Member Login








In Person

Art & Literature


Philosophy & Religion

Peace & Conflict

Shamanism & Rebirth

Politics of Diagnosis

Therapeutic Communities

·SLS Annual·

Submit a Paper

·About the SLS·

Site Staff


Patrons & Sponsors

Join the Society

Contact us

· Resources ·

Search the Site

Notes and Notation

A Timeline

Further Links

About this site



Associate site

The International R.D. Laing Institute


Colloquia Topics Index [link]Art & Literature Index

Pattern, Perception and Presence:1
Issues in the Struggle for Narrative Meaning
in the Writings of R. D. Laing

Donald Vanouse

We are acting parts in a play that we have never read and never seen,
whose plot we don't know, whose existence we can glimpse, but whose
beginning and end are beyond our present imagination and conception.
from The Politics of the Family (87)

As intensely as an experimental-fiction writer, the psychiatrist, R.D. Laing sought to expose personal and cultural narrative strategies and to propose - or explore - alternative structures. Writing as a witness to the dehumanization of healing, Laing finds arrogant detachment in the diagnoses of mental illness, and he expresses horror at many procedures and goals of treatment. He even questions the training which leads doctors to their empowerment.

But he is most concerned with the neglect of the thoughts and feelings and words of the psychiatric patients. For Laing, the psychiatric response to the Other - the person labelled «schizophrenic» - exemplifies the split between thought and feeling which is deadening our awareness of ourselves and threatening the very existence of our world. Such microcosmography is characteristic of Laing's narratives: it gives a rhetorical and spiritual resonance to his respect for the experience of the individual.

My choice of alliteration in the title of this paper is an allusion to the terms «purpose, passion and perception» found in Francis Fergusson's essay on the recurring, intensifying structure of beginnings, middles and endings in Oedipus Rex (30-31). Freud, in his famous comments on the «action» of the play, finds that the dramatic process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever mounting excitement, is «a process that can be likened to the work of psychoanalysis» (295). Nevertheless, jokes about interminable therapies and commentaries on Freud's case histories (See: Bernheimer and Kahane) indicate that the structure of the psychoanalytic process is not a narrative of Sophoclean clarity.

R.D. Laing suggests that the historical development of psychoanalysis has led, in fact, to uncertainty and conflict. When, in his own training, he sought to be supervised by Melanie Klein, he encountered a dispute at the London Institute of Psychoanalysis. The analysts did not agree about which of the analysts had themselves been «properly analyzed» (Evans, 3). In Francis Fergusson's terms, Freud's method led the analysts to passionate discord rather than shared, professional perception. Laing concludes, «It's very difficult to say what psychoanalysis means today, since there are so many people who call themselves psychoanalysts, and practice so many different things...» (Evans, 3). The narratives of psychoanalytic training and healing have, according to Laing, become uncertain. Speaking more broadly of psychiatry, he asks,

What do you do when you don't know what to do? No wonder there are more suicides among psychiatrists than in any other profession (Wisdom, Madness, Folly, 126).

As a result seeing of such historical uncertainty, Laing's own psychiatric work was eclectic and skeptical.

His early work in military hospitals exposed him to questions in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. The diagnostic term schizophrenia, became visible to Laing as a link between severely disordered mental patients, the doctors who imposed their treatments, and patterns of alienation in the wider society.

He wrote extensively on the clinical literature concerning the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia. In rejecting Kallmann's and Slater's «Genetic Theory», for example, he shows that their diagnostic procedures are flawed by theoretical presuppositions. Further, Laing notes that in his program for eliminating the «schizoid genotype» Kallman refers at one point to patients in whom

...such symptoms of schizoid abnormality as bigotry pietism, avarice, superstition, obstinacy or crankiness... [are] present in a striking and disproportionate degree (Evans, 108).

This, Laing observes, is «a vocabulary of vituperation and denigration», not the identification of symptoms. Here we glimpse what Laing sees as the actual narrative in diagnosing schizophrenia: the psychiatrist and/or the family members and/or other members of society find someone difficult or unpleasant or impossible to understand. The diagnosis is a first step in excluding and treating them. And, for Kallman, this would include recommendations for sterilization.

Laing parodies such a narrative of diagnosis in The Politics of the Family. Morel, the 19th century French psychiatrist, is seen to develop his case as a detective pursues a criminal:

... the mind police (psychiatrists) are called in. A crime (illness) is diagnosed. An arrest is made and the patient taken into custody (hospitalization)... A confession may be obtained (patient admits he is ill, displays insight). He is convicted either way (74).

