Eros After Covid


Jacques Lacan was fond of saying that the tense of the psychoanalytic situation is neither the definite nor indefinite past but the future anterior. The session is a place to articulate desires of what you will have been. Many will not survive this plague year. But for those who do, the future involves a simple predicate: I will have lived through Covid and will make up my life in its aftermath.

The OED tells us that the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ is not calculation, like doing your taxes after a year of income; rather, it is the portion of an agricultural field after it’s been harvested and mown. There is sowing, there is reaping, there is manicuring, and then, after surveying the effect of the labour with scythe in hand, there is the aftermath, where the next layer of earth is laid like carpet onto the landscape. For Freud, each of us is always lying, as upon a couch, in the aftermath of some harvest. ‘Aftermath’ in this sense evokes his notoriously untranslatable Nachträglichkeit, used to describe how the psyche makes sense belatedly. A couple of translations – ‘deferred action’, ‘retroaction’ – capture how the past reactivates in the present, but the term is also rendered as ‘afterwardness’, which suggests one can dwell in a grammatical tense like a house, sojourning in a temporality that makes the past not merely past. Psychoanalysis is a field of recollection from which to gather the woolly past and knit it into speech for an analyst. It is a time for surveying dreamscapes, when new associations are retrospectively laid like gossamer onto extant desires. A matter of time: life after Covid will have been.


We cannot say exactly what the psychic fallout of the past year will be, although the WHO is now calling Covid-19 a mass trauma on the scale of World War II. Arriving in a political economy which already asserted that society does not exist, coronavirus saw this assumption realized by restricting most association to close family members. People were variously abandoned to mind-numbing isolation and hazardous work conditions. What can psychoanalysis offer in such a situation, both now and whenever we mean when we say ‘afterwards’? There is the question of how our individual psychic lives will be marked by passing through the travails of life and death during Covid. But, perhaps more pressingly, the pandemic confronts society at large with the recurrent question – as much political as psychical – of how to address oneself to a mass death event.

One might rightly wonder whether an adequate response to loss at that scale is even thinkable: the felt obligation to convey empathy toward general suffering is itself a way to suffer against the limits of empathy. In recent decades, psychoanalysis has increasingly emphasized the social genesis of psychic suffering. Freud, for his part, provided an elegant metaphor for how unconscious thoughts are entwined with organic conditions, ‘much as a festoon of flowers are twined around a wire’; and so too with the social and the psychic: the latter blossoms or wilts depending on its social architecture. Though society has persisted in compromised ways during the pandemic, there are distinct malformations of the psyche that attend these compromises. Psychoanalysis can offer a way of talking about those compromise formations – many of which existed before Covid-19, and will remain in its aftermath.


In 1974, an interviewer charged Lacan with having a pessimistic view of human progress, to which he replied:

Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention. All these bacteria overfed for amusement’s sake, spreading out across the world like the locusts in the Bible, would mark the triumph of mankind. But this isn’t going to happen. Science happily saunters through its crisis of responsibility: everything will return to its natural place, as they say. And as I said, the real will win out, as always. And we’ll be as fucked as we ever were.

Well, Jack, it happened. Mankind has triumphed. Yet naturally enough we are still as fucked as we ever were. In such times of crisis, psychoanalysis calls on us to articulate ‘the real’, which Lacan defines in the same interview as ‘everything that isn’t right, does not work, and is opposed to man’s life and his engagement with his personality’. The real is what upends our life and distorts our sense of time. This dysfunction ‘always returns’, and does so on its own schedule, refusing to conform to the regular cycles of the calendar or stars. In our isolation, perhaps what has plagued us more intimately than the plague itself has been the distorted passage of time under lockdown. Over the past year, the semblance of normality has wavered and perhaps the real has come briefly and obliquely into view, but we cannot set our watches by its return.


