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Interview with D. Harlan Wilson, by Jacob C. Singer


Jacob Singer: The Psychotic Dr. Schreber is a hybrid text of fiction and literary theory, which is a genre you’ve been writing for a while. What do you find interesting about this genre?

D. Harlan Wilson: My writing has been called theory-fiction. I wouldn’t say this is an up-and-coming genre, but it’s been getting more attention in recent years. I’m a professionally trained literary critic and theorist in addition to a creative writer, and since I started writing both forms, I’ve experimented with splicing them together. To date, The Psychotic Dr. Schreber is the most concerted effort I’ve made to combine them: it includes fiction and literary theory, as well as other modes (e.g., film criticism, playwrighting, haiku, biography, autobiography, schizosophy, etc.). There’s an illustration that’s central to the plot, too, as well as various chronologies and tabled data. In some chapters, the modes stand alone; in others, they’re multiplicities (e.g., biofictional microcriticism).

The problem with the theory-fiction genre is that people generally like their fiction straight, raw, and uncut. Same with their theory, criticism, philosophy, poetry, and everything else. Intermixing forms wreaks all sorts of narrative, stylistic, and semantic havoc that many readers don’t want to negotiate. It’s too hard. And I get it. Most people barely read books as it is. Why would they want to be challenged when they do?

Singer: Who is your audience for these texts and what do you think draws them to this unique mode of writing?

Wilson: Audience? Ha! I don’t know who the audience might be for the kind of writing I do. I write for myself first. I always have. Even when I was younger and didn’t know what I was doing, very few works of fiction interested me, let alone inspired me, so I wrote stories to entertain myself, because so much of what I read bored me. I’m primarily a writer’s writer. And yet most of the writers I write for don’t exist. My readership is an idea, not a group of people. This idea includes healthy schizophrenics who have transcended their insecurities, anxieties, ideologies, ignorance, social construction, expectations, lack of experience, and intellectual deficiencies. I guess they’re Nietzschean. And, of course, Schreberian. Again: they’re a figment. A subjective ideal.

Singer: What does this type of writing allow you to do?

Wilson: I’m making an effort to challenge readers. To some degree, what I do, or what I try to do, is preserve history by indulging the lost practice of literary invention, by producing literature as art, which is something that more or less elapsed with the modernists. Theory-fiction is one way to achieve this goal. More than that, it feels right to me.

There are almost no writers working today who take risks and produce genuine innovative literature. This is largely a symptom of market forces, especially for people who are trying to make a living by selling their novels, but there’s also a widespread belief that fiction has to look and function a certain way. This belief will be the death of literature.

Most fiction is formulaic, conventional, familiar, dumbed down, stale, safe, docile, and hinged like the door of a bank vault. It sounds like I’m talking about the genre of “literary fiction.” I’m not. What is that? Stories and novels with broader lexicons, with wordplay, with attention to rhythm, style, and aesthetics? Is that all? In fact, literary fiction is what MFA programs and MFA instructors and other MFA-minded artistes purvey. The genre is as palsied as everything else. We can and should do better.

That goes for all genres. Science fiction, for instance, is supposed to be the genre of ideas, but it’s really just a bunch of hog-tied fry cooks following rules. They’re either doing what they’re told to do or what they think they should do.

I understand the compulsion to write canned fiction. As a tenured English professor, I’m fortunate to have the leisure and freedom to write just about anything. My university supports my scholarship, too, at least for now. It’s only a matter of time until the anti-intellectualism of administrators destroys the humanities and the liberal arts for good; hopefully I’ll be retired by then.

Even before I got my Ph.D. and landed a fulltime job teaching college, I never wanted to be a fulltime writer. It didn’t even enter my mind. I knew that writing would always be a side gig. It’s an integral part of my identity, but I like a certain quality of life, and in terms of a professional career, writing is synonymous with poverty. For better and for worse, I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to, and I’ve always aspired to be original and new. There’s a great misconception about literary innovation. What most editors, publishers, authors, and readers think is innovative is far from it.

Singer: How did you come across the story of Daniel Schreber and what made you want to write about him?

