Voluptuousness, Voyeurism, and Voltage
The Turn of the Century and the End of Impenetrability in Schreber’s Memoirs and Mann’s Magic Mountain
This summer I worked with British filmmaker Simon Pummell at his studio in Holland, where he was adapting the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge from the 1890s who went completely insane. He was planning to make a film that would be part documentary and part animation, combining interviews with current medical authorities, scripted scenes with actors portraying Schreber’s psychologists and family members, and animated sequences of his dreams and visions, attempting to delve into his fastidious yet largely incomprehensible cosmology.
Insofar as it was more than the purely personal experience of a mind overflowing its strict boundaries, I came to see Schreber’s madness as twofold: first, a stubborn refusal to move out of a past of rigid seriousness, repressive moral correctness, and a kind of lavish, erudite dignity and into the free-for-all of the twentieth century; and secondly, a frighteningly accurate premonition of that very free-for-all as it loomed large on the horizon.
Daniel Paul Schreber was born in Leipzig in 1842, two years before Nietzsche, three years before Wilhelm Röntgen, inventor of what would come to be known as the X-ray, and fourteen years before both Freud and Nikola Tesla. He was the son of Moritz Schreber, who had become famous in Germany in the 1830s and 40s for his books on discipline and gymnastic health for children, advocating almost sadistically stern methods of parenting, such as the use of a range of mechanical restraints to ensure that children sat up straight and ate slowly and politely. Moritz believed that stemming the earliest, most innocent signs of burgeoning depravity was crucial for producing upright, responsible adults. Paul—he went by Paul rather than Daniel—quite literally grew up in a harness, a trauma that would resurface when God’s nerves began forcing their way into his body to rend him up like Christ on the cross.
In 1878, after he’d passed the bar exam, he married Sabine Behr, daughter of a prominent opera singer and a woman both younger and more bohemian than he. The couple enjoyed a steady rise to prominence in the Leipzig legal world until Paul ran for the Reichstag in 1884 and was defeated, precipitating his first illness. From 1884 until the end of 1885, he resided at the University of Leipzig’s psychiatric clinic, under the care of Professor Paul Flechsig, a pioneer of neuroscience who would take on the role of the primary villain in Schreber’s more advanced delusions. Nevertheless, the Memoirs report that the first illness passed without “any occurrences bordering on the supernatural,” and Paul soon resumed his legal career, making his greatest professional strides in the eight years that followed.
In 1893, however, the same year he was promoted to head of the supreme court of appeals (Senatspräsident) in Dresden, he was back consulting with Flechsig after several suicide attempts. He was readmitted to Flechsig’s hospital and then transferred to a cheaper, less specialized public asylum called Sonnenstein, where he wrote his Memoirs of my Nervous Illness from 1897-1900 and had them published in 1902. As well as revealing a messianic message of catastrophe and redemption, he hoped the document would serve as evidence for his sanity in the long campaign to plead for his release. The court’s rebuff, of course, was that if he believed the memoirs demonstrated his sanity, he was even more insane than they’d suspected.
As I was trying to go through Schreber’s story and keep track of the external events that precipitated his internal collapse, it seemed important to keep an eye on the development of the larger German story around him. As is maybe always the case when pitting an individual against the flux of the world, the breadth of significant events that corresponded with the years of his life was astounding:
C.G. Jung and Thomas Mann were both born in 1875; Wilhelm I died in 1888 while Hitler, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein were all born in 1889, the first year when there was enough electricity to light all of Paris during its famous world exhibition; Walter Benjamin was born in 1892, while Max Horkheimer was born in 1895, the same year that Friedrich Engels died; Goebbels was born in 1897, while Bismarck died in 1898, the same year that H. G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, in which Martians attack the earth with “heat-rays”; in 1900 Himmler was born, Nietzsche died, and Max Planck presented his quantum hypothesis, just a year before Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on X-rays; Leni Riefenstahl was born in 1902, while Theodor Adorno was born in 1903, the same year that Hollywood was incorporated as a municipality and Schreber’s Memoirs were published; in 1905 Einstein first advanced his theory of special relativity, just a year before the ironic double birth of Hannah Arendt and Adolf Eichmann; and in 1913, two years after Schreber’s death, Niels Bohr published his quantum model of the atom and Werner Kolhorster measured increased radioactivity at an altitude of 9km; in 1927 Hermann Muller published a paper exposing the genetic effects of radioactivity while Heidegger published Being and Time; and in 1936 Kolhorster won the Nobel Prize for discovering "cosmic rays," in the same year that the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, capital of a then three-year-old Nazi Germany.
