Daniel Schreber 1842-1911
(Full name Daniel Paul Schreber) German memoirist.
A German magistrate whose emotional breakdowns are described in psychologically revealing memoirs, Schreber was the subject of writings and analyses by Sigmund Freud and the influential German Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, among others. He has been described as “perhaps the most famous and influential patient in the history of psychiatry.” In addition, his detailed descriptions of insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia resonate strongly with the cultural mood that pervaded Germany at the turn of the twentieth century.
Schreber was born in Leipzig. His father, Moritz Schreber, published manuals on child-rearing, exercise, and public health. Some commentators have argued that the unorthodox practices expressed in his father's child-rearing guides caused psychological damage to the young Schreber, as well as another child from the family who committed suicide in 1877. Moritz Schreber died in 1861, the year after Daniel Schreber began his legal studies. During the Franco-Prussian War, Schreber served in the civil administration in Alsace Lorraine, and he was married in 1878. He attempted to embark on a political career but failed to win election to the Reichstag in 1884, and this event led to the first in a series of emotional breakdowns. He suffered from severe hypochondria and resided at the Psychiatric Hospital of Leipzig University for six months. Eight years of comparative mental health followed, but his appointment as a presiding judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals triggered new symptoms, including nightmares, insomnia, and sexual acts of a nature in which he had not engaged previously. Schreber attempted suicide and returned to the hospital. He stayed at the Royal Public Asylum at Sonnenstein between 1894 and 1902, during which period he authored his Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903; Memoirs of My Nervous Illness). Between 1902 and 1907 Schreber showed improvement, and he and his wife adopted a teenage girl in 1906. Shortly after this time his wife died, and he remained in the hospital from 1907 until his death in 1911.
The bizarre and hallucinatory Memoirs constitute Schreber's sole contribution to literature, even though it was not intended as a literary endeavor. Often mystical in nature, this work dwells on supernatural forces that are said to be disturbing the writer. “Right from the beginning,” he wrote, “the more or less definite intention existed to prevent my sleep and later my recovery from illness resulting from the insomnia for a purpose which cannot at this stage be further specified.” An avid reader and speaker of Latin, Greek, French, English, and Italian, Schreber infused the chronicle of his mental illness with literary references as well as meditations on legal issues. Because of its mystical component, the work was originally published by the Leipzig publisher Oswalde Mutze, which generally issued works of an occult nature.
Sigmund Freud's essay, “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides),” was responsible for the posthumous fame of Schreber's Memoirs. Freud linked Schreber's paranoia to what he described as his latent homosexuality, although later commentators have contended that Freud's own sexual insecurities lay behind this diagnosis. Walter Benjamin discovered Schreber's writings in 1921 and focused on an entirely different aspect. The essay “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” (“Critique of Violence”) examines the ways that law and legal institutions refer to themselves, positing capital punishment as the ultimate measure of legal might. Benjamin makes an analogy between Schreber's personal unraveling and the state and how it copes with essential contradictions.
Critics have put the Memoirs to multiple uses, based upon the variety of issues explored by their author. In some cases, arguments concerning the work supersede the work itself. As Freud and Benjamin continue to exert an influence on contemporary thought, their analyses of Daniel Schreber, like everything else they wrote, are examined in minute detail. Some critics have explored parallels between Schreber and other German writers of his time whose works explore human suffering and political injustice, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Max Nordau, and Max Weber. For some, biographical coincidences between Schreber and Nietzsche and Schreber and Weber, including spiritual crises and emotional breakdowns, point to a mood of despair endemic to Germany in the decades leading up to the two World Wars. In this way Schreber has come to be remembered more as a representative of a particular mentality than as an actual literary figure.
SOURCE: Ganz, Margaret. “Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Ilness: Art Proscribed.” In Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature and Film, edited by Maurice Charney and Joseph Reppen, pp. 37-58. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Ganz focuses on the literary aspects of Schreber's Memoirs.]
“… s'il est assurément écrivain, il n'est pas poète.”
—Jacques Lacan, Les Psychoses
“He pleads for his case, but is fortunately no poet, so that one can follow his thoughts without being seduced by them.”
—Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
Reading Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken ) does not constitute a literary experience, even when the text has been illumined by Freud's brilliant exegesis of 1911. But if this work cannot “seduce” us in the imaginative sense of granting “une dimension nouvelle de l'expérience” (Lacan 1955-56, 91) and an aesthetic balancing of contraries, it haunts and perturbs us if our inclinations are literary. Even as Memoirs brings its equivocal news of the realm of madness, so long an artistic preoccupation, it suggests how extensively verbal compulsion informs that sinister...
