symptomatology of horror

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Mirmila Musse*

A response to the unexpected needs to take “lack” into account. Facing the void, putting in check the monsters and certainties that guarantee and pursue each one in their subjectivity.

The pandemic introduced by the coronavirus has paralyzed the world. If, on the one hand, it reveals the lack of control of life and what we believed dominated, on the other hand, it reveals the problems of a system that, for better or worse, worked: an economic and financial crisis, inequality, the collapse of health and the globalization. Along with that, it also reveals what interests us here, psychic suffering.

We were surprised by what Lacan calls the “Real”. A scene comes to mind, of a character from one of the short stories (“O amor”, in Family relationships) by Clarisse Lispector, who is paralyzed when she sees a blind man chewing gum. Ana, the character, calls what happened “a crisis”, because “a blind man chewing gum shattered all of that”.

Her life was duly controlled by everyday tasks so that she “didn't explode”. But then she knew that "this afternoon something quiet had broken". A random scene becomes a contingency when it calls into question a certainty that seems to have been resolved. These situations do not necessarily endanger life, but they certainly make the certainties of existence falter. It is often a decisive moment for someone to decide to seek an analysis, for example.

Faced with the “Real”, two ways out are possible: either respond with what you have, or invent something new. Usually, you stick with the first option. It is safer and more comfortable to ensure that the encounter with the contingency – which, at first glance, is paralyzing – is the result of a mere chance event, behaving as if nothing had happened.

In the case of confinement caused by the pandemic, there is a tendency to ensure that life outside is indoors. Even if it causes anguish and suffering, the feelings will be similar to those before the isolation: the annoying and abusive boss, the outlandish strategies to find the lover, the regular physical exercises, the fresh French bread, the aesthetic concerns, etc.

Realizing the seriousness in question can, in this first case, work according to the same logic. Even if panic, at first, takes over, facing it, it is concluded that the best thing is that nothing changes radically: stock up on toilet paper, return to the childhood home in the countryside or even choose – for those who can – to continue working .

In this case, the answer to anguish, Freud teaches us, involves the construction of a symptom that guarantees stability, at least psychologically. There is a contradiction of the symptom that, even accompanied by displeasure, finds satisfaction in the fact of not wanting to know the reason for the anguish. Thus, with “the pain and delight” of being what we already are, we remain the same.

Faced with the emergence of the “Real”, the second way out would be to give another interpretation to life, different from the existing one. It is not, however, a matter of fulfilling a long-cherished dream, if one could choose another life. This option would be possible if the dream were not followed by the “if”, or the “but” indeterminating the desire and, consequently, widening the choices up to now.

In this perspective, fulfilling a dream makes us return to the first option, because it is aimed at with the pre-established ghost and symptom, constituted from the repetition of the known. The dream paradoxically guarantees and sustains that we continue with the known and familiar daydreaming. Therefore, a new way out for this meeting with Real would not be fulfilling an old dream.

An unprecedented response to the unexpected needs to take the lack into account. He is faced with the void, the monsters and certainties that guarantee and pursue each one in his subjectivity are put in check, to then respond in an unprecedented way. Words are lacking, repertoire is lacking and existence falters. I bring another reference, this time closer to what we are living. The film Melancholia, by Lars Von Triers, presents, based on several characters, a unique way out of the fall of a meteor on Earth.

In the film, everyone responds with what they already know, with their symptom, despair, the demand for love, the claiming fights. With the exception of the main character who finds her own way out, unlike anything that was already pre-established in her life. As none of those rituals and social relationships made sense, it became necessary for her to establish something new. Justine's response to the impending tragedy traverses the horror of the end of the world, having "nothing to lose", as it's not about winning or losing. While all the other characters resort to their symptoms, old acquaintance, Justine's choice does not pass by the other.

Let us return to the encounter with the “Real” and the mismatch of existence, be it a noise, an event, a virus or something that interrupts the smooth functioning of what is, so to speak, connected “on automatic”, something around which it gravitates, but words are lacking to describe it and to produce its meaning. The anguish is present and can paralyze because the point, the object, what made existence waver in the scene is not located. The cause is unknown, and the horror paralyzes any further action.

The current pandemic fits this symptomatology. Society has bet all its chips on capital and science to guarantee a “harmony” of life, even if it is illusory and imaginary. So far, neither of these two spheres has managed to resolve the horror of the situation. The pandemic has laid bare and left any pre-established reality unprotected, just as it happens in the face of trauma, a mark, a before and an after.

