The Writer and the Korsakoff Syndrome


Was Döblin a racist and anti-Semite? Did Döblin betray Judaism and Socialism? Was he a renegade?

What was Sebald’s problem with Döblin?




I found this very interesting essay relating to Döblin on the website – a visually appealing site with a huge collection of texts and striking images having some connection with W. G. Sebald’s life and writings. I‘ve translated the essay here. (Unfortunately there is no contact info on that site, and a Whois query provides no leads. If the site owner sees this, I’d be happy to correspond.) Strangely, given Sebald’s long and fraught engagement with Döblin, that website seems to contain no other reference to Döblin – his name does not even appear in the detailed Lexikon of people and places. An excellent English-language site devoted to Sebald, called Vertigo ( ), likewise mentions Döblin only once in passing.

The German text of this essay (with lots of pictures) is at

Until his enforced exile from Germany in 1933, Döblin pursued parallel careers: as a medical practitioner in a poor district of Berlin, specialising in nervous disorders, and as a writer. In exile he could no longer practice medicine, which he said was ‘not a secondary occupation’. (I’ve posted a delightful little piece in which ‘Doctor Döblin’ and ‘the writer Döblin’ give their first impressions of one another.)

Döblin’s first formal publication was the dissertation which earned him admission to the medical profession in 1905: Gedächtnisstörungen bei der Korsakoffschen Psychose (Amnestic Disorders in Korsakoffian Psychosis). Döblin later wrote that he ‘always felt comfortable among these patients. I realized then that there are only two categories of people I can stand, besides plants, animals and stones: namely children and lunatics…’ (‘Artzt und Dichter’ (‘Doctor and Writer’) 1927)

WG Sebald’s doctoral thesis on Döblin (University of East Anglia 1973, in English, downloadable from the British Library: aroused controversy when a revised version was published in German in 1980 (Der Mythus der Zerstörung im Werk Döblins – The Myth of Destruction in Döblin’s Works). Critics accused Sebald, among other failings, of adopting provable falsehoods from Klaus Schröter’s illustrated monograph Döblin (RoRoRo 1978).

The essay translated here identifies an intriguing coincidence(?) in Sebald’s The Emigrants (it’s on page 102 of the Harvill paperback), when Aunt Fini in her reminiscences of Uncle Adelwarth refers to ‘Korsakov’s syndrome: as you may know, said Aunt Fini, it’s an illness that causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions.’ The essay builds on this ‘coincidence’ to explore Sebald’s difficult engagement with Döblin.



(The Myth of Destruction in Döblin’s Works)

Translation (c) C D Godwin 2018

Critics attribute the style of the book to the upheavals and jargon of the Seventies, and judge its contents as unfair and poorly informed. Sebald tears AD to pieces, takes at face value legends propagated by Klaus Schröter in his 1978 monograph on the Jewish writer; Schröter falsified citations and otherwise manipulated his material.

Like Sebald, AD was an emigrant. In 1933 this doctor and writer of Jewish descent fled the Nazis, first to Zurich, then to Paris and via Lisbon to the USA. Sebald finds post-war Germany insufferable with its suppression and silence about Nazism in the family and society; goes to England. Like Sebald, AD’s family (with four children) finds itself culturally isolated in its strange environment. In 1941 AD enters the Catholic Church – on which Brecht commented in his poem ‘Embarrassing Incident.’[See at end]

As one of the first exiled writers to return to Europe, in 1945, he gathered a group of younger writers around him, among them Günter Grass. Disappointed with the post-war political restoration he returned to France (where his son Wolfgang, born 1915, was a mathematician who made ground-breaking studies in probability theory, and his son Stephan, born 1926, was Finance Director of Renault.)

Was AD a racist and anti-Semite?

Did AD betray Judaism and Socialism? Was he a renegade?

Klaus Müller-Salget, professor of modern German language and literature, publicised the following facts about AD’s actions:

His parents were only superficially connected to the Jewish religion. In 1912 AD marries a woman from an even more strongly assimilated family, has his first son baptised as a Protestant and himself leaves Judaism.

In a 1920 commentary on anti-Semitism, he describes Jewish superiority in economics and intellect as a symptom of suppression and displacement. He rejects racism, since the natural and social environment seem to him more relevant than ‘so-called blood’.

In a 1921 essay in the Neue Merkur AD terms western European Zionism ‘ a form of Jewish irritability and nervousness’; what it should strive for is not a return to Palestine but an autonomous state in the East, e.g. Galicia. He mocks anti-Semitism as upper and middle class bullshit.

