yonnet writes with clarity. And it is evident to anyone that the possibility of death and living with its reality are no longer a part of the social imagination. The analysis of this French sociologist here is very penetrating: the apparent dominion over death in childhood and youth has given rise to a ‘feeling of absolute power in the young’ and an ‘egocentricity of youth.’ But the inevitable reality of death in advanced age has led to an opposite extreme, to an almost general climate of ‘depression during old age’ (p. 231).

 

 

How, then, should we address this ‘contradiction of the contemporary individual…who seeks to be at one and the same time the object of the desire of others and an autonomous subject? (p. 467)? How can we overcome the ‘constitutive fragility [which makes man] easy prey to depression, to suicide, to attitudes of dependency and to surrogates of this primordial dependency? (p. 469)? The Decline of Death illustrates in a masterful way the contradictions – many of which are ‘insoluble’ according to the author – of modern man during the era of individualisation.

 

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