THE GOD RAYS OF NERVESPRACHE: D. HARLAN WILSON’S THE PSYCHOTIC DR. SCHREBER

7 min read

Near the end of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, he has an epiphany: “…everything that happens is in reference to me.” (233) Since the publication of his Memoirs Schreber has been at the center of psychoanalytical and literary debate for a hundred years; he’s been called everything – from a psychotic homosexual to a pioneer of language. This is hardly surprising – the language and the images that he documented during his illness have so far infected the language of both psychoanalysis and science fiction, and the ripples from the stone he threw into our consciousness are seen to this day.

It might seem to be an insurmountable task to critique, or even just write, about anything that has to do with Schreber without making the book all about him and his illness. Freud, Lacan, Deleuze analyzed him, in absentia that is, Proyas critiqued Memoirs in his Dark City, Lynch directly visualized him. Yet none of them attempted to address the phenomena of the Psychotic Daniel Paul Schreber as D. Harlan Wilson did. In the fluid, unstructured manner, taking bits and pieces from everyone (even himself) and creating a literary Frankenstein – the only thing that could do justice and provide a surprisingly comprehensive introduction to Schreber in pop culture, science fiction, and our consciousness. More so, Wilson tries to experiment with the mythology of the paranoid-noir-detective nature of the Schreber’s narrative by inventing a fictionalized version of the man (or maybe us in the world crafted by Schreber?) based on the same assumption Alex Proyas made in Dark City – what if everything in the Memoirs is true and he could shape the world on a whim? What if everything is indeed in reference to Schreber?

Memoirs

Before delving into the analysis, I’d like to put the nature of Memoirs into a more contemporary, counter-point context. Dr. Schreber, a highly intelligent judge and politician, put his training in argumentation and negotiation to good use when he wrote the Memoirs ­– he methodically crafted a “jail free” card for himself, carefully explaining that he the illness no longer ails him and he is no threat to himself or the people around him. Considering that soon he returned back to the mental institution with an even more severe form of depression, it was definitely a trick of a high-functioning psychopath. The same trick that fifty years later Edmund Kemper, the Co-ed Killer performed as a teenager to lie his way out of a mental institution, persuading the doctors, the judge, and the police that he was no longer a threat.

There’s little to no justification for comparison of circumstances of their, Schreber’s and Kemper’s, upbringing, social, economic, or political conditions, and yet the methods, goals, and the cunning they used to trick the institutions, that and power structures the society has trusted in keeping and away and (not)caring for people like Schreber to get out of control is uncanny.

One has to be careful when dealing with Memoirs, one wrong step and you’re in Schreber’s playing field.

Dark City

The Kemper comparison fits perfectly with the grand narrative of Schreber’s influence on pop culture that D. Harlan Wilson researched in Psychotic Dr. Schreber. D. Harlan Wilson established the scientific basis for the book in his academic essay in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts The Pathological Machine: “Dark City’s” Translation of Schreber’s “Memoirs” where he laid the groundwork for this book through the overview of Alex Proyas’s critique of Schreber’s memoir and reimagining it as a visionary sci-fi film.

In the article, Wilson stresses the role of Schreber as a world-builder, developer of exquisite mythology. Proyas has converted Schreber’s Memoirs into a story. In this story, the fantastical facts are turned into fictional facts. (Wilson 154) And Schreber’s schizophrenia-fueled cosmological fantasies work perfectly for a sci-fi noir detective – Roger Ebert said that “it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects–and imagination.” (https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dark-city-1998). Though he was maybe the most respected film critic in his time, Ebert never delved into what informed the direction and design of the movie.

Wilson has successfully experimented with the same technique of extrapolating fiction from Schreber’s mythology in his “Room 00X” parts of the book. A fluid and everchanging narrative of a man locked in a room and surrounded by the myriad of Freudian and Lacanian nightmares of whores and pimps, who turn out to be literary agents and publishers, crocodiles on hind legs, and other nameless miseries of the numberless mortals.

Wilson’s protagonist, if this term even applies here, goes through all those challenges, the urges and the confusions that Schreber described and felt. It is a confusing, claustrophobic experience, like getting locked out inside someone else’s head in a spectator role. You don’t know how you got there and there is no way out.

Lynch

I opened the book having next to none knowledge of Schreber and Dark City and all this business, but ten pages in I knew that David Lynch is ought to pop up in here somewhere. The moment I read the quote from Memoirs about a man melting in an armchair, his head turning into a puff of smoke, and leaving only his clothes in the armchair, I knew I saw it somewhere. Episode three of Twin Peaks: The Return.

In that episode, Dougie Jones – a tulpa – a reduced, caricature clone of the beloved Agent Dale Cooper is sent back to the waiting room of the evil spirits – the Red Room to be told that he was manufactured, for a purpose, and that his purpose has been fulfilled. He is then melted in the chair that he is sitting, reduced into a ball of golden light, and his head turns into black smoke (reminiscent of Lynch’s own head falling-off-scene in Eraserhead). After he disappears, only his ridiculously colorful clothes are left there. Sounds familiar?

The parallels between the man who put the schizophrenia into the language of the fantastic and the most psychoanalytical American director of our times are addressed in Psychotic Dr. Schreber multiple times, reiterating and expanding on the points made by Slavoj Zizek back in the 90s in his The Ridiculous Sublime. While Zizek interpreted this “Lynchian” feeling – a combination of fear, uncanny, Americana, and noir as the Lacanian symbolic real touching with Real real, D. Harlan Wilson offers a more nuanced approach. He proposes to look at creators seeing Lynch, Proyas, and everyone else as using Schreber’s invention – nerve-language, the never-language, to tap into the now in the never.

Does any of it make sense for the general public? Hardly. Should it? Definitely no, since the general public wouldn’t be interested in Schreber, Lynch, D. Harlan Wilson and etc, in the first place. That’s a good thing, since they have been and are changing literature, fiction, and the storytelling from the underground, while the rest are looking at Marvel films.

The Psychotic Dr. Schreber

Is this a postmodernist book? A poststructuralist one? I’m not entirely sure if there is a definition for this kind of book already and if it needs one. That’s up to the literary critics (fuck, that’s probably me). Maybe anti-postmodernism? Anti-commercialism? It doesn’t have a ring to it, I think.

Everything about this book is complicated. It took me weeks to read and months to process and made me return to Lacan, Deleuze, and Wilson himself, digging deeper and wider, researching this grand narrative of Daniel Paul Schreber in the art history of the twentieth century. In this regard, Psychotic Dr. Schreber perfectly fulfills the goal of any book – like an experienced pusher it hooks you on the subject matter and invites you to learn more. It challenges you, naturally – just look at the reviews. But as rightly stressed by the author, this is not a book about Schreber, it’s a book around Schreber, for he has sent his god rays through the western pop culture, especially SF genres, and we can trace it, find it, and make our meager attempts to interpret it. D. Harlan Wilson has made the best attempt at doing it and produced one of the most important books in speculative fiction and literary critique in years. And it is worth every minute you spend with it. Funnily enough, we all might have proven Schreber right in that now everything that happens is, indeed, in reference to him.

P.S. Quote of the Year: “At some point, all messiahs must confront the issue of their genitals.”

Works Cited

Schreber, Daniel Paul. Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. New York Review, 2001.

Wilson, D. Harlan. The Psychotic Dr. Schreber. Stalking Horse Press, 2019.

Wilson, David H. “The Pathological Machine: ‘Dark City’s’ Translation of Schreber’s ‘Memoirs.’” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 15, no. 2 (58), 2005, pp. 153–164. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43308738.

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