The Rise & Fall of a Half-Genius

The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing

by Daniel Burston
Harvard University Press, 275 pp., $35.00

Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing

by Bob Mullan
London: Free Association Books, 394 pp., $22.95 (paper)

I actually wanted to help,” says R.D. Laing, of his lifelong psychiatric work, to Bob Mullan in Mad to be Normal (with the qualification “maybe sentimentally or of some schmucky compassion for other people”).

I thought it would be a nice idea to spend my life to be respected by one’s fellow man, make enough money to live off and do something possibly that would make a contribution to the commonweal such as casting some light on this dark subject.

It is indeed a nice idea; and in Laing’s case an idea that not so much went wrong as soared and shrank and went in circles and attacked its owner and flew off over the horizon, or the cuckoo’s nest. Laing’s once spectacular career as writer, psychiatrist, performer, and guru declined so sharply that, though he died only seven years ago, already there will be people who have never heard of him, or will just have vague associations with bells, bangles, incense, and drugs. “The culture of the 1960s and R.D. Laing appeared to be a marriage made in heaven,” Mullan writes; but it was more a Faustian pact than a marriage. The 1960s chewed Laing up and spat him out again, and for the rest of his life he had to struggle to keep up with his early, dazzling success.

In The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing, Daniel Burston of Duquesne University argues that Laing already deserves serious reassessment, and even claims that his work approaches the importance of Freud’s and Jung’s. The biographical part of his book takes up barely two thirds of it, and leads on to a close examination of Laing’s theories and influences. Mullan’s book, on the other hand, was destined to be an official biography, but the project was cut short when Laing died of a heart attack at sixty-two and Mullan was refused further access to source material. It is published as a series of very full interviews by a highly informed interviewer, and in fact makes a more lively read than Burston’s book—especially if mentally heard in Laing’s ripe Glaswegian accent and with unlimited four-letter words. There is a certain justificatory bias in the book—Laing was concerned to set the record right in the face of rumor and myth—but on the whole his justifications convince. (Mullan of course did not pose right-on questions like “Why do you drink?” or “Are you happy?” He does ask why Laing had ten children by four different women; understandably, the answer is vague.)

The titles of both these books make reference to madness, and perhaps not just because all Laing’s early work was concerned with it, but implying that he himself was brushed with it. Burston’s title is in fact taken from Baudelaire’s Mon cå?ur mis à nu:

J’ai cultivé mon hystérie avec jouissance et terreur. Maintenant, j’ai toujours le vertige, et aujourd’hui, 23 janvier 1862, j’ai subi un singulier avertissement, j’ai senti passer sur moi le…

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