Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Tuesday, 10 May 2011



I do not experience your experience. But I experience you as experiencing. I experience myself as experienced by you. And I experience you as experiencing yourself as experienced by me. And so on. – R D Laing, The Politics of Experience

A post over at my friend Dave King’s blog where he was looking for his readers to submit lines of poetry that we felt were immortal started me thinking about the poetry that has had the greatest influence on me. It’s not a long list I’m sorry to say but that says more about how little poetry I’ve been exposed to rather than the quality of that poetry. In the main it’s been individual poems but there is one exception, a book of poetry, and a most unusual book it is. For starters it was written by a man who is far better known as a psychiatrist than a poet. That man was Ronald David Laing.

I’ve never had a great deal of interest in the big three sciences – biology, chemistry and physics – but I do like formulae. I think it’s simply amazing that you can reduce things to a stream (and often a very short stream) of letters, symbols and numbers. The one I remember from school is something called the coefficient of frictionµ. (µ is the twelfth letter of the Greek alphabet which we pronounce ‘mu’.) It tells you how slippery things are. Ice on steel has a low coefficient of friction, while rubber on pavement has a high coefficient of friction. Under good conditions, a tire on concrete may have a coefficient of friction of about 1.7 where a value of 0 means no friction whatsoever. The coefficient of friction is, however, an empirical measurement – it has to be measured experimentally, and cannot be found through calculations. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a formula, and here it is:

μ = F /N

In other words: the static friction coefficient (μ) between two solid surfaces is defined as the ratio of the tangential force (F) required to produce sliding divided by the normal force between the surfaces (N).

So what has all this to do with Ronnie Laing? Bear with me.

In 1953 Laing began working at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow becoming, at the time, the youngest consultant in the country. Anyone who has seen or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will have some idea how mentally ill patients were treated back then. Only this sounds worse. Laing noticed that none of the doctors actually talked with the patients – they treated them as ailing organisms as opposed to poorly people – and so he proposed something radical: he took twelve women patients, all schizophrenics, and spent months getting them to open up about their lives and their illnesses allowing them to talk to each other and form bonds in the so-called ‘Rumpus Room' rehabilitative project.[1] His peers couldn’t decide if he was extraordinarily dedicated or simply a bit eccentric. The results, however, were dramatic. After only a few months all twelve of them were considered well enough to leave hospital and return to their families. Within a year though every last one of them had been readmitted. Laing would seem to have failed. But he didn’t give up. Instead he refocused his attention and began to research the families of these patients. His conclusion was that the doctors who were treating these people so that they could be returned to their families using what was available at the time – insulin comas (which brought patients to the brink of death only to see them revived by glucose solution fed into the stomach) and electroconvulsive therapy – were making a terrible mistake: they were sending them back to the private horror that had first created their patients’ individual madnesses. To suggest thomas_szaszthat he was blaming parents for causing schizophrenia in their offspring is simplistic however but it did start him wondering just how much environment contributed towards mental instability.

Thomas Szasz, a contemporary of Laing and someone with whom he felt some affinity, put forth this theory:

Mental illness is the game-playing tactic adopted … by those who are dissatisfied with the rules of the game in which they are a player.[2]

And an article looking back on Szasz’s long career opens as follows:

Future historians may well cast Thomas Szasz as an intrepid campaigner for the blindingly obvious: people do not have “mental illnesses” but experience a wide range of moral, interpersonal, social and political “problems in living.” All such problems concern, or have an impact on, our sense of who and what we are and could just as easily be called spiritual crises.[3]

Much the same could be said about Laing indeed, along with Laing’s friend, David Cooper, “[t]he quite different ideas of these men came to be bracketed inappropriately under the rubric of “anti-psychiatry”—an expression coined by Cooper though disclaimed by Laing and rejected outright by Szasz..”[4] It’s a wonder that we’re not all crazy, every single one of us.

