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Worrying About Ronald Laing1

by Stephen Koch

If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you, I would let you know.

–The Politics of Experience*

“Have you ever been misunderstood?” Ours was no secluded tête-à-tête; the famous man was very much in town. He sat cross-legged and barefoot beside me on a couch in his Algonquin Hotel suite, and I put the question to him in a room busy with the hush of photographers and movie cameramen and reports. Four microphones lay on the coffee table. But speaking only to me, Ronald David Laing leaned forward: “I’ve been very much misunderstood.” His eyes connected with mine, as if to make certain he was being clear. Eyes simultaneously searching the assured. “I spend a lot of my time trying to undo misunderstandings that are going on.”

Face to face, the man is extraordinary, a whole impressive and intelligent presence. But though he claimed to be misunderstood, lecturing the next night at Hunter College–again cross-legged and barefoot on the stage, in a kind of at-ease lotus position–he did anything but clear up his follower’s perplexities. One of my perplexities was that I had left the hotel far more impressed than I’d expected to be. I’d heard Laing in public before–answering questions about Asylum, a film about his London “therapeutic community”–and walked out after two hours of such transcendent pronouncements as that a psychotherapist must be the “patient” one, that he must really listen. But in the Algonquin I found that the prestidigitator of these vacuities had my complete attention. He seemed a man who’d really done it, really overcome the demons of alienation and neurosis. I searched for the face behind the mast and, shamed by my cynicism, found only a face. He seemed that rarest of all creatures–a man wholly alive within himself.

This is admiration from a man who by no means loves the ideas that made Laing famous. His influence reached me before his books; that influence hardened me against him. Day by day the wreckage spoke to me. Too many acquaintances reeling in the standard syndrome of drug cultism, paranoia, mysticism, and “ego transcendence” had informed me they’d found Serenity and God–while they sat there with blasted eyes and trembling hands. I’d met one too many refugees from communes where The Politics of Experience ranks as Holy Writ, seen all too well that much-admired obliteration of the ego. Once too often I’d been put through the wringer of passive aggression; too often gazed into the depthless narcissism of some “ego transcender” wholly absorbed in his own spiritual heroism–or was it perhaps only the veil of maya that made enlightenment look so much like self-congratulation? Again and again, I’d discovered how thin-skinned was their dauntless spirituality, seen how swiftly one could be consigned to the ranks of the wicked by Ruining their Scene with the smallest question or criticism.

Nor did the ideology peddled in Laing’s name warm my heart. It seemed, above all, know-nothing anti-intellectualism spread by people whose last problem was the burden of intellect. In Laing’s name, tenth-rate minds proclaimed the sane crazy and the crazy sane (a great help to us all); in his name, the pain of family life was reduced to a paranoid melodrama starring enlightened, exalted victims (children) persecuted by vicious life-denying oppressors (parents). In his name (and that of the Ineffable), the whole task of consciousness was regularly dismissed in factor of self-indulgence, self-congratulation, and acid. For all this, I was told, R.D. Laing the shaman and seer. I quickly concluded that Laing was only spreading more of the wet rot, more delusion, more rage masked as Peace, more self-hatred as Fulfillment, more hype as Truth, more hysteria as Wholeness. And I was getting tired. Ah no, I thought. I’ve had enough of the latter-day saints. This Dr. Laing is one prophet who’ll get no hosannas from me.

Still, I sat down to read, the not inconsiderable arsenal of my argumentativeness ready to fire. Laing’s first book–written at age twenty-eight–is called The Divided Self. More of the wet rot? The Divided Self is a work of such penetrating and compassionate intelligence, so utterly trenchant in the merciless precision with which it views the psychic dilemmas and strategies of our time that I challenge anyone who has looked seriously at his own pain to read it with his consciousness of himself and others unchanged. With quiet modesty it calls on the most exhilarating insights of phenomenology, existentialism, and psychoanalysis to describe the maze with a sturdy simplicity that carries one beyond amazement to amaze again. This is articulated, intuitive intelligence of the most remarkable kind; it is quite possibly healing truth. I consider The Divided Self to be a very nearly great book. Within my reading of psychiatric literature by living writers, only Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress has touched me so deeply.

