by Giovanni del Vecchio
How do we process life under the pandemic and avoid being drawn into the contagion of fear?
A version of this article was first posted at the height of the pandemic on 13th April 2020. On its resubmission in the Italian translation in December of that year, the world was moving towards a third wave and a return to lockdown. Jo Biden was President Elect for the US and a vaccine was promised for Spring 2021. While some political references may no longer be current, the analysis of the crises, on the individual and on the collective, remains all the more prescient.
A kind of war
As the Pandemic struck at the start of 2020, we were sent reeling into a fog of denial, bewilderment and fear. In inner and outer worlds so disorienting, how were we to tolerate, accept and remain solid in the not knowing? How much more do we know now about the present or the future as we approach the end of 2021? The dystopia we failed to plan for has since taken root. It is become our way of life. After the daily numbers were given at the first peak, (960 dead on 10th April), politicians and the media rightly turned our focus to the heroes of this battle, the front-line soldiers of the NHS. An old wartime idiom was being revised; a dialectic to galvanise our common purpose and resolve; to bring a manageable structure and a story to the chaos; to stabilise the collective consciousness and reassure us that the way of deliverance was in our reach: “a call to arms …the front line …sacrifice …we must keep going and…stay the course …” (Dominic Raab, 9.4.20).
Keep calm but don’t carry on
In April no one was saying keep calm and carry on, that most British and nostalgic of aphorisms that first spoke to busy hands on the Homefront. The motto lost its readership, abandoned on countless walls, desks, shelves, coffee cups, in offices, factories, schools and universities, all of which lay empty and out of reach. In a ghostly world, except for those on whom our lives depended, all work outside the home was stopped. At 8pm we were encouraged to take our places outside our doors to bang and clap in solidarity with the embattled workers of the NHS. As they marched, and continue to march bravely on, our clamour held them in bondage to their work. It was a racket in more ways than one. Exhausted, unprotected and dying, they keep calm and carry on. “We will never forget their sacrifice …their devotion to helping others. …You are the lifeline to so many people…you’ve made us all think long and hard about who the key workers are in our lives” (ibid Raab).
Like narcissism, populism resides in the imaginary realm. It sets us up in opposition to an alien invader who threatens to devour us and to take from us what is rightfully ours. On this other, we project our unarticulated fears. It stirs an aggrieved and jingoistic nationalism, rallying us behind its warrior-champions. Brexit? Make America Great Again? It is a paranoid-schizoid state, that like the narcissism to which it speaks, validates the infant’s refusal to compromise, forgive, negotiate, share what it has, take “No” for an answer, tolerate friction, accept disappointment, be reconciled and at ease with its realistic place in the world. Populism, and the narcissism to which it speaks, attaches itself to the omnipotent phantasy that there is a monadic land for us within our reach. An earthly existence that is free of conflict and difference, and where we can be lord of all we survey. What is Brexit but a narcissistic retreat to that imaginary realm? The fight and flight of narcissistic rage? And what place for Brexit now, tossed and moribund in a sea of pandemic, an Atlantic nowhere between here and a beleaguered US? See how Brexit scrambles to reorient itself with a President Elect who frustrates the project by espousing unity, by identifying as Irish and as pro-European.
The False Self
Through this post-Brexit virus, we are witnessing a populist government caught in a snare. It must suppress its nature and make every effort to sooth us against panic and to placate us lest we take our anarchy into the streets. The crisis imposes on government a false identity in which its own Darwinian impulses must undergo repression: it is obliged to be (almost) universally generous in its duty of care. But in acting against its nature, the mask slips in a tragi-comedy of errors: the botched decisions around who gets tested, why and when; the circus around Track and Trace; the equivocations around PPE; the scandal that has been visited on the elderly in nursing homes and on those who care for them; the mixed messaging. Political choices are consistently disavowed: “we follow the science”. In these denials of responsibility, no public space opens up in which we can grasp a truth beyond the data. There is little in the way of acknowledgment of mistakes. In the national discourse, how are rage, fear and grief to be diffused and for trust to form? Our screens all too often project a defended and defensive representation of ‘out there’.
While the government could have no illusions about its lack of mastery of the situation, it looked around for a more stable signifier for us to rally behind: the multi-ethnic workers of the NHS. In a further about-face, the narrative tropes previously used to mobilise us against the ‘other’, were quickly transmuted into an inclusive photofit of a multi-cultured group, now roundly acclaimed as being Us, of the people for the people. The NHS Workers’ rebranding as the heroes that stand between us and death made for an uncomfortable shape-shifting all too resonant of the “old lie / Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” As for the rest of us, from the discomfiture of our living rooms, we too were asked to regard ourselves as ‘heroes, protecting the NHS and saving lives’. As though mirroring a government split between a true and false self, we too were asked to yield to the psychodrama of heroes, real or imagined.