For Laing, such structures of intervention link contemporary psychiatric practices to the brutalities of the Inquisition. Just as women were disproportionately the victims of being «tortured and burnt» in those witch hunts, so «the statistics for the number of women to men whose brains have been cut up [lobotomized] are 3 to 1, all by men» (Facts of Life, 123). Laing looks behind such statistics in discussing Ludwig Binswanger's postmortum analysis of Ellen West (1958). Laing finds insensitivity to Ellen West's own wishes and writings, and he notes an uncritical acceptance of the opinions of her parents and her husband. Most important, he finds Binswanger's perceptions blinded by the term schizophrenia», which had been used on Ellen West by Bleuler who «invented» the diagnosis. The conclusion of Laing's critique is a sardonic comment on the structure of Binswanger's analysis of Ellen West: «her existential Gestalt, like a horoscope in reverse, shows the unfolding of in which the issue of being «cut off» from ourselves and others is not simply an either-or of schizophrenic pathology. Such a normal individual, Laing adds, «may attack and destroy anyone who is not cut off like him, who remembers having forgotten, or who merely speculates that he might have or must have» been cut-off (The Voice of Experience, 163-4).

Such a capacity for dehumanizing and doing violence to each other is visible in the narratives of the family, the atrocities of war, and even in the case histories from our clinics of healing. For Laing, these are not separate from the structures of illusion by which we define and defend and even torture ourselves.

These are some of the issues which he addresses in the verse collection, Knots. In that volume he begins with schematic renderings of the patterns «of human bondage» experienced in childhood and ends by exploring the metaphysical challenges to the verbal and linear mind in such Zen images as «a finger points to the moon» (87-90).

Although the book has five sections, it does not proceed toward narrative closure. The sections are indicated with numbers rather than titles, and individual poems within each section are untitled and interconnected. For example, the child, Jack, feels possessiveness toward his mother, but he fears being devoured by her. These emotional conflicts recur in Jack's emotional responses to Jill. And Jill herself brings similarly conflicted needs and fears to her relationship with Jack (See: 14-17). Layers of needs and guilts, judgments and resentments are intertwined with the early conflicted desires of childhood.

In the poems, chronology and simultaneity are sometimes indicated with numbers, brackets and arrows, and with circular, shaped poems. Through such devices, Laing insists that the patterns of psychological experience do not correspond to the syntactic possibilities of verbal narration.

Nevertheless, the interpersonal knots narrow and simplify issues discussed in The Politics of the Family. In that book, he states that the ensnaring loops of perception and projection reach back for many generations, and they include uncles and cousins and siblings as well as mothers and children (86). For all its daring, Knots is a modest experiment in exposing the narratives of suffering. It is not simply the entrapped voice of «Mutterings» (Do You Love Me, 6-7), nor does it affirm the click of closure found in most of his Sonnets.

His Conversations with Adam and Natasha is a selection of uninterpreted dialogues from six years in his children's lives. It records the «interlace» (vi) of language between adults and children, including playful riddles and a series of developmentally interesting questions about comparative ages of family members, calendar dates and intervals of time. And sometimes there is a knot of intensity:

June, 1976

Natasha: «Can God kill himself?»
Mummy: «I don't know» (115).

The book is Laing's affirmation that the moments of experience need not be purposeful, in the narrative sense to have meaning. The book affirms the sincerity, and energy possible in communication between parents and children.

In discussing the electro-shock therapy which he witnessed in Army hospitals, Laing observes that the doctors seemed to be taking «the death and rebirth archetype literally» (Wisdom, Madness and Folly, 92). He rejected such aggressive methods of re-enactment, but Laing himself has taken mythic narratives quite literally.

He proposed, for example, that certain instances of extreme catatonic withdrawal could correspond to the trance by which the Shaman died and was reborn. He reports such a mythic journey as the «Coda» to The Voice of Experience. On Good Friday, his patient spontaneously designed a ritual space and entered a catatonic state. On Easter Sunday, she was reborn and returned to consciousness. The narrative reports a sharp contrast between the results of her earlier electro-shock treatments and the results of her ritual. After electro-shock, when she was cured, she «was in despair. She felt dead.» After her ritual, she emerged on Easter Sunday as «... what she had nearly despaired of ever becoming) a normal woman» (170). Her narrative is an iconic rebuke to aggressive psychiatric intervention.

