Politicians, philosophers, moral thinkers and journalists in Italy are repeating the same concept: “This epidemic is an opportunity to improve ourselves!”
A recurring consolatory idea: believing that if we go through catastrophes, tragedies, wars and calamities we will come out of them improved. Adversity strengthens our character, as the common saying went. For example, the fact that close contact between people is reduced to a minimum today will make us more eager in the future – they sing – for human contact, sociability, for being-with… Again and again we are told that this extreme privation of physical contact will teach us to relish physical relations once it’s all over: we will be much keener to kiss, hug, pat each other on the back, walk arm in arm, and so on. This syrupy rhetoric – perhaps a necessary one to encourage the masses – assumes that painful experience helps us improve. But it’s not something we can take for granted. True, there are dramatic moments when entire populations seem to become heroic, like during the bombings of the last world war, when some would sing as they marched down to the shelters.
But does pain really improve everyone? I strongly doubt it. In the first world war masses of Germans lost their lives, but 15 years after the end of that war they put Hitler in power and headed straight for an even more devastating war. Nations don’t learn from experience. Individuals even less so.
When the catastrophe is over, it’s extremely easy to forget. The patriotic effervescence will evaporate sooner or later – and let’s hope it does so after the end of the epidemic – and we’ll go back to our usual vices, to our habitual pettiness. Few will be the wiser beyond the emergency, the masses will go back to being what they always were: moved by the usual, mostly imaginary, passions. Certain tragedies can improve some people, true, but they can also make many others worse. Intellectuals, who are paid to think, should eschew the sugary temptation of self-congratulation.
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As every psychoanalyst knows, unconscious beliefs – things we don’t know we believe in – are often stronger than conscious ones, those we acquired through enquiry and education. Reactions to the many dangers posed by coronavirus have made one very deep-rooted unconscious conviction in particular stand out: that children are ultimately weak and the elderly strong.
My daughter’s boiler breaks, she has no hot water. She calls the plumber, but he hesitates… “I live with my young children”, he says uncertainly. He’s scared of infecting them. For him, like for many others, it’s kids above all who need to be protected. But we know that children don’t normally fall sick if they catch this virus. If the plumber had said, “I live with an old grandmother”, his reluctance would have made sense. Everyone, not just kids, is a threat to the elderly.
I come across constant examples of this misunderstanding. Yet in Italy we’re all coronavirus experts now, millions of us have read an overwhelming amount of information on the epidemic. So, we should all know that the median age of those who have died in Italy is 79 and that the younger you are the less likely you are to fall ill. It seems evident to me that Covid-19 is carrying out a geronticide.
Is it an atavistic, Darwinian, reflex that leads us to think small kids are always the most fragile? Perhaps, but I think the reasons behind this misconception are more unspeakable and contorted.
People worry about children and not about the elderly because deep down they hope the elderly will die. “They’ve played their part,” you may hear some say euphemistically. The elderly are a burden to the young, especially in a country like Italy, where the share of over-65s is ineluctably on the rise. Where, in other words, the perception is that everyone is working to pay old-age pensions to the seniors.
But why then does this epidemic cause so much fear even among those who are nowhere near old age? Because media propaganda, i.e. government propaganda, tirelessly repeats: “Don’t think it’s only the over-70s who die, lots of younger people fall ill and die!” So, we hear interviews with doctors and paramedics giving evidence of this. The fact that Italy’s patient No. 1 (the first Italian to fall ill), Mattia, is only 38, fits this strategy like a glove: he incarnates the possibility that even the young can get seriously sick, even though he eventually recovered.
The reason why the state, playing the role of the wise patriarch, tends to scare everyone of any age, seems to me quite clear: only if all citizens fear for their lives can senior citizens be isolated and spared. Making everyone believe they’re at risk keeps people at a distance from the elderly.
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As soon as in a particular country people realize Covid-19 isn’t just a flu, masses start swarming the supermarkets and panic buying, especially toilet paper. Far less so in Italy, where even a slum has a bidet. But why is toilet paper the first commodity people fear will run out?
Because so many think that epidemics are connected above all to uncleanliness, to impurity (to filth or sin). And what could be more unclean than our faeces? An old theory associates epidemics to a lack of hygiene. During cholera epidemics people avoided pork in particular, because pigs too are a paradigm of filth.
