Concerns

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This permanent state of restlessness is powerful in tearing apart our mental health and well-being. Perhaps what bothers us the most is not knowing how long this will last. This anguish of confinement holds an element that is therefore unknown to us, uncertain and indeterminate.

By Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez*

Cities are under siege in an attempt to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. Elite and middle class sectors rushed to the supermarket and desperately stocked up on food, masks and gel alcohol (in yet another example of their unmistakable sense of responsibility and social solidarity) and now, after fulfilling the home office, watch in amazement from their homes the chaos in which the country is sinking. In the same cities, towards the outskirts, we see hospitals threatened with overcrowding and densely populated slum areas, where many of the residents wonder where they will get their livelihood in the coming months.

Among all these realities, an exceptional urban situation permeates: once the quarantine was decreed, the roads and public spaces were taken over by emptiness and silence, in a false tranquility that covers up all the suffering and anxiety that has been gestating inside each home. The metropolises remain in a state of precarious paralysis, under the imposition of a general confinement that, although undoubtedly necessary, is for many financially impossible. We thus live in a state of restless silence.

The illustrations by the British artist Martin Handford, from the famous book series Where is Wally?, until then served as excellent allegories of our hectic and disorderly metropolises. Millions of workers, self-employed and unemployed disputed the scarce vacant spaces in jobs, on the streets and in public transport. Now, faced with a virus that is spreading more and more across the country, the endless flow of people and goods has been interrupted and forcibly paralyzed. Unthinkable images became possible, such as the completely uncomfortable vision of an unusual and empty St. Peter's Square, in the Vatican. Even so, in recent weekends, Pope Francis has appeared at the window of the Apostolic Palace and, in front of the void, blesses the statues of the saints and the doves. Times Square, usually taken over by herds of tourists and a symbol of urban chaos, is now crossed by a few cars and rare pedestrians.

Alongside these well-known places, confinement is also increasingly imposed on the peripheral areas of the globe, with its billions of inhabitants squeezed into small, unhealthy rooms, living in huge degraded urban areas, without infrastructure and basic sanitation. To confine oneself to them is synonymous with seeing their income, already meager, disappear completely. The silence of the alleys tends to be more distressing than that of the great avenues.

This emptiness that plagues urban centers can be found, in a subtle and at the same time distressing way, in the metaphysical imagery of Giorgio de Chirico's paintings, which portrayed large empty urban spaces taken by a melancholy that is difficult to define. Violently attacked by the light of a setting sun, as on the screen The Enigma of a Day (1914), the columns of the buildings, the black bronze of the statues and the searing orange of the ground seem to be filled with an icy, stillborn heat. The wide square is inhabited by two human figures dwarfed by the emptiness that surrounds them. Their presence disturbs as much as it fascinates: they occupy a place where there is nothing and no one to be seen, in a mixture of a city forgotten by time and emptied by an impending tragedy.

The noises, smells and movements that routinely inhabit the city streets now give way to a forced and necessary withdrawal, in a confinement where many are taken by anxiety, loneliness and the difficulties of living in the same space and with the same people for so many days. The threat of contamination from the external world makes us look outside with a mixture of repressed desire and restlessness that never ceases, in a solitude socially shared by those who have the privilege of not needing to expose themselves to survive economically.

In this case, it seems that we are returning to the canvases of Edward Hopper, unrivaled in representing the feeling of urban loneliness. The melancholy look of the female figure present in Morning sun (1952) seems to be a faithful portrayal of the anguish we now share. Sitting on the bed in front of the sun shining through a large window, a mixture of admiration and terror stains her face. The world outside, bright and inviting, became suspicious. We, noticing the absence of many of the sounds that used to fill the streets during the day, are taken by this same anguishing suspicion. It is even ironic that, in a society taken over by hypervisibility, confinement and seclusion have been imposed as unavoidable means of minimizing the catastrophe. A sense of uncertainty about the future looms, and the echo of silence and emptiness gradually turns into an uncomfortable feeling of disquiet.

This permanent state of restlessness is powerful in tearing apart our mental health and well-being. Perhaps what bothers us most is not knowing how long this will last. This anguish of confinement holds an element that is, therefore, unknown to us, uncertain and indeterminate. Fear in the face of the virus, invisible, puts us in a situation of powerlessness. To feel restless is to be faced with something not entirely known, always on the prowl. We thus begin to feel a mixture of fear, anguish and mistrust in the face of what threatens us. Freud already referred to the uncanny (das Unheimlich) as a feeling that borders on the frightening, the unexpected. Restlessness concerns “that which should remain secret, hidden, but has appeared”[I].

Faced with the threat of the virus, it seems that something that has always been there – the always open possibility of hecatombs and other catastrophic events – has finally become real, imposing a new day-to-day on us amidst the chaos, pre-existing in our imaginary already dominated by the exaggeratedly catastrophic goods and clichés of the cultural industry, as in apocalyptic films, making everything strangely familiar.

The unsettling also anguishes us because it is always marked by inevitability. According to Freud, disquieting facts always have a strong fatal, inescapable trait, which escapes the rules of chance. Although we are forced to look for a logical and factual cause in the feeling of restlessness (why is all this happening?), the force of reality shows us its incommensurability. We jump from the order of the “ordinarily harmless” of routine facts to a tragic and unavoidable state of affairs, where “the border between fantasy and reality is erased when something real comes along that until then we saw as fantastic”[ii].

