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The International R.D. Laing Institute

 



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R.D. Laing and the Nature of Evil1
Juan Galis-Menendez



I.
I remember an old black and white photograph of a boy who appears to be about eight years-old. He is wearing a cloth cap, a thin jacket and his hands are in the air. There is a look of shock, fear and confusion on his face. Snow seems to drift down lazily from a gray sky, other people, men and women as well as other children, are walking or standing near him in a similar pose. They are wearing arm bands with a yellow Star of David. There are soldiers standing near him, wearing heavy coats, carrying weapons, holding large dogs and they seem to be laughing. I don't remember exactly whether the background to this photo is the Warsaw ghetto or the Auschwitz concentration camp, but I think there may be more than one image of this boy out there, in collections of photos of the Holocaust. I think of this image as one of arrival rather than departure.

I see the boy as arriving at a concentration camp. It is an image that has haunted my imagination.

I do not know this boy's name. I cannot say for certain what happened to him. It is almost certain that he perished not long after this photo was taken. I find myself becoming emotional even now, as I type these words, and hold the image in my mind. He probably died, along with many others, in a most horrible way, in that hideous factory of death.

I came accross this photo in the seventh grade, when I was studying the Holocaust and purchased a book on the subject that was much too difficult for me then, The War Against the Jews by Lucy S. Dawidowicz. I still have a copy of that book -- which I rediscovered, recently, like an old friend, in a sidewalk bookstall in Manhattan. I recommend this book or any other on this topic -- as painful as it is to read about -- to friends in order to help children discuss the Holocaust, something which must be a part of the education of every person living in the aftermath of that horror.

My daughter, Silvia, has studied this episode in human history and the civil rights movement too, and we have talked about what they may mean, and whether it is possible to make sense of such events. I hope that we will always do so.

In 1968, another eight year-old boy arrived at Newark airport, on a bitterly cold day in the month of January. He looked a lot like that young German-Jewish boy, decades earlier, arriving at Auschwitz. He also wore an inappropriately thin cloth jacket and a dazed expression. His father had been executed by a firing squad in his native Cuba. His mother had been detained and not permitted to leave the island, not to be reunited with him until months later. He was hungry and frightened. He had not one cent in the world. He was with relatives who may have seen him as an unwanted burden. He did not know the language spoken in this strange, gray and very cold country. As he departed from his native land the previous day, he also had been laughed at by soldiers in military fatigues, carrying weapons. He would be laughable to his new classmates also.

I was the eight year-old boy who arrived at that airport in January of 1968. I did not understand then why people shoot or torture others because of their political beliefs, or for their religious beliefs, why good men and women on both sides in wars and revolutions die and suffer for a "cause," or -- as I soon came to see on American television which, amazingly enough, was available in "living color" -- because of their dark skin. I am not sure that I understand these things very well even now. I doubt that anyone, especially those "experts" who claim that they do, really does understand any of this. I know that witnessing such things injures people deeply, especially children, for generations to come. I know that these injuries done to children hurt them anew each day of their lives. I have come to accept, as well, that if it is true that we are all "trapped in history," to use Tolstoy's phrase, then we cannot escape the tragic and scarring choices that will arise between love and hate, compassion and understanding in our lives, all of our lives.

We will all have to decide now whether we wish to stand with those men holding the weapons and laughing or with those women, children and old people with their hands in the air, being marched to their enslavement and murder. This insistence on a choice is one of the legacies of the Holocaust and the attempts at genocide that have followed it. Neutrality in the face of the atrocities of our history is no longer an option, if it ever was. In the choice between power and pain, I will always choose to share in the pain of the powerless rather than to wield the power that causes so much pain.

I recall the moving words of Robert Kennedy, referring to the assassination of his own "family member" by a white man, at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- calling upon those tempted to hate all white men because one white man had been guilty of this single murder, to refrain from hatred and violence, so as work together with persons of all races for a world in which such tragedies would no longer occur.

Many of us will be hurt as children. Many of us will make the wrong choices as a result of these injuries. Many of us will respond to victimization by victimizing others. Many of us will refuse to examine the ways in which we ourselves come to resemble the people who have frightened and hurt us. No one has taught me more about living with and understanding overwhelming emotional pain and the nature of the choices forced upon us all by great evil than the philosophers and literary artists whose books I have read over the years. From among those thinkers, I wish to focus here on the writings of R.D. Laing.

