Commentaries - May 2013
Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (53): Daniel Paul Schreber (1842 – 1911), from 'Memoirs of My Nervous Illness'
The talking of all free flying birds has persisted without interruption in the past years in which I frequently changed my residence, and it persists to this day … I would now prefer to use the expression “talking bird” to “miraculously created bird” which is used in the text. Earlier on I thought I could not explain the talking of the birds other than by assuming that they were as such created by miracle, that is to say were created anew each time. After what I have observed meantime I consider it more likely that they were birds produced by natural reproduction, into whose bodies the remnants of the “forecourts of heaven,” that is to say erstwhile blessed human souls, had been inserted in some supernatural way or were inserted anew each time. But that these souls [nerves] were actually inside the bodies of these birds [perhaps in addition to the nerves which these birds naturally possess and in any case without awareness of their previous identity] remains as before without any doubt for me for reasons developed in the text.
The system of not-finishing-a-sentence became more and more prevalent in the course of years, the more the souls lacked their own thoughts. In particular, for years single conjunctions or adverbs have been spoken into my nerves thousands of times; those ought only to introduce clauses, but it is left to my nerves to complete them in a manner satisfactory to a thinking mind. Thus for years I have heard daily in hundred-fold repetition incoherent words spoken into my nerves without any context, such as “Why not?,” “Why, if,” “Why, because I,” “Be it,” “With respect to him,” (that is to say that something or other has to be thought or said with respect to myself), further an absolutely senseless “Oh” thrown into my nerves; finally, certain fragments of sentences which were earlier on expressed completely; as for instance
1. “Now I shall,”
2. You were too,”
3. “I shall,”
4. “It will be,”
5. “This of course was,”
6. “Lacking now is,”
etc. In order to give the reader some idea of the original meaning of these incomplete phrases I will add the way they used to be completed, but are not omitted and left to be completed by my nerves. The phrases ought to have been:
1. Now I shall resign myself to being stupid;
2. You were to be represented as denying God, as given to voluptuous excesses, etc.;
3. I shall have to think about that first;
4. It will be done now, the joint of pork;
5. This of course was too much from the soul’s point of view;
6. Lacking now is only the leading idea, that is – we, the rays, have no thou
The infringement of the freedom of human thinking or more correctly thinking nothing, which constitutes the essence of compulsive thinking, became more unbearable in the course of years with the slowing down of the talk of the voices, This is connected with the increased soul-voluptuousness of my body and — despite all writing-down — with the great shortage of speech-materials at the disposal of the rays with which to bridge the vast distances separating the stars, where they are suspended, from my body.
No one who has not personally experienced these phenomena like I have can have any idea of the extent to which speech has slowed down. To say “But naturally” is spoken B.b.b.u.u.u.t.t.t. n.n.n.a.a.a.t.t.t.u.u.u.r.r.r.a.a.a.l.l.l.l.l.l.y.y.y. or “Why do you not then shit?” W.w.w.h.h.h.y.y.y. d.d.d.o.o.o………….; and each requires perhaps thirty to sixty seconds to be completed. This would be bound to cause such nervous impatience in every human being not like myself more and more inventive in using methods of defense, as to make him jump out of his skin …
Translation from German by Ida McAlpine and Richard A Hunter
with John Bloomberg-Rissman
Source: Daniel Paul Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, New York Review Books Classics, 2000.
