«Let’s take courage, we’ll go back to hug each other»

To begin to restart the imagination, take back the dimension of time and therefore know how to think about the future, we must get out of the melancholy. And we can do it, as long as we will be able to tell us what happened to us, to transform the experience of the lockdown, a violent trauma, into a series of rituals and civil narratives: public and private. David Meghnagi, born 71 years ago in Tripoli, is a psychoanalyst and teaches at the University of Rome III. Author of important books and essays (the list is long and goes from the texts on Freud, to the Shoah, to the Warsaw Ghetto) is above all an intellectual capable, like few others in Italy, of talking about the trauma of the survivors of disasters and how overcome them.

There seems to be a great unspoken in the public debate: our frozen emotions, our being veterans. We are in full post-traumatic syndrome, but as if we are ashamed to admit it, as if we wanted to remove it.

«Unfortunately, the syndrome is not only post traumatic, we are still in it and we do not know what the situation will be in a few months when the challenges of the economic crisis and a possible return of the infections will add to the experiences of these months. However, rather than repression, I would speak of the interpretative refusal of trauma ».

Can you explain what denial is?

«It is a form of denial of reality through a more” acceptable “reading. The facts are not denied, but they are read so that they can avoid contact with the deeper and external psychic reality. Emotions are blocked and awareness as canceled. It is an archaic operation which in some cases can take on a perverse character. The real is named, but at the same time rerouted and dismissed. Like, for example, when people said “only the elderly die”, as if in a country like Italy, old and young people were not forced to live together more than in other countries. Interpretative denial is an ever-present mechanism when suffering trauma ».

For what reason?

«When reality is turned upside down, our internal world is put to the test. By failing the certainties consolidated by experience, it is tempting to derubricate what happens in the light of what was already known. The extreme form of this mental state is the paralysis of thought. The challenge in these cases is the ability to think and despite everything to imagine. This has as its background the resilience of culture and individuals. To paraphrase an old Yiddish saying: “If the flood comes tomorrow, don’t despair. Use the time you have to quickly learn to swim and if necessary live underwater ». Resilience is our ability to react by drawing on the energies we have available. You see, over the centuries, civilization has coexisted constantly with epidemics and insecurity. To which narratives responded that re-proposed the theme of our fragility with respect to life and the world (just think of Boccaccio’s writings). Fortunately, the pandemic does not have this strength. We have the resources to deal with it and we can imagine that we will soon have a vaccine available. The system holds. But it creaks because of the difficulty in facing the anguish of an uncertain future, potentially full of conflicts that only frighten us when we think about it. And the consequences of the trauma are gigantic because they also concern the future. This is why the depression for what has been and the anxiety for what lies ahead can put a strain on the health of individuals and the future of a society. For young people and children, this trauma, not yet sufficiently understood, could have significant psychological effects. Not to mention the nameless pain of those who died in isolation, and of relatives who have not been able to mourn their loved ones: a heap of sufferings that will leave a mark in the next few years ».

So what to do?

«The only way to process the trauma is to make it emerge, to be processed. In my teaching activity, I asked students to investigate the phenomenon within their families and outside. By studying the problem, objectifying the trauma, the students were able to work it out. Having said that, obsessive people, used to having a semi-paralyzed life, due to the need for absolute control, have discovered themselves with an extra gear in the management of a world in which what was previously considered a problem, now appears a necessity. In other cases, people who suffered from severe agoraphobia now no longer want to leave the house. Then there are those who, not enduring physical and psychological isolation, implement real acting out of a sexual nature, denying the danger. I would like to add another element ».

You are welcome.

«Human beings need to touch and embrace loved ones. Otherwise they risk getting sick. The terminals of our central nervous system are programmed to interact with the outside and with other human beings. A child who is not rocked is likely to die. A hug, a caress are not only gestures of mutual pleasure, but an ethologically and biologically programmed need to help growth, to give security, the strength to live. In adult life all this increases the resilience capacity to face new challenges and situations. If all this fails for a long time, in which we are forced to go around with masks and have to keep our distance, we live in a state of deprivation ».

