The radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989) was an accomplished author with an extensive philosophical knowledge that informed his ideas on reading, writing, and interpretation. Laing argues that psychiatry should be modeled on skilful textual exegesis rather than scientific explanation. R.D. Laing psychiatristThe exegesis of a psychotic’s words and actions is difficult, he infers, because the impoverishment of our experience cuts us off from the sense that lies within seeming madness. Like philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, Laing therefore criticizes the way in which the natural sciences have invalidated subjective experience. He consequently employs a rhetoric designed to disclose with renewed vigor its complexity, variety and reality.

Laing fails, however, to find an alternative to scientific reason: “experience”, in his weakest work, is an irrational realm of mystical and self-validating certainty that closely parallels Heidegger’s later accounts of “Being”.

Despite a revival in psychiatric studies of his writings, the literary importance of the radical Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing has been underestimated in the years since his death in 1989. Yet Laing was immensely influential not only upon psychiatric practice, but also upon the arts. He influenced the novelists Doris Lessing and Alasdair Gray, the screenwriters David Mercer and Clancy Sigal, the playwrights David Edgar and Peter Shaffer, and poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Tom Leonard. Laing’s influence upon the creative professions is not accidental: in many ways, his psychiatric writings were consciously literary productions. Indeed, his earliest ambition was to be a writer.

While a high school student in 1940s Scotland, he worked his way through the local public library: “I wanted to be a writer. [. . .] I gave myself the age of thirty as an absolute deadline for the publication of my first book”. This literary aspiration does not mean, however, that Laing’s eventual psychiatric writings were merely works of fiction. Psychiatry, as Laing saw it, needed what writing could give it: a sensitivity to obscure and recondite meanings, a revalidation of immediate experience, and a renewed “disclosure” of the world. But to value writing in this way brings potential risks: Laing’s appreciation of the “world-disclosing” properties of poetic language becomes, in his worst work, an infatuation with a realm of mystical, self-validating certainties.

Previous discussion of Laing’s literary status has been marred by the mythology that surrounds the man. Even as perspicacious a critic as Elaine Showalter, who has praised Laing’s literary talents, makes some notable blunders. She claims that “Laing was born in 1927 in the Gorbals, the roughest, darkest, and most depressed district of Glasgow”. The date is right, but the place is wrong: Laing was born in Govanhill, a middle-class district, and there he lived with his lower middle-class family. The point of such mislocation is readily apparent: the imagery of roughness and darkness, of male brutality, assists Showalter in her claim that Laing’s psychiatry was masculinist—”a male adventure of exploration and conquest” that “drew upon his own heroic fantasies”.

A parallel rhetoric is offered by Clancy Sigal’s Zone of the Interior (1976), a novel to which Showalter refers, and which seems to have informed her depiction of Laing as an intellectual pugilist. Sigal’s roman à clef remained unpublished in the UK for almost thirty years because of fears of libel. It features Laing as “Willie Last”, an LSD-guzzling psychiatric guru sitting at the center of a network of folly and messianic rhetoric. This caricature of Laing, though often entertaining, also positions him somewhere in sub-rational masculine darkness. Last’s dialogue is rendered in a pseudo-phonetic orthography and spattered with apostrophes, while the narration of the central character (a North American) is rendered in orthographically standard, and thus rational and properly human English: “He [Willie Last] came to the front door himself. All my previous shrinks had had snooty housekeepers. ‘Och Sidney Bell, is it? Come in, mon. It’s a pleasure tae meet ye. I’ve read yir work’; later, Sidney tells how, “Dr Last hastened to assure me I was mad ‘only in th’ eggistainshul sense’”.

In a curious irony, the Scots poet Tom Leonard has remarked, although not with conscious reference to Sigal’s work, that in this traditional technique of narration, “the dialect speaker tends to appear in a narrative like Laing’s patient in a hospital: there is complicity between author and reader that the speaker is ‘other’, that the user of such language cannot be the person who has written or who is reading the work”. Showalter and Sigal therefore both rhetorically position Laing as the “other”. He slides from psychic conquistador to Caliban, a thing of darkness (and roughness, and depression) who struggles to imitate the speech of his masters.

Naturally, it is hard to imagine an account of, say, Jacques Derrida that would carelessly and conveniently misrepresent his place of birth, or which would record his speech as if he were a comical Frenchman—a kind of Inspector Clouseau of the Sorbonne. As literary readers, we therefore have a duty to look beyond what Leonard calls the “smokescreen anecdotage about Laing”; and this means turning to Laing’s texts, rather than to reports of his person. There is indeed some truth in the charge that Laing was at times a mere rhetorician who preferred striking assertion to careful argument. Yet there is a quite complex philosophical progression that explains Laing’s tendency to venerate “experience” as a privileged source of mystical, self-certifying insight.

