To Love Sorrowfully: Poetry and War

Mateusz Stróżyński

I dedicate this essay to the memory of the victims of the Bucha massacre.

At the beginning of March, a week or so after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was picking up my five-year-old son from pre-school. While waiting for him, I overheard a teacher, shouting at a group of four-year-olds who were playing in the backyard: “Stop playing war! Stop playing war at once!”

I thought that the intentions of the pre-school teacher were good, but I can’t help thinking that in this part of Europe, we adults watch footage from that war, read about that war, talk about that war, think about that war. And children can’t do that, so they deal with it through play, because this is the way children process difficult emotional experiences. Playing is a way children think things through. Sigmund Freud, in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), abandoned his earlier conviction that the sexual drive can explain all the neurotic symptoms and introduced the second factor: the death drive. He revised his theory on the basis of the experiences that psychiatrists and psychoanalysts had with what was called at the time “war neurosis” and what is now labelled posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common condition of soldiers who experienced warfare.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) in his mid-sixties.

Freud was puzzled by the fact that soldiers were dreaming about their traumatic war experiences, because he had believed for years that the purpose of dreams was to fulfil an unconscious desire for pleasure, which cannot be attained in reality. But those soldiers were clearly not dreaming about what they desired, they were dreaming about the worst suffering they had ever experienced. So Freud came up with a new hypothesis, which is largely accepted nowadays as the explanation of post-traumatic adaptation, namely, that repeating traumatic experiences in dreams is a way to regain control over something which was completely beyond the patient’s control, when the trauma occurred.

Interestingly, Freud made his discovery by observing his grandson Ernst playing with a toy. The mother of the boy was leaving her son occasionally as he was growing out of infancy. And he developed, incidentally, a new favourite form of play which consisted in throwing away a little object tied to a string, with the exclamation Fort! (“Gone!”), and then pulling this object again to himself with the enthusiastic cry Da! (“There!”). Freud proposed the hypothesis that the toy symbolizes the mother who leaves her son, which he experiences as a very painful and difficult situation. Then she comes back, but in a manner unpredictable for the child, only to disappear again later, in the same unexpected and uncontrollable way. This play, in Freud’s interpretation, was a symbolic enactment of a painful scene of losing the mother and regaining her, but with a significant difference. The child was in control over his play in a way which was impossible for him in the real-life situation of his mother leaving him. In this way, he could emotionally assimilate her comings and goings by means of such primitive psychological capacities as he had at his disposal at the time. Soldiers who dream about horrible moments from the battlefield also engage in a sort of an adult play, unconsciously reliving their trauma symbolically on their own terms and, in this way, attempting to master the overwhelming experience.

Hanna Segal (née Poznańska) (1918–2011) in her early nineties.

Those were the kinds of things which were of great interest to Hanna Poznańska, a young Polish girl born in 1918 in Łódź, when she began to study medicine shortly before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. She wanted to become a doctor and then a psychoanalyst. Years later she became one of the most famous psychoanalysts of the 20th century, known as Hanna Segal. Her mother, Izabella Weintraub, was a Polish Jew, and her father, Czesław Poznański, was a very well educated lawyer who in 1931 became an editor of the Journal des Nations, an official journal of the League of Nations. He took his wife and daughter to Geneva, but Hanna wanted to return to Poland, which she eventually did in 1934, in order to finish high school. It was a very good school, run by nuns, where she learned some Latin, and also developed a deep love for literature and art.

At the same time, Hanna became a member of the “Red Scouts”, a youth organization of the Polish Socialist Party, and was greatly interested in Trotskyism. In addition, she worked as a volunteer in a facility for juvenile female delinquents. Her radical left-wing views made her decide to go to Spain in 1937 to take part in the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) against the troops of General Franco. She was already packed and about to leave, but when she saw tears in her parents’ eyes, she realized that years ago they had already lost one child, Hanna’s beloved big sister. Even though they didn’t forbid her going, she thought that the loss of another child would be too much for them, so she changed her mind and stayed to finish high school and study medicine.

The Evening Standard (London) of 1 September, 1939.