Time is a primordial riddle. Augustine famously confessed that he could only explain what time is if you didn’t ask him. Freud, likewise, never offered a comprehensive theory of psychoanalytic time. In a letter to the matron of French psychoanalysis Marie Bonaparte, written the year before his death, he divulged that ‘as time is concerned, I hadn’t fully informed you of my ideas. Nor anyone else’. Fittingly enough, a psychoanalytic concept of time requires some reconstruction of discontinuous evidence. An admittedly preposterous fundamental is that the unconscious is timeless: ‘In mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost’, and in principle, ‘everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’. Moreover, the timeless id – that instinctual reservoir of libidinal energy – is a ‘cauldron of seething excitations’ that has neither beginning nor end. Psychic conflict is, in part, a symptom of this asymmetry between the boundless instinctual energy of the timeless unconscious, on the one hand, and a mortal body with its partial memory, on the other. By creating fantasy solutions to the ordeal of mortality, the id primarily ensures that ‘every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’.

If ‘everyone owes nature a death’, as Freud (misquoting Shakespeare) wrote, how does death enter into the psychic picture? In 1913, Freud went on a walk with Rainer Marie Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke was distraught over the transience of all worldly beauty. (‘Before us great Death stands / Our fate held close within his quiet hands’, he would later write, in what appears to be a presentiment of the coming wars and epidemics.) Freud, failing to convince his company that the transience of beloved objects was what made them precious, concluded that ‘what spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning… since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful’. Better to ‘lift Life’s red wine’ with Rilke than to acknowledge the onrush of mortal time.  


After his summer walk with his sensitive companions, Freud set out on a path to determine just how death functions before we die. It was a timely preoccupation, as the effects of war neurosis blossomed in returning soldiers and the Spanish flu killed millions over the following decade. Psychoanalysis had to be scaled up, beyond the ends of the chaise longue, to account for these historical traumas. The concept of afterwardness found practical expression in such suffering – working through the recent and deep-seated past. But there was a problem. Freud had maintained since 1896 that the psychoanalytic process was a matter of rearranging memory traces. Yet the traumas of war refused assimilation and re-transcription. We repeat what we can’t remember, and the traumatized were beset by compulsive repetitions because they could not mend their past into new memories and associations. The experience of mass death had become an unassimilable kernel.

This affliction became personal for Freud when he lost his daughter Sophie to complications of the flu in 1920. Freud’s biographers have shown how he concealed the fact that the boy who played the repetitive fort-da game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle was Sophie’s son. She had died in January and Freud finished the text in May, so it is reasonable to speculate, with Jacqueline Rose, that the text retrospectively works through the afterlife of her death. The child’s game, in which he threw away a cotton ball (‘Fort! Gone!’) and reeled it back (‘Da! Here!’), simulated the disappearance and reappearance of his mother. By concocting this simple narrative, the child adjusts to the rhythm of mortal time – the discontinuous perception of what is there and then gone. Moreover, Freud contends, the child transforms the passive pain of the mother’s absence into an active game that symbolizes and overcomes the loss. The fort-da game is an object-lesson in learning to live with loss. Freud offered this heuristic to depict ‘normal development’, as opposed to the psychic configuration of those suffering from war neuroses. Yet it was also an ambiguous gesture of a grandpa wishing his young grandson well in the wake of their shared loss.

Philosophers have long maintained that mortality gives our existence its temporal structure by bringing each of us to a full stop. Psychoanalysis does not deny this so much as deepen it by adding a qualification: we cannot imagine our own death (Lacan called it an article of faith), and in its place we develop fantasies that keep the pain of mortality – or the pain of time itself – at arm’s length. For this reason, death always appears accidental. The fantasy of immortality contends with time through the intimations of death produced by the absence, and ultimately the death, of others. It is not our own death, but the passing of others – and thus the experience of living through an unassimilable loss – that is the origin of trauma. As Cathy Caruth writes, trauma is ‘the story of an impossible responsibility of consciousness in its own originating relation to others, and specifically to the death of others’. We are often powerless to respond to this experience. If in its wake we cannot reorganize our relation to the world, then the ‘death drive’ takes over, manifesting in the symptoms of repetition compulsion. The death drive works, Freud says, ‘in silence’. Yet the prompt of psychoanalysis is to ask that we try to speak anyway, however impossible the address, so that we might learn to live with each other through the vicissitudes of time.


