Mental Zoo: Animals in the Human Mind and its Pathology (Book Review)

Author:  Akhtar, Salman and Vamik Volkan
Publisher: Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Jorge Ahumada, Summer 2005, pp. 54-56

The subtitle, “Animals in the Human Mind and its Pathology” charts the scope of this book, which puts together papers on how we humans relate individually and socially, in presence and in representation, with our animal kin.

Following a brief editorial introduction, Part I, Conceptual Backdrop, sports a sole chapter by Salman Akhtar and Jodi Brown, “Animals in Psychiatric Symptomatology”: in their words, a guided tour of the mental zoo found in psychiatric patients, child and adult. Enticingly, a short clinical narrative introduces each point. The ground covered goes from delusions and hallucinations to lycantropy and other culture-bound syndromes, to obsessions and phobias, to personality disorders and sexual perversions involving animals. Childhood issues get their share as developmental issues where the link to animals paves the road to a healthier development, and also as pathological aspects ranging from simple phobias to the darker regions of remorse-free cruelty done to animals.

Part II, Freud’s Menagerie, approaches three animals having gained psychoanalytic place of honor: rats from the Rat Man, horses from the case of Little Hans, and wolves from the Wolf Man’s case.

Chapter 2, Rat People, written by Leonard Shengold, pursues the line of his 1989 book Soul Murder, studying people sickened through overstimulation brought on by seduction or beatings by psychotic or psychopathic parents. Overstimulation, says Shengold, is central in their life and in their analytic transferences; they stay fixated on the cannibalistic level of libido development or tend to regress to it, which sometimes joins a preoccupation with rats. The rat being a mental image of cannibalism, perhaps because it murders and devours members of its own species, preoccupation with rats should alert one to the possibility of soul murder. Shengold then exhumes a valuable literary antecedent for the Rat Man’s case: a novel published in Paris in 1893, Torture Garden, widely read in Europe, where the climatic episode about rat torture in China comprises a detailed dialogue between the Chinese torturer and the heroine Clara, obsessed by torture: notably, the overstimulated rat is a previously tortured torturer, samely as in soul murder the assaulting adults were overstimulatingly assaulted as children. In these “rat people,” massive isolating defenses split off their overstimulating experiences, vertical splits of the ego are found between the experiencing and the cognitive ego, and Oedipal conflicts are regressively expressed in oral sadistic terms, issues that Shengold illustrates clinically and examines in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

A brief history of man’s relation to the horse as a source of a mainly masculine power, horses being formidable fighting instruments, opens Chapter 3, John E. Showalter’s “Horses and Horsewomen”: centaurs as a mythical race, part horse and part human became, he says, the picture of human passions, raping, fighting, pulling the cart of the wine god Dionysus, and they were ridden by Eros, the god of love. Male power gives the background for what he clinically illustrates, the theme of the horse-crazy girl—a “crush” rare in boys. The case presented concerns a college girl whose core belief was that no one cared for her, who had been a tomboy in latency, who had decided in childhood that she would not be a good mother and should not have children, and had never thought of herself as a sexual person; oscillation between bulimia and anorexia, and a dread of getting close and breaking up were notable features. Of this rich materiel I shall only comment on her feeling that “there is nothing closer than working one-to-one with the horse,” on the” flowing sense of oneness” experienced in the give-and-take between rider and horse especially during jumps. Such feelings of oneness, or primitive fusion, counteracted her intense separation anxieties.

“The Wolf in the Consulting Room,” by Dwarakanath Rao, closes the triad of papers bearing on Freud’s menagerie: learned briefings on wolves in mythology, feral children and lycantropy lead to a consideration of totemism and psychoanalysis where Frazer’s classic The Golden Bough gets well-deserved attention, which includes a bold 1890 question prescient of psychoanalysis: “why do men desire to deposit their life outside their bodies? This, what Frazer attributes to obscure fears of sexuality, is amplified by Freud in Totem and Taboo in terms of fears of sexuality at individual and social levels, exogamy, the incest taboo, and the Oedipus complex. Rao then examines Finnish Oedipal stories where the wolf vehicles ravenous unstoppable appetites, noting that in the Wolf Man’s upbringing wolves were part of the scene. Next, in an interesting turn on the primal scene, he brings forth Blum’s idea that the Freudian idea of deferred action tends to artificially force pathogenesis into the frame of a strictly Oedipal configuration, while to Blum, and to this reviewer, the pre-oedipal issues of separation and object loss get revived and re-experienced in the course of Oedipal castration anxieties. Lastly, and quite more controversially, Rao sides with Mahony in that it was Freud as adroit writer, whereby on the wings of unconscious artistry meaning is created and foisted upon the clinical happenings, that is present in the unfoldings of the wolf theme.

