Migration: surviving the inhumane Virginia de Micco

Migration: surviving the inhumane

Virginia de Micco

Where thought runs aground it is necessary to insist on thinking

(H. Arendt)

What greater scandal could there be than “getting used” to an experience of inhumanity, making it almost an everyday experience? – an ordinary, almost usual experience which seems to lose its exceptional, extra-ordinary character, inundating us with images which instead have the effect of obliterating any real ability to “imagine” the horror.


So then, try to imagine hanging on by one hand to a bit of rock sticking out over an abyss: for an incalculable length of time you will be nothing but that hand hanging on to that rock, that rock-hand which will concentrate the entire possibility of your existence into a point in space as well as into a point in time. It is an image of this kind which the psychoanalyst Piera Aulagnier chooses to help us understand the psychotic “condition”, a condition in which one is above all engaged in – or rather, concentrating with all one’s strength on – having to survive. This effort entails an elimination of historical time, or rather its dismantling: neither past nor future exist, everything is concentrated and “plunged” into a single infinitely expanded instant, where we find ourselves literally in a “black hole” of time.


In this monstrous present, instead of the usual images which emphasise the elements of dispersion and fragmentation in the psychotic experience, I would like to stress the opposite: an element of extreme and absolute “concentration”, an experience of sensory “density” so intense that it obliterates any possible space for thought or words. The psyche itself becomes a rock-psyche: in other words, it incorporates an inanimate element which enables it to survive. That is, it must make itself a rock as the sole possible way to resist/exist.


The image drawn by Aulagnier’s words is translated into tragic reality for hundreds of migrants, massed or, if you prefer, scattered, around our coasts, liquid borders in which one can float like wreckage or sink to the bottom like “dead bodies”. Out of the water emerge hands grabbing ropes, ropes they have to grasp for an indeterminate length of time before being pulled to safety, and for the whole of that time they become only this: a hand grasping a rope, a rope-hand which, the more it forgets being or having been something other than a rope-hand, the more likely it is to be rescued. Its whole being is trapped and encapsulated in that segment of “limb” that is indistinguishable from that piece of rope. And it is in precisely in this reduction to zero, in this sort of zero-degree humanity, that all the energies and possibilities of “survival” coalesce. But afterwards, does one feel “saved”, or simply “survived”? What remains in the psyche of someone who has had the experience of being (in psychosis) or of becoming (in an extreme situation) a thing-hand, a thing from the psychic point of view? We recall that for Primo Levi (1971), the experience of inhumanity consists precisely in having become a “thing” in the eyes of another human being, and so this experience will remain indelible both in the one who has been through it and in the one who made it happen, changing their human “substance” forever.


In this “extreme” situation where the human being struggles to defend his or her own humanity, to maintain, or suspend, his or her own status as “human”,[1] we find ourselves confronted with one of the first founding antinomies of the idea of survival: what survives is on the one hand that which does not die but also, on the other, that which does not live. What does not die completely, but also what does not live fully: something that “remains” and resists, but is present in a paradoxical form as the “disappeared”, as a lacuna. Survival is therefore, above all, a form of incompleteness which acquaints us with a logic that is not that of loss and mourning and the psychic operations connected to these, but that of disappearance and reappearance, deletion and re-emergence: a paradoxical dimension in which nothing stays dead forever and nothing ever really comes back to life.


In its “positive” version, survival indicates a continuing to live (weiter-leben) in spite of an extreme experience, while in the negative version it indicates something which has not succeeded in dying (weiter-sterben), so that it “harasses” the present and cannot be fully mourned. The experience of survival is evoked in the face of every attempt to wipe out the human, as Fédida (2007) emphasises, rather than by the “simple” escaping of death. The experience of psychic survival therefore marks every attempt to negate the fact that “the subject” ever existed: or rather, it is “made manifest” in response to the expulsion of an individual or collective subject (a human group with its cultural characteristics and its history) from the realm of the representable.


It is not by chance that when writers such as Fédida or Altounian (2005) think about the notion of survival, they start from the dramatic experience of the genocides which have tragically marked out the historical period of the twentieth century, from the Shoah back to the genocide of the Armenians.


Faced today with the great tragedy happening under the open sky in the Mediterranean,[2] it is precisely the corpses, the dead bodies that can re-emerge, come back to the surface like genuine revenants, to “cause a problem”: they are what “remains”, that which cannot be wiped out or buried to harass our consciences… and the unconscious!


