D. Harlan Wilson on the Literary Afterlife of Daniel Paul Schreber

D. Harlan Wilson

The Psychotic Dr. Schreber, the latest book from D. Harlan Wilson, is a nearly indescribable blend of unsettling fiction, historical rumination, and cultural criticism. It’s also an utterly gripping literary work, one that takes bold risks and makes incredible use of an unconventional structure. In revisiting the life of a man best-known for Sigmund Freud’s writing on his case, Wilson details the ways in which Schreber remains relevant today — and traces the way he’s left his mark on everything from medical history to popular culture. I talked with Wilson about the genesis of the book and its unexpected scope via email.

What was your first encounter with the life of Daniel Paul Schreber? And when did you first realize that you wanted to write about him? 

Alex Proyas’s Dark City introduced me to Schreber twenty years ago in 1999. The film is a loose science fictionalization of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, an autobiographical account of the German Judge’s schizophrenic breakdowns written between 1900 and 1902. I loved the film and wanted to write an article on it. During my research, I came across Freud’s famous 1911 case study, and I realized that a lot of literary critics and cultural theorists had referenced Schreber. Deleuze and Guattari’s depiction of him as a machinic body without organs was particularly compelling. In 2005, my article appeared in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. It was essentially a reading of how Proyas extrapolated Memoirs. Thereafter, Schreber started bleeding into my writing, especially the fiction. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I remain fascinated by the pragmatism, ease, and downright banality with which Schreber articulates the most nightmarish, surreal, bizarre phenomena, as if being raped by God and becoming a messiah is as ordinary as eating soup. Schreber’s madness was unique and dynamic, and that’s what drew me to him. I found myself unconsciously writing bits and pieces of his experiences into my stories and novels. Finally, around 2010 or so, I started to write a book on him. I didn’t know where it would go or what it would amount to, although I wanted the style to reflect the subject matter, and I felt like it needed to be an antioedipal schiz-flow, with chapters that could be read on their own, in and of themselves, or as a totality. There are a number of haiku in the book. Most of the chapters are straight fiction or nonfiction. Whatever the case, I treated each chapter like a poem, polishing every word and string of syntax, trying to create a certain cadence and rhythm. It took a long time. I kept putting the book aside to work on other projects. Finally, after I finished my monograph on J.G. Ballard for University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, I decided to work exclusively on the Schreber book. That was in 2017. It didn’t take long to finish, by then; it was more about organizing and further refining the prose, then finding a publisher who might take on this sort of thing. There’s hardly any place for genuine innovative writing in the twenty-first century—humanity gets dumber every year—we read less, and if we do read, we don’t want it to be difficult, challenging, too creative, too elusive, etc. I say “genuine” because what most publishers and editors think is innovative is idiotic, or its just riffing on high modernism. The Psychotic Dr. Schreber isn’t particularly “experimental.” I don’t mess around too much with syntax, style, or technique. I hate that shit: it’s all fluff and affect. Anyway, I was happy to hook up with Stalking Horse Press. They understood my vision and what I was trying to do. I’m thankful for people like them who remain committed to the lost art of literature.

One of the threads contained within your book is an exploration of Schreber as a Philip K. Dickian figure—when did that comparison first occur to you?

I started reading Philip K. Dick in 1997 when I was doing my M.A. in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. One of my professors assigned UBIK, I think. After that, I read all of his novels and stories, and I was equally interested in secondary criticism and books about PKD’s life. That’s typical—most people who love PKD’s fiction are just as interested in his biography. Like Schreber, I was drawn to PKD and felt a psychological affinity with him in terms of his imagination, anxieties, sense of humor, the worlds he built, and the character types he recycled. When I discovered Schreber, I noticed thematic correlations right away, primarily regarding the solipsistic, megalomaniacal disposition of some of PKD’s protagonists. Memoirs is a work of science fiction, too; Schreber depicts himself as a mechanized being, a Frankenstein monster constructed by the madness of his father and other symbolic patriarchs. This is a recurrent Phildickian theme.

How did you come up with the particular structure that you used for this book? 

I knew that much of the book would be composed of short, schized, aphoristic chapters. That was my only initiative. Sometimes I meticulously outline and scaffold writing projects. If nothing else, I usually have a decent idea of where I’m going and what the finished product will look like. For The Psychotic Dr. Schreber, there was no plan, no endpoint in sight. I didn’t even know how I was going to unpack the material. The first chapter, a sentence fragment, set the terms of my narrative course: “An oneiric stab.” This fragment derived from an illustration by Kafka, who I periodically cite and embed in the text.

Kafka illustration

Ultimately, I wanted to write in the dark, so to speak, and let the story find its own way to the light. I didn’t realize there would be so many layers. All of the chapters set in the numbered rooms, for instance, came much later and were inspired by a wealth of additional sources and experiences, including my own fictional autobiography. That’s why I say the book is not just about Schreber, but around Schreber.