(The entire section is 10382 words.)
SOURCE: Sass, Louis A. “On Delusions.” Raritan: Quarterly Review 9 (spring 1990): 120-41.
[In the following essay, Sass discusses Schreber's Memoirs in the context of traditional interpretations of schizophrenic delusions.]
You must always be puzzled by mental illness. The thing I would dread most, if I became mentally ill, would be your adopting a common-sense attitude; that you could take it for granted that I was deluded.
Insanity is generally assumed to involve perceiving things that do not exist and believing things that are not true. As Karl Jaspers (an influential psychiatrist before he became a philosopher) put it, “Since time immemorial, delusion has been taken as the basic characteristic of madness. To be mad was to be deluded.” This remains true in contemporary psychiatry and clinical psychology, at least in America, where “disturbance in or failure of reality testing” is considered to be the criterion for the diagnosis of a so-called psychotic condition.
According to the usual interpretation of “poor reality testing,” the psychotic is one who fails to distinguish adequately between the realms of the real and the imaginary since he treats the imaginary realm as if it were real. Such a manner of imagining the inner world of insanity is widespread...
(The entire section is 7485 words.)
SOURCE: Wallen, Martin. “Body Linguistics in Schreber's Memoirs and De Quincey's Confessions.” Mosaic 24 (spring 1991): 93-108.
[In the following essay, Wallen discusses Memoirs of My Nervous Illness and Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as “straightforward and careful descriptions of real experiences.”]
Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs was written by a man confined for three years to a padded cell, and Thomas De Quincey's Confessions by an opium addict. Neither text comfortably belongs in the literary category into which it has been fitted; as a result, instead of being regarded as authentic accounts of genuine personal experience, Memoirs is seen as a document of psychosis and De Quincey's Confessions is seen as the product of drug-induced delirium. Thus when Margaret Ganz compares the Memoirs to the autobiographies of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Mill, she concludes that whereas these British writers' “consciousness of reality harnesses imagination and intellect sufficiently to guarantee an authentic experience. … Schreber's solipsistic presentation baffles reason and forbids imagination” (44, 49). Likewise, Robert L. Platzner argues that “De Quincey … simply fails to crystallize that image of a creative and reflective self which is the primary desideratum of literary autobiography” (605)....
(The entire section is 7941 words.)
SOURCE: Geller, Jay. “Freud V. Freud: Freud's Readings of Daniel Paul Schreber's Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken.” In Reading Freud's Reading, edited by Sandra L. Gilman and others, pp. 180-210. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Geller examines the discrepancies between Freud's reading notes on Memoirs and his subsequent published analysis of the work.]
Till near the nucleus [Kern] we come upon memories which the patient disavows even in reproducing them.
—Sigmund Freud, “Psychotherapy of Hysteria”
Before beginning his analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber's Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness)1 Sigmund Freud admonishes his “readers [first] to make themselves acquainted with the book.”2 Despite this advice, virtually all subsequent interpretations of Schreber's dementia have been based upon Freud's selective citations in his “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides).”3 Displaced by Freud's case study, Schreber's text became thereby the “most-quoted unread book of the twentieth century.”4 This chapter, however, takes Freud's advice quite literally: it reads the markings and marginalia he made in his own copy of...
(The entire section is 12212 words.)
SOURCE: Nelson, Victoria. “H. P. Lovecraft and The Great Heresies.” Raritan: Quarterly Review 15 (winter 1996): 92-121.
[In the following essay, Nelson compares descriptions of psychic horror in the fictional works of H. P. Lovecraft and Schreber's Memoirs.]
Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!
—Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
“Four Corners” is a bit of generic roadside slang for that fixed point in the landscape where a quaternity of boundaries meet. At a similar nexus within the human psyche three territories rigorously fenced off from each other by Western Enlightenment culture—philosophy, religion, psychology—converge with a fourth, the artist's imagination. Only a handful of literary maps to this inner “region of the Great Heresies”—so dubbed by the Polish Jewish fantastic writer Bruno Schulz—have been drawn during this past and passing era of Modernism-Postmodernism. Those I wish to examine here belong to Schulz's American contemporary, the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, with cartographic glosses provided by a notable madman of the previous century, Daniel Paul Schreber.
“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.” So speaks the reclusive narrator of Lovecraft's...
(The entire section is 10382 words.)
SOURCE: Roberts, Mark S. “Wired: Schreber as Machine, Technophobe, and Virtualist.” The Drama Review 40 (fall 1996): 31-46.
[In the following essay, Roberts traces the influence of nineteenth-century scientific advancements and emerging technology on Schreber's paranoia as revealed in Memoirs.]
