Saturday 14 July 2018

Playthings by Alex Pheby  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Freud’s consideration of the case of the judge Paul Schreber, and his book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903) was instrumental in the formulation of the modern construct of paranoid schizophrenia, and Schreber’s experience, treatment and interpretation have been rigorously exploredand debated by Deleuze, Guatarri, Canetti, Lacan, Calasso and others. Playthings, a novel by Alex Pheby, depicts, sometimes horrifically, sometimes with humour or beauty, sometimes ironically, Schreber’s descent into and experience of madness: his inability to achieve the culturally determined overarching perspective that enables us to function without being overwhelmed by minor details, observations and experiences (of course, none of us do this especially well; our ability to ‘function’ determines which side of the line of ‘madness’ we exist on); his inability to integrate his experiences into ‘useful’ concepts of time and causality; his inability to see others as persons or to interpret their intentions and actions in ways that fit with shared concepts of the patterns of intentions and actions; and his projection of suppressed psychological material onto such others (this dehumanisation of those seen as ‘other’ is a manifestation of the mechanisms by which socially inter-confirmed mass paranoia presented itself as fascism in Germany a few decades later). “It was nothing to him, because they were all nothing. Fleeting-improvised-wretched-plaything-human-beings. Puppets, soul-less automata, clicking and whirring and chirruping to each other on a flat street of false houses and dust blown by the perishing cold wind.” As Pheby zooms in and away from Schreber’s experience, playing always with the perspective that lies at the core of his illness, leaving us uncertain which side of the line between madness and sanity we are experiencing or what constitutes ‘reality’, we as readers become aware of ourselves as the author’s plaything. The key mechanisms of schizophrenia are the key mechanisms of literature; it is only our ability to close the book that keeps us sane.

>>Pheby's new novel, Lucia, treating the erasures and lacunae in the story of James Joyce's daughter Lucia, who was confined to an asylum for the last thirty years of her life, has just arrived at VOLUME. I am looking forward to reading this.

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