I insist, how to handle all this?

«Any painful experience can become an opportunity to rediscover the feeling of fragility as something positive. The biggest denial that the human being makes in order to survive is to deny himself the feeling of fragility. But the more we deny it, the more we risk what the Greeks called hybris. Think of the Oedipus myth. In hybris the feeling of omnipotence takes precedence over the importance of bonds. The others are only an object and the world a place of narcissistic conquest and affirmation over others. On the contrary, if we want to get out of this situation positively, we need to rediscover the value of others ».

Let’s go back to talking about the gestures that are inherent in our human being and that have become dangerous. By hypothesis, raise an elderly person who falls on the street, and who could be infected …

«It is not a hypothesis. I happened to see a lady of a certain age on the ground with people around afraid to get close. We have to tell all this to avoid an unprocessed experience. We must turn experience into testimony. But, let’s also remember the doctors, nurses, scavengers, supermarket cashiers ».

What is a witness?

«The witness is a victim who has ceased to be one. The victim suffered a profound injustice. The witness turned the experience into something communicable to others. It is like the mythical Tiresias. Tiresias is blind but sees better than the others. He is able to imagine the future. His position is similar to that of a prophet. “

Let’s talk about guilt. We know from the tragedies of the twentieth century (radically different situations from ours, because we have not been victims of evil men or genocidal regimes, we have not been hungry or cold) that the victim or the veteran of a trauma is often afflicted by the sense of guilt due to the arbitrariness of death. He asks himself: why did my father, my husband and not me die? But guilt leads to resentment, to the desire for revenge. You have worked hard on these issues.

«I prefer to talk about the specificities of the situation we live in, avoiding as much undue symbolic equations as possible. In our case, the feeling of guilt produces a sense of emptying which in turn risks engaging mechanisms of melancholy. These aspects are characteristic of psychic trauma which in these cases has a collective and not only individual value. As Freud guessed, mourning and melancholy have points of contact, which however must not be misleading. In the mourning process, the world appears empty. To get out of mourning, the ego must rebuild internally what has been lost, always making loved ones live internally ».

Once Amos Oz told me that, waking up, he looked at his hand and recognized his father’s hand there. He understood that the father lived within him.

“Exact. In melancholy, however, the ego is empty with the risk of falling into endless mourning. This is why it is important to take control of the situation, not to suffer it. Whenever we do not suffer it, we acquire a sense of inner freedom that allows us to avoid depression. I fear that what we are experiencing today is a kind of emptying of the ego that also affects libido and the pleasure of living. To get out of it we need to ritualize all this by talking about it with others. Talking about it because we lived it ».

He said ritualize. Now, something happened to us told in dystopian novels, so something that was imagined. However, when it happened it became unimaginable. We saw but we did not imagine. It was you who spoke of denial. So then, is ritualization making something unimaginable imaginable?

«One of the most serious errors of contemporary thought has been to confuse ritualization with hypocrisy, ritual with its emptying. But without a ritual, life would remain meaningless. By giving meaning to existence, pain becomes bearable. The ritualization process is a bridge between the present, the past and the future, thanks to which the present is no longer the void because the past finds a space and opens a door to the future. It is a mechanism similar to that of children’s fairy tales. By dictating the same story with its positive sides each time in different forms, the child can fall asleep in the belief that the next day there will be again. The fear of the night becomes more bearable ».

And in public, collective life?

“I am thinking of a passage from the Book of Qohelet. In that text we talk about the three-pointed thread. Such a thread does not break easily. The three tips are three generations. The thread links the past to the future. It matters little if the sun will go out in billions of years. In the due time that has been entrusted to us, the ability to imagine a possible future is a necessity, it is the fundamental mechanism on which our existence rests as a human species ».