If mental illness was what happened in extreme cases of family problems then what about the thin edge of the wedge? What about (so called) normal families? What coping mechanisms did the individual members employ? To investigate this Laing turned to something called game theory. And, no, he didn’t simply sit them down and watch them playing Scrabble. He was more interested in those secret games people play.

What Laing found was that couples used their everyday actions as strategies to control and manipulate each other. Even acts of kindness and love he viewed as weapons used to exert power and control. In the first episode of the TV series, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, an excerpt of which I’ve embedded at the end of this article, one of his colleagues, Clancy Sigal, an American novelist and screenwriter and a co-founder of the Philadelphia Association along with Laing and others, had this to say:

Laing really did feel that the family was an area for strategising. Love was a way in which one person tried to dominate another person: I love you but I’m making a condition for that love which is impossible for you to fulfil and so there’s nothing you can do to earn my love even though I’m telling you you have to earn my love.

What began simply as scepticism towards ways of thinking that are too often taken for granted became a way of life for Laing. He began publishing books and became a media celebrity, very much a British Timothy Leary, a primal force in the UK’s timothy-learygrowing antiestablishmentarianism – no ‘dis’. As in the States in the United Kingdom the counterculture movement of the 1960s was mainly a reaction against the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s. At no other time has the family and ‘traditional family values’ been under attack.

According to an article in The Independent back in 2008 there was talk about an up-and-coming film (provisionally titled Mad to Be Normal) that was to be made about Laing’s life starring, I would have thought, a perfectly-cast fellow Glaswegian Robert Carlyle. Although it now looks as if the film may never appear the article had this to say about Laing:

Among those considered to be his most celebrated admirers at the height of his influence in the 1960s when he was a regular feature on television were The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.


But by the time of his death on a Riviera tennis court in 1989 at the age of 61, R D Laing's reputation was at an all-time low, dismissed as the drunken high priest of failed Sixties hedonism, a fallen icon of the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation and wrecker-in-chief of traditional nuclear family values.[5]

So what happened?

Laing was born and raised in Govanhill in Glasgow. It was, and still is, one of the roughest areas in the city. It has a reputation for deprivation and poverty and the high rates of crime that follow them. If that was not bad enough he was brought up in the mother and father of dysfunctional families. His parents had been married for ten years before they had Ronnie, an event that surprised the neighbours because his mother managed to conceal her pregnancy and even denied having had sex with her husband. By comparison with their neighbours the Laings were actually reasonably well off but that didn’t stop his father, David, worrying about his career which caused him to have a three-month breakdown.

His mother, Amelia, was nothing less that peculiar:

According to one friend and neighbour, ‘Everyone in the street knew she was mad.’ The Laing family home was frequently curtained and dark; and, as if to avoid contamination by the outside world, Amelia ‘was rarely seen outside her house. She even burnt her own rubbish at home, lest neighbours found what it contained’.[6]

He was clearly not a wanted child, nevertheless, “Amelia felt constrained to behave in ways that conformed to the prevailing standards of what a mother should feel towards her offspring.”[7] On one occasion she gave her son an expensive pedal car for his fifth birthday but he only received this after she had burned his much-loved rocking horse on the grounds that he was excessively attached to it. It was around about this time that his parents told him Santa Claus did not exist. He never forgave them, claiming in later years that the realisation they had been lying to him triggered his first existential crisis. Amelia also policed his diet in case he ate anything that had come in touch with the lower sort of people – jam and jelly babies were especially offensive to her. (I mean, seriously, how could any wean be brought up in Glasgow without a steady diet of ‘jeely pieces’?) Ronnie’s relationship with his father was better but only up to a point because his father often sided with his wife, probably to keep the peace.

Jeely Piece Song: Matt McGinn (lyrics here).

