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Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – January 31, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Daniel Paul Schreber began Memoirs of my Nervous Illness in February 1900 while confined in an asylum, as part of an appeal for release. Schreber, second son (the first committed suicide) of an abusive father, was at the peak of a brilliant career in Leipzig when he was appointed Presiding Judge of the Saxon High Court of Appeals. Alas, the stress of his new job proved too much for him, and before long he was hearing voices and feeling suicidal. Within weeks he was committed, having rapidly descended into madness, and was placed under the care of Dr. Paul Emil Flechsig. From the start, Schreber struggled to make sense of what he was seeing and hearing, and in fact Memoirs is so lucid and self-aware, so internally consistent and insightful, that he was released on its strength. Still, reading this man's prose is a lesson in subjective reality, by turns funny and terrifying.

I existed frequently without a stomach.... In the case of any other human being this would have resulted in natural pus formation with an inevitably fatal outcome; but the food pulp could not damage my body because all impure matter in it was soaked up again by the rays.
As Christianity alone could not explain what seemed to be happening to him, Schreber pieced together a complex theology involving a divided God with dark and light incarnations, whose "rays" and "nerves" interacted in various ways with humans. God was also his personal tormentor, in league with Flechsig to commit "soul-murder" by manipulating his nerves. Further, Schreber believed that he was being literally "unmanned" so that God could sexually violate him and conceive a new human race: "But as soon as I am alone with God ... I must continually or at least at certain times strive to give divine rays the impression of a woman in the height of sexual delight..."

Schreber had a hard time believing in the "fleeting-improvised-men" who flitted in and out of his life, and grew convinced that he was the only human left in a world of shadows. But he did know that something was wrong. He would hear the birds in the asylum's garden ask him, over and over, "Are you not ashamed?" And he was aware that his bellowing, banging on the piano, and other bodily manifestations of God's manipulation of his nerves (or "miracles") were startling to others, to say the least. Many of Schreber's delusions had to do with escaping his body--the constant babble of thousands of voices in his head were infuriating, as was his inability to cease thinking:

The sound which reaches my own ear--hundreds of times every day--is so definite that it cannot be a hallucination. The genuine "cries of help" are always instantly followed by the phrase which has been learnt by rote: "If only the cursed cries of help would stop."
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness succeeds on many levels: as a memoir, as imaginative literature, and as a serious work of mythology. Flechsig makes a menacing and inscrutable villain, representing materialistic thinking and conventional reality--no help at all. Schreber, meanwhile, is the classic hero, struggling to stay sane in a cruel and capricious universe. --Therese Littleton

Language Notes

Text: English, German --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 488 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; New Ed edition (January 31, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 094032220X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322202
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
Shortly after the death of Daniel Paul Schreber, Sigmund Freud used his (Schreber's) memoirs as the basis for a fantasy of his own. Everyday readers are lucky that Schreber wrote down so much of what he saw, heard and felt during his many years in German mental asylums, for his own observations are far more artistic and harrowing than anything Freud ever wrote.
In this book, Schreber takes us into his world--the world of the genuine schizophrenic. He writes of the "little men" who come to invade his body and of the stars from which they came.
That these "little men" choose to invade Schreber's body in more ways than one only makes his story all the more harrowing. At night, he tells us, they would drip down onto his head by the thousands, although he warned them against approaching him.
Schreber's story is not the only thing that is disquieting about this book. His style of writing is, too. It is made up of the ravings of a madman, yet it contains a fluidity and lucidity that rival that of any "logical" person. It only takes a few pages before we become enmeshed in the strange smells, tastes, insights and visions he describes so vividly.
Much of this book is hallucinatory; for example, Schreber writes of how the sun follows him as he moves around the room, depending on the direction of his movements. And, although we know the sun was not following Schreber, his explanation makes sense, in an eerie sort of way.
What Schreber has really done is to capture the sheer poetry of insanity and madness in such a way that we, as his readers, feel ourselves being swept along with him into his world of fantasy. It is a world without anchors, a world where the human soul is simply left to drift and survive as best it can.
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Myers VINE VOICE on November 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
To begin with, the reader should be forewarned that what the author suffers from is not the idiomatic English "nervous illness," or mild neurosis, but a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, stated best by the author at the beginning of Chapter 5:"Apart from normal human language there is also a kind of nerve language of which, as a rule, the healthy human being is not aware." The book's profundity and the author's depth of insight are such that, after reading a few pages of the first chapter, one is reminded of nothing so much as Proust's Remembrance of Things Past: "Souls' greatest happiness lies in continual reveling in pleasure combined with recollections of their human past."....But, after this, the book becomes as disturbing as Proust is essentially soothing. For the author feels himself utterly isolated from other men, not even deigning to recognize them as men at all but as "fleeting-improvised-men" which "creates a feeling in me at times as if I were moving among walking corpses." (Ch. 15) What I found so disturbing about the elaboration of the author's viewpoint and recounting of his tribulations in the asylum is that there is something in his viewpoint that rings essentially true: We do not and can not know even those closest to us on the deep spiritual or "nerve language" level the author exists on in perpetuum. It is this essential truth combined with the author's matter-of-fact, almost cheery, tone that made reading this work such a strange experience for me.Read more ›
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63 of 75 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 12, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Others who have posted reviews of this book are certainly correct in their assessment -- it's engaging, harrowing, enlightening, etc. HOWEVER, nobody has addressed the actual CAUSE of Schreber's insanity which, of course, is key to the reading of his memoir. The patient in most cases, and certainly in this case, is unable to tell us matter-of-factly what is troubling him. Instead, he tells us of his dreams or his imaginings, or his horrible delusions. It is then the psychiatrist who untangles the web. I can't recommend highly enough, as a companion to Schreber's memoir, the book "Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family," written by the psychiatrist Morton Schatzman. The book is now out of print, but can still be found used. Instead of describing the book,I'll quote from the jacket flap: "Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), an eminent German judge, went mad at the age of 42, recovered, and eight and a half years later, went mad again. It is uncertain if he was ever fully sane, in the ordinary social sense, again. His father, Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber (1808-1861), who supervised his son's upbringing, was a leading German physician and pedagogue, whose studies and writings on child rearing techniques strongly influenced his practices during his life and long after his death. The father thought his age to be morally "soft" and "decayed" owing mainly to laxity in educating and disciplining children at home and school. He proposed to "battle" the "weakness" of his era with an elaborate system aimed at making children obedient and subject to adults. He expected that following his precepts would lead to a better society and "race.Read more ›
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