Miracle Legion


The Disorder of the World

Toward the end of the 19th century, Daniel Paul Schreber, once a prominent member of the German judiciary but institutionalized in 1893, glimpsed the inner workings of creation.

Very dreadfully nervous is the universe, as it was revealed to Schreber, with every living thing connected to its divine source by nerve (“extraordinarily delicate structures—comparable to the finest filaments”) and the soul itself “contained in the nerves of the body.” God, at the apex of this network, is all nerve, like a spider made of cobweb. But God has no direct contact with his creatures in the normal state of affairs. Instead, He restricts His dealings only to the dead, whose nerves, once purified of worldly taint, He slurps like spaghetti, thereby adding to His self-knowledge.

It’s an eminently grotesque construct, and unstable to boot. Far from being a forbidding moralizer like his Old Testament namesake, God is a voluptuary, unable to resist new stimulations—and human nerves in a state of excitation represent the paramount temptation. The problem, as Schreber discovered, is that God, used to consorting only with corpses, has no idea how to deal with human beings—for example, He seems not to realize that they experience pain. And once the divine nerves become entangled with those of the living, it is next to impossible for God to extricate Himself.

In the late 19th century, He got mixed up with Schreber, and since that time the normal Order of the World has ceased operation, and reality as we think we know it has been replaced with a flimsy, fleeting copy of itself.

Man of the Century

This year, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Schreber’s account of his suffering at the hands of God and his psychiatrist, celebrates its centennial (it was reissued in 2000 by New York Review Books). The original German printing of 1903 went through only a single edition—much of that bought up by embarrassed family members. Walter Benjamin, thrilled to find a copy in an antiquarian bookstore in 1918, noted that the publisher, Oswald Mutze, had a reputation “for specializing in the quaintest spiritual writings.”

Nevertheless, the book has had an amazing afterlife, primarily due to Freud’s 1911 analysis of it, “Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides).” Since then, the text has been dissected, its gaps probed, metaphors concretized, and descriptions metamorphosed, by literary critics, historians, and psychiatrists of every persuasion. Yet for many writers, beginning with Freud, there’s a sense of the interpretive apparatus being somehow unequal to the task, of an irreducible residuum of strangeness—and of pain.

Bride of the Vampire

But before there was a body of text, there was a body. Schreber’s had been scrutinized and manipulated since birth. Born in 1842, he was the son of Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, the leading German authority on child-raising of the time and author of books with titles such as Callipaedics, or Rearing Unto Beauty Through the Natural and Uniform Promotion of Bodily Development. He was also the inventor of a “one-piece exercise machine” and various contraptions to correct children’s posture, which look a good deal like medieval tools of torture.

Between his father and God (figures conflated by Freud and many of his followers), Schreber’s body ran the gamut of degradation. Chapter 11 of the Memoirs offers a compendium of the alterations he believed he was undergoing: heart transplanted; introduction of a “lung worm”; diaphragm raised, making breathing arduous; ribs smashed and reformed; stomach removed and replaced with inferior copy; gullet and intestines, both “torn or vanished repeatedly”; pharynx partially eaten on several occasions; head crushed and compacted “as though in a vice by turning a kind of screw, causing [it] to temporarily assume an elongated almost pear-shaped form”; and the “compression-of-the-chest-miracle,” which Schreber calls “one of the most horrifying.”

Above all, there was the “miracle of unmanning”—the process by which Schreber believed he was gradually being transformed into a woman. In what might be called the Passion of Saint Schreber, this event was both the agony and the ecstasy, his greatest shame and perhaps his ultimate triumph. He viewed it as the natural result of prolonged exposure to the sensation-hungry nerves of God, and thought it might eventually allow God to extricate Himself, once the process was complete. Schreber theorizes at one point that he is to serve as the mother of a new race, since the rest of creation may have perished through God’s inattention. Already, a steady gaze at his chest area “gives the impression of a pretty well-developed female bosom . . . especially when the illusion is strengthened by some feminine adornments.” Between his legs, there is “a thing . . . which hardly resembled at all a male organ.”

Schreber himself finds the situation “absurd,” but adds, “If I can get a little sensuous pleasure in this process, I feel I am entitled to it as a small compensation for the excess of suffering and privation that has been mine for many years past.” One would be hard pressed to disagree.

Philosophical Investigations

In what manner did Schreber believe in his transformation, and in the other miraculous occurrences he relates? According to Louis Sass, associate professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers and the author of The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind (Cornell, 1994), the question is more complex than it appears. Sass thinks the original translators of the Memoirs, Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter, may have impeded English speakers’ understanding of the form of Schreber’s experience by omitting frequently used phrases meaning “in part,” “in a way,” “so to speak,” and “up to a point.” Far from “not add[ing] to the sense,” as they claim, Sass believes they are essential for indicating the nature of schizophrenic experience.

Sass is arguing against the dominant psychiatric model of schizophrenia, as exemplifying “poor reality-testing” and a lack of analytic skills due to reversion to a “primitive” or childlike state of mental development. Instead, he claims it’s a way of seeing that spreads tentativeness both toward the delusional and the real, both treated with a certain detachment and irony. If so, Schreber’s qualifications are important, as are the “feminine adornments” that Schreber uses as an aid to perceiving his transformation. Indeed, throughout his description of his transfiguration, Schreber never claims that he sprouted breasts or lost his penis—such miracles are limited to his internal organs—only that concentrated attention “gives the impression” of such changes.

Indeed, Sass sees the schizophrenic experience, in its detachment and “cerebral, hyper-reflexive awareness,” as markedly similar to Wittgenstein’s description of the “philosophical disease” of solipsism—the belief that “I alone exist, the world is my projection.” Such a state is attained through inaction and concentrated perception—life becomes a “seeing-as” exercise.

Intended as a “phenomenological investigation,” Sass’s book doesn’t venture very far in assigning causes or suggesting treatment. But as an attempt to form an empathetic understanding of the schizophrenic worldview—and an examination of important rhetorical structures in the Memoirs—it’s a notable addition to the overstuffed shelves of Schreberology.

The Last Laugh

Schreber himself is, by necessity, a keen student of rhetoric, being assailed by voices with their own peculiar language games. God Himself speaks “the so-called ‘basic language,’ a somewhat antiquated but nevertheless powerful German, characterized particularly by a wealth of euphemisms (for instance, reward in the reverse sense for punishment, poison for food, juice for venom, unholy for holy, etc. . . . God . . . was addressed as ‘Your Majesty’s obedient servant.’)” Other souls torment him with “a terrible, monotonous repetition of ever recurring phrases (learnt by rote).” He is teased, given ridiculous orders, and made to guess the missing words in unfinished sentences—the language of madness is maddening.

Yet if language was his prison for many years, it eventually showed him the way out, at least for a time. He learned to distract himself from the voices by reading, playing the piano, or mentally reciting poems he’d memorized. The quality was unimportant, “even obscene verses are worth their weight in gold as mental nourishment compared with the terrible nonsense my nerves are otherwise forced to listen to.” And he devoted himself to his Memoirs, thinking, as his belief in an external world returned, that perhaps the record of his experiences justified them, that these truths had been given him to communicate. The tone of the book—that of an intelligent, careful man trying to clearly describe incidents which beggar language and belief—is evidence of the painstaking deliberation with which he wrote it.

The manuscript was part of the evidence Schreber presented in court in his appeal for release. The release was granted in 1902, though the court noted it was “in no doubt that the appellant is insane.” He returned to his family and enjoyed five years of quiet before suffering another breakdown. He died an inmate in 1911, his communications in the interval being limited to undecipherable scribblings and a frequent, tormented “Ha—Ha!”