Recently I have been reading Muriel Gardiner's The Wolf Man and Sigmund Freud. This book tells the story of Sergei Pankejeff in his own words. The "Wolf Man" is one of Freud's most famous case studies. Any student of psychoanalysis knows that there are remarkably few documented case studies in Freud's history. The Wolf Man is one of the most famous and perhaps the most important case study, in that it is among the richest, revealing a lot of the theoretical apparatus that psychoanalysis would depend on. I could not pass up the chance to read the Wolf Man in his own words. Knowing Freud's talent as a weaver and storyteller, would the story reveal fabrications and distortions in Freud's treatment (On the History of an Infantile Neurosis)?

Pankejeff's memoir largely corroborate the raw material of Freud's analysis. The real fascination, however, lies in the story of his tumultuous life, punctuated and buffetted by the geopolitical shocks of the early 20th century which still largely define today's worldview. This is a man born into immense privilege, who searched around the great cities of Europe in a desperate attempt to cure his neurosis. What was his illness? A tendency to melancholia? The actual content of his neurosis is strikingly absent in this memoir. It forms a type of absent centre that the whole document orbits around. In its name he would try every cure known to the fledgling science of psychology, and find them wanting, before encountering psychoanalysis.

The Wolf Man's adult life was immediately defined by tragedy. His sister and confidante, Anna, committed suicide at the age of 22, by consuming poison. The memoir positions her as being unable to come to terms with her feminine role. In her young womanhood, she eschewed all suitors and immersed herself in intellectualism. (This intellectualism calls to mind the type of sublimated pleasure that Freud remarks upon in the later chapters of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.) Later she became uncomfortable with her physical appearance and concerned that she would be unable to marry. A kind of role reversal plays out here: as a child, Sergei envies Anna her dolls, while Anna attempts to try on a masculine role, but is rebuffed by her peers. Her suicide comes out of a kind of suppressed despair, perhaps, and she repents her act on her deathbed, but cannot be saved.

Likewise Pankejeff's father is diagnosed adoitly as a manic depressive. He lives his public life his 'manic' phase, and simply withdraws to German sanatoria for months at a time when the 'depressive' phase comes. Pankejeff however does not find the same relief from his torments in these sanatoria. The relationship between father and son is uncomfortable, calling to mind Adler's notion of 'masculine protest'. His father dies at 49, at the peak of health. His death is not named as a suicide in this volume, but it's drily remarked that he probably took an overdose of his sleeping medicine. An Infantile Neurosis contains material on Pankejeff's "homosexual posture" and how it relates to his father. His father is never grieved for explicitly, rather, Pankejeff transfers his grief onto others and channels it into landscape painting.

Pankejeff eventually embarks on a love affair with Therese, a nurse in a German sanatorium: a "servant", falling into his familiar pattern of attraction which Freud remarks upon. Therese has a "Southern European aspect" which later turns out to be a complete phantasm. Their relationship is stormy, Therese being an archetype of the maddening woman who "drives some men to throw themselves at her feet, and others off the parapets of bridges" (de Maupassant -- who is himself referenced in this volume, along with Lermontov, whose figure looms over it.) Pankejeff eventually makes the "breakthrough to the woman", his greatest victory, in Freud's eyes; their courtship tale defies all modern logics.

After his analysis, seemingly cured, Pankejeff enjoys a life of petty-bourgeois domesticity with Therese for 20 years in the interwar period, working as a functionary at an insurance firm. Until one day he returns home and finds that Therese has gassed herself to death. Pankejeff is 52. Therese has been a troubled woman since their earliest encounter. Her suicide looks premeditated, "a decision made with forethought and reflection", the consequence of unbearable pain: "I am so sick in body and soul". The 20th century marches woefully on: Therese's act coincides with the Nazi occupation of Vienna and a wave of suicides among the Jewish population, though Therese was not herself Jewish. The memoir ends here.

As she was the only stable structure in my changeable life, how could I, now suddenly deprived of her, live on?

