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Psychoanalytic Darkness and Reflections on the Coronavirus

(DAN WANSCHURA / INTERLOCHEN PUBLIC RADIO)

“The ‘viral’ aspect of the Coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate effect on the aged similarly suggests a Jungian reading of systemic breakdown and a lurch towards either symbolic or literal death.”

It is clear that the Coronavirus evokes deep responses from the psyche. Social media has become an infinitely extending outpouring of emotion, alternating between exasperated torment and manic, forced optimism. Emotional displacement and unconscious defenses are evoked by the threat of imminent death, forced isolation, and systemic collapse. Taking a view of this crisis through psychoanalysis and depth psychology, we can gain insight into the human condition—grappling with what is evoked by the pandemic and analyzing what might be behind the psychological eruptions we are faced with. In this article, I will be drawing on the work of Lacanian and Jungian analytical approaches in order to try to bring some light to the experience of the Coronavirus and why it impacts us so deeply. This, however, will not be an instance of psychotherapeutic self-help and trite “positive thinking to get you through the crisis” but an invitation to look unflinchingly at what we might be called to face within ourselves and our social environment as a result of this pandemic. To begin with, I will be drawing on some theory around horror and disturbance by looking at the concept of the “abject” in the work of Julia Kristeva, as how this might be evoked by the impact of the Coronavirus.  

Abject Horror

The psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers of Horror describes the abject as being the unconscious material within the psyche that is expelled in order for an individual to gain a clear sense of self. Drawing not only on Jacques Lacan’s work but also on the work of Melanie Klein (among other figures of psychoanalysis), Kristeva saw the expulsion (e.g. abjection) of this raw psychic material as being part of the way in which the individual psyche formed a coherent sense of what was self and what was “other.” This constituted a primal stage of developing a sense of individuality, a parsing of oneself from the undifferentiated “Real,” a process which I have also described in a previous article

This abjected, expelled psychic material is—first of all—psychologically projected onto physical objects which are evacuated from the body: for instance, vomit, feces, and other assorted bodily functions. These expulsions do not rid the psyche of the material totally but create the psychic distance, or dividing line between “Self” and abjected “non-self” within the psyche of the individual. Kristeva observed that this abject material can also be projected onto other people within the community, rather than just our own physical expulsions: Criminals, lepers, psychotics, immigrants, etc. can all become representatives of the abject to us. As a society, we often see the impact of this psychic projection playing out politically; witness the collective, systemic, and personal anxiety that these figures of the abject represent to those whose identities are more firmly situated within “the system.” They often evoke the creeping feeling that these populations will cause a breakdown of the entire structure of society should they not be checked and kept at a distance (or “quarantined”) in some way. 

The Leftist fantasy of festering neo-Nazi incels stewing incandescently within their mothers’ basements is just as much an image of the abject as the Rightist fantasy of Islamic sleeper cells lurking in their suburban neighborhoods.

Lest smug self-satisfaction set in for the reader on account of political position, please observe that this need to project and abject is not exclusive to the political psychology of either the Right or Left: The Leftist fantasy of festering neo-Nazi incels stewing incandescently within their mothers’ basements is just as much an image of the abject as the Rightist fantasy of Islamic sleeper cells lurking in their suburban neighborhoods. The general formula, apparent in both cases, is that of a discordant material that needs to be ejected from the social body to maintain the coherence of the social order. 

In similar fashion, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously described the disturbing material of the “Real” as re-entering into the psyche of the individual through the intrusion of what was called the objet petit a. This objet is an image that becomes a symbolic representation of the void of the Real, the raw psychic matter which our otherwise encompassing system of words and signifiers fail to capture. This intruding thing is symbolic of our alienation: a cover for the gaps and emptiness where our alienated consciousness fails to hold. This emptiness continuously and irrevocably forces its way back into our consciousness and obsesses over our imagination becoming a figure of terror and threat, disturbance, and eroticism. 