When the Berlin warehouse district, where eastern Jewish immigrants concentrated, begins to experience organised riots, he accepts invitations to Zionist events, but not an offer to visit Palestine. To him, Palestine is an ideologically occupied target, suitable only for backward-looking Jews tied to the old religion, too small for the entire Jewish diaspora. In 1924 he travels in Poland. He becomes fully aware that the Jews are a people. His experiences with the Polish people, humiliated in so many ways and now living in their own state, gives AD hope. The Poles ‘sit in their own houses. The Jews cannot let this prospect slip.’ (Reise in Polen (‘Polish Journey’, p.99)

Jews, Jewish traditions, Jewish storytelling play a large part in his most famous book Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The book Unser Dasein (‘Our Existence’), published in 1933 and promptly burned, reveals that the question is the inner renewal of Judaism, rising above the humiliating exile-existence and the terrible hopeless belief in a Messiah. Under the title ‘How much longer, Jewish people – non-people?’ AD pleads with the Jews to turn towards a full life , which means: to their own land and own responsibility. He defines the threat to the Jews in prophetic words:

‘History tells the Jews that whatever their efforts, their submissiveness and humility, they will find no protection. Only their strengths, their power, and the clever application of these.’

‘From time to time mass movements erupt, aimed at their total expulsion or eradication; in every country it is but a short step from citizenship papers to the pogrom or a new ghetto.’

‘Do not believe of anyone who is Jewish that his civil rights or even his life are safe.’

‘The religion spoken of here is no religion of the ‘Jews’ but of all people.’ (Unser Dasein, pp. 385, 389, 399, 400, 413)

The Jews with their ‘new religion’ and a national identity without nationalism should provide an example to western peoples.

Can Sebald assert that only in exile did AD ‘busy himself with Jewish politics’? (p. 38) [= p.40 in the thesis text – Trans.]

While still in Berlin, AD makes contact with representatives of the New Homeland movement, a revival of the territorial movement dissolved in 1926, and engages actively with them until 1937. This aims at the creation of settlement spaces for threatened European Jewry. Territorialism is distinct from Zionism firstly in considering other regions than Palestine (Angola, Uganda, Peru are discussed) and secondly in its intention not to establish New Hebrew as the lingua franca, rather Yiddish, hence the Territorialists were dubbed Yiddishists.

A revised chapter from Unser Dasein appears in 1933 in Klaus Mann’s journal Die Sammlung. AD restates his reservations about Zionism, names Angola, Peru, Australia as possible settlement regions. ‘It would be good, as a way to avoid nationalism, to head for several territories.’

In ‘Flight and gathering of the Jewish people’ (1935) a clear move towards Zionism can be seen.

In the meantime he engages in extensive lecturing and organisational work, begins to learn Yiddish, but meetings leave him deeply disappointed. Instead of debating fundamentals, the main concerns focus on organisation and factional quarrels among the various groups. In 1938 he gives vent to his discontent: he has experienced ‘miserable intrigues, laziness, duplicity, and a shocking lack of seriousness; ‘schemers, bigmouths, politicos, place-seekers’ are at the helm.

His engagement with Territorialism causes misunderstandings among several fellow emigrants, and even, in the Communist exile press, accusations that he has allowed himself to become polluted by Fascism.

He works on his South American trilogy Land without Death, in which he reflects on Western history since the Age of Discovery and claims to find the causes of the descent into Fascism in the spirit of so-called ‘Prometheanism’ (the total autonomising of the human being) and the rise of instrumental thinking. The largest part of the trilogy deals with the Jesuit republic in Paraguay, the eventually failed attempt to build a place of refuge and community away from the frenzied conquerors and their expulsions and exterminations. ‘In the Jesuits of Paraguay we have an example. There are no more islands left on Earth.’

In 1935 in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris he discovers the writings of Sören Kierkegaard and Johannes Tauler. The former atheist AD turns to religion; but why to Catholicism? The Jewish religion (in the form he knows it) and Jewish ritual remain alien to him. The figures of the Mother of God and the crucified man have fascinated him from an early age.

Deeply impressed by Polish Madonna worship, by the church of St Mary in Cracow, and by Viet Stoss’s crucifix high over the nave [see header picture], he conjures up the scene again in his South American trilogy.