We saw from the wide-shots of empty beaches, urban centres and national parks, that much of the redundant populous was once again banged up at home. We were as dazed as we were ambivalently united. United in our uneasy co-operation, in our impotence and fear. We know now that the contagion, visible only by the havoc that it wreaks, silently infiltrates the respiratory tracts, settling down to incubate inside our lungs. From there, Alien-like, it launches itself in an explosion of sirens on the body politic. The virus is indiscriminate and it deceives. Asymptomatic, it turns us into smiling assassins. If after symptoms the danger passes, the virus seems to have the potential to reactivate; mutated, it returns to deliver a more lethal dose.
Coronavirus / Covid-19 / SARS-Cov-2.
The virus offers no scapegoat or knowable enemy, except in the conspiracy theories that abound. There is no tyrant or villain who can be recruited to provide an organising focus for our projections. Even in the States, the slur of the “Chinese virus”, thankfully, has begun to wear thin. What makes Coronavirus both so fearful and unthinkable, is its ubiquity. Invisible and incipient, its spectre hangs over us all, even over Trump (unmasked). But what is it that stirs us so deeply? Its very name is equivocal: Coronavirus, Covid-19, SARS-Cov-2. What is its proper name? What does it signify? What is it? Something is missing that prevents conceptualisation. In Lacanian terms, it fails to enter the symbolic order, a language by which we can mitigate and neutralise our dread of it. Unless we experience this piece of death in the body, or perceive it directly through the body of someone else, it defies language and sensory perception; the virus eludes us as a “fact of consciousness” (Hegel, 1821).
The unthought known
Whether or not we contract the disease, it infiltrates the personal and collective unconscious. There it resides in repression as an unthought known” (Bollas 1987). “Unthought” because it does not enter language. Our reluctance to really face and articulate the thing we fear or our fear of it, creates a symptomatology of the mind that is entirely unconnected to the rampant micro-organism that kills without mind. It is what Wilfred Bion described as the “nameless dread” (Bion 1967). It is the very lack of a signifier with which to conceptualise Covid-19/Coronavirus/ SARS-Cov-2, that it lends itself so readily to primal fear. In defending against this fear, we are all susceptible to the suspended disbelief that we are not at risk, and for some, to the madness that the virus does not exist at all. In such illusory and delusional states, we come to embody the behaviour of the virus, whether it lurks in our bodies or not.
Thinking the unthinkable
Because the dread is nameless, it is “unthinkable” and because we can’t think it, we can’t manage it. It becomes projected onto the demonised other who brought it here from outside: the “Chinese virus” or the “Indian variant”, the complacent shop assistant who doesn’t wear a mask and gloves, the politician who can’t be trusted to redeem our lives, the coughing pharmacist who should have stayed at home … Projected and lodged in the other, our unprocessed fear is split and externalised into the Imaginary realm. Projected into someone else, we find in them a focus for our rage.
Strong emotions – and fear among them – require a response which is to be specific, namely the result of a work made by the adult in order to hold and to … share the child’s point of view, finding a way to get through. Resorting to group prefab responses… only shows that adults cannot bear to let themselves be infected by the child (Gaburri and Ambrosiano 2003)
The unheld child described here is the child in each of us. “Prefab responses” take the form of magical thinking: stigmatisation, scapegoating, xenophobia, moral judgment, and conspiracy theories; the stock assumption of immunity or resistance on the basis that we are not in the “vulnerable” group or that we have “no underlying conditions”; the stoked up protests in both Republican and Democratic States in the US that the lockdown was a conspiracy against Civil Liberty. These defences are a form of madness and fail to resolve the underlying fear, which is that of the frightened child within. The incendiary potential of these defences is exacerbated when populism, with an eye to the main chance, stokes the madness. I am trying to avoid further reference to Trump’s US. There is every potential for the same degree of contagion here. While we are in abeyance on so many external fronts, our internal processes become the battleground for remaining solid and resilient in these most difficult times.
Naming the dread
The virus invades our unconscious. It reactivates the nameless dread that is latent in all of us. The dread is an old familiar affliction which the adult has learned to defend against but in most cases, failed to cleanse. It is the agony of the infant in its absolute dependency; its terror unmetabolised that it is about to die. In this dying terror, the infant shits out its fantasy of disintegration. This despairing infant is latent in all of us and belongs, to varying degrees of unmet need, to our first months of absolute dependency. Getting hold of this unconscious fantasy, articulating it so that it can be diffused in the individual as well as in the collective, is where the work is. To metabolise through language what would otherwise remain unconscious and disruptive.
