Joseph Mosconi on Aristotle and Schreber

Histories of Meaning

Earl Jackson, Jr.

Winter 1999 Seminar

University of California at Santa Cruz

Below is Joseph Moscone’s response in its entirety. Please read this before proceeding to Earl Jackson, Jr.’s commentary. You will find a button at the bottom of this page marked alêtheia that will take you to Earl’s side of the conversation. For background on Daniel Paul Schreber, see the paranoia module on the Hysteria and Paranoia Web Site. For additional material, see the sites for the Lacan Underground and the Freud and Lacan Seminar Web sites. For a synopsis and referrals concerning the meaning of Aristotle’s term, aition, see the item in the onsite lexicon.


Joseph Moscone


Response to Aristotle’s „On Prophesying by Dreams“

The problem now lies before us of endeavouring to penetrate

the meaning of this history . . .

Sigmund Freud, Psychoanalytic Notes Upon An Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia

Chapter II: „Attempts at an Interpretation“

Rather than read Aristotle’s „On Prophesying by Dreams“ against the most obvious Freudian choice — <U>The Interpretation of Dreams</U> — I have instead opted to read it against a text by the aforementioned psychoanalyst that at first glance seems inconsonant with the Greek text: „Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides),“ otherwise known as „The Psychotic Doctor Schreber.“

My reasons for this decision are far from arbitrary and not pre-meditated, even though the relevance of the juxtaposition may be somewhat bereft. I’ve simply noted a few consonant lines of thought between the ideas of Schreber, Freud, and Aristotle (as well as those of Plato/Socrates). My approach is investigative and suggestive, not definitive; I don’t have a thesis upon which to build an argument. I am rather attempting to make sense out of the perceived similarities between two types of texts: ancient and modern. What exactly is the meaning of my dependence on contemporary theory in order to read ancient texts, and how can I „read the texts right,“ so to speak? What I mean is: does my dependence upon current modes of critical thought (Foucault ‘s episteme) invalidate my reading of ancient texts? Can I reach the fabled Socratic truth? I know the answer, but I still feel the need to ask the question and work through the problem.

As I was reading Aristotle’s manuscript, certain peculiar passages reminded me of Schreber’s paranoid condition and interpretation of the world (as written down by him in his memoirs) while other passages reminded me of Freud’s own interpretation of Schreber. This curiosity led me to optimistically re-read Freud’s text in the hope of finding a missing link that would settle my searching circuits. Of course, no mythical missing link was discovered, but additional similarities between the three thinkers were unearthed (is it fair to call Daniel Paul Schreber a thinker?), as well as another avenue of retro-speculation that led me back to the Socratic dialogues of Plato. The original inherent dissonance of the project — comparing an ancient Greek text that addresses the legitimacy of prophecy by dreams against a modern case history of a paranoiac — was first complicated by the division of the modern text into two distinct thinking subjects: Freud and Schreber. Soon, a second discord was initiated by my admittance of Plato into the existing cache of thinkers. Plato’s dialogues represent the thought of his teacher, Socrates, which further complicates the project by dislocating the locus of authority and composition. Thus, in delimiting the scope of my research (with the constantly available option of expanding it) I have created a multi-partite dialogue between five very different people that doesn’t always conform to my expectations. If I take myself into account as an interloper and creator of texts, the number of voices rises to a perplexing six. In short, the similarities between the two texts, much less the five writers (excluding Socrates), only go so far before becoming suspect. It is actually not precise to call this endeavor a „dialogue;“ in my case the conversation goes only one way. The same can be said for Schreber, whose condition is interpreted by Freud in absentia. It is only through text that Freud has access to Schreber’s case, and Schreber has no access to Freud at all. Our respective interpretations rely on the safety of our positions; Aristotle does not have the opportunity to rebuke my speculation, just as Schreber does not have the opportunity to respond to Freud’s analysis. With that in mind, this response paper will follow the following course: following a brief explanation of the genesis of my ideas on this matter, I will examine the similarities between Aristotle’s text and Schreber’s (I don’t have access to Schreber’s memoirs and so will rely on Freud’s citations). Then I will look at the correspondences between Aristotle’s thought as displayed in his text and Freud’s thought as displayed in his interpretation of Schreber. Next, I will look at the similarities between Plato’s „Ion“ (and perhaps „Phaedrus“) and the texts of the fabled analyst and analysand. I place the problem of authority between Socrates and Plato aside for the time being.

