Below you can find a text in English about the fascinating schizophrenic artist Louis Wain, which goes back to an earlier paper that I have presented at the ISSEI Conference 2012 at Nicosia (Cyprus). In this version of the text, the analysis is limited to the Louis Wain Kitten Book that can be found on the Internet, on the following website
Prior to each comment I will post the link to the image(s) to which the comment refers. I would like to encourage buying the Louis Wain Kitten Book from the website I refer to (or making a donation), in order to support the initiative behind it.
I hope you’ll find the analysis interesting and revelatory (and even a bit ‘pleasant’ perhaps…)
Dr. Kevin Van Eeckelen
(Hieronder vindt u een tekst in het Engels over de fascinerende schizofrene tekenaar Louis Wain die teruggaat op een vroegere paper die ik heb gepresenteerd op de ISSEI Conferentie 2012 te Nicosia. Deze versie van de tekst beperkt zich tot een analyse van het Louis Wain Kitten Book dat integraal op het internet terug te vinden, met name op de site
Bij elke commentaar zal ik de link plaatsen naar de afbeelding(en) waarop die commentaar betrekking heeft. Ik zou de lezer willen aanmoedigen om het Louis Wain Kitten Book op die website tegen betaling te downloaden of er een donatie te doen teneinde het initiatief erachter te ondersteunen.)
K. Van Eeckelen
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HOW MAD IS THAT CAT???!!!
Psychotic PatternsStarring In:
The Louis Wain Kitten Book
The mimetic theory of René Girard describes phenomena of human culture and behavior from an acknowledgement of the central role that imitation plays within them. People imitate each other, which allows them to learn things very quickly. That is the evolutionary advantage of imitation. On the other hand however, people also imitate each other’s desires in a way that is not controlled by instinctive dominance patterns as it is the case with all other animals. Therefore the imitation of desire easily creates conflicts when the things that are desired cannot be shared. The mimetic theory has an anthropological and a psychological part. In the anthropological part, the mechanism from which all cultures originate is revealed. By that mechanism the violence that normally results from imitative desire is controlled and at least partly eliminated. It literally consists of ‘blaming the victim’, but I can’t go into that within this context. The psychological part describes the problems that mostly arise when the original mechanism is not functional anymore. That can be the case in already more developed cultures, in which nevertheless a taboo on physical violence remains. As a consequence, the problems and conflicts caused by imitative or mimetic desire become internalized. This generates all sorts of psychopathological symptoms. From a mimetic standpoint however, mental illness is not so much the opposite of mental health, the disease is rather a caricature of the mimetic problems that already exist in the realm of ‘normality’.
The more a subject is mimetically fascinated by a model-obstacle, the more he is sensitive to all the little signs of superiority and inferiority that seem to go out from that model. We can speak of a manic-depressive pattern in which the subject oscillates between superiority and inferiority in his perception of his relationship with the model. The model has for him a dual character: it is both admired and loathed or feared. This ambiguity in the relationship between subject and model is called a double bind in the mimetic sense of the word. One of the aspects that are associated with psychosis – it is impossible to discuss in detail the mimetic view on psychosis – is the radicalization of that double bind. How we have to approach this radicalization in relation to the already mentioned oscillations between superiority and inferiority –, that I want to illustrate by referring to the work of Louis Wain.
Louis Wain was a drawer and an author of stories who lived from 1860 to 1939. He was born in London and had five sisters. In 1884 he married Emily Richardson, who would soon become deathly ill. To distract her during her illness, Louis Wain started to draw pictures of their cat Peter. That is the beginning of his entire career as an illustrator of cats. For a time Louis Wain was quite successful but in 1907 he was nevertheless forced to go to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to make more money there. After his return from there and after the death of his mother at that time, he began to exhibit psychological problems. He eventually became aggressive towards his sisters. In 1925 he was confined to a psychiatric hospital. He would remain a mental patient for the rest of his life, although in the meantime he continued to draw cats.
