The psycho-analyst Wilfred Bion said that we are extremely dangerous animals:
‘of all the ferocious animals that inhabit this earth the human being has succeeded in killing off all rivals – except the virus. At the end of the First World War the ‘flu epidemic killed off far more people than had been killed in the war. For all our wonderful destructiveness we are nothing as efficient as the virus.’
He was speaking in New York in 1977, but his thinking is once again confirmed by covid -19.
The back drop of the pandemic is caused by human destructiveness that has facilitated the emergence of the new virus – so as we cut down our forests, decimate wildlife habitats and destroy the planet so we contribute and join forces with destructive viruses to make a deadly blend. Or, the other theory, as we develop biological weapons and toxic poisons – so some escape or are leaked out into the environment. In both situations, Freud’s idea of the death drive is relevant. The knowledge of our self-destructive behaviour or slow suicide as a species is usually accompanied with depression. This is a depression associated with the knowledge that we are participating in this destruction – as if we were powerless to change or change the way that the seemingly inevitable is happening. Last year the COP-26 talks became over-invested in hopefulness, and then it was the destructive business as usual.
Although contemporary psychoanalysts seem largely uninterested in Freud’s thinking on the death drive it is hard to dismiss it both at the individual level and the collective given the self-inflicted destruction fuelling climate change and the release of future pandemics. By definition the news is negative where all is chaos, death, destruction, conflict, tragedy, and, human agony through war, genocide, geopolitical atrocities, and, the actions of self-serving narcissists. The cumulative effect on us is sobering when faced with the implications.
Yet, despite perpetually threatened with disintegration through death and aggression the opposite always emerges which is love and life – people fall in love, babies are born, spring comes, and nature shows resilience. Love is part of caring for others – we are weak on our own and cooperation results in our being creative which can act as a balance to the destruction. As Carl Jung explained if we can hold and ultimately integrate the opposites instead of projecting them onto others, the negative becomes modified and provides energy for the positive.
‘Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!’
Deuteronomy 30, v 19.