Poeta Schizophrenia: Ernst Herbeck

February 12, 2007 at 8:31 am | Posted in Austria, Literature, Posts in German | 15 Comments
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NavratilA private literature evening drew my attention to the poetry of Ernst Herbeck, an Austrian (1920-1991) who suffered from schizophrenia and was being cared for four 40 years in Gugging, a mental institution in lower Austria. The psychiatrist Leo Navratil, in order to establish a connection to the very withdrawn Herbeck, began to set him creative tasks, and it was the area of poetry in which he excelled, although he never read any poetry himself after he had left school at 15. Here is an interview with Navratil (1921-2006) (yes, it’s English) which was also the source for the image on the right. Shocking: There is no Wikipedia entry on Herbeck, neither in German or English!

I’d like to post two poems here which I’ve posted before at the Cerebral Jetsam blog. They are taken from the last collection of Herbeck’s work, published in 1994 and edited and prefaced by Navratil, Im Herbst da reiht der Feenwind. Gesammelte Texte, published by Residenzverlag, Salzburg. Get it while it’s still available – none of Herbeck’s book was an overwhelming sales success, but sooner or later, they were all sold out.

(scroll down for a translation)

Die Männer.

Die Männer haben ein starkes Herz.
Sie fahren in der Gesellschaft.
Sie führen sich selbst. Die Männer verlieben sich schwerst. Sie weisen das Leben ab. Sie haben auch einen starken Bart. Die Männer sind müde. Sie rasieren sich lieber mit einem Philishave 3m. Die Männer haben keinen Feind.

Die Frauen.

Die Frauen, die sind hübsch. Die Frauen haben gute Ohren, und sehen sehr gut. Die Frauen sind nicht so dumm. Die Frauen ärgern sich. Die Frauen freuen sich über eine jede Kleinigkeit. Sie haben mehr Charme. Und sie giften sich auch mehr als die Männer.
Die Frauen überstürzen sich nicht, sie arbeiten.

I’ve tried a completely unauthoritative translation (I am no translator, and certainly not of poetry), if you have any suggestions, please let me know (in particular for “sich ärgern” und “sich über jede Kleinigkeit freuen”):

The men.

The men have a strong heart.
They ride in society.
They are guiding themselves. They fall in love the most deeply. They repel life. They have a strong beard, too. The men are tired. They prefer to shave with a Philishave 3m. The men have no enemy.

The women.

The women, they are pretty. The women have good ears, and a 20/20 vision. The women aren’t that stupid. The women get themselves worked up. The women delight in any little thing. They are more charming. And they rile themselves more than men.
The women don’t rush things, they work.

To me, the writing of Herbeck’s is strikingly (sometimes painfully) lucid. I think I need to get the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber too, as recommended by Jetsam.


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  1. this stuff reminds me of my favourite German-language author, Elfriede Jelinek. I’ve been trying to find an excerpt of ‘die liebhaberinnen’ online, but couldn’t. A similar brilliant Austrian writer was Thomas Bernhard. I’m sure you’ve read some of his stuff. I’ve only read ‘Das Kalkwerk’ but have always wanted to read more! He’s a genius.

  2. First: wow, I feel kinda bad now., Elfriede Jelinek was a visiting lecturer at our university’s German Department this last year and I failed to make it to ANY of the lectures. I never even had a good reason beyond: “well, it’s cold and I have a book to read.” Asche auf mein Haupt.
    Also, in respect to the poetry: why does it seems as though schizophrenia enables writers to in fact produce works of shocking honesty and lucidity? Does this mean that one of the nice things about schizophrenia is the ironic ability to have “moments of clarity” that “sane” people cannot enjoy? Apart from the troubling gender politics voiced here, the poems nevertheless probably function as a more honest and accurate mediation of actual social forces than many loftier exploratins of the problem.
    And: why does this all remind me on some level of Herbert Groenemeyer? (sorry–this is not intended to be mean or derogatory!) : )