Much has been speculated about whether Wain’s drifting into madness can be traced in his later drawings, which in many cases can hardly be called figurative. My thesis is however that much earlier in his work a psychotic pattern can be derived, not only from the drawings but also – or even especially – from the stories that he wrote. I want to illustrate this with a brief mimetic analysis of the Louis Wain Kitten Book from 1903. This book was written before his trip to New York, in tempore non suspecto.
The book itself is available on the site
Look at the following pictures:
Let’s start with three cats that want to drink some milk, that should be a ‘normal’ situation, shouldn’t it?
One of the three cats is described as a cook. This cat is, as a cook, the mimetic model: the cook invites the other cats to drink the milk. But the first drawing shows already that the cook is also an obstacle: the cook has already drunk the milk: “Not a drain of milk is left”.
The second drawing contains also a mimetic invitation that is immediately followed by a kind of obstruction. There is new milk but it cannot easily be drunk: “You may drink it, if you can.”
In the third drawing the cats are finally drinking their milk. But the reason why they drink is apparently not their thirst. They want to avoid falling into the pan of milk. That is the reason they mention for drinking. The logic behind this is obviously disrupted. But that disruption of logic is actually already there from the beginning, due to the double bind that exists between the cats themselves, especially with regard to the cook as model-obstacle. The dual character of the cook has been transferred to the milk. This milk is therefore not only a good thing, but also some kind of danger. We can also think of the fear of many psychotics that they could be poisoned. The double bind impacts how the whole reality is perceived.
Look at the following pictures:
The disruptive nature of the mimetic double bind appears in an even more extreme form in these two drawings. In the morning a cat is greeted by a little bird. As a result, the cat drops her bottle. We have already said in the introduction that as mimetic rivalry intensifies, many, often very small signals in the relationship between people (or in this case: between animals) can become extremely meaningful. Further, the cat says that she wants to play with the bird. The bird flies away, for fear of being eaten of course. In this sequence there is no question of an object at all, only the interaction between the characters counts. The cat appears here as an ultimate model-obstacle. Positivity (an invitation to play) and negativity (violence) cannot at all be distinguished in her conduct. The gripping motion of the cat and the words that accompany it are both loving and hostile, and the time interval between these two components or aspects in the observation of the other has become zero. There remains only a pure paradox.
Look at the following pictures:
I will now mention three prints showing the breakdown of all logic that derives from the relational double bind.
Let us take for example the text that accompanies the first drawing. This text contains two contradictions. First it is said that father, mother and the babies will enjoy a beautiful day, but immediately after that we learn that father is “rather angry”, finally that he is “not the least bit gay”. Furthermore, we see how the mood of the father contrasts with the joy of the mother. There seems to be a conflict in which the mother triumphs. Interestingly, however, is that nor this conflict, nor the reason why the father is in a bad mood is explained. This is typical for the fact that in the case of strong mimetism all attention goes to the (changing) dominance relations between people, regardless of their specific causes. In certain delusions the permanent mimetic transference and/or distribution of superiority or inferiority are associated with, for instance, vague notions of ‘radiation’. Also Louis Wain associated cats with electric radiation. These are attempts to still give a meaning to what is in fact ‘purely’ mimetism.
In the second drawing a contradiction lies in the fact that the cats are called “very learned” (+) while on the other hand they will become smart only (-) if they pay attention to what they are reading. The third drawing contains two contradictions: a “song of three penny bits (+)” will be sung (+) but the hearer does not have to pay (-) and the song will in a certain sense also not be sung (-) because the hearer should take the high notes himself.
Look at the following pictures:
Another interesting sequence now… In the first drawing we see that two kittens that are walking with their nurse are fighting with each other. Strangely though, the black cat gets all the blame. The nurse conspires as it were with the white cat against the black one and is not at all a neutral party. There is an imitation in the fight against the black cat. On the second drawing, the situation has changed but is nevertheless also partly the same. Here the two kittens fight together against the nurse. Only now the nurse formulates the equality between the kittens: “You are both just the same, as bad as each other”. However, she herself did get involved in fighting the black cat and the third drawing shows that she is still very aggressive. She smashes the kittens to the ground. This is also a double-bind situation, because the aggression of the nurse is simultaneously negated by the fact that, in principle, being a nurse means that she does everything in the benefit of the kittens. She clearly shows herself, however, as an aggressive competitor at the same time. The fact that she is an obstacle is expressed by her apparent indifference in the fourth drawing. She totally hides her head and the kittens that are fully dominated by her power have to walk behind her like little slaves.