Time

Another issue arises: temporality. If trauma marks a before and after, the encounter with the “Real” suspends time. All days and hours are the same. Predictions cannot be made for the future, as there are no guarantees. It also loses sense to claim and copy the past, since it will never be again.

Albert Camus' book, The plague, brings this strange notion about time: “Impatient with the present, enemies of the past and deprived of the future, we effectively resembled those whom justice or human hatred makes live behind bars. Finally, the only way to escape this unbearable vacation was, through imagination, to put the trains in motion again and fill the hours with the repeated sounds of a bell that nevertheless persisted in silence”.

Today, trains do not arrive as often, but waiting for the meeting is also suspended. The anguish of uncertainty is placed in those plans that can no longer be: from the planned and suspended trip, to the lack of money for many to feed themselves. Imagination is also no longer a strategy because it is faced with the instinct of reality, at the moment, the interdiction.

But it is necessary to bet on time so that life continues to make sense, even if it is, at this moment, listening to time pass. There is still no past or future, because there is no way to understand what hasn't given enough time to think about it, since we were swallowed up and only understand while we live, in the present. But if we manage to overcome the anguish of the deafening silence of the city, it will be possible to hear the time pass.

The other day, a patient told me that he was wasting time because he couldn't keep up with the offers produced by the pandemic: yoga classes, free movies, lives, new recipes etc. In addition to responding to the endless demands of consumerism, it is impossible to repair the emptiness and lack that this situation has imposed on you, even and especially those that promise well-being during the quarantine.

Castration is in place: there is a fault and it is not possible to repair it. There is no completeness, nor imaginary, much less any value of a capitalist order that sufficiently mocks the idea that something has been lost. Hence there is stagnation in the present. The necessary distancing is still not possible to elaborate what is posited as horror.

Accepting the imposition of confinement is responding to the imminence of self-death and to a social pact. Confinement refers to prison and, of course, the lack of freedom. In any case, this occurs in view of the common objective: the reduction of the spread of a disease, for many, lethal.

A fourth reference can also be recalled: The Blindness Test. The book deals with the story of a city exposed to the horror unleashed by an epidemic that can lead its inhabitants to loss of sight. Before her, the unique choices of each character are based on a social pact, whether for good or for evil. In the proposed configuration, in a certain scene, for example, there are those who, in the name of their own enjoyment, create perverse laws. In the name of the collective pact, women exchange their bodies for food. The social pact configured in this way guarantees rules, even those of horror, for social interaction.

In the case of the ongoing pandemic in the world, most of those who can choose to stay at home to avoid not dying and not killing. A renegotiation of social agreements was necessary to maintain life. As with any social pact, some individuals do not abide by it. Regardless of whether you agree or not, it tends to be accepted in the name of an agreement for life. However, as a friend said: “Even in a social pact, the choice is individual. That's where the worst and best of each one is revealed ".

At that moment, something irrecoverable is lost, there is a lack of meaning and understanding of the present and, consequently, of time. In this order of things, the everyday life of confinement reveals our life choices so far: the impossible of the marital relationship, the unbearable of the parental role, the endless demand for work, household chores and loneliness. By suspending the automatic meaning that made life happen, the virus called into question the desire formed until now. Someone said the other day that only sinners will be defiled. Even for those who believe in penance and, above all, in the possibility of salvation, it is necessary to remember that we are all sinners.

If something has changed, necessarily life will not be as it was. If there are no words to understand what is happening, it becomes impossible to predict the future. What will change, what new psychic sufferings will appear after this pandemic? Some cities in China hint at some unusual behavior. With the first stage of the quarantine over, the highest divorce rate in history was recorded. In the same logic, one can perhaps also bet on the high birth rate at the beginning of 2021. Everyone will invent a possible way out of this chaos. It is necessary to bet, even if without guarantee, on existence: on time, on economic stability, on carnival out of season. There are those who, after years of uncertainty about whether they should or not, did a master's project.

If we lack words to describe what we are currently experiencing, trying to put this horror into words may be an attempt to symbolize this emptiness. But because it is tentative, it is still unfinished. Unlike what has been experienced so far, there is the possibility of, when faced with the void imposed by a virus, inventing know-how with the future. For the time being and parallel to this, one can also observe the horizon without pollution.

* Myrmilla Mousse is a psychoanalyst. Master in psychoanalysis from Université Paris 8 – Vincennes-Saint-Denis.

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