Under the conditions in which the mind makes itself into a rock or a piece of rope, conditions where the space for thought must be eliminated, where does the human take shelter, hide, and thus preserve itself?


Well, it is in the body which in spite of everything continues to survive that there remains a bare possibility of living in the present, standing in for a mind rendered incapable of living because, as we have seen, space and time have been reduced to zero: a last “trace” of the human which deserts the mind and walls itself up inside the body.


“I went on walking, everything was in ruins around me, I didn’t know where I was going, maybe I didn’t even know if I was alive or dead, but I went on walking, step after step, like a robot, the fear and distress had gone, I kept hold of my feet, all of me was in my footsteps, in the end I had deep wounds that almost reached the bone…” (Ajid, 37a, Syrian refugee).


These are the real “deformities” stamped on the body, which remain as an indelible memory, albeit unreachable, since the mind and the body have become things. In other words, this is the embodied survival of the rope-hand or the rock-hand, which remains as a “sign”, or rather a “signal”, of the black hole in which the mind becomes a rock or a piece of rope. It remains, indeed, as a pure indicator of a psychic fault which cannot be translated into a signifier, something that can “signify” for a psychic apparatus: the only possible “memory” of survival – that is, of the very experience of having survived.





Anitha lived permanently on the brink. She had arrived in one of the many floating wrecks in which identities, origins, starting points had already been scattered and confused… just a bit of migrants’ own humanity which for so long seems indispensable and which you then find you can do without it, you can live (or survive) without it.


They said she had lost a child but no one knew where or how. She spent all day in a corner by the door of the reception centre, looking out as if she was waiting for someone; in the evening she stayed in the doorway of the bedroom. She couldn’t lie down, but stayed semi-alert, waiting… she seemed to have gone into a “suspension” of time.


She clenched her fist until the tendons twisted as if clutching something she didn’t want to let escape, but her hand was empty, and then immediately clenched again. Her gaze seemed misty, as if she was still staring across the sea, waiting for it to bring something back to her…


Many women had lost their children at sea, had not been able to keep them beside them, saw them “disappear”, not die; and they seemed to be waiting for the sea to bring them back. The tragic news of recent years has made this experience almost “familiar” and everyday; but losing, mislaying, one’s own children in the sea, has for a long time remained a piece of “evidence” at the limit of the thinkable for many immigrant mothers and for those who have aided them. The therapist’s work often translates into staying by them, waiting, without ever being able to speak about what has happened: what has happened cannot have happened. Indeed, can one really speak about what is simply unimaginable? For Anitha too, none of this could in any way be remembered: it was “surviving” in her, as she was surviving her own partial death. Her whole body and every day she had lived through had become a “monument” surviving this unthinkable and psychically unprofilable “loss”, expelled from representation, but also from perception.


So Anitha’s “screwed up” hand will only be able to “signify”, to indicate something, a direction in which to look, if it encounters another psychic apparatus which will have to do her looking for her, bear the view of the unimaginable for her: it is this terrible “knowing” which therapists are often called on to watch over.


Watching over this unimaginable without claiming to be able to imagine it, indeed to “portray” it to themselves, because it must above all be acknowledged in its dimension of unimaginability, of annihilated capacities for psychic representation, a psyche thus called on to keep devastating affects inside it, affects that are often incompatible with maintaining one’s status as a subject.


Imagining the unimaginable

In our everyday acts of listening, we are faced with these challenges to the imagination (Fédida, 2007). These words of Fédida’s are a good summary of the essence of a therapeutic approach, as patient as it is tenacious, able to evaluate indications and traces that are as physically indelible as they are psychically tenuous, always on the point of disappearing. Traces of the survival of the human which, on the one hand, quoting Fédida again, the therapist has “the duty to imagine”, but which on the other hand, he cannot “pretend” to understand, precisely because, in order to follow the long and grievous path of imagining the truly inexpressible, that which is without words and yet demands to be said, he or she needs first of all to bear its unimaginability to the full: as TS Eliot (1940) put it, “In order to arrive at what you are not/You must go through the way in which you are not.” It is not merely a matter of surviving the trauma, but of surviving in trauma, of staying in the inhumane until space is opened again for a word, the possibility of a testimony, which is often announced by the capacity to start dreaming again.