(1) “In November 1893, Daniel Paul Schreber, recently named presiding judge of the Saxon Supreme Court, was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown and entered a Leipzig psychiatric clinic. He would spend the rest of the nineteenth century in mental institutions. Once released, he published his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), a harrowing account of real and delusional persecution, political intrigue, and states of sexual ecstasy as God's private concubine. Freud's famous case study of Schreber elevated the Memoirs into the most important psychiatric textbook of paranoia … Schreber's text becomes legible as a sort of ‘nerve bible’ of fin-de-siècle preoccupations and obsessions, an archive of the very phantasms that would, after the traumas of war, revolution, and the end of empire … cross the threshold of modernity into a pervasive atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty … [It is possible to argue] that Schreber's delusional system--his own private Germany--actually prefigured the totalitarian solution to this defining structural crisis of modernity … [and to show] how this tragic figure succeeded in avoiding the totalitarian temptation by way of his own series of perverse identifications, above all with women and Jews.” (Eric L Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity)
(2) It is not hard to see Schreber’s encounter with voices & rays & so forth as a crisis of humanist reading. On some level, he seems to have experienced modernist art practice avant la lettre, with a kind of awareness of just how threatening that would be to the humanist project. One could also argue that he not only experienced modernism, he also experienced what came to be called postmodernism & what Jeffrey T. Nealon calls its present “post-postmodern intensification” (Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism). In which case it seems possible to understand Schreber’s memoirs as a kind of reading of a less & less familiar, more & more threatening world, which continues to resonate. And the innovative strategies with language, as presented here, bring it still more surely into our present mix.
Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon
[From the bilingual book forthcoming from Tebot Bach Press]
My hands, two little bits
of my body I'm never
ashamed to show. With fingers—
the branches of coral,
of white serpents,
of a nymphomaniac.
I FALL TO THE GROUND
Like juicy red apples
my cheeks flare up
in the sun
with a red flame.
I hold on—barely—
to the tree, and not
fall to the ground,
and when someone,
dazzled by my red
cheeks, lifts me up
from the dirt, he then
tosses me aside with disgust
and pity because
my heart is eaten up
by the worms,
and that fat worm—passion—
just won't crawl out
of my juicy body.
I am left, discarded, as it
rots me to death.
You revel, I revel,
in us revels the God
who ruins everything,
who won’t forbid.
Hammer my hands,
nail my feet to a cross:
burn me, be burned,
take all my ardor
and leave me deeply ashamed:
suck it from me and throw it away,
become estranged, alienated
and go your own way.
You plowed deep
into me—fertile earth—
and sowed there.
Tall stalks grew—love-stalks—
with roots down deep in the ground
and golden heads to the sky.
Surrounding your stalks, red poppies
You stood, suspicious,
and thought: Who planted poppies?
A wind passed through;
you had an impulse
to show it the way.
A bird flew through;
you followed him
away with your eyes.
you had been fussed over
by many women’s hands
when I came across you,
young Adam. And before I pressed
my lips to you
you pleaded, your face paler
and more gentle
than the gentlest lily:
Don’t bite, don’t bite.
I saw that teethmarks covered
your entire body. Trembling,
I bit into you—you breathed
over me through thin nostrils
and edged up to me
like the hot horizon to a field.
IN SULLIVAN COUNTY
Today in the first light hour after the rain,
the sun shines calmly, softly on me.
The fields in the valleys of Sullivan County
stretch far from the narrow path.
Somewhere out there trees turn blue
on the mountainside. The fields are sown
with raspberries, but it’s often not easy
to eat enough of them: you quickly lose yourself
in a labyrinth of outstretched green stabbing arms,
a braided, thorny wall of branches.
Yet after the rain there are tons of raspberries.
The sun shines calmly, softly on me.
Fresh milk awaits, but I don’t hurry to the farm.
My arm tears on the jagged twigs.
Yellow and red mosaic of fields,
cultivated rows of trees—
here and there a lone tree.
You can barely see the mountain.
A world hemmed in by trees,
the mountain obscured by fog.
No mountains—this is better.
The horizon gets farther, bigger,
in the soft distance.
My soul wanders, aimless.
In the soft distance, it blurs
and lightens. The whole world
swims in a tender gray.
No world—this is better.
My eye gentler, bigger.
In the tender gray,
no world, no earth.
In the tender gray,
I swim undisturbed.
I went up on the mountain and saw
fields like golden rivers
and trees on them like sails on ships:
green sails on golden rivers.
Close, in a deep, green abyss,
the road wound through the endless
seeming forest—a pink serpent
twisting between green sails of ships.