So, one of the legends thriving on our smartphones is that Coronavirus is essentially transmitted through the soles of our shoes. So, before walking into our houses we should take them off and leave them outside our doors, because the virus allegedly lies on the pavement for hours… Here too the connection between the filth on the streets and contagion seems far-fetched. Instead, fewer imagine that the virus’s favourite means of transmission is through a lover’s kiss, a fraternal handshake, a perfectly clean drinking glass I may share with my son.
What disturbs many is the fact that during an epidemic what really counts are the statistics, and many detest statistics. Yet it’s the statistics that tell us how things really stand. Now, the most important piece of data to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 in the various regions aren’t absolute numbers, but the comparison with how many died as a consequence of the common flue in previous years—and this is the only statistic we cannot find. For example, some point out to me in terror that in Lazio (the region where I live) just over 100 people have so far died as a consequence of covid-19. But as I try to explain, in order to make a real assessment we would need to compare this with the mortality rate in Lazio at around the same time last year. We might even discover that there has been only an insignificant increase this year. This line of reasoning, however, is immediately unpopular: I’m accused of underestimating the epidemic! I try to explain that only such statistical comparisons can give us the differential dimension, and hence the real extent, of the epidemic.
Many don’t like numbers, because they’re “inhuman”—but often it’s precisely the rejection of numbers that creates numberless inhuman catastrophes.
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In the early days of the lockdown in particular, people longed to turn the mandatory seclusion into a patriotic celebration: Italian flags at the windows, people on their balconies shouting “Hurrah for Italy!” or singing the national anthem… I’ve always found patriotism unbearable, but in this case I didn’t mind: the country is at war against the virus and finding a unifying signifier, Italy, in a state of belligerency is inevitable.
But had the lock-down been imposed simultaneously throughout the European Union, would we have heard shouts of “Hurrah for Europe!”? I very much doubt it. There’s no patriotic identification with Europe in Italy. We attack European leaders, we consider them nothing but dull bureaucrats: how could they not be, when no Italian feels first and foremost European? If one fails to personify an enthusing signifier, one can be nothing but dull and bureaucratic.
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Services considered to be essential, and thus available during the quarantine, include tobacconists and perfumeries (which also sell cosmetics and body care items). In other words, the state recognizes tobacco (as it does alcohol) as a legitimate addiction, recognizing their peremptoriness.
Perfumes are also essential, particularly in times of humiliating reclusion: they’re the most basic gift, in particular for women. Just like flowers, and I do wonder why the latter haven’t been taken into consideration too, as basic affective necessities. Florists should be allowed to stay open. A few authentic, non-utilitarian gifts should be possible: a perfume, a bunch of flowers. They represent the beautiful nothingness that dissolves in no time and that confirms, paraphrasing Lacan, that love is giving the other what is not there.
The emergency has revealed the essentiality of what we never thought as such. The Sky connection at my house stopped working, but with remarkable efficiency they quickly sent a technician in a face mask to fix the problem. TV and the Internet, which so many philosophasters have attacked as modes of alienation, have proved to be basic necessities, the bread and wine satisfying the hunger and thirst for life.
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Newspapers are also considered essential services, and vendors can stay open, but don’t people just read the newspaper online nowadays? Don’t we get all the information we need from the web? Yes, but older people are still attached to the rite of leafing through a printed daily newspaper. Newsstands are open to comfort the elderly, the part of the population that is most authentically at risk.
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Some friends say to me: “We envy you, because you’ve got a dog!” Walking a dog, presumably to allow it to pee and poop, counts as a valid reason for being out. If you take a child for a walk, however, that could be a problem. In fact, a child can be extremely contagious, a dog can’t infect anyone. Some say that dogs have replaced children for those who don’t have them, but nowadays dogs have become more reliable children than kids themselves.
A meme gone viral (how appropriate that such an adjective should have been in use for quite some time now) on social media reads something like: “Dogs are under extreme stress. They go from one ‘walker’ to another” and don’t know what to pee anymore…”, imagining the scrutiny of a Superego police officer following you and asking sourly: “So, why isn’t your dog urinating?”
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General astonishment at how the Italians – such an individualistic and disobedient people, so “cynical”, as Stendhal, who said he actually felt Italian, wrote – are obeying the stringent regulations issued by the government. 70% agree with the measures, many would like even stricter ones. Why so little “populist” moaning?
