Daniel Paul Schreber

Daniel Paul Schreber (25 July 1842 - 14 April 1911) was a German judge who suffered from what was then diagnozed as dementia praecox. He described his second mental illness (1893-1902), making also a brief reference to the first illness (1884-1885) in his book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (original German title Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken). The Memoirs became one of the most influential books in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Sigmund Freud. There is no personal account of his third illness (1907-1911), but some details about it can be found in the Hospital Chart (in Appendix to Lothane's book). During his second illness he was treated by Prof. Paul Flechsig (Leipzig University Clinic), Dr. Pierson (Lindenhof), and Dr. Guido Weber (Royal Public Asylum, Sonnenstein).

Schreber's Experiences

Schreber was a successful and highly respected judge until middle age when the onset of his psychosis occurred. He woke up one morning with the thought that it would be pleasant to "succumb" to sexual intercourse as a woman. He was alarmed and felt that this thought had come from somewhere else, not from himself. He even hypothesized that the thought had come from a doctor who had experimented with hypnosis on him; he thought that the doctor had telepathically invaded his mind.

As his psychosis progressed, he believed that God was turning him into a woman, sending rays down to enact 'miracles' upon him, including little men to torture him.

Schreber died in 1911, in an asylum.

Freud's Interpretation

Although Freud never interviewed Schreber himself, he read his Memoirs and drew his own conclusions from it. Freud thought that Schreber wanted to be turned into a woman so that he could be the sole object of sexual desire of God (who represented Schreber's father, Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber).

This view has been contested by a number of subsequent theorists, most notably Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their work Anti-Oedipus and elsewhere. Their reading of Schreber's Memoirs foregrounds the political and racial elements of the text; they see Schreber's written experience of reality abnormal only in its honesty about the experience of power in late capitalism. Elias Canetti also devoted the closing chapters of his theoretical magnum opus Crowds and Power to a reading of Schreber. Finally (though by no means exhaustively), Jacques Lacan's Seminar on the Psychoses is predominantly concerned with reading and evaluating Schreber's text over-against Freud's original and originating interpretation.

Schatzman's Interpretation

In 1974, Morton Schatzman published Soul Murder, in which he gave his own interpretation of Schreber's psychosis. Schatzman had found child-rearing pamphlets written by Moritz Schreber, Daniel Schreber's father, which stressed the necessity of taming the rebellious savage beast in the child and turning him into a productive citizen. Many of the techniques recommended by Moritz Schreber were mirrored in Daniel Schreber's psychotic experiences. For example, one of the "miracles" described by Daniel Schreber was that of chest compression, of tightening and tightening. This mirrored one of Moritz Schreber's techniques of an elaborate contraption which confined the child's body, forcing him to have correct posture at the dinner table. The "freezing miracle" mirrors Moritz Schreber's recommendation of placing the infant in a bath of ice cubes beginning at age 3 months.

Daniel Paul Schreber's older brother, Daniel Gustav Schreber, committed suicide in his thirties.

Dark City

A character named Daniel Paul Schreber appears in the film Dark City. Portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland, the Schreber in the film is not, however, a judge, as was the historical Schreber but rather a doctor, ironically enough not unlike Doktor Paul Flechsig, the hostile focus of Schreber's delusion. While the film stops far short of confronting the truly unsettling implications of Schreber's account, and is more directly concerned with the status of cinematic film noir stereotypes than with the status of the everyday reality around us, nonetheless, it does echo the paranoid sense of the Memoirs that collectively-experienced reality (the "Big Other" in Lacan's phrase) is in fact malevolent and manipulative, and that its agency - the tuning aliens in the film, the forecourts of God in the Memoirs - cannot understand human subjectivity and the experience of an inner life. Moreover, there are clear parallels in the film with certain Schreberian notions, particularly the "fleetingly improvised men," the "poison of corpses" and the "lung worm."



  • Morton Schatzman: Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family (ISBN 0-394-48148-8)
  • Eric Santner: My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber's Secret History of Modernity (ISBN 0-691-02627-0)
  • Zvi Lothane: In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry (ISBN 0-88163-103-5)
  • W.G. Niederland: Schreber: Father and Son (1959, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 28:151-169). He basically came to same conclusion as Morton Schatzman.
  • Allison, David B. et al., "Psychosis and Sexual Identity: Toward a Post-Analytic View of the Schreber Case" (ISBN 0-88706-617-8). A collection of essays by theoreticians such as Michel de Certeau, Alphonso Lingis, Jean-François Lyotard, as well as several previously unpublished texts written by Schreber after the publication of the Memoirs.
  • Graeme Martin: 'Das Brullwunder: A new content analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs'. A reinterpretation of Schreber's 'Bellowing Miracle', (in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Aug. 2008)

External links

  • A repository of further reading related to Schreber's case and subsequent publishings in philosophy, psychology and literature.

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