How insignificant, how small
was my valley, my little green valley:
it carried to me, as on wings of wind,
a lamenting sound.
My baby was calling to me.
But I was welded to the mountain,
and for a long time sorrow swung around me
and for a long time the baby cried and called out
until the valley heard my steps again.
NEW YORK AT NIGHT BY THE BANKS OF THE HUDSON
Seeping from the cells of your skyscrapers
is golden honey, light,
through millions of windows,
as through the cells of gigantic honey-combs,
you can see golden honey,
human honey, light.
Immense bees built their beehives here,
a forest of beehives,
and filled them until they overflowed with honey,
The Hudson at night is black as pitch,
and the honey flows
and swallows the pitch on the shores of New York.
* * *
Trees like these with golden fruit,
a forest of golden fruit,
hung with lanterns.
[NOTE. Among the more experimental Yiddish poets in early twentieth-century New York, Dropkin (1887-1956) was significant both for her exploration of open verse as a compositional strategy & for her assertions of female desire beyond the limits observed by most of her contemporaries, both in Yiddish & in English. Born Zipporah Levine in present-day Belarus, she wrote first in Russian but turned to Yiddish on arrival in New York circa 1910, where she participated in the already active Yiddish poetry world, including the experimental In-Zikh (Introspectivist) poets, while developing more markedly transgressive themes than theirs: sexuality, depression, guilt & longing, fury, violence, even at its limits the representation of sado-masochism & other taboo, once hidden subjects. Her work in that sense is a further confirmation of Kenneth Rexroth’s observation of a Yiddish avant-garde & Futurist presence in his own early years in New York: “A good case could be made for the claim that the best writing done in America in the first quarter of the [twentieth] century was in Yiddish. I don’t think it’s really true, but it is sufficiently true to be passionately arguable in one of those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream in the Café Royale.” And despite Kenneth’s charmingly flippant tone, the active historical presence of two languages & their attendant poetries in a single American city is itself worth noting. (J.R.)]
The poet's novel
A novel in which the subject is Paris. A collage novel. A list novel. A novel of various forms of hopefulness and despair.
“We’re moving towards something that does not exist. The voyage is infinite. The passenger is not.” .
Where has Adnan taken the form of the novel, as a poet of many countries and languages? She has chosen place for character. She has chosen Paris, all of Paris. Her gaze penetrates the beauty and limitations. She does not ignore Paris as “the heart of a lingering colonial power.” She has taken the reader not only to the streets of Paris, but to the skies, and to the passing thoughts of the relocated Parisian who writes through circumstances, concerns, observations.
“Some rare evenings, the glow is so strong that pink hue, an after hue, an illumination made of color and fire, seeps between the buildings, these evenings which are an illumination for the whole body, not only the eyes.” .
That no other persons come into focus for more than a moment creates an experimental cinematic sense of the city. We are lured toward not merely a visual surface but a detailed map of luminosities and gravities
“Paris has to be reduced to energy points, has to be obliterated, and then rebuilt by one’s mind in order to be livable. Otherwise you become car fumes, pornographic junk, a ball of hatred, the most fallen of the banished angels.” .
At the same time the body of the speaker is walking through the streets, taking part in what she observes by embodying many possibilities of experience, she is also composing questions about existence, language, and perception. This novel, located in a city extends outward from that city to exist on many planes, locations, and modes of consciousness. She writes:
“I was trying this morning to figure out how one could think without words. A noble desire, I thought. I wanted to get close to what I presume could be forms of animal thinking: what happens in a cat’s brain when a cat decides between jumping and not jumping? Does his whole body think? 
Apparently, the entire body of the poet speaks through this gem-like prismatic work.
“Our dying is imperceptible” 
Our Stein dossier on the war years has two new pieces: a detailed study by Vaclav Paris of Stein's aborted translations of Pétain, which ended about the time the FDR administration broke relations with Vichy, and a thoughtful response to the article by noted Stein scholar Leon Katz.