An authentically modern country (Michel Houellebecq)

At no moment in human history does growing old seem to have been a pleasure cruise; but, in the years preceding the disappearance of the species, it had manifestly become atrocious to the point where the level of voluntary deaths, prudishly renamed departures by the public-health bodies, was nearing 100 percent, and the average age of departure, estimated at sixty across the entire globe, was falling toward fifty in the most developed countries.

This figure was the result of a long evolution, scarcely begun at the time of Daniel1, when the average age at death was much higher, and suicide by old people was still infrequent. The now-ugly, deteriorated bodies of the elderly were, however, already the object of unanimous disgust, and it was undoubtedly the heat wave of summer 2003, which was particularly deadly in France, that provoked the first consciousness of the phenomenon. “The Death March of the Elderly” was the headline in Libération on the day after the first figures became known—more than ten thousand people, in the space of two weeks, had died in the country; some had died alone in their apartments, others in the hospital or in retirement homes, but all had essentially died because of a lack of care. In the weeks that followed, that same newspaper published a series of atrocious reports, illustrated with photos that were reminiscent of concentration camps, relating the agony of old people crammed into communal rooms, naked on their beds, in diapers, moaning all day without anyone coming to rehydrate them or even to give them a glass of water; describing the rounds made by nurses unable to contact the families who were on vacation, regularly gathering up the corpses to make space for new arrivals. “Scenes unworthy of a modern country,” wrote the journalist, without realizing that they were in fact the proof that France was becoming a modern country, that only an authentically modern country was capable of treating old people purely as rubbish, and that such contempt for one’s ancestors would have been inconceivable in Africa, or in a traditional Asian country.

From Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.

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