As I arrived in the car park outside my local supermarket despite my best efforts to resist joining in the panic buying, I overheard a woman say in disbelief, as she lugged her bags to her car, ‘It’s like a science fiction film.’ Something was actually happening that in films like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) had only been imaginary. I experienced a wave of that mixture of simultaneous strangeness and dim familiarity which we call the Uncanny.
In his 1919 essay ‘Das “Unheimliche”’ [The ‘Uncanny’], Freud wrote that an uncanny feeling is produced ‘when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality’. He proposed that it is elicited by events that in a hallucinatory way evoke an infantile emotional experience. The German word - imperfectly translated as the ‘Uncanny’ - is ‘Das Unheimlich’: ‘the Unhomely’.
Since the early spring of 2020, it has felt as though the world in which we had grown accustomed to feel at home has come to an abrupt end. There have been other global pandemics, like the influenza pandemic at the end of the First World War, for example, but this year’s events have shown us that the possibility that a deadly pandemic could occur again in our lifetime had not been taken as seriously as it might. What the films foresaw had not been acted upon. We were caught unprepared. Collectively, there was bewilderment in the face of the new reality. In many cases, leaders tasked to keep citizens safe were seen to be disorientated or unreliable or often both. Fear of contagion and the measures taken to limit the spread of the virus radically changed our networks of social and personal relations.
Freud noted that by definition, ‘the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one's way about in’. But not knowing one’s way in respect of the fundamental parameters of the physical and psychosocial world we inhabit involves experiences of anxiety, fear, helplessness, frustration and rage: feelings we thought we had consigned to infancy and have been more used to locating in our patients. In the course of a discussion of Angst (variously translated as anxiety or dread) the philosopher Martin Heidegger once wrote, ‘Not-being-at-home must be conceived existentially and ontologically as the more primordial phenomenon’ (Heidegger, 1927). It can take half a lifetime for newborns to begin to experience anything resembling a feeling of being at home in the world, and their relationships with others play an important role in establishing this feeling.
In our current situation, rather than our reactions being modulated and diffused by our usual patterns of relationships, we have become subject to fears that have seemed to spread much like the virus itself (in what one commentator has described as ‘a pandemic of anxiety’ ) and increasingly to counterphobic epidemics of omnipotent denial. Reflecting on emotional contagion, Freud commented, ‘There is no doubt that something exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of an emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion.’ (Freud, 1921).
Most of us will be very familiar with Bion’s (1962) idea that infants can communicate emotions they are not yet able to manage to their caregivers – even sometimes, as it were, to infect them. The caregiver’s role is to contain, to modify and detoxify, returning these emotions to the infant in a more manageable form: ‘A well-balanced mother can accept [feelings of which the infant wishes to be rid] and respond therapeutically.’ Chris Mawson, the editor of Bion’s Complete Works, has observed that ‘It is hardly possible to attend a psychoanalytic conference these days without hearing the word ‘containment’.’ The concept has become somewhat domesticated and its orthodox usage in these contexts invokes a thin version of what Bion himself thought was involved. As his paper on catastrophic change makes clear, the idea for him also carried the military meaning of one force limiting the power of another . Coping with the emotional turbulence stirred up in all of us by the current situation of radical change and uncertainty invites us to reflect on the meaning of containment.
Given all the exigencies of the situation, it is important that we find forums in which we can discuss the reverberations of the Covid-19 pandemic, their effect on patients and on us, on the psychoanalytic setting, and on wider society as well. Doing this may help us to find ways through that offer the best prospects in the circumstances not only for damage limitation but perhaps also for adaptive growth and development.
We cannot meet in person to discuss these issues, but we can connect online. Therefore, as part of the wider endeavour, UCL’s Psychoanalysis Unit is hosting a virtual conference this November. The areas the programme will address will include:
- The consequences of the pandemic for psychic life in general, and across the lifespan from infancy to old age. Particular effects on those with vulnerabilities. Anxieties and wishes connected not only with Covid, but in connection with social distancing and isolation. Their impact on fantasy, transference, and countertransference. What is it to be well-balanced in these times?
- The impact of the pandemic on the psychoanalytic setting operating through interlinked physical and psychological channels; the practical and psychological responses available; the move to remote working, which many analysts had thought incompatible with an analytic process.
- The immediate and longer-term impact of the pandemic in other mental health settings and services including those for children and the seriously mentally ill. Pre-existing walls between clinic and community have thinned. The pandemic has increased awareness of widespread mental health problems, both pre-existing, current, and anticipated.
- The global social, racial, economic and health strains, inequalities, and differences that the pandemic has laid bare and is likely to increase.
Can our discipline with its developing knowledge, theoretical assumptions, training methods and clinical practices help in responding to these matters, and is it possible that the experience we are all having of not being at home in the world we now inhabit may help us to examine some of our assumptions as part of the work of rising to this challenge? We hope that you will join the conversation.
Bion, W. R. (1962). A Theory of Thinking Second Thoughts (1967) (pp. 110-119). London: Karnac.
Freud, S. (1919). The 'Uncanny' S. E. 17 (pp. 217-256).
Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego S. E. 18 (pp. 65-144).
Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell.
 Sulkowicz, 2020.
 This aspect of the concept has also been recently evoked by governments’ efforts to contain the virus which have led to the imposition of restrictions previously unknown in peacetime.
To find out more about the conference, please visit the event webpage.