The Death of the "Hand": Terror, Narcissistic Fragility, and Psychosomatic Breakdown

Dr. Ricardo Jarast Kaplan

50 years after “The Eternaut,” Oesterheld’s classic comic, the author explores the “terror gland,” which inhibits resistance, becomes a generalized response and signals psychosomatic fear avoidance.


Winnicott said most of his theories were inspired by his clinical experience—what he thought and felt with his patients. “Many spend their lives wondering whether to find a solution by suicide, that is, sending the body to death which has already happened to the psyche.” Thus, making suicide a desperate gesture. “I now understand for the first time what my schizophrenic patient (who did kill herself) meant when she said: ‘All I ask you to do is to help me to commit suicide for the right reason instead of for the wrong reason.’ I did not succeed and she killed herself in despair of finding the solution.” Winnicott painfully reflected on this experience and wrote that he should have been able to state that she had already died in her early infancy. Were he to have done so, she might have lived to old age.

For Winnicott,
“Fear of breakdown is the fear a breakdown that has already been experienced. It is a fear of the original agony which caused the defence organization which the patient displays as an illness syndrome. The original experience of primitive agony cannot get into the past tense unless the ego can first gather it into its own present time experience. On the other hand, if the patient is ready for some kind of acceptance of this queer kind of truth, then the way is open for the agony to be experienced in the transference.”


From here, Winnicott goes on to describe various primitive agonies: return to an unintegrated state; falling forever; loss of sense of real; loss of capacity to relate to objects; and loss of psychosomatic collusion.


The Eternaut and the death of the "Hand" 

In 2007, the National Library in Buenos Aires commemorated both the 30-year anniversary of the tragic kidnapping and disappearance of Héctor Germán Oesterheld and his daughters during the Videla dictatorship and the 50th anniversary of the release of his seminal work, The Eternaut, which has been acclaimed as one of the greatest Argentinian comics. In his remarkable narrative, Oesterheld vividly depicts a group of Buenos Aires characters who confront an alien invasion seeking to destroy mankind.


Oesterheld recounted,
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ​​Robinson Crusoe. The book was given to me when I was very young, and I must have read it twenty times. The Eternaut was, initially, my version of Robinson. The solitude of man, now surrounded, imprisoned, not by the sea but by death. Not longer a man alone like Robinson, but a man with a family, with friends. Published in a weekly paper, The Eternaut was built week by week. Yes, there was a general idea, but the concrete reality of each installment changed it constantly. Situations and characters appeared that I hadn’t dreamed of at the beginning. Like the ‘Hand’ and his death.”


The Eternaut is written as a circular narrative. The circle begins at Vicente López’s villa on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on a peaceful night with four men playing truco – Juan Salvo, the owner of a small electronics factory; Favalli, a physics professor; Lucas, a bank employee; and Polsky, a retiree. They are accompanied by Salvo’s wife and his daughter, Elena and Martita. As the card game quietly goes on, it starts to snow outside, which is rather unusual in Buenos Aires. Moreover, the snowfall is deadly: the falling flakes cause death in an instant. By the time the players realize it is snowing outside, there are already many victims.


Favalli, an archetype of intellectual acuity, devises a way of going outside: he drafts and assembles an insulated bodysuit using materials from Salvo's house. Salvo, the Eternaut, is the first to try the suit and explore the devastated landscape. Eventually, Salvo and his companions find out that the deadly snowfall is tied to an alien invasion. The invaders, referred to only as “They,” lack descriptive features. “They” never physically manifest save through their hosts: the “Beetles,” the “Robot-men,” the “Gurbos,” and the “Hands.” The first three, in fact, are led by the “Hands,” who use an intricate command center to beam commands into the other invader hosts.


On an especially difficult nighttime excursion, Salvo meets other survivors: Franco, a blue-collar worker, and a group of soldiers. The civilians and military group band together to fight back against the alien invaders. Salvo’s lonesome and solitary path transforms into collective and solidary action. ​​Oesterheld aims to surpass Defoe’s original Robinson through group heroism.


The hero collective fights the “Beetles” on Avenida General Paz (the Buenos Aires’ M-30 motorway equivalent), and then again during the battle of El Monumental, River Plate Stadium.


Later, Salvo and Franco come across a bright light shining from a pavilion. Inside, a “Hand” is directing the invading forces. Salvo and Franco are captured, but, through a strange turn of events, they take the “Hand” captive. They find out that “They” invaded the “Hands” on their home planet, and that, if a “Hand” were to try to disobey, he would experience a fear response that would activate his terror gland, secreting a poisonous hormone into his bloodstream and killing him. Before dying, the “Hand” reveals the invaders’ intention: to conquer and enslave humanity.


Now they know about the “terror gland,” and, when they next encounter a “Hand” in a subway tunnel, Favalli challenges him: he points out his weakness, his secret. The panels exquisitely render how the “Hand’s” body and face change. His face, once aloof and domineering, stone-faced and imperious, transforms into panic and overwhelm, into breakdown. The armor of his impregnable sense of safety crumbles; he sheds his skin, and, finally, sings his deathsong, a farewell lullaby.