Because the quarantine affects everyone, including the rich and powerful. And everyone is exposed to infection, including the rich and powerful. There’s no room, in other words, for social envy, for resentment against those who have more. The fact that several politicians, including Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the Democratic Party – one of the main government coalition partners – have tested positive, makes them seem closer to us, more “human”.
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There’s a lot of talk about whether “indispensable necessities” also include seeing lovers, boyfriends or girlfriends. “Staying home” means staying with whomever you live. But what about partners who don’t live with you? For many. quarantine also involves sexual abstinence.
A woman takes a taxi to see her lover, who lives alone but also has a regular girlfriend he doesn’t live with. If the police were to stop her she’d say she’s going to ask for a loan, which is actually true: having had to shut her business activity she’s in need of money. But a Prussian-like police officer could easily object: “Why don’t you have the money wired to your bank account online?”
Because a “need” can always be confuted and we all feel like potential offenders.
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Many people today are suspended between several love relationships and various “couples”. It’s unclear who their real wives or husbands are, their girlfriends or boyfriends, who their lovers are, or whether there’s a “couple” at all. Where and with whom one has decided to spend this interminable quarantine is a like a judgment from God: THE PERSON CHOSEN is one’s authentic significant other. If the person chosen is one’s father, mother or aunt… well, this reveals the deep truth of one’s partner. If one has decided to spend the quarantine alone, it’s because ultimately one’s significant other is oneself.
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The pandemic is a breeding ground for urban legends, better known today as fake news. Every epidemic manufactures its plague-spreaders, blaming a virus as such isn’t enough, there has to be a human guilt too. For some time Trump, it’s unclear whether because he’s too canny or too stupid (sometimes the two qualities go hand in hand), has been placing the entire blame of the epidemic on the Chinese, referring to it as “the Chinese virus” and purporting himself as the saviour from the yellow peril. Back home there are rumours of dark political and military manoeuvres… A fake theory is circulating that claims that the Yankees are in Europe mobilising for a war against Russia and that US soldiers are vaccinated against Covid-19 (America has the vaccine but pretends it doesn’t)…. but I’ll stop here with regard to these delusions.
It’s quite chilling that it’s not only the humble, ignorant or naïve who act as megaphones for these paranoiac rumours, but even medical doctors, biologists, intellectuals, psychoanalysts …
When we meet, my family doctor makes strange allusions to something or other, but in this case I’m not eager to wring out anything from her about their meaning, given that she would love nothing more than having them wrung out of her. Sometimes the They are shrouded in mist, almost unpronounceable – “like the character of “The Unnamed” in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, a novel with a famous description of the plague in Milan in 1630 –, They fluctuate through the cracks of conversation with cues like “not surprisingly this epidemic…”, “somebody knows…”, “behind it all…” It’s like in paranoid delusions, which sometimes begin with an imprecise nebulous widespread perplexity and then take on the more specific unequivocal traits of that particular persecutor, with a name and surname, whether near or far. Collective paranoias – which are the daily bread of politics, social beliefs, and most of what we believe we know – are perhaps a key to understanding individual paranoias, and not vice-versa, as is commonly believed: paranoiacs absorb discourses, they provisionally condense them according to their individual leanings, they are mouthpieces for enunciations that pierce through them. And they’re not always mere relays: sometimes they create out of whole cloth. But they create something meant to be said to other voices…
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We’ve heard that some 200 people died in Iran because, terrified by the epidemic, they drank methanol. Alcoholic drinks are prohibited in Iran, so all that was available to them was surgical spirit. Would they have done the same if a bottle of vodka had been available to them?
Something similar happened during the prison riots that occurred in Italy after family visits were suspended due to the virus. Several inmates died after invading the pharmacies and randomly guzzling medications as a preventive cure or overdosing on methadone. It’s as if a medication as such had a universal therapeutic potential regardless of the illness for which it was designed; a little like those who travel to Lourdes for any ailment.
These Iranians drank something sinful according to the Muslim religion. In other words, in this case medication works as a pharmakon, a term which in Ancient Greek meant both medicine and poison. The Iranians, with a dizzying association, came to the conclusion that whatever is banned as a moral poison, alcohol, could in that case work as a panacea, a panpharmacon. During a medical “state of exception” as a last resort the evil substance is overturned into something beneficial.
