High Anxiety

Sigmund Freud was a perverted old cokehead, but he had some useful insights.  One of them is that anxiety works like a spring (my paraphrase).  You need a spring to have a certain tension in order to work, but if you compress it too tightly, it breaks.  Anxiety that can’t be discharged (his term) in healthy, socially beneficial ways instead gets discharged in unhealthy, neurotic ways.

That’s what happened with Anna O., history’s most famous psychiatric patient.  She had a very turbulent love/hate relationship with her father, as tightly wound girls do.  When he became deathly ill on a family vacation, the unresolvable tension caused a whole host of physical symptoms, including hysterical paralysis.  Pioneering psychologist Josef Breuer “talked her through” it, finally resolving the emotional conflict and “curing” the patient.

All this would’ve been interesting, but largely irrelevant, were it not for World War I.  The world at large didn’t care about the problems of overprivileged Jewish girls, but they did care about their soldiers suddenly going crazy in the trenches.  Once military doctors finally ruled out a physical cause*, they were left with Freudian explanations: A soldier can’t stop fighting, because he’s an honorable, dutiful soldier.  Yet that soldier must stop fighting.  The only honorable way out is a wound.  If the enemy doesn’t wound him, then, his subconscious will.  Hence the bizarre “conversion disorders” — hysterical blindness, paralysis, mutism, etc. — characteristic of “shell shock.”

But a funny thing happened.  While everyone now acknowledged the real power of the subconscious mind, we sort of… forgot… about it.  Psychology, particularly psychotherapy, went back to being a ghetto Jewish preoccupation.  Bored, over-privileged housewives might go to a shrink to talk through their “issues,” but as for the rest of us, well, if we weren’t going into combat anytime soon, why bother?  Outside of a few crusty old reactionaries (like yours truly) making fun of SJWs, when was the last time you heard the word “neurotic”?

But that’s the thing: either the subconscious is real, or it isn’t.  When we say “neurotic” (the few of us who still do), we usually mean people like Anna O. — rich, cosseted, politically active human toothaches who try to force the entire world into the all-encompassing drama of their Daddy Issues (see also: Virginia Woolf).  But that’s not how Freud meant it.  According to him, we’re all neurotic to some degree or another, because that’s just how anxiety works.

We all have strong emotional impulses that run counter our self-image.  Hence the entire panoply of pop-Freudianism: The preacher who constantly rails against homosexuality from the pulpit is secretly gay (“projection”).  The strict, controlling, everything-in-its-place type is a sadist (“anal-retentive”).  The player who can’t settle down with any woman is actually trying to find a Mommy figure (“Oedipus complex“).  And, of course, the — ahem — daddy of them all, the crippling Daddy Issues that make feminists such fun.

But that’s just the thing: Either anxiety works that way or it doesn’t.  Just because we don’t see a specific syndrome in ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole bunch of anxiety we need to discharge.  Just because it’s subclinical, in other words, doesn’t mean it’s not real, or unimportant.  See for example the legions of keyboard commandos who show up in the comments of any blog with more than fourteen readers.  Yeah, sure, it’s possible that those guys all got kicked out of SEAL Team 6 for being too badass… but it’s probably classic identification.  They’re deeply uneasy about the world and their place in it, so they construct themselves an identity as the Rambo of Evergreen Terrace.

With me?  And now, at long last, to the point: The Wuhan Flu.  This is that.

Everyone who has thought about it for five minutes knows that something’s not right.  Scroll through the comments here and here.  As y’all have noted, actual hard information on the coronavirus is hard to come by.  Is it fully air-transmissible?  What are the infection rates?  Hell, what are the death totals?  And speaking of the death totals, even if you trust China’s figures (which no reasonable person can possibly do), they seem…. low.  Like, really low.  I actually trust Italy’s government to deliver some vague approximation of the truth, and even there, where they’re in full-blown freakout mode, it seems to kill off old folks with compromised immune systems and lung problems at a fractionally higher rate than your garden-variety flu.

So, you know… it’s the flu.  Not great by any means, and more infectious (possibly) than some other flus in our recent past, but for all that just the flu.  The ongoing sky-is-falling global freakout has next to nothing to do with the actual bug.  We live in a deeply anxious age, and that anxiety has to discharge somehow.  It’s global hysteria — classic hysteria, Freudian hysteria, an excess of stress that must be discharged by “converting” it into behavior.

