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Not so Much a Treatment, More a Way of Life

The Wolf-Man

by the Wolf-Man, edited by Muriel Gardiner, with a Foreword by Anna Freud
Basic Books, 370 pp., $10.00

In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath,” observed Dr. Johnson; nor, I suppose, is he when writing blurbs, introductions, and forewords, particularly when, as in the present case, the book has been composed in a spirit of reverence. Anyone cursorily inspecting The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man would assume that it consisted of an autobiography of an ex-patient of Freud’s accompanied by a complementary case history by Freud; and, furthermore, that the autobiographical part would be illuminated by the insights which its author had gained while being analyzed.

The blurb refers to Freud’s contribution as a “complete case history” and, quoting the editor’s Introduction and Anna Freud’s Foreword, asserts that “there is no other book which gives us the human story of a struggling, passionate individual, seen from his own point of view and from that of the founder of psychoanalysis” and that it affords “a unique opportunity to witness a human being’s inner and outer life unfold before our eyes from childhood to old age.” Readers of the book will, however, discover that none of these statements is strictly true. The Wolf-Man is, nonetheless, of considerable interest.

In fact The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man is a compilation of eight discrete items, written at various dates between 1914 and 1968, involving not two but four authors (the Wolf-Man himself and three analysts, Freud, Ruth Mack Brunswick, and the “editor,” Muriel Gardiner). Although it is indeed true that the Wolf-Man is seen from two different points of view, his own and that of the three analysts who have written about him, there is a curious disharmony between the two points of view which makes it impossible to understand the connection between the Wolf-Man’s life as he sees it and the “inner life” attributed to him by the analysts. (In addition to his analyses by Freud and Ruth Mack Brunswick and his friendship with Muriel Gardiner, the Wolf-Man has had psychotherapy from three other analysts during the course of his life.)

But who is this mysterious Wolf-Man? He is an émigré Russian aristocrat, the son of a prominent liberal politician, who is now a widower aged eighty-four living in Vienna. In 1910, when aged twenty-three, he consulted Freud, who analyzed him until 1914, when he returned to Russia apparently cured of a severe and complex neurosis after what in those days was a very long analysis. In 1919 he reappeared in Vienna, an impoverished émigré from the Soviet Union, and had a further few months’ analysis from Freud, who treated him free and in addition made an annual collection on his behalf from within psychoanalytic circles—and continued to do so for six years, after his analysis was over and after he had gotten a job in an insurance company.

In 1926-7 he had a further five months’ analysis from Ruth Mack Brunswick, again free, and was analyzed by her again “somewhat irregularly over a period of several years,” starting in 1929. He was widowed in 1938, survived the Second World War, and in the last twenty-five years has been treated by three other unnamed analysts, one of whom is “an analyst from abroad who has spent several weeks in Vienna almost every summer in order to see the Wolf-Man daily.”

The reason for the remarkable concern for and interest in the Wolf-Man shown by the psychoanalytic movement—and for his peculiar pseudonym—is that in 1918 Freud published a paper entitled “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” in which he discussed in detail the theoretical implications of a nightmare the Wolf-Man had had just before his fifth birthday. In this nightmare he saw six or seven white wolves perched in a walnut tree outside his bedroom window.

It is this paper that is reprinted in the present volume as “The Case of the Wolf-Man.” However, it is not, and was not intended to be, a case history of the Wolf-Man or even an account of his analysis. “In spite of the patient’s direct request,” writes Freud, “I have abstained from writing a complete history of his illness, of his treatment, and of his recovery, because I recognized that such a task was technically impracticable and socially impermissible.” Nor does it concern the illness which brought the Wolf-Man into analysis in 1910 but an earlier neurosis from which he had suffered as a child.

Furthermore, the paper’s avowed intention is not expository but polemical. It was, so Freud says in a footnote, written as a response to “the twisted re-interpretations which C. G. Jung and Alfred Adler were endeavouring to give to the findings of psychoanalysis,” and its main purpose was to demonstrate that the accounts given by analytical patients of having as children observed their parents’ intercourse were not, as Jung apparently maintained, fantasies made up during their adult illness but true recollections.

To this end Freud set out in this paper to analyze not his patient’s adult neurosis but his infantile one, the formation of which could not, or so Freud thought, have been the result of the patient’s attempt to retreat from facing any real-life problems. Moreover its details could not have been distorted by any analyst’s interpretative interventions. He wished to demonstrate that the infant Wolf-Man’s nightmare was a symbolic representation of an act of parental intercourse which he had witnessed when he was aged one and a half. To be more specific, Freud sought in this paper to prove that it was a historical fact, demonstrable by psychoanalytic techniques, that on a summer afternoon in 1889 the Wolf-Man’s parents had, at approximately five o’clock, interrupted their siesta to perform coitus a tergo, more ferendo—his mother crouched on all fours, his father standing behind her—and that this activity had woken up their son, who was sleeping in their bedroom during a bout of malaria.

