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Sigmund Freud

Freud’s work with the Rat Man showed that the obsessive’s tortured rituals embody doubled desires which are at odds with each other, and also that these rituals rely on difficulty in distinguishing the inner world from the outer world – although the Rat Man’s father had died years before he began analysis, he was still a powerful and punishing figure in his child’s psychic world. Another of Freud’s patients, the Wolf Man, similarly displayed obsessive fears and anxieties, but also a host of other symptoms. If the state of the Rat Man’s mental health could never be finally ascertained because of his premature death, the Wolf Man lived, perhaps, too long, in the shadow of his identity as Freud’s most famous patient.

THE WOLF MAN: ‘FROM A HISTORY OF AN INFANTILE NEUROSIS’ (1918) Another of Freud’s surprisingly named patients, the Wolf Man, was in reality a wealthy young Russian named Sergei Pankeiev. Pankeiev was treated by Freud and other analysts for depression and obsessional symptoms throughout his life. He lived until 1979 and reputedly answered the phone with ‘Wolf Man here’, adopting for himself the identity under which Freud made him strangely famous. The Wolf Man’s name issued from a nightmare he had as a child that resulted in a phobic fear of wolves. In his dream he was terrified by the sight of six or seven white wolves perching on the branch of a walnut tree outside his bedroom window. Freud took this dream as the root cause of the neurosis which plagued his patient throughout early childhood; he and the Wolf Man spent a large amount of analytic time analysing it. In an extremely complicated and (it has to be said) often unconvincing interpretation of the Wolf Man’s wolf dream and resulting phobia, Freud maintained that the dream was a distortion of a scene that the Wolf Man had witnessed when he was only a tiny child, perhaps one-and-a-half years old: a scene of his father having sexual intercourse with his mother from behind. This child’s eye view of his parents locked in a sexual embrace Freud called the primal scene, and he suggested that it was one possible trigger for the Oedipus complex. However, even within the bounds of the case itself, Freud swayed back and forth on the status of the primal scene – arguing at one moment that the baby must have really witnessed this scene, at the next that the baby might have just fantasised his parents’ sexual activity. The question of the visual – what the young child actually sees and what he or she simply imagines – is one that Freud always returns to, often with conflicting answers. For Freud the Wolf Man’s case history firmly supported his ideas about childhood sexuality, and the possibility of developing neurosis (which, as we know, always contains a sexual component) even in earliest childhood. As a very young child the Wolf Man went through a pious, obsessive period which coincided with his excessive fear of wolves and other animals. He remembered his older sister tormenting him with a particular picture of a wolf. Through the techniques of analysis Freud was able to ascertain that at a very early age the Wolf Man’s older sister initiated him into sexual practices. Although his sister was in reality much more aggressive than he, in his own fantasies the Wolf Man imagined himself the aggressive one and his sister the passive recipient of his attentions (Freud 1918:248). As in the Rat Man, Freud found in the Wolf Man’s case a continuing vacillation between active and passive desires. Freud imagined that the young child might misinterpret the scene of his parents’ intercourse as an attack on the mother by the father, similarly enacting these fluctuating anxieties about activity and passivity, love and violence. These early sexual disturbances were, of course, seen as central to the childhood and adult pathologies that later develop. One compelling aspect of the case of the Wolf Man is Freud’s analytic and rhetorical techniques. He must convince two audiences of the validity of his interpretations: his patient and his readers. At times the methods which Freud uses to interpret the Wolf Man’s dream about the wolves seem to rely on a topsy-turvy, almost Alice in Wonderland-like, logic. For instance, the Wolf Man says that in his dream the wolves were totally still and staring at him with ‘strained attention’ (Freud 1918:263). Through the distortions of dream logic Freud transposes the stillness of the wolves into its opposite – claiming that, instead of immobility, the Wolf Man must have woken to a scene of violent motion, and, instead of being looked at, the baby must himself have stared intently at the scene. From these meagre beginnings Freud constructs the powerful primal

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