One tends to think of figures like Hitler and Heidegger as belonging to the 1930s and 40s, not the 1880s, but I suppose history always progresses in such a way that, at every moment, certain figures are at their apex while, in the very same years, those who will dominate the era to come are being born and those who had dominated before are dying off. It’s obvious enough, but I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms. In the span of thirty years, almost all of Germany’s old guard, from philosophers like Schopenhauer (d. 1860) to politicians and generals like Bismarck and Wilhelm I died, and all of its new guard—both the majority of the Nazi Party and all of the writers, psychologists, and philosophers who brought the country to the world’s intellectual forefront—was born.
Insanity may always be an experience of profound loneliness, but it is clear that Schreber grew up in a time and place that set the stage for his wild visions and taught him the peculiar vocabulary he relied upon the describe them. Whatever he meant by his fixation on rays careening through the air to bombard his defenseless body, he wasn’t alone in the feeling that something mysterious and dangerously powerful was afoot. In the end, I came away with the conviction that Schreber’s dark corner of world history had chosen him as one of its unwitting narrators.
Approaching the Memoirs as literature is both intriguing and problematic. I think there is always the dual challenge when reading to seek to understand both what is happening within the book, what it is saying on its own terms, and what was happening around the book, in the world from which it came and into which it was received. With Schreber, this challenge is nearly impossible because the Memoirs are genuinely insane, far more so than even the strangest of stories designed for a reader’s enjoyment. He believed that he had gotten infinitely closer to God than any human before him, and, although he admitted that his powers of apprehension were still bounded by mortal frailty, he was certain that his document carried an awful truth which would shine through to all those who encountered it without prejudice.
As a good lawyer, he was desperate to arrange and classify his recurring visions into a taxonomy, one that grew as lurid and untenable as Borges’s Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. From the development of his female organs and feminine sensuality, to the progress of God’s rays in penetrating his skin and altering his nerves, the machinations of the evil Dr. Flechsig and his legion of phantoms, his wife’s designs to cheat him out of his fortune, and the orbits of the planet-sized writing system that contained all of the words he was meant to record, every step of his voyage has its own system of description. Reading through the Memoirs’ elaborately titled chapters—“Nerve Language [inner voices]; Compulsive thinking; Unmanning under certain circumstances a postulate of the Order of the World,” or “God and the process of creation; spontaneous generation; insects created by miracles; Direction of Gaze; system-of-examination,” to take just two examples—there is the sense that all of these elements are about to cohere, but they never quite do.
Indeed, he had a lawyer’s obsession not only with organizing but with naming everything around him. As Elias Canetti puts it at the very end of his momentous anthropological study Crowds and Power (1960), where he examines Schreber’s case by way of concluding his chapter on the paranoia of despotism, “the thing most important to [Schreber] was the safety of words. To him all sounds were voices; the universe was full of words: railways, birds, and paddle-steamers spoke.” From distinguishing between the Gods of the posterior (Ormuzd) and the anterior (Ariman), to coining compound German phrases like “the-compression-of-the-chest-miracle” (das Stimmungsfälschungswunder), the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” (der Nichtsdenkungsgedanke), or God’s “cursed play-with-human-beings” (die verfluchte Menschenspielerei) his approach to vividly foreign phenomena is the opposite of a poet’s: rather than developing a knack for metaphor and allusion to coax out the familiar feelings that bob out beyond the reach of words, he was convinced that he could develop words that extended into an unearthly place beyond the reach of feelings.
Despite this rigor, the terms slip hopelessly around, the chronology gets harder and harder to put in order, and the conspiracies that he projects onto his doctors and relatives never emerge from the muddled panic of their origins. Sometimes the rays are filling his body with nerves and other times they’re hollowing him out into a person-sized womb.
