Stuart Jeffries

Are we all becoming hermits now?

A new anthropological type is emerging, says Pascal Bruckner – the shrivelled, hyperconnected being who no longer needs others or the outside world

[Getty Images]

Long before Covid, wi-fi and Deliveroo, Badger in The Wind in the Willows showed us how to live beyond the manifold fatuities of this gimcrack world. Cosily tucked into his burrow with a roaring fire and well-stocked cellar, he was unbothered by importunate weasels and other denizens of the Wild Wood. He padded his underground realm for six months a year in dressing gown and down-at-heel slippers not just because he was a hibernating animal but out of existential temperament.

‘Badger hates Society,’ explained Rat. But, really, don’t we all? Not for him the ‘Poop! Poop!’ of Mr Toad, always going places and doing stuff. More Badger’s style was the greater wisdom imbibed unconsciously from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées: ‘Man’s unhappiness arises from one thing alone: that he cannot remain quietly in his room.’

This adorable mustelid was neither the spiritual outlier of all those American preppers holing up in their bunkers to wait out the apocalypse, nor the heir of world-renouncing monks and nuns of yesteryear, but symptomatic of a disorder that pre-dates Covid. Indeed this virus of sociophobic hermeticism is infinitely more virulent; but its spread may well have been hastened by the pandemic. So the French writer Pascal Bruckner suggests in this jolly romp through the socio-philosophical consequences of the recent rise in sales of onesies, slankets and badger-themed slippers. The problem may even be incurable. Bruckner cites the example of Japanese teenagers, hikikomoris, who are glued to their screens day and night, with food on trays left outside their doors.  

‘A new anthropological type is emerging,’ he moans: ‘the shrivelled, hyperconnected being who no longer needs others or the outside world.’ To be sure, this type is very different from Badger who, for all that he hated Society, was a public-spirited chap, quite prepared to entertain visitors lavishly and strut from his burrow to cudgel the weasels who squatted in Toad Hall. Today’s hermits, by contrast, have fewer real-world commitments, negligible public spirit and scarcely need the sustenance of real friends or the warmth of others’ flesh and blood.

So Bruckner supposes; and he may have a point. Online friendships are sad simulacra of the real thing. Twitter spats are not real political arguments (though they do have a way of bleeding into our political discourse). The supposed communities created in massively multiplayer online role-playing games are pitiful approximations of real human solidarity. Digital sex is an oxymoron. For Bruckner, hikikomoris and other hyperconnected hermits have withdrawn from the real world into a playful, risk-free digital one, sealed from real dangers, delights and challenges.

The rise of this new hyperconnected, sociophobic type in part explains Britain’s leading economic problem – which is essentially a labour shortage predicated on workers’ belated realisation of the truth of Del Boy’s philosophy that only fools and horses work. This is combined with a sense that now pretty much everything can be drone-lifted to your door. Platonic wisdom consists not so much in leaving the cave to find the transcendentally sublime realities without; rather, in getting stuffed-crust pizzas delivered within. Even for breakfast.

Yet, let’s not get too complacent. Shrivelled in our slippers, as helpless as a kitten in a tree, we mimsy, hyperconnected, workshy Brits should worry that if the Russians did invade we’d have the right stuff to fight them on the beaches or anywhere else.

The only thing necessary for
the triumph of evil is for good
men to wear slippers

Jacob Rees-Mogg came across the consequences of this trend in 2022 when, after lockdown concluded, he left passive-aggressive billets doux on the desks of Cabinet Office staff: ‘Sorry you were out when I visited. I look forward to seeing you in the office very soon. With every good wish, Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.’ What he didn’t realise was that his minions were probably curled up at home with a good story, perhaps Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, about a workshy Wall Street clerk with the catchphrase ‘I would prefer not to’; or Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, about a Russian existentially incapable of getting out of bed.

Bruckner is of the Rees-Mogg temperament. If we don’t boldly go, we must surely stagnate. ‘What is the slipper?’ asks the French penseur with the native taste for philosophic inquiry. ‘The transformation of the walking foot into the sleeping foot: the means of locomotion has become the means of stagnation… It’s hard to imagine heroes, adventurers and trailblazers wearing them.’  This is unfair on Native Americans galloping inspiringly across the prairie in fetching moccasins, but I take his point.

Also important is Bruckner’s sense that we have been suckered into sporting leisurewear and never leaving our domiciles as part of a diabolical political conspiracy. Alexis de Tocqueville worried that democracy is imperilled by each of us forsaking the public square for private pleasures. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to wear slippers. Maybe that’s why all political candidates from Westminster to Washington, Tehran to Moscow are such irredeemable plum duffs.

Consider Algeria, Bruckner suggests, where the dictatorial rulers are apparently happy that those who might otherwise rise up and strangle them with their own entrails increasingly wear pyjamas and slippers 24/7: ‘Dictatorships depoliticise their citizens and deny them access to the world, conditioning them to not even get dressed.’ Slippers, if you think about them as Bruckner does, are like criminals’ electronic monitoring tags, keeping the oppressed indoors when we should be outside rising up against our overlords.

The sartorially sloppy virus is spreading, he believes, to democracies where everyone strolls around in flip-flops and dressing gowns, as if in emulation of Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski. ‘You can’t build a civilisation on softness alone,’ counsels Bruckner, arguing that there will soon be a reaction to prevailing slacker norms, ideally catalysing a rise in dandyism. I wouldn’t bet on that, but how lovely it would be if the fictional Beau Brummies of Peaky Blinders inspired sartorial revolution among today’s boulevardiers of the Bull Ring. 

Bruckner is more concerned with the erotic than political ramifications of this change in footwear. In a heartfelt chapter entitled ‘The Bankruptcy of Eros’, he wails (the following sounds more pitiful if you recite it in a French accent):

But what is life worth in the Latin or Mediterranean world if we can’t touch each other or hold each other in our arms? We live in Europe, in an urban civilisation and the art of the city is the art par excellence of the theatre – the art of putting on a performance and enjoying the performances of others.

The ramifications of the triumph of the slippers are appalling to contemplate. Are flâneurs obsolete? Must the flirtatious gaze from a pavement table to passing talent be abolished in sympathy with the revolution against micro-aggressive harassment and sexual predation? What, in short, of French civilisation as we have known it since the first citron pressé was served by a surly patron

Bruckner is undeniably of a certain age and despairs over today’s hermetically sealed safe-sex options and the dearth of public flirting. ‘Everything has become possible at home,’ he complains, before adding with disgust: ‘You can even have safe sex with remote partners, using sensors and vibrators.’ In this, Badger didn’t know he was born.

But there is a philosophical dimension to this trend. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre who, when he wasn’t ogling ladies from his table at Les Deux Magots, was enjoining us to become free, by which he meant that at every moment we must overcome the banality of ordinary life by acting authentically. Slippers, it hardly needs pointing out, are inimical to that existentialist project; turtlenecks and berets much more fitting.

What nonsense, those of us hobbled by sociophobic hermeticsm may feel like retorting. There are other ways to be free than Sartre’s philosophy supposes. ‘Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you,’ said Mole approvingly of Badger’s bunker during a visit. ‘You’re entirely your own master, and you don’t have to consult anybody or mind what they say. Things go on all the same overhead, and you let ’em, and don’t bother about ’em.’ That too is a vision of freedom. The wisdom of Badger and Mole tells us that sometimes, at least, freedom is not without but within.