By Sergio Benvenuto
May 13, 2020. Originally published April 2020 in Italian as “Riflessioni eretiche” in Le Parole e le Cose2: Letteratura e realtà. Translated by F. S. Ciccone and Andrea Sartori, with thanks to the author and the editor for authorizing this publication.
This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.
Every day our televisions remind us that we are in the midst of an unprecedented event, one that will leave nothing unchanged. Italian psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto offers a disenchanted counter-narrative. According to Benvenuto, true revolutions are not so easily televised. They unfold gradually, over years, and, as such, they exceed the limits of an “event.”
As a child, I heard first of the “Spanish” flu and only later of the first world war. My maternal grandmother kept in her room a large black and white photograph, blurry, as the romantic fashion of the time prescribed, of a sad nine-year-old girl. Her name was Sina, and she was my grandmother’s oldest daughter. “She died of spagnola” in 1919, my grandmother told me. So, a member of my family had fallen victim to that pandemic. Whereas the 1915-1918 war left 600,000 Italians dead, it spared both my mother’s and father’s families. It seems that spagnola had taken just as many lives in Italy. And yet, in the history books I read years later, much was said about the first world war and its massacres, but nothing or almost nothing was said of spagnola, which remained for me a private, domestic matter. Such was the discrepancy between what mattered to private lives and what mattered to the lives of nations. War deaths made history, flu deaths did not. Even though the Spanish flu’s victims outnumbered those who died on battlefields (calculations vary, but flu deaths range from 17 to 100 million), the first world war changed the political equilibrium of Europe while the Spanish flu changed nothing.
Unlike coronavirus, which primarily kills sick and retired elderly people, the Spanish flu killed people between twenty and forty years old, people in the prime of their lives. The flu killed many illustrious women and men, Max Weber and the twenty-seven-year-old Egon Schiele among them. In any case, the economy recovered immediately, though weakened by war.
How often these days do we hear statements like these, offered with such confidence: “After this pandemic, nothing will be as before!” Statements like this are inevitable whenever we encounter some event that leaves its mark on everyone. But very often spectacle is confused with historical significance.
It was said that nothing would be the same after September 11, 2001. At that time, I was very skeptical of such a prediction. Could anything truly fundamental really change? It is true that the Americans had to go to Afghanistan, but, eighteen years later, with the troops about to be withdrawn, what has really changed in Afghanistan? The country is right back where it started: the country is mostly controlled by the Taliban and the most important cities are in the hands of a weak power. It is true that Bush Jr. ordered an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but he would have attacked Iraq anyway, because this was his ‘Oedipal’ obsession, and 9/11 was just an excuse to do it. Today, 9/11 appears as the acme (certainly a very photographable one) of a historical turmoil that has shaken the whole of the Islamic world. The war that a part of Islam wants to wage against the Judeo-Christian world is only an aspect of this turmoil, a drama that expresses, for me, the great difficulty that Islamic societies face as they attempt to embrace modernity. 9/11, which did not change a thing, was only an episodic manifestation of an ongoing process.
After 9/11, it was said that the threat of terrorism would change our daily life—air travel, in particular, would no longer be the same because of all the newly imposed controls and restrictions. Certainly, security checks have increased, and we can no longer bring liquids of a certain size, and scissors and other sharp objects are forbidden, but we cannot say that air travel has radically changed after 2001. Flights kept increasing just like before 2001.
As with the explosion of AIDS in the 1980s, all the professional prophets said that our sexual habits would radically change. It is true that, for a while, homosexual relations were more cautious, but it does not seem to me that the sexual behaviors of the new generations differ very much from those of our generation of baby-boomers. Far from it. An epidemic is not enough to change the direction of a revolution in customs, that is to say, in the homologation of female sexual habits to male sexual habits.
It was said that nothing would be the same after ’68, after the disaster at Chernobyl, after the protests in Tien an-Men in China in 1989, after the 2008 financial crash crisis … It would be easy to show how in the aftermath of each of these memorable events there was no true change. In reality, many great transformations are not visible, on account of the fact that they are slow and ongoing, and when at a certain moment we realize that something has changed … the event has already dissolved. In the last thirty years, the truly important events unfolded in slow motion. In particular, the transformation of China and India into economic and industrial powers capable of developing alternative political models to those provided by Western democracies. Or our society’s electronic revolution, which has unfolded in stages, and will transform not only the relationship between life and work, but also human relationships. Not to mention the waves of migration that are erasing the ethnic definition of what a “nation” even is.
The paradoxical nature of a shock-event is that it becomes a transformative event only after the transformation is already taking its course … This is what will happen with the coronavirus crisis: it will stress the transformations that were already taking place.
The paradoxical nature of a shock-event is that it becomes a transformative event only after the transformation is already taking its course … This is what will happen with the coronavirus crisis: it will stress the transformations that were already taking place. I refer, in particular, to the divide between developed and developing countries.
