Freud’s Masterplotting

Section 1
The Beyonds of Freud’s Case Work: From Ontogenetic to Phylogenetic

1. The Wolf Man Case History

The bulk of From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, otherwise known as the Wolf Man case history, was written in the autumn of 1914 soon after Freud had ended the analysand’s initial treatment which had lasted for four years. Freud would also add two important passages in 1918 before its publication. The case seems to be Freud’s response to the defections of Adler and Jung, who were critical of Freud for his single-mindedness regarding the importance of infantile sexuality. In the "Editor’s Note," Strachey writes that the Wolf Man case history "is the most elaborate and no doubt the most important of all Freud’s case histories" (XVII 3). Strachey probably felt this way because Freud seemed to intend the case to work as a means of unification for the young psychoanalytic community, but also as a means of delimiting what counted as psychoanalysis and what did not: those theories or theorists that denied the centrality of infantile sexuality as defined by Freud in this case were out of bounds. In a similar vein, Nicholas Rand writes in his introduction to Abraham and Torok’s The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy that the Wolf Man case was written as "Freud’s test case for the establishment of psychoanalysis as a transmissible school of thought" (lii).

The centerpiece of this centering case history is the analysand’s dream at age four of wolves in a tree, and not surprisingly Freud interprets this dream as evidence of infantile sexuality playing a crucial role in the Wolf Man’s neurosis. Freud initially interpreted this dream as evidence that the analysand had been a witness to his parents having sex "a tergo" at the age of one and a half, what Freud called a "primal scene." For Freud, the dream was a reproduction of this primal scene in a different and pathological context, a product of Nachträglichkeit (though it is unclear what this child-as-pre-sexual concept might be in this context). Freud’s request in a 1912 letter to the "Open Forum" of the psychoanalytic community that his colleagues "collect and analyze carefully any of their patients’ dreams whose interpretation justifies the conclusion that the dreamers had been witnesses of sexual intercourse in their early years" (XVII 4) further suggests that Freud was trying to establish that the witnessing of this event, the "primal scene," was some ingredient of a new take on the origin of his psychoanalytic etiology of neurosis: a new caput Nili that included sexuality, infancy, and some sense of a trauma. The pathology, however, the disruption to normal development, was not some supposed trauma of witnessing the scene. Freud initially argues that the trauma, what created the deferred pathological context of the dream, was an experience and memory of "seduction" by the analysand’s older sister, as with the "seduction" theory. Later, in the 1918 addendum, he argues that this primal scene, this fantasy/memory, was universal, part of normal development. Freud initially wants to establish the "primal scene" as the origin of the neurosis, but then, as I argue below, he later tries so hard to secure its "reality" that he ends up universalizing it as a phylo-"genetic" part of the truth of the unconscious, which means it can no longer serve as an origin of a neurosis if neurosis is a detour from normal sexual development–and which means we are left asking, whence the neurosis? Which is another way of asking, whence the chance that differentiates the normal and the neurotic? Which opens up myriad other fundamental questions since the truth of psychoanalysis, what is found, is supposedly found via its ability to cure neurosis.

Freud interpreted the Wolf Man’s lasting "sense of reality" left by the dream as more evidence that there had in fact been such an event for the dreamer to witness:

[This lasting sense of reality] assures us that some part of the latent material of the dream is claiming in the dreamer’s memory to possess the quality of reality, that is, that the dream relates to an occurrence that really took place and was not merely imagined. (XVII 33)
At this point in the case Strachey refers the reader to the section "Representation by Symbols," in chapter six, "The Dream Work," of The Interpretation of Dreams, where Freud makes a similar argument in which a sense of reality was a symbol of the material existing in memory and that the event with which it is associated actually took place (V 372)–one of many examples of how The Interpretation of Dreams is at least partially committed to a symbolic approach to interpretation, therefore to a "scene of writing" of translation. Though this symbol would of course in some way be acquired, I will note in passing that, in the same passage of The Interpretation of Dreams where he establishes the symbolism of the sense of reality, Freud states unequivocally that "dreamers have symbolism at their disposal from the very first" (V 373), which suggests that this symbolism must precede the individual.

Though the Freud of 1912-14 seems unambiguously intent on establishing that the event of copulation between the parents actually occurred and that the infant child witnessed it, what we find with the Freud of 1918 is potentially a form of the kettle logic Freud so humorously interprets in his Jokes and the Unconscious of 1905:

A. borrowed a copper kettle from B. and after he had returned it was sued by B. because the kettle now had a big hole in it which made it unusable. His defense was: "First, I never borrowed a kettle from B. at all; secondly, the kettle had a hole in it already when I got it from him; and thirdly, I gave him back the kettle undamaged." (VIII 62)
Freud argued that the primal scene was "indispensable to a comprehensive solution of all the conundrums that are set us by the symptoms of the infantile disorder, that all the consequences radiate out from it, just as all the threads of the analysis have led up to it" (XVII 55). In the interest of buttressing infantile sexuality as the foundation of psychoanalytic theory and practice, Freud was positing here a new caput Nili of neurosis. But what constitutes this primal scene? Is it made up of memories somehow separated from fantasies? Is it a trauma? How would it then be related to the other centerpiece of psychoanalytic thought at the time, the Oedipus complex? Freud’s first answer, which in some ways reads like a defense to Jung and Adler’s criticisms, is that "it is impossible that [the primal scene] can be anything else than the reproduction of a reality experienced in childhood" (XVII 55), and in "the present case the content of the primal scene is a picture of sexual intercourse between the boy’s parents in a posture especially favourable for certain observations" (ibid.). Freud argued so vehemently for the "reality" of this scene, for this scene as event, that he could "see no other possibility" and claimed that "either the analysis based on the neurosis in his childhood is alla piece of nonsense from start to finish, or everything took place just as I have described it above" (XVII 56)…. I never borrowed a kettle. In his 1918 addition to the case, Freud writes that "we cannot dispense with the assumption that the child observed a copulation, the sight of which gave him a conviction that castration might be more than an empty threat" (XVII 57), but that perhaps "what the child observed was not copulation between his parents but copulation between animals, which he then displaced on to his parents, as though he had inferred that his parents did things in the same way" (ibid.). The kettle already had a hole in it.

Obviously Freud did not believe that his analysis of the Wolf Man should now be considered "a piece of nonsense from start to finish" because he had changed his mind about the necessity of the child witnessing his parents, though we might wonder why he did not revise his initial version of the case study before he published it. A clue to why he did not revise is given at the end of the added passage when he asks of potential critics if he seems "unwilling to admit" (XVII 60) that he had altered his position. Part of his answer to this potential criticism–"I intend on this occasion to close the discussion of the reality of the primal scene with a non liquet" (ibid.)–suggests that he does feel he or psychoanalysis is on trial, something like a law suit regarding a kettle. This "it is not clear," with a "yet" subsequently attached to it in another part of his answer, points to a later development in the case, to the third defense, and suggests that this third somehow integrates the case as a whole. I believe that Freud did not revise the earlier version because he did not see the two lines of argument presented above as necessarily contradictory, and especially not as candidates for kettle logic. To support this claim I propose that the third (kettle logic requires at least threes, whereas contradictions require only twos) suggests a way of reading all three as coherent:

These scenes of observing parental intercourse, of being seduced in childhood, and of being threatened with castration are unquestionably an inherited endowment, a phylogenetic heritage, but they may just as easily be acquired by personal experience. (XVII 97)
Yet, on the surface, it would seem that we can "dispense with the assumption that the child observed a copulation": I gave him back the kettle undamaged.

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Copyright 2000 by Eric W. Anders