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The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties

Theodor Solotaroff
Antheneum, New York. 1970

R.D. Laing: The Uses of Madness

R.D. Laing is a forty-year-old English psychiatrist who has been making a name for himself as an unusually lucid and humane student of schizophrenia, as one of the more articulate exponents of the school of thought known as existential psychoanalysis, and as an imaginative member of the English New Left. More generally, Laing can be said to belong to the small band of intellectuals found in each major culture today who are trying to create a new humanism in the face of the pieties and defeats that have undermined the old; who are searching for a faith in man that can withstand the acids of nihilism that modem experience continually secretes. Like them, Laing is struggling to make a new basis for the unity of body and spirit, mind and heart, that our society seems committed to dismember, and to redraw the lines of sanity in an age that has seen "normal" men destroy nearly a hundred million of their fellow men.

All of this makes him a deviant member of his profession, to say the least: contemporary psychiatry being one of the most conservative, complacent, and narrow of the intellectual professions-and, increasingly, a symptom of the illness of the alienation, to paraphrase Karl Kraus, that it seeks to cure. Except for a few voices here and there (most of them belonging to men trained in Europe, such as Bruno Bettelheim, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm), the psychiatrists seem content to accept the reality principle as given by society, no matter how pathogenic the realities of our society have become. The enormous influence they wield in tlie private lives of the educated middle class is only matched by their silent acceptance of a public world that is, quite literally, driving more and more of us crazy in the effort to adjust to it.

Laing's relatively brief career has been marked by a steady expansion of interests from the clinical to the social and by a personal development from the detachment of the analyst to the passionate inwardness of the critic and lately of the prophet. "Detachment" is not quite the right word, though. Laing's first book. The Divided Self, is for all of its calm, dispassionate tone, one of the most moving accounts of madness I have ever read as well as the clearest. Its strength derives from Laing's insistence on viewing his schizoid and psychotic patients as persons rather than as cases. He explains their behavior as an effort to preserve their lives in a world that has been made unlivable for them by their early formative relationships-relationships that have bred an anxiety that pervades their existence as thoroughly as coldness pervades the existence of an Eskimo. This state of "ontological insecurity" creates a terrible logic; to preserve his small sense of aliveness, reality, and integrity, the person constructs a "false self" that draws attention and threat away from his "true self" and also enables him to function to the extent that he can in the real world. At the same time, however, this splitting of the person's being progressively worsens the problem that it sought to manage by depriving the "true self" of any sustenance save that of fantasy and by making the functioning of the false self increasingly compulsive and artificial. This basic dilemma spawns a variety of subsidiary ones, and when the torments of the division become intolerable, the schizoid person will decide either to murder his self or abruptly begin to act out his true self despite everything. Either decision is likely to produce a psychosis.

All of which is meant to describe not a "disease" but rather a state of radical privation (and a desperate struggle to cope with it) that is all too human. Laing beautifully fleshes out this analysis by descriptions of the character and experiences of his patients that are to the usual case histories what Hamlet is to those scholarly disquisitions on his motives. Indeed, Laing's portraits of "David," "an adolescent Kierkegaard played by Danny Kaye"; of "Peter," an apparently robust young man who was at home only with dogs, who lived, as he put it, "on the fringe of being," and who was "driven by a terrible sense of honesty to be nothing"; of "Marie," a girl suffering from acute contactlessness who cured herself by going for a week to see La Strada-these and others form a gallery in The Divided Self of the radically abused and injured victims of the common life that not only demonstrate Laing's theories about the integrity of madness but also make the book a deep literary experience.

In a recent preface to a new edition of The Divided Self, however, Laing expresses a dissatisfaction with the book: "I was already partially falling into the trap I was seeking to avoid. I [was] still writing . . . too much about Them and too little of Us." Much of his intervening work, particularly that in Reason and Violence, which he wrote with David Cooper and directly under the influence of Sartre, has sought to relate the sources of individual alienation not only to the family background but also to the broader social norms that govern the relations between the individual and others. In his new book, The Politics of Experience, Laing has reached the extreme position to which many younger intellectuals are being driven today by the manifest brutality and absurdity of these norms:

We do not live in a world of unambiguous identities and definitions, needs and fears, hopes, disillusions. The tremendous social realities of our time are ghosts, specters of murdered gods and our own humanity returned to haunt and destroy us. The Negroes, the Jews, the Reds. Them. Only you and I dressed differently. The texture of the fabric of these socially shared hallucinations is what we call reality, and our collusive madness is what we call sanity.

The Politics of Experience thus goes well beyond the Freudian resolution of civilization and its discontents. Laing argues that society is not only sexually and instinctually repressive but also that its steady barrage of pseudo-reality alienates us from our senses and sense, impoverishes and destroys our experience. This "condition of alienation-of being asleep- of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man. ... If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves."

The Politics of Experience is both a technical and prophetic exploration of the processes of this destruction: of what we do to each other and to ourselves as alienated beings. There are the defense mechanisms that keep the Other off, that protect us by means of self-mystification from the fear and trembling of what little freedom to be ourselves and to relate positively to others survives. Such mechanisms, as Laing keeps insisting, are not merely personal but trans-per-sonal: in insidiously aggressive ways they distort the Other's experience and turn him into a thing. Similarly, Laing wishes us to realize that the largest sum of these trans-personal alienating mechanisms is the society, the state. How much alienation, for example, is being inflicted at present both on the Vietnamese and on ourselves by those mystified defense mechanisms with which we are "containing Communism"? "in order to rationalize our industrial-military complex," Laing says, "we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses. Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste our own sanity."

Such assertions are, of course, prevalent today. Contemporary politics makes apocalyptics of us all. The question is how much authority Laing's picture of our alienation carries. The Politics of Experience suffers from being made up of papers that were originally intended for special audiences, whether those that read psychiatric journals or the New Left Review. As a result, the writing tends to be often baldly assertive and elliptical and often lacks the rigorously sustained development of his ideas that one finds in The Divided Self. But, more crucially, I think Laing has fallen victim to the kind of literary terrorism that our chronic desperation encourages: what might be called the "signaling through the flames" school of writing. The trouble is that desperation is not enough. We arc all desperate. The notions of freedom on which Laing grounds his analysis of man-good existentialist that Laing is-require that we be responsible for the attitude we bring to the experience of fragmentation, contactlessness, violence, that we try to hold together the whole man in ourselves, in all his ambiguities, even as he is being daily torn apart. In a sense we are, as Laing says, "all murderers and prostitutes ... no matter how normal, moral, or mature we take ourselves to be," just as we are all, to a greater or less degree, schizoid. But we merely begin to mystify ourselves, and to foster further alienation, when we try to substitute these definitions for our experience of being in the world. The ugliness of one feeling does not cancel out the decency of another, just as the dehumanization of children in one household does not mean that pre-psychotics are also being created next door.

The overwhelming problem that all sensitive men face today is to maintain their balance, and not to con themselves by believing, as Laing says he does, that the worst has already happened. Curiously enough, the most convincing pages of The Politics of Experience are those devoted to the sanity and spirituality of "madness," rather than those that seem devoted to driving the rest of us out of our "wretched minds." Which is perhaps only to say that Laing writes best when he writes from the integrity of his own experience and eschews the temptation to make a total, vague, and baiting politics of it.

"R.D. Laing:The Uses of Madness"
The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties
Theodor Solotaroff
Antheneum, New York. 1970

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