Covid 19: Vertigo and Catastrophic Newness
Updated: Jun 5
Vertigo isn’t the fear of falling; it is the fear of jumping. A fear of not being able to trust yourself when facing the void. It is the fear of the gap, a fear of the unknown, and maybe even a fear of the new.
One of my small projects during lock down has been working through a history of the middle ages from the free Open Yale Series. It's a trip round the collapse of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity in Europe, Charlemagne, the Vikings, the so called 'dark ages' all that good stuff. One lecture discusses early monastic orders in Ireland, how they were more rugged and severe than those of mainland Europe. These monks would often travel to inhospitable places to worship. I wondered then about the Skelligs: two huge monolithic rocks off the west coast of Ireland. The larger of the two, Skellig Micheal, was supposedly a burial site of an ancient king and was once home to an Augustinian monastic order. You may also have seen them in those new awful Star Wars films or Herzog's Heart of Glass.
I have family in Country Kerry and used to visit often as a child. One year I swam with Fungie the dolphin, bought the The Prodigy's music for a jilted generation on pirate cassette and came into sharp contact with my vertigo. I remember climbing up Skellig Micheal on my hands and knees, terrorfied and humilated, as I watched my friend skip ahead up the jagged rocks like a mountain goat. I remember looking up towards him, then to the drop as I crawled, clutching at the broken rock face, sick from the height. The further I climbed the higher the drop, the wider the gap, the more the space grew. So much space in all directions! My palms feel sweaty thinking back to it. The anxiety of an empty space, an absence, a negation! To stare into the void from a height makes me giddy, the space filling my peripheral vision, no particulars to hang on to! It makes me want to jump and close the space. When I’m at a height I can feel myself getting drunk on the fantasy of jumping, of closing the gap and colliding with reality.
If it is true that the human being, like nature, abhors a vacuum, cannot tolerate empty space, then he will try to fill it by finding something to go into that space, presented by his ignorance. The intolerance of frustration, the dislike of being ignorant, the dislike of having a space that is not filled, can stimulate a precocious and premature desire to fill the space. (Bion, 1987)
As babies we are faced immediately of the problem of the gap. The absence of the breast, of the feeding mother. This is where we begin to think; our small mind begins to think thoughts to manage these frustrations of absences. What we do with these gaps? How we manage these frustrations? When someone leaves what do you do with them in your mind? Do they become scary, persecuting? Do you long for them? Do you not even notice?
In a similar way the arrival of something new, forces a gap; an absence of the known quickly become unbearably frustrating or worryingly terrifying. If we are able to fully take on a newness it becomes an anxious experience.But to experience something in its actual newness is a difficult task. More often we bundle it into something known. This is a way of getting rid of the anxiety of contacting something that has otherness. We do it all the time, we cross reference, we categorise and by doing so minimise otherness. Here's Andre Green with some thoughts on the difficulty of experiencing a catastrophic newness in his review of Bion's Attention and Interpretation:
This 'beyond the scope of knowledge' idea is essential not because it represents a limit to knowledge or because it leads us to take refuge in fundamental obscurity, but because it is the starting point of what there will be to know. If, from the beginning, we assign a place to an object we are in contact with through immediate knowledge—whatever reservations we might establish as to the mode of knowledge, saying, for instance, that it is cathected before it is perceived—we prematurely fill this object with some content which perhaps prevents us from following the sequence of states that will take place in our contact with the object. It is as essential for the assumptions of preconception as for that of the thing in itself that we keep an open mind as to the perspectives of transformation. In other words, it is important for the constant psychic component to appear as non-saturated so that we can follow the sequence of events that will lead us to the knowledge of the particular modes of saturation of the general form. (Andre Green 1973)
Covid 19 is a catastrophic newness, something unprecedented and unknown. It makes space in our understanding and has forced both mental and physical absence. The gap a space we fill with phantasies. Covid 19 is giving us all vertigo. Like a vertigo we want to bring our phantasies into contact with a reality, to make it closer and mitigate the anxiety of the gap and contact with the ground of the known.