R.D. Laing remains an important and controversial psychoanalyst and philosopher. His ideas are still provocative and powerful. They continue to irritate the psychiatric establishment. Nothing recommends a thinker better, to my mind, than the ability to irritate the professional and academic establishments years after his death. From my first encounter with Laing's writings in the eighties, as a college student when I heard about him in a philosophy class, I knew that this was a thinker whose ideas I would come to know well.

I have now read many of Laing's published works and I have read a great deal about him. I am certain that Laing's work has saved lives. It has inspired much interpretative commentary and reaction. In my judgment, Laing's philosophical contributions, apart from his work as a therapist, are significant and place him in the front rank of phenomenological thinkers. In what follows, I wish to say something about Laing's understaning of evil, of the harm that we do to one another and to ourselves, and of the unavoidable task of coming to terms with the capacity within each of us both to cause and to suffer, as well as to overcome, such harm.

My method is personal and subjective. It is not an attempt at value-neutrality, objectivity or statistical analysis. Like Laing, I am a phenomenologist with an interest in the theory of interpretation or "hermeneutics." According to the Dictionary of Philosophy, the word "hermeneutics" means "the theory of interpretation first of texts, and secondly of the whole social, historical and psychological world. The method is contrasted with objective scientific method by Weber and Dilthey."

I begin with (and from) my own limited and partial perspective on things. I do not believe that I can step out of the human condition in order to examine it. I am certain that I participate in what I seek to understand, in the "life-world" of human meanings and interactions, so that any serious effort to know another human being, including a person who has hurt us, can only really succeed if there is an opening up to that other person's experience or subjectivity. This is more difficult than it may seem, for this "opening up" must come from a perspective of shared humanity and genuine empathy.

For Laing, there is no way that such communication, authentic communication or understanding, is even possible in the absence of a mutual willingness to accept vulnerability, to risk opening up to the full "message" or "meaning" of the Other, and this is either a kind of love or it is nothing:

"When two or more persons are in relation, the behavior of each towards the other is mediated by the experience by each of the other, and the experience of each is mediated by the behavior of each. There is no contiguity between the behavior of one person and that of the other. Much human behavior can be seen as a unilateral or bilateral attempt to eliminate experience. A person may treat another as though he were not a person [because this is always safer]."

Laing said of the genuine effort to communicate with and understand any other human being:

"I think it is clear that by understanding I do not mean a purely intellectual process. For understanding one might say love. But no word has been more prostituted. What is necessary, though not enough, is a capacity to know how the other person is experiencing himself and the world, including oneself. If one cannot understand him, one is hardly in a position to begin to love him in any effective way."

I shall begin with Laing's recognition of the inherent capacity for evil within all of us and also for "mystification," that is, the ways in which we mask the harms that we do to others as forms of "concern" for others ("this is for your own good"), and the harms that are done to us within families and social groups as benefits received by us. Laing was particularly troubled that therapists not disguise their own imposition of power upon helpless patients, a process that is never innocent nor entirely apolitical, as ways of "helping" or "loving" them. No therapist who brings any political agenda to the therapeutic encounter, including any information-gathering mission for the State, can avoid becoming something other than therapist -- most likely a torturer. Finally, I say a little about Laing's ideas concerning "transcendence" and "love."

Love is an ambiguous concept for Laing. He saw that it might be a mask for domination, but also realized that:

"The main fact of life for me is love or its absence. Whether life is worth living depends for me on whether there is love in life. Without a sense of it, or even the memory of an hallucination of it, I would lose heart completely. When one studies human biology, one will hardly ever come accross the term or the concept and very little evidence of it."

I agree with Laing about the crucial importance of love and about the bond that results from genuine communication, which can arise even from a therapeutic relationship.

II.

