Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, Daniel Schreber
Memoirs of
My Nervous Illness
Daniel Paul Schreber

We are still as far as ever from mounting a delusion in Canada balsam or from detecting despondency in a test tube.
--- Crichton Browne, 1875

The nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man's natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest from time to time by thinking nothing...was from the beginning denied me by the rays in contact with me; they continually wanted to know what I was thinking about....For instance as one of the innumerable examples, I have for years heard hundreds of times each day the question: Why do you not say it?, the word "aloud" necessary to complete the sense being omitted, and the rays giving the answer themselves as if it came from me: "Because I am stupid perhaps." For years my nerves have had to endure incessantly such and similar terrible nonsense in dreary monotony (as if it came from them).
--- Daniel Paul Schreber, 1903


Schreber would be just another forgotten nut case who spent too many years in German asylums if it were not for the fact that he wrote extensively and persuasively what he saw, heard, and felt during his illness. In addition, shortly after he died, Sigmund Freud used the Memoirs as the basis for a projection of his own fantasy, something he called "Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia." Freud's "Notes" are interesting, but Schreber's original work is gripping, artistic, devastating --- a series of measured ravings and genuine heart-stopping poetics.

The everyday world of the schizophrenic is filled with so many disconcerting, off-the-wall manifestations that one would have to be a looneycakes just to put up with it all. For example, Schreber writes of the "little men" who crowd around his days. He describes them as being "a few millimetres in height," invading his body because of his power,

    I was frequently told the names of the stars or groups of stars from which they had emanated or "from which they were suspended...." Especially frequent were the names Cassiopeia, Wega, Capella, also a star "Gemma" (I do not know if this conforms to an astronomical name); further the Crucians (perhaps the Southern Cross?), the "Firmament" and many others.

If it were just a matter of having these little folk wandering through his room, it might be bearable, but Schreber says that they insisted on literally dropping in on him:

    On some nights the souls finally dripped down on to my head, in a manner of speaking, in their hundreds if not thousands, as "little men." I always warned them against approaching me, since I had become aware of the immensely increased power of attraction of my nerves.

Schreber's writing has a very peculiar effect on the reader, for it is an extended disquisition into the fears, angers, and babblings that constitute the mad eigenwelt and umwelt. At the same time, it enmeshes us in the logic of lunacy --- a logic that is neither more nor less persuasive than our own. His writing makes it so we are able to participate in a world enriched by strange smells, funny tastes, clinging insights, and extraordinary visions:

    In daytime I thought I could notice the sun following my movements; when I moved to and fro in the single-windowed room I inhabited at the time, I saw the sunlight now on the right, now on the left wall (as seen from the door) depending on my movements....When later I regularly visited the garden again I saw --- if my memory does not wholly deceive me --- two suns in the sky at the same time, one of which was our earthly sun, the other was said to be the Cassiopeia group of stars drawn together in a single sun...

It is the casual phrase if my memory does not wholly deceive me, thrown in as an afterthought, that makes this work so scarifying. It is, I claim, as rich a rendering of a man's inner life as Hamlet or Ulysses. Single insights put a whole new light not only on the author's mental state but on the workings of all our minds:

    High-grade voluptuousness eventually passes into sleep,

he writes. Or:

    Another time I traversed the earth from Lake Ladoga to Brazil and, together with an attendant, I built there in a castle-like building a wall in protection of God's realms against an advancing yellow flood tide: I related this to the peril of a syphilitic epidemic.


    As proof of this statement I will at present only mention the fact that the sun has for years spoken with me in human words and thereby reveals herself as a living being or as the organ of a still higher being behind her.

What Schreber has given us are elegantly felicitous ideas that are the poetry of madness, cast in such a way that one finds oneself becoming maddened --- or at least feeling edgy --- as we go along with him and his words. Emotions, distant from "sane" feelings, emerge through a daring born of desperation. We are forced to join him in his world, and there are no anchors there: the human soul gets pulled up so we can see it naked and raw. We are forced into a drifting state with a human that has the brain so infected that he is surviving, and teaching us to survive, without any foundation. And we find ourselves asking if this madness is infectious. (Some family therapists have suggested so. A few hours with Memoirs --- like a few hours shut up with a schizophrenic --- might help convince us).

Schreber was the son of a physician, Moritz Schreber, one of the best-selling authors of nineteenth century Germany. He was a contemporaneous Jack Lalaine, as it were; he wrote a variety of books on indoor gymnastics, and "hygiene." One son was an attorney, who killed himself at age thirty-eight. The father's last ten years were tinged with violence aimed at the family. The second son, Daniel Paul, was, by 1884, a respected jurist and Chairman of the state court of Saxony. It was in that year that he had to be admitted to the psychiatric clinic at the University of Leipzig and, although discharged less than a year later, his hypochondria, weeping attacks, hypersensitivity, and suicidal ways never completely disappeared. Eight years later, he was institutionalized again, and he stayed in the asylum until 1902. In 1903, he published Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, many copies of which were immediately "bought up and destroyed by horrified family members." He returned to the asylum, where he died in his late sixties in 1911.

Memoirs was to make him "the most frequently quoted patient in psychiatry" because he was considered, at the time, "a perfect example of paranoia." It was eight years after the publication of Schreber's book that Freud wrote and published his "Notes," which, according to the editor of this edition, "transformed the Schreber case from a psychiatric case into a psychoanalytic one whose reknown, while limited, has been tenacious."

In the Memoirs, we are given Schreber's daily, minute-by-minute, second-by-second circular rootings through a mind that absolutely refuses to leave him alone. The intensity of his infection is what makes this work so haunting. In counterpoint to descriptions of visions of horror and angst, he nourished a pernicious internal babbler --- his inner-dialogue personal sound system. It drives him bananas, and he is forced to construct elaborate systems to explain it, or to explain it away (how does one explain away one's own mind?) At several points, he tries to escape his body. Suicide is one of the methods that he chooses --- and he fails at that. He eventually turns himself into a woman, floating about his cell in a diaphanous outfit, his face painted, his voice lithesome, ribbons all about him:

    Twice at different times (while I was still in Flechsig's Asylum) I had a female genital organ, although a poorly developed one, and in my body felt quickening like the first signs of life of a human embryo; by a divine miracle God's nerves corresponding to male seed had been thrown into my body; in other words fertilization had occurred.

Regularly, Schreber would expose his body to his doctors, asking them to look at his "almost female breasts." One of the medical reports states that he "now and then engages in quite trivial dalliances" and can be found "often naked in his room, laughing and yelling in front of a mirror, adorned with colorful ribbons."

Madness is, when all is said and done, the mind's control mechanism gone amok --- "compulsive thinking" (in Schreber's words). It is a time and a space where one finds oneself captured in a vortex that turns ruinous. The very mechanism that controls the self is the one that permits the vortex to go out of control. Nothing can stop it. The last vision we have of Schreber is of a man in his late sixties, locked in a room with barred window that faces on the sun. He alternates in parading back and forth, talking to the little people around him, stopping to confront the sun, which, he says, "pales before my very gaze." He commences to pace yet again, stopping once in a while to bellow "The sun is a whore." All the while, according to one of his doctors, he makes "the most bizarre faces." Then, finally, pacing yet again, this old man, his breasts bared, stops to call out to anyone who will listen to his summing up of the judicious decision that has held him in almost thirty years of travail: summing up for the world his man's hope, his man's fate, his man's ultimate destiny, in or out of his mind; the words of one who has just seen and heard and felt too much: "Ha-ha!"

--- Carlos Amantea

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up