Daniel Schreber Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.