Margaret Ganz (essay date 1987)
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 mystery. At its most accessible, it also explores, directly and obliquely, the very themes that are the stuff of myth and literature. (Not the least of these is the Promethean striving to defy divine encroachments, here promoting a bizarre pyrrhic victory.) Moreover, like the artist, this author is largely defined by his text, a verbal concatenation in which his delusional self stirs uneasily: “… le ‘Schreber’ si souvent cité n'est pas un patient. … ‘Schreber’ est un livre” (De Oliveira 1979, 15). Above all Memoirs teases us into examining why we miss in a work fictionalized by its hallucinatory nature the aesthetic effect of literary odysseys of mental torment in fiction or autobiography—if that distinction between modes is still viable.
To consider the literary reverberations of Memoirs is hardly eccentric, even if psychoanalysts have understandably focused on its “clinical value, as unquestionable today as it was at the time of [its] appearance” (Niederland 1984, 9-10). Jule Nydes, in a standard psychological analysis, quotes Milton's Paradise Lost to draw an analogy between the states of mind of Schreber and the fallen Satan (Nydes 1963, 208, 211). Franz Baumeyer sees “the artistic grandeur of the delusions” as one of the reasons the text is “a classic” (Baumeyer 1956, 61). Recounting the experiences of seven years in three asylums (1893-1900), after madness had aborted his recent prestigious appointment as Senatspräsident of the Dresden Court of Appeal, Schreber himself compels literary preoccupations as his text approximates literary genres. The autobiographic memoir of personal vicissitudes, the chronicle of remarkable events and opinions (in tune with the meaning of Denkwürdigkeiten [Schreber 1903b, 5]), the epic struggle of hero against destructive forces—all are here. Yet they all bear a special disfiguring mark, as this text best reveals in another of its guises. The prophetic book regarding the nature of the cosmos, the fate of man, and the intentions of God has a peculiar teleological twist: Schreber's future apotheosis as procreative Savior by becoming, as Freud puts it “God's wife” (1911, 32) or, in Lacan's terms, the “correspondant féminin de Dieu” (1955-56, 90).
In the disorienting world that is Schreber's text,1 we not only cling to his succinct references to literary works (notably Goethe's Faust, Byron's Manfred, Weber's Der Freischütz  but are drawn to other literary parallels. We may muse on the connection between “der Teufelsküche”—the name Schreber gives to Pierson's Asylum where he briefly stayed—and the “Hexenküche” in which the fall of Goethe's Faust is brewed, yet analogies proliferate beyond the author's hints in that face of the “variegated symptomatology—often rich in dramatic symbolic expressions” (Carr 1963, 197). The songs and discharge of the “miracled” birds in Schreber's treacherous world evoke the “liquid siftings” that “fall / To stain” the “shroud” of Agamenmon in T. S. Eliot's sinister “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” The “‘little men,’” merely “a few millimetres” in height who control Schreber's eye movements, “pull[ing] the eyelids up or down as they pleased with fine filaments like cobwebs” (137) and the small creatures wrought “‘out of Schreber's spirit’” who create a distant realm, complete with diminutive cattle, of which he is the “‘National Saint’ so to speak” (112), are literary familiars. The psychoanalytic connection of the former with spermatozoa (Freud 1911, 57; Katan 1950, 33) is less immediate to us than their evocation of Swift's Lilliputian universe, with its adulated, misunderstood, and hounded Gulliver, whose later discourse in Book 4 might accommodate the following Schreber comments: “Von W.'s soul … temporarily paid me more respect, as when it noticed that I brought the fork to my mouth with my left hand” (111) and “The picturing of female buttocks on my body—honi soit qui mal y pense—has become such a habit that I do it almost automatically whenever I bend down” (181). More directly, even if the literary source is only implied, the haunting presence of the Commander in Don Juan's vital realm is suggested in a few lines. At another time Schreber will see himself in the Don Juan role—despised by “souls” for his “sensual pleasure” in “eating and drinking,” “the same feeling,” he tells us in a footnote, “which … made the Commendatore in Don Giovanni … refuse the proffered meal. …” (133). Here he sadly identifies with the insubstantiality of this grand revenant: “When I sat on a camp stool in the [asylum] garden in a black coat with a black flap hat I felt like a marble guest who had returned from times long past into a strange world” (96).