Look at the following pictures:
We have seen that on the one hand the disruption of logic, typical of psychosis, has to do with the fact that the other is for the subject both good and bad, both model and obstacle, on the other hand with the constantly changing dominance relationships between the mimetic rivals mutually. If we look at the front page of the Kitten Book, we see a dominant right sitting and smirking cat and a cat who, even slightly anxious, occupies the inferior position. We find these two types of cats, which indicate the main positions within mimetic rivalry, throughout the work of Louis Wain.
We also see changing dominance positions in the next two drawings. There music serves as a means to control the other. The automatic effect of that controlling capacity by means of music is expressed by the words: “The kittie plays the fiddle, and the frog begins to dance”. Dancing is a mechanical reaction, it seems, to the mimetic power that is exercised by the model through music.
Look at the following pictures;
An extreme form of mimetic dependence is also evident in these two drawings.
First, it is said that the cat in question has always lived on the lap of her owner. She is therefore in a lower position, once more when she is confronted with the “Jap” she gets as a present, which is represented as a kind of giant. This ‘giant’ reveals a transfiguration of perception that results from the inferiority of the cat.
In the following drawing however, the situation is reversed. Now the cat is bigger than the Jap. She is even sadistic. The “Jap” however is reduced to a “sawdust dolly” and is tied up by the cat. A doll is eminently a creature without an individual identity, completely (‘mimetically’) dependent on the other. One can also see a connection with the portrayal of Japanese people in general as imitators.
Already in 1890 Louis Wain formulated the idea that cats would promote mental health. We can see however that earlier than at the time of his internment psychotic patterns are recognizable in his stories and drawings of cats. How should we understand this? The cats’ world is in fact the human world. It consists of projections of mimetic rivalry on an imaginary alternative world. In this way, those projections – like the delusions of electrical ‘radiation’ – provide a meaning to the disruptive experiences that Louis Wain underwent. To some extent they create a distance towards the concrete interpersonal context in which such disruptive experiences actually occur. The flight into the cats’ world creates a liberating lowering of consciousness with regard to concrete, interpersonal problems. (One can thereby feel reminded to Nietzsche who suggested that we should enjoy the surface of things in an artistic way, precisely because any depth is equivalent to the real negativity behind it.) This strategy of madness, of fantasy as a kind of redemption from madness itself, is the double of the exorcism of madness that exists within normality. Also in the realm of normality there are in fact constantly double binds and mimetic positioning behaviors, though they are much less intense and less frenetic. We can think of the competition between peers in many areas of society. As a result people who are very ‘close’ to each other are both colleagues and ‘enemies’ within contexts in which the implicit hierarchies constantly vary. The translation of mimetism into the language of a so-called healthy person, however, into the language of accepted morality and behavior, a rationalization that goes along with the projection of mimetic symptoms on a supposedly ‘incomprehensible’ madness, such a translation also obscures the underlying mimetism of ‘normality’, of what is only ‘not yet mad enough’ to be perceived as such…
Normality and mental illness, both of which can be explained on the basis of the mimetic principle, even work together to keep the underlying mimetism unconscious. The lunatic, who is medically diagnosed as abnormal, confirms both ex negativo the ‘narcissism’ of ‘normal people’ and his own ‘alternative identity’ that he does not need to approach in a critical manner either. He is ‘just’ crazy.
Girard’s theory shows that there is more going on, that madness, or the thing that we perceive as madness, is in fact a caricature of ourselves, although its re-flection of ourselves is more intense – and often at the same time even more intelligent (the narratives of Louis Wain are also very original). Strong mimetism has indeed both an intellectual and an emotional component. It is associated with learning and with desire – and the paradoxes that result from it. By saying that, the circle of my argument is closed.
Kevin Van Eeckelen