The people who are freaking out about it aren’t worried about dying from it.  No, really, they’re not.  Nor should they be — no reasonably healthy person under age 70 has any reason to be worried about that.  Instead, what they’re worried about is powerlessness.  We’ve all long suspected that we’re ruled by idiots and grifters.  We’ve all long sensed that our “leaders” hold us in deep contempt.  And we’ve long known that none of our problems are worth anything to the global pirate capitalist class.  The only reason those bastards care if we all drop dead from the plague is that they can’t sell enough iCrap to each other to keep the company stock price up.

We know this.  But we can’t say it, and we can’t act on it, because doing so goes against our self-image.  Our media, our education system, our “culture” (such as it is) has spent the last half-century telling us what special and unique snowflakes we all are, even as it’s forcing us into ever-greater conformity.  We’ve broken all the taboos, transgressed all the boundaries, liberated all the oppressed.  If there ever were to be such a thing as “social justice,” then truly we’ve achieved it, here in this best of all possible worlds where you can lose your job for not addressing your co-worker as a wingless golden-skinned dragonkin and 6’2″ dudes with beards down to their collarbones can go wee-wee in the little girls’ room….

….and yet.  And yet.  And yet feminists (just to stick with a theme), despite running everything for the last 30 years, still can’t get that lousy 25 cent raise.  Seven out of every five college girls are sexually assaulted the minute they step on campus, despite boys being as rare as sasquatches on most campuses (and despite the ever-growing clamor for free college for everyone).  You’re free to — hell, you’re practically required to — make up your own pronouns, but you’re not allowed to ask just how a degree in “gender studies” could be worth even one dollar in student loan debt, let alone one hundred thousand dollars.  We keep agitating for change, keep voting for it, keep tweeting about it… and nothing happens.

That profound sense of powerlessness is exactly, and I do mean exactly, what screwed up Anna O.  She hated her father for not allowing her any personal agency.  In her heart of hearts she wanted him dead.  And yet she knew herself to be a loving daughter, so that overwhelming sense of relief — indeed, of joy — she felt when he kicked the bucket sent her around the bend.

And so it goes with us.  We can’t get off the college / McJob / debt / frivolous consumption treadmill… and yet we must.  Life can’t go on this way…. so it won’t.  We can’t consciously stop working, stop buying, stop watching sportsball, stop running our kids from daycare to soccer practice to SAT prep to study dates… so we’ll do it unconsciously.

The question then becomes: What happens when the anxiety is discharged?

The reason psychoanalysis works — and it does work, though not in the way Freud thought it did — is because the patient brings all this unconscious stuff into her conscious mind.  She commits to small, meaningful changes, which themselves form the basis for a new, changed identity.  Are we going to see that?  Are the obsessive sports-watchers (classic transference, obviously) going to wake up and realize that hey, I didn’t die after 48 hours of no sportsball, maybe I should think about that?  Or will we go back to the same pattern?

Hysterics are hysterical because it works.  All that psychic energy has to go somewhere.  The key is bringing the conflict into consciousness.  If we really want to affect meaningful change, my fellow Dissidents, now is the time.  Be ready to “help” your friends and neighbors once the panic burns out in a few weeks.


*”Shell shock” was originally hypothesized to be a result of spinal trauma from the constant vibration of heavy shelling.
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10 thoughts on “High Anxiety

  1. Fifteenth Reader

    I’m looking forward to being “socially distant.” I always wanted to be a hermit. Aren’t we all just a little excited to see the old globalist order develop cracks, and finally, perhaps to collapse.

    Its interesting that you brought up shell shock. I used to be involved in medical research into head trauma. Shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD,or whatever it is called now, most likely is due to brain damage due to blast waves from high explosives first used extensively in WWI.

    After WWI doctors were evenly split on this new condition, not seen in any previous wars. Some thought it was due to brain damage, others to psychological stress. There were tens of thousands with shell shock. When the British government realized that they would have to pay out permanent disability to soldiers with a physical cause for shell shock and not if the shell shock was merely a psychological condition, they decided it was all in the soldiers minds. This shut down any more research into the physical causes of shell shock until recently.