Part III joins five chapters, dealing with varied fauna: dogs, birds, snakes, spiders and cats. Chapter 5, Phillip J. Escoll’s “Man’s Best Friend” recalls that for 12.000 years dogs have been a significant part of human experience and culture; on from ancient Egypt, where they played their role as icons, totems and even gods, dogs have served as workers as well as pets, having been used as sled dogs, to herd sheep, to help hunters and as watchdogs. Associating closely with children, they become their companions and virtual siblings, their objects of security and eventually as well their transitional objects. This feeds into a commonality between dogs and man: in the Muslim tradition, says Escoll, animals have souls, and to make an animal happy is to live by the principle of Islam. On the frequency and intensity of such doggy involvement -as reported from a wide survey, 60 percent of dreams of four-year-olds involve animals- it is small wonder that dogs often come up in psychiatric symptomatology, in delusional manifestations, in hallucinations or in sexual perversions as well as in phobias. Literature and the cinema show many works starring dogs; heroic goodness is perhaps prototypically represented by Lassie, while oppositely depiction of the dog as absolute evil is found in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Escoll cites Willie Morris’ account My Dog Skip, the poignancy of which comes up in the author’s phrase “I was an only child and he was an only dog,” and then describes the emergence from the ‘50s on of pet-facilitated therapy in psychiatric hospitals and in helping autistic children and geriatric patients, relying on pets’ ability to to bring out the best in us, our capacities for affection and compassion. Clinical cases illustrate identification with dogs as well as their use as transitional objects and as parent surrogates.

Chapter 6, “A Journey with Homo Aves through the Human Aviary” by Gregg E. Gorton is, the author explains, a meditation, an exploratory journey. Aviomorphized humans, he says, are found in the images at the Lascaux caves, some 15.000 to 20.000 years ago, including paintings of a human male with a bird head (or mask) lying or falling under a wounded bison, having close by a bird on a stick with a head identical to the bird one on the fallen human figure; this last, notes Gorton, has been thought to portray the bird-soul of the fallen man with the bird head, perhaps about to take flight for an afterlife. He argues that such Paleolithic pictures may reflect an important creative moment in the cultural-evolutionary origin of animal objects’ serving transitional psychological functions and, furthermore, that transitional objects (à la Winnicott) mediate not only between a child and its maternal caregiver but also between nature and human culture. However, such a jump startingly skips the differences between the notion of the transitional object as the baby’s adumbration of the first not-me possession, and Winnicott’s extensions of the concept in later development into the notion of transitional spaces. Writing within a Lacanian frame, Gorton sustains that human animal hybrids, or cave paintings in general, fit along a continuum of “magical” objects that mediate between the symbolic and the imaginary realms, or “registers,” of human experience; this is, they operate between, on the one hand, the symbolic, “named,” realm of cultural and linguistic categories, meanings, and names themselves, and on the other hand the raw, imaginistic “primary” world as we sense it.

Here the question comes up as to whether his avowal that “image and objects that serve higher order psychocultural functions yet do not rely upon language” as transitions between the imaginary and the symbolic order fits or not Lacanian orthodoxy; such question is all the more pertinent given that the author goes on to sustain, appropriately in my view, that the said bird images may be thought of as more or less mimetic representations, and additionally, that by way of such transformative animal-for-human substitution found in many tribes -the modern-day analogies being found in artistic practices and in sporting events, not to speak more widely of media culture- people construct themselves as living symbols. These caveats may result from Gorton’s intellectually positioning his own voice in the current context of the après-Lacan: anyhow, they seem to be valid for what he much-too-happily forwards, very much in the wake of Cassirer, as “Homo sapiens, the symbol maker.” However that be, being pressed by space limits, I must restrict myself to saying that his experiential journal through the Human Aviary in literature, in mythology and in Freud’s Leonardo is at times astoundingly erudite and quite a good read.