Such conjunctions are challenging because of the fundamental disjunctions they point up (as in the identity shift just noted) in Schreber's handling of traditional mythic and literary themes. For if we consider his own literary clues in Goethe, Byron, and Weber's librettist Friedrich Kind, we note the paradox that these texts of transgression—albeit heroic—are called into play in Schreber's chronicle of consistent victimization. What becomes apparent is the extent to which a motif of guilt and its concomitant terror is in Memoirs distanced from comprehension—ours and his—and in a manner antithetical to the processes of art. For in Schreber's censorship by deflection, discourse camouflages, rationalizes, fragments, and curtails instead of illumining, transmuting, synthesizing, and unfolding. Thus Schreber quotes the words of Tannhaüser—the revenant with a difference—to evoke the once despaired of return to the beloved (here Schreber's wife) from the distant realm (here of mental suffering) (143) yet remains silent on the Don Juanesque transgression pronounced accursed by that special Commander—the Pope. The gap between literary utterance and Schreber's involutions can also be measured indirectly by literary approximations of his torment. Niederland's fascinating gloss (1984, 85-91) on Schreber's cryptic reference to a supposed family title of “Margraves of Tuscany and Tasmania” affirms the relevance of Canossa to Schreber's inner drama; recalling Pirandello's paranoid tormentor of self and others, “Henry IV,” one plumbs the distance between Schreber's proliferating complaints and the dramatic character's crafted existential torment.
Far more impressively still, the shadow of dubiety falls on the most evident literary motif in this text—the mysterious phenomenon of Seelenmord (“soul murder”) apparently committed upon but perhaps by Schreber. He briefly speaks of the familiar theme in “folk-lore and poetry” of “tak[ing] possession of another person's soul … to prolong one's life at another soul's expense, or to secure some other advantages which outlast death” (55), identifying it as the Devil's specialty. Yet, like so many others, this explanation begs the question for himself and his readers, here by the masterful sardonic stroke of noting that it is “difficult to see what the Devil was to do with a soul so caught” barring the “assum[ption] of gratuitous ‘special pleasure’ in ‘torturing a soul.’” Readers of Memoirs are tantalized because elucidation appears buried in the excision of chapter 3 as “unfit for publication.” Yet ambiguity in one of the remaining few sentences, which mentions “some events concerning other members of my family, which may possibly in some ways be related to the presumed soul murder” (61) does not promise firm news. Characteristically in hiding from self and others, uncertain whether he is more sinned against than sinning even if he overtly always proclaims his virtue, Schreber is unlikely to have broken through to a saving illumination of his sense of harm simultaneously endured and allowed in this “presumed” violation.