In consequence of the many flights of rays, etc., there had appeared in my skull a deep cleft or rent along the middle, which probably was not visible from outside but was from inside. The “little devils” stood on both sides of the cleft and compressed my head temporarily to assume an elongated almost pear shaped form. The screws were loosened temporarily but only very gradually, so that the compressed state usually continued for some time.
—Daniel Paul Schreber ( 1988:138)1
Daniel Paul Schreber, perhaps more fatefully than any 19th-century figure, was immersed—sometimes against his will—in a world of appliances, quasi-machines, devices, and mechanistic technology. He was, in fact, born and raised among appliances and devices. According to biographical accounts, Schreber's childhood was spent squarely in the midst of his father's various mechanical inventions, and, at times, he may have even served in the role of a guinea pig to actually test out these orthopedic and...
(The entire section is 7482 words.)
SOURCE: Santner, Eric L. “Freud, Schreber, and The Passions of Psychoanalysis.” In My Own Private Germany: Daniel Schreber's Secret History of Modernity, pp. 19-62. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Santner identifies Schreber's individual paranoia with a larger German cultural condition that led to the rise of National Socialism in the early twentieth century.]
Psychoanalysts have long known about the transferential dimension of literary production, about the ways in which texts provide opportunities for their writers to act out or, ideally, work through, some of the very issues animating the subject matter of the text. This insight applies as much to the texts produced by psychoanalysts as by any other group of writers. And, indeed, Sigmund Freud, who founded psychoanalysis to a large extent on the basis of his own self-analysis, was profoundly aware of this transferential dimension of his own literary production. As it turns out, with regard to the text of concern to us here, his study of Daniel Paul Schreber—“Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)”1—Freud left a detailed record of the transferential dynamic informing its composition. A brief look at this record will allow us to appreciate better what we might call the passions of psychoanalysis, namely, the...
(The entire section is 26961 words.)
SOURCE: Hendershot, Cyndy. “Paranoia and The Delusion of the Total System.” American Imago 54, no. 1 (spring 1997): 15-37.
[In the following essay, Hendershot discusses Schreber's Memoirs in an examination of late twentieth-century cultural paranoia and its connection to such scientific advancements as nuclear weaponry.]
Post-World-War-Two American society is popularly and frequently defined by the symptom of paranoia. The paranoia which pervades the McCarthyist witch hunts, the “duck and cover” policy of civil defense, and postwar representations of the alien invader characterize late twentieth century perceptions of 1950s America. Science fiction is the genre most commonly invoked now to represent 1950s paranoia and within 1950s culture it stood as a genre conducive to expressions of fear and paranoia. Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb gave rise to numerous cultural texts which attempted to represent what was frequently perceived as the unrepresentable—atomic power. The prehistoric monsters, giant ants, pod people, and other horrors which people 1950s science fiction films attest to what had already been a strong interpenetration between physics and science fiction. The fact that science fiction and paranoiac discourse have affinities becomes manifest in 1950s popular science fiction. Yet the links between the totalizing, systematic worlds of science fiction and the...
(The entire section is 8529 words.)
SOURCE: Crapanzano, Vincent. “‘Lacking Now Is Only The Leading Idea, That is—We, The Rays, Have No Thoughts’: Interlocutory Collapse in Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs Of My Nervous Illness.” Critical Inquiry 24 (spring 1998): 737-65.
[In the following essay, Crapanzano relates Schreber's delusions to descriptions of spirit possession and discusses Schreber's inability to interact with or relate to other people.]
Le romancier n'aura qu'à distribuer logiquement les faits.
—Émile Zola, “Du Roman”
Die Geburtskammer des Romans ist das Individuum in seiner Einsamkeit.
—Walter Benjamin, “Der Erzähler”
With the publication in 1903 of his Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, later translated as Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the Dresden Senatspräsident Daniel Paul Schreber, the son of the famed educator, social reformer, and physical education enthusiast, Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, was to become the most cited patient in the history of psychiatry.1Memoirs of My Nervous Illness2 caused a sensation that challenged psychiatry's scientific sobriety. In an April 1910 letter to Jung, Freud referred to “the wonderful Schreber, who ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director...
(The entire section is 15453 words.)
Funt, Karen Bryce. “From Memoir to Case History: Schreber, Freud, and Jung.” Mosaic 20 (fall 1987): 97-115.
Examines the impact of Schreber's Memoirs on the formation of the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung.
Santner, Eric L. “My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber's Secret History of Modernity.” In Modernity, Culture and “the Jew,” pp. 40-62. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1998.
Discusses the influence of Freud's Jewishness on his analysis of Schreber's paranoia.
(The entire section is 74 words.)