If Gabriel García Márquez addresses love in the time of cholera, could there also be hate in the time of coronavirus? With coronavirus, hate also arrives. A hate that is born of fear. A hatred in our relationship to others who have become dangerous for us; a hatred in our relationship to the State and the decisions that it takes, that it imposes. The collective good is not experienced as what is good for oneself. Sometimes our own good excludes the good of others. Love for one’s neighbour wavers and is even replaced by a fear of our neighbour.

A pandemic insinuates itself into the body, while at the same time attacking a society. At the end of the 19th century Rudolf Virchow expressed this in a striking and suggestive way, saying that a pandemic is a social phenomenon which has some medical aspects.[1] To which one should surely add subjective phenomena such as hate and also anxiety. An epidemic is not only the impact of the virus on life. It also reveals forces of death within life, a tendency towards death present in life. A secret tendency, intimate, hidden, insidious, that acts unbeknown to the individual, against their best interest, against the interests of others; sometimes leading to a hatred of others, and even, ultimately to destructiveness.

Is this not what the pandemic, which has struck us all and continues on its course, shows? One pandemic can hide another: the viral pandemic is mirrored by a pandemic of hatred towards others that raises the question of individual responsibility. If the fight against the pandemic is a fight for life, this does not prevent the fact that a process of death is at the very heart of this fight. A process of hate: hate to save oneself, to defend life, one’s own life. These contradictory motions mingle, crystalising in ambivalence. Ambivalence is the simultaneous coexistence of contrary incompatible forces: confidence and diffidence, fear and defiance, solidarity and hate. Others become a danger to oneself. Even children become potentially threatening for older generations, for those who are more fragile, thus leading to an unprecedented intergenerational crisis. All these tensions take shape in hate. Or, to be more exact, reveal the hate in each of us. Which leads to the question of knowing what could be its subjective origin? Does hate stem from fear, from anxiety, from a fundamental distress from which mankind tries to save itself through hate?   There lies a fundamental contradiction – or more precisely a paradox of hate – between its roots and its consequences: humans save themselves through hatred. Freud points to this paradox in his response to Einstein in 1932, regarding the question Why War? : “The organism preserves its own life, so to say, by destroying an extraneous one”.[2]

However, from what does humankind preserve itself by turning against others? What threat can lead to a hatred of others? Is it in actual fact really a fear of others? Or is it rather a fear of oneself, a fear of something within oneself? An unresolved anxiety, with no resolution other than hate. There is paradoxically something vital in hate, even if it is a tendency that goes against life.

What can be done to come out of this anxiety, out of this hate? So that something new can emerge beyond the generalised crisis; the consequences of which are both intimate and collective, subjective and political. Will democracy reclaim its rights, be renewed, find new foundations? Or, on the contrary, will we move towards a repetition of the worst?

Is there always a risk that a pandemic will open the way to a totalitarian system? Already in L’état de siege Camus demonstrated to what extent an epidemic runs the risk of moving towards a totalitarian regime; silently, insidiously, with the consent of all, on the basis of fear.[3] Fear feeds servitude: a voluntary servitude that can take root, undetected. A servitude doubled with distrust. Fear of the virus goes hand in hand with a fear of others. Not a fear of strangers, but a fear of those close to us. Distrust towards others becomes generalised. What will be the result for borders, for social links, for family connections, for the place of children? What will be the consequence for love? What will be the consequence for the self, and for society?

But the worst is not always a certainty! In Chinese etymology the word for crisis has a double meaning, between danger and opportunity. How, beyond the crisis, can a place be given back to life – life, in the sense of the whole of the forces that resist death? If there is a death that signals the end of life, there is also death that underpins life. There is a paradoxical connection between death and freedom. As Montaigne says so eloquently: “We do not know where death awaits us; so let us wait for it everywhere. To practise death is to practice freedom”.[4] The outcome can thus be surprising: an outcome that can make use of an impasse to create something new, which no doubt supposes inventing what is not yet known.

Translation by Kirsten Ellerby

Edited by Grace Warren

*Originally published as Ansermet F. La haine au temps du coronavirus, Le Temps, 11.10.2021.

[1] See: Waitzkin, H. (1981) ‘The Social Origins of Illness: A Neglected History’, International Journal of Health Services, 11(1), pp. 77–103. doi:10.2190/5CDV-P4FE-Y6HN-JACD.

[2] Freud, S. (1933b). ‘Why War?’ S.E., 22: 195-218. London: Hogarth. p. 211.

[3] Camus, A. (1948 [1998]) L’état de siège. Paris: Gallimard, “Folio théâtre”.

[4] Montaigne, M. ‘To philosophize is to learn to die’ in The Complete Essays, book I, chap. XX, Trans. M. A. Screech, London: Penguin Classics, 1991, p. 96.