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Psychoanalysis in Time of Plague

Bridgeman Images
Émile François Chambon: Sleeper on her back, 1966–1968

Freud’s daughter Sophie died of septic pneumonia as a result of the Spanish Flu. On January 29, 1920, he wrote to his friend and fellow psychoanalyst, Sándor Ferenczi, “wafted away, nothing to say,” ending the letter, “And with us? My wife is very shaken. I think: La séance continue. But it was a bit much for one week.” One might find Freud’s tone rather heartless and cruel, but that would miss the spirit of tragic-irony particular to Freud, very much present in his parting words. They are not so unlike the statement he made when forced to say he was treated well by the Nazis when allowed to leave Austria: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.” And the particularity of the tone is psychoanalysis at its best—nothing to say. We’ll speak again at your next session. It’s time. 

What is silence during a pandemic—hearing the all in “pan” that is anathema to silence? But I couldn’t say nothing, could I? This was one reason I was beginning to dread seeing patients again from my basement in Shelter Island, where I have temporarily relocated from New York City: I didn’t want to add to the plague of language that followed on the heels of the coronavirus, pouring out of our TVs and computers into our shelters. None of it, I wash my hands—not what was bland, or comforting, or desensitizing, or informative, or violent. I lashed out at my fellow psychoanalysts in a letter: at the very least I would imagine that you wouldn’t be the purveyors of certainty or mental health banalities or pyrrhic victories, I accused—please not another post making claims about what people need right now, even if the impulse is so very human-all-too-human. 

I return to reading Ingeborg Bachmann’s posthumously published novel, The Book of Franza. “Pain, a rare word, a rare thing. In the natural history of man, it’s something that is allotted to the body, migrating from the body and becoming explosive inside the brain.” 

I was beginning to realize that what frightened me was imagining the need that I would have to filter all of this discourse in order to find my patient underneath it. That I would have to do this for roughly eight hours a day. I don’t like patients in my ear on headphones—I don’t use visual technology; it’s a Lacanian thing—I like listening to them in a room as two bodies. I like the ritual: the greeting, the opening and closing of doors. I miss them, even though I will speak with them. That I would have to attend to them now via the very same device that was contaminating my life with “words, words, words” (as Hamlet says to Polonius prior to murdering him) was making me feel psychotic. 

It must seem strange to hear a psychoanalyst say something like this about the very medium of analysis, language. But this is what I think a psychoanalyst has to say, or rather famously, doesn’t say—sometimes. Freud himself infamously, if apocryphally, equated psychoanalysis with the plague. It feels unseemly to mention such a thing now, the doubling is dizzying, though psychoanalysis in a time of plague does seem to be my question. 

Never before have I quite realized the importance of leaving behind my family when I go to work. The distance is critical. I cannot think about my sixteen-year-old in the next room, bored out of his mind and angry because he’s separated from his girlfriend, which is my fault before it is the virus’s (I accept my lot as a mother). Nor can I stop to imagine my partner in the other room, heroically trying to make sense of everything, as he does, while also trying to figure out what his job as a film producer still means, since nothing can be made right now—even though, so they say, Hollywood lives forever. 

I miss him when he is this close. Greeting tidbits of both of them when I go to fetch a glass of water or cup of coffee between sessions, I have to do something quick so it doesn’t follow me back downstairs—jumping jacks, hand claps, some other impotent gesture. How have I become so unbelievably dependent on solitude to conduct my routine? Being a psychoanalyst is a very odd way to live, or choose to live. 

Many patients are e-mailing me, wanting to know if I’m okay. Do I have any symptoms? The intimacy of these notes strike me, not simply as transference, but as the necessity for redefining the boundaries that protect analytic work—Are you okay? Can we keep going? A startling moment: a patient who has for years said she wants to die is working harder than anyone to keep herself safe. “You!? You are the one who wants to live?” I quip, lovingly. We laugh. 