Baumeyer's postwar researches having been foiled with regard to finding the missing chapter (1956, 61), Seelenmord remains a psychoanalytic challenge and rout even as approximations of the concept proliferate. (Katan repeatedly informs us that soul murder means Schreber's attempt—resisted by him—to masturbate while indulging his homosexual attraction to his physician Flechsig; Schatzman , understandably impelled to see in Schreber père—the fanatic orthopedic specialist and gymnastics expert—the perpetrator of the deed, appropriates the term as his book title.)2 But beyond any explanation by Schreber still lurks the mystery of some larger psychic loss, destruction, emptying out of meaning that no specific familial history could validate. Our only Vergil in this perplexing journey through Schreber's torment is, beyond Freud, his truest disciple—Jacques Lacan. Lacan's sweeping imagination knows that no mechanical resolutions are to be found in what Schreber “présente lui-même comme totalement énigmatique” (1955-56, 88). Lacan has more largely intuited what it might mean to be robbed of a relationship to the symbolic, to be doomed instead to subsist in the mirror world of the “imaginaire,” seemingly implicated in everything and yet drained of personal meaning (91).3
But it is Freud who first and foremost teaches us not to underestimate psychological mysteries after he looks in vain for the reference to soul murder that Schreber suggested in Byron's Manfred (the references to Goethe's Faust and the Freischütz libretto are less direct). In text and footnote, Freud affirms the presence of the incest motif in the poem, appositely refers to its even more important presence in the drama of “the primal family” that is Byron's Cain, and proclaims that “our threads break off short” (1911, 45, 44), but not before evoking other complexities. Quoting Manfred's memorable affirmation that he has made “no compact” with a devilish “crew,” Freud proclaims “a direct contradiction of a soul having been bartered,” a “mistake on Schreber's part … probably not without its significance” (45). What that significance might be Freud does not say; he might have agreed, however, that there is no real “contradiction” here, but a different kind of bartering, an internalized struggle in Manfred sealed by that “compact” with another self that is the hallmark of the narcissistic choice, with its incestuous and homosexual reverberations. Byron's elusive reference to a kind of soul murder (“I have shed / Blood, but not hers—and yet her blood was shed—” [ll. 119-20] is after all anticipated by hints of mirror-imaging: “She was like me in lineaments—her eyes, / Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone / Even of her voice …” (ll. 105-7).
Conscious that literary parallels, if they cannot resolve, may illumine the complexities of Schreber's plight, one is drawn to another literary text in which mystery seems indeed the defining element, the sine qua non of an experience of spiritual violation involving mental suffering. Schreber's nightmare journey transcending time and space readily evokes the navigation “Alone on a wide wide sea” of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. But even as the aesthetic resolution the poem allows (in his unconscious “bless[ing]” of the “happy living things” of the sea) demarcates that text from Memoirs in which no saving interaction comes for Schreber, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” confirms the ineffable nature of psychic transgression and its consequences. (In another poem, “The Pains of Sleep,” Coleridge, like Schreber, conveys the fluctuating identity of the transgressor in referring to his actual nightmare of “Deeds to be hid which were not hid, / Which all confused I could not know / Whether I suffered, or I did.”)
The conjunction of the theme and imagery in “The Ancient Mariner” and Memoirs is arresting (the familiarity of both writers with opium may have played its part, Schreber having been given it to assist sleep [Baumeyer 1956, 63]). Schreber's overwhelming sense of the end of the world, the disappearance of mankind, the presence not of human beings but of “flüchtig hingemachte Männer” (10)—“fleeting-improvised-men” (43)—recalls the “Life-in-Death” state of the Ancient Mariner,4 becalmed “upon the rotting sea,” the despairing survivor on a deck full of corpses (at Wordsworth's suggestion later “hingemacht” [!] into mariners by benevolent spirits). As for the Mariner's destructive impulse, which has emptied the world with a sinister swiftness, it remains to the last inexplicable. Coleridge's masterly telescoping conveys in the four-line stanza concluding Part 1 what Schreber calls a “Riss” (21)—“rent” (54)—in the “‘Wundervoller Aufbau’” (20)—“‘miraculous structure’” (54)—of the universe. To apply to the Mariner Schreber's reference to “the fact that the crisis that broke upon the realms of God was caused by somebody having committed soul murder” (55) seems especially apt if we recall that when the albatross befriended the drifting mariners, they “hailed” the bird “As if it had been a Christian soul.”
Coleridge's treatment reverberates again where Memoirs is concerned with the equally unanticipated advent of another awesome “signifiant”—to adapt Lacan's term. Freud's insight—“that what was abolished internally returns from without” (1911, 71)—may here be justified by the appearance in Part 3 of “The Night-mare life-in-death” with its threat of invasive feminine corruption (“Her lips were red, her looks were free”) and disease (“Her skin was as white as leprosy”). For as Schreber connects soul murder with “Entmannung” (47)—“unmanning” (78)—for the purpose of the “Preisgabe meines Körpers als Weibliche Dirne” (45)—the “hand[ing] over my body in the manner of a female harlot” (77)—(a plan of which God is “Mitwisser”—the confidant—if not “Anstifter”—the initiator), Schreber's elusive terror of enthrallment to the feminine approximates the Mariner's sense of being a mere pawn in the throw of dice that wins him over to “that Woman.” Schreber's fear that he bears the “signs” of leprosy and plague “on my own body” is by him connected with an envisioned outbreak of “general nervousness and immorality” (97).