Aristotle claims first of all that dreams can be one of three things: causes, tokens, or coincidences of events. He uses the example of an eclipse to describe what he means by these words:

I use the word ‘cause’ in the sense in which the moon is [the cause] of an eclipse of

the sun, or in which fatigue is [a cause] of fever; ‘token’ [in the sense in which] the

entrance of a star [into the shadow] is a token of the eclipse, or [in which] roughness

of the tongue [is a token] of fever; while by ‘coincidence’ I mean, for example, the

occurrence of an eclipse of the sun while one is taking a walk; for the walking is

neither a token nor a cause of the eclipse, nor the eclipse [a cause or token] of the

walking. For this reason no coincidence takes place according to a universal or

general rule. (Reader pg. 127)

Aristotle goes on to explain that by cause he means that a person may be preoccupied with certain actions about to be enacted in waking hours, and so may dream about them at night, „the cause whereof is that the dream movement has had a way paved for it from the original movements set up in the daytime . . .“ Conversely, a token is the result of a person re-enacting the dreams or thoughts he received at night. This is all well and good. The mention of coincidence, however, turned out to be the catalyst of my investigation into the case of paranoia. The example Aristotle gives is especially pertinent: walking is indeed neither a token nor a cause of an eclipse, nor the eclipse of the walking, but a person suffering from paranoia may actually believe this to be the case, for he is suffering from a predominance of ideas of reference. For Aristotle, the prophet’s dream and its coming to pass in waking hours are not proof of legitimate prophecy, but merely coincidences. Similarly, the walking of a paranoiac and the eclipse of the sun are not intimately related and mutually dependent phenomena, but coincidences. The social relegation of the prophet and the institutionalization of the paranoiac further highlight the similarities between the ancient and modern positions. In Aristotle’s words, „the power of foreseeing the future and of having vivid dreams is found in persons of inferior type, which implies that God does not send their dreams“ (Reader pg. 127). In Schreber’s case the converse is true: God sends him dreams, so he must be of inferior type. These, then, were the initial observations that led to my investigations. Before proceeding, however, I would like to post a disclaimer: I am in no way proposing that Greek prophets were paranoid in the sense that Freud uses the word. While paranoia does denote a madness or disorder of the mind in the Greek lexicon, such a proposal would be anachronistic and culturally biased. The paranoia of which Freud writes is the result of the development of a particular type of psychiatry influenced by Kraepelin. The modern definition holds a more precise meaning, and includes delusions of persecution, erotomania, delusional jealousy, and delusions of grandeur (The Language of Psychoanalysis, 296). Plato, in the „Phaedrus“ dialogue, distinguishes four types of madness known to Greek civilization: prophecy, divination, poetry, and eros (244 c-e, 245 a-c). It might additionally be added that these four forms of madness were considered temporary and only applicable while the prophet, poet, diviner, or lover was divinely inspired. For the purposes of this essay, the madness of prophecy will be singled out and expounded upon (though I will later comment on poetry and eros).

Aristotle goes on to rebuke the idea of Democritus — who claims that prophetic dreams that don’t fall under the rubric of „cause“, „token“, or „coincidence“ are caused by „images“ or „emanations“ — by offering this mystical interpretation:

As, when something has caused motion in water or air, this [the portion of water

or air], and, though the cause has ceased to operate, such motion propagates itself

to a certain point, though there the prime movement is not present; just so it may

well be that a movement and a consequent sense-perception should reach sleeping

souls from the objects from which Democritus represents ‘images’ and ‘emanations’

coming; that such movements, in whatever way they arrive, should be more

perceptible at night [than by day], because when proceeding thus in daytime they

are more reliable to dissolution (since at night the air is less disturbed, there being

less wind); and though they shall be perceived within the body owing to sleep,

since persons are more sensitive to slight sensory movements when asleep than when awake. It is these movements then that cause ‘presentations’, as a result of which sleepers foresee the future even relatively to such events as those referred to above.