You allude to a vast array of other works of art in here, from 2001 to the music of the Beastie Boys. How did you determine what to leave in and what to keep out?

Pop culture tends to leak into everything I write, and I certainly knew it would be a part of this book. Beyond that, I didn’t know what specific texts would appear, where they would appear, or how they would speak to the parade of other, seemingly dissimilar texts. At some point during the early writing stages, I did realize that I wanted to create a sense of timelessness, collapsing the past and the future, and showing how artifacts from real and imagined histories crystalized with unborn technologies, textualities, and ideologies. Technology is the lynchpin. If we trace technology back to its origin, we understand that it is both agential and ruinous—precisely as it is today. Actually, 2001 makes this very assertion when moon-watcher figures out how to use a bone to overpower his tribe’s rivals. The bone is a unit of low technology that is equated with the high technology of the nuclear-powered satellite in that famous jump-cut shot. The bone and the nuke are the same, though: transcendent and powerful; destructive and pathological.

This book is one of two recent works to revisit one of Freud’s case studies via experimental literature (the other being Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora: A Headcase). What would you say it is about these case studies that prompt new interpretations and revisions decades after they were first written?

One of the blurbs I received for my book was from Henry Zvi Lothane, whose In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry is among the best critical studies of Schreber’s life and work. The blurb begins with this proverb: “Schreber is forever.” Despite the fact that Schreber’s megalomania and solipsism are absolutely commonplace (if not cliché) symptoms of paranoid schizophrenics, there’s something special about the story he tells in Memoirs, something that transcends Freud’s “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” which initially ushered Schreber into the collective consciousness. Since then, his popularity has leaked from the realms of psychiatry and psychology into numerous other disciplines, including fiction, literary criticism, philosophy, and cultural theory. What is it that makes him so captivating and timeless? For me, it has to do with the sheer imaginative, innovative quality of Memoirs. Ideas erupt from every page, as if daring readers to do something with them. Memoirs is also a phenomenal comedy of errors. It’s not supposed to be funny—what Schreber experienced was horrific—but it’s so goddamn weird, so unhinged and fucked up, I can’t help but laugh. I guess I have a morbid sense of humor, but that’s one of the reasons for the more schticky parts of my book. Then again, mental illness in its most extreme forms can be comical, if only because it’s frightening to envision ourselves in that state. I tend to laugh at anything that induces anxiety and dread.

You touch on the film Dark City throughout the book. What role does the film play?

Yes, brief excerpts from the article that I published on Dark City appear in the book at random intervals, like detritus. In most cases, I revised the excerpts in order to produce certain effects. Sometimes I turn them into satirical bits. In general, I loosely stitch them together into the textual patchwork. One of my theses is that Schreber is a science fictional cyborg whose pathology signifies the degraded/upgraded subjectivity of the contemporary human condition, which is defined by hard technologies. My Dark City drops are intended to reify this thesis. In the broadest sense, what happens to the protagonist of the film, John Murdoch, is similar to what happens to Schreber in Memoirs, with the exception that Murdoch’s paranoia is validated in the end. Schreber suspects that the world is against him, but it isn’t—he’s psychotic. Murdoch suspects the world is against him, and it is. Proyas’s extrapolation is truly brilliant. I can’t think of a film that transmutes its source material with such finesse and raw creativity. Charlie Kaufman’s treatment of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief in Adaptation comes close.

We live at a time when people are discussing questions of gender and sexuality more and more. What qualities do you think Schreber’s life story has that speaks to this moment?

I have ideas about the current cultural climate, but my book wasn’t written with a conscious stance against, say, gender discrimination, or discrimination of any kind. Ironically, Schreber wrote Memoirs because he felt discriminated against by his doctors and the court—his book is largely a plea to demonstrate that he was of sound mind and didn’t need to be incarcerated anymore. At the same time, he wanted to provide specific details about his illness for the purpose of future clinical study. Another m.o. was to establish a new cosmology and religion; in effect, he portrayed himself as a messiah. Schreber as a surreal, sci-fi Jesus—this, perhaps, is the dominant refrain in The Psychotic Dr. Schreber. That said, Memoirs may be most relevant to contemporary concerns with sexuality in terms of Schreber’s transgender struggles and the ultraviolent fetishization of his body. Given the historical context, it’s remarkable that he was so frank about his conflicted desires to become a woman, or rather, to allow God to transform him into a woman—it’s probably the main reason people thought he was crazy. Freud, of course, concluded that he was gay, that his psychoses were symptoms of repression, etc., etc., but he is far more complicated and dynamic than that, as many issues with sexuality tend to be. Negative reactions to sexuality—or anything, for that matter, especially when somebody gets really hot-headed—are almost invariably about an individual’s personal insecurities and anxieties rather than the issue itself. At least there’s more dialogue today. The further we go back in history, the less dialogue of this nature there is. We could say that Schreber was ahead of his time. Madness may have enabled his mouthpiece, but the mouthpiece works. It’s not by chance that Memoirs is the most written-about text in psychiatric literature.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.