Louis Wain, so Wikipedia tells me, was born in Clerkenwell, South London, in 1860 with a cleft lip that led to doctors advising his parents to keep him out of school until the age of 10. It wasn’t a surprise to read this basic biographical datum – nor that he lost a wife to cancer after three years marriage, aged 23; or that, from the age of 20, he had to support his mother and five younger sisters – since I knew Wain as the painter of kitschy, anthropomorphised cats who later in life plunged [please choose a verb you find appropriate there] into schizophrenia. Or, if you prefer, he undertook the schizophrenic voyage.
A few years back, visiting a friend of mine, an old cricketing colleague who became a psychiatrist, I had seen on his wall, cherished and given pride of place, a series of six paintings of cats [pictured below], each one less and less naturalistic, increasingly Baroque and unrecognizable. They were the work of Louis Wain and the images are believed to serve as an oblique document of his ‘descent’ into schizophrenia, an experience about which psychiatry still knows so little about.
Other possibly salient biographical details emerged from a perusal of his Wikipedia page and a couple of other online sources, facets that would support a diagnosis of schizophrenia that is sometimes contested: a love of animals that included contributions to several pro-animal welfare organizations (a love that transcends the couple, that is cosmic); his lifelong financial difficulties (where the delusional paranoiac sustains his ‘reasonable’ external appearance and remains a functional member of society). He was, apparently, “modest, naïve, and easily exploited, ill-equipped for bargaining in the world of publishing” while others found him “incomprehensible, due to his way of speaking tangentially” (he was not psychologically organized in such a manner as to accumulate wealth and build a position of strength) and later, post-breakdown, this “mild-mannered and trusting man…became hostile and suspicious, particularly towards his sisters. He claimed that the flickering of the cinema screen had robbed the electricity from their brains. He began wandering the streets at night, rearranging furniture within the house, and spent long periods locked in his room, writing incoherently”.
While some familiar with Wain’s life ascribe the onset of schizophrenia to toxoplasmosis contracted from cats, certain psychologists have subsequently disputed the notion that Wain – committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1924, where he would spend the last 15 years of his life – was suffering from schizophrenia at all, claiming that he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Such a view is based on the lack of diminishment of his later work (it is not certain that the six images on my friend’s wall were sequential, since Wain didn’t date them).
The intense detail and ornate patterns of the pictures evoked certain memorable passages near the beginning of Deleuze and Guattari’s iconoclastic ‘schizoanalytic’ treatise (part anti-psychiatry, part-Marxism of the unconscious), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Volume 1. In it, they not only prioritise the schizo experience (as opposed that of a schizophrenic, the limp rag found in asylums) over that of the neurotic Oedipal psyche – epigrammatically: “a schizo out of a stroll is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch” – they also seek to demystify some misconceptions about the schizo’s ‘dissociation’ or autism’.
Taking from Marx the notion of “species-being” – “we make no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species” – they construe the schizo as homo natura, because “far from having lost who knows what contact with life, the schizophrenic is closest to the beating heart of reality, to an intense point identical with the production of the real”. Not only that, he is homo historia because, typically, he understands his own subjective processes, the constitution of his self, as intimately bound up with the whole of history and not just Daddy-Mummy-Me: Oedipus.
One certainly finds it easy to imagine Wain, institutionalized and left to his own flights of fancy, still feeling an immense custodial responsibility for cats. As for the illustrations, they resemble nothing so much as the hallucinations experienced on strong LSD, the world suddenly starting – the more you focus in on its fractal-like minutiae – to dance, flicker, and pulsate, a world that teems like an ant colony, an experience or mental disorder in marked contrast to the catatonic’s shutting down of the ‘desiring machines’: “bodies [that] have fallen into the river like lead weights, immense transfixed hippopotamuses that will not come back to the surface”. Now, does anyone know what was on Wain’s prescription?