For Laing, "normality" is a troublesome term. All societies deform and constrain the spiritual possiblities, the freedom and authenticity of persons by forcing them to conform to what is deemed a correct way of being. In other words, to accept a doubtful official "normality" that is actually a kind of madness and violence. This is merely the socially acceptable form of madness and violence -- acceptable and useful to powerful elites and establishments anyway. Needless to say, some forms of imposed normality are preferable to others. One is much better off in the U.S. coping with social or commercial pressures to purchase a "pet rock," say, than in societies, such as Stalin's Soviet Union, where one is more violently pressured to "conform" or be shipped to the Gulag.

To be sure, there must be standards of social behavior and cooperation among citizens if societies are to work. Yet the process of acculturation and socialization in most families and societies in the contemporary era, even in nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, is much more ambitious and devastating (if also more subtle) than such mild phrases might suggest. This process, again, must not be compared to the brutal repressions routinely experienced in totalitarian states, whether of the Right or Left.

Advanced industrialized societies require a certain sort of individual, a "docile subject" (to use Foucault's terminology), willing to perform the duties allotted to him or her without too many inconvenient qualms or hesitations, especially of the annoying moral sort that get in the way of what is advantageous for the collectivity as defined by a mysterious "they." Thus, it becomes useful to deny the reality of morality too.

Moral freedom may be a universal gift of the human subject, but it is a highly troublesome characteristic when your goal as a dictator is to get people to organize and work on the difficult task of moving, say, all those Jews into those trains and getting them off in a timely fashion to the concentration camps -- which themselves need to be run efficiently, of course, by "true patriots." The same goes for getting citizens to cooperate with the suppression of rights to freedom of expression in all closed societies.

If you want to get good American boys and girls, young men and women, to do the right thing in the fight against terrorism and not to ask too many questions at places like Abu Ghraib, well, it is important to make sure that they have been "brought up right" and been "taught the right values." Evidently, a few of them have been brought up in such a way that the events of Abu Ghraib could take place without too many questions being asked -- but they are being asked now, and by judges and prosecutors too. In the U.S. and other free societies we cannot claim that our citizens are morally perfect, but only that the imperfections are discussed publicly, acknowledged when necessary, or so we hope, and that the guilty are held accountable, after being accorded due process and only after that guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Nothing excuses the actions at Abu Ghraib, which are attributable to the individuals who committed them, and not (I continue to hope) to political leaders, like President Bush or Secretary Rumsfeld, who -- far from ordering them -- must have understood that they might be held accountable for such actions in the court of public opinion. I cannot accept that the U.S., as a matter of policy, resorts to such tactics. It does not have to do so. Besides, given the propaganda value of those images of torture to the enemies of the U.S., it would be idiotic as well as evil for American political leaders to endorse such tactics, if (as many of my friends believe) they did in fact endorse or call for them.

At this point, the paper trail is far from conclusive on this question of guilt and the presumption of innocence attaches even to conservative politicians. I hope that no American national political leaders would be so foolish or malignant as to endorse or call for the tortures that took place at Abu Ghraib. Although there are certainly parts of the country where such tactics and cover-ups by the authorities -- especially of what happens in prisons -- are not unusual. As always, Shakespeare is way ahead of us, reminding us in Henry V: "Each man's duty is the king's ... but his soul is his own." The actions of the torturers were their own actions, not the President's or the nation's actions, because they were not -- I will continue to believe this in the absence of conclusive proof to the contrary -- a matter of systematic governmental policy. This is not to underestimate the evil in those actions.

Laing defines normality, as I say, as a "state of complicity in social fantasy systems" that leads to a surrender of what is most authentically individual and creative in the "normalized" person. Perhaps the utterly banal Adolf Eichman ("I have nothing against Jews, personally"), as described by Hannah Arendt, who is without an iota of rebellion but thoroughly at the service of the society in which he was reared, is the best example of Laing's fully normal person, "ontologically divided" and blissfully unaware of it.

In a mood of palpable exasperation at the so-called "normality" of the architects of the Holocausts and Gulags, of the UMAP concentration camps that housed "sexual deviants" during the late sixties in Cuba, and at the U.S. planners of the deliberate destruction of villages in Vietnam in order to "save" them, Laing states: "What we call normal is the product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience ... It is radically estranged from the structure of being."

Laing believed that this proces of turning persons into "normal" citizens or "docile subjects" might best be described as a brutal violation of people, coupled with the myth that they were really being loved or educated. Some people in extreme cases found it necessary to cope with such a violation, with such a discontinuity between description and reality in their lives, by encouraging powerful forms of dissociation and madness, as a survival mechanism, in order to avoid the total destruction of their spirits.