The conjunctions between these texts (reinforced by the sense that a kind of soul murder abetted by the victim may well be at the heart of Coleridge's “Christabel”) raise intriguing questions regarding the phenomenon of projection. For both Coleridge and Freud have after all exercised their imagination on the creative and stultifying aspects of this psychological strategy, Freud most impressively in the Schreber case itself, Coleridge in the memorable “Dejection: An Ode.” Coleridge's sad insight in this poem that “we receive but what we give” is in its negative manifestation the kernel of Freud's illuminations here regarding the “return of the repressed” and the conjugations in paranoid inner discourse (e.g., “‘I do not love him—I hate him, because he persecutes me’”  that shunt off to the outside world what Freud had already termed in Draft H “an idea that is incompatible with the ego” (1895, 209).
Still in relation to the Coleridge material, not only the motif of soul murder but that of “the Wandering Jew” (the figure so often connected with that of the Mariner, who is doomed to “pass, like night, from land to land” to tell his story) seems suggestive where Schreberian deflections are concerned. With the arbitrariness that marks Memoirs throughout, the connections of Schreber's own term, the “ewige Jude” (41) with the legendary motif are sounded, obscured, and ultimately subverted as we are told that, in case of universal cataclysm, “in order to maintain the species, one single human being was spared—perhaps the relatively most moral—called by the voices that talk to me the ‘Eternal Jew’” (73). This appellation, Schreber hastens to add in a striking understatement, “has therefore a somewhat different sense from that underlying the legend of the same name of the Jew Ahasver.” Another deflection ensures: “one is however automatically reminded of the legends of Noah, Deucalion and Pyrrha, etc.” By some Schreberian legerdemain the Cain-like figure of the Wandering Jew and that of Noah—of the arch sinner who has rejected Christ and of the only moral man worthy to be saved by God (or Jupiter for that matter in reference to Deucalion)—have become fused, and the connection drawn with Schreber himself as the intended propagator of a nearly doomed race. Yet we soon reach the most essential affirmation of the connection that transforms the dreaded feminization we alluded to earlier into a moral imperative: “The Eternal Jew … had to be unmanned (transformed into a woman) to be able to bear children.”
Such qualifications and assimilations to his own need of mythic, legendary, or literary motifs bear the distinctive marks of Schreber's equivocal struggles in which self-loathing vies with megalomania, and the fragmenting of identities (in himself and his alleged tormentors) obtains. Freud's early suggestion to Fliess in Draft H that paranoia “dissolves the ego itself into extraneous figures” (280) is here borne out by a Don Juan figure who can identify with the Commander and a reputed “‘Prince of Hell’” (140) who can claim a “so-called ‘crown of rays’” that was “incomparably richer and brighter” than the depicted “halo of Christ” (88). Not surprisingly we view Schreber's hints about Goethe's Faust or Byron's Manfred with scepticism after assessing his talent for metamorphosis not only in the matter of identity, but where interpretation is concerned. In tune with the handling of “the Wandering Jew” he maneuvers the truth of Hamlet to affirm his own epochal struggles with the divine: “… even now I still receive impressions daily and hourly which make it perfectly clear to me that, in Hamlet's words, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark—that is to say in the relationship between God and mankind” (164).