Any study of Laing’s language must start with his contention that the psychiatrist is, or should be, a skilled reader. In his first book, The Divided Self, published in 1960, literary hermeneutics provides Laing’s model of the therapeutic encounter: “The personalities of doctor and psychotic, no less than the personalities of expositor and author, do not stand opposed to each other [. . .]. Like the expositor the therapist must have the plasticity to transpose himself into another strange and even alien view of the world. In this act, he draws on his own psychotic possibilities, without forgoing his sanity”. The therapist is an exegete, making sense of a puzzling and baffling text by drawing upon the possibilities of being that he shares with the patient. Laing’s understanding of his psychotic patients therefore displays a keen literary sense.

Metaphors for unusual experiences abound in his “readings” of psychotic speech: “Fire may be the uncertain flickering of the individual’s own inner aliveness [. . .] Some psychotics say in the acute phase that they are on fire”. There are allusions and inter-textual relations: a patient who has no secure sense of her existence except in the presence of others is, to Laing, “like Tinker Bell. In order to exist she needs someone else to believe in her existence”. Puns and multiple meanings also abound. Another patient claims she is a “tolled bell”: a bell that is tolled because she feels passive, controlled from the outside, but also a beautiful and passive girl, a “belle” of the ball, who has become what she was told to be. Laing’s literary skills are needed to understand such patients because, as he puts it, they express “‘existential’ truth [. . .] with the same matter-of-factness that we employ about facts that can be consensually validated in a shared world”.

Rather than trying to “explain” psychosis, Laing offers various genres and motifs which may help to bring sense from words and actions that seem incomprehensible. Even silence and immobility may be a communicative action, rather than mere “behavior”. In his autobiography Wisdom, Madness and Folly, for instance, Laing confronts a hypothetical catatonic: “Is he a pillar of salt? Is he god incarnate [in] stone? Is he the still centre of the turning world?”; only when such possible understandings are exhausted, can one rightly ask the final question on the list, “Is there something the matter with his neurochemistry?”.

Throughout Laing’s work there is an insistence on charitable exegesis wherever possible, rather than upon impersonal, non-intentional explanatory forms. The terminology and conceptual scaffolding vary from work to work: from ontological insecurity, to the schizoid condition, to “double-binds”, to “knots”, to proscribed transcendental consciousness, and so on. But the ambition is the same throughout: to restore a fully interpersonal relationship with the other, rather than to have a relationship in which he or she is understood as possessed by some causal, or quasi-causal, mechanism.

Laing’s way of understanding is therefore very different from that employed in traditional psychoanalytic interpretation, particularly that directed at psychotic speech. Laing’s opposition to psychoanalytic interpretation is present throughout his career, but is most clearly expressed in The Voice of Experience (1982), where he argues that, like sophomorish literary analysis, it is an obstacle to confrontation with “otherness”.

Wilfred Bion’s psychoanalytic interpretations of a psychotic patient prove particularly provoking to Laing. In the case study that Laing cites, Bion’s patient complains about a lack of interesting food and new clothes, laments the condition of his socks, and says that picking a piece of skin from his face has made him “feel quite empty”. Bion interprets this as the patient’s attempt to communicate to him a feeling that he (the patient) has eaten his (Bion’s) penis.

Such constructions, says Laing, are “a grinding machine which reduces any sense to total nonsense”, and forestall any genuinely revelatory interpersonal relationship: “It is difficult to imagine what the patient could say that could tell Bion anything he does not think he knows”. Such reduction of the other to the same, to the already-known, merely extends the impersonal attitude: “A psychosis, like a dream, like a brain, is up for grabs, for rotation, reversal, reshuffling, slicing, apposing, juxtaposing and transposing”.

Laing therefore tries to find what is intelligible in terms of the “here and now” of the other’s experience, rather than to pursue one-sided interpretations built around the “there and then” of repressed psychic materials. In The Divided Self, at any rate, this means that Laing’s exegeses are (consciously) in the spirit of Sartre’s discussion of subjective experiences such as nausea, shame, and vertigo.

“Vertigo” for Sartre has nothing to do with inner-ears or repressed psychic trauma; it’s a subjective disclosure of freedom—the vertigo that I feel by a sheer drop is a consciousness of my freedom to throw myself into it, regardless of any psychic causality which might be supposed to impede me. Laing, in discussing experiences of being on fire, or being petrified, and so forth, is trying to do for psychotic psychology what Sartre does for more everyday experience.

Indeed, Laing’s affinity with the European phenomenological movement offers one of the surest routes to an understanding of his idea of language, and how it should be used. Laing draws the logical conclusion from what he sees as a mistaken assumption that the psychotic’s speech is unintelligible. We are, he believes, experientially impoverished—cut off from the many different modalities of experience that are phenomenologically apparent. This is why we cannot easily understand the psychotic, and it is also why we are unable to understand ourselves.

