034 :: On The Nature Of A Death Wish

Sergei Loznitsa, 2018, The Trial, still image from the documentary. While top engineers and scientists are tried by the special council of the supreme court of the USSR in Moscow in 1930, the masses on the streets vent dark desires.

In this current situation of war, we might have to be careful what to wish for. It might be that the mental pain of Mr. Putin’s aggression not only extends to us all but also feeds back to a dangerous escalation of the conflict. 

In recent private conversations one particular sentence keeps on popping up. I want to kill Putin. The statement at first blends in into the daily discourse, appears as an understandable emotional reaction to the current events. These are ordinary people. They go about their daily business, have their lives, their jobs, their children, are integrated and adjusted to life in society. Yet, the recurrence of this particular statement becomes bewildering after a while, its message compacted and reinforced at each and every repetition. Do they really want? Should this be taken seriously? Do I want to? What keeps them? 

It is a sunny spring Sunday in Vienna, the first after a long dark winter. The pandemic has taken its tolls, yet the signs point towards relief and the resuming of a normal public life is anticipated. Freedom days. On this day it comes as a sudden shock as the Russian nuclear arsenal is set into alertness. Something awakens. What is going to happen? Uncertainty looms. Memories of our fathers and mothers having lived under the atomic threat bubble up. Is this the end of normalty as we know? The answer is, we don’t know. We can not know. Wild guesses, opinions are circulated, experts are calculating the probabilities. What is also true though, that that what has happened a few days ago, the invasion of Ukraine, took all by surprise. No one would have thought this would happen. 

The Trial: Scenes of a spectacle: Left: the audience inside the courtroom, right: gathering outside.

Articulation of a wish by the masses. left: Vienna, 2022; Right: Moscow 1930

The society of the so called free world is shaken, echoes and ripples of the threat run through the population. Peace protest. Also there, the sentence is to be heard. Between the chants, that are amplified and broadcast, this particular wish is circulated. Under the radar. I want to kill Putin. Really? I thought this is about peace? My phantasy is to conduct a poll. How many people actually would want to kill Putin? The result might surprise. The result might go into the Millions. The result might even include people, whom we would have not thought to harbour such wish. Maybe Lavrov, maybe Shoigu, maybe Naryshkin. Questions arise: how must they feel? How are their lives affected? How must it be to serve in such a power pyramid? To be a Russian diplomat? The security council meeting headed by Putin, on February 21, is worthwhile to be seen.

The main question that brought me into motion in writing on this topic is contemplating the possibility of Mr. Putin himself having a certain form of psychic awareness of potentially Millions of individuals harbouring a certain wish towards his death. What would that change? How would that influence the ways things go about? In my profession, psychoanalysis space for thought is given to the investigation of something called the psychic reality. Psychic reality is contrasted to external or objective reality as it intends to include the entirety of a person’s or a certain group’s awareness, perception, thought and feeling. This is fed from two sides, from without, the external stimuli but also from within, from the imaginations, the past experiences, phantasies, anxieties, wishes and so forth. In this regard speculations in recent days have included trying to peer inside Putin’s own mind. Is he a monster? Calculating, rational or is he now showing his ‘true nature’, kept hidden so long. Would we wish him to be the chess playing, judo trained strategist? Would that make it more safe and bearable for us, who are exposed? Maybe. Other trains of thought include the question, as to how this unraveling might be linked to the Covid pandemic as an orchestrated attack against the liberties we took as ours? Is this all a big plan? Is he the cause of all evil? Instead of answering such questions, what might come to the light is that in this present time a so called battle between rational and irrational forces becomes the driving public dynamic which now gruesomely blends into the geopolitical realm. This reflects back onto the nature of mankind, as a psychic hybrid or chimera, governed by an affective and by a cognitive processing system. Myth, magic, ghosts, animisms have always existed and were the result of a compromise of these two constituent realms active in warding off anxiety and providing certainty in the face of darkness. The making of truth has been always been a hard collective labour. Yet, most truths can be doubted, refuted, challenged. From this one particular stands out.

Putting distance between the world and oneself: President Putin receives President Macron in Moscow. February 10, 2022.

If there is any truth, that can be ascertained beyond doubt in this world, which other could it be than that of a wish articulated? The wish for something to happen, for something to become real, comes from the realm of the psyche. Mankind has developed the capacity to form, to maintain, to articulate wishes. Desires that want to be fulfilled, drive and fuel endeavour, become a source of motivation, a source of restlessness. Understanding the gravity and the reality of something that previously might have appeared as a futile statement amongst many, the death wish, which currently appears as an unpublished undercurrent in public discourse, there is no other way than to take its reality seriously.

