Psychoanalysis, Dreams, History: an Interview with Hanna Segal - Daniel Pick and Lyndal Roper

This paper was published in the History Workshop Journal, Issue No:49 Spring 1999.
In allowing us to reproduce the paper we are indebted to the Oxford University Press (OUP) and History Workshop Journal. Please note that HWJ retain full copyright. The journal's website can be found at 


Pick, D., & Roper, L. (1999): "Psychoanalysis, Dreams, History: An Interview with Hanna Segal"; History Workshop Journal, Issue No:48 Autumn 1999.



This brief, informal interview with the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, who recently celebrated her eightieth birthday, took place in London in April 1999. Focusing on dreams, psychoanalysis and history, this interview and the accompanying clinical example by her colleague Edna O’Shaughnessy (not included on this website. [Ed.])
conclude the feature that has run across issues 48 and 49 of this journal, coinciding with the centenary of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. 

Together with Susan Budd’s article in issue 48, Segal and O’Shaughnessy’s discussions illuminate important developments in approach within the British school of psychoanalysis, particularly in the Kleinian tradition, and highlight some of the differences in technique that mark the passage from Freud to contemporary psychoanalysis.

Many readers of History Workshop Journal will know of Hanna Segal as the most prominent and lucid postwar interpreter of the work of Melanie Klein; Segal is the author, for instance, of the widely-read Fontana ‘Modern Master’ on Klein. Over the last fifty years,[1]
Segal’s many papers, essays and books have explored the nature of her own psychoanalytic experience and made important conceptual contributions, for instance regarding the nature of unconscious phantasy, the clinical relevance of the death instinct, and the psychic consequences of the capacity (or lack of it) to use symbols. 

She has investigated the wider applications of psychoanalytic ideas in diverse fields, notably aesthetics, politics and literature. In the 1980s she was a leading figure amongst a group of British psychoanalysts who sought not only to think critically about the mad 'logic' of nuclear war but also to speak out and protest. Her paper 'Silence is the Real Crime' (1987) bore witness both to her committedly psychoanalytic perspective and her political passion and involvement.[2]

Hanna Segal grew up in Poland; her family had cosmopolitan interests and her father was an able linguist. She has described her mother as a person of exceptional resourcefulness, who helped pull the family through during times of great upheaval. When Hanna was twelve, her family moved, under difficult personal circumstances, to Geneva, where her father took up a post as an editor of a journal. She returned for a time to Warsaw in order to complete her secondary education and to pursue medicine. 

She had an allegiance to socialism, but also encountered Freud's work at an early stage. Again under pressure, her family had to move once more, this time to Paris (her father's role as an anti-fascist had by then made it politically untenable for them to stay in Geneva). 
Hanna herself had continued to study medicine in Poland, but when she visited her family in Paris during the holidays in August 1939, she found she could not return. In 1940, in the face of the German occupation of France, the family fled to England, crossing the Channel on board a Polish ship. As she puts it, 'I arrived in time for the Blitz'. She pursued medical work in Britain but by this stage saw it as a staging post to a different end: psychoanalytic training. She had quickly come into contact with the pioneers of the 'object relations' tradition that had emerged in psychoanalysis in Britain. In what was to turn out to be a profoundly significant introduction, Ronald Fairbairn (in Edinburgh) put Segal in touch with Klein, with whom she had analysis, and later, supervision.

The period of Segal's arrival on the psychoanalytical scene, soon after Freud's own death in London, was marked by enormous ferment in the movement, with followers of Klein, of Anna Freud and of neither in intense and profound dispute over theoretical models, technique, and much besides. This led to a series of formal debates in London, between 1941 and '45; contributions were detailed, sometimes intellectually brilliant and often deeply acrimonious. On occasion, these highly-charged meetings were disturbed by the real airwar going on outside. (These illuminating 'Controversial Discussions' became readily accessible in published form in 1991.) [3]

After the war, several followers of Klein, amongst whom were Herbert Rosenfeld and Hanna Segal, undertook clinical work with very severely disturbed patients. Writings of lasting import, for instance, on the nature of psychotic and non-psychotic functioning, were produced by these practitioners, as well as, notably, by Wilfred Bion (1897-1979), whose work had long been an important point of reference and dialogue for Segal herself, and who is directly mentioned in the interview below.

