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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 4 The Epiphany of Unreality



Alsdann ist Träumen für den Schauenden und Ankommenden eine längst vorbestimmte Sache. […] Er läßt sich dann, ohnmächtig und ergriffen, wie er ist, mehr von dem Tiefschönen anblicken, als daß er es selbst anschaut.1

– Robert Walser

The previous chapter discusses the central role in language production played by the loss of common sense, or the Verlust der natürlichen Selbstverständlichkeit, as Wolfgang Blankenburg first introduced it. The Italian psychologist Giovanni Stanghellini, whose concept of common sense is an expansion of Blankenburg’s natural self-evidence, calls Blankenburg’s book one of the “most wonderful and influencing books on schizophrenia ever published” (126). Certainly, many of the contemporary phenomenological approaches to schizophrenia would be unthinkable without Blankenburg’s contribution. Critical to its impact on language production is the crisis of social attunement and dis-socialization that a loss of common sense manifests in the hyperreflexive mind. As Chapter 3 discusses, the decontextualization of language is often the result.

Chapter 4 focuses on a correlative cognitive process that also stems from a loss of common sense. Whereas social systems and language production fracture upon the loss of common sense, so too can a change in the perception of the physical world arise, producing a visual experience of a phenomenal world that appears to splinter apart. Expressing itself as an all-encompassing doubt and pervasive relativism, skepticism consumes the hyperreflexive observer who questions even the most trivial phenomena ←139 | 140→of the physical...

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