    File under Government Is Good For Ya, No Really It Is.

    1. Severian Post author

      There’s a serious organic component to PTSD, no doubt. They didn’t have a very good understanding of the endocrine system back then, so they can’t be faulted for missing it. But there IS a significant psychological component, as there is to any and all illnesses. Reductionism is the curse of all human thought.

      1. Pickle Rick

        My stress came not from going to war or having my head thumped by a few thousand howitzer rounds going out right next to me. It came when I was tossed back into this civilian clown world. The panicking masses got no idea what bad means. Hell, I’m enjoying this. If everything goes Mad Max for a little while I’ll feel alive again. I’ll be useful again. I’ll be feared again.

        And an aside for PTSD in WWI- it’s not bumping your brain or bad shit that drove the Tommies and the others around the bend. It was dealing with the retards and idiots and the mud and wet and rats and shit over and over again and not being able to control anything. You’re every single waking moment sucks and you can’t do a damn thing about it. You are literally able to kill and at exactly the same time completely powerless. I had moments in my war that made me want to scream like a lunatic, and my war experience was mercifully a pale imitation of the meat grinder of the Western Front.

  2. WOPR

    I can buy that as a theory. That the Wuhan Flu is simply the catalyst for releasing the pent up tensions that are the current day world. It makes sense if the whole thing is a relatively benign as the flu. It is definitely more reasonable than the loons who think it is an American/Israeli bio-weapon or a plot to finally crush all resistance to the government.

    Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Something gets loose through incompetence, shoddy controls, or greed from the Wuhan lab. The Chinese, once they realize it’s in the wild, proceeded to tank their economy by quarantining a chunk of the country. If it was just a flu variant wiping out old people, the ChiComs would probably be happy to let it run its course. That’s not how they reacted though. They mobilized like the Europeans were back to recreate the 19th century. Meanwhile, everyone else gets very skittish about whatever the disease is. If this were a movie from the 70’s, the conspiracy loons would be going on about how this is far worse than the gov’t is letting on. In the 2020’s, it’s how the gov’t is exaggerating it. I just wonder if it might be something worse than they are letting on and it’s a let’s not panic everyone move?

    1. Severian Post author

      I assume the regular 14 know this, but for the benefit of any new readers, a disclaimer: I’m NOT saying “the Wuhan Flu” is baloney. It’s real, it’s nasty. But it’s just the flu, which yearly kills a million or so people worldwide.

      What’s unprecedented is the freakout. Like most everyone, I’m fond of proclaiming that if a Democrat were in the White House, this whole thing would be no big deal. “Coronavirus? Never heard of it!” But… I honestly don’t think so. Yeah, the Media gave Obama the benefit of all possible doubt — to say the least!! — when it came to Swine Flu, Ebola, etc. But the social climate really was different back then, and Obama was a big part of it.

      No, really, stop laughing — lots of people really BELIEVED that Hope ‘n’ Change bullshit. They believed it with all their hearts and souls. They believed it because they WANTED to believe it — that our brave new world of Exploding Muhammads and endless airport lines and endless war and endless surveillance was just a glitch. Looking back on it, the amazing thing about 2016 wasn’t that Trump won; it’s that it was even remotely close. By 2016 it was obvious to the dullest dullard that Obama was just another lying do-nothing politician, and Hillary would be a whole lot more of the same. Trump was the ultimate anti-status quo candidate.

      Which brings us to Trump. Even people who want to give him the benefit of every possible doubt — the jackalopes who call him the “God Emperor” etc. — will admit, if you press them, that 2020 looks an awful lot like 2012, if not 2002. For all the supposedly great economic news, it’s still gloom and doom everywhere you look. I was back on campus recently, visiting a colleague, and the undergrads were all walking around like they were in the Gulag. This isn’t because they’re all depressed about Trump; most college kids, like most kids everywhere, are completely apolitical. They’re just bummed, when they should be the happiest critters on the planet — economy great, wars winding down, etc. They just feel that something’s really off….

