On Violence

In 1932, Freud was asked by Einstein, under the auspices of the League of Nations, to consider the question ‘Why War?’ Is it possible to control “man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness”? Freud’s response is pessimistic. Violence is at its base “an instinctual component” of the human animal. Directed both against self and other, transferred through the growth of emotional ties and identifications, it becomes a group system. The laws which govern societies or a system’s workings are themselves the products of brute violence: at their worse only shoring up existing power, at their best allowing its new distribution. Women and children, the weak, are the oppressed, Freud underlines. In the Romance languages and in German, but only partly in English, the word violence already contains the word for rape, a violation. Only the strengthening of the intellect, the internalisation of our aggressive impulses, whatever the consequences of that, may lead to a cultural (or civilisational) repudiation of war and human violence. Freud is tentative but holds out a hope.

Picasso’s Guernica evokes the horror, the brutality of war, the terror it holds for women, children, animals. Violence fell from the skies in Guernica in 1937, as it has in all the many wars since then from Hiroshima to Ukraine. Howling women, a prostrate baby, a gored horse, Suffering is indiscriminate. Yet in his visceral expression of the horror, Picasso’s painting is a call for civilisation. Here is what violence does. Think. Abhor it.

Lisa Appignanesi OBE is a prize-winning writer, novelist, and cultural commentator. She was President of English PEN, Chair of the Freud Museum London, and until 2020 Chair of the Royal Society of Literature of which she is now a vice-president. She is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London. Her non-fiction books include Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love (2018), Trials of Passion: Crimes in the Name of Love and Madness (2014), All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion (2011), the prize-winning Mad Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 (2008); Freud’s Women (1992/2005, with John Forrester); a biographical portrait of Simone de Beauvoir (2005), amongst others. She is also the author of an acclaimed family memoir, Losing the Dead (1999) and nine novels, including The Memory Man (2004, which won a Holocaust Fiction Prize) and Paris Requiem (2001/2014).