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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 5 A Looming Break



So dürfte es vielleicht des öftern der Kunst und dem aufopfernden Bemühen eines Schriftstellers vorbehalten bleiben, dem achtlos und gedankenlos dahinflutenden Strom des Lebens Schönheitswerte, die eben am Ertrinken und Untergehen sind, mit Gefahr seiner Gesundheit zu entreißen.1

– Robert Walser

Klaus Conrad describes the experience of the Trema and the unreality vision with the language of an abyss. “I am falling out of this world” he records a patient saying (36). The world out of which the patient falls is of course not the physical world, but the social and meaningful world inhabited by others. “Ich falle aus dieser Welt heraus, bin nicht mehr in ihr eingebettet und geborgen. Und zwischen den Menschen, die mir begegnen, und mir hat sich ein Abgrund aufgetan” (36).2 This imagery underscores a point that is stressed in psychology, but which is equally important in Walser’s prose. Cognitive liberation, whether we discuss it in terms of reines Sein, the Trema, or the unreality vision, is fundamentally social. It necessarily implies a break from society and its rules.

Theorizing this cognitive disconnect is the project that both Blankenburg and Stanghellini carry out in their discussions of natural self-evidence and common sense. A patient of Blankenburg describes the loss of self-evidence as a loss of a socially shared mindset. “Jeder Mensch muß wissen, wie er sich verhält, hat eine Bahn, eine Denkweise. Sein Handeln, ←177 | 178→seine Menschlichkeit, seine Gesellschaftlichkeit, all...

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