In August 1939 her parents were in Paris; Hanna, on her summer vacation, went there to join them. When, on 1 September, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland, Hanna decided she had to go back and join the army to defend her fatherland. In 2006, in an interview with Segal on BBC radio’s “Desert Island Discs”, the journalist Sue Lawley expressed surprise that this young student wanted to leave the safety of Paris and return to Poland, which was then  fighting against a brutal German invasion. Hanna, then 88 years old, laughed and said: “You know, this has always been the Polish way: cavalry against tanks!”[1] However, she couldn’t get on the last train from Paris to Warsaw, because so many young Poles were trying to do the same, so she had to stay in France. Later she learnt that not a single person on that train survived.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, Hanna managed to escape to Britain, where she continued her medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, which was offering higher education for Polish refugees who were coming there in large numbers. A couple of years later she met Melanie Klein, one of the most innovative psychoanalysts of the time, famous for developing a method of psychotherapy for little children, based on Freud’s idea that play is an equivalent of free associations in adult patients and that through play children symbolize and express their emotional conflicts. Segal began her formal training as a psychoanalyst with Melanie Klein in 1943.

Simone Weil (1909–43) around the age of thirty.

When Hanna was leaving France in 1940, Simone Weil, a young French philosopher of Jewish origin, assailed by almost unbearable headaches of unknown origin, began to write an essay on the Iliad, the first poem of Western civilization, which, incidentally, is also its first poem about war. Weil was already familiar with the poem in the original, since she learnt Greek on her own, when she was 12. Her elder brother, André Weil, who was to became a brilliant mathematician, also taught himself Greek at a similar age, so they could talk to each other in the language of Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato. Shortly afterwards, André taught himself Sanskrit as well, so Simone did the same. Soon she was able to read the Bhagavadgita, an ancient Indian poem about war, yoga, and humans’ union with God.

Simone was born in 1909 in a well-to-do Jewish family and always thought that she was stupid in comparison with her genius of a brother. Nothing could convince her otherwise. She entered the prestigious École Normale Superièure in 1928 in order to study philosophy as one of very few female students. She graduated in 1931 with excellent results and began teaching philosophy at high school for girls.

In 1934, the same year that Hanna Poznańska left Geneva to continue her education in Warsaw, Simone took a twelve-month leave of absence and began to work at a Renault car factory. She wanted to experience the life of the working class, to really know what it was like to be one of the oppressed. She didn’t think through the reality that she was a sickly, precocious intellectual, raised by a bourgeois family. This year in a factory proved to be a traumatic experience. Towards the end of her brief life, she confessed in a letter to her friend that it made her think of the Romans who had been branded slaves, that is, had marks burned into their foreheads, particularly when they had been despised. Simone felt that she had left the factory with this sort of mark burned in her soul; from then on she always felt like a slave.

Roman collared slaves, marble relief from Smyrna, AD 200 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

She began to organize demonstrations of workers, wrote brilliant essays for obscure left-wing journals, and became fascinated with Trotskyism. But she was quickly disappointed by the Communism of the 1930s; and her pieces earned attacks from Leon Trotsky himself. In 1936 Simone went to Spain, to fight on the anarchist side. The tears of her parents couldn’t stop her in the way they stopped Hanna from joining the war. Already as a child of ten, during the Great War, Simone Weil had refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the French soldiers on the front. She always knew exactly what she wanted and had to do, and nothing in the world could persuade her otherwise.

In Spain she wanted to fight. There is even a photo of her holding a rifle. But her fellow soldiers retained enough common sense not to allow this short-sighted, clumsy philosopher near firearms. They sent her – how sexist! – to the kitchen. But it didn’t end well, since the kitchen wasn’t a place for Simone Weil either. She burnt herself with boiling oil while cooking a meal, and had to go to hospital. When she was there, her entire company was killed. If she hadn’t burnt herself accidentally, she too would have died.

Simone Weil in Spain, 1936.

After recovering, she joined her parents and went to Italy. In the spring of 1937 Simone visited the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, a church in which St Francis used to pray. At this time, she was an atheist, raised by secularized, assimilated Jews. But in that church, for reasons she couldn’t grasp with her sharp mind, she experienced a power compelling her to kneel down and pray to God. So she did. A couple of months later, a friend gave her a poem to read, Love (III) by George Herbert, written in 1633:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                           From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                           If I lacked any thing.

