One of the most powerful impacts of the pandemic has been on public space: the isolation and the new emptiness of the city with its deserted streets. People have fought against that void, opening windows and balconies to allow the street to enter their homes and their confinement to become kinder. Or, in the opposite direction, sharing through social networks the landscapes that some lucky people could contemplate from their homes. This is what Žižek (2020), a Lacanian philosopher calls the new communism, set in motion by the epidemic, a new form of relationship based on greater solidarity.
We can consider the urban space as a transitional territory in which the interior and the exterior are delimited as are the rules to cross between them (Langan, 2000). It is a space that configures meeting areas which make possible creativity and favor interpersonal links (Angel, 2000; Jemstedt, 2000; Schinaia, 2014). Some people go so far as to say that urban space makes possible the appearance of the “true self” of the individual (Rodman, 2005). Each society constructs for itself a space that adjusts to its needs (Lefebvre, 1991) and that for Bollas (2000) represents the unconscious dispositions of the group that inhabits it. A defining space of the group in which can be perceived both the real territory full of limitations and sometimes threatening (Stein, 2019), and the longed for and searched for ideal space. The ideal space constitutes one more facet of the Ideal Ego constructed on the model of infantile narcissism (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973). The ideal space is the context that surrounds the Ideal Ego and colors the object relations in which it manifests itself. Different societies have experienced the spatial impact of the pandemic in predictably different ways. The city is the place that has received the greatest impact. For some groups the empty streets awaken pain and loss, in others they evoke a mixture of relief because what is damaged is a hostile place that is perceived as alien. The familiar controversy between the city and the countryside (Bettelheim, 1991; Fors, 2018) is reproduced here.
Theoretical physics teaches us that space and time can be considered as a single dimension. Also, in the inner world space and time are closely linked. The spaces of the pandemic are largely waiting spaces, spaces linked to time. We wait until the confinement is over, until we return to normal life, until the pandemic disappears, until the treatment or vaccine arrives, until we are reunited with our friends, colleagues or loved ones, until the streets and buildings are once again overflowing with activity.
Individual identity is the result of a complex, lifelong process, the key elements of which are personal, emotionally significant attachments. Our internal world is thus delimited by the representations of self and object, linked by a specific affect and interacting between them (Kernberg, 2006). It is tempting to think that the environment, the backdrop of this link, might represent yet one more element. A setting that acts as a “stain of color” that somehow “tinges” all that is strictly related and which, at the same time, is a repository of projections as it is loaded with history, with the past. We could conjecture that the environment, the urban space that surrounds us, complements that object configuration of our internal world by constituting a repository of projections loaded with history that somehow involve the relational (Gonzalez-Torres & Fernandez-Rivas, 2020). This way, the distance imposed on us by the pandemic also calls into question our own identity. If I separate myself from others, I separate myself from myself. That is why, together with the separation from people, there is a rapprochement in the internal space resulting from the need to protect our identity. Every feeling implies a mutuality and every encounter, in real or imaginary space, not only makes the representation of the object more solid, but also that of the self. COVID-19 empties the cities and confines us at home, isolated and afraid. In this way, when we move away from others, it questions our identity and forces us to protect it.
In the midst of confinement if we must go out into the streets in our city, we find an oppressive, strange, disturbing, inhuman void. What is human is the crowd of the city. We have a general tendency to gather in order to learn, to work, to enjoy. Little by little the empty streets of the city are populated by other inhabitants: doves, seagulls, or even rats at their leisure where they would never have dared before. It is a suggestive image: the forces of the unconscious manifest themselves little by little once our absence opens the barriers that limited them. These primitive forces are always on the prowl and they gain great strength in some confined groups generating a resurgence of violence within the home, such as child and spousal abuse. And the children are confused by the empty and dangerous spaces. The playgrounds closed before an invisible enemy that they do not understand but that frightens everyone. Bruno Bettelheim (1991) emphasizes how the city does not consist only of streets and buildings, however significant these may be, but also of the people around us. Bettelheim quotes Shakespeare: “the people are the city” and Thucydides: “it is men who make the city, not walls or ships” (p. 177). The city possesses a maternal tint for its inhabitants and, especially for the child, a tint of both a protective and an asphyxiating womb. And suddenly the pandemic pushes us towards a story reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) or Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003). An almost empty space where identity is sustained by intense passions that manifest themselves in a climate of absence. Absence of scenarios that modulate, nuance, and connect.
