Schreber’s Theodicy and the Fallen God

February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments

Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.

Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read.  It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed.  The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways.  One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.

Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s.  It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail.  To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig.  Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body).  He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.

Got that?  Yes.  Well.  It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan).  Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.

There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God.  Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe.  God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.

Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him.  As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something.  Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.”  (Italics Schreber’s.)  This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think.  After all, how could God understand life?  Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?

Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God.  And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him.  Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by

“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive.  In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself  outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”

Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”

Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument.  God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!

You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head.  Heartbreaking.  And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too.  The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it.  But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.

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§ 4 Responses to Schreber’s Theodicy and the Fallen God

  • tiffehr says:

    Willie, how exactly are you willhansen2 on your own blog?

    Totally unrelatedly but trying to be literature-themed, I’m currently reading Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White”, which is like upbeat Hardy with melodramatic Dickensian secondary characters. Supposedly there is a Dumas-worthy “Monte Cristo” twist or two, but I haven’t gotten to ’em yet. I bring it up because the edition—paperback Oxford World’s Classics—has a chronology after the introduction, which has been better reading than the book so far—Collins’ life events and publishings stacked against the era’s major works, events and news. I forgot how much that helps place the author’s voice. I wonder how the hell we’d do them for still-living, post-modern writers. Or one for a polymath like DFW.

    • willhansen2 says:

      I think “willhansen” was taken when I signed up with WordPress. Plus I’m willhansen2 for a lot of things, so it’s easier for me to remember. I dunno.

      You and Jaime will have to talk about Wilkie. She’s a big fan. I’ve never read anything by him, although I’m sure Jaime will talk me into it eventually. She’s always going on about Count Fosco.

      I, too, am a total sucker for things like chronologies. This is why I find Norton Critical Editions so hard to resist. Besides looking cool, design-wise (they have a retro-chic kind of thing going, or at least I think so), they include such great notes and contextual matter. I read both Moby-Dick and Don Quixote in Norton; couldn’t have done it without ’em. (End advertisement.)

      It’ll be interesting to see what happens with “paratexts” like these as more reading gets shifted to iPhones, Kindles, GameBoys, God knows what. On the one hand, the technocrats are always talking about how digital reading will be better with more opportunities for annotation, looking up dictionary entries, etc. On the other hand, will it be too annoying to click to a footnote or a chronology and then back into the text? Or will it become second nature, like moving your eyes down to a footnote and back up the page has become? Hmm.

  • Benjamin Steele says:

    I haven’t read Schreber, but Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets is one of my favorite books. Related to that book, I also like Eric G. Wilson’s The Melancholy Android.

    I suppose I should read Schreber one of these days. It does sound interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea of the fallen God.

  • […] Illness, the telling of the tale complicates these signs, especially in Moran’s case.  (See here for the first of my series of posts on Schreber’s book.)  The lucidity with which the tale […]

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