Madness might then be seen as a kind of journey inward, or "metanoia" of the spirit, aimed at putting together the pieces of the psyche and regaining the strength to continue a life's journey in a more integrated and spiritually renewed fashion, one that allows for proper affect and relatedness to others. For some people, and this seems to include quite a few philosophers, such a journey might become essential to survival, so that even well-intentioned obstructions by psychiatrists or other willing agents of conformity or "adjustment" to some arbitrary standard of morality or normality may prove disastrous.

"Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death."

Again:

"I shall attempt to develop a little further the concept of transformation of a potentially liberatory kind. I suggested the term metanoia. It is a traditional term. It is the Greek New Testament term, translated in English as rependance, in French as conversion. Literally, it means a change of mind."

Such a journey, as I shall suggest below, may require some honesty about what it is that one is doing in putting those people on those trains to Auschwitz, for example, or by sending them off to Stalin's Gulags in Siberia, or (to a lesser degree) in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. (See "The Ministry of Therapy.") Ironically, it is the people who formulate policies of "mass extermination" who are rarely seen as crazy themselves -- and this, as Laing suggests, may be the craziest thing of all. But this sort of honesty in a public setting is impossible except in what Karl Popper describes as the "open" societies of the world, where absolute power and authority as well as responsibility, rests exclusively with the people.

III.

How is this transformation to be effected? What is the mechanism by which the therapeutic relation can help to bring about the successful completion of this spiritual journey? Laing speaks of "transcendence and love," but also of "transcendence through love." Here, once again, the parallels to gnosticism and kaballistic mysticism are obvious and fruitful.

Laing recognized the importance of genuine love as a healing and redemptive power in human life. The love that accepts the "being" of the other, that is respectful of the autonomy and independence of the other. Laing defines authentic love as "that which lets the other be." One is reminded of Augustine's famous sentence, "I hope that you will be." The essence of this love is a total recognition and even a celebration of the other's freedom, autonomy, independence, otherness. It is the opposite of punishing dissidents and sexual "deviants." Useful analogies exist to the writings of Iris Murdoch ("On God and Good") and Jean Paul Sartre ("The Transcendence of the Ego").

All human being is "being-with," that is, for phenomenologists and existentialists, identity only exists or "is" in terms of one's relations with others -- and this very much includes the therapeutic relation -- so that the possiblities of "being with," of the development of one's full potentialities in a true loving relation and relatedness to others, are incalculable and unlimited; whereas in our normally alienated and false relatedness to others and the world, in which we are (as Heidegger, of all people, would express it) "forgetful of being" and yet totally "adjusted" ego-selves, we can only live a falsehood. Each of us must decide at a crucial stage in our lives whether to live our own truths or to dwell in falsehood. The path to salvation is only open to those who choose their truth and their accompanying pain, who choose "themselves" in Nietzsche's language, as excruciating and devastating as this may be, despite the advice of therapists who would have us "adjust." (See "A Letter From a Condemned Man.")

It is all too easy to be filled with frustration and anger in the "absolutely normal" condition of the "true believer," who is typically found in totalitarian societies and occasionally in liberal societies too, alienated from his or her true self, in a state of fragmentation. In such a state, we shrivel up and spiritually, we die, or at least some of us do. It is then possible for us to act, seemingly without moral qualms -- for example, by failing to attend to our responsiblities or to the harm that we may cause in this way -- or, much worse, in those "closed" societies where such a thing is possible for some very alienated people, by ushering neighbors into the crematoria without any pangs of conscience, or by serving as criminals and torturers for the State, or by betraying family members or friends by informing on them to State officials.

