Last Word

Michael Ignatieff

  • The Wolf-Man: Sixty Years Later by Karin Obholzer, translated by Michael Shaw
    Routledge, 250 pp, £12.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9354 3
  • Ernest Jones: Freud’s Alter Ego by Vincent Brome
    Caliban, 250 pp, £12.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 904573 57 5

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed ... Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.

This is the Wolf-Man’s masterpiece, the dream which gave him his name and which sealed his fate as ‘Freud’s most famous patient’. The relation in which we stand to Freud’s patients is a poignant one. We probably know more about their unconscious than we know about our own, and yet we often lack the simplest details of their surface identities: their real names, their careers, their futures. They are like their dreams, intense phantoms who live for a second in the light of Freud’s prose and then vanish into the thin air of the rest of their lives. His case-histories of their lives are sly masterpieces of omission. Freud sieved tons of dirt and dross in his excavation of their souls and kept only the pearls: Dora’s cough, his grandson’s haunting game ‘Fort, Da, Fort, Da’, the Rat-Man’s excruciating fantasy, the Wolf-Man’s exquisite dream. What else they were, what else they became when they ceased lying on that couch, beneath Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx, deep in the folds of the talking cure, Freud does not tell us. D.M. Thomas knew what we wanted to know and tried to give it to us. The White Hotel invents a fate for one of them, but the invention does not satisfy that part of us which wants the truth, which wants to know what really happened to them.

The truth of their fate is the test of Freud’s claims and thus the truth of our own. We know it would be vulgar to ask them: were you cured? The old master himself was properly sardonic about the possibility of cures in this life. But he did promise us the chance of ‘transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness’, and if that is possible, then we should have proof of its possibility in the bodies and speech of psychoanalysis’s oldest survivors. If only we could find them ... If only they had been accessible ...

Dora, Little Hans and the Rat-Man have disappeared, denying us the test of the Master’s truth which their bodies might have provided. Only the Wolf-Man survived. Born in 1887 on his father’s vast estates in southern Russia, Sergei Pankeyev began analysis with Freud in 1910 and concluded it, with epic and ironic fitness, on the day after the Archduke was shot in Sarajevo. In 1919, he returned to Vienna from Odessa for six months of analysis of what Freud called ‘unresolved transference residues’. While the Wolf-Man lay on the couch discussing his bowels, the Red Army marched into Odessa and confiscated his estates. The 20th century then proceeded to write all over the book of his life, but he himself remained strangely unmarked. Exile, forty mean years scraping a living as a clerk in a Vienna insurance company, the Anschluss, the Nazis, the war, the Russian occupation and, last but not least, the depredations of the women to whom he was so fatally attracted did not manage to dispossess him of what really seems to have kept him alive: the infinite fascination and torment of his inner life. When Karen Obholzer, a young Austrian journalist with a special sensitivity to old men’s stories, tracked him down in his Vienna apartment, he was a debonair and melancholy old gentleman in his eighties with a slight, drooping resemblance to Harold Macmillan. Since 1919, he had lived as a ward of psychoanalysis, receiving small retainers from Freud, and then from the Freud Society. An American analyst, Muriel Gardiner, befriended him in 1938, and with great devotion and persistence, managed to persuade him to write his memoirs. When these appeared in 1971, they contained a dutiful acknowledgment of the debt he owed to the Master and to the psychoanalytic movement. Karin Obholzer rightly suspected that there was more to the story than dutiful gratitude, and there is much in her taped conversations with him which will grieve Muriel Gardiner. For all his charming old world ways, he was a ruthless old codger, with scores to settle. Beneath a quavering irresolution in these tapes, there is a bitter awareness that the incorrigible torment of his inner life represents a judgment against the Master and his cures.

No, it was not true, as Freud had written, that he began analysis entirely incapacitated and incapable of dressing himself. Yes, he had come to Vienna with a servant and his private physician: but then who didn’t travel with servants in those days? Besides, all the time he was in analysis, he had been well enough to study fencing and prepare his bar exams. He had been depressed, that’s all. So why then had he spent the better part of his adolescence wandering through the archipelago of sanitoria and spas which catered to the noble neurasthenics of the Ancien Régime? Because there had been the suicide of his sister and then of his father, as well as the terrible madness of his uncle. It ran in the family: he wanted to be sure it did not run in him. But why had he gone to Freud? Here we get to the heart of his quarrel with Freud’s account of his case. Because he wanted permission to marry Therese. There is only one indirect reference to her in Freud’s narrative. But for the Wolf-Man she was the key to his life, both a deliverance from and a cause of his torments.

She was a dark-eyed, Spanish-looking nurse in the Munich sanitorium where he had stayed, consulting the great Kraepelin, before finding his way to Freud. As the Master had said, she was ‘the breakthrough to the woman’, the means by which he struggled free of the pall of his father to embrace the chance of love. A breakthrough, it certainly was. The minute he saw her making her rounds, he was seized by desire: he broke into her room in the hospital, cornered her, badgered her for meetings and feverishly pressed his suit until she finally surrendered in a hotel room in Berlin. He was then seized with a characteristic panic and went to Vienna to ‘consult’, to ‘seek advice’. In effect, he was seeking permission to marry. During his analysis, he talked so much about her that he reports Freud as clutching his head at one point and pleading to be spared yet another hour of effusions about ‘his blessed Therese’. Yet, astonishingly, she has been excised from Freud’s account of the case. The ostensible reason, of course, was that Freud wished to concentrate entirely on the infantile neurosis, the wolf phobia. Yet the effect of this was to obscure precisely what was at issue between Freud, Adler and Jung at this time: i.e. the relationship between infantile neurosis and adult behaviour. The suppression of his later history with Therese also had the effect of blurring at least one critical dimension of the dynamics of resistance and transference. Reading the Wolf-Man’s version, one recognises the comic possibility that while Freud was busy pursuing his own agenda, mining the precious ore of infantile eroticism, the Wolf-Man was imperviously following his own, delivering up the ore in patient hope of securing the Master’s ‘permission’.