Simone writes in her spiritual autobiography that, while she was reading this poem, “Christ himself came down and took possession of her.” Now this atheistic Jewish communist had to pray to Christ as well, not only to God. And she made a daily habit of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Ancient Greek. She didn’t know any Catholic prayers in Latin or French and she had never read the Gospels in any other language than Ancient Greek. So she memorized the Pater hēmōn (Our Father), hypnotized by the beauty of this prayer, and, as she reports, very often Christ would come down to her, while she was saying the prayer he taught his disciples to pray.

Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi, Italy.

In the months following the fall of France in 1940, Simone wrote and then published (under a pseudonym, in the Marseilles literary monthly Cahiers du Sud) her essay on the Iliad, which is now the only non-specialist essay on that poem that professional Classicists regularly read, engage with, and recommend to their students. In this essay, entitled Iliade ou le poèm de la force (“Iliad, or the poem of force”), Simone Weil claims that:

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors. To define force – it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

The whole essay is like this. One perfect sentence follows another perfect sentence. There is not a single unnecessary word; there is nothing to add and nothing to subtract: pure brilliance and vivid intelligence penetrate to the core of things. Simone saw with horrifying clarity that in between wars we keep telling ourselves always the same lies: that this is really the end of wars, that no-one will invade our country to destroy our homes, rape and enslave our women, kill our children, plunder our land, loot our museums. This delusion possessed people in the decades preceding the Great War of 1914–18, just like in the years before 1939, and, in exactly the same way, in recent decades, before the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine to exercise force and to turn persons into things.

Cavalry on the west frieze of the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 442-438 BC (British Museum, London).

But Weil, who always saw and felt reality clearly (paying the price of unbearable suffering for that clarity of vision or the “acute powers of recognition”, as she calls it in the passage quoted above) and who predicted the rise of Hitler to power while all her left-wing friends laughed at her, had few illusions to entertain. Her desire for clarity and truth brought her back in the summer of 1940 to the Iliad, to this “purest and loveliest of mirrors”. In this mirror one can see the terrifying nature of force, of this ancient human drive to turn others into things, which will never disappear, no matter how many smart professors comfortably say otherwise over coffee tables. Simone Weil knew we desperately need a clear mirror to deal with the horror of force in its most ghastly expression, which is war. What we need is a mirror of poetry, because it enables us to think, to feel, and even to deal with war. Children play and, when there is war, they play war; but we grown-ups also need to play, and poetry is our play – maybe even the supreme form of play. Simone invites us to play war with the greatest of players, that blind yet clear-sighted singer, Homer.

When Hanna Poznańska began her training with Melanie Klein, she became fascinated with her ground-breaking views on depression. Klein claimed that depression or, rather, what she termed the “depressive position”, is a normal developmental stage, while clinical depression represents essentially the inability to work through it. Under normal conditions, the experience of the depressive position releases crucial psychological resources, such as belief in the value of life, remorse, and gratefulness, creativity and the capacity to love. Klein’s understanding of the unconscious is deeply rooted in Freud’s late theory of the two fundamental drives, or Eros (Love) and Thanatos (Death), as he liked to call them. But in her writings the conflict between life and death or between love and hate acquires a certain metaphysical and religious flavour (even though she wasn’t any less of an atheist than the founder of psychoanalysis was).

The drive to love, according to Klein, makes the infant create life-giving bonds with the objects he loves (and by “objects” psychoanalysts usually understand other people as imagined by the infant from the beginning of his life). The infant projects his own love on the object and imagines it to be a good and loving object; then he introjects this good and loving object into himself and builds the core of his identity on the fantasy of loving and being loved. The perpetual cycle of projection and introjection of love enables us to grow, but the death drive constitutes a parallel, evil cycle, wherein we project our hate and aggression on the object and then experience that object as a terrifying persecutor which we have to fight or flee.

Thanatos, c.340–320 BC, from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Asia Minor (British Museum, London); Eros, c.2nd cent. AD (National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

The fundamental challenge of human development for Klein was to reconcile and integrate those opposing forces of Eros and Thanatos in ourselves and in our relationships, which is possible only if we have faith that love is more powerful than hate and life more powerful than the corruption and destruction of death. But the process of integration of the good object and the bad object is a deeply painful and challenging one. The depressive position begins with an experience that we have destroyed our inner good object by our own hate. Klein didn’t share the belief that we are inherently innocent and kind creatures, corrupted by society and its systemic evils. She followed Freud in her conviction that our maturity consists in coming to terms with our aggression, destructiveness, hatred, perversity, and deceitfulness. If we believe there is no hate in us, we delude ourselves.