Fleeing through France in 1940, stranded in a refugee camp, he realises, near to despair, as he stands before the crucifix in the church at Mende, that his old view of the world is no longer of any help. In Los Angeles he seeks conversations with Jesuits – he has already memorialised their efforts to protect the Indians in his South American trilogy. Protestantism, into which his wife and eldest son are already baptised, is too abstract for him; it lacks the vivid imagery that fascinates him in Catholicism.

But why did he keep his entry to the Church secret?

Did AD want to avoid turning his conversion into a political issue; avoid the impression that he was abandoning the persecuted Jewish people to its fate?

Quote from a letter to Jews in 1941:

‘Were I – which is not at all the situation – to become Catholic or Protestant today or tomorrow, why should I not do so – provided that it stays ‘in my bosom’? It is known now that the philosopher Bergson, known to be a Jew, had already been a Catholic for many years, but he concealed it as a personal matter and knew that to come out with it in these times would be interpreted as stabbing his own people in the back. If I were to go public with some Christian attitude and corresponding words, just at this moment, it would be a ‘betrayal’, i.e. of what I too am, of Judaism.’

AD depended on handouts from Jewish aid committees and private persons. Elvira Rosin, who reacted to rumours of AD’s conversion with an accusation of betrayal, clearly became reconciled with AD, as shown in a letter to her of 1948: ‘The good old tone pleased me very much, dear Madam Elvira. You have once again written so sincerely, and this time reconciled.’

And in 1950 to Martin Buber:

‘It is something beautiful and new and truly good that you have summoned into life there, a place of refuge for huge masses of innocent persecuted people. And more: the securing of these people in connection with a land that can truly become their home. … This you have begun, and you are taking it forward, and I am glad to see it, as I am glad to see the state, to see that it is there. As for me, my birth, growth and fate have led me along another path, which is also not capricious or novel… For me the question is not of land and state and political homeland, but of religion, of this world and the beyond, of the eternal origin that you and I call God. For this reason I can bless your stance and everything that you are doing, and as for me I can also say, here in this country: I do not speak of the state nor of the homeland, but that’s where we are; here I stand and cannot do otherwise.’

Anyway, it is quite certain, in the words of Müller-Salget, that:

‘Judaism, the future of the Jews, Jewish heritage, and what is euphemistically called “the fate of the Jews in the 20th century” are of decisive importance in AD’s life and works. To Judaism he owes the fundamental motifs of his sensibility, thoughts and writings, and between 1924 and 1937 he was not remiss in personal involvement (whatever one may think of the direction of that involvement). That he then took the step from Judaism to Christianity, a step he felt was objectively predetermined by history, remains a personal decision that we must accept as such.’

And betrayal of Socialism?

After intensive political engagement, AD is unable to form any lasting alliance with either the [leftist] SPD or the USPD. Right-conservative authors are always among his bitterest enemies, who strive for his expulsion from the Berlin Academy. The Communist League of Proletarian-revolutionary Writers criticises Berlin Alexanderplatz because Biberkopf is not a class-conscious proletarian. AD defends himself with the grandiose satire ‘Catastrophe on a Left Turn’ [see separate post]  and thereby totally isolates himself, as he often does later.

AD had a difficult relationship to institutions and functionaries. In a letter he describes himself as an unremarkable phenomenon, as a completely private person. Nevertheless after 1945 he is driven to become re-engaged, to contribute to the building of a democracy, though he forever meets with disappointment.

The Weimar Republic is for him ruled by insufferable social tensions and conflicts. The crisis situation is not restricted to Germany, it has seized the whole of Europe and has a worldwide impact. Russia deserves particular attention for its daring experiment, the overturning of every relationship with the aim of creating a new society through the dictatorship of the proletariat. AD poses the question: what attitude should the intellectual take. For all his sympathy with the Russian revolution, AD remains a critic. He is equally critical of western capitalism and its gospels. The intellectual should not align with the owners and the powerful. But AD does not adopt the orthodox Marxist critique of capitalism; a distancing from both capitalism and Marxism is possible because AD seeks a third way for Germany between capitalism and socialism.

First he establishes with bitterness that unbridled capitalism has ‘infected half or the whole world’. Even the physiognomies of the leading capitalists, says AD, betray the ‘calculation, the drive to expansion, the ruthlessness, remorseless practicality’ that characterises the system. All that matters is to ‘amass power and money’.

AD’s critique of a capitalism run wild, i.e. uncoupled from the social system and so not steered by it, his demand that the economy be mindful of its responsibilities, his insightful analysis of the situation of the unemployed – all this reads as if penned today and not 75 years ago. It says much for AD’s sense of reality, for his lively straightforward style of writing. It also documents the extent to which current debates recapitulate positions from that time.