  3. Asche auf dein Haupt, indeed! Eimerweise! But these things happen. When you live in a big city, you’re missing out on something on a daily basis. And if Elfriede came to f***ing ole Dornbirn where I live, I probably wouldn’t go either, simply because everybody else would go (but with Elfriede, we don’t have to be afraid that she’d ever come here, anxiety-inducing as this tiny community is 🙂

    I suppose that schizophrenics have these moments of clarity, but I doubt that they are actually able to appreciate them as clarity. Maybe ideology can simply not extend into the realm of schizophrenia to cloud their eyes – and that probably makes their existence the hardest of all. Herbeck, for examples, thought he was controlled via a hypnosis, first by a girl he hardly knew but who he “knew” was in love with him and who allegedly sent him instructions in Morse-code through a medium he couldn’t identify. He responded using hick-ups as a signal (more accurately: his body forced a response on him). Later on, past late puberty, he felt controlled by men, “Das Denken des Vaters ist so scharf” (the father’s thinking is so sharp), it caused him headaches.

    I can imagine that a reality, in which the thought of the patriarch are so sharp to cause pain, has a lot of insights into the workings of patriarchy to offer.

    I wonder why this is reminding you of Grönemeyer! Hmm, maybecause of the song Männer? Actually, if you imagine the Männer verse sung by Grönemeyer, Bochum style, the result is pretty convincing!

  4. All of this reminds me that I’ve been itching to read Philip K. Dick, whom I’ve been told suffered schizophrenia.

    Is “suffered” the right verb? May be that certain “illnesses” coded as “pathological” teach us things that we otherwise don’t see, as I think anaj is usefully suggesting above.

    A friend has a theory of anorexia that works similarly. It is not pro-anorexia, it simply suggests that alternate epistemologies (and the pain that attends them) can teach us things about where that pain comes from–that is we begin to feel the limits of the ideological field–and the result is always a violence that is contained by terms like “schizophrenic” and “anorexic”.

    I’m not doing justice to K’s article, which unfortunately is under review and not yet available online, but it’s really interesting work.

    Sorry to tease…

  5. Is K your friend with the anorexia theory? I think that any mental illness can teach use a lot – does your friend know when anorexia first cropped up, btw? Around Freud’s times, hysteria was a common diagnosis in women. These days, eating disorders seem to be the most typically feminine mental illness.

    It’s interesting to observe in myself that I am hesitant to look at anorexia as an alternate epistomology, but believe at the same time that schizophrenia can be very revealing as such. But that’s easily explained, considering that I was a teenager/young adult with eating disorders myself. Also from that perspective: “suffering” is definitely the right word, as I don’t think that there is any anorexic/bulimic who would prefer to keep the disease of she had the choice between disease and iinstant recovery.

    I finished reading the biographical chapter in the book I mentioned above. Here is a letter that Herbeck wrote in 1965, i.e. at the age of 45, which clearly shows that he was suffering under his condition and still hoping for recovery:

    Sehr geehrter Herr Doktor und Professor,

    Ich, Ihr ergebener Ernst Herbeck, möchte, daß ich endlich operiert werde. Holen Sie mich durch drei Ihrer Beamten ab. Ich wohne am Haschhof (Abteilung 12), Kierling Gugging.

    I, your loyal Ernst Herbeck, would finally like to have surgery. Have me fetched by three of your officials. I live at Haschhof (department 12), Kierling Gugging.

    (sort of)

  6. K is my friend with the theory about anorexia. The theory is more concerned with what is learned from inhabiting a position, any position–for example refusing to be a single person’s sexual property and the multiform grief attendant upon having to explain to a world that finds female sexuality always already dangerous that there is in fact something sick about being confined to one person, to the reificication of persons as property–that society codes as deviant, sick, or aberrant.

    In other words, if I can borrow your characterization of eating disorders as a most typically feminine illness, K’s theory would suggest something like: a person who is suffering from anorexia is also going to be subject to an understanding of the world that tells her she has a typically feminine illness–which gives other people a kind of handle for how to understand her in the world–a handle that is painful and limiting.