A matter of life and death. Thomas Ogden has written about currents of liveliness and death in the analytical setting. To put it simple, the question is raised, can one discern elements of life and of death in a communicative situation? Let me restate the driving question of this paper: Might he, Mr. Putin, be contaged by a thought, however conscious, that they are out there to get him? What would the implications of that awareness be? First, it is impossible to look inside his head and to retrieve an answer beyond doubt. Yet, there are ways to find hints. 

Collage of two events: Moscow, 1930: Archival recording of the session of the Soviet supreme court presided by A. Vyshinsky; Moscow, 2022: Recording of the meeting of the security council, presided by V. Putin. Underlying shared phantasy: They, the West, are out to get us.

The scene is located in a grandios interior, a vast imperial marble clad space. One man sits behind a solid colonial white desk, flags behind him. To his left, a lectern to which one after an other a person is summoned. In a surreal distance, a group of individuals seated apart from each other on chairs. The bodies appear exposed and vulnerable as each of the persons can be seen from tip to toe, uneasy trying to find a dignified position. The speaker delivers a predefined speech. Occasional questions of the person behind the desk is interspersed with scolding and reprimanding. This is not what we are here to discuss. Or, more infamously: Speak clearly. It is the scene of the meeting of the Russian security council on February 21. The man behind the desk: President Putin, the group of individuals on the scattered chairs include the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of defence and a range of first tier bureaucrats of the Russian administration.

Leonid Ramzin, 1930, accused of sabotage and treason, RSFSR Penal Code §58 sec. 3,4,6, testifying; V. Putin, 2022, tending to delivered testimonies.

The man behind the desk exhibits a frozen facial expression, hardly any facial muscle is flexed. His eyes at times staring, at times rolling, his hands on the table, exposed, put forward, fingers knocking the desk. The display appears as a person with thinly veiled anger. Impatience. Signs of self restraint betraying aggressive urges. The speaker, delivering a prepared speech, standing, is marked by a different kind of restraint and veiling. The tone of voice, the mimics are geared towards appearing at once resolute and devoted, earnest, and at the same time eager to avoid mistakes that could provoke anger. Each and every one of the speakers seems to recycle arguments that have been stated before spiced up with a personal note. The repetitions naturally invoke anger and boredom of the man behind the desk, the personal notes evoke disdain. As if each speaker would perform in order to save his own life, what comes to be hidden behind the eager and official looking masks if shear fear. The group on the chair, waiting for their turn, reinforce this notion. They are keen in looking relaxed and impartial yet present, changing the position of their legs every now and then in unease. The manifest content of this dreamlike insinuation: All summoned are to confess to agree to the recognition of the independence of the two contested regions Donbass and Lugansk. Tirades against NATO, against the West, against the Ukrainian state are meant to legitimise further action. Each speaker is eager to appear passionate, yet the speeches remain clumsy, repetitive and dead beat, sometimes derailing into vulgarity. Here, the man behind the desk rolls his eyes, looks from the corner of his eyes towards the speaker. If eyes could kill. Pure suffering. It is at first hard to say what exactly is the nature of irritation when watching the scene. An absence of true dissent is felt. Tension. The subtext of this gathering could be understood as forcing and dragging each of the summoned individuals on to the record extracting a confession. Yes, me too, I who stand here, speak my voice, agree that what has to happen is also my own will. Perversion of free will. The bureaucrats are dragged into historical responsibility, their way out is taken, their innocence, if ever there was any, stripped.

A glitch in the matrix: A particular element reappears in both scenes. 1930, Sergei Kupriyanov reprimanded by President Vyshinksy; 2022, V. Putin, scolding S. Naryshkin.

