“This is an original and unusual work whose purpose is to make madness”
That’s what I read on the dust jacket flap for THE DIVIDED SELF, R.D. Laing’s first published examination of ‘ontological insecurity’ — the sense for some people that they’re losing themselves, becoming lost in the world.
For many students of psych, Laing holds a special place. He was described by my lecturers as a ‘psychedelic psychologist’: criticised for his mind-bending poetry, applauded for his humanity. If I recall correctly, Laing & his students would check themselves into mental institutions to expose them from the inside out as places that ‘blamed the victim’, that described the patients’ behaviour in ways that re-emphasised (& moralised) their illnesses.
‘Look at how the patients cluster around the lunchroom an hour early. Clearly they’re displaying greed,’ went the populist view of the ‘crazy’ behaviour found in these institutions.
‘Look at how little the patients have to do here, & how often they’re ignored. What else is there, of a day, apart from eat lunch?’ argued Laing.
And this was really Laing’s stance: that our attempts to fit into the world as it is cause us distress. That psychosis has a social birthplace. That the conversation of crazy people was a result of an attempt to express the distress caused by a crazy world. Laing was revolutionary in valuing the content of psychotic behavior and speech as a valid expression of distress, albeit wrapped in an enigmatic language of personal symbolism which is meaningful only from within their situation, claims Wikipedia. Laing also went a little bit further (some might say ‘a little bit too far’) in suggesting that the voyage of psychosis was ‘shamanistic’, leading to deeper revelations about truth & reality. A popular & dare I suggest potentially destructive portrayal of mental disorder, the kind of thing found sometimes in Janet Frame’s (occasionally self-justifying?) writing, & such movies as ‘The Fisher King’: a kind of poetic self-destructiveness, later validated in a sentimental reality. More productively, Laing’s ideas have ended up, in a pragmatic form, establishing the foundations for modern psychotherapy. Relation to the world is equivalent to the relation to the self, argues psychotherapy. Change your perception of the world, change yourself.
This I’ll come back to in later days, having just finished Albert Camus’ THE OUTSIDER (aka THE STRANGER) & not found myself completely convinced of the tyranny of society, nor the absolute rights of the individual.
On the one hand, I applaud Laing’s recognition of the reality of the individual, the dichotomy between self & other & the anxiety that can cause. On the other hand, I can’t carry that through to the *lack* of responsibility of the individual. If the world and my distress has lead to my disordered (differently-ordered?) thinking, can I be excused from killing a man? By logical extension, yes. By every other moral standard … lines must still be drawn.
Oh, & the rest of that quote from the dust jacket? It actually goes,
“This is an original and unusual work whose purpose is to make madness, and the process of going mad, comprehensible to many who have no direct experience with this phenomenon. R. D. Laing offers new insights to many who, in either a professional or a personal context, are familiar with madness. He examines certain forms of madness in an existential frame of reference — the man who is an “outsider”, estranged equally from himself and from society, unable to experience himself and others as being real and substantial. An individual who is so basically insecure develops a “false” self with which to confront his world, in order to achieve some formula for living with his anxiety and despair. This process may lead to the gradual disintegration of the whole personality, and Laing traces the lives of a number of schizoid and schizophrenic individuals.”
— The Divided Self, R.D. Laing, 1960, Tavistock Publications