In view of the ingenuity that Freud displays and the number of pages that he devotes to hammering in his point, it is disconcerting and indeed annoying to discover later in the paper that he is not altogether convinced by his own arguments. It is, he says, equally possible that the Wolf-Man had watched animals copulating on his father’s country estate and had transposed his observations onto his parents. Nor, we discover even later, does Freud think that the matter is of any great importance, since “phylogenetically inherited schemata” of the Oedipus complex make it inevitable that children should construct fantasies about their parents’ sexual activities. If this is the case, then Freud’s polemics with Adler and Jung must have been a storm in a teacup and this paper should have been entitled “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Although this paper’s polemical intentions and theoretical obsessions make it valueless as biography, it is, of course, of considerable historical interest, particularly perhaps as showing the extent to which Freud was personally not entirely at ease with two of the concepts with which his name has become most closely associated, sexual symbolism and transference. We know from other sources that Freud, as a scientist, was embarrassed by the apparent arbitrariness of sexual symbolism (cf., his attitude toward Stekel), and that it took him years to accept the fact that transference was an essential part of psychoanalysis and not a regrettable distraction from it. His need to refer the Wolf-Man’s dream back to putative real occurrences can be seen as an attempt to legitimize its sexual interpretation, while the fact that he spent hours of the Wolf-Man’s analysis interpreting a childhood dream and reconstructing his infantile neurosis can itself be interpreted as a technique for keeping the dream and the neurosis (and himself) at a distance from the here-and-now of transference.

A similar diffidence about making transference-interpretations can also be discerned in Ruth Mack Brunswick’s account of the Wolf-Man’s second analysis. Throughout it she refers everything back either to his childhood or to his transference on Freud and asserts, in spite of obvious indications to the contrary, that the Wolf-Man’s feelings about her were of little importance. “It will be seen throughout the present analysis that my own role was almost negligible; I acted purely as mediator between the patient and Freud.” However, nearly twenty years after his last contact with her (and after her early death) he was speaking “glowingly of how young, active and energetic she had been.” In fact, though neither Ruth Mack Brunswick herself nor the editor mentions it, she was ten years younger than the Wolf-Man and, since by all accounts he was very attracted to women and by his own account was pursued by younger women until he was well into his sixties, I find it impossible not to surmise that his wish as a man to impress her as a woman contributed to her outstanding therapeutic success with him.

At the risk of appearing facetious, I must make one further point before leaving the analysts’ contribution to this book. Both the Wolf-Man’s proper analyses centered around his sadomasochism, and one of the theoretical issues raised by his case is whether sadism is primary and masochism one of its vicissitudes, or vice versa; in ordinary language, whether sadists are sheep in wolves’ clothing or masochists are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Freud certainly thought that the Wolf-Man was a sheep in wolf’s clothing since he maintained that he had a primary feminine wish to be, as James Strachey infelicitously translates it, “copulated with by” his father and interpreted the wolf-dream as representing his wish to take his mother’s place in the parental intercourse he had observed. But the Wolf-Man, I suspect, sees it the other way around. Why else should he be proud of his analytical nickname and prefer to be known by it long after all conceivable practical reasons for concealing his real name (patronymic) have vanished? Incidentally, sheep do figure in the material presented by Freud, who also insists that the animals which the Wolf-Man may have seen copulating were sheep dogs.

Of the two items in this book written by the Wolf-Man himself, one is his “Memoirs,” which take his life up to 1938, and the other is his “My Recollections of Sigmund Freud.” (His life from 1938 to the present is covered by four pieces written by the editor.)

My Recollections of Sigmund Freud” leaves the reader with the impression that the Wolf-Man and Freud spent much of the analysis chatting about art and literature, but this need not be taken too seriously, since the recollections are quite patently tendentious. They are designed to impress on the reader that the Wolf-Man was no ordinary patient but was a privileged intimate of the founder of psychoanalysis, though in fact there is little in them that could not have been concocted by an enterprising journalist familiar with Freud’s writings. (According to Ruth Mack Brunswick the Wolf-Man talked to her as though he was much more intimate with Freud and the Freud family than in fact he was.)

I got the impression from these recollections that the Jewish analyst and the gentile nobleman must have simultaneously deferred to and patronized each other, Freud expressing his admiration for his patient’s high intelligence, as exemplified by his ready understanding of Freudian theory—“He even once said it would be good if all his pupils could grasp the nature of analysis as soundly as I”—the Wolf-Man complimenting Freud on his exceptional understanding of his patient, which was in such striking contrast to that of the previous psychiatrists he had employed. On this point a remark in a letter of the Wolf-Man, written in 1970, is revealing: “Professor Freud also had a great deal of personal understanding for me, as he often told me during the treatment….” I find it impossible to resist the conclusion that intellectual and social snobbery played a larger part in the extended relationship between the Wolf-Man and the analysts than any of them would care to admit.