Another patient is angry that no one is making coherent decisions. This rage creates a spectral ideal of a final decision, one decision—just open the gates, let everyone go about their business, and see what happens—that she begins to identify with. Why not just trust things to the law of survival of the fittest, she declares. “But I’m on the fat part of the curve so I guess I can say something like that,” she says. “And the one on the other side, in the face of you?” I ask. “I would be terrified,” she says. “For once, you understand how you can scare people!” I reply. Surprised, she says, “This is the first time I’ve understood what you’ve been saying.” It is true that she is impressive, decisive. 

Now I’m reading Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force—after all this talk of war: “As pitilessly as force annihilates, equally without pity it intoxicates those who possess or believe they possess it. In reality, no one possesses it.” 

I move seamlessly from a session with a patient who imagined that I didn’t want to work with her anymore, an assumption on her part that almost brought me to tears, to my own psychoanalysis by phone. Usually when I go to analysis after work, I leave the office, take the subway, think about what I want to say, walk down Third Avenue, sometimes get a coffee. Never have the two been this close—me as analyst, me with my analyst. I tell her how weird it is. I also tell her I’m angry that analysts are obscuring the reality of death. I hear the familiar “Nn-hm.”

I tell her that I had a dream in which her office featured, which happens rarely. I know it’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to be important, since I also happen to be an analyst. In the dream I say to a psychoanalyst friend of mine, “love is a drug,” and he admonishes me gently, gesturing no, and tells me a story about wanting a time out of time, a place out of place. This is paradoxically a refusal of time and place, an illusion that the psychoanalyst must take on, but it is understandable, he says, in a world where we are always rushed, a world this impatient. 

The dream then moves to a hospice on 28th Street. People are in their rooms, and if they want to make love with one another before they die, they turn on a light, the same light that my analyst has outside of her office to indicate that she’s there (a quite anachronistic, old-school analytic tradition), with a switch by which I can indicate that I have arrived. “That’s a long interpretation by the analyst that you dreamed,” my analyst says. I hear Freud’s “wafted away, nothing to say.” I think about the question of love in the background of the dream. It calls to mind so many missed opportunities, failed actions, belated declarations, unmet desires. “Nothing happens at the right time,” I bark. Twenty-eight days in a menstrual cycle, timing, love, death. “The dream is also about conception, the life that two people can or cannot make together,” I say. 

I go and read Paul Celan’s love poem titled Corona:

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.

In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.

My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,
we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.

We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.

It is time.

I hear the ending very differently today. It feels manic—“It is time they knew!” Truth is spoken, unrest isn’t a feeling of being the walking dead, we don’t wake up in panic from our dreams but continue sleeping, wishing, remembering. We have room. We are not so helpless. Mania, like love, can shed loss and depression like a skin, for a time. 

I wake up and read about Brooklyn Hospital, stuck on an anecdote of a patient there for whom they didn’t have a swab having to spit into a urine sample cup, which Quest Diagnostics reluctantly consented to take. My first patient this morning has a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. As scared as she is, she realized she is lucky that the baby was born this early and not two weeks in from now, when things will be far worse. Her partner got to be at the birth, got to be in the NICU with the baby until yesterday, when the policy changed, for a time, to reduce the risk of exposure. 

She tells me how guilty she feels that her baby isn’t still inside of her, where she would have had everything she needed. I tell her it’s a fantasy that a baby born at term has everything they need. Humans are born premature. Many animals can walk almost immediately. It is difficult to say this to her with her baby in an incubator in a hospital that doesn’t have what it needs, but it seems to resonate with her. 

She repeats the question: Does her child have what she needs? Is this the question a mother asks her whole life? Yes. This is the injustice in the current situation. The supplies—the masks, the ventilators, the swabs, the test kits—are the minimum, or not even the minimum, and there is no reason for that aside from social inequity and a failure to ask what everyone needs simply to survive. 

Last session for the day: trying to say something to a patient about her parents who always tell her to take care of her sister, and I lose the idiom I had in mind—completely vanishes—and end up fumbling what I’m saying. I figure out later in the session it was “to kill two birds with one stone.” 

Jacques Lacan said that psychoanalysis had to be invented to deal with the strangeness of the human condition, not in order to fix it, but to expose that strangeness to itself. This is what feels so uncanny, maybe sometimes wrong and impossible, about doing psychoanalysis during a plague.