Ronnie’s salvation was education. Not only did he have school to escape to but just across the back garden lay one of Glasgow's original Carnegie libraries in which he spent his time, as he put it, “working my way from A to Z.”[8] By the time he was fifteen he was familiar with Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche and, of course, Freud. In 1945 he entered Glasgow University to study medicine. Failing his final exams – and having to face his parents’ sense of disgrace – caused him to leave home and he hardly ever returned; he passed his finals six months later and graduated in February 1951. There seems little doubt that his life-long empathy for the mentally disturbed can be traced back to his relationship with his mother. in fact in the documentary film, Did You Use to be R D Laing? he said as much. She died in 1986, a little under three years before her son. During the service he began to cry uncontrollably and one of the mourners commented: “[H]e was still three years old in relation to her, his rage still there.”[9]

Needless to say when he came to have his own family it was not a rip-roaring success. His son Adrian, speaking in 2008 said:

It was ironic that my father became well-known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family. … When people ask me what it was like to be R D Laing's son I tell them it was a crock of shit.[10]

And his daughter, Karen, who now works as a humanistic psychotherapist said:

I have sat in on sessions with my father while he was working with clients and experienced his genius as a man who could relate to another human’s pain and suffering. There seems to me to be a huge void and contradiction between R D Laing the psychiatrist and Ronnie Laing the father. There was something he was constantly searching for within himself and it tortured him.[11]

Although Laing’s excesses in later life will certainly make an entertaining film the fact is that his role in overturning the established orthodoxy of the day cannot be ignored:

Laing believed that mental illness was a sane response to an insane world[12] and that a psychiatrist had a duty to communicate empathetically with patients. Once, when faced with a naked schizophrenic woman rocking silently to and fro in a padded cell, Laing took off his own clothes and sat next to her, rocking to the same rhythm until she spoke for the first time in months.

As a psychiatrist, both brilliant and unconventional, RD Laing pioneered the humane treatment of the mentally ill. But as a father, clinically depressed and alcoholic, he bequeathed his ten children and his two wives a more chequered legacy.[13]

A few years before I became aware of R D Laing I wrote a poem called ‘Street Games’ which I showed to my own father. His response was that life was not a game and, of course, he was right – life is serious business – but he was also so very wrong. At the time I didn’t have the words to defend myself but I knew he was wrong. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a library copy of Laing’s book of poetry, Knots, and read the opening poem that I had the words:

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

Okay it’s not Wordsworth and there will be those who might argue that it’s not even proper poetry but I don’t care. My Vintage edition catalogues it under ‘Psychology’ and that’s fine by me.

I read that single piece over and over again. Never had so few words made so much sense to me.

does my bum look big in thisDoes my bum look big in this? Honestly, is there a right answer to that question? The answer she wants to hear is, “No, dear,” and any man who doesn’t give that answer toute de suite and with a smile on his face needs his head seeing to. Care needs to be taken so as not to sound disingenuous. You have to say that, “No, dear,” with just the right amount of sincerity and without too much pussyfooting around the issue or it might look as if that was not your initial reaction. It’s a game. She knows exactly how big her bum is and how big that thing she’s squeezed it into makes it look. Words show 7% of our feelings and attitudes, tone of voice shows 38% and body language shows 55% – she will know if you say one thing and mean another and yet she wants you to lie to her, to be in cahoots with her. She’s not interested in the truth. She’s not interested in constructive feedback. She’s looking for positive reinforcement. You can take the moral high ground – “It’s for your own good” – and the best of luck if you do.

Collusion has resonances of playing at and of deception. It is a ‘game’ played by two or more people whereby they deceive themselves. The game is the game of mutual self-deception. Whereas delusion and elusion and illusion can be applied to one person, collusion is necessarily a two-or-more-person game. Each plays the other’s game, through he may not necessarily be fully aware of doing so. An essential feature of this game is not admitting that it is a game.[14]

Now is that not what Laing’s poem is saying but far more eloquently? But who is the ‘I’ in the poem? As far as Bobby Matherne’s concerned it’s the therapist who “must join them in their game to keep them as clients, or else they will leave therapy. In addition, the therapist must break up the game for the couple to move from a disjunctive conjunction to a copulative conjunction from now on.”[15] I didn’t read it that way when I was nineteen (which is probably how old I was at the time): I saw the ‘I’ in the book as me and the ‘they’ were my parents.