In 1987 Segal was appointed to the newly-established Freud professorship at University College, London. Some of the ideas sketched in the discussion below are further elaborated in two collections: Dream, Phantasy and Art (1991) and Psychoanalysis Literature and War (1997). A two-volume collection edited b y David Bell, containing essays about or inspired by Hanna Segal's work as recently been published: Reason and Passion, 1997, and Psychoanalysis and Culture: A Kleinian Perspective, 1999.[4]


Notes and References

1 A half century of publications that began with 'Some aspects of the analysis of a schizophrenic', International Journal of Psychoanalysis 31, 1950, pp. 268-78.

2 Hanna Segal, 'Silence is the Real Crime', International Review of psychoanalysis 14, 1987, pp. 3-12; reprinted in Psychoanalysis, Literature and War, ed. John Steiner, London, 1997.

3 Ricardo Steiner and Pearl King (eds), The Freud-Klein Controversies 1941-45, London 1991.

4 This summary draws on Bell's account of Segal's background and intellectual contribution in his introduction to vol. 1 of the Festschrift.


Daniel Pick: The first thing that we wanted to explore was the significance of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams for psychoanalysis today. As we reach its centenary, does its original interpretative model still provide 'the royal road' to a new understanding of dreams and of the unconscious in the way that Freud believed?

Hanna Segal: Yes and no. Freud is often misquoted; he never said that the dream is the royal road to the unconscious; but he did say that the interpretation of the dream is the royal road to the unconscious. In present-day analysis people vary greatly in how much attention they pay to the dream. I belong to those that like to work with dreams, but the whole attitude to the dream has changed. 

Freud's great discovery was that our repressed unconscious expresses itself in dreams and that this involves a lot of psychic work; a whole language has to be developed in order to have a dream; symbols have to be found and things have to be put together. It's really quite an effort; an unconscious psychic production of the dream which is a working through, a working out, of experiences which are not elaborated consciously. 

In Freud's time, this was a great discovery and it gave direct access, in a way, to expressions of unconscious phantasy. He would analyse dreams bit by bit and ask for associations and sometimes go on for days. That was at the time when he wasn't so aware of the importance of the transference so that he could continue the same dream because it was like a set task till the dream was analysed.

Nowadays, when we understand much more about the importance of the transference and the developing relationship between the patient and the analyst, we are also concerned with the function of the dream. Why does the patient have this dream and tell it to us in a particular way at a particular time? In that way the dream is treated like any other material. The other thing that has happened since Freud is that we differentiate much more between the time and type of dream, and we consider what dynamic psychic function it performs. 

Dreams can have very different functions. Earlier I spoke of the working through and the psychic work that comes into dreaming, but not all dreams are of that kind. Freud spoke of a dream as a night-time hallucination. But I think, in fact, that not all dreams are night-time hallucinations. Some are like that; they are felt as very concrete. They sort of stay in the mind. Their use (I'm generalizing here) is not to establish a communication - a dream as communication between the unconscious phantasy and our conscious mind - but on the contrary, to get rid of mental content. Bion speaks of patients who treat their dream with shame, as though they had defecated or urinated in their beds. And in those situations dreams are not used to elaborate symbolically and to communicate to oneself or the analyst. They're very close to hallucination. It's something used to get rid of our own experience, by putting it outside. 

I once had a patient who wrote down his dreams; he had notebooks and notebooks of them; he had an 'agenda' in the analysis to go through his dreams. We were always years behind his agenda. He would come and read the dream and tell it to me and in this way it was as though the dream had nothing to do with him. What was particularly striking was that he was very often getting rid of more positive parts of his psychic personality because those were the painful ones. For instance, he was extremely fixated on his mother; when she died, he had a lot of dreams which were extremely moving. He put them in his little diary. This was not a way of working through his mourning, but a means of getting rid of it. And it comes very close to hallucination because then dreams are used not to elaborate a psychic reality but to get rid of it by putting it in an image, telling it, invading the analyst's mind with the image, not really elaborating the problem. They are used for action - to seduce, to impress, to frighten. So we pay much more attention not only to the content, but also to what is the actual function that the dream performs. I won't add more on this now because I've written a great deal on this.

Lyndal Roper: We also wondered whether you felt that the question of how one should interpret dreams and what one should make of dreams, had been particularly contentious within psychoanalysis as you have experienced it. Or has it been just an organic change in the way people have approached dreams?