Laing reports seeing parallel, even more literal journeys of rebirth during his trip to the U.S. in 1972. He observed therapeutic «rebirthings» performed by Elizabeth Fehr, and he brought the procedure back to his practice in London (Facts..., 70-2).

These specific re-enactments of passing through the birth canal raised a number of issues for his colleagues («What about the transference? What about suggestion?»), but Laing appears to have been most interested in the infant's capacity for experiencing and remembering birth. Such a capacity for recording the constrictions in the birth canal and the shock of the cutting of the umbilical cord indicated possible sources in the narratives of suffering.

The medical practice of cutting the umbilical cord while it is still fully functional suggested, in particular, the schizophrenic perception of being «cut off» from the self and others. Furthermore, Laing proposes that much of the literary and dream imagery which is associated with the penis in psychoanalysis is more appropriately seen as umbilical imagery (The Voice of Experience, 135-7). By calling attention to the effects of premature cutting of the umbilicus upon breathing and the rhythm of the heart (The Facts of Life, 60), he attempts to locate the kinds of bodily memory-traces that the experience could impose.

But the issue of birth-memory led Laing deeper - into foetal development - in his quest for beginnings. In the foetus' relationship to the placenta, for example, he glimpses the «lost double, the twin, the Other» (The Facts of Life, 64). In the development of the zygote into the foetus, he finds analogues to the narratives of the hero in such works as Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of Moses. The sagas are, then, a bringing to consciousness of a vast and marvelous embryological adventure. And even this is not the beginning. He discusses the cellular biologists's speculative correlations between the fertilizing and dividing of the cells of the ovum and the Gnostic and Indian myths of creation (The Voice of Experience,150-55).

For Laing, the plot of scientific, rationalist abstraction is the destruction of our selves and our world. This narrative hungry for closure is, perhaps, the Freudian death wish (See: Brooks, 280-300). Laing himself is concerned to clarify patterns of suffering, and he speculates about the structures of transformation by which people might deal with their suffering. In his correlations of embryology and mythic narrative, he suggests that to be human is to be wounded in vast journeys, and yet, in each instance, our humanity has behind it heroic achievements and beginnings co-equal with the creation itself. Laing's own narrative concerns do not seek for endings fore-shadowed and foredoomed, but rather seek to reveal the patterns of inception, the knots in the webs of Maya which are the vulnerabilities of being human.


Bernheimer, C. & Kahane, C. (Eds.) (1985). In Dora's Case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, P. (1982). "Freud's Masterplot". In Literature and Psychoanalysis (Shoshana Felman, Ed.), Baltimore: John Hopkins.

Evans, R.I. (1976). R.D. Laing: The Man and His Ideas. New York: Dutton.

Felman, S. (1989). "Narrative as Testimony: Camus' The Plague". In Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology (James Phalen. Ed.). Columbus, Ohio: OSU Press.

Fergusson, F. (1953). "The Tragic Rhythm of Action". In The Idea of a Theater. New York: Doubleday.

Freud, S. (1965). The Interpretation of Dreams (trans. James Strachy). New York: Avon.

Laing, R.D. (1970). Knots. New York: Vintage Books.

Laing, R.D. (1972). The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books.

Laing, R.D. (1976). A Critique of Kallman's and Slater's Genetic Theory of Schizophrenia. In R.D.

Laing, R.D. (1976). Do You Love Me. New York: Pantheon.

Laing, R.D. (1976). The Facts of Life. New York: Pantheon.

Laing, R.D. (1977). Conversations with Adam and Natasha. New York: Random.

Laing, R.D. (1980). Sonnets. New York: Pantheon.

Laing, R.D. (1982). The Voice of Experience. New York: Pantheon.

Laing, R.D. (1985). Wisdom, Madness and Folly: The Making of a Psychiatrist. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sedgwick, P. (1982). Psycho Politics. New York: Harper and Row.

© Donald Vanouse
State University of New York at Oswego, Department of English
Oswego, New York 13126, USA.

first published in
Literature and Psychoanalysis - Proceedings of
Eighth International Conference on Literature and Psychoanalysis
London, July 1991
Edited by Frederico Pereira
Institute for the Psychological Studies of the Arts, University of Florida
Published by Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisbon

How to cite a webpage

Comments and suggestions on the content and/or any problems with the display of this page would be appreciated by the admin. Thanks.