In uncomfortably literal terms, much of the early German research on radioactive genetic mutation bled into early Nazi research on eugenics, and the psychiatric literature in Schreber’s day was already making a rigid distinction between curable and incurable patients, calling for fast, tactful disposal of those whom the institution believed it could not help. According to Zwi Lothane, America’s foremost Schreber historian, Dr. Flechsig and Sonnenstein director Dr. Weber favored words such as “evacuated, removed, unburdened, eliminated, and isolated” when discussing the fates of their hospitals’ more tenaciously deranged tenants.
For a man who grew up eating in what we might now call a muzzle and weathering regular baths in ice water, and who took passionately to the exacting, humorless world of nineteenth century German law, the seismic changes that were accelerating as 1900 drew near could not have been easy. While Freud, in his controversial study The Schreber Case (1911) diagnosed Schreber’ obsession with becoming a woman as a matter of repressed homosexuality, it seems impossible that any diagnosis could be so cut and dry. Paul says that “few people have been brought up according to such strict moral principles as I, and have throughout life practiced such moderation, especially in matters of sex,” and it’s true that his marriage, which resulted in six miscarriages and no children, was not a harmonious one, but it seems clear that what ultimately happened to him came from many places at once, both from his past welling up from inside the earth and the future beaming down from outer space—or wherever it lay in wait—to stir him into an incurable illness of premonition.
He was not happy when the transformation began, but he took to his new role with aplomb once he accepted what it was: to bear God’s children was a tremendous and unique honor, even if the requisite physical metamorphosis struck him as deeply shameful. The voices mocked Paul when it came to telling his wife about his sexual fantasies: “Fancy a person who was a Senatspräsident allowing himself to be fucked,” and “are you not ashamed in front of your wife?” and, “I must use particular discretion with my wife, for whom I retain my former love in full… it is of course impossible for my wife to understand my trends of thought fully; it must be difficult for her to retain her previous love and admiration for me when she hears that I am preoccupied with ideas of possibly being transformed into a woman….” One of the book’s strangest scenes involves his attempt to show his wife, on what would turn out to be her last visit, his newly mutated genitalia, and flying into an embarrassed rage when she refuses to look.
Fearing that he might be raped and abandoned rather than divinely impregnated, Schreber made up his mind to court God with all the feminine wiles he could muster. When he finally came to understand that the integrity of his body could not be preserved against the relentless forces acting upon it, he shaved his beard and took to dressing in increasingly elaborate ladies’ clothing inside his cell.
As he disappeared more and more into his quest for God’s sexual love, he developed the conviction that “everything that happens is in relation to me. I became for God the human being, or the one human being to whom everything that happens must be related.” What he failed to grasp, I think, was that this sense of lapsing dignity and increasing bewilderment was happening to everyone. Everyone was coming up against a God whose desires and motivations were growing less and less clear.
This story of Europe’s faltering grasp on the world has surely never been told as eloquently as by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain, first published in German in 1924. The novel’s mix of poignant elegy for the old, noble days and derisive break with the smugness and slowness of those days is a stately, grandiose rumination on the same winds of change that made such a savage mess of Schreber’s way with words. Building towards “The Thunderbolt,” its final chapter, The Magic Mountain conjures a sense of impending cataclysm that is as strangely charged with electricity as were Schreber’s rays.
Mann tells of Hans Castorp, an unremarkable young man of twenty-three about to take up his profession as an engineer who goes to visit his cousin Joachim at a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. Planning to stay for three weeks, he finds that the slow, stately lifestyle on the mountain agrees with him, and, after being diagnosed with a “soft spot” near his heart, ends up staying seven years, outliving his cousin and falling under the tutelage of the benevolent if pedantic Herr Settembrini and the nefarious but intriguing Herr Naphta, who, in their florid and ploddingly erudite way, battle for his developing soul. The seven years of his stay, as it turns out, are the last seven years before the First World War, roughly seven years after the height of Schreber’s visionary glory.
We see the world on the mountain, at an almost heavenly remove from the world “down there,” as a dreamy microcosm of Old Europe, and the suddenness with which the dream finally evaporates is the suddenness with which Europe destroyed itself and made way for what was to come over the four years of the Great War. Although Mann’s prose is composed with the absolute precision of a master while Schreber’s overflows in a phantasmagoric frenzy, both are wary love letters to the way Europe used to be, and meditations on how quickly it stopped being that way.
