Eliot Slater's Last Review

Review of: Freud on Schreber. Psychoanalytic Theory and the Critical Act.  Amherst, The University of Massachussets Press, 1982

Notes & Queries, Vol. 30, 6, December 1983

Mr. Chabot's aim is to persuade us that psychoanalysis is a technique with close kinship to literary criticism; furthermore that the studies of the literary critic require a substructure of well‑founded psychological theory, namely Freudian psychoanalysis. Both disci­plines, he says, are concerned with texts, i.e. strings of words. They are analogous and should engage in mutual dialogue. He makes his argument clear by an illustration ‑ his own psychoanalytic‑literary critique on Schreber's autobiographical account of a mental illness.

   Can Chabot's thesis be sustained? Literary criticism may concern itself with five (or more) different aspects of a literary text: (1) micro­structure (e.g. vocabulary, linguistic features); (2) macrostructure; (3) relationships (e.g. with sources, other works by the same or different authors); (4) message (moods, meanings, inter­pretations); (5) value (merit, stature, import­ance). The texts of the literary critic are public and accessible to all. Structure and relation­ships call for judgments which have an objective basis and are refutable. One critic can successfully challenge the judgments of another. When we come to the message and the merits, the critic's understanding remains personal and subjective, open to disagreement but not disproof. Mutatis mutandis much the same might be said of music and art criticism, but not of psychoanalysis. The strings of words which concern the psychoanalyst are as a rule private; and his judgments are privileged. Premisses, arguments and conclusions are not open to scrutiny or objection. This great difference from literary criticism means that, in the general case, Chabot's thesis cannot be sustained. However in Schreber's Memoirs we have a particular case where the text is public. Can we say that, here at least, Chabot stands on firm ground?

   Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness was written in German and published in 1903. Freud's 'Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)', also written in German, was published in 1911. Both Schreber's Memoirs and Freud's 'Notes' are available in English translation. Chabot says he has consulted the original German text of Memoirs, but he makes no use of it. Both for Schreber and for Freud he relies on the translations. Such lack of concern for originals is not in the tradition of literary criticism.

   Daniel Paul Schreber was Senatspräsident of the Dresden Court of Appeals. In middle life  (age not stated) he had two nervous break­downs, a mild one in 1884, and a second, much more severe, when from 1893 to 1902 he was in an asylum. In 1900 he wrote a detailed account of his extraordinary experiences. He was tor­mented by an endless succession of 'miracles', i.e. hallucinations, passivity feelings, primary delusional experiences, and distorted per­ceptions of his environment and his own body image. He believed he was being emasculated and turned into a woman in order to provide God with 'soul voluptuousness'. God had to be resisted. The conflict between God and Schreber was cosmic in scale and stretched across the starry vault of the heavens. Schreber, the lawyer, was victorious, because on his side he had the 'Order of the World'.

   For Chabot psychological developments must be part of a continuous 'cohesive' life. The interpretation of any part derives from an understanding of the whole. Unwisely, he leaves no room for accidents or pathology or disturbances of brain chemistry. Schreber's psychic saga is fascinating to read. But is Chabot's interpretation akin to literary criti­cism? The structure and relationships of Schreber's work are ignored. Its meaning is wholly mad. And for its merits we are referred to Freud's judgment: 'the wonderful Schreber, who ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director of a mental hospital'.