The sense of having destroyed the good object leads to the feeling of emptiness, pain, and guilt, because we know that we attacked what we love. However, for Klein, unlike for Freud, guilt was one of the most beneficial of human feelings. Guilt, if not excessive, leads us to take responsibility for our evil impulses, and enables us to mourn the good object, and experience remorse or contrition, which releases in us the power to restore what we have lost due to our aggression. It’s good to feel sad and to long for what is lost, because we can experience those feelings only if we love and value something; whereas hatred, rage, and fear can be felt also by those who have never loved anyone.

Melancholia, Domenico Fetti, c.1620 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Guilt and mourning can be the source of creativity, tied to the unconscious desire to recreate the lost object. When we succeed in that, we emerge out of the depressive position with our object restored and integrated again. Now it becomes more realistic, because it is seen to consist of both good and bad aspects, as we grow to tolerate both good and bad feelings we have towards the object of love. For Klein, psychological maturity means, first and foremost, to be able to see and feel others and ourselves to be neither all-good, nor all-bad. Any relationship contains pain, because it contains love and hate; but when love is more strong than hate, our object can survive the damage we inflict on it and we can survive as living and loving creatures.

This is the Kleinian way of thinking which Hanna adopted in the 1940s and later became one of its most eloquent proponents in the psychoanalytic world. In 1947 she married her cousin, also a Pole, Paweł Segał (or, in the Anglicised form, Paul Segal). The same year she also became a graduate of the Institute of Psychoanalysis and delivered her first psychoanalytic paper, one that testifies to her deep love of literature, music, and art as much as to her interest in psychopathology. As with Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad, it is a meditation on the powers of destruction unleashed during the war. However, the paper was delivered when the war was over and the young psychoanalyst was happily married, full of hope that in this tragic life of ours love can triumph over hate. For Simone things were more complicated, both philosophically and personally.

Simone never allowed anyone to touch her in her adult life, not even the closest friends. She rejected love relationships as well as marriage and maternity. Already in her youth she dressed in a masculine fashion and hated it when others praised her physical beauty. Even though she was driven by a powerful Platonic, or even Gnostic, sense of the corruption of this world, governed by the powers of evil, she managed to form intimate and intense friendships throughout her short life. And there was also Christ, her deepest love, the one who, without her ever asking for it, came to possess her in the Assisi basilica in 1937 and thereafter never let go. In his Diary, at the beginning of 1956, Witold Gombrowicz devoted a rather long entry to Simone Weil. He felt angry, but couldn’t stop reading. He realized that “The issue is not in the least one of believing in God, but of falling in love with God. Weil is not a ‘believer’, she is in love.”[2] Gombrowicz, for all his aggressive atheism, felt the difference profoundly.

Noli me tangere (Don’t touch me), fresco by Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy, c.1440.

It would be a mistake to assume that Simone embodied the ancient contemptus mundi (“contempt for the world”) in the sense that she believed that there are no good and beautiful things in the sensible world that could be worth our love. She was too much of a Platonist for that! She keenly appreciated beauty and goodness of this fallen world, even though she could never blind herself to the experience of evil. In her essay on the Iliad, we can find also moments like that:

The wantonness of the conqueror that knows no respect for any creature or thing that is at its mercy or is imagined to be so, the despair of the soldier that drives him on to destruction, the obliteration of the slave or the conquered man, the wholesale slaughter – all these elements combine in the Iliad to make a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero. A monotonous desolation would result were it not for those few luminous moments, scattered here and there throughout the poem, those brief, celestial moments in which man possesses his soul. The soul that awakes then, to live for an instant only and be lost almost at once in force’s vast kingdom, awakes pure and whole; it contains no ambiguities, nothing complicated or turbid; it has no room for anything but courage and love. Sometimes it is in the course of inner deliberations that a man finds his soul: he meets it, like Hector before Troy, as he tries to face destiny on his own terms, without the help of gods or men. At other times, it is in a moment of love that men discover their souls –  and there is hardly any form of pure love known to humanity of which the Iliad does not treat.