What can this teach us about weathering the losses of the long 2020, a year which has itself somehow been lost to time? When a beloved object is lost, Freud writes, ‘reality passes its verdict – that the object no longer exists – upon each one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was attached to the lost object’. Detachment from the mother is merely the archetype of separation and distance that later accidents of time inevitably imitate. Freud’s schema for mourning such an experience is counterintuitive, if not outright scandalous, because it depends on what we might consider a social vice: narcissism. Forced to decide whether we will share in the fate of the lost object, we are tempted to identify with the image of what we’ve lost in a kind of melancholic stagnation. But, writes Freud, against this impulse we must yield to the ‘narcissistic satisfactions in being alive to sever [our] attachment to the non-existent object’. Through this narcissistic enjoyment we regain a perhaps strained capacity to love again, an ability to bind new associations.

The repetition of living beyond loss is crucially different from the death-driven repetition compulsion induced by trauma, which fixes you in place. The first form of repetition was figured, in Freud’s mind, by his grandson. The child’s game, he wrote, expressed an ‘immense cultural achievement in successfully abnegating his drives (that is, abnegating the gratification thereof) by allowing his mother to go away without his making a great fuss’. The child, whose irreparably lost object was one he never possessed, had reinvented the beguiling game of desire. His game is one we all play by re-finding ways to love that can recreate and sustain life through the crises of mortality. It is a response to pain and loss which does not leave us mired in the timeless inertia which Freud equated with death itself. As social life recommences on wider and wider scales, we will have to contend with what Lacan called ‘the neurosis of destiny or the neurosis of failure’: the capacity for the real to disastrously return unbidden. Living with one another becomes problematic because we all have complexes, inhibitions, traumas and resistances when it comes to what Freud called Eros – that troublemaker that sends us into the world to bind new associations. Only an ethics of care, to which we are always inadequate, that would require heeding and respecting the real of other people’s pain, offers a way out.


In a public discussion with Albert Einstein about the origins of warfare in 1932, just years before Nazi violence would exile Freud from his home in Vienna, Freud argued that the will toward war was merely an effect of the destructive instinct. That instinct, he maintained to the end, is ineradicable. The countervailing means against war are ‘to bring Eros, its antagonist, into play against it’: the growth of affective ties between people can combat the destructive instinct. This call for a ‘community of feeling’ is a remarkably sentimental one for Freud, who even invokes the timeless imperative to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ as a precept for the collective work of Eros. The psychoanalytic challenge to this statement would, of course, be that we hardly know ourselves, and that to reduce another person to the poorly taken measure of your own self is likely to miss the other person entirely. Better to say that one should love one’s neighbor not as oneself – or, to put it in the language of the Sanders campaign, ‘fight for someone you don’t know’, which includes yourself.

For leftists, the condition of class war often appears interminable, replete with countless losses, failures, false starts and false ends. For this reason, the left repeatedly finds itself in a state of mourning, grieving over the defeat of its most recent projects (Sanders and Corbyn among them). In this context, psychoanalysis can not only provide a vocabulary for the predations of capitalism; it can also teach us how to overcome those losses so that we might ‘fail better’ – a repetition renewed with every generation under conditions not of their making. If serial failures threaten to sunder the community ties that sustain emancipatory work, then perhaps the antidote is psychic ‘care’ as defined by Lisa Baraitser: ‘the arduous temporal practice of maintaining ongoing relations with others and the world’. To live with, and struggle for, others – their infinite demands and desires – is a vexed part of sustaining the horizon of leftism. Experiences of estrangement, loss, pain, grief, and trauma are potentially the most availing shared predicate of the afflicted; but they are also a formidable barrier to social community given the isolating effects of privation. What psychoanalysis would call the ethical relation to another’s pain – its prompt to address the impossible – tallies with the leftist programme of building solidarity in the face of almost immovable limits. This impossible work of Eros is what makes the transformations of revolutionary time possible. A matter of repetition: the struggle for communism will have been.

Read on: Phillip Derbyshire, ‘Vicissitudes of Psychoanalysis’, NLR 110.