Of course no one played games more than Ronnie:

[L]ike a contemporary pop star Laing was, in some respects, a product of the publics who read and celebrated him; a point which is nicely captured in the distinction that Adrian Laing draws between ‘Ronnie’, the father he knew, and ‘R.D. Laing’, the public celebrity. … I do not mean that he was a mere representation in radical culture. R.D. was one of Ronnie’s roles and had to be played to exist.[16] [italics mine]

A number of the poems feature Jack and Jill but no hills as far as I can remember. Jack and Jill also appear throughout his book Self and Others as proxies to help him get his points over, like this one about elusion:

Jack and JillJill is married to Jack. She does not want to be married to Jack. She is frightened to leave Jack. So she stays with Jack but imagines she is not married to him. Eventually she does not feel married to Jack. So she has to imagine she is. ‘I have to remind myself that he is my husband.’

A common manoeuvre. Elusion is a way of getting round conflict without direct confrontation, or its resolution. It eludes conflict by playing off one modality of experience against another. She imagines she is not married and then imagines she is. Elusive spirals go on and on.[17]

There isn’t a ‘Jack and Jill’ poem in the book to fit the above scenario but this one here is typical (and not too knotty):

Jill can see Jack can't see,
and can't see he can't see.
Jill can see WHY
Jack can't see,
but Jill cannot see WHY
Jack can't see he can't see.

Jack 'sees' Jill is blind
and that Jill can't see she is.
Jack realises they both are.
If the blind must lead the blind, it is as well
that the leader knows he is.

Jack can't see he can't see
and can't see
Jill can't see Jill can't see it.
and visa versa...

The word ‘knots’ only appears three times in Self and Others and all in the one paragraph, here:

Some people undoubtedly have a remarkable aptitude for keeping the other tied in knots. There are those who excel in tying knots and those who excel in being tied in knots. Tyer and tied are often both unconscious of how it is done, or even that it is being done at all. It is strikingly how difficult it is for the parties concerned to see what is happening. We must remember that part of the knot is not to see that it is a knot.[18]

It is, however, the perfect metaphor and made a huge impression on me at the time and still. The expression Laing uses in the book’s introduction to describe these ‘knots’ is “the final formal elegance in these webs of maya.” Maya is a Sanskrit word that in Indian religions has multiple meanings centred around the concept of "illusion".

At the time when I first read this book I had only been married for a few months and my wife and I were still trying to work out what our respective roles were. Yes, she was ‘the wife’ and I was ‘the husband’ but what did that mean? We knew what it meant for our respective sets of parents but surely that wasn’t what it was going to mean for us. And for months we circled around each other, each of us trying to ‘read’ the other. It was impossible not to look at Jack and Jill and not wonder if either of us really knew the other. As Laing says in the opening chapter to The Politics of Experience:

I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot "see" my experience of you. My experience of you is not "inside" me. It is simply you, as I experience you. And I do not experience you as inside me. Similarly, I take it that you do not experience me as inside you.

"My experience of you" is just another form of words for "you-as-l-experience-you", and "your experience of me" equals "me-as-you-experience-me". Your experience of me is not inside you and my experience of you is not inside me, but your experience of me is invisible to me and my experience of you is invisible to you.

Having been brought up in a religious household the second poem in the book really hit home with me:

They are not having fun.
I can't have fun if they don't.
If I get them to have fun, then I can have fun with them.
Getting them to have fun, is not fun. It is hard work.
I might get fun out of finding out why they're not.
I'm not supposed to get fun out of working out why
they're not.
But there is even some fun in pretending to them I'm not
having fun finding out why they're not.

A little girl comes along and says: let's have fun.
But having fun is a waste of time, because it doesn't
help to figure out why they're not having fun.

