When Freud first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor in 1909, he remarked to Jung, ‘They don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague.’ Freud felt certain the Americans would reject his theories. The double irony in his statement, however, is that though Americans at the turn of the century would resist his pronouncements regarding the sex and aggression at the core of human existence, they will come by mid-century to medicalize and market psychoanalysis, enshrining his “methods of treatment” in textbooks. Decades after his visit, in his Question of Lay Analysis, he cautioned that American psychoanalysis would be stripped of its social and cultural mission to change the world. He was right again. It would be tamed for the grand project of individualism and consumerism in service of profit.
It may well be unseemly to bring up Freud’s reference to the plague when the world is brought to its knees by a global pandemic. Yet surely this is the time to reckon as never before with Freud’s sober prediction. For if there were ever a time to reflect upon and reframe our relationship to nature, which psychoanalysis aspired to accomplish at the dawn of the modern era, it is now. Tragically, we seem instead to be responding to this pandemic as a society by turning back to consumerism and profit as we reopen for business, more determined than ever to get and spend.
The impact of pandemic on psychoanalysis must surely exceed our discussions of the loneliness of empty consulting rooms and our patients’ dread of confinement. How might we turn to literature for direction in the manner of Freud himself–desperate as we are for instruction when consolation seems out of reach? With unparalleled elegance, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) shows, I believe, what is at stake for our civilization in the throes of global pandemic. In this novella, he depicts a city during a cholera epidemic while city fathers whisper to each other to keep the contagion secret “because of lucre.” “The fear of general damage, regard for the recently opened exhibition of paintings in the municipal gardens, for the enormous financial losses that threatened the tourist industry in case of a panic, had more impact in the city than love of truth and observation of international agreements.” A visitor to this ailing city, the great writer Gustav Aschenbach, becomes obsessed with a beautiful boy whom he must pursue at all costs. So much so that he withholds his knowledge of the spreading epidemic, endangering the boy and himself.
Following Freud, Mann shows how the death drive feeds upon such passions. “Because passion, like crime, does not like everyday order and well-being . . . every confusion and infestation of the world is welcome to it . . . So Aschenbach felt a somber content about the cover-up of the terrible happenings in the grimy streets of the city that merged with his own innermost secret . . .”. In 1925 Mann observes, “the death wish is present in Aschenbach though he is unaware of it.” Like Chronos eating his children, Aschenbach feasts his eyes on a young boy whom he had calmly noted was “sickly.” Then, we are told, the writer’s death is announced to a “respectfully shaken world.”
What can we take from Mann’s fable, shaken now by mounting death tolls as well as psychological tolls from our pandemic? Perhaps a searing portrayal of a deteriorating mythology, a cautionary fable that our continued existence as a species on this shattered earth depends upon checking our drive for extinction. Jane Goodall, renowned, redoubtable, indefatigable has said as much: “if we don’t get that lesson from this pandemic, then maybe we never will.”