Robert Walser: Unmoored

Schizophrenia, Cognition, and the Text

by Charles Vannette (Author)
Monographs XII, 300 Pages
Series: German Life and Civilization, Volume 71


Pathology. Psychosis. Schizophrenia.
These words often prove inseparable from the life and work of Robert Walser, who retreated to the sanatoria of Switzerland with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In so doing, he came to embody our romantic image of the outsider, perhaps more fully than any other German-language writer of the twentieth century.
This book takes Walser’s 1929 diagnosis as its point of departure and provides a cognitive study of the author’s writing. Clinical models of schizophrenic cognition from phenomenological psychology guide the analysis, and the book illustrates that underneath Walser’s literary production there is a cognitive process that is marked by the psychological concepts of hyperreflexivity and a loss of common sense. The book addresses four primary elements of Walser’s writing, including his flâneur texts, his singular prose, moments of stasis and epiphany in his writing, and the sense of psychological jeopardy that appears repeatedly in his work. This study proposes a new aetiology for Walser’s prose, one rooted in uncommon cognition. At the same time, it offers a bridge between two trends in Walser scholarship: one which has focused on his hospitalization and diagnosis of schizophrenia, and another that has stressed his unique literary style.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Schizophrenia: The Clinic and the Critic
  • Chapter 2 The Flâneur’s Gaze
  • Chapter 3 Particular Prose
  • Chapter 4 The Epiphany of Unreality
  • Chapter 5 A Looming Break
  • Chapter 6 Moored
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index of Walser’s Works
  • Index of Terms
  • Series index

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This book developed over multiple years thanks to the support and assistance of many people.

Thank you to Kai Hammermeister, John Davidson, Paul Reitter, and in particular Bernd Fischer in Columbus for their mentorship during its early development. Thank you as well to the team at Peter Lang, and to the reviewers and conference participants who have helped refine these pages.

I feel a special gratitude to Bernhard Malkmus for his shared interest in Walser and for the many hours of discussion and revising throughout the duration of this project. Without his continued counsel, this book would not have materialized. I am deeply grateful.

I am indebted to Jacob Schott for hundreds of proofread pages. His keen eye made me a better writer. Edward Larkin, Alex Holznienkemper, and my friends in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures provided me with the professional latitude to complete the project, and I am lucky to call them my colleagues. Essential, too, was the institutional backing of the University of New Hampshire. The financial support of the Faculty Fellowship in the Center for the Humanities was integral to the work’s completion.

At the core of this book is family. My parents, both of them educators, taught me that learning and teaching are two sides of the same coin. My youngest daughter Linnea embodies a freedom and confidence that I, on my best days, can only imitate. Jacob’s passion has shown me how to persevere in the face of strong headwinds. Jannik taught me loss and his memory was ever-present as I wrote these pages. From Emma, my unassuming warrior, I have learned how to get up from a punch and to reject the word “impossible.” And this book would be nothing if it were not for the patient encouragement, careful reading, love, balance, and inspiration of my brilliant wife and partner, Saskia. I have learned so much from all of you. Thank you.

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Ich frage mich, ob es unter denen, die ihr gemächliches, sicheres, schnurgerades akademisches Leben auf das eines Dichters bauen, der in Elend und Verzweiflung gelebt hat, einen gibt, der sich schämt.1

– Elias Canetti

Tun wir auch das Richtige?2

– Robert Walser

In 2006, the Robert Walser Archive in Zurich organized a four-city exhibition in remembrance of the fiftieth anniversary of the author’s death. Bernhard Echte, director of the archive from 1995 to 2006, had conceived of a series of installations pertaining to the author’s work and biography. These experiential rooms (“Erfahrungsräume”), as Echte describes them, encouraged visitors to inhabit six distinct stages in Walser’s life, simulating the experiences that influenced the author’s writing (“Robert” 198). One of the most striking and memorable features of the event lay scattered across the exhibition floor. Underfoot, museumgoers found many small scraps of paper, each one containing a quote from Walser. The exhibition invited visitors to stoop low to read them, and perhaps pick one up and take it home as a souvenir. Echte writes that these pieces of paper were meant to embody Walser’s ever-present literary voice in the exhibit (210).

The scraps themselves brought to mind Walser’s 526 snippets of paper, on which he had composed hundreds of short stories, poems, and even an ←1 | 2→entire novel in his now-famous microscript. Echte and Werner Morlang painstakingly transcribed the script and published the texts almost thirty years after Walser’s fatal heart attack on Christmas Day, 1956. These pieces of paper, some of them no larger than a business card, fill six full volumes of prose and poetry.

The papers that littered the exhibition floor in 2006, however, were not a direct reference to this most peculiar period in Walser’s creativity. Walser’s microscripts occupied their own installation in the gallery. The papers that cluttered the exhibition, rather, were ubiquitous and not limited to any single corner of the hall. What marked them as memorable was more than their sheer number. They appeared to struggle against the order and organization of an installment that was otherwise designed as a series of separate, experiential rooms. Papers spilled over from one period of Walser’s life to another, falling randomly into exhibit spaces, foot traffic kicking them up against walls and into the corners of rooms. They appeared pathological in their number and chaos.