In a less exlicit way than Jung, Laing gestures at the need for a gnostic encounter with the "numinous," a re-connection with the self-validating mystical experience -- so similar to the experience of the schizophrenic journey -- underlying all religious symbols and archetypes. Commenting on the notable affinities between Jung and Laing, Professor Daniel Burston says:

"Laing's affinities with (and indebtedness to) Jung become even more obvious when he details the nature and extent of our collective alienation from the 'inner' world and condemns the ego as an agent of adaptation to 'external' reality, equating it with the 'false self.' Though he never said so succintly, the Freudian view of the ego evoked his contempt because of the premium it placed on adapting to reality, relinquishing fantasy, and so on; in this way, he felt, it devalued contact with the realms of reverie and contemplation that earlier civilizations had cultivated carefully. By Laing's reckoning, our estrangement from phantasy and 'inner' experience is just as detrimental to our sanity, in the long run, as the psychotic's estrangement from the external world around him."

A balanced and centered reorientation towards others allowing equal importance to the inner and outer human realities might be described as the fulfillment of the schizophrenic journey. It can result from a re-connection to the archetypal images and spiritual sources within the self that allow us to open up to others, lovingly and peacefully. The freedom that belongs to us, then, is the freedom that comes from "owning one's own life," achieving individuation, being something more than a social role, a functionary, and instead a "person," in the full sense of this word. This is the only salvation that may be available to us. It means that there are persons for whom the Freudian "reality principle" is un-realistic and even harmful.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying:

"When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make the male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the Kingdom]."

The idea that knowledge of our own true nature, "therapy" in the philosophical sense, is also an intuition of the nature of the "divine" or in secular terms, of the universe all around us, is a prominent feature of both Christian and Hebrew mysticism that is in keeping with some of the latest findings in science. I am reminded, for example, of the work of physicist David Bohm concerning "dialogue" and the "implicate order of the universe."

For many Jews, and also in accordance with Sufism in Islam (see the writings of the Persian poet, Nizami), and for the early Christians, "knowledge of ourselves is knowledge of God"; while for some of our greatest scientists today, it appears that: "knowledge of the universe is knowledge of ourselves."

IV.

I now close my eyes and conjure the image of that faded photograph of a frightened boy arriving at the gates of a concentration camp. I am always overcome with pity and anger when I contemplate this image. It still seems to me that this is the image of the twentieth century -- and perhaps of the dark side of all centuries: laughter at the fear and suffering of a child, whose offense is merely "to be." This is what makes the Holocaust, the shoah, so emblematic of all such horrors. The hatred directed at that child, the joy in the faces of those men as they contemplate his helplessness, together with their delight in what would become his fate, all speak of the depravities that might result from the brutalizations that make free human beings into willing and unquestioning servants of the state.

Yet this image contains a spark of hope as well. I seem to remember that a few paces behind the boy a woman is walking with her hands held high. There is a smile on her face for that boy. There is a strength in her bearing, a dignity and grace that I will never forget. She is poised, beautiful and, I sense, uncowed by those men. Her concern is directed at the boy. She must have been a very brave young woman and a loving one too. Many such women may be seen in photos of victims from the period, some with children and some alone. It is mostly such women who remind me of what human beings are capable of achieving, even in such circumstances.

I associate this image of a Jewish woman, along with others that I recall from photos of the camps, with the portraits of the Virgin Mary in Western art. Also, it brings to mind more ancient depictions of the goddess in Mediterrenean culture, images predating Christianity. I think of it when I consider the lives of major twentieth century moral exemplars such as the Jewish-Christian Saint Edith Stein, the philosopher Simon Weil, or the American philosopher and novelist Susan Sontag, whose recent death was a great loss for American culture. This is not simply a maternal association, in simplistic psychoanalytic terms, but a recognition of a fundamental and universal human attribute associated with the feminine in all of us: compassion, love, empathy as forms of transcendence as well as resistance.

This image of feminine compassion, strength and courage represents, for me and most importantly, the possiblity of transcendence through love. Perhaps this single image that I have been describing will serve to illustrate the message of Laing's life-work, which is simply a reminder of the resourcefulness and genius of the human psyche in defending itself from, and coping with, great evil and pain. That message is captured as well in the closing verse of W.H. Auden's great poem, "September 1, 1939" -- as Freud knew, the poets have always understood the wisdom of the unconscious:


Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.






"R.D. Laing and the Nature of Evil"
by Juan Galis-Menendez.
originally published on Philosopher's Quest
15 October 2005


Juan Galis-Mendendez is author of Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Freedom
(Lulu Press, 2004) and publishes regularly on Philosopher's Quest and Critical Vision.



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