After quoting Simone I always feel that commenting on what she wrote is very much like coughing during the silence between two movements of a Bach suite. None the less, I want to emphasize the spiritual and psychological significance of those “luminous” or “celestial moments”, which she finds in the Iliad, and which for her are the moments, when our soul awakes “pure and whole”. Weil has no doubts that this world is “force’s vast kingdom”, which is for her, ultimately, the kingdom of the Evil One (ho ponēros) from whom she prayed every day to be delivered from, when she was saying her Pater hēmōn in Greek. However, just like Hanna Segal, although from a very different perspective, she knows that this is not the whole story. Evil doesn’t have the last word, because if it did, we would, quite naturally, kill ourselves. There is beauty, there is goodness, there is truth in “force’s vast kingdom”, which enables us to have faith and hope, at the philosophical and religious level, or to work through the depressive position and restore the lost good object, at the psychological level. It requires, as Simone Weil points out, not only love, but also the courage equal to that of Hector. Love, however, is essential, and the Iliad is for her not only the poem of force, it is, surprisingly enough, the poem of love, since “there is hardly any form of pure love known to humanity of which the Iliad does not treat”.

Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus, Gavin Hamilton, 1760-3 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh).

But this luminosity of the Iliad, which mirrors the luminosity of our own life (always before some war, after some war or in the middle of some war), is not a “wish fulfilment”, as some crude interpretations of psychoanalysis suggest. For Hanna Segal, the belief in the goodness of the object is not at attempt to wish love into existence; it is a painful and laborious recognition of psychic reality, which is like a stage for the perpetual struggle between love and hate. In a similar vein, Simone observes that both the horror of force and the purity of love in the Iliad are grounded in truth, in the unbiased, mirroring luminosity of Homer’s poetry. The whole poem is “bathed in the light of justice and love”:

It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Nothing precious is scorned, whether or not death is its destiny; everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. Victors and vanquished are brought equally near us; under the same head, both are seen as counterparts of the poet, and the listener as well.

For Simone, poetry has a definitely “restoring” or “saving” power, which is the key capacity, according to Hanna, that allows individuals to work through the pain and despair of the depressive position.

Just like her teacher Klein, Hanna understood children’s play primarily in terms of the enactment of depressive fantasies. Children build, and destroy or kill, and revive in their imaginative play, expressing in this way the fundamental belief that their life is “bathed in the light of justice and love”. Or, if they can’t rebuild and revive, they later become emotionally ill, hanging in the limbo between life and death. If we combine the perspectives used by those two women, we can perhaps say that poetry is play, or that play is poetry; after all, poiein means “to make” in Greek. We can’t help being makers and re-makers in this world, where everything constantly collapses around us and in us. As grown-ups we continue playing, when we write or read poetry, because poetry saves whatever is true, good, and beautiful. The Iliad is not about war, it is about love: “Whatever is not war, whatever war destroys or threatens, the Iliad wraps in poetry; the realities of war, never.” 

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) in the 1940s.

This reminds me of what J.R.R. Tolkien, who struggled throughout his life with his experience of the atrocities of the Great War, says about war in the Lord of the Rings (1954). One of his most noble, lovable characters, Faramir, the prince of Gondor, says to Frodo and Sam:

I would see… Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.

Tolkien wrote his greatest novel during WWII; here he expresses the same intuition that permeates Simone’s essay on the Iliad: in order to restore some faith and hope, we first have to acknowledge the loss, and the emptiness that follows. Denial is the first barrier for the work of mourning. Simone found the Iliad so congenial to her clear-sighted spirit precisely because you cannot deny the nature of human life and also enjoy Homer. There is too much light in him: 

In any case, this poem is a miracle. Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis, to matter. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt. Whoever, within his own soul and in human relations, escapes the dominion of force is loved but loved sorrowfully because of the threat of destruction that constantly hangs over him. Such is the spirit of the only true epic the Occident possesses.

Hanna Segal would probably agree with that. Psychological maturity is the capacity to “love sorrowfully”, as Weil puts it; any attempt to delete the second word in this phrase destroys, ultimately, the whole meaning of it. All the revolutions we have watched and are yet to watch around us, with their own abundant share of force, seek to put an end to “the dominion of force”. But they never do; they merely add more force to our miserable lives. It is because these revolutions are childish and immature in their belief that the way to save life and love is to eliminate evil.