Pathology. Psychosis. Schizophrenia. These words remain inseparable from the figure and work of Robert Walser. Indeed, the last installation of the 2006 exhibit addressed Walser’s hospitalization in the mental institution at Herisau. The exhibit’s final commentary, and the image that visitors took home with them, was that of institutionalization. A contemporary newspaper review in Neues Deutschland describes what the visitor saw, and, as with all subsequent citations in German, readers can find English translations in the footnotes: “Eine Installation, eher Metapher als konkrete Szene, kommt ohne Mobilar aus: das Krankenzimmer in Herisau, Walsers letzter Aufenthaltsort. Man blickt von außen hinein und sieht eigentlich nichts, alles ist weiß, leer und unergründlich, nur das Fenster gegenüber gibt den Blick frei auf hüglige Wiesen und Baumgruppen” (Bellin).3 Robert Walser accompanies Hölderlin and Lenz in the pantheon of “mad” German poets. Walser, this strange and reclusive man, who retreated to the sanatoria of ←2 | 3→his native Switzerland in 1929 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, seems to embody our romanticized image of the outsider, perhaps more fully than any other of his generation.

The reading public’s interest in Walser’s psychological state is reflected in the promotional strategies of publishing houses. This fascination is also apparent in much of his reception by other authors and artists, who may see in Walser the marriage of madness and genius. And secondary scholarship has long used the diagnosis of schizophrenia as the impetus for analyses along psychoanalytic, psychiatric, or schizoanalytic lines.

This book likewise engages directly with Walser’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, but it does not seek either confirmation or rejection. Rather, this study investigates the striking parallels between the so-called negative schizophrenic symptoms and cognition, as contemporary psychologists have theorized them, and Robert Walser’s texts and discussions of them in secondary literature. The following pages present a brief outline of relevant circumstances surrounding Walser’s institutionalization, including short discussions of his biographical profile, family history, hospital records, and the impact of the diagnosis on our image of him as an author. Walser’s hospitalization has helped shape how both scholars and the reading public view him. However, his manipulation of language, the structure of his prose, and the worlds that he created – all of it unique and captivating – may have also influenced our interpretation of his biography. Walser’s particular prose may have supported, or even suggested, madness, such that, once diagnosed as a schizophrenic, the label would stick and be difficult to remove. In other words, the tail may be wagging the dog.

Biographical profile

A discussion of Robert Walser and madness begins with the author and his encounters with those around him. To be sure, certain aspects of Walser’s personal behavior prior to his hospitalization in 1929 invite discussions of psychological issues. His private correspondence describes the ←3 | 4→experience of epileptic-like spells, during which the world would glimmer before his eyes (Briefe 326). These spells may have found their way into the author’s prose, as his biography so often did. The narrator of “Brief an die Geduldige” suggests that an epileptic fit, from which he repeatedly suffers, is the source of a curious undulation that shakes the bed in which he is lying (SW 18, 126–27).

In addition to “Brief an die Geduldige,” another clear reference to an epileptic spell appears in the novel Geschwister Tanner. Here, Klara lets out a brief cry and then falls to the ground.

In her altered state, Klara’s mutterings are predominantly of water. “Im Wasser, nein, sieh doch tief, tief. […] Es ist so schwarz und so schlammig um mich herum. […] Man sollte meinen, ich wäre ertrunken. […] Ich sehe die Fische schwimmen” (SW 8, 94–95).5 Gees reads Klara’s spell in the context of epileptic hysterical symptoms (167). Whether hysterical or not, Klara’s postictal visions of water and of drowning will reappear in other forms later in this study. The drowning sensation that she describes is experienced by Jakob von Gunten after his visions of the inner chambers. And they are present, too, for Joseph in Der Gehülfe, after his apparitions on the lake. In Walser’s writing, water and the threat of drowning often accompany the characters’ experience of an aura, whether it be postictal ←4 | 5→or fantastic, suggesting both a specific, altered visual quality to the experience and a danger to this atypical cognitive state.

Auras, like the glimmering world described in the author’s letter mentioned above, often precede both schizophrenic breaks and epileptic seizures (Sass, Madness 43). The intersection of schizophrenia and epilepsy has intrigued researchers in psychology and neurology since the late 1940s. Over the past five decades, a consensus among researchers has developed that a link between the two disorders indeed exists. Individuals with schizophrenia are at an increased risk for seizure disorders or epilepsy (Hyde 611). Toone notes that some forms of epilepsy may be risk factors for schizophrenia-like psychosis of epilepsy (SLPE), a disorder that resembles “schizophrenia in its phenomenological manifestations” (1). Further research demonstrates shared gray and white matter deficits in temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia, and some studies suggest that the lifetime risk of developing a psychiatric disorder in temporal lobe epilepsy may be as high as 60 percent (Sundram et al. 486, 482). Walser’s references to auras and seizures are not sufficient to uphold any psychiatric diagnosis on their own, but they may be the first pieces in a much larger puzzle.