HS: Well, technique has changed a great deal, at least in the Kleinian development, and other people have also changed very much. Freud used to give a sort of symbolic explanation; he would translate the symbol. We don't do that now; one might sometimes just use one fragment of the dream that the patient has brought. We don't interpret symbols in the same immediate automatic way. We don't have a dictionary of symbols. One has to wait to know what this symbol means to this patient. Also one has to be very watchful whether it really is a symbol or whether it's felt as a more concrete thing. Whether this is contentious is difficult to say. I may be wrong [in generalizing] about it because I speak from England, where there is so much interchange [between groups] that very few people today would analyse a dream like Freud does (asking the patient to associate to this and to that and to the other). Everybody is much more aware of the transference.

LR: Coming at this as a historian, from a rather different perspective, this raises for me the whole question of how one might think about symbols in dreams in the past. If a symbol and the way a symbol is used in a dream is very much part of an individual's working through, then how might that be true for dreams in the past? To what extent is a language of dreams something that's shaped not just by the individual but by a culture or a period?

HS: I think everything is affected. Nowadays a certain type of phallic potency would often be represented by a motorcycle. Obviously there was a time when there were no motorcycles. New symbols are needed all the time; also symbols are very overdetermined. Some say that a thing can be represented by many symbols, but the symbol has only one meaning. That certainly isn't true and actually Freud spoke of overdetermination. But a symbolism evolves as the object relationships evolve. The same symbol can have very varied meanings and come up at different times. A snake may represent a penis at one level. It could be seen as the wise thing or the poisonous thing. But in another sense, it may be a poisonous breast. At still another, it may be the baby's poisonous mouth. So you sort of work through the symbols. Symbols carry a history with them. In fact I would say that the view that symbols have one meaning is the opposite of the case; probably there's nothing that represents just one thing.

LR: There's also the issue of the role of culture in dreaming and what role you think it does play. Is it just that the symbols changed depending on time?

HS: No, all sorts of factors change. Situations change, anxieties change. Take dreams, let's say, in adolescents confronted with endless unemployment or confronted with a nuclear threat. We can see not only the alteration of symbols but that certain anxieties are more prominent in certain cultures. There's nothing that is not influenced by our environment.

DP: We've been asking question about dreams in history or dreams in culture. But how much can the question be put the other way round: how far do you see dreams as registering or featuring changes in personal history, relationships to the past?

HS: Yes they do, and so does the culture. Whatever culture we have is an outcome of past culture. The past is always with us, that's clear, whether in dreams or in the culture. But I don't think, as Freud did, that we have got a sort of racial memory of things in the past. I think it's more that the current situation and environment carry the past to which we react.

DP: One of the points you suggested earlier is that without close analytic work on the dreamer as well as the dream, we know very little. This does raise a problem for historians who might for instance have a dream text that someone recorded in the past, like your patient's notebook writings. We may have an archive, even something akin to those notebooks, but no access
psychoanalytically to the dreamer. I'm wondering how much in your view that leads to the problem of what used to be called 'wild analysis'. Does it not suggest that one must be very cautious about what one could actually say if one were to take, say, the dreams of historical figures?

HS: Speculation can be dangerous in analysis. About dreams in history, nobody who has any sense would say that that dream means this or that for sure. But one might still speculate - knowing something of an artist's history and his preoccupations. One can have some freedom of thought here; we can speculate, but we cannot say that because such and such symbols were there, it means anything for sure. That's the difference between you historians and me. For in relation to patients, one has to be very careful, because making mistakes costs lives as it were. On the other hand I think one should have more freedom in reconstructing imaginatively a biography of an artist, provided one doesn't become autocratic about it.

DP: There are at least two directions that one could imagine a critic taking in relation to this whole discussion. One might be the direction of a more historically-sceptical commentator, who would want to challenge some of the more universalizing claims that have been made by psychoanalysts about dreams, symbolism, phantasy and so forth. The other direction of critique might be from the natural sciences today. There has been so much work on dreams from a more empirical 'laboratory' viewpoint. From either of these directions is there a real problem that actually needs to be addressed by analysts or are these simply different languages that have nothing to do with the psychoanalytic understanding?

HS: I think criticism which is valid and well based has to be addressed - but by others. I do not personally go in for that kind of documentation or debate. Regarding the physical phenomena, as far as I know, there is nothing that really would contradict our view. I think at some point a much greater synthesis has to be made. But I think at the moment it's very premature. We have to know a lot more about those fields. And to my mind - I may be prejudiced I think we know much more about the psychic functioning now than the neurophysiologists and chemists know about the functioning of the brain. I think so.

