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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 117-152

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Pathologies of Communication from Coleridge to Schreber

Celeste Langan

As if the passive page of a book, by having an epigram or doggrel tale impressed on it, instantly assumed at once loco-motive power and a sort of ubiquity, so as to flutter and buzz in the ear of the public to the sore annoyance of the said mysterious personage.

—S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

As if we don't, all of us, all the time, have visions, as if we are never in the grip of little phrases that pop into our heads.

—Jacques Lacan, Third Seminar: The Psychoses

Coleridge has for so long been charged with plagiarizing seminal texts of German philosophy that it is perhaps time to return the favor, and to contend that a book written some one hundred years after the second part of Christabel was composed—Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—is merely an extended prose footnote to Coleridge's poem. 1 Or rather, I should say, it might be annexed to Christabel in fulfillment of Coleridge's own intention to publish the poem "with two Essays annexed to it, on the Praeternatural—and on Metre." 2 Think of those "preternatural" issues and themes that have drawn critical attention in commentary on [End Page 117] Christabel—sounds and visions of dubious origin, spiritual possession, a family curse, and, of course, a scene of transgender or homosexual seduction—and we may find their equivalent in Schreber's Memoirs. 3 Schreber, a distinguished German judge whose descent into psychosis is first marked by a feeling—ambiguous product of a dream or waking thought—that "it really must be rather pleasant to be a woman succumbing to intercourse" (46), develops the auditory and visual hallucinations of a paranoid schizophrenic. He conjectures that his "communication with supernatural powers," which began the day his psychiatrist, Professor Flechsig, having attempted to take spiritual possession of Schreber's soul, could no longer "look me straight in the eye" (53) (when he looked at him, so to say, askance), 4 is a consequence of a family curse: "Something had happened perhaps between earlier generations of the Schreber and Flechsig families which amounted to soul murder" (34). 5 So vivid are his hallucinations or communications that he becomes temporarily convinced that those around him are not "real human beings" but what he calls "fleeting-improvised-men" (117). His supernatural communications, moreover, take a peculiar form: voices force him to repeat their speeches, and God, not understanding the nature of human thought (having had contact only with dreamers and corpses) assumes that everything Schreber thus recites represents his own thoughts. Finally, he reports the gradual degeneration of the language of the voices into a virtual hiss—a hiss produced by what he calls "miracled birds." The strategies he develops to drown out this unwelcome noise include everything we might think of as referenced in Christabel's conclusion.

Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together
Words so all unlike each other;
To mutter and mock a broken charm,
To dally with wrong that does no harm.
Perhaps 'tis tender too and pretty
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity (666–72). 6

Schreber reports distracting the birds with slant rhymes, using a metronome, and disrupting their meaningless "phrases learnt by rote" with an interjective bellow. He even attempts to counter their incessant regularity homeopathically by silently reciting ballads by Schiller and Goethe, among [End Page 118] others, remarking that "their value as poetry naturally does not matter; however insignificant the rhymes, even obscene verses are worth their weight in gold compared to the terrible nonsense my nerves are otherwise forced to listen to" (203).

But what leads me to propose that we read the Memoirs in place of the two projected essays on the preternatural and meter is something more than this series, nearly systematic, of formal and thematic resonances. 7 Nor is it merely the fact that Romantic poetry—especially Byron's Manfred—seems to have...


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