The close connection between political and aesthetic thought in AD is striking. He fights on both fronts against prevailing tendencies. The discovery of the individual in theories of the novel is paralleled by the Utopia of the New Human which he sets up as a foil to the class-conscious proletarian of Marxist provenance. His advocacy of an open society, the open form of his novels and his conception of human existence as something always incomplete and fragmentary are similarly congruent. His critique of tragedy in the essay ‘Kannibalisches’ (‘Cannibalistic’) casts new light on disturbing archaic tendencies in modern society, which gain the upper hand especially in wartime. Tragedy cultivates such archaisms. It fascinates AD, but he considers it conservative and dangerous. So he parodies it through the absurd and the grotesque. This is a far-reaching decision that transcends the aesthetic dimension. The tragic is not denied, but reconfigured. AD anticipates the dissolution of the tragic in 20th century drama.

AD’s essays, which oscillate between writing, philosophy and science, betray at least as much about the author as about the topic, and can only with difficulty be categorised and catalogued. This is connected to the fact that they are the discourse of an intellectual, a being who in AD’s view owes a duty to no office or party or church, but only to himself.

In 1905 AD wrote a dissertation with the title Gedächtnisstörungen bei der Korsakoffschen Psychose (Amnestic Disturbances in Korsakoffian Psychosis), not mentioned in Sebald’s doctoral thesis, but made freely available as a book in 2006. This literary discovery provides us with a profound insight into AD’s thought, which was occupied intensively with medical questions and the connection between literary creation and psychotic hallucinations, so-called confabulations. Confabulation: the desire to fabulate. AD: ‘The patient asserts that fantastic events were really experienced. Tales of bold robberies, remarkable voyages by sea, encounters with exotic creatures are recounted and embellished with a wealth of often minute detail.’

An unusual book about fabulous fabulations for all bibliomaniacs and friends of Döblinist excitation-symptoms. The budding scientist’s subject was a 54 year old former farmer, happily married, father of four children, with, like many alcoholics, a history of delirium tremens (‘not quite right’, as the son who had him admitted said). AD undertakes experiments, has him calculate, name numbers, recognise odours (‘cherry brandy was rejected’), describe situations. The thought and fabulation systems of the alcoholic are flustered by none of these.

Notes of the visits (‘Does not recognise the Consultant’ – the patient mostly took AD for a solicitor, there to discuss his will and other matters): Where is he at this moment? He is at an inn in Hasel or in St Louis in America or on his way there. Sometimes he finds himself at the Town Hall – how can that be, at the Town Hall and lying here in bed? That’s the fashion in Hasel, it often happens when there’s an emergency, and anyway he’s ill, suffering from TB of the bones and brain. Makeshift fabulations, when embarrassment over what has been forgotten is relieved by an invented life in which the patient himself has absolute belief.

Once he thought AD was a vet. The patient had been sent by his village to America to buy cattle, all these sick people lying around now ‘are there so their temperatures can be matched with the cows’, that’s so the cows maintain the proper temperature.’

All forgotten events and connections (the memory deficit is enormous) are compensated by the fascinating wealth of fabulations, the enlarged breadth of associations. Nonsensical stories (e.g. the year has five months: ‘The other months don’t belong to the year, they’ve been donated to the noble prince Bismarck as a present’) provide openings for questions: ‘And what does Prince Bismarck do with the months?’ Answer: ‘He lends them to deserving citizens.’

In his essay ‘The Berlin Programme’ (‘To novelists and their critics’) AD distinguishes between morbid fabulation as a result of memory loss, and so-called normal, poetical fabulation: The writer with symptoms of agitation, weak contracted pulse, pale cold skin, burning head, gleaming bloodshot eyes; the patient completely calm, laying out his fabulations in a sober voice. The successful interdisciplinary contact between Medicine and Literature elucidates the bridge between psychiatric pathology and poetics.

In two later texts the doctor and the writer encounter one another. The doctor, on the writer: This gentleman seems to have a big imagination, but I can’t follow him there. My income does not allow me to travel to India or China. And so I have no way to check up on what he writes.

The writer on the doctor: I am certain I made no great impression on my namesake. A few times I was quite scared when he looked at me with a psychotherapeutic gaze. I have all sorts of defects, complexes probably, and the medic chap probably caught a whiff of it.

