“It’s war on the virus”. “War”, this was the quilting point in the address given by the President of the French Republic on Monday, March 16 at 8 p.m., just prior to the decision of confinement. From the point of view informed by scientific knowledge, it lagged fifteen days behind the real, but the possibility for the French to subjectivate this real had to be taken into account. The day before, in market places, streets and parks they gave themselves over to a bacchanal of contacts, as if nothing had changed. The routine of habits is strong and protects from incursions of the real. We can be heroic without knowing it.

Following this quilting point, “war”, I read again Lacan’s paper, British Psychiatry and the War.[1] Especially as the British solution, newly presented by the British PM, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, born in New York in 1964 into one of the great families of the cosmopolitan, English aristocracy – he is a descendent of George II – was radically different from that of the other European States. He decided on a “herd immunity” for the population, destined to avoid that “everyone end up having it very quickly, which would submerge the NHS” as declared by Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government. If we add that the NHS is not itself in the best of health since the Thatcher era, one can qualify this decision as Darwinian and realistic, given the paucity of available means. But we can also take interest in it according to the scientific method and make use of it as a “crucial experiment” according to Bacon, even if criticism of this concept, emblem of classical empiricism from Bacon to Popper, was definitively rolled out by Pierre Duhem who wrote:  “the truth of a physical theory is not decided by heads or tails but the physicist is never sure he has exhausted all the imaginable assumptions.”[2]

We find ourselves in the face of a difference in the English and French discourses; empiricism versus formalism: Darwinism versus Kantian universality. This difference repeats itself in various fields of the French and English master’s discourse:  epistemological, ethical, clinical and political.

Lacan’s paper, British psychiatry and the War, is doubly essential since it begins by unfolding the difference between the French and English position during WWII: “unreality” on the French side, “intrepidness and realism” on the side of the English. After this comparison, the paper examines with precision the clinical work of two English psychoanalysts, Bion and Rickmann. Lacan evokes the necessity of “totally mobilizing the Nation’s forces”, a necessity that prevails for the Coronavirus as well, and the clinical solutions that Bion and Rickmann invented to integrate subjects little inclined to commit themselves to it. He touts “the creative flame” that shines forth in the article they later published, “Intra-Group Tensions in Therapy. Their Study as the Task of the Group”, which Lacan translates: “Les tensions intérieures au groupe dans la thérapeutique. Leur étude proposée comme tâche au groupe”. He says he finds there “the miraculous feeling of the initial stages of the Freudian elaboration: that of finding in the very impasse of a situation the vital force of an intervention.”

So, this Coronavirus, what is it showing us?

On the English side there is little change, even if, in watching the evolution of political discourses since the blaring announcement of “herd immunization” we are witnessing a weakening, even an about-turn, of public authorities confronted with the disagreement of part of public opinion. And on the French side?

Since the end of February when measures were taken in Italy to contain the virus, several steps have been made in the face of the eruption of this piece of real that is the Coronavirus. Bringing it back to what is already known, and thereby banalizing it, the flu. Then, little by little, differentiating it from the flu, namely confronting the unknown, but while clinging to our modes of enjoyment. Perplexity, fear, time for not understanding, for lack of an instant of seeing. The moment of concluding came with this signifier war and the measures of confinement that wipe the slate clean of our modes of enjoyment.  This is when the real imposed itself as such.  It imposed itself indirectly via the measures of defense acted by government.

It is clear that the real does not constitute a limit: speaking-beings need interdiction to treat it. The real, because it is of an aleatory order (random) is never enough to create a limit for speaking-beings. It can kill them, but death is not a limit that can be lived. The law is necessary. Why? I will posit, saying that the law, founded on an activation of the function of interdiction, is the condition of desire. Desire is, strictly speaking, vital to the speaking-being. It is, therefore, the only tool that the speaking bodies have at their disposal to treat the real. I qualify it as a tool because the way we make use of it depends on the sinthome of each of us. It results in an infinite number of ways of making, or not making, use of it, to bend without breaking. It is a choice for each of us: to change our way of functioning, shifting, postponing: as for example, the WAP Council’s decision to postpone the Congress scheduled for April until December. Or, at a more modest level, to write a short paper on the coronavirus about which nothing is known! In short, it’s about resourcing desire in so far as it implicates loss as its operational mode, but not all-loss, since it brings with it invention and thereby unprecedented knowledge.


Translated by Julia Richards


[1] Jacques Lacan, British Psychiatry and the War, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, Issue 33, London Society of the New Lacanian School (NLS), 2019.

[2] Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, Chapter VI, “The Structure of Physical Theory”, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1991 for the paperback version.