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 Schrebers 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.