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Wangh, M. (1986). The Nuclear Threat: Its Impact on Psychoanalytic Conceptualizations. Psychoanal. Inq., 6(2):251-266.

(1986). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 6(2):251-266

The Nuclear Threat: Its Impact on Psychoanalytic Conceptualizations

Martin Wangh, M.D.

In the last room of the lowest floor of the Prado, in Madrid, in what almost constitutes an underground shelter, hangs an ominous painting by Francisco Goya y Lucientes. Two giants are swinging enormous clubs at each other while they seem to be sinking more and more deeply into the mire in which they stand. The entire scene is velied by fog. A prophetic representation, indeed, of our present world situation: The two superpowers threatening to engage in a war that may well bring about the end of the human species — and of much of the present biosphere in a blanketing nuclear winter.

What is the human, psychic reaction to such a threat? What effect does this menace have on the differentiations of the mind postulated by psychoanalysis? The experience of the Nazi Holocaust has given us a foretaste of the answers to these questions.

Hillel Klein (1983p. 123), who was himself a survivor of the Nazi camps, wrote about the loss of differentiation in psychic structure during life in the camps. “Intrapsychic conflicts … were … characteristically diminished in the face of real danger … [under] the pressure of having to answer existential questions with life or death consequences for self and family.”

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