But “surviving” also means being inhabited by survivals, accommodating within oneself a dead, mute, drowned part alongside the “saved” but inevitably mutilated part.

Ferenczi pointed out how often the outcome of a serious traumatic event entails an “accommodation with lacunae” (1932), referring to a sort of psychic scar, a mutilation of entire psychic areas which can never recover. But it is, above all, Green’s reflection on the negative which opens up for us the possibility of thinking about an active and massive psychic operation of disinvestment from the traumatic traces which results in the formation of a “lacuna”. This last modality is certainly the most insidious, tending to “wipe out” the traces of the event, negating the fact that they had ever happened, in which case it would present not in the form of repetition, but on the contrary, of avoidance.

It seems we are faced with an extreme form of what Ferenczi called “autoplastic transformation” in which the massive disinvestment extends as far as the affective-perceptual elements, becoming translated into a sort of psychic anaesthesia: not because the patient is taking refuge inside a protective “coat of armour” but, on the contrary, because s/he is not putting up any resistance. Indeed, as Ferenczi writes, “A completely limp body will sustain less damage from the thrust of a dagger, than one that is defending itself” (1932, 104).

So the modalities of psychic elaboration which the traumatic traces can access depend on the “form” in which they remain in the psyche.

And it is precisely that which “survives” which can be “passed on” – that is, transmitted unelaborated – from one generation to another. Indeed, what is “transmitted”, as Kaës (2009) emphasises, is exactly that which has found neither thinkability nor representability.

This situation is especially detectable in the children and grandchildren of genocide survivors, where the conditions of uprooting and migration obtain.

So, the re-petition of the trauma even across generations, or rather its insistent re-presentation, could constitute not the deadly mechanism of coercion, but an attempt to overcome the “wipe-out” and go back to “asking” (petitioning) for a form of representation to the psychic apparatus.

“Survivors” therefore remain as witnesses of an embodied memory waiting to find “translatability”: in other words, it is waiting to be “remembered in order to be forgotten” (Altounian, 2007, 13), to be able to transform unthinkable and unrepresentable traumas into human dramas.

In many of the migrants I have met, the experience of the sea-crossing remains a moment of pure terror in which everything seems to be suspended on the edge of an abyss, an abyss which also opens up in the structure of the Ego, which fully experiences all its dependency on those meta-psychical and meta-social referents which “guarantee” (Kaës, 2008) its cohesion and stability. In this extreme experience, many people remain blocked, psychically “thunderstruck”, in a sort of frozen trauma.

In these cases, the event possesses a traumatic catastrophic potential, since it involves not only the individual, but the whole group to which she or he belongs, and thus the same symbolic tools that are available for building the psyche’s structural components: a sort of psychic suspension which blocks any possibility of psychically transforming the “event” into trauma, and therefore any possibility of inserting, and indeed I would say of re-building, a subjectivity into this process.

The experience of terror which seems inassimilable for the psyche will therefore have to remain shut up and frozen in an outside-psyche and “imprint” itself in the flesh, will stay there, will “survive” until it can be thought, transformed once again into “human” experience. But being human again, being once again the subject of one’s own story, will mean going back through the horror, making it pass from the eyes and the hand in which it had remained thunderstruck, encapsulated, into the mind, tolerating its devastating deconstructive potential.

So we will finally begin to “see” what had remained “trapped” in those simultaneously terrified and blind stares, stares in which those who have survived seem to look at us from the borders of the inhumane. Often the start of this process is announced by terrifying nightmares which the migrants themselves recognise as a point of no return, an extremely critical moment in which the scenes of horror which until then they had only “undergone” are (re)lived. But plunging into the nightmare is also the same as beginning the work of mourning with all its associated agonising experiences of guilt at definitively “letting go” what has been lost in terror.



When the inhumane begins to be transformed back into the human “I will not be able to say what has taken place, but will try and create a place for what has taken place. This place is psychotherapy” (Fédida, 2007, 67).


