Modern society has largely exiled death to the outskirts of existence, but Covid-19 has forced us all to confront it. Our relationship to the planet, each other and time itself can never be the same again
We have been asked to write about the future, the afterlife of the pandemic, but the future can never be told. This at least was the view of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who was commissioned to edit a series of essays for the Guardian in 1921, as the world was rebuilding after the first world war.
The future is “fluctuating, vague and uncertain”, he wrote later, at a time when the mass unemployment of the 1930s had upended all confidence, the first stage on a road to international disaster that could, and could not, be foreseen. “The senses in which I am using the term [uncertain],” he said, “is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest 20 years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970.
About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” This may always be the case, but the pandemic has brought this truth so brutally into our lives that it threatens to crush the best hopes of the heart, which always look beyond the present. We are being robbed of the illusion that we can predict what will happen in the space of a second, a minute, an hour or a day.
From one moment to the next, the pandemic seems to turn and point its finger at anyone, even at those who believed they were safely immune. The distribution of the virus and vaccination programme in different countries has been cruelly unequal, but as long as Covid remains a global presence, waves of increasing severity will be possible anywhere and at any moment in time.
The most deadly pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, went through wave after wave and lasted for nearly four years. Across the world, people are desperate to feel they have turned a corner, that an end is in sight, only to be faced with a future that seems to be retreating like a vanishing horizon, a shadow, a blur. Nobody knows, with any degree of confidence, what will happen next. Anyone claiming to do so is a fraud.
At such a time, only so much faith can be placed even in the governments who have shown the surest touch in dealing with the pandemic. Anyone living under regimes whose acts have felt measured and thoughtful has watched with dismay the death-dealing denials of national leaders from India to Brazil. No country is exempt, which is just one reason why the monopoly of vaccinations by the privileged countries is so manifestly self-defeating.
If the wretched of the earth are not protected, then no one is. An ethical principle – one that, in an ideal world, should always apply – is pushing to the fore, taking on an unmistakable if ghostly shape. Nobody can save themselves, certainly not for ever, at the cost of anybody else.
In the UK, we legitimately rail against an incompetent government whose repeated refusal to take measures called for by its scientific advisers has given us one of the highest Covid death tolls of the western world. It is guilty of negligence, but of also violating the unspoken contract between government and governed, by leaving the people alone with their fear. Though officially denied, the policy at the outset of the pandemic and reviewed this summer, seems to have been “herd immunity”.
If the idea has been so disturbing, it is not just because it runs the risk of a virus run rampant and mutating into vaccine-resistant variants, or because of the sinister undercover calculations of the acceptable level of the dead that it entails. Perhaps even more distressing, the avalanche of deaths that it appeared to sanction reminds us of the reality that death can happen at any time and eventually comes for us all.
“Let the bodies pile high,” words allegedly spoken (though officially denied) by Boris Johnson, have lingered in the atmosphere and leave any vestiges of safety in shreds. A stalled economy, whose serious consequences must indeed be recognised, is – or so we were officially told – more alarming than mass deaths.
Sigmund Freud once stated that no one believes in their own death. In the unconscious, there is a blank space where knowledge of this one sure thing about our futures should be. If the pandemic has changed life for ever, it might therefore be because that inability to countenance death – which may seem to be the condition of daily sanity – has been revealed for the delusion it always is.
To be human, in modern western cultures at least, is to push the knowledge of death away for as long as we can. “There used to be no house,” the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1936 essay The Storyteller, “hardly a room, in which someone had not once died.” In modern life, on the other hand, he argued, dying had been pushed beyond the perceptual realm of the living, although his diagnosis did not of course include the destitute nations or anticipate the impending war.
In the midst of a pandemic, death cannot be exiled to the outskirts of existence. Instead, it is an unremitting presence that seems to trail from room to room. One of the as yet unanswered questions of the present moment is how soon the vaccine rollout, among the privileged nations, will allow hospitals to return once and for all to curing and caring for life rather than preparing for death, so that doctors and nurses will no longer be faced with the inhuman choice between cancer and Covid.
