PRINT November 1996


Daniel Paul Schreber’s Century

PSSST—JUST READ this and don’t take your eyes off the page. The art Mafia was created by exactly the same person who started the Federal Reserve System—Andrew Mellon. Doesn’t this tell you something? Once they were able to debase the gold dollar and replace it with “paper” they also created the Washington museum scene with modern art bought from the Communists—a paper replacement for the “golden” art of our America. Remember: you read it in Artforum.

Dearest reader: I must admit I come to this column with strong bias. I have become convinced that, if the ’70s was the age of narcissism, we now live in the age of paranoia. It is more than Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics reborn. Conspiracy theories have turned into real conspiracies. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who feared the Mormons and the anarchists and invented Sherlock Holmes to combat them, we live in an age in which paranoia has spilled over from the text into the real world. And that world generates rented trucks full of documents that interpret and explain the paranoid view of the world.

How does one make paranoids? we might ask. It seems that the answer may lie in making people doubt that which is necessary for their internal stability, the support of the superego and the society that structures it. At the end of our century, we are seeing the collapse of the “good-enough authority” and the need of the paranoids on our streets to identify with other marginal groups of paranoids—the skinheads and the racists—who provide such external definitions of authority. White racists, such as the Freemen, seek out texts like the Bible and the Constitution, and use them as source material satisfying their search for a “good-enough authority,” to replace their sense that they have lost the status their roles had clearly defined.

We are all invested by society with roles—as parents, workers, intellectuals, politicians—and society makes us aware of this symbolic investiture by the social structures and trappings of these roles. We are given diplomas, and uniforms, and offices with nameplates; we are designated homeroom parent or are quoted in the papers. The “Freemen” and the “militias,” with their complex, paranoid systems and detailed texts now haunting cyberspace, know that the existing system for the transmission of such authority hascollapsed. All the signs of their authority (or the authority they had assumed they were given) have vanished. They demand that they regain control over the sources of that authority—the texts at which they grasp and which provide for them the true, uninterrupted line of authority.

But these texts must have a reader who makes sense of them. Here, too, comes the personification of that authority. In Jonestown and Waco, the gap where that authority was perceived to have existed was filled by the new charismatic leader, whose purpose was to create a new system of investiture, to provide new roles and new definitions for his flock—and if there was a challenge to his ability to do this, to kill them. A terrifying thought at the end of the millennium.

But is this uniquely a fin-de-siècle, postmodern phenomenon, or is it (no matter what sociologist Bruno Latour claims) really a sign of the modern? Is it possible that the paranoid style has a modern archeology? In Eric L. Santner’s My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity (1996), what the author finds in the collapse of authority and its meaning 100 years ago can help us understand the American manifestations of paranoia today through a reading of, in Elias Canetti’s words, our “most famous psychiatric case,” that of Daniel Paul Schreber.

Schreber was a German, Protestant judge who collapsed into paranoia at the turn of the century. He was also the author of an autobiography, Denkwurdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of my nervous illness), that mirrored his internal fantasies. Santner’s thesis is deceptively simple. He sees Schreber’s paranoia and his highly detailed system representing the collapse of his body into that of a woman and/or a Jew as the result of overidentification with the marginal figures of his age. Schreber becomes a “woman” and/or a “Jew” in his paranoid fantasies because the traditional mode of becoming a “man,” the investiture of social and political roles, had ceased (at least for Schreber) at the beginning of the modern period to provide him with a powerful enough “masculine” identity. This “crisis of investiture,” the laying on of hands that no longer works to transform the mere mortal into (in this case) a “real” judge, is seen by Santner as the hallmark of the onset of modernity. Schreber first collapses at the time of his appointment to the Dresden Supreme Court.

Schreber’s autobiography appeared in 1903. It was Carl Jung who first suggested to Sigmund Freud that he read Schreber’s memoirs. And they began to write to each other with letters full of Schreber’s neologisms. Perhaps they were captured by the power of Schreber’s language due to their own problems with the question of investiture—of what naming a “crown prince” of psychoanalysis meant for the founder of psychoanalysis, and what being named the crown prince really meant in terms of Jung’s individual autonomy. Yet neither man ever actually saw the patient, who was hidden away in a sanitarium and who wrote his memoirs to “prove” his sanity (the idea being that, if you could write a book, you couldn’t be crazy; the German Jewish art historian Aby Warburg got himself out of another German madhouse by holding a lecture on the Native Americans of the Southwest, as historian Michael P. Steinberg has elegantly documented in his 1995 translation of Warburg’s Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America). The literature on Schreber following Freud is extensive. Our “contemporary” reception begins with Canetti’s Crowds and Powers as well as the work of William Niederland, who in the ’50s first posed the question: What were the biographical/paternal roots of Schreber’s case? And it continued with ever greater scholarly interest in the detailed work of Han Israels and, more recently, Zvi Lothane. The impact of these major works on scholarship within the field of Freud studies was extraordinary. But interest in Schreber’s case extended well beyond the scholarly. Niederland’s work, for example, popularized by Morton Schatzman’s Soul Murder in the ’70s, came to be staged as a well-received off-Broadway production. Literary critics such as C. Barry Chabot “read” Schreber as a literary text. And most recently Louis Sass, in his insightful but limited Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind, provided a close interpretation of the philosophical underpinnings of Schreber’s views.

