Freud and Tagore: Understanding Life and Death in the Pandemic

Ms. Mahua Chatterjee

Today, as death surrounds us and we struggle to find light in the darkness, the writings of Sigmund Freud and Rabindranath Tagore soothe our minds.


Despite misery, death and churning of the estranged heart,
Peace and bliss prevails, hopes galore

                                             Rabindranath Tagore, Geetabitan, 1903  [1]

The end of Civilization: this is how the pandemic is being perceived. People not only fear their own death but also the end of the world.  Physical distancing induces more panic leaving people with hopelessness. The most severe pandemic in history was the Spanish influenza (1918–1920) causing the tragic death of 20 million people.  A hundred years later with Covid-19, the fear of death, craving for life, striving to understand life under the shadow of a pandemic are still the same. 

In this atmosphere two persons from different parts of the globe continue to influence us, giving us a ray of hope – Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Indian poet/Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Both experienced five pandemics – plague, cholera, small pox, influenza and Spanish flu. Both lost a child to a pandemic and this loss intensely influenced their philosophies. 

On January 25, 1920, Freud lost his fifth child, Sophie, to the Spanish flu that ravaged Europe. Two days later in a letter to Oskar Pfister, he wrote: 

This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenzal pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance; we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us …  I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious, narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later … [2]

In 1907 Tagore lost his youngest son, Shamindranath, to cholera in India. Describing his loss Tagore wrote: 

When his last moment was about to come I was sitting