So much for my paranoia about the wicked Laing. Exalted, and smarting from the shock of recognition, I sat still; wondering what misadventure could have put this superb creature in the loathsome intellectual company of Timothy Leary and the truly unmentionable Alan Watts. More seriously, what could have carried this luminous mind so deeply into what seems to be the blindness of our time? Yes, said another voice. And what about your own blindness?

The Divided Self, I was told, is Laing before the conversion. The Politics of Experience is the real thing, the biggie on which his mass reputation rests. The change is drastic indeed. “I have seen the Bird of Paradise,” Laing exclaims in its final pages. “She has spread herself before me and I will never be the same again.” Laing first took LSD in 1960 and had used it often by the time the book appeared. I can’t define the drug’s role in what happened to him—but it obviously had a role. A vast mysticism sweeps through his writing in a rush that scatters his intellect like leaves before the wind. In The Politics of Experience the astonishing concreteness of his imaginative encounter with particular dilemmas and particular people vanishes, and the book spins through the intoxication of pure generalization, its spin-offs ever more reckless and doctrinaire. We do not, he asserts, we cannot, understand. “If I could drive you out of your wretched mind,” he gasps in the final sentence, “if I could tell you, I would let you know.” But he cannot tell us. His vision has left him speechless. And speech–our search for the articulate, the graspable–has left us blind.

We–Laing and us—find ourselves suddenly divided at the impasse of the unspeakable. It’s a familiar impasse, asserted to the point of tedium by almost all mystical devotees. And how deeply cherished it is – this Silence that renders the mystic’s experience wholly immune from any scrutiny. We’re told they have seen a Truth that cannot be imparted. It is self-validating. Had we seen it, we would believe. Not believing is only proof that we have not seen it. And not having seen it, we cannot speak of it at all. Nor can we doubt it. Wholly beyond empathy, examination, or moral scrutiny, the mystic’s experience is privileged with the politics of invulnerability. The transaction runs as follows: The shaman informs us that he has had the Ultimate Experience and we have not. Believe it or be blind. Confirm it or be its enemy.

To the unenlightened this smacks of obvious hostile passive aggression. But that is to the unenlightened. I believe Laing when he says he has seen the Bird of Paradise. I don’t for a moment doubt he has had an experience so overwhelming he will never be the same again. As to is being the Truth–Laing’s silence enforces mine. Yet my wretched mind cannot help but notice how speaking in tongues has effectively terminated human interchange; how the vision of the All has radically excluded and closed off contact; how this Ultimate Openness is asserting its complete immunity from contact with others. Here one might start disputing the Leap of Faith and the Evidence of Things Unseen. But there is a more concrete, more painful experience. Listening to most devotees (though not Laing), one seems to hear a very familiar, very frightened voice issuing from the Unspeakable: Don’t touch me! It seems to cry. Don’t threaten me! Get away! I’m strong! I’ve seen!

The Evidence of Things Unseen in this book is the writing itself and its appalling coarsening of intellectual texture. A “crazy”–crazy like a fox–logic introduces itself. Examples:

The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man.

Society values the normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and become absurd, and thus to be normal.

Normal men have killed perhaps 100 million of their follow normal men in the past fifty years.

True sanity entails the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self completely adjusted to our alienated social reality.

Et. Cetera. Each of these statements contains some horrible, undeniable element of truth which, by the alchemy of platitude as wisdom, proceeds to set in motion an inevitable but wholly obscurantist set of implications. “Society” assumes its traditional role as enemy; meanwhile “normality” (what say?) is defined as alienated and false, the very modality of mass murder, deadened experience, abdicated ecstasy, absurdity, being “out of one’s mind.” Therefore, to be true and connected, open to life, joyous, meaningfully alive, and awake is to be “abnormal.” Only one small leap makes “abnormality” the very embodiment of these sweet things. The guilty “abnormal” finds himself a joyous but solitary creature surrounded by the zombies. And should he chance not to feel so joyous, it’s their fault.

