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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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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...

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