Biological infections and psychological infections
Without a doubt, the coronavirus has brought about an unprecedented cultural transformation. Measures to contain the epidemic to reduce contagion impose a rarefaction in human relations that is unprecedented in our history.
Advertising message The clinical practice of territorial psychiatry has often brought me into contact with patients who are very worried about contagious diseases. In these cases, hand washing becomes a fatiguing ritual, the disinfection of places or environments gradually occupies most of the day, but serenity does not return, safety escapes, the profuse energies run out without offering any comfort. The partner, family members, often even the patient himself, perceive purification practices as redundant and absurd and ask for help. Society and the healthcare system offer professional resources. An emotional constellation (contagion / infection / purification) is taking shape on a cultural and scientific level as an unreasonable behavior, manifestation of an implicit madness.
In this sense, modern western societies differ from primitive or simply archaic civilizations where contact with certain objects, situations or members of society (the taboo of anthropologists, see Douglas 1966) entailed a strictly ritual danger. For example, in Indian culture, ritual contagion is based on the caste hierarchy. Any contact with the lower castes produces an inevitable and dangerous impurity.
Throughout European history, the cultural representation of impurity has changed profoundly. Medieval Christianity reformulated it predominantly in terms of impure sexual contact. The water of the ancient purifications has been replaced by the rituals of penance, not rarely characterized by equally evident magical components and by a character of coactivity.
Epidemic diseases have inevitably triggered periodic regression processes. The fear of contagion promoted by hypothetical painters has periodically replaced sexual interaction as a paradigm of threat.
Today, in fact, humanity is confronted again, after several decades, with a contagious disease burdened by significant morbidity and mortality, especially in the elderly. And fear grows relentlessly. Epidemiologists, public opinion, media and government and chase each other asking for more and more restrictive measures of personal freedom. Hostility among citizens is growing. Retired elderly women do not fail to address rare passers-by, fierce orders dictate precise hygiene provisions to astonished consumers, zealous citizens report to the police forces any hypothetical violation of government prescriptions, while young people with more IT skills do not hesitate to expose to the media pillory innocent runners or unruly children.
No doubt the SARS agent covid-19 has brought about an unprecedented cultural transformation. The measures to contain the epidemic impose a rarefaction of human relations that is unprecedented in our history. The social and economic problems that afflict our country have almost disappeared from the political debate, while public wealth has been lavished without saving in the attempt, however unsuccessful, to stop the progress of the pandemic. As noted political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2018), the coronavirus epidemic quickly configured a state of exception in front of which the constitutional guarantees themselves appeared as absolutely irrelevant, unnecessary worries for time-wasting jurists.
Freedom, social justice, religious experience – the guiding principles around which our constitution was organized and for which rivers of blood were spilled – suddenly lost all importance. Fear has assumed an absolute centrality in the collective imagination of contemporary society. The idea quickly emerged that the entire social structure and economic organization should be reorganized exclusively for the purpose of controlling the infection.
As in primitive societies, contact, contagion and terror have returned to the center of the collective imagination. The hypochondriac anxieties overflowed from the recess in which modern thought had relegated them. The phobic and hypochondriac parts of the personality have taken control of contemporary culture. Thus, in advanced societies of the 21st century, madness becomes official thought, rather unique thought, and disturbing guardians of the revolution demand scrupulous censorship interventions on all forms of dissent from the organs of public security.
Advertising message What happened to contemporary man? How can an entire society get sick of fear? Wilfred Bion’s studies and experiences (1961) during the Second World War illuminated the regressive behavior in groups in an extraordinarily original way. When a group goes through a moment of difficulty and impotence, it regresses to primitive functioning modes in which the emotional exchange and the search for truth are substituted by prejudices and categorical imperatives. From this point of view, the invasion of social space by an irresistible feeling of fear can be associated in Bion’s terminology with the basic assumption of attack and escape, in which the unconscious fantasies shared in the group are annihilated by a general feeling of threat.
In the bowels of contemporary society there is therefore an enigmatic and disturbing danger. What terrifies modern man? Why do social threats equally or perhaps even more serious, such as terrorism, air pollution or cancer, have no impact on the emotional life of communities comparable in any way with that of an infectious disease? What dark resonance can a respiratory virus evoke in the western imagination?
To answer these questions, it is necessary first of all to remember that the modern was built around a very precise epistemological option. The plebiscite adoption of extreme materialism has led to an evident underestimation of emotional experiences and their role in human societies and in the lives of individuals. In particular, the pain associated with the experiences of separation has been and is the object of a particularly fierce denial.
Now, the cycle of life carries an inevitable load of emotional pain. Growth implies more or less traumatic separations. Aging impair the family and social roles of adults. Even in the hyper-medicalized society of antibiotics, vaccines and transplants, disease and death remain implicit in the human condition, leaving an inevitable trail of suffering in the family and in the community.
Precisely around these experiences of mourning and separation, contemporary culture has attempted to build an impenetrable wall, resorting to massive mechanisms of denial. He isolated and sterilized death in hospital containers. He hid the corpses in remote crematory ovens. How much these cultural structures have had a significant impact on coronavirus containment measures is currently under everyone’s eyes. After all, the distancing between generations, but also within the couple, which characterizes contemporary society so clearly, began long before virologists evoked the specter of intrafamily contagion.
The progressive and now definitive affirmation of the nuclear family and the spread of the permanent celibate model reflect the fear and discomfort towards intense interpersonal relationships and represent an extreme response to interpersonal and marital conflicts.
Yet no human interaction is possible without a significant exchange of emotions: joys but above all pains. The contacts that take place in the couple and in the family do not only transmit viruses, but also an inevitable load of anxiety, pain, tensions, conflicts and fears. Here is the contagion that truly terrifies contemporary man: the emotions that are generated in interpersonal interaction.
But no one, however accurate, safety measure, no surgical or valve mask can defend us from this contagion. Only solitude can definitively free us from the fatigue of interpersonal relationships. Or death.