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Robert Walser: Unmoored

Schizophrenia, Cognition, and the Text


Charles Vannette

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.

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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...

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