Why did he need it? Because his will was weak, and because ‘everyone was against her, the doctors, my family, my mother ... ’ And what did the permission consist in exactly? Was it that moment when Freud finally met Therese and, according to Sergei, pronounced her ‘more beautiful than he had expected’? Or was the permission the analysis itself, the unlocking of the ancient trauma? In his eighties, the Wolf-Man didn’t know. In any event, authority spoke, breathed life into his wavering will, validated ‘the breakthrough to the woman’. Therese and Wolf-Man were married in 1915.

But what of the famous dream? The old Wolf-Man is scathingly off-hand. This ‘business’ about the wolves symbolising his fear of castration at the hands of the father, this hypothesis of a ‘primal scene’ in which he supposedly saw his father penetrating his mother ‘from behind, like an animal’, was all ‘very far-fetched’. How did Freud know it was true? The Wolf-Man was only 18 months old at the time of the primal scene. How was such a memory possible? And his latent homosexuality, his longing to be penetrated by his father? ‘Very far-fetched indeed.’ For the Wolf-Man, the whole pack of cards collapses before the fact that the ‘breakthrough to the woman’ did take place. He had managed it himself. He had wrestled free of the infantile trauma. Long before his meeting with Freud. The Master helped him with his permission, but that was all that mattered.

Who are we to believe here? The poignant fact is that the ‘breakthrough to the woman’ was not enough. No sooner had he married Therese, than his desire for her vanished into pity and then, one suspects, into resentment. After the war, he began stopping women in the streets, taking them up to a hotel room. In 1926, his demons returned. He became obsessed about his appearance, and one day rushed into Ruth Mack Brunswick’s consulting-room, shouting and holding a mirror to his nose. She diagnosed paranoia. The Wolf-Man knew immediately what that meant: Uncle Peter. He had abandoned his mansion, set up a tent in a secluded field on his estate and had lived with his farm animals, believing everyone else lied to him. He eventually died of exposure and neglect and was found by his servants, semi-devoured by rats. That was paranoia. In an odd and comic example of cure effected by mis-diagnosis, the Wolf-Man shook off his symptoms and after several weeks took up his life again. In 1938, days after the Anschluss, Therese put her head in the gas oven. The act had been in preparation for at least a year: there were pages and page of suicide notes. He, of course, was the last one to know. Catastrophe.

In desperation and loneliness, he attached himself to another woman, a coarse blonde Communist who wanted a fur-coat, and whom he picked up in a tailor’s shop. Forty years later they were still together. Why? Because, he explained, he could not stand Sundays alone. Forty years of recrimination, forty years of demands for money and the endless ‘vulgarity’ of her conversation. A catastrophe.

As Karin Obholzer listened to the endless loop of his talk, the old man drew her in, as he had drawn all the others, pulling her downwards into the vortex of his obsessions, pleading for intimacy, seeking her advice, revealing in all their poignancy how green and urgent the needs of old men remain. And always the question: what is the truth? In the Russian language, he told her, there were two words for truth: pravda and istina, the one meaning the truth of practical and theoretical reason, the other the truth behind appearances, behind the veil of speech. Where, in his own narrative, was that truth behind appearance?

One ought to fight the sentiment which accords truth to old age. Freudians, injured by his text, might plausibly read it as the return of the repressed, as his re-entry into the old neurosis, or simply as the last stand of his unconscious against the Master’s truth. Why indeed should we believe him at 86 any more than we believed him at 20? And yet finally it is hard not to feel the force of that crushing judgment of his, spoken, so one imagines, with one of his theatrical gestures of hopelessness: ‘In reality, the whole thing looks like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as when I first came to Freud. And Freud is no more.’

He lived for three long years after these interviews, circling around even the last of his decisions. With his death at 92 on a May afternoon in 1979 in the wards of the Vienna Psychiatric Hospital – and with the passing of the Master’s daughter in London this autumn – one perhaps has the right to feel, for the first time, that a current which was once part of the air we breathe may be fading, like smoke from a distant fire.

This feeling is strengthened by reading Vincent Brome’s diligently researched biography of Ernest Jones. At the end of his life the charming old autocrat remarked that he had always been ‘an old-fashioned materialist’ and a disciple of T.H. Huxley. This is a revealing admission of how little a clever man can learn after the age of 20. It is also some evidence of the degree to which the force of Freud’s doctrine swallowed up true believers like Jones, insulating them from the times in which they lived. The association we make between Freudianism and modernism tends to obscure how much it was a product of Late Victorian positivism. Jones believed that he and Freud were carrying the same battle into the domain of medicine and abnormal psychology which Huxley had carried to Bishop Wilberforce and the creationist camp. How distant Freudianism begins to seem when we cease to think of it as ‘our’ common sense and see it instead as another round in Victorian science’s battle against religion. And if it is a deafness to the claims and needs of the religious spirit which most clearly marks Jones and his master as Victorian positivists, then it is perhaps in finding a new language for these claims and needs that we will take our first steps out of the labyrinth the Master made. That of course will not make us free of him: we may escape the doctrine, but we cannot escape the wolves.