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R.D. Laing

In response to:

Homage to Catatonia from the February 11, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Undoubtedly, Alan Tyson knows the effectiveness of irony in literary criticisms. There is an abundance of it in his soft-spoken “Homage to Catatonia” (NYR, February 11). And it’s mostly the irony involved in damning with faint praise. But it does not quite end there.

Unfortunately for Tyson—but fortunately for his subject—there is a strong element of irony which escapes him. After just a casual reading of the books under review it’s easy to appreciate what the man found so “difficult and discouraging” about his attempted “retrospective survey” and “critical assessment.” It is as if the particular literary voice Laing has found transcends the sort of categorical criticism Tyson wishes to apply to it….

The first level of this irony is that Tyson has trapped himself into a method of critical analysis which—although traditional—succeeds largely in misrepresenting the subject under review. For instance, there are at least four assumptions behind any survey of the historical progression of a writer’s thought:

(1) that it is in fact a progression of thought and not just a series of variations on a theme, and thus that (for the sake of authentication) it comes out of an identifiable tradition of thought so that it can be criticized on traditional terms,

(2) that—in the case of conclusions based on research material—the order in which it was written duplicates the order in which the research was carried out,

(3) that the order of publication duplicates the order of writing,

(4) that the survey includes all that has been published.

It takes no Oxford fellowship to understand how crucial these assumptions are. But Alan Tyson nowhere shows he is even cognizant of them, let alone that he has validated them. Let alone that he was even in the position to! And even a cultist can appreciate what that does to the critique. The whole thing becomes specious at best. And with the exception of a few more ad hominems there is nothing much for him to say….

In any case, looking at the first assumption, what Dr. Tyson takes to be a progression of apparently ever-broadening concerns (from a Freudian-like interest in intra-personal conflicts in The Divided Self, through a limited concern for the pathology of inter-personal relationships in The Self & Others, to intra-family relationships in Sanity, Madness & the Family, then to a “final” global, even cosmic concern for the pathologies of whole societies in The Politics of Experience) could as easily be construed simply as variations on an already well-set idea.

While it is true the scale of the tragic conspiracy against the integrity of the self shifts from book to book, the mechanics of it remain essentially the same. Laing is constantly demonstrating that the sacrifice of the individual is at the root of the so-called (see Ivan Illich) “Myth of Progress” which sustains our society, and that the myth and the sacrifices entailed infect all levels of human life. And that the techniques for such sacrifices have been translated to all aspects, all levels of society and all forms of human endeavor. And that these techniques in response to stress are becoming even more indirect yet paradoxically even more violent as time goes on. And to my satisfaction, cultist though I may be, Laing is ultimately demonstrating that—humanitarian protestations to the contrary—it is the professionals (and particularly the human scientists) who are the main practitioners and hence teachers of the techniques of the manipulation and suppression of people. To refer to them as Mind Police may soon not sound as hysterical or paranoid as it once did.

The point is that unlike Tyson (the irony turns once again on the critic), Laing is clearly no longer concerned with the sort of analysis which leads to a prescription; he is most emphatically not interested in symptomatic treatment. Nor is he even interested in identifying causes per se. Thus to criticize his work as a failure to do so is entirely beside the point….

Brian Freeman

National Arts Centre

Ottawa, Canada

Alan Tyson replies:

There is a wide spectrum of notions about what Laing is trying to explain, and about how successful he is in doing it. Irving L. Givot’s letter may be taken as representative of one specific viewpoint. Givot outlines a neurophysiological theory of the etiology of schizophrenia (or, if it is preferred, the “schizophrenic response”), connecting it with a particular kind of social trauma, exposure to a “double-bind” situation of an intolerable kind.

But is this theory in fact held by Laing, as Givot claims? The double-bind hypothesis certainly did not start with Laing, who (as I described) refers to the 1956 paper of Bateson et al sympathetically, though briefly and alongside another theory developed by Searles, in his second published book (The Self and Others). Elsewhere, as in the joint book with Esterson on the families of schizophrenics, Laing tends to fall back on the much looser concept of family “praxis,” and I have searched in vain among his writings for any detailed working-out by Laing of the neurophysiological theory outlined by Givot. I doubt, in fact, if any theory that an involuntary neurophysiological reaction is triggered off by unfavorable social circumstance—i.e. that “process” is set off by “praxis”—is central to Laing’s thought.

The broad view that interpersonal and social pressures contribute to the incidence of schizophrenia has been around in medicine for a very long time, and it is not clear to me that Laing’s views are definite enough to form a “quantum leap forward.” What does seem clear is that if Laing were inclined to spell out in detail the tighter theory with which Givot has credited him he would prevent a lot of misunderstanding.

I suspect however that Brian Freeman is right in saying that Laing “is not even interested in identifying causes per se.” He may even be right in his belief that Laing’s apparent changes in viewpoint represent no more than variations in the focal length of his binoculars, although no support for it can be found in Laing’s published writings. Laing’s now numerous books certainly appear to put forward rather different positions. This is a matter on which it would be helpful to have his own views, but which once again he has not bothered to clarify.

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