Mind in a Cul-de-Sac: Laing

If one considers the family in its genealogical image as a tree, today lumberjacks are out. The tree, by various allegations, is blighted and corrupt, the leaves malnourished while society still praises its luxuriance. In the nineteen-fifties Dr. Kinsey showed statistically that monogamy was a stale pretence; in the ‘seventies Women’s Liberation proclaims it to be a cage. The most trenchant attacks on the family, however, have come from the psychiatrist Dr. Ronald Laing. In a series of writings on the condition of schizophrenia, Laing has shown family groups as circles bent on mental violence, selecting this and that member as victims for destruction. Only the mad are sane, says Laing.

A psychiatric theory may not, in itself, be thought to matter much outside the world of attempted therapy where—as with more palpable physical disorders—­the patients are patched to be sent back to the environment where their troubles grew. But Laing’s has been popularised as material for social and political dissenters. Contributing to the New Left Review, Peace News and New Society automatically connected him with the cultural Left; in 1967 he was one of the speakers in the “Dialectics of Liberation” seminar at the Round House, London, with Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael and others. The film Family Life is a representation of his view of everyday relationships: an onslaught against the stupidity, unfairness and general motivation of the conventional and a vindication of the young dubbed insane, with the implication that the latter had better run from the former as fast as they can.

It is also a representation of the nature of Laing’s popularity. The appearance of cheap editions of his books coincided with the emergence of the “underground”, the movement for dropping-out and psychedelia. The first Penguin by Laing, The Politics of Experience, came out within weeks of the first issue of International Times. In a recent symposium, Laing and Anti-Psychiatry, Jan B. Gordon says: “. . . Laing’s popularity among political activists, particularly those of New Left persuasion, is more easily understandable. He wages an incessant argument against history and sees any suggestion of scientific objectivity as an excuse for psychological colonialism . . . altering the maps unfairly.” The writer is probably identifying “New Left persuasion” with the large anarcho-hippy fringe of those years, possessed by the idea that an aggregate of drop-outs was itself an “alternative society”. The intellectual demigod of an earlier generation, Freud, held that the anarchist rebel was simply someone who rejected his father. Laing has gone further and supplied the rebel with a whole case-history against his father.

The Politics of Experience is an argument on the nature of personal experience, and the effects of relationships on it. For Laing, we are what we experience. Each individual’s experience is unique:

    “I cannot experience your experience. You cannot exper­ience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another. Experience is man’s invisibility to man. Experience used to be called The Soul. Experience as invisibility of man to man is at the same time more evident than anything. Only experience is evident. Experience is the only evidence.”

Though there are references in the same book to structures of experience being shared, and to the attempted communication of experience, what Laing reiterates many times is its personal nature. He says: “Our be­haviour is a function of our experience. We act according to the way we see things . . . If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.”

The sentence between the two in that quotation is a key one in Laing’s thesis. Put in italics by him to em­phasise its importance, it is: “If our experience is destroyed, our behaviour will be destructive.” This is the springboard of Laing’s other social-psychological works, Self and Others and Sanity, Madness and the Family. Man’s failing is the mental violence he persists in doing to others. Its nature is attack upon and intended invalidation of others’ experience, the effect to cause them to “lose their own selves”. Nowhere in society is this more precisely practised than by the members of families, one upon another:

    “… the frightened, cowed, abject creature that we are admonished to be, if we are to be normal—offering each other mutual protection from our own violence. The family as a ‘protection racket’. Behind this language lurks the terror that is behind all this mutual back-scratching, this esteem-, status-, support-, protection-, security-giving and getting. Through its bland urbanity the cracks still show.”

We are, says Laing, “effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love”.

In this light, the form of insanity called schizophrenia is examined intensively in the books. For Laing, normality is hardly desirable. “Normal” men are alienated, sleep-walking, have killed one another by the million in wars, do frightful violence mentally in their family circles. The Politics of Experience quote descriptions of a teacher-and-pupils session to show the extension of coerced adaptation into school. Is madness a fact, or is it a label devised by the normal, who are insane anyway, for those who won’t join their game? Laing believes it is:

    “In over 100 cases where we have studied the actual circumstances round the social event when one person comes to be regarded as schizophrenic, it seems to us that without exception the experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unliveable situation.” (our emphasis)

Thus, Sanity, Madness and the Family is a collection of case-histories including recordings of the patients’ discussions with their families. The Family Life film is a dramatized view of the same terrain—dunder­head factory-foreman father, thin-lipped always-right mother, reactionary doctors, and nice young people with a hip flavour who could have made things all right for the girl if she’d been left alone. The point recurs: the sane are hopeless and destructive, the alleged insane are simply running blind to escape their intentions.

Where does all this take us? Has Laing a clue to remedying the disorders of our society? Obviously much in his writings appeals to anyone dissatisfied with the conventions and the spurious wisdom of the social order. The thought that the world is mad has occurred to most of us at some time, and cultural schools like Surrealism and Dada have been formed to make appropriate gestures in kind. It is easy to relish, too, the description of the pressures brought to bear in the family for social conformity: the induced anxiety and emotional blackmail—”My concern, my concern for your concern, your concern, and your concern for my concern, etc.” Likewise the comments on the established functions of psychiatry: “But social adaptation to a dysfunctional society may be very dangerous. The perfectly adjusted bomber pilot may be a greater threat to species survival than the hospitalised schizophrenic deluded that the Bomb is inside him.”