This reminds me of something my maternal grandmother did in 1958, when Italy was hit by a polio epidemic that mainly affected children. I was ten years old and one evening I thought I felt ill – or perhaps the distress of the epidemic had given me a metaphorical sickness. My parents wanted to call the doctor. My grandmother, who lived with us, ran into the kitchen and came back with a great big glass of red wine to offer me. A rare scene, because my grandmother was a teetotaler and disapproved of the fact that my father had already initiated me to the pleasures of wine as part of the virile education he wanted to confer on me. In short, my virtuous granny was bringing me a nefarious liquid, which I gulped down thinking she possessed a virological knowledge.
Why such a risqué gesture from my grandmother? What strange metonymies led her to think that a glass of wine was a life-saver? Like for the Iranians, a logic of signifier reversal was at work: in a state of exception, poison becomes a medication. But perhaps, deep down, the idea of offering a dying boy a forbidden pleasure he is not usually granted was also at play. In the same way that someone walking to the gallows was classically offered a glass of champagne. It’s as if the secret dream of those Iranians had always been to knock back a bottle of wine, and perhaps this was also my grandmother’s secret wish: now, in the face of death, satisfying a forbidden pleasure becomes ipso facto a remedy for death.
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In many cultures once referred to as “primitive” it is unconceivable for someone to die a natural death. Even if they’re 80 years old and die in their own beds, it will be taken for granted that they were victims of black magic, that someone wished to harm them. And hence the person responsible for the death has to be found. This whodunit search for the “murderer” is ritualized in many respects.
It would be naïve to think that it’s merely a question of superstitious primitive beliefs: the logic of the scapegoat – seeking a human fault in everything that’s natural – applies to us hyper-industrialized moderns too. So, among the several theories on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that are flourishing, some point a stern finger at super-industrialization: pollution, the greenhouse effect, hyperbolised urbanization, the reduction of biodiversity… In other words, Man is the true cause of disasters, not too differently from Rousseau’s arguments after the catastrophic earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755: Nature is in itself benign, it is human beings who create the ills that sap them, our Culture digs our grave.
Another inverse theory is that, unsurprisingly, coronavirus first appeared in China, where promiscuity between animals and humans is highest. Besides, Chinese people eat bats. (But it’s been established that before the epidemic there were no bats on sale in Wuhan.) The spillover theory (D. Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) of viruses being passed on from one species to another is a very serious one: but it’s being used to stigmatize those “primitives”, the Chinese.
The theories that accuse human beings – always, whatever happens – as the primary cause of their own woes, follow the same logic as that of primitive peoples who refuse to accept the idea of a natural death with no human intervention. The only difference is that the human cause no longer concerns a single individual, but the human beings as a whole. Not just a man, but Man is charged with being the perpetrator of the blights afflicting humankind.
The truth is that epidemics have always existed and always will. Simple but true. Despite everything, we’re still prey to nature. The black death, which annihilated half the population of Europe in the 14th century, wasn’t of course an effect of industrialization, but of an absolutely natural mutation that Darwinism has made perfectly intelligible. Species mutate and viruses mutate far more quickly than evolved animal species, which is why we have to find a new influenza vaccine every year: between one winter and the next the virus species will have mutated. So, today, with electronic society in full expansion, we have to rely on the same epidemic containment techniques used thousands of years ago: not having any specific medications, all we can do is isolate people from each other as much as possible. This wasn’t done in 1918 with the “Spanish” flue, because the world was still at war and the epidemic was underestimated, and the death toll was between 20 and 100 million (according to the calculation method adopted).
Today some talk of the Anthropocene epoch, and it is true that Homo sapiens is modifying – for worse – the conditions of the planet. I’m the last to underestimate the threats posed by pollution, by the greenhouse effect and by the reduction of biodiversity… but human destructive power shouldn’t be overestimated either. We bring about and are subject to essential events just like at the dawn of Homo sapiens: we generate in the majority of cases through coitus, our children are neotenic, i.e. they’re subject to a very long infancy, sooner or later we die and we’re occasionally mown down by epidemics. This is the way it will always be. Blaming humans for every ill is the other side of the divinization of Man (which dates back to Pascal) that many modern philosophies have condemned: if one thinks that humans are ultimately as powerful as God, it will also be thought that they may possess the same evil omnipotence as Satan. But man is neither God nor Satan.