This place will be a particular place, and in many ways the place of nightmare (incubus in Latin): as in all massive and early traumas, an incubator will be needed before coming back to be born (remember how Leon and Rebeca Grinberg likened the experience of migration to a real experience of rebirth). For a long time, the therapist’s own mind will have to function as an incubator, making do at first with providing conditions strictly aimed at survival rather than presenting themselves as excessively human objects not yet amenable to psychic investment. They must, moreover, incubate in their own minds something which those who are still trapped in the inhumane have neither the place nor the mental tools for transforming into anything communicable, sayable. This is something which in a certain sense can only be inoculated, almost like a virus, a defective life form which, in order to express itself, needs a host to provide its own psychic instruments: an unbearable image that is literally seen with another’s eyes until its psychic apparatus can, as a first step, look at what you have seen, suffer what has remained frozen. Maybe only when one is able to start seeing one’s own wound in the wounded gaze of another – another who has been left wounded in his humanity by the inhumane – maybe only then can the mind that has crossed the desert of the inhumane begin to be populated, crowded with nightmares.


Dreaming one’s own trauma will then mean not only reassuring oneself about the survival of the object, allowing it a form of reparation of the monstrous wound afflicted on its identity, but also allowing it to survive, outlive, the object, so that it can in some way come back to life, as is always demanded by the work of mourning.


However, mourning what has been lost at sea far from one’s own land, is a particular kind of mourning. In its tomb of water, things go differently, as Ariel says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:


Full fathom five thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made.

These are pearls that were his eyes,

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.


And this is how what was the unimaginable par excellence is transformed into one’s most intimate and secret possession, something rich and strange, eternally alienating: that inhumanity which we have survived and which now survives in us.


Sintesi e parole chiave

A partire dalle drammatiche esperienze legate alle più recenti ondate migratorie vengono analizzate le modalità con cui la psiche reagisce a tali massicci traumi identitari, i quali coinvolgono non solo i singoli ma anche i loro gruppi di appartenenza e le stesse strutture simbolico-culturali che consentono agli individui di dirsi e di sentirsi «umani». Vengono esaminate in particolare le modalità con cui le tracce traumatiche «sopravvivono» nella psiche, gli effetti che tali «sopravvivenze» hanno nella trasmissione transgenerazionale e il lavoro terapeutico di elaborazione a cui possono andare incontro.

Parole Chiave: Migrazioni, sopravvivenze psichiche, umano/disumano.

Migrating: Surviving the Inhumane. Starting from dramatic experiences connected to the most recent waves of migration, the ways in which the psyche reacts to such massive identity trauma are analysed – ways that involve not only individuals, but also the groups to which they belong and their own symbolic-cultural structures that allow individuals to speak of themselves as, and to feel themselves to be, “human”. In particular, the modalities are examined by which traumatic footprints “survive” in the psyche, as well as the effects that such “survival” has in transgenerational transmission and the therapeutic task of working through to which they can be directed.

Keywords: Human/inhumane, migrations, psychic survival.

Migrer: survivre a l’inhumain. À partir des expériences dramatiques liées aux dernières vagues migratoires, on examine la façon dont la psyché réagit à de tels traumatismes identitaires massifs, qui impliquent non seulement les individus, mais aussi leurs groupes d’appartenance et les mêmes structures symboliques-culturelles qui permettent aux individus de dire et se sentir «humains». En particulier, on examine les modes de survie des traces traumatiques dans la psyché, les effets que ces «survivances» ont sur la transmission transgénérationnelle, et le travail d’élaboration thérapeutique qu’ils peuvent rencontrer.

Mots-clés: Humain/inhumain, migrations, survivances psychiques.

Migrar: sobrevivir a lo inhumano. A partir de las dramáticas experiencias de las olas de inmigración más recientes, se analizan las modalidades con la que la psique reacciona frente a estos masivos traumas identitarios que incluyen no solamente a las personas, sino también a los grupos correspondientes y a las mismas estructuras simbólico-culturales que permiten a las personas nombrar y sentirse «humanas». Se analizan especialmente las formas en las que las huellas traumáticas «sobreviven» en la mente, los efectos que estas «pervivencias» tienen en la trasmisión trans-generacional y en el trabajo terapéutico de procesamiento que las personas pueden enfrentar.

Palabras clave: Humano/inhumano, migraciones, sobrevivencia psíquica.

