Over the Edge

The Facts of Life

by R.D. Laing
Pantheon, 153 pp., $7.95

Anna

by David Reed
Basic Books, 243 pp., $10.00

Laing’s new book is more about the factlessness of life than about its facts. It has a chill air of slackness and confusion. Laing begins with a short—too short—autobiographical sketch, which gives us a few devastating glimpses of his early life: the only child of estranged parents, his mother ill after his birth, his care at the hands of a “drunken slut”; he and his mother sleeping in one bedroom of a Glasgow tenement, his father in the other; his mother fainting when, at fifteen, he used the phrase “fuckin’ well” without knowing what it meant; and at sixteen, still without any idea of the facts of life—hence the book’s title.

He continues, it seems here, to be bewildered, in search of facts and meaning. But whereas in his earlier books, and notably The Divided Self, Laing used his acquaintance with ontological borderlands, the mind’s cliffs of fall, to reveal the structure of pathological states of consciousness as lucidly as a microscope enlarges a crystal, here he seems lost in those border-lands, all intellectual vitality spent. “Who knows if life is not death and death life?” is the book’s epigraph, from Euripides. The question was originally asked in a pattern of purposes and meanings; here it hangs isolated on the page, about as meaningful as an empty nutshell. Who knows? Who is going to make us care?

Am I dead or alive?

Am I asleep or awake?

How can I be certain this is not a dream?

…What are we seeing? We cannot be sure we are seeing what we suppose is out there, whatever we suppose. Nor can we be sure even that we see some sort of copy, or picture, of what we suppose is out there. If it comes to that, we cannot be certain that there is anything out there apart from what we see….

This is from the chapter “Speculations,” which follows the biographical opening.

We know these speculations, they are familiar. When they are formalized and worked with, they are philosophy; when obsessive, they are a psychosis; in the hands of Beckett or Hopkins, they are given artistic life; in the case histories of The Divided Self they are set in the dense context of the way an individual constructs, or fails to construct, his sense of identity and of the reality of outside objects. Set down as limply as they are here, platitudinous and insubstantial, they add up to nothing.

In a further chapter of ruminations later in the book, Laing ponders such questions as how he took a walk to buy a jar of honey, unblocked his left nostril in a state of non-egoic consciousness, and sneezed at a party. The vapidity of most of these introspections is only heightened by the style he has adopted, again so different from that of his earlier writing: rhetorical questioning (“Is this not a serious state of affairs?”—“am I single or multiple?”—“Why? And even, is why …

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