Given that the pandemic has affected almost every industrialized and wealthy country in the world, the economic crisis—in theory—should be equally distributed among everyone since the virus is indifferent to geographical borders and social systems. I fear, however, that the current economic crisis and the one that will follow—which is already in place—will exacerbate the divide between “virtuous” and “vicious” countries, or, leaving aside a moral lexicon, between strong and weak countries. Germany’s and China’s economies, for example, will be strengthened, while Italy and Greece (with Spain and Portugal falling somewhere between) will be weakened even further. Indeed, the IMF already predicts that the recession will most seriously affect countries that were already in financial distress, like Italy and Greece. The coronavirus will amplify preexisting inequalities. Distances between countries will increase as though the world were an expanding universe.
It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic could have long-term consequences if the virus is not eradicated: the fact of living with the virus would permanently change our social life. As such, people are now designing factories, offices, restaurants, and bars in which people will be separated from one another by panes of glass: we will avoid overcrowding public transport, stadiums, concert halls, movie theatres …
Nonetheless, if a vaccine is found, or should the epidemic be contained within acceptable limits, everything will return to how it was before. Or, rather, the transformative processes that were already underway will simply be more evident: for instance, the limiting of our lives to our homes, which will increasingly become offices as well as places to entertain (as I tried to show in “Estizzazione. La nostra vita dopo il coronavirus” [“Hestiation: Our Life After the Coronavirus”]) . Locking people in their homes will not make anyone better off; this is merely a consolatory rhetoric repeated by politicians and journalists. Mere rhetoric like that of those who say that people who leave prison after months or even years are somehow better people! Everybody knows that often it is the contrary.
Actually, past pandemics have left few signs, as was the case with the Spanish flu. The same can be said for the cholera epidemics that ravaged the 19th century and, even earlier, the black plague, which, according to many estimates, eliminated a third of the European population towards the second half of the 14th century. If we were to read a book about the political history of that time, we would hardly realize that the 14th century had undergone a genocide of such magnitude. Prior to the plague, the king of England, Edward III, had invaded France, and that war continued, undisturbed by the epidemic, for around a hundred years. Political orders were hardly affected, and, what changes there were, were not brought about by the black plague. Indeed, after the 14th-century epidemic, the economy improved since many survivors found themselves the sudden heirs of very large properties, and such a concentration of wealth allowed for new investments and as a result the revival of the economy itself.
The bitter truth about something as bitter as a pandemic is that such deaths have little effect on history. The loss of a common life, that is, of one physical, real life, “bare life,” may be very important for those who are close to it and who love it, but it is historically insignificant.
The bitter truth about something as bitter as a pandemic is that such deaths have little effect on history. The loss of a common life, that is, of one physical, real life, “bare life,” may be very important for those who are close to it and who love it, but it is historically insignificant. History is immoral, even cruel, because it values meaning above even life itself.
Let us assume that all elderly people, everyone over 65 (that would include me, since I am 72) died: what would change? A Shakespearian fool would say that the world would be changed for the better. The burden of pensions would no longer be shouldered by hardworking youth, the burden of the elderly, whose financial and medical upkeep costs so much, would no longer weigh on them. The youngest would become, ipso facto, richer, and the healthcare system—at present clogged with the needs of the elderly—would suddenly work like new again. Of course, every family would mourn the sudden disappearance of their elderly, at least those they loved (we should not assume that every old person is lovable, because so many are not), but that’s my point exactly, each family would mourn the loss of its elderly. If an old person had died of a stroke instead, that person’s family would have mourned him all the same. Individual losses do not add up, they remain singular. Such arithmetic is odd, since the value of a single death cannot be added to the value of any other. Their sum is only a sociological abstraction, of interest only to economists and planners. It is not the number of deaths that counts but their meaning, their historical incidence. A single death—Franz Ferdinand’s, for instance, in Sarajevo in 1914—can change the course of history, while millions of deaths change absolutely nothing. As Mao wrote in the red book: “Some deaths are as heavy as boulders, while others are as light as feathers.”
Sergio Benvenuto is a psychoanalyst, philosopher, and researcher at the National Research Council (CNR) in Rome, Italy. Since 1995, he has been the editor of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis (EJP) and a member of the Editorial Board of American Imago. He has also contributed to journals such as Telos, Lettre Internationale, Journal for Lacanian Studies, L’évolution psychiatrique, Division/Review, and Psychoanalytic Discourse. His publications, in many different languages, include: “Perversion and Charity: An Ethical Approach,” in D. Nobus & L. Downing (eds.), Perversion: Psychoanalytic Perspectives / Perspectives on Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2006, pp. 59-78); with A. Molino, In Freud’s Tracks (New York: Aronson, 2008); What Are Perversions? (London: Karnac, 2016); and Conversations with Lacan (London: Routledge, 2020). Read more at http://www.sergiobenvenuto.it
 Benvenuto’s neologism, “estizzazione” (hestiation), takes its name from the ancient Greek goddess of the hearth, Hestia, and here refers to the containment of the entirety of social life within the walls of domestic life. Translators’ note. Return to the text.