Nov 2007

Immersed in Schreber

Apologies for the lack of posting, but there’s coursework afoot. The M.Phil is conferred (or not) entirely on the basis of the final thesis, but we’re also required to write a couple of short essays (2-3,000 words) and one of them is due this week.

Originally I decided simply to tackle the default topic, “The Existential Critique of Freud” and wrote a couple of thousand words of deeply uninspiring dross on the subject. I had two major problems with the topic; firstly, I’ve not read nearly enough Freud yet to be capable of making my own critique of his work, so how can I really judge someone else’s with confidence? Secondly, it felt too much like commentating on an activity rather than engaging in it… explaining the views of others rather than expressing my own.

So, irritated by the thought of submitting a lifeless piece of writing, I began casting around for an alternative essay topic. The idea of tackling one of Freud’s short but controversial papers appealed to me, and as luck would have it we started reading just such a paper in our Metapsychology Seminars; Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides) (more commonly known as ‘The Schreber Case History’). It’s a remarkable paper that — within the course of 80 pages — succeeds in showing Freud at his brilliant best and his infuriating worst.

But it was a can of worms. My essay title, “Sigmund Freud and the Case History of Schreber” (I’m considering giving Conan-Doyle-esque titles to all my academic work) could easily stretch to a book. Probably not a real page-turner, I grant you, but a book nonetheless. Trying to limit the scope of my research became next to impossible simply because of how interesting and, frankly, bizarre the case is. For instance, we learn from Freud’s paper that the subject of his analysis (Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber) had an extremely authoritarian father. But a bit of research unearths the fact that Schreber’s father so opposed masturbation that he “sought to invent a mechanical device which would prevent it in adolescents”.

None of us get to have a perfect childhood. But imagine growing up in that house!

Anyway Schreber’s sister suffered from hysteria, his elder brother committed suicide, but he himself appeared to have escaped whatever weirdness went on in his childhood. He was a successful lawyer, happily married, apparently well-liked by those who met him, and by his early forties succeeded in being appointed to the bench and was serving as a judge. He had active interests in the world around him, read extensively, attended cultural events. Dr. D.P. Schreber was outwardly (and by his own account, so far as he was aware, inwardly) the epitome of a well-rounded, civilised man.

In his early 40s however he had a nervous breakdown* and was diagnosed with Severe Hypochondria. Sounds to me like he was suffering from stress and nervous exhaustion and there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. He recovered after a few months and returned to work, picking up where he left off, and eventually getting appointed Senate President of Dresden (the highest legal position in his district). His marriage remained happy and he and his wife appear to have been devoted to one another. So far, so good. Then comes the interesting bit.

Upon receiving his promotion to Senate President, Dr. Schreber went completely bonkers**.

He spent the next nine years in institutions where he turned his mind to the problem of his own insanity. This is what takes the case beyond the mundane; Dr. Schreber was a highly intelligent, well-read and erudite man whose sharp mind had in no way been dulled by his madness. He wrote a detailed and explicit account of his delusions, hallucinations and the intricate “personal mythology” he wove in order to explain them as a coherent system rather than the chaotic insanity they appeared to be. He then edited this together with a selection of the medical and diagnostic notes that had been made by his doctors and published his Memoirs of a Nerve Patient.

And it’s mad. Utterly, breath-takingly mad.

So yeah, I’ve been trying to whittle this thesis-sized project down to something resembling an essay. And I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have chosen a slightly less controversial and considerably less weird paper of Freud’s to produce my first piece of coursework on. But I’ll let you be the judge of that when I’m finally finished (I’ll put up a link to it when it’s done). And with that, I shall sign off and return to my essay.

* Modern jargon alert! Nervous breakdown, nervous exhaustion, paranoid psychosis, and others… these are not words ever applied to Schreber by Freud simply because the case predates them.

** There’s some dispute as to whether Freud ever used that specific term (translations between languages are notoriously tricksy when it comes to colloquialisms), but to put it bluntly, that’s what happened. He was diagnosed with Dementia Paranoides, or Paranoia. Today we’d describe him as suffering from a paranoid psychosis.

Posted in: Opinion