(Reader pg. 129)

These „sense-perceptions“ seem analogous to Schreber’s „nerves“, while their movement from one location to another resembles Schreber’s „rays.“ The ideas of „nerves“ and „rays“ is given a full explication by Freud:

The human soul is contained in the nerves of the body. These are to be conceived

of as structures of extraordinary fineness, comparable to the finest thread. Some of

these nerves are designed only for the reception of sensory impressions [my italics],

while others (the nerves of understanding) carry out all the functions of the mind . . .

Whereas man consists of bodies and nerves, God is from his very nature nothing but

nerve. But the nerves of God are not, as is the case with human bodies, present in

limited numbers, but are infinite and eternal. They possess all the properties of

human nerves to an enormously intensified degree. In their creative capacity, that is

their power of turning themselves into every imaginable object in the created world,

they are known as rays. (Three Case Histories, 118).

The rays, moreover, are the voice of God telling Schreber the future: that he will become a woman and spawn a new race of men. And they make fun of him: „Rays of God not infrequently thought themselves entitled to mock at me by calling me ‘Miss Schreber,’ in allusion to the emasculation which, it was alleged, I was about to undergo“ (116). The fact that the ancient prophet receives his or her information while asleep and Schreber receives his information while awake seems immaterial. Even Aristotle claims that the visions „would have regularly occurred both in the daytime and to the wise had it been God who sent it.“ Schreber is wise (he is a well-educated judge) and he allegedly receives his images from God. He additionally gives an indication that it is through dreams that he receives his information: „This state of things … I am convinced, is once more to be ascribed to the fact that God was, if I may so express it, quite incapable of dealing with living men, and was only accustomed to intercourse with corpses, or at most with men when they lay asleep (that is, in their dreams)“ (121-122). Furthermore, Schreber’s first indication of his future psychosis comes to him in a state between sleeping and waking, the idea „that after all it really must be very nice to be a woman submitting to the act of copulation.“ This, Freud asserts, is an idea that Schreber would have rejected with the greatest indignation if he had been fully conscious (108). If an ancient prophet had received a prophecy of the burning of Troy while awake, he may have similarly written it off as ludicrous, or just a passing thought.

The insanity of the poet as conceptualized in Greek thought is, towards the end of Aristotle’s text, identified with a paradigmatic process: „For as the insane recite, or con over in thought, the poems of Philaegides, e.g. the Aphrodite, whose parts succeed in order of similitude, just so do they the ‘atrabilious’ go on and on stringing sensory movements together.“ The key word her is similitude. The sensory movements of the prophet are thus composed of resemblances, enjoying a relationship with numerous other sensory movements that are associated with it in some way. Therefore they are not strictly speaking intelligible to the receiver; he merely repeats the sense-perception that something is destined to happen at the Pillars of Hercules or on the banks of the Borysthenes. Likewise, the Greek poet and rhapsode strings words together, but this process seems more syntagmatic than paradigmatic. The rhapsode bases his interpretation on formal contiguity, moving from one sentence to the next. As Plato tells Ion in the „Ion,“ „for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession“ (537d). Inspired or possessed by Homer, the rhapsode moves from one sentence in the Odyssey or Iliad to the next, conscious only of words whose meanings are fixed within the text. Therefore it seems that a syntagmatic process marks the insanity of the poet and rhapsode, while a paradigmatic process marks the insanity of the dream prophet. This process of similitude, resemblance, and stringing together of words suffers a striking similarity to Freud’s explanation of Schreber’s „talking birds“:

Schreber complains of the nuisance created by the so-called „miracled birds“ or „talking birds,“ to which he ascribes a number of very remarkable qualities. It is his belief that they are composed of relics of former „fore-courts of Heaven,“ that is, of human souls once in a state of bliss, and that they are charged with ptomaine poison and let loose upon him. They have been brought to the condition of repeating „meaningless phrases that they have learnt by heart“ and that have been „crammed into them“ . . . They cannot understand the meaning of the words they speak, but they are by nature susceptible to similarity of sounds, though the similarity need not be a complete one. Thus it is immaterial to them whether one says:

Santiago“ or „Karthago,“

Chinesentum“ or „Jesum Christum,“

Abendrot“ or „Atemnot,“

Ariman“ or „Ackermann,“ etc.