We want to jump to certainty however fatal the impact might be: one patient says they want to catch the virus, get ill, get it over with. Another talks to me of walking through train tunnels at night, waiting for the impact of an oncoming train. In the UK there is a rush to volunteer for the NHS and, whilst I’m sure this in part involves a loving intention to help, I also imagine a vertiginous aspect to it as well. I wonder if many volunteers signing up phantasied about being on the ‘front line’, of rushing through ER corridors and making a kind of body slam contact with the mortal reality of Covid 19. These are all vertigos.
Interestingly for some patients paranoia has decreased, perhaps because their persecuting object world has now become manifest in their external circumstances. The phantasy has become a reality. Others want to withdraw completely, their societal contact already frayed. With this disaster they can let go, it was already so much of an effort to hold on. One patient cannot cross bridges for fear of throwing himself off, others cannot leave the house. There is a silencing of spaces. This a most silent disaster, one taking place behind closed doors. The blast site hidden with no ground zero. This is not an explosion but an implosion, it is a withdrawal. In that withdrawal we leave a gap, an absence. What do you do in your mind with the absent other?
Even the individual person hates housing or developing a new idea, because if you do, it is inevitable that you feel you should have got it right the last time. The inevitable discovery that you have been mistaken is a dreadful thing to discover. It also carries with it the feeling that if your own ideas change, then all the problems that you have ever solved are re-opened because they have a relationship of things-not-oneself with oneself. You can appreciate how confusing this gets. W. R. Bion, Break Up, Break Through, Break Down (1975)
What a split and polarised state we find ourselves in; some at the frontier of mortality, others isolated in a stasis. The horror exists in cul-de-sac’s, ring fenced, taking place in silos. These wishes to fall are phantasies of bridging that gap, sewing the split between the stasis of self-isolation and the chaos of the wards and care homes. This split is echoed in our living arrangements which are polarised like that of the borderline psychotic state; we are either too near or too far.
The psychiatrist Henri Rey talked about ‘claustro-agrophobic’ syndrome, a sense of interpersonal contact being either too close and all intruding but simultaneously too far, too vast. It is extreme, split, polarised. Like a vertigo, wanting to jump in and close the gap; to be closer and then suddenly feeling trapped, intruded upon, needing to escape. Then the terror of the loneliness and alienation. Right now we are all borderline: either too close, living every moment with loved ones, or too far: waving across the digital void to someone whose body is reduced to pixels on a screen.
This rush to end the vertigo and hit the ground is a rush to make sense of and understand something so meaning can be made.
Slavoj Zizek wrote recently how the virus is meaningless. Utter stupidity, a simple organism replicating itself. The banality of this self-replicating organism bringing into focus the meaninglessness of our own lives. He points our gaze at this mindless thing as if it will reveal some truth of our being. But meaning is not, nor ever was to be found in the chemistry of a microscopic virus. We can never hope to gather anything beyond a mindless causal chain, a dull concrete notation of science. It is necessarily meaningless and in this way a kind of psychotic entity. It is a mistake to stare at the virus for meaning, but rather follow the pointing figure back to the hand, to the arm, to the person that points and there we start to find meaning.
Meaning does not lie outside ourselves but rather in our relation to one another. It is in these relations, the way things collide and concord that we can make meaning. This is why our distances are so traumatic because we cannot relate and if we cannot relate we cannot think and make meaning. We are after all meaning making beings; our whole life spent in this task. But what of being alone? In some sense we are never truly alone but always stand in some relation to the other. Absence is still a relational state.
This virus has been an attack on our bodies and our minds but also an attack on these relations. The only meaning the concreteness of the virus shows us is how precious and fragile these relations are. Think of how our homes are altered, how we have been imprisoned in our houses. How uncanny this change is, we are starkly shown that a home is not bricks and mortar. Home is a matrix of affairs and people, the sharing of literal and phantasy spaces, our isolation both an alienation from each other and a confrontation with this loss and aloneness. In these distances we disappear from one another and from meaning, our minds ignited in primitive anxieties like a vertigo.