by Steven J Sutcliffe

A Divided Self: Reclaiming R. D. Laing

October 28, 2009 | by Steven J Sutcliffe

WHO WAS Ronald David Laing, what did he write, how did he live, and what is his legacy? These are questions asked in a new introduction to Laing by Gavin Miller, which I shall come to shortly. But first, the bare facts and a few comments to set the scene. Laing was born in Govanhill, Glasgow, in 1927, qualified as a doctor of medicine at Glasgow University in 1951, and in 1955 completed a Diploma in Psychiatric Medicine. Subsequently he studied for four years at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis in London. He published his first book, The Divided Self, in 1960: widely acclaimed, this was an imaginative and sympathetic interpretation of schizophrenic psychosis and other disturbed states. Laing followed this with a series of sensitive explorations of interpersonal experience and awareness: Self and Others (1961), Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964) and The Politics of Experience (1967). In 1965 he helped set up a therapeutic community at Kingsley Hall in London where distressed people, who might otherwise be hospitalised, were able to explore their ‘mad’ experiences in the company of fellow-sufferers and helpers. Increasingly assuming the role of a prophet or guru, Laing continued to write and lecture prolifically, but his personal life became fragmented and irregular, and in 1987, under pressure, he resigned from the General Medical Council’s register of psychiatrists. He died of a heart attack in 1989.

If biographies can instruct us in the interaction of others’ personal and professional lives, they should also encourage self-reflection. Most of us scan others’ lives for clues to our own. I first read Laing in the late 1970s, when I was thrilled by the rhetoric in The Politics of Experience: “What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.” I remember watching Ken Loach’s 1970 film Family Life: its depiction of the emotional crisis of a young woman in a ‘normal’ household, and her descent into fear and anguish, clearly drew on Laing’s Sanity, Madness and the Family. On the back of his work in this book and The Divided Self, Laing developed the controversial position for which he remains best known: that schizophrenia was not a biological or neurological ‘disease’, but a socially intelligible behaviour that was a response to intolerable psychological distress in interpersonal relationships, especially in families. ‘Mad’ behaviour therefore needed to be understood and worked through in a sympathetic social environment – ideally in a therapeutic community like Kingsley Hall – rather than ‘treated’ as an ‘illness’ by medication and surgery in psychiatric wards.

As a direct consequence of reading R.D. Laing (and his colleague David Cooper), I worked in Edinburgh in the early 1980s in a hostel for young men, loosely structured as a therapeutic community. The men were a mixed bunch: some had been sexually abused, some had spent time in psychiatric institutions, one or two were drug users, others were drifters. The idea was that the roles of ‘worker’ and ‘resident’ were blurred and the household run as a collective project, although we had a professional social worker and a management committee. There was also a network of friends and former workers and residents in and around Edinburgh. Around 1984 I heard Laing himself speak in the Queen’s Hall. He was slow and ponderous – probably drunk, in retrospect, as could be the case then – but still charismatic, and the substantial audience hung on his every word. Laing’s public drunkenness could come across in various ways: as an embarrassment, as a social rebellion from Presbyterian respectability, but also as a sign of vulnerability and depression. In 1982 he appeared on an Irish TV show and garnered considerable audience support when accused by host Gay Byrne of being drunk and incapable. There could be a scary, thrawn courage in this flagrant display of human addiction in a society increasingly obsessed with attaching the ‘drug menace’ label to various exotic ‘others’ – but never to ‘us’.