Dr. Flechsig was fond of saying that “mental disorders are brain disorders,” arguing against the old superstition of the soul. In Mann’s novel, we see a compatible if opposite situation: the line between those who are genuinely sick and those who are just pretending cannot be drawn. The mountain may be a place for the treatment for genuine respiratory infection, but it is also a place of egregious sloth, a Mecca for vague spiritual malaise and ennui. Some of the guests are waiting to become healthy enough to return home, but just as many have already found heaven, all too glad to settle into oblivion deep in Switzerland’s snowy solitude. They spend their days quietly wasting away, as good as dead, much like Schreber’s fleeting-improvised men, who drift past his cell without substance, casually wearing the faces of the people he used to know.
In this way, both books take place at a junction of bodily and spiritual illness. The Nervous Illness—Nervenkranken—in the title of Schreber’s memoir is both nervous in terms of anxiety, apprehension, the fear of peering over a verge or a brink, but also physically it is a problem of nerves, of his nervous system, of the tactile feeling of God burrowing into his body and infecting it with soul voluptuousness. In the case of Hans Castorp, the ambiguous nature of his heart’s “soft spot” hardly needs explaining.
One of The Magic Mountain’s most memorable chapters tells of the afternoon when Hans goes to get an X-ray, or, as the doctor says, to have “a picture taken of his interior.” Waiting there with his cousin, they meet Frau Chauchat, the mysterious central Asian woman who captivates Castorp’s fledgling romantic sensibilities.
Inside the chamber, “you couldn’t tell if you were in a photographer’s studio, a darkroom, or an inventor’s workshop and sorcerer’s laboratory.” Castorp looks at his cousin’s body through the machine, peering “through the pale window… into the void of Joachim Ziemssen’s skeleton. His breastbone merged with his spine into one dark, gristly column… “I can see your heart”… his dry bones, his bare scaffolding, his gaunt memento mori.”
Whatever feelings this glimpse stirs for the young hero, they are nothing compared with his glimpse of Frau Chauchat’s X-ray, which provides the novel’s guiding metaphor both for burgeoning sexuality and for the sexual allure of illness. Holding her glass slide as a young lover might hold a strip of photo booth negatives, he peers into the inside of this woman’s body, giddy with the thrill of violating her, and realizes that what he finds most arousing is her disease itself, the physical presence of the malignant thing feeding on the skin and face and eyes that he finds so beautiful from without.
The central love affairs in both books—Hans Castorp and Frau Chauchat; Frau Schreber and God—are both mediated by rays. In fact, this is the only sex that either couple manages to have. It is hard to imagine the utter terror and erotic thrill of this constant bombardment in an age when such an experience was brand new: Schreber would often go for days on end without sleeping for fear that the moment of truest unity with God would pass him by if he let his attention waver; other times he felt his stomach being ripped out or replaced with an inferior “Jew’s stomach,” “little men” being implanted in his feet to keep him from standing still, or “tested souls” taking up residence on his shoulders and whispering incessantly in his ears. He talks again and again about the conspiracy of soul murder, but his experience of transformation comes across as ominously physical in much the way that Castorp’s illness was ominously mental. Canetti points out the “…one thing which all these phenomena have in common: they all have to do with the penetration of [the] body. The principle of the impenetrability of matter no longer applies. Just as [Schreber] himself wants to extend and penetrate everywhere, even right through the earth, so, in the same way, everything penetrates through him and plays tricks in him as well as on him.”
It would be a mistake of retrospect to look at all of this and determine that Germany’s fanatical violence in the twentieth century was already inevitable, but, by the same token, its shadow was certainly was not invisible. The pain of the end of the impenetrability of matter, a belief that belonged perhaps for the last time to Schreber’s father’s generation, makes itself felt very viscerally in both books, and the mass madness that would follow does not seem far off. Be it through new technology that can take a photo of a beautiful woman’s diseased heart, or through the heretofore unheard of perversion of a God who would seek to hollow out a lonely middle-aged man and then force him to beg for sex, the speed of change in Germany a hundred years ago opened the door onto something so new that I think we have hardly begun to grasp it.
David Rice ’10 would like to offer a little prayer: three of you, three of us, have mercy!