This is not the language of the “inter-experience” that Laing sonorously informs us is essential to human survival. This is no liberation from the monstrous association of guilt with “normality” and “abnormality” so cruelly indulged all around us. It is the very vocabulary of paranoia, crying out (albeit brilliantly) against false enemies, the better to make its vulnerability and isolation seem like strength and wholeness. The Politics of Experience is filled with remarkable passages, but it is a hysterical and demagogic book.

At Hunter, Laing deplored his old Trotskyite habit of looking for “goodies” and “baddies.” (The words are wonderful in his Scottish accent.) Yet the more The Politics of Experience inveighs against the alienation of Self from Other, the more deeply it sinks into the glamorous rut of wonderful Us and wicked Them; the more it intones against moralism, the more ferociously it morally divides the world. In the name of loving all mankind it embraces a wholly paranoid vision of life. And the very ugly fact is that precisely this has put The Politics of Experience among the most influential books of our time and made Laing into one of the most famous moralists alive. “Have you been misunderstood?” The lights shining, the cameras rolling. “I’ve been very much misunderstood.”

So that wraps it up right? One brilliant, one catastrophic, book; several others in a more ordinary range of interest. Wrong. Before such a phenomenon, doubt is not so easily dispelled, nor so easily asserted. What about the man I met in the Algonquin Hotel? What of his charisma, his power? In conversation it is overwhelming—in a welcome way, as vitality and the fullness of life are overwhelming and welcome. Confronting that, one thinks a good deal more than twice. I am not where he is—am I therefore wrong to doubt him? In 1964 the converted Laing wrote a preface to a new edition of The Divided Self, virtually renouncing it. “But let it stand,” he concludes. “This is the work of an old young man.” I wince. I’m its wholehearted admirer: Am I too an old young man? Despite my doubts, has Laing made some crucial journey into freshness–with its ups and downs of course–that I can’t comprehend? I asked him what caused the change. He replied he had matured. So am I callow in my premature senility? And what of this mysticism–this Bird of Paradise–I experience as a rigged game of passive aggression? It is an experience I have not had.

Yet the fundamental dialectic of all Laing’s work–the dialectic of our isolation and our community–speaks directly to me, and one message of that dialectic warns against putting either one’s certainties or doubts into the hands of distant heroes. For we are all isolated in the face of the unspeakable, articulating it as best we can. And the politics of my experience tells me it is no accident that a man who has written with such intimate profundity about Self alienated from Other (and therefore itself) should also have written with such power out of a paranoid vision. It also tells me that accident is not necessarily Truth. It may be only more of our damages.

Somewhere within us, we all know what catatonia is about. It is just doing it, being it, that seems so crazy, so literally insupportable. Everyone has experienced the terrors of solitude; but we are terrified and offended by those so terribly alone they cannot even speak. The paradox: Our isolation is shared, yet no less isolation for that. What’s called schizophrenia drives this paradox to its extremities, so that in The Politics of Experience Laing calls the schizophrenic the “hierophant of the sacred“, while in The Divided Self he writes:

The schizophrenic is desperate, is simply without hope. I have never known a schizophrenic who could say he is loved, as a man, by God the Father or by the Mother of God or by another man. When someone says he is an unreal man or that he is dead, in all seriousness expressing in radical terms the stark truth of his existence–that is insanity....

The kernel of the schizophrenic’s experience of himself must remain incomprehensible to us….We have to recognize all the time his distinctiveness and differentness, his separateness and loneliness and despair.

In these terms, these two books–for all their triumphs and disgraces, their healing truths and outrages–situate themselves at the very poles of our alienated isolation. Forget normal and not normal. Who would dare disagree with this statement in The Politics of Experience?

What we think is less than what we know. What we know is less than what we love; what we love is so much less than what there is. And to that precise extent we are so much less than what we are.