The corrosive effects of heavy drinking in the 1970s and 1980s, well-documented in biographies of Laing, along with his serial marriages and an ambitious ego, suggested a pattern of self-destructive male behaviour. Laing’s drinking certainly played a part in his 1987 resignation from the General Medical Council. By then his work had in any case fallen out of favour. Many commentators see The Divided Self as his most innovative and enduring book and argue that he did little of value from the late 1960s on, although this was the period in which Laing became an increasingly public figure, associated with counterculture, drugs and the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement of dissenting psychiatrists and patients. Laing’s ideas about the social causation of schizophrenia have been discredited by mainstream opinion as naive and reductive in their lack of interest in biomedical hypotheses. His scientific methodology – such as directs Sanity, Madness and the Family – turns out on closer inspection to be rhetorical and tendentious: more polemical than empirical, part of the more diffuse 1960s attack on western institutions. But the same writers who championed the Laing of the ‘New Left’ complained that his trip to Sri Lanka in 1971 – then under military rule – to study Buddhist meditation, was a betrayal of the political agenda promised in his critique of the family and his appearance with radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Stokely Carmichael in 1967. Following the publication of Knots, a volume of cryptic poems, in 1971, the kind of mystical subjectivity that had suffused The Politics of Experience increasingly preoccupied Laing in the 1970s and 1980s as he moved into ‘New Age’ circles of therapy and healing.

In the last few years the tide of interest is turning Laing’s way again (now he is safely dead, says the cynic). At least three biographies, and various popular memoirs, appeared in the 1990s. These have kick-started a process of reassessing a man whose later public image veered between guru and monster. A new emphasis on the incompleteness and messiness of ‘real life’ biographies has helped rescue Laing the person from his media image, as has recent interest in understanding the interaction between life and work as a necessary part of the total ‘message’ of a creative thinker, rather than the life being seen as dross left over from refining some purer gold.

The life, however, is what is often denied in more traditional cultural canons, particularly when it is as spectacularly messy as Laing’s. The traditional view is that public and private are very different realms: the personal exists to serve the public, and work must stand or fall on its own intellectual merits. R.D. Laing the public psychiatrist-scientist must be separated out from ‘Ronnie’ Laing the Glaswegian single child, drinker, serial father and depressive. But Laing himself wouldn’t or couldn’t make this split, and the resultant ‘damaged wholeness’ is perhaps the source of the deep and often healing empathy he had with miserable and disturbed people. Indeed, if Charles Rycroft, Laing’s therapist at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis in London, is correct, Laing the patient only played at therapy. Rycroft remembers Laing as a ‘special case’ who went through the motions as analysand in order to get his licence to practice, but who avoided resolving his own depression. One could speculate that his empathy for others’ suffering was rooted in a fine-grained awareness of his own; to ‘lose’ that by having it healed might remove the fount of his skill.

It is certainly tricky to reconcile Laing’s passionate, writerly prose with high science. On the face of it Sanity, Madness and the Family is presented as a dispassionately scientific document, but on closer inspection it turns out to be a determinedly literary arte-fact with a particular story to tell about how to identify and make sense of communicative breakdown and psychological suffering in nuclear families. Indeed, Laing’s work is better approached as moral polemic and poetry: less scientist, more writer and essayist in a grand European tradition that leads from Kierkegaard via Karl Jaspers and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Sartre, to mention just a few of Laing’s existentialist heroes. There is no fully worked-out system of ‘Laingean analysis’ on offer, but a considerable body of writing and activities to digest.

In his book, which aims to place Laing firmly in a Scottish intellectual context, Gavin Miller approaches Laing in just this kind of way, arguing that he must be read fundamentally as an interpreter rather than an explainer of human experience. The difference is subtle but decisive: interpretation leaves questions open and unresolved where explanation seeks closure and finality. Working from this core distinction, Miller provides an incisive and persuasive case for re-assessing Laing as a major public intellectual in twentieth-century Scotland. Miller is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Ideas in Scotland at Edinburgh University, and he argues that an adequate understanding of Laing requires close attention not just to the richness and specificity of a certain kind of Scottish upbringing and education, but to various factors at work in the broader culture which conspire to conceal or deny this experience and its legacy as somehow ‘local’, even ‘provincial’, and consequently inferior. So the book is both an argument for Laing’s importance and an explanation for his neglect.

