The Divided Self
Self and Others
Sanity, Madness and the Family Volume I: Families of Schizophrenics
Reason and Violence (to be published in April)
Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research
The Politics of Experience
In theory the publication of a substantially revised edition of R. D. Laing’s The Self and Others, and the reissue of his first and I suppose still most celebrated book, The Divided Self, now more than ten years old, should provide as good an occasion as any for a retrospective survey of his work and an attempt at a critical assessment. But in practice this seems both difficult and discouraging.
Why is that? It is not as though reading Laing is discouraging or uncongenial. He is an attractive, even seductive writer—a point to which I shall return, since it calls for closer examination. In England The Divided Self must be counted as the most widely known of all recent psychiatric writing, popular or specialist; and although paperback psychiatry—I use the phrase as a loose categorization, not as a disparagement—is a much more highly developed genre in the States (where Laing’s works have had to compete with the productions of writers as varied as Norman O. Brown, Eric Berne, Erich Fromm, Hannah Green, and Ken Kesey), the recent Politics of Experience has probably reached a wider readership than any.
Wider, but not necessarily broader. It seems a rather curious readership. For Laing, as everyone knows, has become a cult figure; and this fact imposes on the reviewer of his books a burden not merely of trying to understand the points that Laing is making, and of testing them against his own judgment and experience, but of attempting to discover the basis of their appeal to people not otherwise apparently interested in psychiatric theory.
Commentators on Laing frequently lump his writings together, as if each book were saying much the same thing, or at any rate as if the basic message were homogeneous. By doing so they indicate that they must have a high tolerance of inconsistency. Perhaps an approach of that kind has advantages; those who are very squeamish about inconsistencies will not expect to get much from Laing, and there are in any case rewards for one’s industry in reading right through the canon, in that obscurities in one book are illuminated by discussions in another (the somewhat diffuse and possibly underrated Self and Others is helpful in this regard).
But the opposite also happens, so that what one felt one had mastered becomes obscured by later writings—not strangely, perhaps, if one sees Laing’s output as representing a personal odyssey—and one is left with a total picture that surprisingly seems less than the sum of its parts. In view of these ambiguities it seems a wise plan (though not an easy task) to examine in rough chronological order the way that he has presented some of his central ideas. Let me try to describe, obviously in a very much simplified form, something of the shifts of emphasis.
In all his more formal writing Laing is evidently concerned with the struggle between the core or essential nature of a person and …