My Nervous Illness’s Memoirs: Schreber’s Beautiful Insanity
Above all I want to mention that the rays (nerves) of the upper God, when they are thrust down in consequence of my nerves’ power of attraction, often appear in my head in the image of a human shape. I am by coincidence in the fortunate position to be able to point to a really existing picture instead of having to describe these things in words; this picture is surprisingly like the picture I often see in my head. It is the painting “Liebesreigen” by Pradilla contained in the 5th volume of Modern Art (Berlin, published by Richard Bong); in the left hand upper corner of this picture a woman is seen, descending with arms stretched before her and folded hands. One has only to translate her into a male person to get a fairly accurate picture of what appears in my head when the nerves of the upper God come down. Head, chest and arms were distinct; the arms swung to one side, almost as if these nerves were trying to overcome an obstacle to their descent―the nerves of Flechsig’s soul crowding the heavenly vault… The rays of the lower God (Ariman) also quite frequently create in my head the picture of a human face which (as soon as soul-voluptuousness is present) starts to smack its tongue, like human beings when eating something they like, or in other words, if they have the impression of sensual enjoyment.
~Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, pg. 228_
The Schreber case seems to me a striking example of how language (i.e. in this case, reading the Memoirs as a book) is inadequate for depicting the real. The following are links to artworks inspired by Schreber, which help to capture the experience of his madness. Lacan hypothesizes that the fear provoked by horror movies is because they somehow express the inchoate, incomprehensible Real; it is far too easy to ignore the eeriness of Schreber by categorizing his book as ‘literature’, even when reading him for psychoanalytic reasons, and I feel that the following, particularly the films, capture nuances which allow for fuller comprehension of Schreber’s affliction. All of these works serve to underscore the one crucial fact that this actually happened, even if by no other method than creating ontologies (put more formally, diegeses; put less formally, fictional ‘worlds’) on lower planes of ‘reality’ than that of Schreber’s book, and hence make the Memoirs seem more real by comparison.
- Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (film; 2006) (trailer) (IMDb) (interview with director)
- Dark City (film; 1998) (trailer)
- Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (short film; 2006)
- Kippenberger, Martin – Portrait of Paul Schreber (abstract painting; 1994)
- Jason Thompson – Hyperborean Woman (Daniel Paul Schreber) (abstract painting; 2010)
- Nayland Blake – The Schreber Suite (mixed media; 1989)
- Radio Schreber, Soliloquies for Schizophonic Voices, by Richard Crow (audio, mostly German; 2011)
- Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, a gymnastic art video based on the work of Schreber’s father, by Jesse Aron Green.
- Shock Head Soul: The Life and Work of Daniel Paul Schreber, a documentary/dramatization of Schreber’s experiences by Simon Pummell (in postproduction).
As Freud states in The Uncanny (1925):
[A]n uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on. It is this factor which contributes not a little to the uncanny effect attaching to magical practices.
It is not difficult to leave Schreber within the imaginary. This, however, is to miss the point.