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Goethe on Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz

Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz

One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the day, afflicting precisely those possessed of most exceptional minds. Things which torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books, letters, and diaries. But now the strictest moral demands placed upon oneself and others were commingled with an extreme negligence in one’s own actions, and the vague notions arising out of this semi-self-knowledge encouraged the strangest proclivities and most outlandish behavior.  This unremitting work of self-contemplation was further abetted by the rise of empirical psychology, which, if unwilling to describe anything that causes us inner unrest as wicked or reprehensible, could nonetheless not entirely condone it; and thus was set into motion a permanent, irresoluble state of conflict. Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their innermost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were thoroughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.

His talent, in which delicacy, agility, and extreme subtlety all vied with each other, proceeded from a genuine depth, from an inexhaustible creative power, but, for all its beauty, there was something thoroughly unhealthy about it, and it is precisely talents such are these that are the most difficult to evaluate. One cannot fail to appreciate the outstanding features of his works; they are suffused with by something quite sweet and tender, but this is intermixed with instances of buffoonery so baroque and so asinine that, even in a sense of humor this all-pervasive and unassuming, even in a comic gift this genuine, they can hardly be pardoned. His days were occupied by airy nothings to which, ever assiduous, he managed to give meaning, and if he was able to idle away his hours in this fashion, it was because, given his outstanding memory, the time he actually devoted to reading always proved to be most fruitful, enriching his original way of thinking with a great variety of materials.


Lenz eventually came to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, which inspired Georg Büchner to write a speculative biographical novella based on the diaries of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, at whose house Lenz lodged for a period of three weeks as his mental health steadily deteriorated. I post the above excerpt here due to its incisive analysis of Lenz’s personality, which I admire both for its perspicaciousness and the way it highlights Lenz’s relation to the Romantic zeitgeist.  As well, Deleuze & Guattari refer to Lenz in the opening pages of Anti-Oedipus. See here for an excellent synopsis of Lenz’s life and place within schizoanalysis.


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 woman who Schreber describes is in the upper left corner, the second person from the cupids.


A closer look at this section, though unfortunately the woman described by Schreber is decapitated

Another section of the picture (lower right)


Daniel Paul Schreber

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.

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.

Habe die Sonne nicht zu lieb und nicht die Sterne.     [Do not love the sun too much and not the stars.]
Komm’, folge mir ins dunkle Reich hinab.                [Come, follow me to the darker realm below.]
~Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris