Homage to Catatonia

The Divided Self

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 237 pp., $5.95

Self and Others

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 169 pp., $5.95

Sanity, Madness and the Family Volume I: Families of Schizophrenics

by R.D. Laing, by A. Esterson
Basic Books, 288 pp., $6.95 (revised edition to be published in March)

Reason and Violence (to be published in April)

by R.D. Laing, by David G. Cooper, Foreword by Jean-Paul Sartre
Pantheon, 200 pp., $5.95

Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research

by R.D. Laing, by H. Phillipson, by A.R. Lee
Springer, 186 pp., $5.50

The Politics of Experience

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 138 pp., $5.95

Knots

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 90 pp., $3.95

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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

R.D. Laing July 1, 1971

R.D. Laing July 1, 1971

Continuing Kingsley Hall June 3, 1971