Contrasts to the scene thus witnessed emerge. Images of a heated and truly passionate debate at a European parliament for example. But also scenes that carry similarities of the group dynamic. A proverbial 20th century school class. The teacher, vested with authority, the pupils in fear, silenced and separated from each other, await to be summoned to the black board. Another one which stuck to my mind are the scenes of the showcase trials in the times of Stalin. Watching the 2018 documentary, The Trial, by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, one is exposed to yet another historical perversion of truth which send shivers down one’s spine. It is a bizarre performance, one finds it difficult to decide: is this spectacle a theatre piece or a judicial act? Elements of both are interspersed. An auditorium filled to the brim with an audience awaiting a spectacle, excited anticipation, euphoria, anxiety, restlessness of eyes, chewing, bumping, in front an Apollonian prosecutor, sending thunder and lightning in speech from his elevated position, next a row of judges, fashioning an air of official impartialness. At the center of all: the group of the fallen ones standing trial. It is again a matter of life and death. Who are they? Scientists, engineers, academics, local governors, distinguished and accomplished people in leading positions, with a long history of faithful service of the state enterprise. Here they are. One after the other is summoned to deliver a statement in his own defence. Each in his own temper. Variations of levels of agitation. Through the black and white of the archive reel the gestures are amplified to a slight grotesque, the pitch of their voices painful and cracking, flickering arrested creatures on a cliff losing their dignity. It is excruciating to watch those men delivering a zealous and meticulous account, devote to persuade the others, delivering arguments with scientific precision of their subversive actions and their guilt. Denuding and castrating, one is witness to a manic masochistic passion. Helplessness. They are talking for their lives. Death penalty looms in the air. The twist of the plot is yet delivered at the end, the last scenes devoted to a resume of the sentences handed down to the figures of the scene. All are granted to live, are recycled in remote institutions and the only one having to face death is the diabolic agent of the state, the person of the prosecutor, who a few years later is tried and sentenced to death. Yet, one should not be carried away by that final irony of history, nor try to find console or satisfaction in such circumstantially served justice. 

It is rather the task to ask, what is that, which one finds in these show trials and perceives to be reenacted in the session of the security council? Repetition compulsion. What one can not remember, one is forced to repeat. One of the iconic catch phrases of Freudian psychoanalysis referring to the power of an unconscious determined to return to the scene to master its own unresolved content. There is no simple answer, even though the answer to that can sound simple from the vantage point of Ogden’s observatory, searching for or rather is exposed to experiencing aliveness and deadliness in a particular scene. Yes, the enveloping subject matter in both cases might be found to contain a clear and formalised element of death: the death penalty which the accused ones are facing, the forebodings of a war to come in the case of the security council, but on a more refined scale, it is the performance of the individuals, who without exception, appear as being devoid of liveliness: hollow, predictable, unmodulated, lacking any true spontaneity. Spontaneity is faked, appears insinuated and as such again as a grotesque, mainly in the form of agitated rants, against others or against one self. This notion extends to those, who are not under the immediate threat of their lives taken from them. The ones in power. It is at once deadliness and death, a form of muscular death, facial inertness, which governs the figure of the leader Mr. Putin, he himself angered by the hollowness and boring predictability of the scene of which he himself is the author. Depression is aggression turned against one self, here, the self being extended onto those, who are stripped of their individuality, hijacked, incorporated, a previously held ability to dissent and free and spontaneous articulation eradicated. Demarcations between subjects are blurred, the social group appears as an undifferentiated heap.

Having touched the realm of the intersubjective, what yet concerns me the most in both historical scenes described above, is the invariable resurfacing of the theme of social death. What is meant by this term is a condition, in which the reality of a socialised individual is dominated by an acute and sustained inability to form stable and meaningful relationships. A form of isolation, in the course of which his identity can not be nourished by interactions, either due to an internal incapacitation as in psychotic states or due to an orchestrated withdrawal of the society around him. In both, the element of withdrawal is predominant and the consequences entail psychic depletion, soaring persecutory anxieties and finally disintegration and despair as ties to the symbolic exterior are broken or siphoned off. Proverbial terms which entail this condition have recently come to dominate the public discourse: pariah, witch hunt. The renegade, the outcast, the untouchable constitute variations of the topic, by which an individual is uprooted, expelled, made the projective target of a group, persecution transposed from the realm of phantasy to that of political and social reality. Spells and curses are pronounced, lynchings enacted, the desperate cry in the air: they are out to get me: psychosis. The ones standing trial in Stalin’s show case courts have lost the protection granted by their civil rights, isolated and stripped, they are deemed enemies of the state, the fury of the masses has been directed upon them. So whereas the distance enacted in the recent spatial arrangements in which we can observe Mr. Putin at the end of an incredible vast table and then again in the imperial room of the security council, where his vassals are kept small, dispersed and distant, might at first appear as a grandiose gesture, the space also can be read as a measure of self preservation, social distancing with the consequence of break down of social bonds. They are out to get me. On the other hand, the vassals are extracted confessions, which serve a similar effect: as a consequence, their own ties to the exterior, are broken. For they can no longer carry the hope that the exterior: history, the Russian people, the world, will ever treat them kind.

