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In Schreber's case: an exploration of psychotic anxiety

The Letter, Issue 6, Spring 1996, Pages 99 - 109


Patricia McCarthy

I want to begin by showing you a photograph of Paul Schreber as a young man,[1] probably in his early thirties, before his marriage and before the suicide of his brother Gustav. This is to put you at your ease by showing you that Schreber, whose account of his madness is difficult to approach for all of us, once looked like that. As you can see, he was a handsome man, correct and conventional in his dress who didn't look mad. We can relate to an image like this, much less so than to the character described thus at the height of his stay at the Sonnenstein asylum: 'Conduct unchanged. Often naked in his room before a mirror, laughing and screaming, adorned with gaily coloured ribbons'.[2] So what brought about this terrible change? It’s a very big question. Yet we must try to take our bearings.

The paranoic completely subverts our notion of a unified subject, of what is inside and what is outside. As we conduct our affairs at the level of the social agency which is our ego, we by and large take as given our sense of unity, of autonomy. We have a sense of identity, - separate from our fellows, we are more or less at home with our specular image. There is an inside and an outside. This notion of inside and outside was first developed for us by Charles Melman in his talk on paranoia,[3] when he described the representation of space for the subject of consciousness as Euclidian, a closed system where the surface is the cut. Though this is our spontaneous way of thinking, when we take the simple topological entity of the moebius strip, we are introduced to a continuous surface. Here there is no cut and so there is a confusion between what is inside and outside. This surface of the moebius strip challenges us to re-order our representations of space and in so doing, we can begin to think about anxiety and the paranoic.

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