Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is well known and extensively commented upon. From Freud’s initial analysis of his case, finding its cause in a supposed repressed homosexuality, to Lacan’s, to Deleuze and Guattari’s reading, to Canetti’s placement of his illness in the social conditions of a proto-fascism, to the lengthy debates about whether or not his father’s devices and childhood ‘corrections’ were to blame, to Santner’s more recent exploration of both Schreber and Freud through the lens of the memoirs there has been no shortage of attempts to find the causes of Schreber’s madness. Yet, there has not been, to the best of my knowledge, what we might call a ‘realist’ reading of Schreber’s illness–one that would draw on any of the recent and diverse streams of thought that look towards materialism, actors, networks, etc. to explain complex phenomena (of course recognizing that these approaches are not reducible to a single one–the point is that none of them seem to offer a reading of Schreber; perhaps that is not surprising since aside from a few notable examples [e.g. Levi-Bryant] little of this work takes up the question of psychoanalysis).
Thus, I attempt to offer such a reading and explanation here. Schreber mentions in passing that upon being promoted to president of the Superior Court in Dresden he began taking sodium bromide to deal with the stress of the new job and aid in his sleep. Several months later the pyschosis he describes in the memoirs (he recounts a previous bout of nervous illness nearly a decade earlier that had been navigated successfully) begins in earnest. Sodium bromide is rarely used any more as it is now known to often result in psychosis (at one point it is believed bromism resulted in 5-10% of psychiatric hospital admissions); thus it seems reasonable to speculate that the ‘true’ material cause of Schreber’s illness was in fact bromism.
I will leave it to the reader to determine the extent to which sodium bromide alleviates our interest in or need for all of the other accounts of Schreber’s illness with their preference for psychoanalytical, cultural, social and political explanation. Either way, it will hopefully be recognized how deeply realist and materialist this speculation is (and in its brevity how it could be appropriated to a variety of strands of new/speculative realism/materialism). Moreover, a quick google search for “daniel paul schreber ‘bromism'” returns exactly zero results further suggesting the novelty of this observation and explanation. In the infamous words of Jeb Bush: Please Clap!