Last month a rumor began to spread faster than a virus in the rose garden: life after the pandemic is going to be like the Roaring Twenties after the Spanish Flu.
It was a surprisingly optimistic forecast set against news about botched vaccine rollouts and political strife that led to an attempted takeover of our nation’s Capitol.
As a New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I generally find hope to be a precious, if precarious thing. So, I’ve been mulling over the optimistic comparison to our Mad Decade.
For a while, I even repeated it. But the analogy is wrong.
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The Spanish Flu was part of a greater American tale of victory in World War I, which reinforced our shared ideals about man and country. Our current state of national loss is better compared to the aftermath of Vietnam or Soviet Russia, where the culture was unable to process and move on, from trauma.
The prognosis is worrisome but not terminal. To avoid repeating the mistakes we made in healing, or not, from Vietnam, we will need to consciously begin a process of cultural mourning.
We can look to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, to understand how to begin mourning and why it’s necessary.
Freud spoke of loss in his landmark 1917 essay, Mourning and Melancholia, a year before World War I ended, and the Spanish Flu began. Freud considered both mourning and melancholy a reaction to “the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as [one’s country], liberty, an ideal, and so on.”
Freud regards mourning as the normal and gradual process of consciously accepting a loss. He describes melancholy, on the other hand, as a continuous unresolved sadness. Melancholia occurs when accepting a loss is not possible, a condition that can lead to a host of other psychological consequences, including psychosis.
So what happens if the losses from the past year are ones we can’t, or don’t, mourn?
To this end, Freud gives a relatable example: “the case of the betrothed girl who has been jilted.” (I don’t know why it has to be a girl; for my purposes I will imagine a gay engagement gone awry).
Such a loss would be more straightforward, but no less painful, if the groom had died. The deserted bride, however, is left to contend not just with loss, but with conflicting feelings like love, hate and idealization, where she overvalues the groom and undervalues herself.
Like after the Vietnam War, the losses and trauma of 2020 are complex. There is loss of human life, the straightforward kind of loss that must be mourned, and which millions of Americans are already grieving. But there are other losses, felt acutely this week: of an ideal, of liberty, of a way of life, of what it means to be American or a democracy.
The Spanish Flu followed World War I, which for this country ended with a victory, and therefore a reinforcement of American ideals. That unifying victory stands in stark contrast to the polarization that plagued our national discourse even before the pandemic, let alone how we might all feel after it becomes a bad memory.
In the last year, Americans have felt like the jilted bride, including, or especially, the ones President Donald Trump weaponized last Wednesday.
Freud gives several bad outcomes for those who can’t mourn.
Let’s imagine ourselves as the jilted bride and “America” — our idea of it — as the deserting groom. Freud says you can continue to idealize “America” by believing yourself unworthy and deserving of the jilting; you can cure your disillusionment by idealizing a savior instead and jump from one bad engagement to another; you can harness anger and become a sadist groom who jilts other Americans; or you can head down an increasingly psychotic path where, against all reason, you refuse to believe you were jilted.
That last group is QAnon.
Or, instead of any of those scenarios, we could choose to mourn.
Historian and cultural scientist Alexander Etkind’s 2013 comparison of the French and Russian Revolutions, Warped Mourning, Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied, is useful here.
Etkind describes the Bals des victimes, or “Victims’ Balls,” that purportedly followed the French Revolution, when dance societies would invite relatives of the guillotined to balls that were equal parts morbid and decadent. According to Etkind, women would wear red ribbons around their necks, elaborate funeral costumes with crepe armbands or go barefoot in aristocratic imitation of Greco-Roman bacchanalia.
As bizarre as they were, Etkind argued, the balls manifested mourning through a symbolic reenactment of loss by the generation that survived, which is precisely what the disappearances of Russians to gulag labor camps made impossible under Lenin and Stalin.
Etkind uses Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia to explain how what can’t be mourned can only haunt us. He elaborates on that haunting in his use of another Freudian concept, repetition compulsion, or when a person subconsciously reenacts their trauma in an effort to resolve it.
To Etkind, the inability to mourn not only meant that Soviet Russia didn’t have its own Victims’ Balls, but that not having Victims’ Balls meant the survivors of one wave of terror would become the perpetrators of the next wave. This cycle didn’t end until the 1960s, when prisoners began to return from gulag camps and tell incomprehensible stories of trauma.
There is practically no way to know when a person, let alone an entire culture, is ready to mourn. There are just the painful and recognizable casualties of enactment, repetition, and of being haunted by what can’t be buried.
But what is known is that half a century later, French artists became fascinated with the excess and decline of the French Empire, and fashioned the Decadent movement out of it. Half a century after Marie Antoinette died by the guillotine, the French Decadent poet Robert de Montesquiou started hosting garden parties, where guests dressed as the late Queen.
You can begin to see the slow arc of terror-turned-back-into-mourning: hauntings and unconscious repetition, making space for memory and conscious loss.
It takes at least fifty years for this arc to transpire, according to Etkind. So, what can we do if it’s our grandkids who will roar with artistic dynamism in the 2070s, long after we have left the party?
Perhaps it falls to us to create the new Bals des victimes, the bizarre rituals that in the next decade will allow a bit of mourning to begin. Maybe we all plant roses so we can have our own garden parties where we cover one kid in glitter and see by the end of the night who sparkles. Maybe New York drag queens will inaugurate A Night of a Thousand Melanias.
Or, maybe next year, we’ll don our Halloween masks until November 7 and then celebrate outside in the streets with disregard for the weather.
For my part, I’ve decided to spend the winter making my own playing card deck. The trump cards are silly American Kings and Queens, who play war and shoot the moon, but who can also be safely put away at the end of the game.
The Twenties may not roar the way we hoped, but that doesn’t annul the need to begin imagining a new Decadent. If we’re lucky, we may escape the gulag yet.