Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics)

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics)

In 1884, the distinguished German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber suffered the first of a series of mental collapses that would afflict him for the rest of his life. In his madness, the world was revealed to him as an enormous architecture of nerves, dominated by a predatory God. It became clear to Schreber that his personal crisis was implicated in what he called a “crisis in God’s realm,” one that had transformed the rest of humanity into a race of fantasms. There was only one remedy; as his doctor noted: Schreber “considered himself chosen to redeem the world, and to restore to it the lost state of Blessedness. This, however, he could only do by first being transformed from a man into a woman….”Daniel Paul Schreber began Memoirs of my Nervous Illness in February 1900 while confined in an asylum, as part of an appeal for release. Schreber, second son (the first committed suicide) of an abusive father, was at the peak of a brilliant career in Leipzig when he was appointed Presiding Judge of the Saxon High Court of Appeals. Alas, the stress of his new job proved too much for him, and before long he was hearing voices and feeling suicidal. Within weeks he was committed, having rapidly descended into madness, and was placed under the care of Dr. Paul Emil Flechsig. From the start, Schreber struggled to make sense of what he was seeing and hearing, and in fact Memoirs is so lucid and self-aware, so internally consistent and insightful, that he was released on its strength. Still, reading this man’s prose is a lesson in subjective reality, by turns funny and terrifying.

I existed frequently without a stomach…. In the case of any other human being this would have resulted in natural pus formation with an inevitably fatal outcome; but the food pulp could not damage my body because all impure matter in it was soaked up again by the rays.

As Christianity alone could not explain what seemed to be happening to him, Schreber pieced together a complex theology involving a divided God with dark and light incarnations, whose “rays” and “nerves” interacted in various ways with humans. God was also his personal tormentor, in league with Flechsig to commit “soul-murder” by manipulating his nerves. Further, Schreber believed that he was being literally “unmanned” so that God could sexually violate him and conceive a new human race: “But as soon as I am alone with God … I must continually or at least at certain times strive to give divine rays the impression of a woman in the height of sexual delight…”

Schreber had a hard time believing in the “fleeting-improvised-men” who flitted in and out of his life, and grew convinced that he was the only human left in a world of shadows. But he did know that something was wrong. He would hear the birds in the asylum’s garden ask him, over and over, “Are you not ashamed?” And he was aware that his bellowing, banging on the piano, and other bodily manifestations of God’s manipulation of his nerves (or “miracles”) were startling to others, to say the least. Many of Schreber’s delusions had to do with escaping his body–the constant babble of thousands of voices in his head were infuriating, as was his inability to cease thinking:

The sound which reaches my own ear–hundreds of times every day–is so definite that it cannot be a hallucination. The genuine “cries of help” are always instantly followed by the phrase which has been learnt by rote: “If only the cursed cries of help would stop.”

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness succeeds on many levels: as a memoir, as imaginative literature, and as a serious work of mythology. Flechsig makes a menacing and inscrutable villain, representing materialistic thinking and conventional reality–no help at all. Schreber, meanwhile, is the classic hero, struggling to stay sane in a cruel and capricious universe. –Therese Littleton

List Price: $ 18.95

Price: $ 10.88


3 Comments so far »

  1. Daniel Myers said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    48 of 51 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A very strange, but profound work, November 28, 2000
    By 
    Daniel Myers (Greenville, SC USA) –
    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)
      
    (VINE VOICE)
      
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)

    To begin with, the reader should be forewarned that what the author suffers from is not the idiomatic English “nervous illness,” or mild neurosis, but a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, stated best by the author at the beginning of Chapter 5:”Apart from normal human language there is also a kind of nerve language of which, as a rule, the healthy human being is not aware.” The book’s profundity and the author’s depth of insight are such that, after reading a few pages of the first chapter, one is reminded of nothing so much as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: “Souls’ greatest happiness lies in continual reveling in pleasure combined with recollections of their human past.”….But, after this, the book becomes as disturbing as Proust is essentially soothing. For the author feels himself utterly isolated from other men, not even deigning to recognize them as men at all but as “fleeting-improvised-men” which “creates a feeling in me at times as if I were moving among walking corpses.” (Ch. 15) What I found so disturbing about the elaboration of the author’s viewpoint and recounting of his tribulations in the asylum is that there is something in his viewpoint that rings essentially true: We do not and can not know even those closest to us on the deep spiritual or “nerve language” level the author exists on in perpetuum. It is this essential truth combined with the author’s matter-of-fact, almost cheery, tone that made reading this work such a strange experience for me. For English readers, such characters do exist in fiction (Poe’s Usher kept occuring to me, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), but the tone of such psychically unstable characters and what we would call their nervous disposition are consonant with a mind gone awry and thus not to be taken so seriously. Of Schreber, just the opposite impresses itself upon the reader. It is this dissonance between tone and subject matter that render the book strange. For the view it expresses is essentially a dark one. If one reads closely, a terribly dark one. The only thing comparable to it is the worldview of the Gnostics: That this world is essentially some sort of mistake, and that there may be no way to “fix” it, as it were. The main reason to read the book, to my mind, is that it is a well-written,non-fiction account of a unique state of being (although readers might want to check out Proust as well as The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas for similarities.) But, caveat lector, the book is not for the faint of heart. It may keep you up many a night. It did me!

    Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 

    Was this review helpful to you? Yes
    No

  2. Anonymous said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    34 of 36 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The Poetry of Madness, February 14, 2002
    By A Customer
    This review is from: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)

    Shortly after the death of Daniel Paul Schreber, Sigmund Freud used his (Schreber’s) memoirs as the basis for a fantasy of his own. Everyday readers are lucky that Schreber wrote down so much of what he saw, heard and felt during his many years in German mental asylums, for his own observations are far more artistic and harrowing than anything Freud ever wrote.

    In this book, Schreber takes us into his world–the world of the genuine schizophrenic. He writes of the “little men” who come to invade his body and of the stars from which they came.

    That these “little men” choose to invade Schreber’s body in more ways than one only makes his story all the more harrowing. At night, he tells us, they would drip down onto his head by the thousands, although he warned them against approaching him.

    Schreber’s story is not the only thing that is disquieting about this book. His style of writing is, too. It is made up of the ravings of a madman, yet it contains a fluidity and lucidity that rival that of any “logical” person. It only takes a few pages before we become enmeshed in the strange smells, tastes, insights and visions he describes so vividly.

    Much of this book is hallucinatory; for example, Schreber writes of how the sun follows him as he moves around the room, depending on the direction of his movements. And, although we know the sun was not following Schreber, his explanation makes sense, in an eerie sort of way.

    What Schreber has really done is to capture the sheer poetry of insanity and madness in such a way that we, as his readers, feel ourselves being swept along with him into his world of fantasy. It is a world without anchors, a world where the human soul is simply left to drift and survive as best it can. Eventually, one begins to wonder if madness is contagious. Perhaps it is. The son of physician, Moritz Schreber, Schreber came from a family of “madmen,” to a greater or lesser degree.

    Memoirs of My Nervous Illness has definitely made Schreber one of the most well-known and quoted patients in the history of psychiatry…and with good reason. He had a mind that never let him live in peace and he chronicles its intensity perfectly. He also describes the fascinating point and counterpoint of his “inner dialogues,” an internal voice that chattered constantly, forcing Schreber to construct elaborate schemes to either explain it or escape it. He tries suicide and when that fails, he attempts to turn himself into a diaphanous, floating woman.

    Although no one is sure what madness really is, it is clear that for Schreber it was something he described as “compulsive thinking.” This poor man’s control center had simply lost control. The final vision we have of Schreber in this book is harrowing in its intensity and in its angst. Pacing, with the very sun paling before his gaze, this brilliant madman walked up and down his cell, talking to anyone who would listen.

    This is a harrowing, but fascinating book and is definitely not for the faint of heart. Schreber describes man’s inner life in as much detail as a Hamlet or a Ulysses. The most terrifying part is that in Schreber, we see a little of both ourselves and everyone we know.

    Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 

    Was this review helpful to you? Yes
    No

  3. Anonymous said,

    Wrote on November 7, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    42 of 53 people found the following review helpful:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    What else you should know:, June 12, 2003
    By A Customer
    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)

    Others who have posted reviews of this book are certainly correct in their assessment — it’s engaging, harrowing, enlightening, etc. HOWEVER, nobody has addressed the actual CAUSE of Schreber’s insanity which, of course, is key to the reading of his memoir. The patient in most cases, and certainly in this case, is unable to tell us matter-of-factly what is troubling him. Instead, he tells us of his dreams or his imaginings, or his horrible delusions. It is then the psychiatrist who untangles the web. I can’t recommend highly enough, as a companion to Schreber’s memoir, the book “Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family,” written by the psychiatrist Morton Schatzman. The book is now out of print, but can still be found used. Instead of describing the book,I’ll quote from the jacket flap: “Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), an eminent German judge, went mad at the age of 42, recovered, and eight and a half years later, went mad again. It is uncertain if he was ever fully sane, in the ordinary social sense, again. His father, Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber (1808-1861), who supervised his son’s upbringing, was a leading German physician and pedagogue, whose studies and writings on child rearing techniques strongly influenced his practices during his life and long after his death. The father thought his age to be morally “soft” and “decayed” owing mainly to laxity in educating and disciplining children at home and school. He proposed to “battle” the “weakness” of his era with an elaborate system aimed at making children obedient and subject to adults. He expected that following his precepts would lead to a better society and “race.” The father applied these same basic principals in raising his own children, including Daniel Paul and another son, Daniel Gustav, the elder, who also went mad and committed suicide in his thirties. Psychiatrists consider the case of the former, Daniel Paul, as the classic model of paranoia and schizophrenia, but even Freud and Bleuler (in their analyses of the son’s illness) failed to link the strange experiences of Daniel Paul, for which he was thought mad, to his father’s totalitarian child-rearing practices. In “Soul Murder,” Morton Schatzman does just that — connects the father’s methods with the elements of the son’s experience, and vice versa. This is done through a detailed analysis and comparison of Daniel Paul’s “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,” a diary written during his second, long confinement, with his father’s published and widely read writings on child rearing. The result is a startling and profoundly disturbing study of the nature and origin of mental illness — a book that calls into question the value of classical models for defining mental illness and suggests the directions that the search for new models might take. As such, the author’s findings touch on many domains: education, psychiatry, religion, sociology, politics — the micro-politics of child-rearing and family life and their relation to the macro-politics of larger human groups.” For me, this book shed a great light on “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.” In reading the other reviews, I get the sense that some people have concluded that Daniel (the son) “simply went mad,” or “something went wrong,” when the truth is that his father was a border-line personality and one sadistic man who inflicted his own brand of insanity on his children. If only we had something to document the father’s childhood . . .

    Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 

    Was this review helpful to you? Yes
    No

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.



DermStore Free Samples