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Memoirs of My Nervous IllnessReview - Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
Introduction by Rosemary Dinnage
by Daniel Paul Schreber
New York Review of Books, 1903
Review by Andries Gouws, Ph.D.
Jun 1st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 22)

In the history of psychiatry, no other schizophrenic has been investigated as thoroughly as Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911). Countless distinguished commentators have tried to find the key to understanding his Memoirs ever since they were first published in 1903. Schreber is endlessly interesting both by the stunning way in which he articulates his own insanity, and by the wealth of interpretations to which his Memoirs have given rise.

Schreber's father Moritz Schreber was famous for his many books on health, medical gymnastics and education. Schreber Jnr had his first mental breakdown at the age of 42, after a Quixotic and unsuccessful candidacy for the Reichstag. Fifteen months later he had recovered sufficiently to resume his brilliant legal career. His second mental breakdown followed in 1893 at age 51, shortly after he was appointed presiding judge (Senatspräsident) of the Saxon supreme court. For help he turned to Paul Flechsig, the psychiatrist who had treated him after his first breakdown. Schreber was at first admitted to Flechsig's psychiatric hospital as a voluntary patient, but eventually placed under tutelage, so that his stay became involuntary. The Memoirs were intended partly to make his behavior and world-view comprehensible to his wife and family, and partly to aid his attempts to have his tutelage rescinded. (In an appendix, Schreber gives a masterly legal analysis of the involuntary detention of those considered insane). His counsel having lost the initial case, he decided to handle his appeal himself. Despite the debilitating fact that Schreber was still labeled "insane" by the institutionalized psychiatry of the day, the court was able to see the cogency of his arguments, and thereby accept his claim that his delusions did not render him irrational or unfit to manage his daily affairs. Until recently, most of his commentators were not as generous; they invariably ignored his legal appendix as well as his struggle to regain his liberty. Having won his appeal case, Schreber was discharged from the asylum in 1902. He did not enjoy his liberty for long; after his wife suffered a stroke in 1907, he had a relapse and was again institutionalized until his death in 1911.

However, the bulk of the Memoirs is concerned not with these legal matters, but with Schreber's cataclysmic vision of the universe as revealed to him during his nervous illness. In this universe, Schreber takes center stage. "Everything that happens is in reference to me". (233) Apart from Schreber, no real human beings remain, their place taken by simulacra - "fleetingly-improvised-men". Schreber has obtained more insight (though still incomplete) into the hidden nature of reality than any human being before him. This is part of the reason he pens these Great thoughts of a nervous patient (Lothane's alternative translation of Schreber's title).

There is a crisis in God's realms, because God's attempt at committing soul murder on Schreber is contrary to the Order of the World (and thus also doomed to failure). In typical paranoid fashion, Schreber is the never-ending subject of observation and persecution; he is plagued by voices repeating inane phrases. He is the constant witness or victim of "miracles"-supernatural events designed to ruin him. His life, bodily integrity, manliness and reason are under incessant attack from heavenly quarters. Through these attacks God attempts to stop the fatal attraction Schreber exercises on him - fatal because the rays out of which God consists lose their separate existence once they have been attracted into Schreber's body. This irresistible attraction occurs whenever and for as long as Schreber imagines himself to be a woman in the throes of "voluptuosity".

The fate of the cosmos does not lie in God's hands as much as in Schreber's. Physically, Schreber is gradually being transformed into a woman-a process that may take centuries. Only when this process is complete, will salvation come. Inseminated by God, Schreber will then give birth to a new race of men.

Throughout, Schreber presents us with a God who strikes us as thoroughly irrational. God is the laughing stock of his victims; he does not learn from experience; he "did not really understand the living human being ... because ... he dealt only with corpses" (162). But only Schreber may scoff at God, because God in other respects shows eternal wisdom and goodness.

This summary does little justice to the intricacies of Schreber's Baroque vision. His psychiatrist Flechsig shatters into legion Flechsig souls. God is split into an upper and lower God, and also into the posterior and the anterior realms of God. A myriad chattering souls throng around him.

Schreber's vision is invariably bizarre, often beautiful in a surrealist way, mostly painful-and intermittently comical. (Perhaps not even inadvertently so-one of the big questions facing the reader is the extent to which Schreber may be a conscious ironist). It evokes a huge loneliness and a huge loss-the loss of all meaningful human relationships and the recognition they entailed. The megalomania of this vision seems to be a compensation for Schreber's losses. The greater the loss of real recognition, the more grandiose the role in the fantasized cosmic order required to counterbalance it-something Dinnage's Introduction brings out well.

Nobody will be able to read Schreber's Memoirs without asking what on earth the meaning of all this can be. And there is no lack of authors willing to supply an answer. If reading Schreber is in itself fascinating, a second, equally fascinating journey begins when one starts reading his commentators. Among those who have shone their spotlight on Schreber are such luminaries as Jung, Bleuler, Freud, Jaspers, Kraepelin, Klein and Lacan. In this review I will however focus on a few recent commentators.

The more one reads about Schreber, the more one realizes how much one has previously taken for granted. Retrospectively, one marvels at the ease with which one made assumptions about the case (and "madness" in general), and at the apparently obvious questions one failed to ask.

Most of those writing on Schreber are engaged in a debate with Freud's epoch-making interpretation of the case. Freud reads Schreber as an exemplary case of persecutory paranoia. Persecutory delusions, Freud thinks, can be traced back to repressed homosexual wishes. After repression the subject no longer perceives the previously desired person as a love object, but as a feared persecutor. The Schreber case instantiates this general structure. His breakdown derives from a fixation at an infantile (narcissistic, to be precise) stage of development.

In the fifties the psychoanalyst William Niederland revolutionized Schreber studies by tracing Schreber's delusions back to the sadistic treatment he had allegedly undergone at the hand of his father. According to Niederland, Schreber senior had applied to his son Daniel Paul the various infernal devices he had invented for correcting unwanted postures and behaviors in children; given one of Schreber's delusions, Niederland would typically read it as a distorted representation of one or more of these machines. Again a key to unlocking the mysteries of the case seemed to have been found.

In his 1981 dissertation the Dutch historian Han Israëls defended the Schrebers, father and son, against what he perceived as the calumnies of Freud, and Niederland. The son was not queer, and the father not a sadist. Israëls' work is just one of the many strands Zvi Lothane utilizes in his book In defense of Schreber: Soul murder and psychiatry -to me the most comprehensive and convincing psychoanalytic reading of Schreber. If I had to recommend a single book on Schreber this would be it, despite its length and price. Lothane, a New York psychoanalyst, supplies a rich context for reading the Memoirs and the main commentaries on it. He rereads the case from the perspective of recent psychoanalytic theory, gives a critical survey of the secondary literature and adds a wealth of new historical material on Schreber, his father, mother and brother, and, crucially, his psychiatrists. He doubts that Schreber was schizophrenic. Lothane more or less confirms Israëls's exoneration of Schreber's father, seeing little reason to believe that Daniel was actually subjected to Moritz's orthopedic devices to any major extent. Lothane chides Freud for misreading Schreber's transsexual fantasy (being turned into a woman who will be inseminated by God) as a homosexual fantasy (having same sex intercourse with God). What Freud traces back to Schreber's sexual deprivation, Lothane traces to his loss of love. But above all Lothane shows up the neglect-retrospectively almost a willful neglect-by Freud and most other commentators of the effects on Schreber of his involuntary detention, and the lack of therapeutic interventions on the part of the asylums and psychiatrists he was delivered over to. His first psychiatrist, Paul Flechsig, had a purely mechanistic, organic conception of psychiatry-in fact, he was the local standard bearer for this new approach, so different from the old moral approach still espoused by Schreber senior. Treating the patient as a disturbed organism rather than as a person in distress was part and parcel of this view. In fact, like some evil scientist from a horror movie, Flechsig interviewed Schreber against the reassuring backdrop of jars containing the brains of deceased former patients in formaldehyde! Guido Weber, Schreber's second psychiatrist, was not much better.

Lothane made me empathize with Schreber: how would I have felt in this situation? At one level, Lothane argues, Schreber's story needs no decoding; it is simply the story of freedom lost and regained. He surmises that a talking therapy and a more humane regime could have made a big difference for Schreber, whose system of delusions was only elaborated during, and probably in response to, his prolonged detention.

Two other books on Schreber deserve special mention, Louis Sass's brilliant The paradoxes of delusion, and Eric Santner's My own private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber's secret history of modernity.