To become conscious of this fact is to want it to stop. My experience may be parochial, but I have never known anyone really well who has not had to confront at some time–many times–the possibility that whatever it is that makes life really worth living may never be his. Our infamous alienation means we face the constant threat that for all our ambitions, strategies, analyses, assertions of and givings of ourselves, our instructive bungles and liberating triumphs, the sweetness and life may still elude us. And we want to be saved. Saved for sure.

And there is no “for sure,” which shortly becomes obvious. Obvious too that our solitude is not going to be redeemed by others, and that others cannot answer to our solitude. A thin volatility of rage begins to permeate experience: We look for (or find ourselves in) more strategies and explanations, and they are sometimes very crazy. But in their craziness there is invariably a certain truth, an unanswerable as Delmore Schwartz’s famous remark that even a paranoiac can have his enemies. Some injury has been done to us: They–whoever they are–have done it. Exactly so. What makes living with this fact so difficult is that it cannot be denied (which promotes a deluded and complacent vision of autonomy), nor can it be indulged (embracing the lie of victimhood and giving the injury total, paralyzing, blind power). Meanwhile the culture (and the counterculture) helps the game along with plenty of We’s and Them’s–e.g. “freaks vs. straights,” a favorite–to reassure us with the necessary (to us) evil of “them,” burning in our minds like a fever. But the game is rigged. Here’s the conundrum: We are undeniably victims. But to define ourselves as victims only drives us deeper into that alienation which we are the victims. I’ve got no snappy answers about the exit from this intellectual torture chamber. And if Ronald David Laing has the answer, he has yet (as he puts it) to “let us know.” Meanwhile we remain stuck with our wretched minds, simultaneously alone with ourselves and alone with others, often wretched in both. Maybe the answer is that there is no answer. Or maybe we get scared and do the best we can

In the bitterness of his heart, Stendhal dedicated The Red and the Black, that study of failed heroism, delusions, and loneliness as follows: “To the Happy Few.” The phrase sings with Stendhal’s sarcasm and rage; but one can also hear in it the stifled gasp of a breathless wish. I was thinking of Them–the Happy Few–when I went to the Algonquin. The suite I walked into was crowded with the fame of the shaman of psychoanalysis. Laing is a handsome man, vital, loved, in touch with himself and others, not visibly frightened, decent, funny, masterfully intelligent, astoundingly insightful, possessed of an orienting vision. He kindly postponed a luncheon appointment to make room for our talk. When Laing was out of the room, I turned to Peter Mezan+, who is writing a book on him, and said, without sarcasm, “He really loves being famous, doesn’t he?” Mezan smiled and said, “Well, he’s very interested in it.” Laing and I discussed existential psychoanalysis and André Breton and how tough it is to stop smoking. Then my question about misunderstanding left me with my perplexities about who is misunderstanding whom.

As the interview drew to a close, a question formed in my mind. I thought it sonorous and resonant–a dramatic way to conclude. But I’m not an actor. I wasn’t sure that in asking it, my impressiveness might not be betrayed by some slash of bitterness, some gasp of breathless wishing. I was going to ask, “Dr. Laing, what about the Happy Few? Do they exist? Have you ever known one? Can one join them? Have you?” But while I was gathering my nerve for this little coup de théâtre, Laing’s wife darted him an admonitory glance that made him check his watch. “But now I really must go to lunch,” he said, standing up and giving me a quick, radiant smile. Then I stood up, mumbled my thanks, and the question of questions died on my lips.



*The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. Penguin, 1967

+"Have you been misunderstood?"

Back in Suite 608 a reporter, open notebook in hand, was attempting to put his questions, trying vainly to ignore the maneuverings of the cameraman and sound man.
"I've been very much misunderstood," Laing sighed. "I spend a lot of my time trying to undo misunderstandings that are going on." He smiled noticing the young man's bemusement.
"This is the first time in my life I've been given this sort of treatment."

[From Peter Mezan's R.D. Laing: Portrait of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic] [admin addendum. ]

"Worrying About Ronald Laing"
16 January 1973

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