    She is not just Jennifer, say, but Jennifer with a typically feminine eating disorder. And it doesn’t matter particularly whether the world knows about Jennifer’s eating disorder. Jennifer knows how it feels to knoe that the world does not approve and she must behave in some clandestine fashion.

    Or maybe not. K’s article is largely concerned with pro-anorexia web sites. These sites create a kind of community for people who inhabit a possibly similar epistemological ground. K is not staking out a position on anorexia–which clearly causes enormous suffering–her larger point is about how inhabiting a space that society calls pathological (anorxia, women’s sexuality) teaches you things about what threatens that society.

    She wouldn’t suggest that an anorexic/bulimic would prefer to keep the disease to learn things. You can see though how someone with an alternate sexuality might. The anorexic/bulimic is taught that there is something wrong with her, not the society that punishes and rewards her for her eating disorder–and that is the point. The anorexic/bulimic is in a different position to understand by way of how that feels, how that reward/punishment works.

    Rather than blaming people for their “pathologies,” K’s work seeks to understand the ways that a society who has to label certain people as “sick” or “deviant” has failed to adequately diagnose itself. People who have certain disorders can see this more clearly because it hurts. It’s not to valorize their disorders, but to learn from them how capitalism profoundly mutilates people.

    Sorry to go on at such length. K might know, though I don’t, when anorxia first cropped up. She set, and this in many ways is typical of her, when she was first a grad student, the goal of reading through all of freud, which, and this is also typical of her, I think she accomplished. Penguin has been issuing new tranlsations of Freud and I’ve been meaning to get around to reading them, but so far haven’t. I do recall one volume in particular having “hysteria” in the title. Actually Freud in this connection is quite interesting. Do you know what he has to say about hysteria? It may be sometime before I find time sufficient to read him.

  7. BTW: I appreciate Herbeck’s instruction to send 3 officials. 2 might not cut it.

  8. Thanks for going at at such lenght 🙂 Herbeck’s request of three is indeed extra charming 😀

    Btw, as we both used the compound anorexia/bulimia – while both are eating disorders, I cannot think of a more fundamental difference than the one between the two positions (I am going to use the term now). I was in the bulimia camp, and met a couple of anorexics through therapy and they scared me to the bone.

    Of course I perceived them through the bulimia spectacles, meaning that I secretly admired the will and relentlessness they could muster, whilst at the same time being shocked by exactly that mercilessness. I can remember having a conversation with another bulimic years ago, and we agreed that the two positions might have similar origins, but where diametral in their direction.

    I also remember another encounter just a few years later, when I went to the campus gym for aerobics classes, where one or two anorexics (not befriended or acquainted) used to attend, too. That also shocked me deeply, seeing those bony girls working out harder than anybody else in the room. I was nearly grateful that I’d caught bulimia and not anorexia. The girls reminded me of martyrs, without a king or country, and I guess that this impression wasn’t so wrong. The position of the martyr combines exactly that, punishment and reward in one.

    I don’t want to bore everybody with my insistence on abstaining from consumerism, nevertheless I think that there is a link between consumption and eating disorders. It would occur to me as though the position of anorexia is one of regaining control through the refusal of consumption (and the punishment of isolation – an anorexic, unless on a catwalk, sticks out in every group; and everybody who has ever had a problem with eating can sense their energy right away). Bulimia, one the other, means to resort to exactly the opposite, i.e. binge eating as a form of over-the-top, excessively flamboyant consumption, whilst trying to evade the seemingly negative side-effects (putting on weight), and the punishment being shame, but not isoloation. Whilst the disorder itself is difficult to hide from the people immediately around you and is, as a practice, terribly embarassing (unless you live alone of course), one can hardly tell from your body.

    In that sense, anorexics and bulimics are the symptoms of disease on the sick body of consumer society.

    I find the comparison between deviant sexuality and eating disorders not 100% plausible, precisely because a disorder is experienced as something that is beyond the individual’s control – which, I would argue, does not apply to female (even promiscuous) sexuality, although the image of the femme fatale would like to have it that way.