Beyond these attractions on the surface, however, Laing is offering nothing but a great deal of confusing of issues. What needs considering at once is the basic idea of experience from which his theory is developed: “All men are invisible to one another.” Despite the qualifying and extending remarks which are at times contradictory tangles, the central point on which Laing insists is a Berkeleyan belief that experience, and therefore reality, are subjective. Indeed, the contradictions are inevitable. If it were true that “the experience of the other is not evident to me, as it is not and never can be an experience of mine”—if, in fact, all men were invisible to one another—communication would be impossible. Society depends on the certainty of common experience.

To say that only personal experience is evidence is as meaningless in social practicality as was Berkeley’s theory of matter when the stone fell into the pond. True, Laing says he rejects the categories “subjective and objective”, “inner and outer”, “process and praxis”, and many more, but the rejection will not do. In each case, he is really seeking to reject one of a pair of opposites by naming both of them. In the description of experience, it is objectiveness that is disclaimed and subjectivity left by every inference. (If any doubt remains, the penultimate chapter of The Politics of Experience, titled “Transcendental Experience”, asserts not only the subjectivity of experience but the desirability of its being so.)

The meaninglessness is demonstrated when one looks at examples of what Laing calls mental violence, the denial of another person’s subjective experience. What is being denied usually is physical or social fact: the violence consists not in the denial but in the blocking of avenues to verification. In the Orwellian example where the inquisitor demoralises his victim by insisting that two and two make five, and in Laing’s examples where Jack tells Jill her perception is wrong, the attack is simply on social axioms. There are, of course, realms where values and preferences rather than facts are attacked: a person’s liking for this or that music and art, his relationships and aspirations, may bring hostility and denigration from those round him. Again, however, there is nothing subjective about the experiences involved—the person’s misfortune is to have displayed them in the wrong social milieu. But in any case it is absurd to claim all criticism or dispute to be mental violence. There is bullying and pressure to conform, and much of it takes place in families; but rebuttal and challenge are essential to personal as well as social development.

The studies of family groups show a person’s experience—i.e. the core of his or her individuality—under attack from other members of the family, and the label “schizophrenic” affixed. What is pointed out, implicitly or explicitly, is that it is not he or she but they who are insane. It has already been remarked that this is gratifying to people at odds with, disapproved or condemned, by their parents; but where does it lead? One is bound to ask who, in turn, made the parents mad. Laing has recognised the question by saying (in a 1967 article) that the web may stretch back three generations, but that does not answer it. As a reductio ad absurdum there could be postulated an insane God as the first cause, the spider who created the web. Nor is it suggested what happens to the children of the schizo­phrenic-sane. Do they grow up free from the pressure of mental violence; or does the schizophrenic experience make new norms and new demands that others should conform to them?

In the 1965 preface to an earlier work, The Divided Self, Laing speaks of his theories as condemning not only family relationships but the social order at large, because it “represses not only ‘the instincts’, not only sexuality, but any form of transcendence”. The preface was withdrawn from the 1970 edition, and he is now reported to have retreated into mysticism. The dilemma of Laing is that a subjective view of human existence is a blindfold to consideration of the social order. The results, inevitably, are negative: Jan B. Gordon sees Laing as having accomplished “the construction of a system which makes nihilism functional”. In his diagnosis of schizophrenia the idea of a cure cannot have a place; the schizophrenic embarks on a journey closely resembling a drug-taker’s “trip”, but we are not told about the return.

The general effect of work like this is to obscure the answers to social problems of relationships. On one hand, Laing is saying to many young people that there is no answer: hide, drop out, escape the lethal insanity of the world. On the other, the nature of what is going on in society is made to appear a complex of attitudes and behavioural algebra. At no point does Laing—or any of the commentators in the Anti-Psy­chiatry book—distinguish between the family as a human grouping and the family under capitalism. Yet the distinction contains the explanation of the mental violence and the pressures which provide so much material for psychologists and liberationists together.

For capitalism, the family is vital because in it we work the social roles required of us economically. Stability and organisation are provided; experience is communicated to make social life continuous and coherent. What Laing sees as the facade of family life was real enough in the past because acceptance of the roles was not questioned (insofar as they conflicted with instinct, half-recognised arrangements were made). However, as capitalism has extended and intensified the division of labour, the experience of one generation has ceased to mean much to another. Hence the roles themselves become doubtful: why should women wait on men, sons defer to fathers, children strive for respectability which means a damned-awful life? At this point violence is immanent. Laing observes rightly enough that it disguises itself as love and concern, but has no word as to why the situation is there in the first place. It is the channel for the compulsions of capitalism, through which hopes of good relationships are continually destroyed.

The answer is therefore not at all obscure. Laing’s ultimate cry is wholly negative: “If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know.” Tell you what, except introspection and despair? At both the personal and the social levels, relief from futility can be achieved by positive engagement: specifically, in creating a society where experience has meaning, and human personality is able to live.

Robert Barltrop

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