Louis Sass, a psychiatrist teaching at Rutgers University, gives a radically original reading of the case. He does not à la Lothane compare Schreber to the standard view of schizophrenia, and then deny that he was a schizophrenic. Instead, he challenges the standard psychiatric view that the schizophrenic experiences her delusions as possessing the same reality as the everyday world. Citing Jaspers, he emphasizes that to the schizophrenic her "delusions", though very real and very important, do not belong to the everyday reality shared with others. (Schreber himself tells the court that his unconventional ideas do not lead him to any actions that clash with the "normal" view of reality, except for his harmless habit of sometimes standing in front of the mirror in female attire-hardly grounds for depriving a man of his liberty). Moreover, Sass challenges the view that schizophrenia represents a regression to a more "primitive" level, both in time and in level of organization. Instead, he draws out a fascinating parallel between Schreber's world-view and the philosophical position known as "solipsism". Solipsism claims that there is no proof for the reality of the external world and the other people apparently inhabiting it. For all I know, reality does not extend beyond the limits of my consciousness. Sass sees Schreber's world of "fleetingly-improvised-men" as essentially that of solipsism. As with the philosophers, Schreber's solipsism results when the "higher" intellectual functions go into overdrive, rather than when they are disabled in favor of more primitive modes of mental functioning. Because the philosophy of Wittgenstein is precisely a battle against the temptations of solipsism, it can throw light on where Schreber goes wrong, and why.

In Crowds and power (1962) the German novelist and essayist Elias Canetti had read Schreber as a proto-fascist. He claimed that the outlines of German National Socialism could already be seen in the Memoirs-especially the image of Schreber as the only living being left after the (that is: his) destruction of the world. In My own private Germany Eric Santner, who teaches German literature at Princeton University, also links Schreber to the Nazis, but now in the negative. Schreber and the Nazis reacted to the same stresses of modernity, but with a totally different outcome. Schreber's delusions represent a creative and socially benign attempt to come to term with these stresses; Nazism a lethal one. The stresses in question center on what Santner calls "the crisis of investiture". Every society has procedures and rituals whereby certain individuals become invested with authority. In pre-modern Germany, these were generally successful, so that those in a position of authority experienced themselves as legitimate. But the advent of modernity led to a breakdown in these procedures and rituals. That is why Senatspräsident Schreber is catapulted into a crisis when he attains a position of authority: the old rituals no longer succeed in making people like him feel that they are real authorities.

"The crisis of investiture" is a fascinating and useful notion. But can it carry the explanatory burden Santner wants it to? Despite the enthusiasm of several distinguished reviewers of this book, its central thesis does not quite convince me. On the other hand, this hardly makes Santner's book less interesting. He for instance informs us that "Luder" (wretch, scoundrel, slut), the term with which God addresses Schreber at one point, was the original form of Martin Luther's name; and that the discoveries on which Flechsig's reputation rested were made on an infant named...Martin Luther!

With my brief, necessarily caricatured account of Schreber and some of his commentators I wish to suggest that in cases like these no single, simple, deeply convincing interpretation is likely to be forthcoming. On the one hand different readings seem to suggest bits of a larger truth-very many of them seem to be "onto something valid". On the other, it is unlikely that they can be synthesized into a single coherent account. While they seem to supplement each other to some extent, they also contradict each other, often fundamentally. The Schreber case thereby becomes a fascinating example of the nature of interpretation and the conflict between interpretations.

The design and typography of this edition of Schreber's Memoirs are a real pleasure. Rosemary Dinnage's Introduction (new to this edition) is very good at setting the stage for the Memoirs and at conveying their tone and mood, without being too academic for the general reader. For those who want to consult the secondary literature as well, this edition has some drawbacks. Unlike the original 1955 edition and its later reprints, the page numbers of the original German edition are not supplied in the margins. Moreover, because the new typography has led to a change in page numbers, existing references to previous editions of the English translation are of little use. I suggest that readers interested in pursuing the secondary literature get hold of a used copy of a previous edition (which is a cinch, using the Internet). And for those who want to consult the German original, I suggest getting a copy of the out of print Ullstein edition, rather than the atrocious recent one by Kadmos, which does not give the original page numbers, and worse still, has simply omitted the-crucial-legal appendix and addenda. Inexcusably in this day of electronic word processing, both the latest editions of the Memoirs, the English and the German one, lack an index. These editions therefore do not cater for the needs of those who will want to study Schreber's Memoirs closely, and read it in conjunction with the secondary literature. Let us hope that the day is not far when we will have a CD-ROM containing both the English and the German texts, cross-referenced to the various editions that are available.

Andries Gouws teaches philosophy at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. His Master's thesis and doctoral dissertation both dealt with Freud and philosophy. He is currently completing a book on Freud's theory of sexuality, and has previously published on welfare policy, literary theory and postmodernism. Before studying philosophy in the Netherlands, he attended various art schools in South Africa and Europe. He recently had his first one-man show as a painter.


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