They say there are two Americas, but in my office there has been these past few days only one: frightened, demoralized, disoriented — but also defiant, even aroused. My first patient of the day after the elections asked if we could postpone so he could watch Hilary Clinton concede on television. I also wanted to watch her. It was an eerie event, so much time and effort culminating in so much heartbreak. “Gotham left in the hands of the joker with no batman to save us,” is how another patient described it. People hardly talked about anything else.
- How am I going to explain this to my daughter?
- At least I don’t have to save for retirement.
- Do you think they could reverse the law so that we’re no longer married?
- I hate the New York Times!
- I hate myself.
- You must be so tired of hearing about this.
But the truth is, I’m not. For some people it felt like bad times and places that they had barely escaped are reawakening like dormant monsters, closing in on their precarious sanctuaries. Chosen lives that they, that we, have carefully and heroically put together facing a violent challenge. Again. The “again” in “make America great again” is for many of us a sign of past horrors. A bullying homophobic rural town in the Midwest, a narrow-minded xenophobic Post-soviet kleptocracy, a vengeful messianic community in the Middle East, all appeared in my office this past week not as sticky memories, not as complexes of identity and attachment, not even as haunting regressive prospects, but as nightmares materializing, ominous futures, tragic reversals of fortune.
How to work with such psychic and actual realities, and their impact? A traditional psychoanalyst might look for how personal conflicts are refracted and amplified by the events unfolding around us. One’s fear of, and admiration of, a dangerous father? The failure of a loving but distant mother? The imaginary collapsing into the real? The specter of the death drive trumping life-narcissism? Interesting ideas. And yet in my mind what has been going on and how it affects us is primary, not representative. Today this is our subject-matter (if it ever isn’t). On the night of November 8th I went to bed with my chest literally in pain, and this is how I woke up. I looked forward, longed really, to meeting the people I spend my days with traveling the heights and depths of being human, to coming together with them, trying to make sense of what felt like a true calamity. And indeed, it helped. It helped because what we do beyond lament is look for explanations, question explanations, find meaning and I dare say redemption in living our lives despite the trouble that can so often feel too much to handle.
Still, this one has been particularly wrenching. First, because no one is spared a position. I am not out of the water as the therapist, or more accurately the illusion that I can be out of the water is unsustainable. We are both swimming, we are both afraid of drowning. What to make of the notion of the “analytic stance” in the present situation? Second, once thus together swimming, I have very little in my repertoire as to how proceed, both as a therapist and as a person. How to understand what’s going on if we are to refuse (as I think we should) simplistic constructions of “us” and “them,” righteous, omnipotent conceptions that have been emerging so fast since the 8th, such as that it is all “our” fault because we didn’t understand “them.”
First hint. Underneath the shock and fear I am surprised (or not so surprised) to find a small and uncanny, yet still present sense of liberation. ‘Fuck this, fuck everything’ kind of nihilism such as that of my patient who says “Now I don’t have to save for retirement.” Is this a way to understand the moment? Is it a way to react to it? Is this an opportunity to change our lives? Had Hilary won we would have likely marked the day with weary satisfaction and moved on, burdened by the same concerns, relying on the same imagination to guide us. Now there’s a crack. An abyss to contend with. Is something new possible? This feels helpful, positive, inspired even. Should I fish for this sentiment in my patients? In other words, should I strive for inspiration rather than interpretation, grabbing at the possibility of hopeful transgression as routine signification betrays?
And yet, (I find myself turning on myself immediately), isn’t this urge simply reactive, enactive, a punch in return for a punch, a manic solution where melancholia is called for? Will I not do better to hold on to some kind of reason, to whatever can still give us a sense of safety and continuity? After all, as reality shouts at us these very days, there’s a thin line between inspired rebellious transgression and megalomanic rejection of meaning. I am thinking all of this as I am sitting with my patients, shifting in my chair more than usual, in a room that is constantly too cold or too hot.
I am oscillating. And there are more oscillations on other planes of experience. This is of course always true, but now it is all far more urgent. Perhaps this is the challenge, sensing yet containing the sense of urgency, the panic, really. What good would it do us to panic together? Should we? But then again, when does the containment become denial? When does a good sense of measure become delusional? This very question begins to seem urgent as I find the conversations themselves struggling to stay alive. Some patients drift into long dissociative spells. With others I am finding myself having exchanges that feel stale, almost forced. Is it me, is it you? Is all of this really happening? Is anyone saying anything of value? Emptiness. Now we de-personalize and de-realize together.
Times such as this collapse the regular, the well-regulated. The masks are off. The repressed returns. It is frightening when it happens to us as individuals, facing ourselves in the mirror or in the eyes of those around us. It is doubly, triply, “bigly” frightening when what we believe to be the social contract, when the premises of our communal living, break open, fall apart. We have all been transposed into an Agambenian state of exception. Or have we? Have we not been there all along? Should I speak with this kind of question in mind? But would it not be too harsh for us all to think and to say that some of what we have held to be true was an illusion? That the contract now swaying has always been fragile, buckling and bursting with the conflicts that underlie social life? And if so, did it not cost us dearly as citizens and as individuals, to lean on such explosive fragility as if it were solid matter? For a moment I’m relieved. These are good psychoanalytic, and political, and ethical questions. I can begin to work in the spaces they open.
Of course, this assumes that psychoanalysis, or psychotherapy as I and my colleagues conceive of it, can continue to flourish. All kinds of privilege, some of them in the realm of freedoms and rights, some of them in the realm of clearly problematic economics, need to persist. We’ll be ok, or at least roughly OK as we have been recently, I say to myself, if we elected the US version of Silvio Berlusconi. Not so much so if we elected a latter day Mussolini. There have been times when in certain countries the kind of meaning exploration and critical-affective relationship that psychotherapy is was dangerous to pursue, or outright illegal. The Soviet Republic and its protectorate for much of its duration. Europe’s 20th century fascist regimes. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay under their 70s-80s juntas. Are we heading that way? It’s hard to say. It seems that we must assume a Berlusconi rather than a Mussolini in order to continue. Still, I think we’ll continue anyway. In any case, now that the days of the poet of “blood is coming out of her everywhere” are upon us, perhaps we should watch together Bertolucci’s “the conformist.” It is still available on Netflix.