An elaboration on the essay by Jeannne Wolff Bernstein, “The Spanish Flu, Covid-19 and Sigmund Freud – What can we learn from history?”(1)
There is the real of the virus, an element that is at once dangerous and abstract, its nature as something unknown, untranslatable. But acknowledging this is to already have begun to overcome that abstraction. Giving a name to things organizes them into a recognizable shape, a palpable world in which the subject is able to make calculations.
These are the sober weapons of language, the subject’s support: sobriety, the efficacy in modesty. Destruction of the physical and disdain for the metaphor is both ineffective and crude.
For example, war is a precise metaphor that designates the inability to coexist: only one or the other can remain. It is the worst fate of the social bond. And there is no war between animals, or between stars. If an animal devours the other, it is not in the role of a warrior. There is no pertinence to applying the war metaphor in relation to the virus that has become a pandemic in our days.
Because not all that threatens our physical integrity is “at war” with us. A volcano that erupts is not a declaration of war on the part of nature. This used to exasperate Spinoza, in his Ethic denouncing “finalism”. (2)
The virus may be an element exterior to the discourse, but the way we respond to that interference is certainly within our sphere of responsibility.
Trauma and the real are both defined by the impossibility of translation. Freud defined trauma as the untranslatable excess and Lacan’s definition of the real is based on the “impossible translation” – that which cannot be written. To establish what is impossible is always fundamental for the subject. To delineate what is impossible to translate mobilizes the resources of language – invention, rhetoric, creativity of detour and metaphor – from which the subject emerges as an effect.
In ethics this is called “the acknowledgement”, a signifier that comes from Artistotle’s Poetics: his ἀναγνώρισις – anagnorisis – and which Freud refers to as the acceptance of tragedy. It is not an act of submission, because the acknowledgement of truth always creates subjective effects.
On 25 January 1920, Freud’s daughter, the splendid Sophie, died from Spanish flu. Freud’s dignity in facing this suffering is heartening, even a century later. But suffering is permissible when we accept the tragedy. It is the way in which Freud formulates his ethics: “tragedy after all has to be accepted.” He faced an unexpected catastrophe and he found its translation in the discourse: if something is tragic, it must be accepted. So he was not broken by his daughter’s death in the way that he was by the death of his grandson. It seems that, for him, surviving his own grandson could not be considered a tragedy, but an atrocity.
Freud had written that he survives his daughter. He put himself in the place of the survivor with all the charge of guilt and bitter discomfort that one is under that figure. But to write it down and formulate it in the discourse is not the gesture of a survivor but a heroic one.
As he gives testimony of his terrible loss, his position changes, he is no longer someone who survives but someone who takes on a tragic commitment; not regarding the death itself but regarding its acknowledgement. Freud makes it explicit in his ethics: to acknowledge the tragedy. And that same acceptance is in itself tragic, the gesture of acknowledging the definitive loss of an absolute love. Every love is absolute and, therefore, every mourning is absolute. A plague is not replacing another plague, like a death is not replacing another death. A new love follows another love without replacing it. Every mourning is absolute. Every child, every grandchild.
In the ethics that Lacan teaches, desire is something that goes through the authorization of our own subject and that of a few others in our lives. When one of those “others” disappears, life becomes more difficult. Freud tried to cope with surviving his daughter, but he was surpassed by the outrageous fact of having to survive his grandson. He lived for a further sixteen years, during which his hand kept writing, for us, until the end of his days, but the other hand did not move again, it became a tomb forever.
Translated by Andrés Mariño
2. Ethics, B.de Spinoza, First Part, Appendix, on the “prejudice developed into superstition” that “nature does nothing in vain” and “… among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, etc. : so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship.”