The Coronavirus

The Coronavirus—like the objet petit a or the abject—is lurking out there, symbolized in the world around us. However, this external threat is located no longer within the exotic personage of the terrorist or leper but, instead, within those we desperately avoid at the supermarket, the absent-minded who do not maintain social distancing in the park, or irresponsible neighbors who bring their potentially plague-ridden friends around in defiance of curfew measures. The proximity of this disturbance has become claustrophobically close. Normal has now become the abject; we distance ourselves from our neighbor, from the supermarket, from restaurants—in order to protect and maintain our systemic functioning. These otherwise normal figures of everyday life become laden with eerie threat and disturbance. They reveal the fragile state of our personal psychic systems, which risk breakdown or face psychotic collapse should the Real or abject emerge and overwhelm our psychic space. Likewise, it displays the fragility of our political and symbolic systems, which have no comprehensive answer, could face economic collapse, and have to restructure to an immense degree. Others are drawn to conspiracy motifs as themes to express this state of fragile psychodynamics, and they proclaim the virus a hoax. Instead, the returning Real finds its symbolic analog in fantasies of forced injections, Microsoft sponsored microchip insertion, and poisonous vaccinations. All across the board, the thematic structure emerging from this virus reveals that our psychic stability is at a crisis point, facing overwhelm from the return of the repressed. The yawning chasm of the Real is close enough to touch, both on the personal and the societal level. We are merely one short step from dissolving into the abyss; any unwanted injection,  viral infection, unprocessed psychic material could be fatal.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Coronavirus is that—very much like the Lacanian Real, as well as being symbolized within the other person—it also potentially lurks symptomless within ourselves. Therefore, the line between Self and alien otherness is blurred. We become disturbing and potentially threatening, abject beings, potential causes of “collapse” of the society. This is true whether we show visible signs or not. This is potentially one of the most psychologically destabilizing aspects of the virus: It presents us with the option of maintaining a suspicious, simulated normalcy. In this case, many will face only mild symptoms, a zombie skeleton economy carries on as usual, and many of us are still able to work. People take part in exercise classes, Zoom meetings, and psychotherapy sessions online. Yet, this hyper-alienating simulation of normalcy is far too obviously neurotic to conceal the fact of our fragility and closeness to chaos, systemic breakdown, and death. 

Lacanian psychoanalysis speaks of the state of alienation that the individual has to enter into in forming a sense of egoic self that is understandable to others. From the raw unalienated Real of primordial experience, a being emerges first as an imaginary sense of united individuality. Later, it enters into the shared matrix of language, experiencing alienation as a result of the entry into the symbolic framework that constitutes a culture. With the intrusion of the Coronavirus and the obviously thin line that separates the integrity of “the system” from chaos, the flimsy symbolic edifice, which constitutes the individual (and the fact of our alienation), is exposed as never before in our generation. The feeling is of vertigo, dizziness before the void.  

The Accursed Share

The work of Georges Bataille was an inspiration for both Lacan and Kristeva in their theorizing on the abject and the objet petit a. A philosopher and transpersonal thinker expressing a dark and often scatalogically pornographic mysticism in his work, Bataille presents an almost unreasonably intense mixture of proto-postmodernism, inverted Catholicism (harnessing the concept of sin as a mode of accessing spiritual gnosis), and what could be seen as a Western analog to some transgressive Tantric traditions. For Bataille, his own analogous concept to the objet petit a was what he named the “accursed share.” This reflected his theory of economic structures built upon a model of excess, rather than scarcity. The “accursed share” in an economic or systemic sense was an excess of energy which any system (psychological, social, or otherwise) would be unable to fully contain within its delineated boundaries. Therefore, it had, instead, to be channeled into some form of dissipative expenditure. Failing this, this accursed energetic excess would overload and destabilize the established order, causing a devastating collapse.

For Bataille, the archetypal demonstration of this attempt to rid a system of the accursed share through energetic expenditure was the sacrifice of captives in Aztec culture: the human sacrifice that was hypothesized to be necessary in order to cause the sun to rise. 

In experiencing the Coronavirus, we are also faced with themes of excess, sacrifice and the threat of systemic collapse. Most striking have been the calls from some quarters to simply allow the virus to run through the populace in order to permit the economy to continue running as usual—or, somewhat more optimistically, to attempt to achieve herd immunity. What this amounts to is, in effect, a sacrifice of the elderly and frail, those among us who are most at risk, in order to maintain systemic functioning. In this mode of thinking—much like the hypothesized Aztecs of Bataille’s work—we are told that our systemic harmony rests on the expenditure of an excess population. We are instructed that we must sacrifice our old and our vulnerable on the ziggurat of neoliberalism in order to allow the sun to rise the next morning. 

The Black Sun and Putrefecatio

The name “Corona” draws many archetypal associations from the collective psyche (some around the association with crown have been described by the transpersonal psychologist Les Lancaster. As well as crown, the name corona refers the outermost layer of atmosphere circling the Sun, and, fittingly, the biological form of the virus seems to emit rays of matter out towards the body of its host. Archetypal psychologist and Jungian psychologist Stanton Marlan compares the psychic function of the archetype of the “black sun” to that of Lacan’s objet petit a: a symbol of un-integratable psychic material, a representation of the parts of the psyche that cannot be contained within one’s established psychic economy. 

Marlan proposes the black sun archetype as being essentially the deconstructive counterpart to the ordering and organizing aspects of the Psyche, with these ordering functions being represented by the archetype of the Self: the organizing principle  described by Jungian Analysts (such as Edward Edinger in the book Ego and Archetype). Marlan’s description of experiencing the black sun archetype is that of the disturbing and disintegrative psychological encounter with something that cannot be imbibed nor understood. It is a disturbing otherness, which causes the established psychic system to become destabilized or even collapse—frustrating any attempt to contain it. This causes what Jungian theory names individuation. However, in a very different and opposite manner to that of the internal integration and organization which the archetype of the Self heralds, it is individuation by differentiation: by alienation, by encountering that which is utterly other to the order or the system. 