The collective unconscious
For evidence of the workings of the collective unconscious, witness the panic- buying in every supermarket and specifically the mania for hoarding toilet paper, that saw a resurgence during the second lockdown from October 20. In the second of his five psychosexual stages, the Anal Stage, (between 18 months and 3 years old), Freud observed how a toddler seeks to gain control over her body and so develop her sense of self-mastery. When to let go, when to retain. The anal phase of potty training enables, in normal development, the child’s growth to autonomy and self-determination (Freud 1905). It is worth asking, what is the unconscious phantasy that links our obsession with toilet paper to an infantile regression to the anal stage? What defensive function does this serve? The fetish for toilet paper signifies the unconscious reach for a Magic Totem (Freud 1913) that will wipe away what we’ve lost and what we stand to lose. At the level of unconscious phantasy, it cleanses us of the poison within. It is a signifier for the ‘unthought known’ that we are no longer in control of our bodies or of our lives. This totem or fetish, far from being a means of stabilising and mitigating our fear, is merely a temporal illusion with which to fend off the nameless dread. The self-soothing fails.
Meanwhile, our internal insecurity has its external correlation in matters no talking therapy can talk away: there were unprecedented claims for mortgage holidays, tax relief, loans, overdrafts, Universal Credit, food banks, and not least real concerns for our own safety and for the safety of those we love. The lives we have lost. It can be a challenge not to be subsumed by what can feel like a tidal wave of diminishing returns. Moreover, in our personal circumstances, there is no separation between the individual and the collective.
The social contract
How will our mental functioning in this pandemic disturb and reshape our relationship with the State? In submitting to remain at home for the general good, whatever the cost, many of us continued in 2020 to experience for the first time an almost complete surrendering of our agency. While few can dispute the categorical imperative in doing so, in the West, this was a dramatic redefining of the social contract. It created in our homes across the hemisphere a tension that could not hold out for long. Would the State’s ruthless instinct for its own survival and its latent fear of the rising mob, compel it to undermine our democratic rights beyond the emergency? Viktor Orban, trading on the politics of fear, had already ruled out the prospect of a return to democratic normalcy in a post-pandemic Hungary. Could not our own nervous and ill-equipped leadership in the UK, caught up in its own fears, succumb to the very real temptation to reposition itself as a regime of digital surveillance and authoritarianism? Moreover, in our broiling and unprocessed paranoia, are we not always susceptible to trading in our freedoms to the state in return for a fantasy of parental protection? In such a magical landscape, we would find ourselves having to rememberand forget, like Boxer in “Animal Farm”, that we had once surrendered our free will and interiority to a regime aggrandised under the guise of keeping us safe.
Conclusion: what place for psychoanalysis?
It is difficult to conceptualise what is happening now, let alone where we go from here. Just as we have been trying to come to terms with this new diurnal, a vaccine was heralded for roll out in Spring of 2021. This promised a reprieve for mankind and a return to normal. I add my own to the resounding sigh of relief that must reverberate across the world. Be that as it may, we are not let off the hook by this anxiously awaited news. The pandemic exposes our divisive and destructive politics, what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the planet. Our real vulnerability has been exposed on a biblical scale: of disease, raging fires, bursting rivers, earthquakes, floods and economic disaster. If we are to survive individually and as a species, finding an internal space of containment, where coping happens, is more important than ever. The work helps us to create a much needed internal space where we can integrate within ourselves a place of solidity. To develop the internal mechanisms to keep calm and carry on. Most difficult of all, in inner and outer worlds so disorienting, to be able to tolerate, accept and remain solid in the not knowing.
Giovani del Vecchio is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist based in North London: https://www.londonpsychotherapy.org/
Bion, W.R., 1962. “Learning from Experience”. 3rd ed., Karnac.
Bollas, C., 1987. “The Shadow of the Object”. Free Association Books.
Freud, S., 1905. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”.
Gaburri and Ambrosiano., 2003. “Howling with Wolves”.
Hegel, G.W.F., 1821. “Philosophy of Right”, Britannica Great Books 1952).
Klein, M., 1947. “Fear and Gratitude”.
Orwell, G., 1945. “Animal Farm”.
Perini, M., 2020. “Panic and Pandemics, Fear of Contagion to Contagion of Fear”. In “International Psychoanalytical Association” 30th March 2020.
Raab, D., 9.4.20, “Government Briefing BBC1 Television News”.