No little reason for Schreber’s importance—or at least that of Schreber’s autobiography—can be found in Freud’s own central interpretation of Schreber’s memoir. Yet despite its centrality in the psychoanalytic literature, all commentators (even those who, like Santner, make the parallels between Schreber’s illness and the later manifestation of “German madness” in the Shoah) have understood the problem of the text as one of projection rather than identification. Santner’s book is the most radical reading of Schreber since Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of Schreber, Freud, and transference in The Psychoses (1955–56). Presenting a compelling interpretation of Schreber’s text and its times, Santner sees in the “case of Schreber” the best articulation of the 19th-century collapse of the model of investiture and the rise of the new world of institutional authority. Using a wide range of theoretical references from within and without the world of psychoanalytic theory, Santner shows how the various facets of Schreber’s text all work—not just as part of a paranoid system without external references, but as a system of self-representation in a world in collapse. He knows his sources and his history—his readings of Max Nordau, of Wagner, of Kafka all support his central thesis, but they are also major contributions to our understanding of these authors and their texts in their own right.

Santner’s chapter on the “Jewish elements” in Schreber’s case is particularly relevant, since anti-Semitism seems to be a constant that runs between the world of Schreber and that of the “Freemen.” Santner has used my work and that of Jay Geller and Daniel Boyarin to show how our fragmented reading of Schreber is indeed part of the projection of the collapse of a German identity under the Weimar Republic—that is, this dissolution already begins under the German Empire, well before the fatal loss of the German sense of “innate” superiority because of the defeat in World War I—and the role the Jews playedin the psychic world of German culture. Thus Schreber is neither a prefiguration of the fascist (re: my reading) nor the perpetual victim (pace Lothane)—for Santner he is the canary in the mine shaft whose responses identify the actual victims in the culture in which he lives, women and Jews. It is of little wonder that the Freemen and other groups such as the Aryan Nation have claimed the position of the Chosen People. They read the Bible as their story; they are the lost tribes of Israel, they are the true Jews. This is not very far from Santner’s interpretation of Schreber’s own identifications.

One can note that 19th-century Jewish psychiatric patients (such as those documented in the asylum archive at Ilenau or in the Prinzhorn collection at Heidelberg) evidenced many of the same paranoid fantasies as Schreber. They imagined they were being persecuted and dismembered because they were Jews and fled into fantasies of omnipotence and debasement. For the Jews of the period the crisis of investiture was even greater: they stood at the abyss, their only protection being their assumed roles in Germanic culture. It is no surprise that in another institution of control, the concentration camp, Jews who relied on external status for their identity collapsed into psychosis. Bruno Bettelheim, himself a prisoner at Dachau, observed these figures in his 1960 Informed Heart and recorded in detail their psychic collapse into what came to be called Musselmänner (because their passivity fit the European image of “fanatical” Muslims).

Schreber provides the first case of “modern” paranoia. Like the German empire in its unconscious decline before World War I, Schreber’s paranoid world prefigured the space in which the charismatic leader would appear. It is not that Schreber was a protofascist, as many have held—here I agree with Santner—but the collapse of authority and of the social signals of such authority demanded some type of restitution. Weimar Germany was the site of the public display of this collapse, where all roles were drawn into question (or overvalued), and it was from Weimar that Hitler and his exemplary politics of investiture emerged—from the uniforms worn by everyone from the HJ and BdM to the SA and SS, to the copy of Mein Kampf given to the happy couple as part of the state marriage ceremony. Are we moving subtly in that direction with the demand for other types of “good-enough authorities” to give us the status we need to live a happy, healthy, paranoid life? Who will the next figures be?

Sander L. Gilman is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Liberal Arts in Human Biology at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (Routledge, 1995).