“The real as impossible to bear” Jacques Lacan, “Ouverture de la Section Clinique”
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” John Donne, Devotion 17
We knew that epidemics existed. They may have been confined to our memories. We knew about the plague, cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, measles, polio, AIDS, Ebola, and SARS as well, due to another coronavirus, SARS-CoV, which became epidemic in 2003 and mainly affected Asia. But COVID-19 arises as a pandemic that plunges us into the unknown and breaks into each and every one of us.
COVID-19 breathes on the entire world. The same phenomenon for everyone, but to which everyone reacts differently, starting from their own singularity. Each with their own point of attachment which crystallizes in a unique and unpredictable way.
To each his own epidemic – this is what the clinic shows us. Sometimes with paradoxical reactions, such as that of this adolescent suffering from a very restrictive phobia of touching, which obliges him to open any and all doors with his elbow; he found himself greatly relieved by the measures taken against the pandemic: “The whole world has become like me!” We see the reversal. Now the abnormal has become normal, the new norm is well and truly this new form of life, as Canguilhem said. And a little girl confides with a certain humour: “If you want to disinfect your hands with the disinfectant, you must first disinfect the bottle of disinfectant … But the risk is that the bottle of disinfectant to disinfect the disinfectant has not been disinfected …”, and so on ad infinitum, in a kind of Zenonian paradox applied to COVID-19.
The pandemic is progressing and seems to generate other epidemics which multiply: an epidemic of fear, mistrust, an epidemic of denial, an epidemic of loneliness, etc. The list can become endless, going all the way to the risk of an epidemic of impotence with the presence of death imposing itself throughout the world.
Along with the pandemic comes the confinement that can kill it. To each his epidemic and, if I may say, to each his confinement. Everyone experiences it differently. One young patient remarked: “Time can weigh heavily, as if it had stopped; we wait.” The epidemic insists on the present, a strange present. It freezes time, suspends it, while accelerating it towards an uncertain future. Confinement is, thus, as much temporal as spatial: temporal confinement in a static present of anxious waiting.
The number of deaths and the related statistics continue to accelerate, even as regulatory measures become increasingly restrictive. This pandemic’s acceleration implies a slowing down of everything that makes up society, in everything around us: a generalized deceleration, a “de-acceleration,” as a teenage girl puts it, wondering whether this virus is an opportunity for everyone to take responsibility for the climate. We have been pitched into the worst, into the double whammy of a social emergency plus a health crisis, both of which seem to be destroying the world.
How can something new arise out of this crisis? Can democracy hold onto its rights? What about borders, social ties, family ties, the position of children now that they are considered as health hazards to their seniors? What will become of the world, of the economy? What will happen to love, especially for those who declared their love for each other just before confinement? What about oneself, one’s ties to loved ones from whom we are separated, what about the additional deaths that may occur before the curve of the pandemic begins to level off? We are now up against the concerns common to all epidemics. As Rudolph Virchow said in the 19th century: “An epidemic is a social phenomenon that has some medical aspects.”
Beyond the sanitary and the social, the political and the economic, psychoanalysis has a position in the face of the emergence of a real exacerbated by this pandemic and its consequences. It’s up to us to face this unbearable impossible, it’s up to us to find a way to deal with it. Everyone has their responsibility to respond to and to grasp this phenomenon, from their place, from their field. Undoubtedly this involves inventing something. But one knows not what.
Without falling into hubris or denying the gravity of the situation, how can we turn this crisis into an opportunity? To follow the etymology of the word crisis which in Chinese is made of two characters, one meaning ‘danger’, the other ‘opportunity’, how shall we give life its place in our relationships, in our society? Life as the set of the forces which resist death, as Bichat said in his time. Some initiatives are already going in this direction – surprising, astonishing, ingenious, moving. It is up to us to take up this challenge to the living, especially since it seems that these days we are being drawn more and more towards death.
Translated by Janet Haney
 First published as “À chacun sa pandémie”, Lacan Quotidien, No. 876, 25 March 2020.