DP: But I'm interested that, in a way, you share Freud's aspiration that one day natural science and psychoanalysis will meet.

HS: I don't say will take over, but will come closer. I don't think that there is anything in analysis that contradicts natural physical laws. You know, if I smack you and you get a redness in your cheek it may mean an awful lot of things to you, but the fact remains the fact. But how can a historian criticize psychoanalysis? The historian's job, as it were, is to describe things as they have evolved in various areas, not to pass judgement. A historian can criticize me if I write a biography of Freud full of mistakes. Or if I said a certain idea appeared at a certain time and it didn't.

DP: During the half century in which you have been a member of the British Society, do you think there have been major changes in the understanding of dreams within the Kleinian tradition and in the evolution of your own thinking?

HS: Oh yes, very much so. Here I have to take some personal credit. I mean that I identified the difference between concrete symbolism and symbolism of a more depressive kind, and I differentiated dreams in those terms. It was pushed much further by Bion who was dealing with even more primitive elements of concrete symbolism. So there has been a great shift in that way.

DP: Would you also say that close clinical attention to the psychic life of children has transformed the broader theory of dreams in psychoanalysis?

HS: Yes. Working with children has taught us so much about the unconscious and the child's phantasy. We could recognize more in dreams of the child, and what the child felt, and what the kind of phantasies were. We have also changed our view on children's dreams. Freud said that children's dreams are wish fulfilments and without any conflict. I don't think now that analysis of children bears that out. We know that their dreams are as complicated and show the same mechanisms as adult ones.

DP: Perhaps we could also ask you more personally at this point about your own history in relation to psychoanalysis. You moved from Poland through France to England and Scotland. How did you first come to psychoanalysis?

HS: From very early in adolescence I came to psychoanalysis through reading. I read pretty well everything available, translated into Polish or into French. Some people think that I was influenced by Madame Sokalnicka. She was Polish, a psychoanalyst, and a friend of my mother. But actually if anything I would have been put off by her. I thought she was rather neurotic! But mainly, it was through reading. I had many incompatible interests. I was interested in literature and art, but I was also a bit of a do-gooder. I wanted to be of social use in the world. It was difficult to find a profession. Analysis was an answer to my dreams, probably because my basic interest is in people and human minds. I went into medicine with the idea of becoming an analyst only I didn't know how to set about it. I went to Bychowski who later became quite well known in America. He was an analyst, one of only two in Poland. He told me I must go to Vienna. But I didn't want to go to Vienna, having no particular liking for Germanic countries at all, so that was that. Then when I was in Paris in 1939, I contacted an analyst, Laforgue, because I knew his book on Baudelaire. He told me he was skedaddling out of Paris which was very lucky for me because I subsequently came to the conclusion he was bad news in all sorts of ways.

During the first year and a half in London I was too busy surviving. But in Edinburgh, I met Fairbairn and he told me about the Institute, how to set about it. I am also very grateful to Fairbairn for alerting me to certain controversies and various other developments in the Society - up till then I had read Freud, but not heard of Anna Freud or of Melanie Klein. He gave me Anna Freud's The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence which I found one of the most boring books I have ever read and Melanie Klein's Psychoanalysis of Children, which was like opening a world for me.

LR: But how old were you then?

HS: I was born in 1918 and we're speaking of Edinburgh in 1941. I was in my early twenties.

DP: You mention Fairbairn saying to you that there were these controversies going on in London. That was something of an understatement for that period!

HS: It was in the war. It was just before the 'Controversial Discussions'. Yes, I had no idea how acute it was and that there was such personal enmity. I just knew about it on the basis of the books. And it also rang bells for me immediately, I tell you what, when we were being evacuated from Paris, we walked out of Paris, but at some point we caught a train. And in that train a young adolescent girl had a schizophrenic breakdown and her parents didn't know what to do. I was a medical student, that was my only experience and they asked me to look after her, which I did - I also took her to hospital. She was talking non-stop and the thing that stuck in my mind was that she was screaming 'I've lost it, I shat out my lover in the lavatory. I shat out my lover in the loo!' And also when I was in Edinburgh I started working voluntarily in a very bad child-guidance clinic, but I listened to children talking. So when I read Klein, it was not only that it appealed to my imagination, but that the contact that I had with a schizophrenic absolutely corresponded with what she was talking about.