“Not today,” one palliative care nurse found herself saying in the midst of the first wave, to patients cut off from their loved ones, the terror visible in their eyes, when they asked her if they were going to die. “Not today” – she did not even pretend to know more. What on earth, we might then ask, does the future consist of once the awareness of death passes a certain threshold and breaks into our waking dreams?
What, then, is the psychic time we are living? How can we prepare – can we prepare – for what is to come? If the uncertainty strikes at the core of inner life, it also has a political dimension. Every claim for justice relies on belief in a possible future, even when – or rather especially when – we feel the planet might be facing its demise. This is all the more visibly the case since the pandemic has allowed the bruises of racial, sexual and economic inequality in the modern world to rise mercilessly to the surface of our social arrangements for everyone, unavoidably, to see.
The misery of impoverished peoples, black men gunned down by police on the streets, women trapped in their homes during lockdown, assaulted and murdered by their partners – all these realities, each with its history of racial and sexual violence, are pressing harder on public consciousness, as they move from the sidelines on to the front page. The psychological terrain is starting to shift.
Alongside the terror, and at least partly in response, a renewed form of boldness, itself relying on longstanding traditions of protest, has entered the stage – a new claim on the future, we might say. One by one, people are calling out the systemic forms of discrimination that are so often passed off as the norm.
People will no longer accept denials that the problem exists, such as the UK government-commissioned Sewell report, published in March, which rejected the fact of institutional racism; or tolerate the more deeply entrenched hatreds, as expressed in the visceral rage and threats against the marchers of Black Lives Matter; or leave unchallenged the studied indifference towards injustice that makes people turn aside and casually assume that this is just how the world is and always will be.
Meanwhile, it becomes more and more obvious that endless growth and accumulation of wealth involves an exploitation of humans and resources that is destroying the planet. First, in the pandemic, caused by the virus crossing the barrier between humans and other animals, which many scientists believe was caused by interference in the food chain.
This in itself is a consequence of large-scale industrial farming and the wildlife trade, which are boosting the production of deadly pathogens. Second, in the bodies of people in flight from war zones, washing up on the shores of the so-called “developed” nations. Then, in the droughts, floods, wildfires, superstorms, heatwaves, earthquakes and hurricanes, under pressure of climate disaster, as if life on the planet had already reached the end of days.
“We were terrified of this new disease,” said Maheshi Ramasami, senior clinical researcher on the Oxford AstraZeneca team, who recently described their slow realisation of what they were facing. “There was one moment when somebody said to me, ‘Is this what the end of the world feels like?’”
Today, everything is telling us that we cannot go on making all the bad decisions that have been made in the name of progress. Being driven – working harder and harder, making more and more money – is not a virtue or some kind of ethical principle to adhere to, but a sure sign of greed, panic and decay.
Shooting yourself into outer space, as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have raced against each other to do, is a narcissistic sideshow put on by obscenely wealthy men. That they are men is surely key (the last gasp of the phallus and all that). The sky is no limit. “Expansion is everything,” wrote Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, “I would annex the planets if I could.”
Rhodes advised the British government that the export of instruments of violence to Africa in order to secure their investments was a holy duty. He also passed laws to drive black people off their land, limiting the areas where they could then settle. The laws he put in place are considered by many historians to have provided a foundation for what later became apartheid.
Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town was brought down by student protests in one of the most resonant political actions of the times, but the one outside Oriel College in Oxford is still standing. Either way, the organising principle and fantasy – colonising the universe to infinity – endures. “We know there is life on Mars,” the associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission stated in 2015, “because we put it there.”
The process is known as “forward contamination” – you destroy at exactly the same moment that you make something grow. Last March, one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX ships crashed back to earth in Texas. “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” he is reported to have observed a few years previously. The explosion scattered debris over the fragile ecosystem of state and federally protected lands in the Lower Rio Grande valley, a national wildlife refuge that is home to vulnerable species.