We are, he claims in “The Politics of the Family”, all victims of a modern “holocaust of [. . .] experience on the altar of conformity”. The implied chiasmus is of course obvious: from the holocaust of experience there arises the twentieth-century’s experience of holocaust. In his 1967 bestseller, The Politics of Experience, Laing declares: “Our behavior is a function of our experience”; “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive”.

The destruction of our experience, its reduction to ash or some other useless residue, was to Laing philosophically elucidated by phenomenology’s critique of the natural sciences. Husserl in The Crisis of the European Sciences (1936) pointed out the side-effects of a “scientific” or “causal” theory of perception. Such a theory treats experience of the world as primarily the effect of a cause, and so experience becomes nothing more than the effect produced by the mind as objects causally impinge upon it. What we see, feel, hear, smell, savor, and desire, may have no more resemblance to what “really” exists than the crash of a cymbal to the stick that hits it:

The phenomena are only in the subjects; they are there only as causal results of events taking place in true nature, which events exist only with mathematical properties. If the intuited world of our life is merely subjective, then all the truths of pre- and extrascientific life which have to do with its factual being are deprived of value. They have meaning only insofar as they, while themselves false, vaguely indicate an in-itself which lies behind this world of possible experience. 

Or, as Laing puts it in a 1980 Lecture, “What is the Matter with Mind?”, “Sight, sound, taste, touch and smell [. . .] all sensibility, all values, all quality, all feelings, all motives, all intentions, spirit, soul, consciousness, subjectivity: almost everything, in fact, which we ordinarily take to be real is de-realized, is stripped of its pretensions to reality”. A similar expression of this idea is found by the English philosopher A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), whose work Laing also knew (and cited in The Voice of Experience.

The scientific view divides the world into an unknowable causal nature, and the apparent nature given in experience: “Causal nature is the influence on the mind which is the cause of the effluence of apparent nature from the mind” (Whitehead 31). Experience, in Whitehead’s words, is “effluence” not just as what “flows out” from the action of thing upon mind, but also as a flow that is waste, toxic, or contaminated, like the effluent from a factory or a sewage works.

Laing notes that scientists typically refuse to see what philosophers such as Husserl and Whitehead have understood: that even the basis of science, sensory experience, must be reduced by science itself to an “effluent”. To borrow Laing’s words, “all experience, along with the most strangely modulated and transformed [. . .] is consigned by science to its slop bucket”. Since all experience is merely an illusion mechanically produced by a realm of beings-in-themselves, then, as Laing puts it in an interview with Douglas Kirsner, the scientific view is essentially “that experience is a psychosis of matter”: everything we experience should, in a consistent scientific worldview, really be as delusive and illusory as the experience of a madman.

Laing fights fire with fire. The scientific account of truth is based upon a nonsensical metaphor in which experience accurately represents something which can never be experienced—truth is the “relation between a picture and the undepictable reality the depiction in the picture alludes to”. Against such incoherent metaphor, he musters his own rhetorical armory. In his Schumacher lecture, Laing ends with a list (which I shall not quote in full) of “[a] few of the other modes of existence outside the investigative competence of natural science”: these include, “love and hate, joy and sorrow, misery and happiness, pleasure and pain, right and wrong”; “everything, in fact, that makes life worth living”.

Laing wants to open our eyes to the diversity and variety of experience, to everything beyond the “primary qualities” or “things-in-themselves” nonsensically preserved in the scientific worldview. To do this, he increasingly employs the neglected rhetorical device of enumeratio, the making of a list or catalogue. The variety and irreducible diversity implied by enumeratio is central to Laing’s depiction of experiences that may be otherwise rendered anodyne or trivial.

In his autobiography, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly, World War Two is decomposed by Laing into the horrors of modern conflict (enabled, of course, by modern technological rationality): “When World War II started no one could imagine how it could possibly end without endless devastation, poison gas, germ warfare, torture, mutilation, rape, pillage, massacres, killing and killing and killing, shelling, bombing, sea warfare, food shortage, famine and pestilence”. Enumeratio is also the scheme with which Laing depicts the things that genuinely make him feel alive: “My life-saving consolations were moonlight and gaslight, the angel on the dome of the library, music, the coal fire, fun, indeed all things—sky, sun, stars, clouds, rain, sleep, snow, flowers, trees, birds, flies, prayer, a few people, even asphalt, fog”.

The figure repeats throughout Wisdom, Madness and Folly, from the many ways of committing suicide with “razor blades, nuts and bolts, soap, broken glass, lavatory chains, buttons, knives, forks, spoons, hair, hammers, files, combs, broken saws, coins, lavatory paper, clothing” to the fascination of night-time experience—”solitude, silence, desolation, camaraderie, romance, meditation, prayer, vigil, carousing, music, the moon, the stars, the dawn”.

There are various other techniques by which Laing forces his readers to confront the inauthenticity with which they might attempt to downgrade vast domains of their experience to some “psychosis” of their own neurological matter. He has a gift for novel metaphor—for the reworking of what George Lakoff would call an “Idealized Cognitive Model” of madness.