LR: Was it difficult to work with Klein? What was it like to work with her?

HS: Well, analysis is never easy, but I never found her persecuting. On the whole it was a very good experience. And working with her, which I did later, was not difficult at all. She didn't have any side or pretentiousness. She was extremely open to new ideas. She would only get fierce if one undermined her basic concepts derived from her discoveries, then she got very fierce. But she was very open to criticism and to ideas, and she was very encouraging. I think she disagreed quite a lot with the things that Bion started developing but she never in any way blocked him or attacked him. She was a very good person to work with.

LR: I wondered if I could ask you about your own writing. Are your own creative processes puzzling to you?

HS: I'm not an artist, but like all artists I don't want to inquire too much into the process. My first book took much too long, that was the Introduction to the Work of Melanie Klein. I feel a bit bad about it because she very much wanted this book. It didn't appear until after she died. But all the other books I wrote were always under contract and that went much faster.

LR: One of the things that we are looking at in this History Workshop Journal special feature is dreams and creativity, an area on which you have written a great deal.

HS: Here I would mention the dreamer, the madman and the artist (I think it was a lover in Shakespeare). One could paraphrase and say that the madman, the dreamer and the artist have a lot in common. I think that the unconscious expresses itself all the time, in all sorts of ways. But it seems to me that there are more direct ways because they are less involved in dealing with reality. One is the dream; it happens in our mind. Even when it is influenced by happenings outside, it is a purely psychic production. There is a difference between a night dream and a day dream. A daydream is very defensive. In night dreams, there is a sort of psychic pressure to work out a problem. In daydreams, the problem is denied and one creates an ideal illusory world in which one lives. This is actually linked with madness in a way. You know a dream is a product of your mind. If you're in a daydream you tend to see it as a reality. If you do, that way lies madness.

DP: In your early work you were renowned for trying to work psychoanalytically with severely-disturbed patients, sometimes with schizophrenic patients. I'm wondering how you would link that experience to the point you are making now about forms of dreaming and states of madness.

HS: Yes. What could in one person be represented by a dream, in the psychotic becomes a reality - a hallucination; the external world is as it were wiped out or distorted. The psychotic's actual night dreams are felt to be like that very often. So that psychotics sometimes get this strange sense that the dream is the sanest part, in that they are capable of certain psychic work and feeling but that that is put in the dream and the dream is as it were put away while reality gets invaded by nightmare.

But I brought in the daydream because Freud makes this distinction between the daydreamer and the artist. He says the artist comes back to reality because he acquires a love of women and money and so on. I think the difference between the daydreamer and the artist is very much bigger than that. For one reason because the daydreamer denies problems and the artist deals with the same problems that the dream would deal with - deep unconscious anxieties; the artist differs from the daydreamer because to my mind the former is rooted in reality in two ways. We are aware that in his own area the artist is extremely perceptive - you know, a painter who looks at a landscape or a novelist, or a poet who describes something. He is also very close to psychic reality and in a way the more psychic reality there is in the work the more and the deeper it hits us. The artist must also have an extremely realistic perception of the tools of his trade and of his materials. So it seems to me that the artist is one who can, as it were, have a dream -let us say an unconscious phantasy - and can give it symbolic expression. After all the artist's work is making symbols. That's why it is so directly in contact with the unconscious. He has no other work. His work is to make symbols, in fact to make new symbols, and that is what comes into the culture. We use the symbols made by the artist who created them and he must have an acute awareness of the reality of his materials. He knows that the things he will make will not be really his dream and he has to recognize the limits of the reality of his material, of his technique, in order to actualize the dream. I don't like action painting and things like that. I think that the idea that you let your unconscious loose and splash paint, like in free association, doesn't appeal to me because it is the working through of the contradictions, of the pain, that actually give the aesthetic experience to which people respond.

One of the differences is also that dreams deal with our internal problems to our satisfaction, but may be completely meaningless to others. On the other hand, the artist does want to communicate his dream, make a reality in the external world which involves much more psychic work and involves a lot of real, conscious work, which of course a dreamer doesn't do. We can all dream and daydream - we can't all be artists.


This paper was published in the History Workshop Journal, Issue No:49 Spring 1999.
In allowing us to reproduce the paper we are indebted to the Oxford University Press (OUP) and History Workshop Journal. Please note that HWJ retain full copyright. The journal's website can be found at 


Copyright © 1999 History Workshop Journal.