It is surely no coincidence that such Faustian pacts are being struck when the fragility of life on earth has never been more glaring. These intrepid space explorers remind me of the stinking rich individuals who try to barter with the boatman on their way to the island of the dead in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass.
Bezos is said to be pouring millions into Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley gene reprogramming company searching for the secrets of eternal life. They think their money will save them, while the bodies of the less privileged crumble and fail (the sums already spent on these space extravaganzas would pay for vaccines across the world for everyone). This much seems clear. If we want to prepare for a better, fairer, life – if we want to prepare for any kind of future at all – we must slow the pace and change our relationship to time.
So what happens if we enter the realm of psychic time, the inner world of the unconscious where the mind, which we can never fully know or master, constantly flickers back and forth between the different moments of a partly remembered, partly repressed life?
This is a vision of human subjectivity that completely scuppers any idea of progress as a forward march through time. The British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, writing in 1949, described a patient who had to go looking for a piece of their past in the future, something they could barely envisage in the present, and which, when it first happened, had been too painful for them to fully live or even contemplate.
Seen in this light, the relentless drive to push ourselves on and on, as if our lives depended on it – killing us, more likely – reveals itself as a doomed effort to bypass inner pain. The first hysterical patient in the history of psychoanalysis – analysed by Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer – fell ill as she sat nursing her dying father, overwhelmed by an inadmissible combination of resentment and sorrow.
Her anger at the suffocating restrictions of her life was a feeling that, as a young Viennese daughter, she could not allow herself, at least consciously, to entertain. Even without a pandemic, it is rare for such agonising ambivalence towards those we love and lose to be spoken. There is a limit to how much we can psychically tolerate. This remains the fundamental insight of psychoanalysis, never more needed than today.
When Boris Johnson slipped under cover of night to visit the memorial wall along the Thames, avoiding daytime mourners, an act generally seen as an insult to all those whom the wall is designed to commemorate; or when he blustered and refused for 18 months to meet the bereaved families of people who have died of Covid-19, he was refusing public accountability, while at the same time making a statement, no doubt unintentionally, about what he could not bear to countenance.
(He has now met and assured them that there will be a public inquiry, for which, somewhat unpromisingly, he will take personal charge himself.) He was also revealing the gulf between official life and the inward life of the mind. Grief brings time shuddering to a halt. As beautifully rendered by poet Denise Riley after the death of her son, it is time lived without its flow. When you are grieving, there is nothing else to do but grieve, as the mind battles against a knowledge that no one ever wishes to own.
Even the term “the bereaved” is misleading, as it suggests a group apart, and something over and done with, as if you can neatly place to one side and sign off on something that feels, for the one afflicted, like an interminable process (which must feel interminable, at least to begin with, if it is ever to be processed at all).
Seen in this light, Johnson’s “boosterism”, his boyish insouciance, appears as a psychological project in itself. What must be avoided at all cost is any glimmer of anguish. Anything can and must be managed. Everything is going to be all right – a mantra of which the irreality has never been more glaring.
All that matters is the endlessly deferred promise of good times ahead. Hence too, I would suggest, the evasions and obfuscations on everything from climate breakdown, to “levelling up”, to social care – for none of which there appears to be anything sufficiently ambitious or well-resourced to be dignified with the word “plan”.
The same goes for the fiasco of “freedom day” on 19 July this year, when most remaining pandemic restrictions were lifted in the UK, a day people in England were exhorted to celebrate. For many in the UK and across a tensely watching world, it felt instead like an occasion for dread. “Needless suffering”, “disastrous myopia” is how observers from New York to the capitals of Europe have described UK government recklessness as case numbers have steadily risen close to their highest levels since then.
Each time, the same pattern. The political reality of the moment is ignored by subduing the difficult forms of mental life that would be needed in order to face it. In one of his most famous statements, Freud described the hysterical patient as suffering “mainly from reminiscences”. From that moment on, psychoanalytic thought has committed itself to understanding how flight from the past freezes people in endlessly repeating time, robbing them of any chance for a life that might be lived with a modicum of freedom.
