An Introduction to the works of R.D. Laing
by Philip Dore
'The requirement of the present, the failure of the past, is the same: to provide a thoroughly self-conscious and self-critical human account of man.'
The Politics of Experience
hese pages are intended as a forum for the ideas of Ronald David Laing, one of the most controversial figures of 20th Century psychology and philosophy. His writings - a beguiling mix of psychoanalysis, mysticism, existentialism and left-wing politics - make for powerful and often disturbing reading; disturbing because they so clearly demonstrate the extent to which the average human being is entrapped by the pressures of social conformity.
His first book, The Divided Self, was an attempt to explain schizophrenia by using existentialist philosophy to vividly portray the inner world of a schizophrenic, which Laing presented as an attempt to live in an unlivable situation. His later books, such as Self and Others and The Politics of Experience, expand upon this to show how contemporary culture conspires to rob us of our individuality.
Laing remains a highly enigmatic figure. His work tends to be dismissed by most psychiatrists; however, droves of mentally ill people insist that this was a man who truly understood how they felt. Laing always insisted that psychotherapists should act as shamans, exorcising the illness through a process of mutual catharsis. This is particularly apt, since, like the archetypal shaman, Laing did not appear to so much preach a doctrine as live it. His self-destructive tendencies and mood swings are well documented. In 1989 he died of a heart attack at the age of 62, his health ruined by years of depression and alcoholism.
Since Laing refused to view mental illness in biomedical/clinical terms, he has often been labelled as part of the so-called 'antipsychiatry' movement, alongside figures such as David Cooper, Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. However, Laing vehemently rejected this label. He never tried to deny that mentally ill people are in need of help - he simply did not believe that conventional psychiatry provided the answer. He was especially opposed to the use of lobotomies, ECT and the dehumanising effects of incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of Laing's approach can be seen by an incident related in John Clay's book R.D. Laing: A Divided Self.
While still in Chicago, Laing was invited by some doctors to examine a young girl diagnosed as schizophrenic. The girl was locked into a padded cell in a special hospital, and sat there naked. She usually spent the whole day rocking to and fro. The doctors asked Laing for his opinion. What would he do about her? Unexpectedly, Laing stripped off naked himself and entered her cell. There he sat with her, rocking in time to her rythm. After about twenty minutes she started speaking, something she had not done for several months. The doctors were amazed. 'Did it never occur to you to do that?' Laing commented to them later, with feigned innocence. (pp. 170-171)
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Summaries in the 'Politics' section of this bibliography written by
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