Such cavalier handling of literary motifs and texts is closely related to Schreber's delusional self-vindication in personal relationships. Honed in the judicial courts, his argumentative powers might have refuted the accusation of a tendentious reading of Hamlet as ingeniously as they ward off suggestions that he is hallucinating about his arch enemy, Dr. Flechsig, the Leipzig neurologist who for the second time was treating him for psychosis. Thus Schreber authenticates his intimations through “Nervenanhang” (60)—“nerve contact”—(the main mode of communication in his scheme of things) of Flechsig's madly arrogant behavior and his earlier “Traumbild”—“dream vision”—of Flechsig's suicide and funeral cortege by telling us that “it is permissible to interpret them as revelations of divine opinion on what ought to have happened to Professor Flechsig” (91). (Viewers struck by the vainglorious pose of Dr. Flechsig in a Memoirs photograph—Lacan, like Niederland, has gotten the message—are likely to sympathize with this argument, fortified by the information that Flechsig practiced castration on women patients to allay insanity [Niederland 1984, 104-5]).
Given Schreber's propensities to recast reality, the literary connections that seem in one sense inescapable are in another quite tangential to his preoccupations. Surely anyone who can quell the repetitious drone of harrassing voices by reciting snatches of those two compendia of familial sadism—Struwelpeter and Max und Moritz (176)—is likely to subserve fable to special compulsions. The initially quoted verdicts of Lacan and Canetti on the absence of poetic power in this text (even if Canetti's concern is with Schreber's proto-fascism [1984, 444-48]) are convincing—Schreber being the first to agree, we will see later. Acknowledging the vexed problem of the extent to which an autobiographical work is fictional and vice versa, here compounded by the special artifice of a delusional text, one confronts a striking poverty of aesthetic effect. It is challenging because it is pervasive, not limited to the earlier sections in which Schreber's deep regression denudes the world. Indeed, as our previous discussion suggests, the intermittent dramatic power and symbolic resonances of Memoirs seem more the result of the reader's investment than the writer's intention. We miss the poignancy in the attempts by Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Mill to convey their own mental crises, respectively in The Prelude (bk. 12), Sartor Resartus (chap. 7), and Autobiography (chap. 5). Their accounts are hardly without ambiguity (Mill's may be the most obvious case in point), but consciousness of reality harnesses imagination and intellect sufficiently to guarantee an authentic experience, even if much in it remains unconscious.
Where conjunctions with fictional characters seem pertinent, our empathy is predictably also in abeyance. Surely Schreber's impotent rage is as ubiquitous as that of King Lear and his sense of manipulation as pervasive as that of Marlowe's Faustus, and yet the spectacle of his protracted struggle forbids the characteristic sorrow and awe at so woeful a fall. At times indeed Memoirs, in its drab repetitiveness, compulsive marshalling of dubious arguments, distance from human intercourse, and emotional indigence appears to be a mere figment of a text—if not “flüchtig” still “hingemacht”—a botched creative act. It then seems destined to find its ideal reader in Schreber's God, whose knowledge, he tells us, does not extend to “the living human being,” being limited exclusively to corpses (75).
Still our interest in this strange document of suffering (like the attention exercised on it by Freud and Jung in their correspondence) is deeply engaged. One knows that one is being granted remarkable glimpses of a mental cataclysm even if Schreber's claustrophobic self-concern discourages compassion, and his defensive ruminations and arrogant pronouncements on the nature of man, sun, planets, cosmos, God, reality itself mute his plight in a ruined world. While interpreting his “sacred battle for the greatest good of mankind” differently, one accepts his contention that he is wrestling with “one of the most intricate problems ever set for man” (130). If more than one engagement is being fought in Memoirs, the conflicts are nevertheless related to each other and to the absence of aesthetic affect. In a recent study Chabot (1982) makes a detailed and in some ways convincing case for “lodg[ing] the issue of self-determination or autonomy in its many permutations at the thematic center of Memoirs …” (133). But such a striving for integrity is hardly a monolithic impulse and is only the particular manifestation of a wider relationship to psychic wholeness that is essentially ambivalent. If one is mindful of Freud's suggestive “emphasis on ambivalence” (1923, 87) in “A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis” (an essay that also refers to Schreber) and not so convinced as Chabot about “the radical cohesion of the individual life” (4), one cannot even speak of Schreber's seeking “autonomy” without affirming that behind this need lurks the desire for subjection, if not...
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