Pandemic, panic and pandaemonium

Pandaemonium, John Martin, The Louvre
Pandaemonium, John Martin, The Louvre

Well…  The entire globe is in a panic. 

What has happened to the celebrated virtue of enlightenment thinking; that reasoned capacity to absorb beauty and truth which Renaissance Italy gave the world 500 years ago?  

We have lived off our capacity for balance and logic ever since. But now, pandemonium -- demons everywhere. It is the black plague of 1348 again, that killed 30%-50% of the medieval population of Europe.

There is such a dread of death in the air. We, and our loved ones may be lost for ever. The analogy of a World War is all over the media. Our little virus is terrifying us.

To face the stark truth, it is not much worse than flu which comes around every winter and kills off a few of us old people. And yet flu does not cause us to panic.

Yes, Corona is a little worse, but is it not like the Spanish flu of 1920?

So why is the world in a ‘flap’ like the chicken run when the fox has got in? It feels as though the world is out of control and our leaders and authorities are helpless, unprepared and quarrelling with each other.

I have in mind a possible explanation. My mind turns to the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious where many dreaded things arise.

30 years ago, I wrote a paper about the relations we have with nature. I had been impressed by the way nature was seen in, say, Shakespeare’s time.

Then, there was a radical distinction – the heath and the hearth.  

The heath, those empty spaces between habitations, and the hearth, the safety and warmth inside one’s home, by the fire with the meal cooking.  

The heath is the place of danger, wild animals, highwaymen and the mad. One thinks of Gloucester in King Lear, stumbling with his eyes torn out thinking he is going to go over the cliff.  

How things have changed now, I thought – we believe nature is tamed.

We have conquered all the dangers and are out exploring new worlds in space.

It is that sense of triumph, conquest and omnipotence which I focused on.

The taming of the wild – I called it the ‘Disneyfication’ of nature.  

In Bambi the young deer’s mother is shot by the powerful human hunters.  This is the triumph of the human species; we increasingly feel outside of nature itself.

The image is the loved pet, taken for a walk on a lead, its excreta carefully collected like a baby in nappies. Nature has become a sweet plaything.

But…Is this pandemic a huge rupture in that overblown omnipotent confidence?

When omnipotence shatters, it is a law of the unconscious that it is replaced by vulnerable impotence and danger.

And is that what has happened on a global basis – a collective dose of omnipotence shattered?

It is interesting that the danger of nature has now come so close. There was a worry about the climate changing. But too distant.

The virus has brought home to us, right down our throats, that Nature can claim us as its helpless creatures.

When we were once worried more about the planet and its climate, we could reassure ourselves with our omnipotence.

We caused it, in our omnipotence, and in our omnipotence, we have the means to cure it.

Well, I wonder… So far as I understand geology, the globe has always changed its climate from searing desert to ice ages.

And it has done so without the help of mankind.

So, our influence may indeed have been a contributory factor in recent times, and if we could come to our senses, we might delay the global changes long enough to adapt our civilisation to live through it.

But it may be we indulge ourselves in our omnipotent fantasies to think we are the controller of climate change, and the globe is there simply for us to manage it for our purposes.

Maybe I am overstating the case, but I am really doubtful that we can stop the planet in its tracks and change its climate back to what is convenient for us.

More likely, we need a large asteroid that will collide with us and spew so much matter into the atmosphere that we don’t see the sun for a couple of centuries and the glaciers will be able to right themselves.

And so, it looks like the global reach of Western civilisation is in the process of being humbled – not out of revenge or intention.

We just got it wrong. Our unconscious dynamics played its usual tricks, and we collaborated en masse. We thought big.

It is the way with the unconscious – it has a means of convincing ourselves of untruths which spare us too many worries.  

And when we do that altogether, and our civilisation convinces us we are right, then we risk a shock.

Our fragile confidence needs truth, and not the comforting illusions of grandeur we have enjoyed.

In truth, we are small and vulnerable.

 Perhaps it would be best in our pandemic pandemonium if we began to recognise our place again.

We are but one of Nature’s small creatures.

 With some remarkable attributes, but still our place is within Nature, and not the all-conquering master of it.


Republished with kind permission from:

Political Mind Seminars 2020 Institute of Psychoanalysis

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About the author

Prof Bob Hinshelwood 

Robert Douglas Hinshelwood is an English psychiatrist and academic. He is a Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex. He trained as a doctor and psychiatrist.


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