This new role of space has also affected therapies. There were recommendations from the authorities to reduce face-to-face contacts as much as possible. In some cases, patients were relieved to hear the news because they saw offices and hospitals as dangerous places to spread the disease. Others experienced it as an unfair loss that took them away from the therapist in times of special suffering. In general mental health work, telephone calls were often chosen, especially with patients who were already known and stable. Interestingly, many patients live with appreciation for this peculiar inversion of initiative. The clinician “visits” the patient at home through the phone call, which is often perceived as a gift from the practitioner. In the field of psychotherapy and specifically psychoanalytical work, many have discovered the possibilities of online work. Even very experienced colleagues, not at all used to new technologies, have found to their surprise that quality work is possible. Different but certainly “good enough.” Obviously, there are repercussions at the transferential and countertransferential level that are perhaps most clearly perceived with patients with severe personality disorders in which the intensity of these phenomena is greater. The lack of physical presence and the very real possibility that only by pressing one key the other disappears introduces new elements that modify the existing analyst-analysand dynamics (see Harris et al., 2021). Without a doubt, the long experience with online supervisions with colleagues from other parts of the world has been very useful to many of us, facilitating a certain familiarity with online contact. It is early to assess the negative impact of these changes, which have undoubtedly existed within and outside of mental health and psychotherapies. Patients who required detailed in-person evaluations have only received calls, long delayed consultations, hospital admissions that could have been avoided, non-urgent surgery postponed sine die. Even in places like Bilbao, with an advanced universal public health system, the pandemic has directly and indirectly endangered the health of citizens.
In most cities there are “highly cathected” spaces that are part of the memory of many and contribute especially to the identity of the city and its inhabitants. They are spaces that have often constituted the stage of our memories, the backdrop of relational encounters that have gradually shaped basic elements of our identity. In some cases, these spaces belong by right to the Ideal Ego of the social group in question since they give rise to ideal visions of the group with which its members identify. They occupy the role of social or cultural amplifiers (Volkan, 2019, 2020) that individuals in the group consider to be representative of the collective identity. An example could be the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which in a few years has won not only the approval but also the enthusiasm of the conservative population of Bilbao, which has embraced its new museum with passion. The presence of this museum and its rooms full of visitors contribute to the new identity of the city that is escaping from a painful past of loss and ruin (Gonzalez-Torres & Fernandez-Rivas, 2020). The empty museum during the confinement is not only the reflection of a disappearance of the visitors but also an attack against the identity of the citizen group. If the functioning museum points to a new group identity, what is the impact of the empty space? Rooms full of works of art waiting to be observed. It could be said that the identity of the city is therefore suspended, all pending the reunion with that which granted a new identity to repair. Empty streets, closed cinemas, museums without visitors force us to the difficult task of representing absence (Green, 2005) and can push us to identify with that strange and sad scenario that now surrounds us. A place with life in suspense, waiting for an undated change.
Žižek, in his recent book on the pandemic (2020), describes how Christ, in St. John’s Gospel, warns Mary Magdalene after his resurrection: “Noli me tangere,” “Do not touch me.” It is love and not the certainty of touch that, according to the Gospel, will make Christ present. The sanitary chaos that we are experiencing pushes us to seek contact with the other through distance, that famous social distance that in some sense has brought us closer. Confinement has distanced us physically from some loved ones, but instead it has provoked calls, contacts, long conversations always postponed with distant friends, genuine concern for the well-being of others, real pain for the suffering of friends. Like the Magdalene, the prohibition of direct contact has forced us to think about the others, about those we miss or those we love. The kiss and the embrace have disappeared but perhaps this imposed distance has led us to a different treatment perhaps, paradoxically, closer. The pandemic produces a new and double conception of space. An external space in which individuals move away from each other to protect and shelter each other. Another internal one in which distances are shortened and ties are tightened.