The global COVID-19 pandemic shares many similarities with the Spanish Flu that ravaged the world after the First World War. Here we explore how Freud reacted to that crisis and how modern psychoanalysis has responded in 2020.
The Spanish Flu pandemic struck the Freud family with tragic results. Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, Freud’s beloved daughter, died suddenly from the influenza while pregnant with her third child. Freud and his wife Martha were devastated.
Although the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 are different strains of diseases, similar measures were taken by governments worldwide and by individuals. Schools, shops and restaurants closed, restrictions were placed on transportation and social distancing was encouraged.
In the midst of this turmoil and tragedy Freud wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle, attempting to answer a question at the very heart of psychoanalysis. This led to his last great speculative breakthrough, a new ‘dual instinct’ theory represented by the life drive and the death drive.
A new exhibition at the Freud Museum London explores the ways Freud himself responded to the global and personal tragedy of the pandemic in 1918-20. On display will be rarely-seen letters written by Freud to friends and colleagues in the days after Sophie’s death, exposing personal reflections on death and loss.
Alongside these historical reflections will be contemporary psychoanalytic observations of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a series of new short videos featuring contributions from clinicians and researchers. Artworks by Julia Lockheart, who has painted the dreams of frontline health workers as part of the DreamsID project, will also be displayed. DreamsID was launched as an art – science collaboration in which psychologist Mark Blagrove discusses the dream of an individual while artist Julia Lockheart paints it, using the pages of Freud’s famous book The Interpretation of Dreams as canvas.
Isolation, online therapy and social upheavals have profoundly affected our inner lives and posed important questions about clinical theory and the future of the mental health provision.