      … and they’re not wrong. All they hear in class is “everything’s terrible! America is incorrigibly racist, sexist, transphobic, blah blah blah.” But no matter where they look, they don’t see that shit. On the other hand, they also hear “everything’s great! Full employment yadda yadda”, and they don’t see that either. They see a bunch of aimless, unmotivated people just going through the motions. Nobody’s planning for the future, and you’re not allowed to talk about the past, so what can you do? It’s tremendously unsettling, tremendously stressing.

      And then this flu outbreak, where it’s obvious that nobody has any idea what the hell they’re doing. It feels GREAT to finally be able to point the finger at someone, anyone — “you, yes YOU, [specifically-named individual], screwed the pooch.” Be it Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, the boys at the Chinese biowarfare lab, Angela Merkel, the Prime Minister of Italy, whoever. And — this is the best part, from the “release of anxiety” perspective — anyone and everyone can take action for themselves, where the government failed. We can hunker down heroically. We can binge-watch Netflix. We can buy toilet paper in industrial lots. And best of all, we can jump on our social media and advertise to the world that we’re doing it, and get all kinds of upvotes and retweets and comments for it.

      It’s all about restoring AGENCY, in other words, after so many years and decades of being told to “be the change” — and actually trying to be that change — and getting jack squat for it.

      The really fun part is going to be the aftermath. Unless this thing actually IS bubonic plague 2.0 — and I mean that seriously — there’s going to be major social upheaval. I want you to seriously consider this question: What death toll would justify all this? Seriously, as cold-blooded as it sounds, I want you to put a number on it. (The Z Man discussed this today, if you’re stuck). 100,000? 1,000,000? 10,000,000? Whatever that number is, if the death toll falls short of that, you’re going to have some epically pissed-off people, because the government response seemed to be — hell, it WAS — both heavy-handed and completely ineffective.

      Yeah yeah, I know, the argument will be “The death total wasn’t that high because of all those heavy-handed measures.” And, of course, that’s probably correct. But it won’t FEEL correct, and in a mass anxiety event like this, feelings are all that matter.

      If it’s not actually, literally the end of the world in April, it’s going to be one very fucking interesting world in August.

      1. contrariandutchman

        Its not the flu and its not the Black death mkII, its something in the middle and given how fragile Western society already was, yes, there -will- be upheaval regardless of whats done or not done from here.

        1. contrariandutchman

          I should add that it is not Black death mkII only because means of control are much better now then in the 1300s.

  3. Vizzini

    Pioneering psychologist Josef Breuer “talked her through” it, finally resolving the emotional conflict and “curing” the patient.

    According to the Wikipedia page you link to, Breuer didn’t cure her in the least. She got worse. He ended his treatment and she went into a sanatorium. She eventually recovered on her own, no thanks to Breuer. If that’s what the quotation marks around “curing” are intended to mean, that’s a lot to pack into two punctuation marks.

    1. Severian Post author

      Yeah, I know. But Anna O. is still the paradigm case for psychotherapy, because Breuer and Freud wrote it up in Studies on Hysteria. The method works, they said, even if it didn’t in this particular case. Freud was one of the world’s great self-promoters.

  4. Frip

    “Sigmund Freud was a perverted old cokehead.” I’m not into message t-shirts. But I’d love to wear that one while strolling down a Manhattan sidewalk. Hell most people would agree. I read his case studies when I was a teen. Even then they struck me as a bunch of Just-So stories. His writing was great though.

    This post was classic Severian whirlwind where trying to follow the thesis makes you feel like a frustrated Jack Nicholson trying to track down Danny through that snow maze.

    Sev: “And then this flu outbreak, where it’s obvious that nobody has any idea what the hell they’re doing. It feels GREAT to finally be able to point the finger at someone, anyone — “you, yes YOU, screwed the pooch.” Sums it up nicely.

    You’re right, the concept of “neurotic” isn’t as well known as it should be. It’s much better known than it used to be though. A psy concept that is terribly overused is “projection”. It’s just a comeback line now. Like saying, “I’m a dick? No YOU’RE the dick!”

    Sev: “Seven out of every five college girls are sexually assaulted the minute they step on campus.” Damn that was funny.

    Neuroticsm is much discussed now, but as the idea of free will being a fiction. That’s really come on strong again in the last 15 years. People being ruled by their circuitry. Their nerves…nervous system. Neurotics, all of us.

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