by Giovanni del Vecchio
Come affrontare la vita durante la pandemia ed evitare di essere contagiati dalla paura?
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 is moving towards a third wave and a return to lockdown. Jo Biden is President Elect for the US and a vaccine is now 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, is all the more prescient.
Una specie di guerra
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 the year? 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).
Mantenete la calma ma non andate avanti
In aprile nessuno diceva "Mantenete la calma e andate avanti"., 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 is 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’s is a paranoid-schizoid state, that like the narcissist to whom 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 being Irish and pro-European.
Il Falso Sé
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. In a further about-face, the narrative tropes previously used to mobilise us against the ‘other’, were quickly transmuted into an inclusive photofit was of a multi-cultured and multi-ethnic group, now roundly acclaimed asbeing Us, of the people for the people. Their 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.
Abbiamo visto istantanee di spiagge, centri urbani e parchi nazionali completamente vuoti, mentre la popolazione veniva relegata in casa e gran parte del paese veniva messo in lockdown. Siamo tanto frastornati quanto ambiguamente uniti: uniti nella nostra difficile cooperazione, nella nostra impotenza e paura. Abbiamo scoperto che il contagio, visibile solo attraverso il caos che provoca, si insinua silenziosamente nelle vie respiratorie, per arrivare ai polmoni. Da lì, come in Alien, si lancia sulla classe politica, come un’esplosione di sirene. Il virus non discrimina ma inganna. Ci trasforma in assassini sorridenti, in modo asintomatico. Se dopo i sintomi iniziali il pericolo passa, il virus sembra avere la capacità di riattivarsi; mutato, torna a colpire con una dose ancora più letale.
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, is beginning to wear thin. What makes Coronavirus both so fearful and unthinkable, is its ubiquity. Invisible and incipient, its spectre hangs over us all, even the President (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 virus?Manca qualcosa che ci permetta di concettualizzarlo. In termini lacaniani, infatti, non rientra in alcun ordine simbolico o linguaggio che ci aiuti a mitigare ed esorcizzare la nostra paura del virus?. 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).
Il conosciuto non pensato
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.
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 complacent shop assistant who does not 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 is 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 the 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 process. It is the unmetabolised fear of the infant in absolute dependency that it is about to die. In this dying terror, the infant shits out its fantasy of disintegration. The dispairing infant is latent in all of us and belongs, to varying degrees of unmet need, to our first months of absolute dependency. It is Joseph Conrad’s “horror” in “The Heart of Darkness”. 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.
For evidence of the workings of the collective unconscious, witness the panic- buying in every supermarket and specifically the mania for hoarding toilet paper, which has its resurgence with the second order of lockdowns 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 the unthinking and unproductive expression of the nameless dread.
Problemi del mondo reale
Meanwhile, our internal insecurity has its external correlation in matters no talking therapy can talk away: there are now 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.
Il contratto sociale
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 of continue 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 is a dramatic redefining of the social contract. It creates in our homes across the hemisphere a tension that cannot hold out for long. Will the State’s ruthless instinct for its own survival and its latent fear of the rising mob, prevent it from holding firm against the temptation to undermine our democratic rights beyond the emergency? Viktor Orban, trading on the politics of fear, has 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 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?
È difficile concettualizzare ciò che sta accadendo ora, figuriamoci in futuro. Proprio ora che iniziavamo a convivere con questa nuova normalità, arriva la notizia che nella primavera del 2021 dovrebbe essere pronto il vaccino, che promette all’umanità una tregua e un ritorno alla normalità. Mi unisco a questo sonoro sospiro di sollievo che si riverbera in tutto il mondo, anche se purtroppo, non siamo ancora fuori dai guai. La pandemia ha messo a nudo la nostra politica divisiva e distruttiva, ciò che abbiamo fatto a noi stessi, agli altri e al pianeta. La nostra vulnerabilità si è chiaramente palesata su scala planetaria, sotto forma di malattie, incendi incontrollabili, straripamenti, terremoti, inondazioni e disastri economici. Se vogliamo sopravvivere, come individui e come specie, è più importante che mai trovare uno spazio interiore di contenimento emotivo, dove possiamo gestire le nostre emozioni. Il lavoro interiore ci aiuta a creare uno spazio intimo e sicuro, in cui possiamo riconciliarci con noi stessi, sviluppando dei meccanismi interni per mantenere la calma e andare avanti. In un mondo interiore ed esteriore così disorientante, come possiamo tollerare, accettare e mantenere una certa stabilità nell’incertezza?
Giovani del Vecchio is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist based in North London and working online: 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.
Conrad, J., 1899. “The Heart of Darkness”.
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Hegel, G.W.F., 1821. “Philosophy of Right”, Britannica Great Books 1952).
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Orwell, G., 1945. “Animal Farm”.
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Raab, D., 9.4.20, “Government Briefing BBC1 Television News”.