How dare you have fun when Christ died on the Cross for you! Was He having fun?

patti-smith_by_mapplethorpeI think it must have been just about this time that I first heard Patti Smith’s opening to ‘Gloria’:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me

Religion is a game. It was in our house. God may not have played dice with the universe but he did with us. I was told I had to have “a personal relationship” with God, something to this day I struggle to comprehend, and so I did what any other kid with any sense would do: I faked it. He was a parentally-sanctioned imaginary friend. So I played along. I went through the motions. I lied. No one taught me to and by the time someone told me it was wrong I had amassed so much evidence to the contrary that I just kept schtum and went about my business appearing to be what they expected me to be. No one even told me we were playing a game, what the rules were (but we still weren’t supposed to cheat). All I knew was what the prize was and I was supposed to keep my eyes on it:

Paul and Silas thought they was lost
Dungeon shook and the chains come off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Freedom's name is mighty sweet
And soon we're gonna meet
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

(from ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize’)

After a few weeks Knots went back to the library and it was to be about thirty years before I owned my own which I bought in a little second-hand bookstore in Hayward, California of all places. The book’s imagery never left me though and in 1996 I penned this poem:

Cathexis (in memoriam RDL)

Jack loved Jill
because he needed someone to love
and Jill happened to be there.

Jill wasn't sure if Jack loved her
but she wanted to be loved
so she believed that he did.

Jack said the words he felt he should
not realising Jill would only hear
what she wanted to.

But saying the words felt good too
and no one was being hurt
so what's so wrong with that?

Truth is over-rated if you ask me.

2 March, 1996

It’s a poem that still pleases me very much but I’m also not the only person to be inspired by Knots. In my researches I found this poem by Bruce Whealton:

Act Naturally

Just act naturally!
Naturally, I am learning,
just what to do,

Do people learn, naturally,
how to act natural?

I must learn social skills
so that I will know
what to do, naturally,
when I want to act,

There is also the poem ‘v. (for R.D.L.)’ by Phyllis Webb here.

I started off talking about formulae and so let me finish there. Some people object to poems being viewed as problems to be solved. Formulae are not problems – they’re the answer to problems and that’s what many poems are, a working example. In Knots R D Laing presents us with scenarios but he’s not asking us to solve these so much as to see if we can relate to them. And isn’t that something we do with all poetry, look for ourselves in the lines and in between them?

One Amazon reviewer made this observation about the collection: “Broadly mirroring the pattern of a life, from a child's observation of adults, through adult sexual relationships and finally to the nihilistic aspects of old age…” I hadn’t noticed that myself but it’s an interesting observation. though not one that affected my own choice to arrange my poetry collection in that order.

There was a short film made in the early seventies with Ronnie explain­ing how “peo­ple have a habit of tying each other up in knots” and some actors did read­ings of some of the poems but I’ve not been able to track down a clip. You can read examples of some of Laing’s ‘knots’ here. Here is the link to that BBC documentary I quoted from earlier:

Finally, let me leave you with a clip from Did You Used to be R D Laing where Laing talks about his mother and, if what he’s relating is accurate (you can never be too sure with him) then it’s clear to see where his first knots originated:


Janus Head, Vol.4 No.1 – Special Issue: The Legacy of R. D. Laing


[1] David Abrahamson’s comment here is illuminating.

[2] Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.25

[3] Phil Barker and Poppy Buchanan-Barker, ‘No Excuses: The Reality Cure of Thomas Szasz’,, 4th August 2010

[4] Ron Roberts, ‘Madness, Myth and Medicine—The Continuing Relevance of Thomas Szasz, Now in his 91st Year’, The Psychologist, 2nd August 2010

[5] Jonathan Brown, R D Laing: ‘The celebrity shrink who put the psychedelia into psychiatry’, The Independent, 29th December 2008

[6] Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.7

[7] Daniel Burston, The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy, p.2

[8] Ibid, p.9

[9] Ibid, p.17

[10] Susan Laing quoted in Russell Miller, ‘RD Laing: The abominable family man’, The Times, 12th April 2009

[11] Karen Laing quoted in Russell Miller, ‘RD Laing: The abominable family man’, The Times, 12th April 2009

[12] This quote, or similar, is often attributed to Laing but the nearest I can find is from chapter 5 of The Politics of Experience: “The experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unliveable situation.”

