At 90, the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal has spent decades probing the murkiest corners of the human psyche. She talks to Jon Henley about her search for truth, the healing power of art and what her years in practice have taught her about life
Segal is one of the most eminent psychoanalysts ever to have practiced in Britain.
Hers is rather a strange profession, though. All that poking around in the dark, walled-off corners of people's minds, hunting down explanations for bizarre adult behaviour in obscure childhood events that invariably involve breasts or toilets. A lot of people have no time for it.
Segal, obviously, does. "The more I think about it," she says, "the importance lies in seeking truth. Not 'The Truth' with a capital T, an omniscience, but truth that is the same as reality. All we are really looking for, in a patient on the couch, is a distinction between lies and truth."
The kind of people who came to see her were, she says, generally those who "seek to avoid truth, and so end up in delusion. What you are aiming to achieve is a change in the direction of the mind, a bend towards truth. And while all science aims at truth, psychoanalysis is unique in recognizing that the search for truth is, in itself, therapeutic."
The latter phrase is one penned by Segal and colleagues for the obituary of Melanie Klein, of whose work Segal is pretty much universally recognized as the most prominent postwar interpreter. Kleinian psychoanalysis is one of the two main schools within the British Psychoanalytical Society, the other being Freudian (after Anna, Sigmund's daughter).
The nuances between the two are not immediately apparent to the layperson, but if you ask Segal why, many years ago, she opted for the former rather than the latter, she answers that Freud's masterwork, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, read "like a textbook. It didn't speak to my imagination at all." Klein's Psychoanalysis of Children, on the other hand, "was a revelation. It opened up a whole new world."
It was in Geneva that Segal first read the works of Sigmund Freud. "I read Proust first, before Freud," she says. "And I think I simply realised that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, more fascinating than human nature. And human relations."
So when the time came to choose a career, psychoanalysis was almost a natural choice. It satisfied her interest in human nature, assuaged a powerful social conscience ("I have to feel I am doing something useful. Something that might help people"), and allowed her to explore the third great passion in her life: art. Segal's major contribution to the world of psychoanalysis is most probably in aesthetics and what is known as symbolisation. Two of her best-known books are entitled Dream, Phantasy and Art, and Delusion and Artistic Creativity.
"We cope with our anxieties and desires," she explains, "in symbolical ways. We all need a capacity for symbol formation, or symbolization: hopefully, we will try to find someone like our mother to marry, rather than try actually to marry our mother.
Artists exist on the borderline of severe psychotic anxieties: if they succeed in symbolizing them, then they can produce great art - but if not, they can be in trouble."
Segal indicates a painting on the wall of a rather chaotic vase of flowers, all violent purples, magentas and reds. "Look closer," she says. "Can you see the face of a dog?" It's there, sort of; a gloomy bloodhound, all drooping jowls and sad, tortured eyes. "The work of a patient," she says. " It Saved him from madness."
I must look dubious, because she comes back at me with Van Gogh, whose story you really can't argue with. She cites another case that, in many ways, first opened her to the possibilities of psychoanalysis: many years ago, on an evacuation train before the war, a girl had a schizophrenic fit, screaming what sounded like hysterical nonsense.
"She kept shouting, 'I shat my lover in the loo! I shat my lover in the loo!'" Segal says. "Later, after I read Klein, I realized that girl's words actually had a very obvious meaning; you could understand them. She was the one being evacuated, but in her mind she had reversed that situation: she was the one doing the evacuating. This, I understood, was the language of subconscious fantasy."
I'm still dubious. How can psychoanalysts ever really know they're right?
"We can't," she says. "There's no quick cure or absolute certainty. And the truth rarely stays the truth; yesterday's truth is not today's. But there is a sense of accumulating evidence. You mustn't concentrate, or try to remember - but in the mass of patient communication, you have to select the right fact, with an open mind. And you have to be sure that fact is not just your idea, your own, overrated idea. It's not easy."
"We're always told not to treat society as if it were a patient on the couch," she says, "but group psychology can be understood because it is a group of humans." The function of a group, she contends, is certainly to work together, but also to act as a kind of repository for our projections of all those bad things we cannot tolerate in ourselves.
"Groups contain our psychotic anxieties and delusions. Generally, we delegate what you might call the 'mad' functions - fighting, religion - to subgroups: the army, the church. But those subgroups must be under the control of the working part of the group. My point is that when mad things start happening, it's when subgroups get out of control, and particularly when they combine: God, money and the military is a particularly deadly recipe." The Iraq conflict was about "the need for an enemy", and "a religious fanaticism linked to, and covering up, mass robbery".
Today, Segal believes, our collective sanity is threatened by "a delusional inner world of omnipotence, and absolute evil, and sainthood. Unfortunately, we also have to contend with mammon." And since we tend to submit to the tyranny of our own groups, "speaking our minds takes courage, because groups do not like outspoken dissenters." The battle now "is between insanity based on mutual projections, and sanity based on truth". And all we, as citizens, can do is "struggle to expose lies, and strive for the preservation of sane human values".
She is not convinced she will ever see that battle resolved. But the important thing, she insists, adopting the vivid symbol she first found in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic fable The Road, is to "keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden. I find this extraordinarily helpful: we live in a mad world, but for those of us who believe in some human values, it is terribly important that we just keep this little fire burning. It is about trusting your judgment, and the power of love. A little trust, and a little care".
-Jon Henley ("Queen of Darkness: John Henley talks to psychoanalyst Hanna Segal," GuardianUK, 9.8.08. Image: In Voluptate Mors by Salvador Dalí & P.Halsman,1951).