Corona-Time Notes: The Virus of Horror

We are sharing a recent thought piece from our friend Dr Yossi Triest reflecting on the time of Coronavirus.

This paper concerns the psychological implications of this ‘plague’, focusing on Covid-19’s psychic counterpart – “the virus of horror,” with its potential harm and possible consequences regarding the world of contemporary psychotherapy.

Thank you to Yossi for allowing us to share this.

“The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the madness and the horror of blood. […] But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. […] A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.”
(Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”)

Within a remarkably short amount of time, the “virus” which seems to have erupted from the ‘real,’ riding with the horsemen of the apocalypse of the return of the repressed, has been able to chase humanity away from the open air of real life and into the confines of Zoom and unconscious phantasy. The plague indeed strikes in reality, but it spreads horror mostly through its representation in our minds. David Grossman put it very aptly in a column published in Haaretz: “something about this plague’s facelessness, its violent void, seems to threaten to suck in our entire being, which suddenly appears so fragile and helpless.”

As it is so indescribable and incorporeal, one must invent a face for this plague in one’s imagination. The role of the monstrous creatures that served to illustrate the “black death” back in the 14th century,[1] as well as that of contemporary dystopian television series and science-fiction novels, has been subsumed by a ‘scientific’ microscopic photograph of the virus in cheerful colors – as if the aesthetic symmetry of its golden crowns is enough to cast it back into the unconscious from whence it came – but all in vain. Unconscious horror nevertheless seeps into “the place where we live” – not because something that humanity had never thought possible has come to pass, on the contrary, precisely because reality caught up to what humanity has always imagined was going to happen. There is nothing like the realization of catastrophic fantasy in reality – the anxiety about a future “breakdown” that had “already happened”, as Donald Winnicott put it – for tearing down the membrane separating the inner world and external reality and giving rise to textbook collective trauma.

This paper concerns, therefore, the psychological implications of this plague, focusing on Covid-19’s psychic counterpart – “the virus of horror,” with its potential harm and possible consequences regarding the world of contemporary psychotherapy.

The Virus of Horror

The workings of the “virus of horror” can be described (in a manner that is almost analogous to how the virus operates within the living cell) as generating a unique anxiety, whose roots run deep in our individual and collective unconscious – the horror of the uncanny (Freud, 1919).[2] This “virus,” this ultimate other, familiar-alien-stranger, seeing but unseen, which was suddenly resurrected (“as the ghosts […] which awoke to new life as soon as they tasted blood” [Freud, 1900, p. 553]),[3] precisely simulates the primal nature of the uncanny anxiety described by Freud when it overtakes a ‘living cell,’ enslaves it and uses it to multiply. The four horsemen of the apocalypse serving this “virus of horror” are: 1. The unstoppable invasiveness it is attributed with; 2. The fact that viruses are viewed as part-animate-part-inanimate, a characteristic mentioned by Freud as one of the key causes of uncanny horror; 3. Its ability to enforce a “prohibition on touch” (“social distancing”) – a course of action which, though vital in a practical sense, disrupts the most primary defence mechanism of any baby who seeks refuge in its mother’s lap; and 4. The message of death it delivers to our doorstep (while doing away with our ability to deny it).

The virus’ psychological attack takes place in several stages. First, it hinders the most intuitive and primal fight/flight response, which leads a mass of people under threat to come together in an attempt to keep evil outside and find solace (as illusory as it may be) in the safe embrace of the collective. The countless WhatsApp groups that have been set up – as well as their predominating excessive manic-anxious-supportive discourse – can attest to the extent to which the closure of public space, which is taken all too much for granted under normal circumstances, has created a void that we are desperately trying to fill. This is because, alongside the informed application of the ‘social distancing’ policy, we are witnessing the potential emergence of a primordial shadow-version, denied and repressed, in which humanity appears as a herd scattered every-which-way by the threat of a predator while leaving its “weak ones” behind (those who tested positive, the elderly, those reported dead). This may have marked the coining of a new meaning in the dictionary of the unconscious, under “Individual:” “the one who is devoured.”