Miller’s book is short, accessible but very rich, and packs in the bare bones of several arguments, some of which are already under public debate, others of which are new and attractive. Miller’s claim for Laing’s originality is paradoxically based on the influence in his work of distinctively Scottish traditions of philosophy and psychoanalysis, both rooted in what Miller calls “the importance and reality of personal relationships”. His accounts of these provide the meat of the book. He also gives useful, if necessarily highly compressed, digests of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s and the ‘critical psychiatry’ that developed out of this in the 1980s and 1990s, with an emphasis on patients’ rights and the struggle against psychiatric ideology.

The shortest chapter in Miller’s book – just eleven pages – deals with Laing’s life. On the one hand this makes sense, given that there are at least three substantial biographies, and several memoirs, currently available. But playing down ‘the life’ at the expense of ’the work’ does tend to reintroduce the kind of private/public split that cultural history should question. In Laing’s case in particular, the public stunts and gaffes themselves can be seen as a kind of naked performance or enactment of suffering, a way of embodying pain in order to bring it graphically before the public. If this makes Laing ‘too warty’ for rehabilitation into the Scottish canon – a response that Miller received when he tried to organise a conference to mark the 75th anniversary of Laing’s birth – then perhaps it’s time to start seeing the warts and blemishes in Laing’s life as the price to be paid for his insights and communication.

Miller’s attention to Laing’s Scottish context is important for what it tells us about Laing, but also for how it opens windows onto cultural and intellectual life in Scotland in the mid-twentieth century. That it has taken so long to locate Laing so firmly in a Scottish cultural context is surprising: after all, he was born in the southside of Glasgow and his first 22 years were spent there, at school and university. Although later resident in London, he regularly travelled north, and in his latter years tried to set up a therapeutic centre in Scotland. His broad interests at school and university across both arts and science – he studied medicine, yet read philosophy and theology, and founded a university debating club – place him within the Scottish tradition of the ‘democratic intellect’, in George Davie’s phrase. With regard to particular philosophical influences, Miller argues that Laing was indebted to the ‘personalist’ rejection of positivism and the embrace of intersubjectivity proposed by Scottish thinkers such as John B. Baillie and, especially, John Macmurray (first suggested in 1989 by Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull in The Eclipse of Scottish Culture: Inferiorism and the Intellectuals, a book which foreshadows Miller’s argument that Laing’s neglect is just another example of the historical denigration of Scottish culture). Macmurray had given the Gifford lectures in Natural Theology in Glasgow in 1953-4 which were subsequently published as The Self as Agent (1957) and Persons in Relation (1961). Gavin Millar stresses Macmurray’s critique of Cartesian subjectivity, in which the famous phrase cog-ito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’, is rejected as a solipsistic red herring. Macmurray insisted instead that the self is essentially social: “we must introduce the second person as the necessary correlative of the first and do our thinking not from the standpoint of the ‘I’ alone, but of the ‘you and I’.”

This Scottish ‘personalist’ position was given a continental and existentialist twist by the interests of a group of intellectuals connected to Glasgow University in the mid-1950s, centred around Joe Schorstein and Karl Abenheimer. Laing read early drafts of The Divided Self to this group. One longstanding participant, Jack Rillie, recalled that group interests lay in the existentialist theology of Heidegger, Bultmann, Tillich and Buber. Beveridge and Turnbull mention this as a formative influence on Laing, but Miller plausibly argues that the group’s continental interests have been overstated, and that they were just as interested in ‘local’ thinkers. These included philosophers like Macmurray, but also Scottish psychotherapists such as W.R.D Fairbairn, who criticised Freudian theory as hedonistic and argued for a psychoanalysis based on the inherently social nature of human experience. Ian Suttie also took this line in his 1935 book The Origins of Love and Hate. These figures are central to Miller’s chapter on Scottish traditions of psychoanalysis.