Wilson: Alex Proyas’s Dark City introduced me to Schreber. The film extrapolates and science fictionalizes Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, an account of the psychotic episodes Schreber endured during a period of institutionalization in the late nineteenth century. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. After seeing Dark City, I started doing research on Schreber, and the first formal critical essay I ever published, “The Pathological Machine,” was about how the film translates the memoirs. It appeared in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005. Parts of the essay are interspersed throughout The Psychotic Dr. Schreber, although I have revised those parts. Sometimes I made them more playful.

Proyas’s film is much different than Schreber’s memoirs. At first glance, they don’t seem to be connected. They don’t even seem to treat the same material with the exception that the character played by Kiefer Sutherland is named Dr. Schreber. Closer inspection of the film’s nuances reveals a clear, intimate relationship, particularly in terms of Schreber’s worldview and the megalomania that distinguished his condition. I liked Dark City in and of itself. It’s a unique neo-noir that’s as smart and suspenseful as it is ambient and stylish. Schreber’s subtext makes it even more compelling. As I hypothesize in the essay, the film comments on and interprets the memoirs, constructing a hauntology. It’s really brilliant. And vastly underrated.

In my research for “The Pathological Machine,” I discovered a wealth of secondary criticism on Schreber. It’s been said that he’s the most famous and written-about madman in the history of psychiatry. His belief system wasn’t terribly unique—many paranoid schizophrenics harbor delusions of grandeur and perceive themselves as godlike. What’s remarkable is the ease, intelligence, and pragmatism with which he articulates the otherworldly horrors that plagued him. The details and intricacies of the cosmology he builds are singular, too—Memoirs operates like a science fiction or fantasy novel. Schreber was an extremely intelligent, erudite guy. He was a prominent, well-respected judge and held a top position in the German court. That somebody of his stature could suffer from such turbulent psychoses was shocking to the people of his era, but it was Freud’s 1911 case study that ushered him into the limelight. Freud never met Schreber. He simply read his book and psychoanalyzed it. Not surprisingly, the diagnosis was stereotypically Freudian: he deduced that Schreber was a repressed homosexual with daddy issues. More problematic, however, is the treatment of the subject in the absence of the subject, rendering Freud’s study a fluid work of literary meta-criticism.

Freud and Proyas are just two offshoots that resulted from Schreber’s book. There’s more that I catalog, unpack, and explore in my book. Another one is the impact that some critics and philosophers have said Schreber had on modernity. Deleuze and Guattari, for example, refer to Schreber repeatedly in their books on capitalism and schizophrenia, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus—both of which, for me, are theoretical bibles. The Psychotic Dr. Schreber was written in the spirit of D&G, stylistically and conceptually, and the overall narrative is deleuzoguattarian insofar as it can be entered from any doorway/page.

There are many theses in my book. The dominant thesis is that Schreber is a proto-technological being who symptomatizes our evolving cultural condition and media pathology. I argue that he’s an agent of innovation, too. Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is certainly more interesting to me than any story or novel I’ve ever read.

Singer: The text is fragmented into many short sections that are often in different modes of writing. What are you attempting to achieve by working outside of traditional narrative?

Wilson: When I write literary and film criticism for academic journals and university presses, I shoot straight and don’t fuck around. My cultography on They Live for Wallflower Press and my biocritical study of J. G. Ballard for University of Illinois Press, for instance, both have clear arguments and lines of flight that I support in conventional, reader-friendly ways, with tightly knit chapters that are logical and easily absorbed. I don’t generally do this in my fiction. I guess I do the opposite. Fiction has always been a sandbox for me to play in, to break rules and make new ones. I’m usually not that stylistically experimental—I can’t stand books like Stein’s The Making of Americans or Joyce’s Ulysses, although for some reason I’m currently working on a novel called Usurper that’s loosely connected to Ulysses. At the same time, I’ve written things in the vein of Stein and Joyce, and The Psychotic Dr. Schreber is stylistically experimental. So I’m full of shit. I have an objective idea of what my subjective self likes. I tend to immerse myself in each new writing project, though, and go with my gut. I create a vague monster and whatever happens, happens. That’s definitely how The Psychotic Dr. Schreber came to life.