It is important to understand how these two corresponding phantasies: I want to kill Putin, on one side, and They are out to get me, on the other side are currently compacted day by day and form a psychic undercurrent which transgresses conventional boundaries and frontlines. 

On the one hand, Mr. Putin has the dubious luxury of projecting his own persecutory fears onto the entire planet, cajoling the wold into enacting a private phantasy, the origins of which remain obscure and ground for speculation, on the other hand the predominant process taking place regardless of individual culpability is that what Wilfred Bion termed attacks on linking. Precursors and first indicators that the actual scenario of bloodshed constitutes a regression into a psychotic state are readily available: Putin’s own disdain for liberal diverse dialectic thinking and the early crusade against elements in which such practice was vested. 

What we witness these days is only superficially a nation going to war against another. The restrained dissent in Russia might indicate that it is also a practice of keeping a nation hostage, being forced against their desires. So how many of the Russian people might also harbour this wish? How many dare to think the thought, allow the wish into consciousness: I want to kill Putin? Truth is, this can not be ever known. But truth also is, it does not matter, since it is not the reality of the actual numbers, it is not democracy as we know it, but what counts is that the mere phantasy of this being a possibility creates the threat. To trust, to reason, to allow for doubt to enter, that is to carry the neurotic and critical mode of thought which has come to be the mode of operation in the bourgeois res-publica too becomes a luxury. Black and white need to be strictly kept apart. 

Defendants at the lectern: Sergei Evgenievich Naryshkin, 2022; Nikolai Charnovsky 1930.

The current proliferation of un-freedom uneasily blends into the last years of the pandemic where suddenly rifts going through societies became manifest creating an Either you are with me or you are against me, from which it became difficult to escape. So whereas the battle lines create a sense of relief and order: it is there, where the trouble happens, it is black against white, if one is to shift the perspective, shifting the focus from territorial and bodily reality to that of the condition of thought processes the picture that might emerge is that of a vast deterioration of creative and dialectic thinking, a recent achievement in itself and the foundation for stability and restraint.

So what course the events are going to take? If one contemplates this question, one should include into the deliberation the fact that Mr.Putin in one form or another might have awareness of the death wish which condense on his own persona and one might also ask the question which are the consequences to be drawn from this, a person irreversibly manoeuvring into a state of social death. Mr. Putin’s composure and discourse appears to be increasingly dominated by irrational elements. His gradual withdrawal from the shared phantasy of reason and common sense which bind society as a whole together can be understood as a recourse to more archaic and pathological psychic defence mechanisms which usually is a sign of increased psychic strain. The recourse to paranoid and schizoid modes of processing reality has the effect of further increasing the distance to shared external reality compacting a dynamic of withdrawal from within with claustrophobic and claustrophilic components, which will be hard to abandon. The Führer in his bunker. The internal retreat yet is mirrored by the response of his environment gradually retreating from attempts to console or to engage with him. Is it by any chance possible that Mr. Putin will one morning stand in front of his mirror, look at himself and say: Hey, I am one of the most powerful persons on this planet. Why not use this opportunity to make the world a better place? One can just guess. Until then it remains to be seen, which forms and guises these processes of secession and withdrawal which now have come to dominate the global geopolitical arena will take and in which shape a homeostasis in the ultimate conflict of concern for the self versus concern for the others will take on and how high the price for that ultimate homeostasis will be which we all have to pay.

Vladimir Putin, 2022; Andrej Vyshinsky, 1930.

I am a psychoanalyst and as such my daily business is developing a chart on a sea of affective currents. I have come to experience playful modes of psychic life, where this is allowed to be linked with that, forms and phantasies are created, articulated and I also have come to experience the absence of play in those minds, which have been maturing in less favourable conditions, where warlike conditions, fictional or factual matters of life and death predominate. The latter constitute sad and deplorable landscapes of desperation and suffering which one should wish for no one. All the more I came to a position where it is joy and playfulness which is one of the highest goods to be defended. Kindness, spontaneous acts of love and affection. And this is what I see at stake. More so, when amidst a peace protest I hear the death wish surfacing. Here I leaned out of the window, maybe a bit daring. One question that I for myself need to answer: Do I want to kill Putin? Do I carry this wish? Do I toy with the phantasy? I already leaned quite far out of the window. Thus I would refer to a historic figure and a historic quote: The figure is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, who is believed to return from his refuge to Germany to participate in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. The quote: George Orwell, A Final Warning: 

In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish the orgasm. There will be no loyalty except loyalty to the Party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who’s helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

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