The rhapsode, like the „talking birds,“ repeats „meaningless phrases that he has learnt by heart“ that have been „crammed into him“ by the poet who has possessed him. The prophet, likewise, is repeating a „meaningless prophecy“ that has been crammed into him by alleged sense-perceptions. These sense-perceptions are characterized by their similitude, much like the words Santiago and Karthago, Chinesentum and Jesum Christum, etc. (it seems significant, by the way, that Schreber hears the word Karthago or Carthage). The paranoiac, suffering from an inability to correctly read signs, may likely read „Santiago“ as „Karthago,“ thus investing his physical and mental world with a surplus of meaning.

Schreber’s mention above of the „fore-courts of God“ allows me a segue-way into the final similarity between the ancient and modern texts that will here be addressed. I want to contrast Schreber’s „fore-courts of heaven,“ „state of bliss,“ and concomitant individual loss of consciousness with Plato’s „Phaedrus.“ I’ve already pointed out the rhapsode and poet’s possession and surrender to the gods (i.e. loss of consciousness — though the word „consciousness“ cannot be applied to the Greeks), so there’s no need to repeat passages from the „Ion.“ For the sake of brevity (I know this is probably a bit too long for a response paper) and by no means intending to diminish the cross current of thought between the 5th century B.C.E. and 20th century C.E., I will quote one passage from Freud and follow it up with significant passages from Plato, as well as a commentary.

When the work of creation was finished, God withdrew to an immense distance and, in general, resigned the world to its own laws. He limited his activities to drawing up to himself the souls of the dead. It was only in exceptional instances that he would enter into relations with particular, highly gifted persons, or would intervene by means of a miracle in the destinies of the world. God does not have any regular intercourse with human souls, according to the order of things, until after death. When a man dies, his spiritual parts (that is, his nerves) undergo a process of purification before being finally reunited with God himself as „fore-courts of Heaven.“ Thus it comes about that everything moves in an eternal round, which lies at the basis of the order of things. In creating anything, God is parting with a portion of himself, or is clothing a portion of his nerves in a new shape. The apparent loss which he thus sustains is made good when, after hundreds and thousands of years, the nerves of dead men, that have entered the state of bliss, once more accrue to him as „forecourts of Heaven.“

Sigmund Freud, Three Case Histories, 119)

While in Socrates’ day the gods may have appeared very rarely in the lives of mortals (in fact they appeared not at all), the Greek myths are certainly full of instances of the gods taking an active involvement in human affairs. This fact is irreconcilable with Schreber’s cosmological mythology. However, the human soul as a „fore-court of Heaven“ bears more than a passing resemblance to the cosmology described by Socrates in Plato’s „Phaedrus.“ According to Socrates, the soul is immortal (245c). It dwells in the heavens, following and worshipping whatever particular god to which it is disposed, discerning truth, „kept from sorrow until a new revolution shall begin“ (248a-d), like Schreber’s „eternal round.“ When the soul, by misfortune, subjects itself to wrongdoing, it falls from heaven to earth, becoming mortal (248c-d). The apparent loss which the god sustains is thus made good when, after hundreds of thousands of years, the soul which has led a philosophical life recovers its wings, once more accruing to the god as a disciple in heaven (249 a0d). This act of recovering the wings is consonant with the recognition of divine beauty, and such a person is called a lover (249 d-e).

The preceding remarks are only an initial sketch of a project that may be unfruitful but could definitely use some fleshing out. There are many aspects of the Aristotle, Plato, and Freud that I have left out because they did not seem to fit into my schematic (including the homosexual wish fantasy). My dependence on Freud (and Schreber) does not seem, however, to limit the relevance of my reading. If anything, it has embellished the ancient text. By filtering Aristotle and Plato through a contemporary lens, I am essentially (and obviously) reading the text in a manner that is collusive to my own needs and philosophy.

For Earl’s response, click the Truth.