Freud terminates the Schreber case history with the most interesting admission: “It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I would like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to admit.” Perhaps both these possibilities are true.
Freud, of course, uses Schreber’s memoir, the Denkwurdigkeiteneines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of a Neurotic) to illustrate his own theories. Rereading the Schreber case, I was struck by the similarities in the two voices: the doctor and the patient both given to us in the first person, the “I” narrator.
At times, our two narrators sound identical. The language, the style, and the education which lies behind them, even the ideas, expressed in the frank revelations, at least from the excerpts Freud gives us, are very similar. Indeed, Freud comments on this himself in an attempt to avoid being accused of plagiarism! “I can call a friend and fellow- specialist to witness that I had developed my theory of paranoia before I became acquainted with the contents of Schreber’s book.” (Freud, S., “Notes on a case of paranoia,” p. 79)
Freud even uses Schreber’s own words to explain why he feels free to use this confession in his publication: “I have been at no pains to close my eyes to the difficulties that would appear to lie in the path of publication and in particular to the problem of paying due regard to the susceptibilities of certain persons still living. I am of the opinion that it might well be to the advantage of science. . . . ”
However we read the text as though immersed in a strange mystery story or novella by Conan Doyle: Sherlock and his Watson, perhaps, though we are not quite sure which is which, engaged in dialogue, the one using the other’s words to prove his theories, rather than a scientific work. Indeed this case history like all the others has been used in novels, songs, docudramas and even made into a film.
There are of course some reasons why these two voices should sound so similar. They were written more or less at the same time: at the beginning of the twentieth century ( Freud’s text in 1911, and Schreber’s memoir in 1903) and in German. There are also real life and startling similarities between our two narrators. They were both doctors, distinguished men in their respective fields: medicine and law. In fact one might even say Schreber was more prominent and came from a considerably more prominent family.
The President Schreber was an eminent jurist, a candidate for the Reichstag — a handsome or, anyway, most distinguished looking man, who in his early forties enters the Sonnestein Asylum, recovers, and resumes his high position for several years before falling ill once again.
The jurist describes himself as “a man of superior gifts and endowed with an unusual keenness alike of intellect and of observation” (Schreber, Denkwurdigkeiten, p. 35) and Freud seems to concur. He is the son of a famous pediatrician, Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, a sort of nineteenth-century Dr. Spock, who had written widely on child-rearing practices and had a considerable influence on the youth of the day.
Freud, of course, too, had as a young man considered entering the law, but by 1911, he was already well known and well established after his trip to America, surrounded by disciples in the new and growing discipline of psychoanalysis.
Thus both these men came from respectable bourgeois families. They were apparently heterosexual or anyway married (though Schreber had no children of his own), obviously highly intelligent, well-educated, and cultured.
Indeed, they use similar literary illusions: like Freud, Schreber quotes from Goethe, Byron and Weber. Schreber like Freud drops into Latin from time to time when it is convenient.
Freud, himself comments on the similarities of their ideas, saying “He is constantly talking in the same breath of ‘neurotic states’ and sexual lapses, as though the two things were inseparable,” which is just what Freud is trying to prove here as elsewhere.
(Read the full article in the September volume of Boulevard)
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.