The problem intensifies when sectors of society turn a blind eye to such inevitability. If the epidemic contingency is seen as an exaggeration, including conspiratorial and false visions, we assume that there is nothing to be done because there is nothing to worry about. Ignoring facts and medical recommendations, tearing up scientific memoranda in favor of economic recovery and employment becomes a suicidal discourse, taken over by the most destructive impetus of capital. For him, what is disturbing about the pandemic is the risk it poses to his endless accumulation. It is becoming clear that the only true way to escape a greater tragedy, especially in relation to the millions of needy families who will be left unassisted, is to sacrifice the old neoliberal guidelines of the sacred and untouchable fiscal balance. In this sense, betting on restlessness as “something repressed that returns” is to glimpse in the void that now surrounds us an opportunity to transform the repressed into social power.

While growing dissatisfaction with the government and its continued isolation could point to future popular mobilization, caution is needed. Organized sectors of the right can also move in order to find their way in the midst of chaos, proposing false exits. It is necessary to overcome the messianic logic that commands Brazilian politics. It is what has thrown us into this apocalypse of immeasurable proportions.

The pandemic as a new fact of the world order has forced the incessant movement of capital to reduce the speed of its machines, imposing a logic that is foreign to the economy. The feeling that we are being commanded by uncontrollable forces, by a virus that has imposed a profound change in our routine, only tends to hide the profound tragedy that plagues us, with an eminently political and economic background. Many will take economic advantage of the pandemic chaos, further widening the distance between the extremes of the social pyramid. The virus is undeniably an imposition of contingency. However, a large part of those who will die and those who will have their lives dragged into an even more destructive poverty will be due to human work, to a socioeconomic arrangement that, especially in its moments of greatest crisis, exposes its immutable laws. The “scorched earth” also provides profits and dividends.  

Guilherme Wisnik in his recent book inside the fog (2018) supports the thesis that our time is dominated by a misty, uncertain and blurred conception of the world, where the factual truth of reality is put in check, in a state of suspension of certainties. Thus, we return to the question that we would be placed in a constant state of restlessness in the face of what is not fully known.

 According to Wisnik, one of the main consequences of this new modus operandi it is the profound uncertainty we feel about the future and its possibilities. For the author, “we live today under the permanent sensation of a repressed tragedy”,[iii] in a society where at all times we have the “silent imminence of something different about to happen”[iv]. The pandemic outbreak in which we were placed seems to have revealed such a tragedy as a new fact of disruptive dimension.

In 2001, when the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers took place, millions of people watched in amazement at those images. Even today, the videos and photos of that moment have a hypnotic and, at the same time, tragic power. In the debates about the impact of that fact on the population's consciousness and on their perception of the world, many pointed out that the tragedy broke the lethargy of routine and apparent normality to such a degree that it made possible the irruption of ""something real" in opposition to the entire network of simulacra and virtualizations that characterize our world”[v], that is, it made visible a reality that surpassed fiction and its representations previously relegated to films and art.

The difference to our situation is that our tragedy is slow and invisible. Even so, it is necessary to see in this apparent emptiness a possible power: when looking at cities taken over by emptiness and when we are faced with this feeling of restlessness and abandonment, we must mobilize the progressive political forces that still remain in society and awaken from a hypnotic dream in which, until then, we were neutralized in the face of so much violence and barbarism. We are faced with a sensation similar to that when the energy runs out and we realize how dependent we are on it. Now, in the face of its crisis, the city claims attention to its wounds: it is up to civil society and public debate to intransigently defend the Unified Health System, better conditions in the poorest areas of the city, assistance and government subsidy to the self-employed and unemployed.

We have to take this restlessness by storm, take it in our favor. We must bear in mind that the contingency of the real has created a kind of tragic aesthetic sublime, which, although desolating, holds within itself a power capable of forming growing dissatisfaction in different sectors of society. The question, destined for politics, is how to channel such dissatisfaction in favor of a change for something better.

Submerged in this feeling of restlessness and in the midst of emptied and silenced spaces, we have to find forms of social solidarity and mobilization of affections that prevent anguish from turning into despair, the ideal way to advance even further towards irrationality. We must protect our mental health in the face of this whirlpool that seems to want to swallow us without respite. In A Descent into the Maelström (1841), Edgar Allan Poe brilliantly describes the adventure of a Norwegian fisherman who, despite being sucked in by the immeasurable force of a sea whirlpool that destroyed his boat, survives the tragedy and transforms his horror story into a sublime, yet tragic account of having seen death. up close and she escaped. Although such a whirlpool has the “violent and disturbing sense of “something new””[vi], it is necessary to make it clear from now on that the terrible consequences that such a situation can leave us as an inheritance are nothing new. Far from being a divine punishment, we are once again facing the icy face of neoliberalism. For its ideologues, if everyone is dead, but the accounts are up to date, everything is fine. Faced with all the suicidal efforts of the most backward sectors of politics and the Brazilian elite, it is necessary to see the opportunity of presence in the void. It is necessary to avoid the spectacle of danse macabre which is approaching.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a master's student at the sociology department at USP


[I] FREUD, Sigmund. The unsettling. In: Complete Works, Vol. XIV. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010, p.338

[ii] [ii] FREUD, Sigmund. The unsettling. In: Complete Works, Vol. XIV. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2010, p.364

[iii] WISNIK, William. Inside the fog: contemporary architecture, art and technology. São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2018, p.265.

[iv] WISNIK, William. Inside the fog: contemporary architecture, art and technology. São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2018, p. 255.

[v] WISNIK, William. Inside the fog: contemporary architecture, art and technology. São Paulo: Ubu Editora, 2018, p.159.

[vi] POE, EDGAR ALLAN. A descent on the Maelström. Foreign Classics, Vol. 47. Free Books Editora Virtual, 2018, p.13.

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