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Robert Walser: Unmoored

Schizophrenia, Cognition, and the Text

Series:

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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Chapter 1 Schizophrenia: The Clinic and the Critic

Extract

CHAPTER 1

Wer kann einer Seele sagen, woran sie erkrankt. Überlassen wir die zeitgemäße Beantwortung dieser Frage unsern Herren der Wissenschaft. Die haben’s Patent drauf.1

– Robert Walser

The history of modern psychiatry is, in fact, practically synonymous with the history of schizophrenia, the quintessential form of madness in our time.

– Louis Sass

Psychiatry and psychoanalysis dictated the treatment of schizophrenia in the west throughout the twentieth century. Accordingly, these two fields have shaped the way in which the western world views this most enigmatic of conditions. As Thiher notes in his history of madness, Emil Kraepelin and Sigmund Freud were the two most important and influential figures in the way madness was viewed over the past century (224). Since Kraepelin first described schizophrenia in 1893, the field of psychiatry has been inclined towards a medical, or organically based etiological understanding of its origins. Psychoanalysis has approached schizophrenia as a condition resulting from an unhealthy ego. The treatments promoted within these two fields, as well as the theoretical directions that they have taken in the century following Kraepelin and Freud, have been guided by these fundamentally different understandings of the condition.

Literary scholarship addressing Robert Walser’s diagnosis has often reflected the vacillating trends in these theories of schizophrenia, particularly the development of psychoanalytic and anti-psychiatric models. The zenith of this research in Walser scholarship was in the 1970s, when both approaches were at their most prominent (Horst 431)...

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