[13] Elizabeth Day and Graham Keeley, 'Dad solved other people's problems - but not his own', The Guardian, 1st June 2008

[14] R D Laing, Self and Others, p.90

[15] Bobby Matherne, Book review of Knots, 2007

[16] Nick Crossley, Contesting Psychiatry: Social Movements in Mental Health, p.102

[17] R D Laing, Self and Others, p.32

[18] Ibid, p.139


Von said...

Great post here Jim with some of my heroes.I was much influenced by Szasz and Laing way back when.
By the way we all work out our relationships and it's rules.I like to be told honestly if my bum looks big and then I can decide whether to ignore the advice or not!

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Von, I actually don’t ever think I’ve had to field that question in my life. Which is probably just as well because I’m a rotten liar, except on paper.

Tim Love said...

I remember reading Knots, but I was reading reading other (more academic) stuff about games, sociology and role-play at the time for teacher-training (and I had a mad friend) so it didn't bowl me over. The general idea appeals to me, but from what you write, I'm not alone.

But my first reaction is - how on earth does Jim find the time to research and write such interesting essays?

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the thing with Knots with me, Litrefs, is that it came at the right time. It’s why I can’t view books like Billy Liar and Catcher in the Rye with real objectivity because they meant a great deal to me at a certain age and I owe them. Most writers aren’t remembered for huge chunks of their writing. I mean in a hundred years all people will probably remember of Larkin is, “They fuck you up your mum and dad,” and maybe, maybe, “What will survive of us is love.” I remember very little of the poetry in Knots - I certainly couldn’t recite a whole one – but I do remember my jaw dropping (metaphorically-speaking) when I read, “They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game.” and so on. And I sometimes wonder if all that will last of me will be the tag line to my blog (which actually comes from a poem).

As for time. I wasted so much time in the past that I’ve very conscious of making the most of what time I have left. By ‘wasted’ I mean working ridiculously-long hours and letting doing my duty (or what I saw to be my duty) rule my life and now I’ve had enough. I have an enormous amount of catching up to do. If I’d applied myself to literary studies then I’d be a professor by now at least instead of the pretender that I am. Not everyone can afford to do what I’ve doing – I have bills like everyone else – but the simple fact is that you can live on a lot less than people would have you believe as long as you cut your cloth and prioritise. I have the time to research articles like this because I make the time and yet I still feel that every one is rushed. I feel like this article is basically just the outline for a proper essay but when am I going to find the time to write that? I have far too many other things to find out about.

Art Durkee said...

The bottom line in Laing, that "insanity" is often an sane response to an insane world, is what I mostly got from reading all of Laing that was available to read, back in the 70s.

Another psychologist who went down a similar road, although he was also focused on mind-body integration as well, is Arnold Mindell. I think you would his book "City Shadows" to be familiar territory; it's about how insane people are often actually just acting out the group's psychosis, acting out the buried shadow of the group, as it were. Another form of sane response to an insane world.

I remember really liking "Knots" at the time I read it, in my late teens or early 20s, i think. It made an impact, certainly. But not as poetry, not for me.

The equivalent book for me was Jean Valentine's third book of poems, "Ordinary Things." I've written about this a bit before. But bottom line, encountering that book in my 20s was what gave me permission to write the kind of poems I was seeing and hearing in my mind, but that nobody around me was approving. You know? It gave me a route towards finding my own voice. Valentine's voice in those poems was revelatory, made my jaw drop, and also was so close to what I'd been hearing my head that it served as a model and kick-start for me. It got me going. I immediately gave up trying to please anybody else with what I was writing. If they didn't get it, not my problem.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

I, too, was tied up in knots by Laing when at university; in fact, I still have The Politics of Experience and Knots lurking somewhere in the recesses of my bookcase. Thanks for the post, Jim.