A second piece may be those passages in Walser’s works that are incongruous with the rules of logic or the most fundamental qualities of human experience. In these moments, the narrators appear familiar with a schizophrenic “loss of ego boundaries separating self from world” (Sass, Madness 270–71). In “Brief an die Geduldige,” the narrator recounts a moment of breakdown: “Wenn ich beifüge, daß ich in solchen Momenten auf eigentümliche, aber auch einfache Art beinahe Staub, Mörtel, Erde werde, daß ich das ganz deutlich spüre, so werden Sie finden, daß ich Ihnen hier Unheimliches auftische” (SW 18: 127).6 The narrator perceives the body’s separation from the world as a certain process of disintegration, akin to Laing’s process of unembodiment (76). The body spins outwards and away from the self, fragmenting into ever-smaller pieces until indistinguishable from the external world. It becomes dust and earth without dying.

←5 | 6→

At other moments in Walser’s works, one wonders whether the author knew firsthand of the helplessness of an oncoming break:

The narration describes a futile battle with hallucinations and delusions. The language struggles to approximate the experience through contradiction: complete nothingness; stark invisibility; and an imagined, overwhelming attack. The internal conflict, as well as the opacity of its description, resonate with diagnostic descriptions of schizophrenia.

Walser also exhibited behavior that suggests negativism, a common behavioral manifestation of schizophrenia.8 A 1924 letter to Frieda Mermet describes his proclivity for “Chitti,”9 or his pleasure in altercation.10 “Das Schöne bei Chittinen” writes Walser, “ist, daß man im Stillen furchtbar darüber lacht” (Briefe 218).11 His quarreling nature was on particular display in his relations with other members of artistic circles, or in his encounters with more refined society. He taunted Franz Wedekind at a party thrown by Paul Cassirer. Enraged at a social event at Samuel Fischer’s ←6 | 7→home, he shattered the Enrico Caruso album playing on the gramophone. And upon meeting Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the first time, Walser asked him “Könnten Sie nicht ein wenig vergessen, berühmt zu sein?” (Mächler 105–07).12 Years later, while eating lunch in a fine hotel restaurant, Walser suddenly stood up from his chair and began flinging invectives at the diners around him. Seemingly shocked at his own outburst, Walser collected himself and sat back down to finish his meal (Mächler 209). In a letter, written one month later to Frieda Mermet, with whom he had been lunching, he wrote, “aber ich bin ja selber der gröbste Berner, den’s jemals gab […]” (Briefe 260).13 Walser also displayed puzzling outbursts of laughter in public spaces, a negative behavioral pattern associated with schizophrenia (Sauvat, Vergessene 288).14

We must be cautious, however, when drawing too close of a connection between the taunts and outbursts described above, and manifestations of schizophrenic negativism. These may simply represent the actions of a willful eccentric. Walser also drank, and drank heavily. “Aber ich ließ auch viel Alkohol durch die Gurgel fließen, so daß ich da und dort nicht mehr gern gesehen wurde,” he tells Seelig. “Was tut man nicht, wenn man einsam ist!” (75).15 The spontaneous quality to these confrontations may very well be attributable to the flush of intemperance.

Other provocations appear more calculated, however, and reveal a calm and collected individual who goes out of his way to act in strange and off-putting ways. For the object of Walser’s mockery, one imagines that these moments manifested a certain level of embarrassment or discomfort. Konsul Hauschild, the head of the Grethlein publishing house in Zurich, who had shown serious interest in Walser’s work, relates such an encounter. Walser had written a letter to Hauschild, informing him that he would like to arrange a meeting. The letter was signed by “Cäsar, Diener ←7 | 8→von Herrn Walser.”16 On the appointed day, Hauschild climbed to the top floor apartment in which Walser lived and was met at the door by a servant in shirtsleeves. Yes, my master Robert Walser will see you, Hauschild remembers the servant telling him. Asking him to wait briefly, Cäsar closed the door. The door opened again 2 minutes later. There stood the same man as before, this time wearing a jacket. I am Mr. Walser, he said (Mächler 158).

Moments like these grew the reputation of Walser as an oddity, and those who knew him repeatedly report encounters of a similar tenor. In a 1925 letter, Walser writes, “Eine Zeitlang hielt man mich hier für wahnsinnig und sprach laut in unseren Arkaden bei meinem Vorübergehen: er gehört in eine Irrenanstalt” (Briefe 240).17 This reputation would cling to him long after his death in 1956. In what has become part of a myth around this personality, we read in a 1968 entry in Max Frisch’s diary:

Jemand berichtet von einer verbürgten Begegnung zwischen Robert Walser und Lenin an der Spiegelgasse in Zürich, 1917, dabei habe Robert Walser eine einzige Frage an Lenin gerichtet: Haben Sie auch das Glarner Birnbrot so gern? Ich zweifle im Traum nicht an der Authentizität und verteidige Robert Walser, bis ich daran erwache – ich verteidige Robert Walser noch beim Rasieren. (11)18


XII, 300
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
Robert Walser Schizophrenia Cognitive Studies
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XII, 300 pp., 1 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Charles Vannette (Author)

Charles Vannette is an Assistant Professor of German at the University of New Hampshire.


Title: Robert Walser: Unmoored