    Regarding hysteria, I am not so sure whether Freud still used this label, maybe he did away with it or contributed to its correction – I’d like to refer you to the article on Wikipedia, although I think that article is problematic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_hysteria

  9. ich hoffe, du hast mich bei diesem abend als schizophrenen autor vorgestellt. das würde nicht der wahrheit entsprechen, obwohl ich ja so gerne irre wäre.

  10. nee, das hab ich leider nicht gemacht :-))) ich hab dich im nachinein als CVD vom TRL vorgestellt, und das fanden die zuhörer extra klasse in kombination weil deine gedichte haben hervorragend zu der reihe schizophrener dichtung gepasst 😀

  11. btw harvey, do you have a blog?

  12. No, I don’t have a blog, but I appreciate your asking. Something about the demand of an empty field feels tyrannical, whereas responding to posts by jetsam and yourself seems less obligatory, more a delight.

    On the downside, whatever I happen to be thinking about and or repressing tends to come out in response to others’ posts and I worry that I’m insufficiently attentive to the interesting points that they are making. This inattention is a problem with masculine speech generally. and apparently, text, and so…that’s a long mildly congratulatory way of saying that maybe I need to get a blog so that I can pay attention to other people. 🙂

    I think you’re exactly right when you note that anorexics and bulimics are the symptoms of disease on the sick body of consumer society. A fine sentence. Through the symptom (whose humanity the terms “bulimic” and “anorxic” in some ways contains) we can read the etiology of sick consumer society–and the bulimic or anorexic is in a particular position, as analyst–should we choose to listen to her or him, and not just analysand or patient. I’m beginning to think of this in terms of the body the enlightenment seeks to repress, what Lacan (?) calls das Ding.

    I appreciate by the way (and I hope this won’t sound banal) your sharing your personal experience with bulimia. I’m aware of the way this discourse works as a kind of meta-narrative (in other words, we’re talking about what people who have experienced bulimia and anorexia can see–or rather it occurs to me that you’re actually telling me what you saw–and so my language actually estranges or makes a metaphor of your experience. It feels paltry to offer that I was mildly anorexic in high school. I’m not here trying to qualify as analyst–merely offering something personal so that I’m not the voice without body in this discourse. Know what I mean?

    By the way, the distinction you make between deviant sexuality and eating disorders being differences relevant to control is, I think, worth noting–but also perilous in the sense that “control” is always such a relative term. I wouldn’t suggest that people have no control over their sexuality–but that instead the shape of control is controlled. In this way we arrive back at the sick consumer society and the way that both alternate sexualities and bulimic and anorexic people consume and are consumed in one hegemonic capitalist combine.

    Thank you also for the hysteria link. I’m now going to check it out!

  13. I must go to bed now and as I’m travelling tomorrow and want to be fit – which is meant as an apology that I won’t have time to write a response – Johnny Malmedy http://jomalm.wordpress.com/2007/02/09/la-mort-cest-la-domaine-de-la-foi/ should be able to relate whether Das Ding was Lacanian thought or not, but he’s probably gone to bed already. I know what you mean by offering something personal so not to be the voice without body … control is a relative term, and I am aware that ‘we are spoken’ more often than we actually speak (or, if you want to, fucked more often than we fuck, although that leads to comic connotations 😉 … I had that particular feeling of being out of control imposed by a disorder in mind – and it’s true that many people with disorders (eating, anxiety, what have you) are often relieved when they are diagnosed, i.e. almost happy about knowing what controls them… in the same way, the thought of being controlled by a sexual drive might be a relief to some – but then it’ usually assigned to our ‘animal nature’ and not a pathological condition….

    As you can see, I am equally inclined to responding at length, even when I just wanted to apologize for not doing it 😀


  14. No need at all for an apology. Appreciate you response–and am still chuckling at the images fucked more often than we fuck brings to mind. Major professor…
    well, never mind…

    Safe travels! Will check out Johnny Malmedy (again, thank you!)


  15. If you ever want to read a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this post for 4/5. Decent info, but I have to go to that damn google to find the missed pieces. Thanks, anyway!

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