John said...

Thanks for this one. I was a fellow tourist at the time, so know the work well. In fact there was a moment back there when I almost worked together with Laing. But your piece made me think about Sam Beckett and Jacques Lacan as well. Connections, connections.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, that about sums Laing up, Art. I think of him like Freud. Much of what Freud went on about has been discredited. But what he did was stop and make up think. And that is exactly what Laing did with me. Right, wrong or indifferent he put into words what I was feeling and, as I just said to Dave, my jaw dropped when I read some of these poems. I recognised even then that they weren’t great poetry, not in any technical sense, but they affected me greatly.

I always meant to read more of him, Vassilis, but then there have been a whole lot of people I have meant to read more of.

And, John, yes, well, I can reference Beckett in just about everything I write but Lacan I’m unfamiliar with although I keep seeing ‘Lacanian’ cropping up in articles especially concerning language so maybe I should find a bit of time for him too. Anyway, if you did have a chance to work with Laing I think you would have found him entertaining if nothing else.

Marion McCready said...

Great stuff, reminds me of Sartre's 'bad faith'. Laing's mother sounds like a total nightmare, and (though he laughed) how sad he looked in that second video when he mentioned his mother. I think all relationships have some form (even to a minimal extent) of power-game going on, esp amongst men. It took eight years of marriage before I stopped second-guessing everything my husband said to me ("what did he really mean by that"). Too much psychological analysis on my behalf :)

Jim Murdoch said...

One of my regular commenters, Dick Jones, has had trouble leaving a comment this time and so he e-mailed me and asked me to put this up:

All the bells are ringing here with this post, Jim! A fine profile and commentary, one of your best.

I was a great champion of Laing back in the '70s when he was slugging it out toe-to-toe with the psychiatric establishment. 'The Divided Self' and 'The Self and Others' were handbooks for me at a time of intense enquiry into what really drives our behaviour and what the implications are, both in respect of individuals in situations of power and individuals involved in collective action. Although the proposition of socially constructed madness has few proponents now and schizophrenia presents entirely as a function of vagabond chemicals fired by errant micro-voltage, I still find much in Laing that makes eminent sense. In fact, it seems to me (a lay observer with no qualifications in psychology whatsoever, it should be said) that the past 40/50 years have only served to confirm and ratify much of what Laing observed and proposed concerning the psychopathology of the individual within the family and the social context.

That having been said, I was very struck by his son Adrian's condemnation of Laing's fathering: "When people ask me what it was like to be R.D. Laing's son I tell them it was a crock of shit". I taught at the King Alfred School in North-West London when Adrian's half-brother Adam was in the Junior department and considerable concern was expressed more than once as to the quality of Laing's parenting. When I met Laing at the house of mutual friends (a family whose kids I taught at KAS) he was so stoned he could hardly see straight! Adam's subsequent tragic demise seems to bear out the sad dislocation between Laing's frequently wise and compassionate understanding of the vicissitudes of human behaviour and his own inability to apply it to his own family.

For me, it has been 'Knots' that has provided consistently rewarding. As a teacher, they comprised a major component in my GCSE Drama syllabus. After an introduction to the 'Knots' and an explanation of their purpose and function, I would present the class with a selection of them. Using their chosen samples, the students would then, in groups of 3 to 5, find ways of dramatising each Knot, the emphasis being on the integration of expressive movement and carefully structured spoken intonation so as to communicate to an audience the precise sense and logic of the piece. It was an enormously useful exercise in establishing for the students the relationship between physical presentation and vocal expression. And for many individuals working through the process towards theatrical performance presentation, powerful insights into everyday behavioural performance were gained.

A complex and contradictory man, but, though deeply flawed, a great one.

Art Durkee said...

Actually, I can point to many current examples of socially-constructed insanity even now, so I think that part of Laing's ideas is very much relevant to the present day. If people reject that, well, it's not because it's either a bad or a wrong idea.