The mosaic structure of the book isn’t just about being original and new. Innovation is more of a side effect in this case, even if I meta-referentially amp it up. My m.o. was to explore and represent the pathological, fragmented persona that Schreber depicts in Memoirs via schizophrenic prose, style, and structure. That’s how the mind works anyway, sane or insane. We don’t think in a linear way. There’s nothing tidy or organized about consciousness. If we’re talking about truth—or rather, representing truth—the systematized constitution of most fiction is ridiculous. We’ve just been taught that it’s “right” or “good” since we first learned to read stories. I mean, Dr. Seuss was an orderly sonofabitch. Green Eggs and Ham has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, with a central conflict, resolution, and denouement, and a protagonist who’s on a proverbial quest for identity, not to mention the drum-tight lyrical structure of the text. Confusing, disorderly, chaotic, rhizomatic texts make more sense to me precisely because they are nonsensical by default. Like people. Like life.

Singer: As much as this book might seem like an academic exercise, there are moments of hilarity and absurdity. For example, in a scene between two anonymous character (X and Y), they are discussing paranoid trees, stars, and feces, as well as exploring a theory that the dinosaurs committed suicide. This playfully undercuts the genre of memoir and literary theory that has been established. Please share a bit about your obligation to write entertaining fiction while also honestly presenting historical figures (or have you done just that)?

Wilson: I’m happy you noticed the absurdist bits, which are just that, bits, like short standup routines. I love writing them, and I find myself rereading them during the revision process more than they deserve, just for kicks. William S. Burroughs used to do something like that. I think the bits work well in the X-Y chapters. They mainly consist of dialogue between the therapist and the patient. Like the chapters extrapolated from “The Pathological Machine,” the X-Y chapters are scattered across the text. If you read them back-to-back in sequential order, it would be clear that there’s a progression on the patient’s part from being in a position of vulnerability and abjection to one of power and primacy. In the end of their story, X, the patient, ultimately becomes Y, the therapist. There’s a similar progression in Memoirs, especially if we read it as an innerspatial exercise where Schreber plays both roles. In the end of his story, he diagnoses and heals himself—by turning himself into a god.

I’ve gone to therapy for years, and there’s something empirically funny and absurd to me about the analyst-analysand exchange. Imagining Schreber in that position makes it even funnier. He went through hell in the handbasket of his own derangement, but I laughed out loud repeatedly the first time I read his book. His cosmology is a rancorous comedy of errors. Madness is funny in itself—for those of us who are sane. If somebody drops their pants and shits on the floor of a restaurant, cackling like a lunatic, what are we supposed to do? We laugh, if not outwardly, then to ourselves. But we laugh because we’re afraid, because we’re shocked and uncomfortable, because we’re glad it’s not us, because we’d never do anything like that, because public defecation is a violation of the social order, the rules of civilization, etc., etc.

I have some experience with psychosis. It was mostly related to a bout of insomnia, and it was pretty terrifying in the moment. In retrospect, I can’t help but laugh at myself. I never want to experience it again, but I’m glad I went through it. Good fodder for writing. People don’t have a clue about how their minds can become virtual theaters of cruelty until it happens to them.

To answer your question about my obligation as the author of this material, or any material: I’ve never thought about it. I’m not trying to get away with anything. That is, my objective isn’t to portray an accurate, authentic narrative of Schreber’s life or pathology. It’s wildly clear in the text that fiction dominates everything—the biography, the autobiography, the theory, the poetry, all of it. The same goes for, say, my “biographies” of Hitler, Freud, and Frederick Douglass. Then again, some aspects of The Psychotic Dr. Schreber are direct representations of recorded events that happened to Schreber and me. In some cases, I splice together our experiences in an effort to convey real “truth.” Which, of course, is ludicrous. There is no real “truth.” There is only the fiction of reality and the degrees of intensity with which one exists in and represents it. Ultimately, there’s more of me (or rather, an idea of me) in The Psychotic Dr. Schreber than Schreber himself, as there is in all of my books. Not that it matters. The fiction of my daily life is pretty insipid and monotonous, like most contemporary novels.


  • Jacob C. Singer is a writer and editor based in Washington. His writing has appeared in the American Book Review, Barrelhouse, The Brooklyn Rail, The Collagist, Electric Literature, Entropy, Heavy Feather Review, Necessary Fiction, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He manages the Small Press Releases list at Entropy. He has taught writing and literature at the University of San Francisco, Elmhurst College, and Boise State University.

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