Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was an important work in the development of modern psychiatry. Sigmund Freud based parts of his study of psychoanalysis on the book, though he never met Mr. Schreber. Mr. Schreber was a judge in late 19th century Dresden–married with no children. He had three bouts of “nervous illness,” each landing him in an asylum. Eventually, he became well enough to live in society and to write a memoir. It was published over the objections of his family who tried to buy up all of the copies. Fortunately for Sigmund Freud, they failed.
Little was known about mental illness during Mr. Schreber’s lifetime. Mr. Schreber hears voices and sees hallucinations, but he does not understand them as such. To him, they are all real. He does not seek to convince himself otherwise at all. Instead, he seeks to understand how the voices and hallucinations work, who or what is behind them and how must he deal with what they do to him. He creates an entire cosmology consisting of two levels of gods at war with each other through him. They seek to control his soul by controlling his nerves, which he understands as functioning through vibrations and as connected to forces outside of himself. He describes one method of attack on his nerves:
Further, in the time I am discussing attempts were repeatedly made to cover my nerves with some noxious matter; it appeared as if the natural capacity of nerves to vibrate were thereby impaired, so that even I myself had at times the impression of becoming temporarily stupid. One of the agents concerned was called “poison of intoxication”; I cannot say what its chemical nature was. From time to time also the liquids of the food I had taken were by miracle placed on the nerves of my head, so that these were covered with a sort of paste, and the capacity to think temporarily impaired; I remember distinctly that this happened once with coffee.
He is not speaking of a metaphorical paste covering his nerves, but of reality as he understands it. Clearly he is mad, but at no point does he doubt the reality of his delusions. He does not understand why he is the only one who can see the strange things he sees, but this does not disprove the miraculous events he experiences. Instead it elevates his own status, making him more important in the grand scheme of things. The fact that he is the only one who knows that the coffee he drinks is turning into a paste that attacks his nervous systems rendering him temporarily dumb makes it no less a fact. His doctors try to tell him otherwise, but how can he deny the evidence of his own senses? He never does.
Reading Memoirs of My Nervous Illness one can’t help but wonder about other people who have claimed to see visions and to have experienced the miraculous. Mr. Schreber’s cosmology explains his world. There are no events that happen to him that cannot be explained through his theory of vibrations and the forces that try to stop or control them. Is what makes him crazy the same thing that makes someone else a saint? When does the madman become a visionary?
While Memoirs of My Nervious Illness is an entertaining and englightening read, it is not an entirely easy one. I don’t think it can be read as a novel, but it can be read as a character study. There’s no plot arc to it, but as the book progressess the reader grows to understand Mr. Schreber to the point where he almost becomes believeable as though his life were a novel. File this book in the fiction section, and his story of forces trying to control his actions is as believeable as any told by an unreliable narrator. File it in the non-fiction and he becomes a paranoid schizophrenic. In either case, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is fascinating reading.
I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010. This was one of the books I found in the Yale library while I was taking a summer course for teachers on Canterbury Tales. I read all sorts of obscure literature, some of it very obscure, even more obscure than Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.