It is not difficult to understand how this dark Corona, or black sun, which our lives currently orbit around, could serve the psychologically dissolving and anti-systemic, individuating function which Marlan ascribes to the archetype of the black sun. The established psychic systems of individuals (the small-scale constellations which constitute families and couples in isolation) and the wider cultural systems such as the economy and centralized health services are all disturbed. And we collectively face “black sun” moments of dissolving otherness throughout almost every layer of society. The excluded injects itself into our psyches like a forced vaccination. We are being faced with something, which we are unable to insert within the bounds of our pre-existing systems, and instead are forced to accept breakdown and the change of old structures that provided us with security—all outside of our conscious control. 

The “viral” aspect of the Coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate effect on the aged similarly suggests a Jungian reading of systemic breakdown and a lurch towards either symbolic or literal death. Within the alchemical theories integrated within Jungian psychology (as Edinger articulates in Anatomy of the Psyche), disease—when it appears as a symbol within the psyche—relates to the process of putrefecatio: putrefaction. Analytic psychology views alchemy as a process in which the properties of inner psychic contents and operations are projected onto appropriate external objects. The alchemical stage of putrefecatio refers to the breakdown of the central substance in the external alchemical process: This is analogous to the breakdown of the central conscious principle (the established ego) within the internal organization of the psyche. Again, we are faced with images of dissolution and breakdown of the old, decay, and rot. 

At this stage, it can be more useful to let ourselves encounter the void, be aware of what it is we abject and what this evokes in us and use this to fundamentally reorganize both our individual selves and, hopefully, our wider systems.

Conclusion

Systemic breakdown (and the attempts to avoid it) permeate our individual and collective psychic structures during this current crisis. Although many well-meaning psychotherapists, self-help gurus, politicians, and social commentators are talking about the way in which the world will gloriously reshape itself after the pandemic, less attention seems to have been paid to the experiences of breakdown, neurotic resistance to breakdown, dissolution, paranoia, and terror that this crisis brings, as well as the reasons why these might be emerging. Premature attempts to reconstruct ourselves and our systems can lead to an interruption in a necessary process and to more frustration, anxiety, and neurosis—as well as unnecessary risks—rather than phoenix-like resurrection. At this stage, it can be more useful to let ourselves encounter the void. We can be aware of what it is we abject (and what this evokes in us) and use this to fundamentally reorganize both our individual selves and, hopefully, our wider systems. This is, of course, far more terrifying, as it evokes our unconscious fears of death, madness, and breakdown. Allowing ourselves to stay with—rather than avoid—these fears evoked by experiences of dissolution do not discount the importance of an ordering principle eventually regaining ascendency in the psyche. However, attempts to hold onto the security of the known order in the face of inevitable alterations can be self-defeating. We must encounter the black sun, the Real, and the abject at this moment. And, we must acknowledge the change this brings through an encounter with something utterly beyond our control before we can regain any sense of order, individually, politically, or otherwise.

Nick Opyrchal is a psychotherapist in private practice. For his M.A., he researched the intersection between Lacanian and transpersonal perspectives in psychotherapy. His current doctoral work investigates the intersection of identity politics and the transpersonal within psychotherapy. 

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David George
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David George

Fascinating essay; I’m not going to pretend I understood all of it Nicholas, I’ll persist though.
It may be relevant to note that people’s dreams have altered since the pandemic and associated lockdown. Dreams are more vivid with recurring , frightening and unresolved dilemmas. A healing response to the confrontation with the abyss?
My wife has had this and it’s becoming recognised as a genuine phenomena and probably related to the unraveling of certainty, the unknown, you describe.

Nicholas Opyrchal
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Nicholas Opyrchal

Thank you David I really appreciate that. Absolutely I have noticed many changes to people’s dreams during this time.Last night for instance I had the dream of a bat finding its way into my home, although it was benign. I imagine this symbol is very much influenced by the experience of the virus, the stories of its origin and some of these musings around the intrusion of the other into one’s consciousness. Best wishes, Nick

D Iversen
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D Iversen

I’m not sure this hangs together, the real is not clearly distinguished from the symbolic here. That older people are more affected by the virus is a raw fact, not a psychic fact. It may have psychic impact, but I don’t see it in the article, other than the writer’s own projection of “death” and “chaos” symbolism. Likewise, where are the constellated symbols of the “horror” to which the writer refers?

Nicholas Opyrchal
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Nicholas Opyrchal

Thank you for your comments, the point I was making with Kristevas abjected others, Lacan’s petit a and Stanton’s black sun is that they are symbolic representations of the Real. These symbols of the Real are the figures of horror referred to in the beginning of the article. My aim was to show that with the advent of coronavirus the formerly everyday situations around us become these loaded, threatening symbols, and we can even become them to ourselves on account of how clandestine the infection is. Perhaps that was not made clear enough but thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

Nicholas Opyrchal
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Nicholas Opyrchal

This is the ‘Real’ in the Lacanian sense of an ‘abyssal emptiness of unsymbolisable psychic material’ rather than the everyday usage of the word.