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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,1 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 some deforming, inimical forces—inimical at any rate to the continued survival of the core in an undistorted form, though the forces are not perhaps necessarily malevolent. Survival in this struggle ensures a state of “ontological security” in which one will “encounter all the hazards of life, social, ethical, spiritual, biological, from a centrally firm sense of one’s own and other people’s reality and identity” (The Divided Self, p. 40). Failure to achieve this security results in various concessions having to be made at the expense of one’s own sense of well-being, one’s identity, one’s integrity, or one’s sanity: terms, it must be said, that appear to become somewhat blurred when Laing is writing loosely.

Where, then, is the denaturing “enemy” located? In spite of some considerable overlap throughout the books, there does appear to be an increasing “distancing,” or removal from the center, in locating this enemy. Thus in The Divided Self (1960) the enemy is represented by some unaccepted, possibly unacceptable, parts of the self. (The concept of one part of the self repudiating another part has of course an immensely long intellectual history, besides being central to Freud’s thought.) But in The Self and Others (1961) there is already a markedly greater concern over interaction with others in producing pathology (cf., for instance, the chapters on “collusion” and on “driving the other crazy,” a concept referred to below). This is further developed in the 1964 book on families of schizophrenics, where the “enemy” must, I think, be seen in the pathological communication between parents and children within the family circle. Finally, in The Politics of Experience (1967) it is society that attempts to clap a strait jacket of conformity on children at their birth, devastating their potentialities, curdling the milk of human kindness.

Although this scheme is oversimplified, I think that the progression is undeniable; it is even true that up to a point The Self and Others is concerned with interaction between two people (“dyadic relationships”), whereas the later book on families (as one might expect) never deals with fewer than three people. The changes of viewpoint are not made very explicit by Laing, except for some comments in the 1964 Preface to the English paperback edition of The Divided Self, the tone of which is like much of The Politics of Experience. It may be that the omission of this preface from the new American hardcover edition represents some theoretical or ideological backtracking.

Omitted from the foregoing scheme are two works of collaboration: the examination by Laing and D. G. Cooper, under the title of Reason and Violence (1964), of three philosophical works by Sartre, and the development, in conjunction with H. Phillipson and A. R. Lee, of a set of symbols for describing dyadic relationships (Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research, 1966). Neither volume would ordinarily be supposed to be about madness—though the former is intermittently concerned with alienation, and the latter with distorted communication and perception. For it is, of course, on his approach to madness, and especially to one puzzling form of it, schizophrenia, that Laing’s serious reputation rests.

The basic purpose of The Divided Self, not only his first but up to now his best organized book, is “to make madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible.” The work is in three parts, the first being a very necessary theoretical introduction to the second and third that deal respectively with schizoid and with schizophrenic patients. Laing’s approach, as he states at the outset, is “existential” and “phenomenological”—terms whose somewhat individual use he exposes in his discussion of a crucial question: In what language are the inner experiences of people, and particularly mad people, to be discussed? His own dissatisfaction with the psychiatric and psychoanalytic language in which he was himself trained is quite clear:

The most serious objection to the technical vocabulary currently used to describe psychiatric patients is that it consists of words which split man up verbally in a way which is analogous to the existential splits we have to describe here. But we cannot give an adequate account of the existential splits unless we can begin from the concept of a unitary whole, and no such concept exists, nor can any such concept be expressed within the current language system of psychiatry or psychoanalysis….

How can we speak in any way adequately of the relationship between me and you in terms of the interaction of one mental apparatus with another?… This difficulty faces not only classical Freudian metapsychology but equally any theory that begins with man or a part of man abstracted from his relation with the other in his world…. Only existential thought has attempted to match the original experience of oneself in relationship to others in one’s world by a term that adequately reflects this totality. [The Divided Self, pp. 17, 18]

The terms that Laing subsequently employs to describe his patients—terms such as self (whether true or false, embodied or unembodied, divided or undivided), security and insecurity, self-consciousness, reality and unreality, inner and outer—are for the most part close to popular speech and far removed from psychiatric jargon; but more importantly for him they are the language of experience—one of Laing’s key words—and not merely of observation, description, classification, or categorization. (In another context he criticizes psychiatrists for seeming to be more concerned with a patient’s behavior than with his experience.) Moreover they are terms of intrapersonal or interpersonal experience rather than of “it-processes.”2 The latter two-thirds of the book—the schizoid and schizophrenic case histories—can be taken as a demonstration of the advantages in using this kind of language when attempting to make the experiences of such patients intelligible.

Within these chosen limits this demonstration is brilliantly successful. The memorable vignettes with which the book is crammed—of James, David, and of Peter, whose complaint was that “there was a constant unpleasant smell coming from him,” of the more flamboyantly mad Joan and Julie, self-described as “the ghost of the weed garden”—distinguished the book as something of a landmark in descriptive writing on the fragmented personality, and in any event as an astonishing and admirable performance for a man of twenty-eight.

Particularly moving, perhaps, is the sense of pain that these case histories convey. The defensive maneuver, whereby, as Laing describes it, the self is divided, aims at preserving the “true self” while offering to the world both as ambassador and hostage a compliant persona (the “false self”). But the loss of integration is evidently extremely painful to bear. Most painful of all, it would seem from the case material, is the feeling of being split into a mind and a body, usually involving an identification with the mind and an alienation from the body. It is not perhaps surprising, in view of the widespread distribution of schizoid character traits, that the clinical material of The Divided Self evoked a cry of recognition from thousands of readers who felt that the dimensions of their own sense of alienation had been charted for the first time.

There are, of course, hazards in linking the structure of one’s theory so closely to the inner experience of going or being mad. Although, as I have hinted, Laing’s comments on the difficulties of finding language in which patients are to be discussed are often acute, they appear to be part of a less plausible attack on abstractions in general; he seems to have a horror of any abstraction that is not immediately intelligible in the language of the patient’s inner experience. There may indeed be dangers in abstraction or reification, as he suggests, but there are also dangers in anthropomorphizing, as psychoanalytic theoreticians know.3 In his attempts to make even the apparently most bizarre statements that patients make about themselves meaningful in some way, Laing is led rather dangerously in the direction of saying that their statements are in a certain sense true.

  1. 1

    Cf. Siegler, Osmond, and Mann, “Laing’s Models of Madness,” British Journal of Psychiatry (1969), vol. 115, pp. 947-58. It is a matter for regret that the authors should have chosen the loosely written Politics of Experience for their theoretical scrutiny rather than, for instance, The Divided Self.

  2. 2

    Seen as an organism, man cannot be anything else but a complex of things, of its, and the processes that ultimately comprise an organism are it-processes. There is a common illusion that one somehow increases one’s understanding of a person if one can translate a personal understanding of him into the impersonal terms of a sequence or system of it-processes.” (The Divided Self, p. 21)

  3. 3

    Cf., for example, William I. Grossman and Bennett Simon, “Anthropomorphism: Motive, Meaning, and Causality,” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1969), vol. 24, pp. 78-111.

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