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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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Chapter 2 The Flâneur’s Gaze



Höchst aufmerksam und liebevoll muß der, der spaziert, jedes kleinste lebendige Ding […] studieren und betrachten.1

– Robert Walser

Berlin in the first decade of the twentieth century represented an opportunity for a young and aspiring author like Robert Walser, a reality given voice in the story “Würzburg.” “Ich bilde mir ein, daß Berlin die Stadt sei, die mich entweder stürzen und verderben oder wachsen und gedeihen sehen soll,” he writes (SW 6: 49).3 Walser’s sojourn in Berlin, from 1905 to 1913, would indeed prove to be among his most productive and successful years on the market. All three novels published during his lifetime were written between 1906 and 1908. Three additional lost novels appear also to have been written in Berlin. However, despite his productivity and the support of such influential figures as Christian Morgenstern and Bruno Cassirer, Walser failed to earn enough money from his novels to support ←59 | 60→even a frugal lifestyle in the metropolis. In part in response to these economic pressures, he quite literally took to the street. Walser walked Berlin’s asphalt for inspiration and turned to the feuilletons of the city’s numerous newspapers for artistic expression and his daily bread.4 At this time, the ninety-three papers published weekly in the capital gave Berlin the greatest newspaper density of any city in Europe (Fritzsche 16–17). Walser was not lacking in fora.

Berlin was a teeming spectacle of energy and rippling motion....

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