Freud, Arendt, Agamben, and Browning 
Can we as psychoanalysts communicate with witnesses to horror and contain their breakdown?


In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud wrote:
“No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations—of a galley-slave in antiquity, of a peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a Pogrom—it is nevertheless impossible for us to feel our way into such people—to divine the changes which original obtuseness of mind, a gradual stupefying process, the cessation of expectations, and cruder or more refined methods of narcotization have produced upon their receptivity to sensations of pleasure and unpleasure.”


According to Freud, there are extreme situations, such as concentration camps, toward which it is not possible to feel empathy [Einfühlung], i.e., a sense of connection with that which someone has experienced, an imaginary sharing of what he endured. This impossibility not only creates an obstacle to the transmission of experience, which many survivors describe, but also points precisely to that which has fallen apart in their universe: commonality with others.


We can ask ourselves some questions about this falling apart of commonality:


1. How can the collapse of commonality of concentration camps be represented?
2. What becomes of this representation for those who take on this feat—for those who attempt to ideate, write, and give testimony of it?
3. Should we adopt the use of “nonhuman” or “subhuman” or “inhuman” to signify what results from the collapse of commonality (referring to the theoretical categories proposed by Hannah Arendt) and, thereby, attempt to convey the radical nature of a condition that breaks from the category of human? (Benslama)


Some theories contend that what occurred in concentration camps was the foreclosure of humanity in man. The author who has written the most on this subject is Giorgio Agamben in his essay, “Remnants of Auschwitz.” For such foreclosure to be possible, it would require a person’s human identity to be located within him as if it were a thing within a physical space that could be dislodged or removed. Nevertheless, when a man is said to be a man, the term “is” intervenes. What eludes location is a record, the very thing against which the most extreme cruelty was done. The Nazis considered the Shoah to be “the final solution of the Jewish Question,” a theory based on the notion that Jews, unlike other races, were not of one specific “type” and were able to merge with other races; for them to be captured, they had to be “assigned” a specific phenotype. The Nazi madness of extermination lay in its carrying out an imaginary reduction that resulted in an image of “Jewishness” that was none other than the negative of the Nazi man himself.


The witness who was exposed to the peril of extermination and survived also exposes himself to the shock elicited by his testimony. In order to safeguard his psychic life, he might be forced to suppress, displace, and transform his affect. There is, in the very effort of transmission, a distinctive traumatization of bearing witness, not only in the difficulty for the Other who is trying to understand, but also, in giving testimony, for the survivor, who, by his communicating the enormity of what happened, experiences some form of whatever effect he has on the Other.


How does man become the enemy of man, and, after millennia of civilizing progress, achieve the supreme ideal through extermination?


In Those Gray Men, a field study of the 101st Battalion of the Third Reich, historian Christopher Browning shows, through hundreds of hours of interviews, that the trait shared by the ordinary civilians who committed atrocity crimes is the desire to be liked by others and to conform to the group to which one belongs—an inability to say no arising out of fear of being left alone. We recognize the importance of a denial of peer pressure to which Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil (Eichmann in Jerusalem) alludes: the monster is not, fundamentally, an evil person, but above all, a gray bureaucrat who has been manipulated and seduced by the benefits conferred upon him by his position of power. 


How does a psychoanalyst stay at the borderline with a patient who bears the marks of such extreme experiences? The psychoanalyst must draw his humanity near the patient’s by participating in his psychic temporality and helping him to reclaim an inner space that allows the patient to discriminate the past from the present. He must try to ensure that the patient does not remain entirely encased by the trauma whose significance saturates every domain of his psychic life. 


If we take Favalli’s second encounter with a “Hand” as a metaphor, we can conceptualize the “Hand” as a child who was precociously invaded by catastrophic anguish, a child who endured maternal non-care, a rigid container that keeps hidden the secret of his fragility and who, during a crisis, re-experiences a sense of devastating emptiness; he cannot withstand humanizing closeness. The clinical issue, then, is how to approach him in such a way as to make safer transference-countertransference bridges and re-historicize his experiential time so as to help him to re-inhabit his own personal history. (M. Viñar)




In a comic by El Roto, a Spanish cartoonist, a businessman states, “To reassure markets, we have to scare people.” We live in an historic moment in which, as the journalist Joaquín Estefanía points out, the economy of fear is imposed on us. The Czech intellectual Ivan Klima writes: “Unlike previous usurpers of power, these power structures have no face and no identity. They are invulnerable to blows or words. Their power is less ostentatious and less openly declared; it remains, however, omnipresent and constantly growing.”


This article is based on a work by the author (Ricardo Jarast) published in Vol. 61 of the journal Psychoanalysis of the APM (Madrid) in 2010 and on his book, Troubled Times: The 21st Century and the Psychoanalyst’s Responsibility, Biebel: Buenos Aires, 2013.


Translation: Mr. Jorge Alcantar