Migrieren: unmenschliches Überleben. Aus den dramatischen Erfahrungen im Zusammenhang mit den letzten Migrationswellen wird analysiert, wie die Psyche auf solche massiven Identitätstraumatisierungen reagiert, die nicht nur Einzelpersonen, sondern auch ihre zugehörigen Mitgliedsgruppen und die symbolisch-kulturellen Strukturen verwickeln, die es den Individuen ermöglichen, «menschlich» zu sprechen und sich zu fühlen. Insbesondere werden die Wege untersucht, in denen traumatische Spuren in der Psyche «überleben», welche Auswirkungen diese «Überlebenden» auf die transgenerationale Übertragung und die therapeutische Verarbeitungsarbeit haben, denen man begegnen kann.

Schlüsselwörter: Menschlich/unmenschlich, migrationen, Psychische Überlebende.


Abraham N., Torok M. (1994). The Shell and the Kernal. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Altounian J. (2005). L’intraduisible. Deuil, mémoire, transmission. Paris, Dunod.

Altounian J., Altounian V. (2007). Ricordare per dimenticare. Rome, Donzelli.

Aulagnier P. (1975). The Violence of Interpretation. London, Routledge, 2001.

Balsamo M. (2002). Spettri. L’identità tra antropologia e psicoanalisi. Psiche, 1.

Castro R. (2008). Testimoni del non-provato. Rome, Carrocci.

De Martino E. (1977). La fine del mondo. Contributo allo studio delle apocalissi culturali. Turin, Einaudi.

De Micco V. (2014). Le identità nomadi. Identità, migrazioni, fratture narcisistiche. In: Cotrufo P., Pozzi R. (eds.), Identità e processi di identificazione. Milan, Franco Angeli.

De Micco V. (2014). Trapiantare/tramandare. Legami e identificazioni nei transiti migratori. In: De Micco V., Grassi L. (eds.), Soggetti in transito. Etnopsicoanalisi e migrazioni. Interazioni. Clinica e ricerca psicoanalitica su individuo-coppia-famiglia, numero monografico, 1-2014 /39. Milan, Franco Angeli.

Didi-Hubermann G. (2002). L’immagine insepolta. Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 2006.

Eliot T.S. (1940). Four Quartets. East Coker. London, Faber, 1959.

Fédida P. (2007). Humain, Déshumain. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2009.

Ferenczi S. (1932), ed. Dupont J., Clinical Diary. Cambridge, Harvard, 1995.

Freud S. (1914). On Narcissism: an Introduction. SE, 14.

Freud S. (1919). The Uncanny. SE, 17.

Freud S. (1922). The Ego and the Id, SE, 9.

Green A. (1993). The Work of the Negative. London, Free Association Books, 1999.

Grinberg L., Grinberg R. (1984). Psicoanalisi dell’emigrazione e dell’esilio. Milan, Franco Angeli, 1990.

Kaës R. (2008). La trasmissione delle alleanze inconsce, organizzatori metapsichici e metasociali. In: AA.VV., Generi e generazioni. Ordine e disordine nelle identificazioni. Milan, Franco Angeli.

Kaës R. (2009). Le alleanze inconsce. Rome, Borla, 2010.

Levi P. (1971). The Drowned and the Saved. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Luchetti A. (2009). Il trauma e la sua impronta. Per una interpunzione. In: AA.VV., L’impronta del trauma. Sui limiti della simbolizzazione. Milan, Franco Angeli.

Russo L. (2009). Destini delle identità. Rome, Borla.

Sayad A. (2001). La doppia assenza. Milan, Raffaello Cortina.



1.Again, Primo Levi, describing the new arrivals in the concentration camp, underlines how those who most quickly adapted to the conditions of the camp – adapted, that is, to their new condition of “inhumanity” – would have more chance of surviving and of being “saved”.

2. The experience of migration has always been deeply traumatic, linked to the unbroken work of mourning it requires, and to the constant need to confront depressive and persecutory anxieties, and to address and continually resolve enigmatic and ambivalent situations in the adoptive context; but in the exceptionally demanding present time, it is characterised by a distinctive violence against the identity, which has profoundly destabilising effects on the structure of the psyche since it attacks all the representational and symbolising functions, bringing about a massive mutilation of the collective and individual memory, for example. This is why in therapists’ relationship with migrants now, the most frequently prompted psychic memories are those that are not represented or are unrepresentable.

3. [Translator’s note: in the second paragraph of this section the author plays on incubo (nightmare) and incubare (to incubate).]

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *