Saturday, 4 September 2010

Your face was simple and your hands were naked

The Wolf Man about 1910

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night time).

The Wolf Man, about seventeen years old, in his school uniform; also his sister, at his family's estate.

Suddenly, the window openned of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting in the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were seven of them. The wolves were more like 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.

The cover is in fact a painting by the Wolf Man, obviously inspired by the dream that Freud quotes in his study. It's funny, but in his memoir, he only really mentions wolves, early on, in reference to his sister's scaring him with a picture of a wolf when they were children (it is Freud who makes a connection between these wolves and the embarrasing deaths of the boy's father's sheep in an epidemic--and again emphasises this same mythology elsewhere in the boy's childhood).

I've been wanting to write about this for a while now: A few months back, the title of this dark little book leapt out at me. It was sitting there amidst amidst a bunch of bad novels, on the shelf of the local library booksale. At first, I thought it was simply a joke taken too far: The Wolf Man by the Wolf Man, sounded a bit like one of those ridiculous retellings of classic literature: Dracula by Dracula, The Bible according to God. It was only when I looked at the cover that I realised this was Sigmund Freud's Wolf Man, a patient he treated just prior to and during the First World War. In fact, the book is indeed a double-portrait of sorts, as Freud's case-study is also present as an afterword (weightily supplemented with a foreword by Anna Freud, an introduction by Muriel Gardiner--an American herione in pre-war Vienna, who was a close friend of the Wolf Man in his later years--as well as an additional essay by Ruth Mack Brunswick who also treated him).

It's a startlingly good read, revelatory about the man's character in a way that Freud's case history isn't quite. In Freud's analysis of the Wolf Man, we're placed at some objective distance from the patient--but in the voice of Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff (for that was this man's name), we get a sympathetic sense of him, as he felt, a living, feeling human being. The veil of his neurosis, which Freud works so hard to deconstruct, is here allowed to form the textured fabric of someone's life. It's the difference between an object lesson in 'infantile neurosis' and an autobiographical character, someone deeply haunted by his manipulative mother, his father's depressions, his sister's suicide--and how these traumas repeat themselves cyclically and symbolically throught his life. All of which takes place against a backdrop of surreal and meandering travels, a host of eccentric relatives, and endless Edwardian spa-treatments. After the quackery and rather heartless bumbling of numerous 'society' doctors, Freud's entrance into the Wolf Man's biography (although accidental) is almost messianic. Finally, here is someone who the poor guy can talk to intimately. We also get a picture of Freud as rather less cool than he comes across in his own writing: accepting of gifts, a sender of invitations, even going so far as to subsidize his patient's rent at one point.

Josh Ritter, 'Wolves'

Here is Pankejeff discussing his first real sense of autonomy--ephemeral though it was--as he takes up painting for the first time:

'When after my father's death in the summer of 1908 I began to paint on my own, I soon succeeded in finding my own style of painting. I have mentioned my childhood attempts at musical composition. Perhaps, through painting, something that had been buried in my childhood again came to life. Once could say that it was the only medium that had changed, and that music had now become landscape painting. It may have been of importance that landscape had formed part of my childhood improvising.

'My enthusiasm for painting at this time infected even [my friend] P. who, following my example took up the brush, although he had never done any drawing or painting. We would go out together and P., sitting beside me, would try as best he could to reproduce the landscape in front of us.

'In the meantime the beautiful south Russian autumn had arrived with its glowing light and its warm, ripe colours. I wanted of course to make the most of this season so favourable to painting. Therefore P. and I stayed in the country long after my mother and all the others had left the estate...'

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