Then we are hit by the hardest blow of all: this threat chases everyone into their own homes-castles, only to discover, to their horror, that the enemy is actually inside… it might have already covertly taken over our ‘innocent’ children, sending them, as a fifth column, to methodically eliminate parents and grandparents – a tragedy which sounds like a sequel to Sophocles. And to make matters even worse, it turns out that the “virus of horror” does not stop at the boundary of the skin, but penetrates into the individual as well. Because a single, inevitable breath of oxygen in a viral environment is enough to turn us into the next serial victim of the “bad object” (the virus) – and the (inevitable) exhalation that follows is enough to find out that, through some demonic machination, we ourselves have become the “bad object.” As such splitting mechanisms collapse, one can no longer evade the two primary anxieties Melanie Klein attributes human being with: the anxiety that our hatred will destroy our loved ones and, even more tragically, Donald Fairbairn’s version – the anxiety that our love will destroy our loved ones.[4]

Surprisingly, the very prohibition on touch is enough to make one feel “infected.” Confinement is enough to make one feel alone and “non-existent.” The very possibility that the “good object” will instantly turn into the “bad object” is enough to challenge the ability to tell good from evil, victim from perpetrator, subject from object. And the fact that the virus’ unbiased affliction ignores (at least apparently) differences of religion, race, sex, nationality or socio-economic status is enough to unravel our mental grasp (this may not be entirely bad) on the formal and informal social structures that constitute personal and collective identity and to bring us face to face with annihilation anxiety – which may be the most difficult anxiety to bear.

Save, perhaps, for the encounter with death – which Freud believed was unrepresentable in the unconscious (except as the death of another person) – whose sudden and terrifying appearance in the masquerade (!) which concludes Edgar Allan Poe’s allegory is an apt illustration of the traumatic eruption of the “real.”

Alive on the dance floor are “arabesque figures […] delirious fancies […] much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” And then comes one who “had gone so far as to assume [with appalling distaste] the type of the Red Death” – and it is only when he kills the prince himself (death does not distinguish between master and slave), that the revellers “gasped in unutterable horror:” the impostor was no impostor but death itself! “The grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, [were discovered to be] untenanted by any tangible form.” (Poe, The Masque of the Red Death).

Post-Corona Psychotherapy

Where psychic devastation has occurred, there is also an opportunity for reparation. Most of us will “manage” – but our consultation rooms will witness the arrival of the refugees from this masquerade. Certainly, those of them who will not simply let everything that happened meaninglessly pass them by. Generation after generation, they come knocking on the doors of psychotherapy: the hysterical patient of the late 19th century and the obsessive compulsive patient, followed by the borderline patient and the narcissist and recently the internally ‘dead’ and ‘empty’ patient of the ‘anything goes’ generation… and now we will see the post-Corona patient, a new, diffuse subject who lives online – who can no longer be reduced to their mere physicality – and who cannot ignore everything that this plague has uncovered.

We will see those who have experienced the oppression and impoverishment forced on them by the confinement and were somewhat shocked to discover that they had spent their entire lives in confinement; those who had celebrated the breached boundaries of virtual life and now realize that they always had a tendency to become infected with undifferentiated ‘viral’ likes, which blurred their identity as well; those who have found out that their relentless pursuit of a professional career out in the world was nothing but a narcissistic addiction to success, which suddenly feels empty; those for whom being forced to stay at home has uncovered an overwhelming dependency and a constant sense of suffocation in their intimate relationships; those for whom ‘the entire world grinding to a halt’ was the very first moment of being free of malignant envy of ‘just about anyone;’ and those for whom speeding down an empty highway has (shamefully) brought them face to face with a grandiose self that cried out with glee – “make way for my royal highness;” and those who realized that the mask they put on their face had always been there – naturally, when it fell off; and were shocked to see themselves looking for (real and imaginary) ways to arm themselves, due to a deep and archaic anxiety fantasy by which, when the world runs out of food, they will have to protect their families from cannibal man-hunters until – with a slight delay and to their unmitigated horror – they realize that they do not necessarily envision themselves on the side of the hunted…

And all of us together – both therapists and patients – the technologically challenged and those who feel most at home online, will have to relearn the foundations of psychotherapy – which was never a stranger to prohibitions on touch – in order to find a way to be together and apart in virtual intermediary space – perhaps like those orchestra musicians who play intricate classical pieces, with each standing on their own balcony; or perhaps, like my three-year-old granddaughter, who made an effort to climb up the improvised slide her parents had built for her in their living room, at the other end of the Zoom, as she reached out her hand to me, from many miles away, shouting “grandpa, grandpa, give me a hand – help me climb against the wind.”

Yossi Triest
March, 2020; Tel Aviv

Josef (Yossi) Triest (PhD). Training Psychanalyst (IPS; IPA) and Clinical Psychologist; Tel Aviv University.

[1] Consider, for example, the painting made by Matthias Grünewald for the chapel of the hospital for plague and leprosy patients in Colmar.

[2] Freud, S. (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 217-256

[3] Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IV (1900): The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part), ix-627.

[4] Guntrip, H. (1969). Schizoid Phenomena, Object-Relations, and the Self. New York: International University Press.

Image credit: Harry Clarke (1919). Detail from the illustration for “The Masque of the Red Death”.

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