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Everybody Needs a Symbolic Expression Now and Then!

In this Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to write something about art and mental health. Hanna Segal wrote extensively about this in her book Dream, Phantasy and Art (1991) in which she explores the creative process and its effect on the recipient of that process. There is a powerful connection between making or consuming a work of art and mental health.

She bases her theory on Freud and Klein. "Melanie Klein developed the analysis of the infant, moving from the early stage of 'paranoid schizoid' position, at one to four months, when they feel themselves to still be a part of the mother, to the subsequent 'depressive position', when the baby realizes that they are an independent being. This realization is of course gradual in the infant,and Klein emphasized the recurrence of this process throughout life to a lesser extent." (Thompson 2018)

Klein's paranoid-schizoid to depressive positions, were considered by Hanna Segal to be important in understanding the creative process itself. "I emphasize throughout the impetus for artistic creativity in the reparative impulses of the depressive position. But that necessitates an integration and a working through of earlier mental states, and integration of the perception of chaos and persecution, and that of an ideal state lost at the inception of integration. There is a longing to recreate an ideal state of mind and objects before what is felt as the havoc of the depressive position." (Segal, 1991:98)

"Hanna Segal was interested in the relationship between creative symbolism and mental states. She developed terminology to describe the difference between symbolic health and illness: 'I came gradually to the conclusion that one could differentiate between two kinds of symbol formation and symbolic function. In one, which I have called symbolic equation, and which underlies schizophrenic concrete thinking, the symbol is so equated with the object symbolized that the two are felt to be identical... In the second case, that of true symbolism or symbolic representation, the symbol represents the object but is not entirely equated with it.'" (Segal, 1991:35)(Thompson 2018)

"I have come to the conclusion that the two modes of symbolism pertain respectively to the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive position." (Segal, 1991:38)

Symbolic representation or expression is for Segal the healthy resolution of depressive features which go right back to childhood: "Nevertheless, I think that Freud's idea that the artist aims at evoking in the recipient of his art the same constellation of unconscious feeling which motivated him suggests that the emotions must have something in common to arouse the emotion called 'aesthetic experience'. And if I am right in thinking that the specific constellation that is aimed at in depth has to do with an attempted resolution of a depressive conflict, including its early Oedipal constellation, then the means must be such as to convey both the conflict and the reparative attempt at resolution." (Segal, 1991:89)

Therefore, art helps to keep us healthy mentally, either by making or consuming it. For Segal the artist creates their own world: "It is his inner perception of the deepest feeling of the depressive position that his internal world is shattered which leads to the necessity for the artist to create what is felt to be a whole new world. This is what every major artist does - creates a world."(Segal, 1991:86) This is what we inhabit or get lost within whether it is a book, a painting or music for example. But Segal also writes about the artist's relationship with reality: "I would put it as follows: one is the creation of a symbol, and the other, the reality sense of the material means by which by which you express it," (Segal, 1991:96) And also, in terms of relating to reality, "Achieving something in the external world is essential to his feeling of a completed reparation.(ibid)

That the creative process arises out of depressive anxieties "...and how their expression in a way meaningful to the recipient involves such processes as are mobilized in the depressive position: the capacity to symbolize; perception of inner and outer reality, and ability to bear eventual separation and separateness." (Segal, 1991:97) is vital to mental health. The fact that this reparative motivation is there "necessitates an integration and working through of earlier mental states, and integration of the perception of chaos and persecution, and that of an ideal state lost at the inception of integration" (Segal, 1991:98) This is the ideal state of being merged with the mother, giving way to reality and separation and a real art object.

Sarah Thompson 17.05.2018


Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude, Vintage, 1997

Hanna Segal, Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein, Karnac Books, 2008

Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art, The New Library of Psychoanalysis, 1991

Sarah Thompson, Relating Through Data, to be published, 2018