I have mentioned my reservations about the implicit ‘splitting off’ of Laing’s life from his ideas in Miller’s account. This is a strategy that Laing himself would surely also have questioned, given his interpretation of the destructive role played by ‘splitting’ in the creation of schizophrenic experience in The Divided Self. Miller’s decision may just be an unfortunate consequence of the brevity of the book: there’s only so much you can do in 130 pages (and the author does plenty). But I think that Laing’s personality and, crucially, his relationships, cannot risk being seen as a distraction from the ‘serious business’ of psychiatric practice or intellectual theory, but as a necessary embodiment of what he tried to say and do, however uncomfortable and destructive this could undoubtedly be (for himself as well as for others). If Laing was motivated more by existential passion and suffering than by ‘scientific principles’, which in any case he saw as deleterious for human experience (Miller explains this very clearly), then there is an enduring value in his life and work, warts and all, precisely because of this stubborn witnessing to the qualities of human experience.

The role of religion in Laing’s life is worth noting in this connection. Unfortunately, like most writers on Laing, Miller largely passes over it, with the exception of an intriguing comment in his discussion of Scottish psychoanalysis on whether “a theological bent in Scottish intellectual life has helped to protect concepts of love and tenderness.” But Laing cannot be understood without taking religion into account. The post-war changes in religious practice in Scotland – from Christian norm to diverse expression – are an important aspect of modern cultural history, as historian Callum Brown has vigorously argued, and Laing’s biography encapsulates these.

There are three main periods in Laing’s religious inclinations: his Presbyterian upbringing, the Scottish and European philosophical theology of his early career, and the post-counterculture experimentation in Buddhist, Hindu and New Age practices in the 1970s and 1980s. Key religious themes – particularly the existence of god and the problem of suffering – haunt his work. Indeed Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull have argued – rightly, I think – that the chief question of Laing’s life and work was “what does the religion of my fathers mean to me today”? There are certainly plenty of clues on the importance of religion in reading Laing. One of his “peak life experiences” was borrowing Kierkegaard from Govanhill public library. His first published paper in 1957 was an analysis of Paul Tillich’s theological theory of anxiety and neurosis. He claimed that the two most important people behind The Politics of Experience were his Jewish mentor, Joe Schorstein, and the Reverend George Macleod, leader of the Iona Community, and that the book therefore represented a synthesis of “Scottish Presbyterian Celtic Calvinism and elements of Hasidism”. (A 1952 diary entry records George Macleod telling him “you are an artist Ronnie and also a scientist … you’re done for, unless you become a Christian”). He later traced his experiments in meditation and yoga back to “the time I was taught to say my prayers at night”, and in an essay called ‘God and Psychiatry’, he even described himself as a “negative theologian”. But interpretations remained open until the end. At his funeral service in Glasgow cathedral, the Reverend Donald Macdonald told the congregation that Laing had rejoined the Church of Scotland on Iona in 1986, in his presence. Others were not so sure.

In reclaiming Laing, it is important not to romanticise him. There seems to have been a wayward, capricious, cruel side to his personality. And as much as he railed against the emotional mystification that he experienced in his own family and later identified in the nuclear family at large, his own relationships, which produced ten children by different partners, do not encourage confidence that he himself created more balanced alternatives. But his key themes, which were also values that he put into practice professionally and personally, remain important and worth revisiting in an era of rampant managerialism, cost-cutting and down-sizing: the rehumanization of interpersonal relationships, the concern with depth, dignity and quality in human experiences, and the requirement to redouble our interpretive efforts to make sense of unfamiliar behaviour, rather than stigmatise it as ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. If Rycroft is correct, Laing remained unanalysed in his professional training. The implication is that Laing’s own depression, and destructive impulses, remained unaddressed. How unprofessional, some will say. But what if that was the only way Laing could do what he did?


R.D. LAING
by Gavin Miller is published by the Centre for the History of Ideas in Scotland at £9.99.
ISBN: 1859332706

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