And money too. According to Ruth Mack Brunswick the fees the Wolf-Man paid Freud during his first, prewar analysis were of a size that absolved him from any realistic need to feel guilty about receiving free treatment after he had become a penniless émigré, while it is clear that throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and again after the Second World War, money flowed, albeit in driblets, in the opposite direction, i.e., from analysts to the Wolf-Man. Although the editor refrains with old-fashioned delicacy from discussing the matter openly, there is enough evidence scattered throughout the book to make it clear that there were (and perhaps still are) financial advantages attached to being the psychoanalytic movement’s prize patient—Russian lessons could be given, paintings (including ones of the famous dream) could be sold.

Nor would I touch on the still taboo subjects of snobbery and money, were it not for the fact that there is something suspiciously extravagant and excessive about this book’s frequent references to the Wolf-Man’s exceptional intelligence and sensibility, and to the fortitude with which he has faced adversity. There is also, I feel, a note of special pleading in the reasons given for his remaining in Vienna, where as a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire employment, particularly perhaps for educated people, was peculiarly hard to get, instead of moving elsewhere or perhaps even returning to Russia. Muriel Gardiner states categorically that as the son of a well-known liberal politician he would have been shot if he had returned to Russia, but his mother, the politician’s widow, stayed there until 1923, and returned there again, apparently of her own free will, in 1924 for an unspecified number of years, after which she moved first to Prague and later to Vienna, where she lived with her widowed son until her death in 1953.

(For psychoanalytic cognoscenti: The role of money in the Wolf-Man’s attachment to the psychoanalytic movement was “over-determined.” Both Freud and Mack Brunswick state that he unconsciously equated money and feces, while the latter states that the symptom that necessitated his second analysis with Freud was constipation. This was interpreted as a manifestation of unresolved transference. Mack Brunswick also states that the Wolf-Man blamed Freud for having dissuaded him from returning to Russia in 1920 “to save the family fortune” by insisting that his desire to do so was merely a resistance against further analysis.)

The remarkable thing about “The Memoirs of the Wolf-Man” is that, with one dramatic exception, they are so unremarkable. Although the Wolf-Man does, it is true, sometimes tell us that Freud attached significance to some event he is describing, and even occasionally tells us how Freud interpreted it, his memoirs are conspicuously lacking in analytical insights, and the reader is given no clue to whether or not he acquired any deeper understanding of himself or others during his years with Freud. For the most part the memoirs keep to the surface of things and long passages convey exactly the flavor one would expect from the reminiscences of a reasonably intelligent aristocrat who has survived a revolution and fallen on hard times. Places visited, persons met are mentioned and commented upon in conventional terms—“I noticed that in Tiflis there already existed streetcars, something which did not yet exist in Odessa”; “Captain L’s hobby was mathematics, and one could say that he knew Einstein’s theory of relativity inside out”—and parts of them are quite amusing, notably his accounts of the various private sanatoria he stayed in before his analysis with Freud.

These must have been the most extraordinary places, more like luxury hotels than hospitals, and it is difficult to see what useful function they fulfilled—apart, of course, from providing the very rich with excuses for making trips abroad and transferring their money into more deserving pockets. At one near Frankfurt it was compulsory to dress for dinner and “every male patient was assigned to a young lady—all supposedly girls from good families.” While staying in one at Munich, where his physician, the great Professor Kraepelin, visited him once a fortnight, the Wolf-Man took rooms in the town where he spent nights with the nurse whom he eventually married.

In one respect, the picture evoked by these memoirs does not tally with that presented by Freud and Ruth Mack Brunswick. They both assert that prior to his first analysis the Wolf-Man was totally incapacitated and incapable even of dressing himself. The memoirs show that a doctor often formed part of his traveling entourage and that he had a valet, but they also show that his trips were both planned and conducted in a most leisurely manner. There is no hint that he was ever incapable of engaging in all the usual activities of rich young men traveling abroad, sight-seeing, meeting friends, and womanizing. On one occasion the Wolf-Man had to cut short a trip to Spain, where he didn’t visit any sanatoria or consult any specialists—indeed this was after he had started his analysis—on account of his physician’s neurotic dislike of the country. I suspect that accompanying rich aristocrats on their trips abroad was a recognized way by which Russian doctors got a free holiday, and the aristocrats educated male traveling companions.

The one dramatic theme in this otherwise pedestrian story is the Wolf-Man’s account of his courtship and marriage. This is so extraordinary, and indeed so horrifying, that I am loath to take the edge off any reader’s surprise by saying much about it. But briefly, he fell in love with his future wife at first sight on his first night at Professor Kraepelin’s sanatorium, married her six years later against his mother’s wishes but with Freud’s approval, and apparently adored her until her carefully planned but apparently motiveless suicide fourteen years later. Purely by chance he discovered after her death that her account of her ancestry, which he had accepted without question and which had always formed an important ingredient of his romantic conception of her, was untrue and presumably a delusion. There is no evidence anywhere in this book that Freud or Ruth Mack Brunswick, or indeed anyone else, was ever at all curious about what kind of woman the Wolf-Man had married.

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