Chryses Vainly Soliciting the Return of Chryseis before the Tent of Agamemnon, Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (attr.), early 19th cent. (Hinton Ampner, Hants, UK).

Yes, it is childish to believe that we can eliminate evil. The eliminators are always among us. Some of them are powerful eliminators, with gas chambers and red buttons at their disposal, but there are many more minor eliminators who just try to do their best in eliminating those whom they perceive as evil from social media or social life, from institutions and public spaces. What the eliminators do not understand is simple psychology. We are not divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people. We are all good and bad at the same time. And to see it, really and fully, means to mourn. But only through mourning we can love sorrowfully and restore what is worth restoring. Donald Meltzer, a British Kleinian psychoanalyst, said somewhere that our psychological growth means to move from pain and fear to pain and love (that is, the depressive position). The problem is that our natural reaction is to eliminate “pain” from the whole story. But the attempts to get rid of pain don’t eliminate pain; they eliminate love and we find ourselves stuck in pain and fear.

Hanna Segal’s first paper, delivered in 1947 at a meeting of psychoanalysts, was entitled “A Psycho-Analytical Approach to Aesthetics”, and was published in 1952 in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.[3] She describes her original view on the psychology of art, based on the concept of the depressive position. A major part of the article is devoted to Marcel Proust’s famous novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27), but one of the most striking passages is dedicated to Classical tragedy. Hanna bases her understanding of tragic poetry on the idea that the poet, unconsciously, works through his own depressive position by creating his play. The audience or the readers can participate in this process by the psychological mechanism of identification (which was already described by Aristotle in his Poetics).

Oedipus and Antigone, or the Plague of Thebes, Charles Jalabert, 1842 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille, France).

Hanna points out that there is a double-identification on the part of the reader. When we read Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (which she uses as an example), we identify first with the author; secondly, we identify the whole tragedy with the author’s internal world. This allows us to face and express depression alongside the author, who faces and expresses it through his creative work. Unconsciously, we say to ourselves:

The author has, in his hatred, destroyed all his loved objects just as I have done, and like me he felt death and desolation inside him. Yet he can face it and he can make me face it, and despite the ruin and devastation we and the world around us survive. What is more, his objects, which have become evil and were destroyed, have been made alive again and have become immortal by his art. Out of all the chaos and destruction he has created a world which is whole, complete, and unified.

In Segal’s view, tragedy becomes a symbolic representation of our inner life, where the forces of love and destruction confront each other. The inner persecutors become the villains of the tragedy; the inner good objects become the benevolent characters; but the tragic hero, the one who is guilty, according to Aristotle, of a tragic hamartēma (a “sin” or “error”, however you want to translate it) is most probably ourselves. However, pace Aristotle, Hanna is less interested in our identification with the tragic hero, and more in our identification with the whole of tragedy, especially, with the “ruin and devastation” that seems to triumph at the end.

In her understanding of Classical tragedy, she also claims there is a certain luminosity in great poetry which reflects the luminosity of our life. However, she equates this luminosity with the beauty of form: “the unshrinking expression of the full horror of the depressive phantasy and the achieving of an impression of wholeness and harmony. The external form of classical tragedy is in complete contrast with its content.” It is beautiful form that represents the ultimate triumph of the life drive, while the content represents the death drive in its attacks on the good objects.

I don’t see much tension between this account and what emerges from Simone’s essay on the Iliad. The mirroring quality of the Iliad, its unbiased truth, its light which bathes in itself and wraps in poetry all the savagery of force, seems to come close to the beauty of unity and harmony which Hanna considers to be the foundation of tragedy. Both women are certainly not ‘eliminators’, although both were radical leftists and revolutionaries, at least in their youth. They insisted that the key thing is to experience pain, to feel whatever there is to feel in poetry and in life, because we are saved not by cringing away from pain, but by seeing through it and by finding beyond pain the truth, beauty, and goodness which are, ultimately, stronger than destruction. As Simone writes in her essay: “Attic tragedy, or at any rate the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is the true continuation of the epic.” 

Love and death, Francisco Goya, 1799.

How similar, yet how different, these two women were! Hanna Segal lived a long life, filled not only with sorrow and pain, but also with much joy, not merely due to her outstanding professional success, but also to her family, which was the most important thing in her life. She had four children with her husband and lived for 93 years until her death in July 2011.