Freud's analysis works as a feat of psychic reverse engineering. It proceeds from a hypothesis about the dream's cause (the primal scene), and attempts to illustrate the process by which the manifest content is formed. In the case of the wolf dream, the process goes: Primal scene -> grandfather's story of the wolves -> the Seven Goats fairy tale.

What follows is a discussion of the reality of the primal scene. Freud invokes a set of imaginary critics who counterpose that the memories associated with the primal scene are in fact fabrications or phantasies. Freud claims that these critics retain the name of psychoanalysis while rejecting its profoundest and most disruptive insights. To Freud these critics (Jung and Adler) keep psychoanalysis "in name only", while Freud's theory itself already encompasses the aspects these critics choose to focus on. Specifically Freud visualizes strictly Freudian psychoanalysis as a bidirectional theory of psychic causation. That is, influence flows forward from childhood, rather than flowing exclusively backward as Jung and Adler would have it. Though Freud does not discount a backward causation. It's unclear on the exact meaning of the term primal scene and whether it always indicates an observation of coitus as in the case of the Wolf Man, or whether it simply indicates a childhood experience with the aforementioned power to cause neurosis.

Note that the primal scene is the Urszene, using the German 'ur-' prefix.

Later we encounter some of the Wolf Man's letters. This text gives some insights into Pankeyeff's own attitude to his memoirs, among other things. He has some poignant remarks on aging.

You see my work int he office gives me absolutely no inner satisfaction, not even when I have a great deal to do and when my ability there is appreciated. I inherited this restless spirit from my father, in contrast to my mother, who is more inclined to a contemplative life.

Later he expands further on this

I thinkt that the problem of aging depends very much on the individual. My mother, for instance, that she was happier in old age than in her youth, although she had lost her entire fortune and lived, as an older woman, in poor surroundings and among strangers. Her relatives, to whom she was deeply attached, either remained in Russia or had died. All very unfortunate circumstances. But in her youth she had suffered rather a lot with my father, and with many upleasant events in her family, whereas in age she could live a quiet and contemplative life to which she had always been inclined. So she worked out for herself a philosophy that suited her nature, and she was much more satisfied than in her youth or middle age. After all, in youth one asks more of life than in old age, and must therefore experience many disappointments.

Aside from this he makes several cogent points about his own senescence:

  • His libido begins to tail off, but at a very late age -- in his mid-seventies.
  • His "aggressive drives" such as they are seem amplified.
  • His conflicts remain unattenuated.
  • He becomes paranoid about his age-related weaknesses.
  • He finds his delights and recreations diminished.
  • He finds that psychic symptoms visit themself upon him accompanied by simultaneous physical symptoms (hysterical?)

For many years I have thought that I, through the many hard blows of fate which I have suffered, would at least in age become somewhat more mellow and would acquire some sort of philosophic outlook upon life. I thought that in old age I could at least spend my last years at a distance from the emotional struggles of which I had had so many in my life. But it seems that these are illusions also. I am still far way from the capacity for a contemplative life. Various inner problems pile up before me, which are completely disconcerting.

Gardiner's post script, Diagnostic Impressions, reveals several facts. The contested nature of the account is emphasized even within this volume. Some aspects of Pankejeff's personality come in for criticism.

Just as when a child at camp or boarding school writes home about the bad food or the rain, about this mean boy or that stupid teacher, rather than about all the fun and interesting things to do or to learn, so the Wolf Man ... naturally tresses the negative far more than the positive.

Gardiner disputes some of Brunswick's analysis. Brunswick was later a pioneer of the psychoanalytic treatment of psychotic disorders. Brunswick diagnosed Pankeyeff with paranoia, delusions of grandeur, etc, based on his delusion about his nose. However Brunswick even admitted that the Wolf Man's case was atypically susceptible to analysis. Gardiner seems to moot that Brunswick may have been attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole, because none of Pankeyeff's later behaviour admitted of a psychotic diagnosis. [It should be remembered in mitigation that Brunswick also stressed the extent to which Pankeyeff's behaviour was discontinuous with that described in Freud's paper so she was not unaware of this.]