Bellowing with the Bourgeoisie

March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull.  It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum.  Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.

It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest.  The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:

everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients.  But in my case the very reverse obtains.  Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.

It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality.  It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.

There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book.  The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears.  He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps.  Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it.  And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness.  Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage?  (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)

Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally.  Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter.  This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.

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