You have to look back, however agonising, even if it goes against all your deepest impulses, if you are to have the slightest hope of getting to a new stage. This, too, has become more obviously true as people are crossing over from the space of intimacy and privately stored memories to tell their stories in the public domain. When women step up – and it is mainly if not exclusively women – to recount harrowing tales of sexual abuse from bygone years, it is part of a bid to claim the past as the only way of allowing a future to emerge no longer blocked by violent memory.
During lockdown, psychoanalysts reported a flood of untold memories from their patients, as if the physical distance and reduced intimacy of the virtual session, combined with the sheer urgency of the moment, were finally giving them the courage to speak.One glance at today’s culture wars will confirm how central this type of reckoning is to our ability to understand the political urgencies of the present.
What is causing the most trouble, and provoking the strongest rebuttals and hatred, is the fearlessness with which the damaged, disadvantaged and dispossessed are calling up the legacy of the past as their passage to a viable future. Their resolve to combat historic and entrenched injustice is surely exemplary. Most vocal of all has been the anger unleashed by the project to bring down the statues of imperial magnates – beginning with Rhodes – or to acknowledge that colonial Britain was involved in the slave trade at all.
At the time of abolition, British slavers were bought off by the government with compensation worth $17bn. Those funds have massively increased over hundreds of years, leaving the next generations to enjoy levels of prosperity that – not surprisingly and even in the face of incontrovertible scholarship and evidence – they have been reluctant to accept was sourced in ill-gotten gains.
When The Legacies of British Slavery, the University College London database charting this history, first opened in 2016, within days it was flooded in almost equal measure by those wishing to know the truth of the past and those wishing no less fervently to deny it.
One place to begin would be to make room for the complex legacies of the human mind, without the need to push reckoning aside. Past wrongs would not be subject to denial, as if our personal or national identities depended on a pseudo-innocence that absolves us of all crimes. Let the insights of the analytic couch percolate into our public and political lives and, no less crucially, the other way round (we need to acknowledge the weight of historical affliction on our dreams).
In my ideal scenario, social trauma and injustice would not be seen as belonging to another universe from our most wayward fears and desires. Instead, they would both find their place at the negotiating table, as we tentatively begin to draw the outlines of a better world. Meanwhile, taking responsibility for failure in relation to the pandemic would help:
The cry for redress, for official investigations, or simply for public acknowledgment of the avoidable disaster that millions have been living, from the UK to India to Brazil. Though none of this will bring back the thousands who should not have died.
In psychoanalytic thought, failure and fragility are a crucial part of who we are (only by knowing this can we make the best of our lives). Failure, too, has the strongest political resonance today, as many of us now anxiously wait to see if the idea will be allowed, in any meaningful or lasting way, to enter the collective political mind.
Will the collapse of the western powers in Afghanistan be a gamechanger? Or, despite widespread agreement that we have been witnessing a catastrophic failure of policy, will any such recognition turn out to be a fleeting gesture, no more than a pause in the preparations for endless war? Squabbling over whether the US is a “big” or “super” power – according to the UK defence minister, only a country willing to exert global force has a right to the second epithet – is hardly reassuring.
So, how will the pandemic be lived when it is no longer – as we can only hope – at the forefront of people’s consciously lived lives? How will it be remembered? Will it be a tale of vaccine triumph, with no mention of the murderous injustice of unequal global distribution; a story of government negligence and accountability; or an acceptance of the ongoing grief for the dead?
Responding to a suggestion to make the memorial wall permanent, the artist Rachel Whiteread suggested it should be “left just to be and then gradually disappear. To have its quietness.” You cannot, she stated, memorialise something that is still going on; a more permanent memorial will need distance and time.
When we reach that point, the challenge will be to resist the temptation to brush everything under the carpet, as if the best hope for the future were to go back to normal and blithely continue with matters as they were before: push death aside, treat swaths of the Earth’s inhabitants as dispensable, drive the planet to its end. On the other hand, a world that makes room for memory and justice would be something else. There is still everything to play for.
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