During her 2006 interview on BBC radio, the most poignant moment is when Lawley asks her whether she, a psychoanalyst after all, would be able to be happy on a desert island. Segal says that if there was someone else on the island, whoever he or she might be, she thinks she would have enough inner resources to deal with the loss and depression. But if she were to remain alone, she would kill herself. Not only is man not an island, as John Donne pointed out; from what psychoanalysis tells us, he is not made to live on a desert island either. We flourish only in relationships; we only survive together. Only when we are with those whom we love, “order can emerge our of chaos”, as Hanna puts it in her paper on aesthetics, just like in Classical tragedy.

Simone went with her parents to America in 1942, but she returned to England in 1943, because she wanted to fight against Germany. She dreamt of helping the resistance in her fatherland and there seems to have been some plan actually to send her to France. But her poor health didn’t allow it. In earlier studies on the writer and her work, we find two dramatic stories from the end of her life that both turned out to be untrue. The first was that Simone Weil allegedly starved herself to death. This excited scholarly imaginations to associate it with the ritual suicide of the medieval Albigensian Gnostics or else the lethal form of anorexia nervosa. But she apparently didn’t starve herself to death, literally or psychologically; her health was always miserable, and her asceticism certainly didn’t help. Still, nowhere in her writings do we find any morbid rejection of life, or sickly longing for death, as in Richard Wagner’s operas or Thomas Mann’s novels.

The second story was that Simone supposedly died unbaptized. It is true that two of her close friends who were Catholic priests tried in vain to convince her to be baptized in her last years. She argued that she couldn’t become a member of the Church, because she felt that God called her to represent those who are outside or on the margin, even though she believed that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ. However, the true reason for her opposition towards the sacrament of regeneration was that she believed (wrongly, in fact) that in order to receive the Catholic baptism she had to agree intellectually with absolutely every claim made by the magisterium of the Church. And that she didn’t want to do, because she felt that intellectual freedom and the commitment to the pursuit of truth, even at the cost of being mistaken, was closer to God than obedience against her own conscience. 

St John the Baptist baptises the people, Nicolas Poussin, c.1635 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

However, a more recent study by Eric O. Springstead show that, in fact, Weil probably was baptized before the end. Shortly before her death in August 1943 her friend, Simone Deitz, asked her whether she wanted to be baptized, and she said “yes”. First a priest came, but when Simone started a philosophical dispute with him (on her deathbed), he left in anger, supposedly saying that she was too proud and “too Jewish” (whatever that meant) to be baptized. But before the end, she asked Deitz to baptize her; Deitz poured some water from the tap and performed the act. She said the formula in French, not in Greek; even though it was not said in the ancient language beloved by Simone in which she prayed and read the Gospels, the baptismal act still met the formal requirements of all Christian denominations. Simone happened to be a Greek Christian Platonist through and through:

The Gospels are the last marvellous expression of the Greek genius, as the Iliad is the first: here the Greek spirit reveals itself not only in the injunction given mankind to seek above all other goods, “the kingdom and justice of our Heavenly Father,” but also in the fact that human suffering is laid bare, and we see it in a being who is at once divine and human. The accounts of the Passion show that a divine spirit, incarnate, is changed by misfortune, trembles before suffering and death, feels itself, in the depths of its agony, to be cut off from man and God. The sense of human misery gives the Gospels that accent of simplicity that is the mark of the Greek genius, and that endows Greek tragedy and the Iliad with all their value. 

In the days following the beginning of the war in Ukraine, my son would say to me, while we were playing with Lego bricks: “Daddy, now there’s war and everything has to be destroyed.” And he would demolish all of the things that we had busily been making for the last hour or so. Then he would look at me and say: “Daddy, now we rebuild.”

Yes, son; now, as always, we rebuild.

Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition. 


1 Segal refers here to a story about the Polish cavalry’s charge against German tanks on 1 September, 1939. The story is false and was cooked up by German propaganda, on the basis of an article in Corriere della Sera by Indro Montanello. This false story, however, became a national myth, for some embodying Polish courage and heroism, for others, a foolish Polish desire for self-sacrifice.
2 W. Gombrowicz, Diary (tr. L. Vallee) (Yale UP, New Haven, 2012) 212.
3 It was republished as a chapter in The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice (Free Association, London, 1981), from which I draw the quotation given.