Daniel Paul Schreber

Daniel Paul Schreber

Daniel Paul Schreber.

Daniel Paul Schreber (25 July 1842 – 14 April 1911) was a German judge who suffered from what was then diagnosed 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).[1] The Memoirs became an influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Sigmund Freud.[2] 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 1
  • Freud's interpretation and its criticisms 2
  • Schatzman's interpretation 3
  • In popular culture 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

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. He believed his primary psychiatrist, Prof. Paul Flechsig, had contact with him using a "nerve-language" of which Schreber said humans are unaware. He believed that hundreds of people's souls took special interest in him, and contacted his nerves by using "divine rays", telling him special information, or requesting things of him. During one of his stays at the Sonnenstein asylum, he concluded that there are "fleeting-improvised-men" in the world, which he believed were souls that temporarily resided in a human body, by way of a divine miracle.[3]

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 and its criticisms

Although Freud never interviewed Schreber himself, he read his Memoirs and drew his own conclusions from it. Freud thought that Schreber's disturbances resulted from repressed homosexual desires, which in infancy were oriented at his father and brother. Repressed inner drives were projected onto outside world and led to intense hallucinations which were first centred on his physician Dr. Flechsig (projection of his feelings towards brother), and then around God (who represented Schreber's father, Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber). During first phase of his illness Schreber was certain that Dr. Flechsig persecuted him and made direct attempts to murder his soul and change him into a woman (he had Emasculation hallucinations). In the next period of ailment he was convinced that God and the order of things demanded of him that he must be turned into a woman so that he could be the sole object of sexual desire of God. Consideration of the Schreber case led Freud to revise received classification of mental disturbances. He argued that the difference between paranoia and dementia praecox is not at all clear, since symptoms of both ailments may be combined in any proportion, as in Schreber's case. Therefore, Freud concluded, it may be necessary to introduce a new diagnostic notion: paranoid dementia, which does justice to polymorphous mental disturbances such as those exhibited by the judge.

Freud's interpretation 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 is a part of their wider criticism of familial orientation of psychoanalysis and it 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 and one of his écrits "On a Question prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis" are 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 can be seen as analogous to 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. Similarly, the "freezing miracle" might mirror 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. However, Schatzman's theory has been challenged by Zvi Lothane.[4]

In popular culture

  • Roberto Calasso's first book, and only novel, L'impuro folle, is about Schreber.
  • In the 2006 film Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Daniel Paul Schreber is portrayed by Jefferson Mays and is based on Schreber's 1903 journal of the same name.
  • A character of the same name appears in the 1998 film Dark City, played by Kiefer Sutherland.
  • The 2011 docudrama film, Shock Head Soul follows Schreber's demise and later life.
  • In Jenny Davidson's The Magic Circle: A Novel (2013), Lucy uses Memoirs of My Nervous Illness as a text for the seminar she is teaching on "Madness and Literature."
  • The song "Dementia Praecox" from the 2014 album White Deer Park by Papa vs Pretty is about Daniel Paul Schreber.


  1. ^ Schreber, Daniel Paul (1903). Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. New York: New York Review of Books, 2000.  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Schreber, Daniel Paul (1903). Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. New York: New York Review of Books, 2000.  
  4. ^ Zvi Lothane, In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry,  


  • 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 theorists 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.
  • Erin Labbie & Michael Uebel: “We Have Never Been Schreber: Paranoia, Medieval and Modern,” in The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory. Ed. Andrew Cole & D. Vance Smith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 127-58.
  • Jacques Lacan: 'The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III, 1955-56' Routledge (ISBN 0-415-10183-2). An analysis of Schreber's Memoirs.. in the context of Freud's analysis. "..Psychosis is a special but emblematic case of language entrapment.."
  • —————: 'On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis', Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, transl. by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
  • Eric Santner: My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber's Secret History of Modernity (ISBN 0-691-02627-0)
  • Morton Schatzman: Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family (ISBN 0-394-48148-8)

External links

  • A repository of further reading related to Schreber's case and subsequent publishings in philosophy, psychology and literature.
  • Daniel Paul Schreber: A Guide to Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. An introduction to Schreber's work.
  • Discussion of Schreber