In Chapter 7, “Snakes and Us,” D. Wilfred Abse deals with the relationship of man and snake, this last being emblematic of wisdom and empowerment, of procreation, longevity, rebirth and immortality, and also of death and disease, sin, lecherous temptation and cunning duplicity. Intertwined snakes in the golden caduceus signed medical healing in ancient Greece and Rome, while snakes shot up as Medusa’s hair framing a face so ugly and malevolent that anyone looking at it turned to stone. According to some authors the snake is the animal form that appears most often in myth, legends and folklore. The shape and movement of the snake resonates with the experience of and the fantasies connected with the penis and thus comes to represent it in an unconscious symbolic equation of the snake with the phallus. That it can shed and change its skin and renew its youth, emerging with an increase in size and strength may have influenced its presence in a number of African snake cults concerning resurrection and fecundity, while in the case of India the phallic Hindu god Siva is also known and represented as King of Serpents.

Anyhow, Abse points out that although saturated with phallicism snakes have also served as important female symbols, cast in the main in the role of the malevolent mother, and that symbols are condensations having multiple, overdetermined references, which leaves scant place for a mechanical equation of snake = penis. Thus in fertility rites encircling snakes can represent the female, oftentimes as phallic woman, endowed with either a penis or a phallic attribute, external or internal: going farther, Abse will argue after Marie Bonaparte that a cloacal stage precedes the phallic stage, and that the hole will stay feminine in both sexes. After reviewing the fundamentalist snake cult in the U.S. Bible Belt, Abse reviews Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain, built as a hierarchy of three superimposed organizations, reptilian, paleomammalian and neomammalian, noting that the reptilian brain lacks empathy and man can block off imaginative sympathy, notably under group regressions as in wars. Metempsychosis, ophidiophilia and ophidiophobia close the chapter.

I shall be brief on Melitta Sperling’s classic 1971 paper, reprinted as Chapter 8, “Spider Phobias and Spider Phantasies.” The author presents eight clinical cases, three children, two adolescents and three adults. All these patients experienced maternal rejection in their childhood, together with visual hyperstimulation, and they had been identified by their mother with an unconsciously hated and rejected part of herself, which is an important factor for development of psychosis in a child. To Sperling use of the spider symbol in times of stress indicated the threat of imminent breakthrough of warded-off pregenital, “crazy” impulses from the patient’s psychotic core, established mainly at an anal-sadistic level, with an inability to separate from the hated mother.

Closing the book, Vamik D. Volkan’s Chapter 9, “The Cat People Revisited,” retakes his investigation of “cat people”. It starts with a historical overview of man’s relationship to cats on from ancient Egypt, where the goddess Bastet, depicted with a human body and a feline head, was revered as the highest expression of femininity and maternity; cats, with their glowing eyes able to penetrate darkness fell low in medieval Europe, where they became omens of back luck, even messengers of the Devil. “Cat people” are confused about where aspects of the person or his or her self-images and internal object-images end and where the cat’s image starts. Volkan distinguishes and richly illustrates clinically three types of “cat people” on their uses of cats as protosymbols: 1) cats as reactivated transitional objects, with the illusion that such object is under the patient’s absolute control; 2) cats as self- or internalized object-representations, which for these patient’s minds can actually become those representations; and 3) cats as a psychotic core.

Three decades’ work with schizophrenic patients has convinced Volkan that regression in itself cannot lead to schizophrenic pathology, this is, that adult schizophrenia is built upon a partially encapsulated “infantile psychotic self” which, existing from childhood on, is absorbed by an enveloping healthier self that acts as its “voice.” This will involve repetitive mechanisms promoting two illusions: an illusion of “fit” between external reality and the infantile psychotic self, and an illusion of “starting again” with a core self saturated with libido/”good” affects, in an attempt to go back to a healthy beginning. In transsexuals seeking surgical alterations, the infantile psychotic self reflects the infant’s fused representation with the depressed mother, saturated with “bad” affects, while the surgery that transforms a male transsexual into a “woman” produces the illusion that the male child-mother unit can really be created. In the case of “cat people” with psychotic personality organization, the cat represents the patient’s infantile psychotic self, with which the patient can identify or alternatively it remains externalized, allowing the patient to appear “healthier” than he/she is. A detailed clinical case closes the chapter.

All in all, a pertinent, informative, readable contribution to the literature. As an aside, it may be said to illustrate also on the myriad ill-defined uses that the term “symbolic” takes in our discipline.

Reviewer Note

Jorge Ahumada is supervising and training analyst in Buenos Aires and a member of the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association and Honorary Member of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He is author of Logics of the Mind: Clinical View (Karnac, 2001)

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