Man lerne von der Psychiatrie (‘We should learn from Psychiatry’): AD’s words are directed straight at authors. And in this sense AD’s dissertation reveals a poetological way of thinking, which takes as the fundamental structure of the creative process not the remembering mind, but forgetting.

The reader senses: Is this where Sebald’s literary-contrary Credo comes in?

Or a forgetting by the author Sebald?

Has the psychiatrist and writer AD, with his clinical practice-based view and his secondary nature as a scientist, provided the university teacher and writer Sebald with the theoretical background – and Sebald has forgotten it?

Korsakoffian disturbances of memory and associated confabulations emerge directly in the Ambrose Adelwarth chapter in The Emigrants, where Sebald’s tag ”My field of corn is but a crop of tears’ amends the quotation from Tichborne, which actually refers to a ‘field of tares’ – the empty husks an apt metaphor for memory loss.

Gossipy Aunt Fini tells the narrator the story of her uncle, who emigrates to America, hires himself out as valet, travel companion and intimate of an eccentric dandy, and ends up in a psychiatric institution where patients are treated with fatal overdoses of electric shock. To the aunt, the uncle’s extravagant travel reminiscences, which despite his supposedly infallible memory he recalls only with difficulty, as if suffering from ‘the Korsakoff Syndrome” (where did Aunt Fini learn about this diagnosis?) become, in the course of memory loss, replaced by fantastic inventions. The uncle has had himself committed to the sanatorium on account of increasingly severe depressions, in order to undergo the same tortures as his former employer.

Photographs from the family album are produced in evidence, but with a randomness that proves everything, or nothing. Garbled accounts of scenes from Fritz Lang’s film Dr Mabuse, the Gambler are presented as his own experiences, dream sequences in silent film style and references to Nabokov are inserted, right at the end a dubious diary appears, information about psychologically damaging events is lacking.

But the quote about “Korsakoffian Syndrome” is revealing. This is the very field in which AD as a neurologist worked and became qualified; his dissertation launched a fierce attack on the practice of psychiatry, and he castigates it in Berlin Alexanderplatz: Biberkopf undergoes a “Faradisation”, a torture method from military psychiatry using high voltage shocks.

In his critical work on AD, Sebald ignores precisely this theme, while attesting to AD’s almost pathological interest in violence, that presents itself, always with gusto, on the most diverse scenarios. And then the ignored title of AD’s principal psychiatric work turns up in one of Sebald’s own literary works: the “Korsokoffian Psychosis” becomes the Korsokoff Syndrome.

AD: “If anyone were to ask me to which nation I belong, I would say: neither to the Germans nor to the Jews, but to children and lunatics.”

Peinlicher Vorfall  by Bert Brecht

Als einer meiner höchsten Götter seinen 10000. Geburtstag beging
Kam ich mit meinen Freunden und meinen Schülern, ihn zu feiern,
Und sie tanzten und sangen vor ihm und sagten Geschriebenes auf.
Die Stimmung war gerührt. Das Fest nahte seinem Ende.
Da betrat der gefeierte Gott die Plattform, die den Künstlern gehört
und erklärte mit lauter Stimme
vor meinen schweißgebadeten Freunden und Schülern
Dass er soeben eine Erleuchtung erlitten habe und nunmehr
Religiös geworden sei und mit unziemlicher Hast
Setzte er sich herausfordernd einen mottenzerfressenen Pfaffenhut auf
Ging unzüchtig auf die Knie nieder und stimmte
Schamlos ein freches Kirchenlied an, so die irreligiösen Gefühle
Seiner Zuhörer verletzend, unter denen
Jugendliche waren.
Seit drei Tagen
habe ich nicht gewagt, meinen Freunden und Schülern
unter die Augen zu treten, so
Schäme ich mich.

Embarrassing Incident, by Bert Brecht

When one of my highest gods had his 10,000th birthday
I came with my friends and my pupils to celebrate him,
And they danced and sang before him and read out prepared words.
The mood was lively. The feast approached its end
Now the celebrated God stepped onto the stage
that belonged to the artists
And declared in a loud voice
In front of my sweat-drenched friends and pupils
That he had just experienced a revelation and from now on
Had become religious and with unseemly haste
And in a challenging manner placed a motheaten priest’s hat on his head
Dropped indecently to his knees and shamelessly Intoned an insolent hymn
thereby injuring the irreligious sensibilities
Of his audience, among whom were
Young people.
For three days
I have not dared to meet the eyes
Of my friends and pupils, I am so

(Trans. CDG)