Question: what do you make of the contradictory hullabaloo that’s been going on for a few years in China?

Lacan: I’ve been waiting, but I don’t hope for anything.[1]


We must recognize that Lacan reached the point at which being open to the contingent did not give rise to any hope. The real, this concept to which he dedicated his last years without backing away from the consequences, was his response to the subversion introduced by Freud: “What I call the real… I invented, because it imposed itself on me… the real is my symptomatic response… The true real implies the absence of law.”[2]

But human beings, including Lacanians, continue to maintain hope. That which allows us to project ourselves into a future full of appointments and commitments (personal and institutional), without imagining that it is only a montage that could collapse like a house of cards. Aware though we are that we are living in a world of semblants that conceal the existence of the real, we nevertheless resort to a sort of denegation: we know it, but we do not believe it.

“What a crazy idea!” – exclaimed the Austrian Stefan Zweig when talking to his Belgian colleagues a few days before the declaration of the First World War. “You can hang me from this lamppost if the Germans enter Belgium!” Even now – he says in his memoirs – I am grateful to my friends for not taking me at my word.[3] The lucidity of a man like Zweig was not sufficient to conceive the unthinkable that war was part of the representations in play in the summer of 1914.

A few years later many Jews called to the appointment that would take them to the “labour camps” attended voluntarily because they found incredible the rumours about the Nazi will to extermination. Primo Levi, in his book If This Is a Man tells us how he arrived in Auschwitz exhausted and thirsty after the long train journey. He attempted to pluck an icicle from the ice at hand only for a guard to brutally snatch it away.

“Warum?” (“Why?”), the prisoner asks. “Hier ist kein warum” (“Here there is no why”), answers the guard. This anecdote shows us that there is nothing more devastating than a space without whys. To abolish questions is to confront the subject with the non-meaning of the real, without any defence. The eradication of why launches the path of subjective destruction even before touching the body.

That a global epidemic can put a stop to the arrogant machinery of our time is more unlikely even than war, which does not mean that it is more damaging.

Current events are precipitated with the force of a triggering. The scenario that was inconceivable yesterday is the one into which we are thrown today. Like a bad dream we have become part of the images from Wuhan that on the screen seemed so distant to us. Those “others” who barely awoke a slight feeling of compassion are already “us”. Now it is the images of our streets and our hospitals that are broadcast to the world. Poetic justice, say those who see the threat in the West as a well-deserved lesson. But, let’s not forget that the real of science (the virus) has no meaning, let alone justice.

There are facts so strange that they can only be imagined as science fiction. Today one of those events has broken into the life of EVERYONE (this is the most cinematic), disrupting our habits and turning the always illusory construction of our world upside down.

Unlike what happened to Primo Levi, we are allowed to ask questions. And after such an irruption of the unexpected, we see a proliferation of all kinds of responses, closer to subjective fiction than to the knowledge of science. It seems that until now nobody knows how this new virus is going to “behave” (curious euphemism). It is the lack of knowledge that calls for multiple explanations, some of which try to explain the cause with conspiracy theories, others using humour as a way to react to the absurd. These are defences that complement each other and allow us to do something extraordinary: quickly to adjust to the initially inconceivable.

We go from denial to adaptation without solution of continuity, but it is not certain that this prepares us to take another position in the face of existence, the one that Lacan arrived at when he realised that the cause is lost because the Other does not exist, except in the transference.

The new virus is a real with a law on which science acts in order to extract knowledge. This is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient because it leaves out that other virus that turned us into speaking beings, the one that only psychoanalysis deals with.


Translated By Roger Litten

[1] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XXIII, The Sinthome, Polity, 2016, p. 118.

[2] Ibid., p. 113.

[3] Zweig, S., The World of Yesterday, Pushkin Press, 2011.