As part of a subculture, one who is not part of the mainstream, the reality of conforming to social norms, and people treating you as if you were mad, just because you are different, is very much alive and well is the present day. Ask anyone who is different from the norm. They'll tell you story after story about socially-constructed madness and it's messed up their lives. . . .

Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is so often the case, Dick, that a great artist or writer is a lousy individual. A couple of days ago I watched a documentary about the composer Carl Orff. Everyone knows him for his cantata Carmina Burana but of course that was only a fraction of his output. What most music lovers won’t know is that he created the Orff Schulwerk, a developmental approach to teach music education to students. It combines music, movement, drama, and speech into lessons that are similar to child's world of play that is now used the world over to great success and yet for all he did for other children he had no time for his own daughter, Godela. In fact he appears to have had little time for anyone if they weren’t of use to him discarding one wife after another. "He had his life and that was that," Godela said in the film.

Marion, yes, I can agree. It has caused me problems in the past. Considering what Carrie and I are like, I am surprised that we have not had a volatile and short-lived marriage – that’s so often the case with two strong personalities – and yet we’ve both managed to resist the need to have to be right all the time. I think had we met twenty years earlier we might not have done so well. I don’t think, to take up your reference to Sartre, that we’re being inauthentic in anyway – I do still like to be right all the time – but we’ve come to realise that there are more important things. I mean seriously, does it matter if Farmfoods is at the top or the bottom of Byres Road? One of the few arguments Carrie and I had at the start was where that shop was located. And neither of us would back down. What was that all about? We weren’t arguing about where the shop was, we were arguing about not needing to be right and accepting that someone else could be. As it happens I was right – she was thinking of Iceland at the other end.

And, Art (when did you become Stickdragn?), yes, I’m sure there will be many people (most of the people I’ve known in my life) who will think what I’m doing with my life is madness. I read a poem yesterday about a man who ploughs up his front lawn and plants corn I think and how outraged his neighbours are (you know that kind of ‘burb mentality) and they must have thought him mad but what’s more natural than growing your own food?

Dave King said...

Excellent review. I have long been a fan of Laing and his transactional analysis. For me the latter goes back to the 60's.When I began my Diploma course we were given a very lengthy book list, but then told that there was only one book that was mandatory reading, a book called "Games People Play". It is a thin book, but a classic - perhaps THE classi - of Transactional analysis. It's by Eric Berne, VERY easy reading and still available.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know of the book, Dave, and I think I’ve used it for research in the past. I’ve just written a post about love and discovered a love that based on playing games, something I’d never heard of before. I never really set out to review Knots as such I have to say. It’s one of those books that I don’t care how good or bad it is, I’m still grateful to it. And, clearly, I’m not alone.

martine said...

Saw the title and thought, how great, Jim is writing about RD Laing. My partner gave me a copy of Knots when we were first together, I always wondered if he was trying to tell me something. Strangely I had not thought of them as poems but some kind of commentary on existence. I remember being so pleased to read something that made perfect sense, confirmed my suspicions that things were not really as they seemed. Excellent as always, fascinating background to a fascinating person.

Elisabeth said...

Well, Jim, thanks for this. I've just finished going through the video clips.

I remember so much about Laings and the anti psychiatry movement from my student days. As with most things there's a bucket load of truth in his ideas and an equal quantity that needed qualification. I, too, believe that the family is the seedbed of psychosis but that's not enough. There's possibly also a pre-disposition whether genetically induced, chronologically located or a combination of both and more besides.

Laings's is a sad story and so familiar isn't it? The psychiatrist who tries to save all these troubled people from their crazy families whose own family life is a total mess. Physician, as they say, heal yourself.

I also think there's a great deal of truth in 'the games people play' but I don't think they can be reduced to simple formulas. Life's too complex.

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

I thought this one would be up your street, Lis. I really don’t envy you your job, I really don’t. The problem as I see it, and I’m sure you do, is that all we have are theories and every few years a sparkly new one comes along (a bit like a new diet fad) and we all go, “Ooooh, that sounds promising,” but after a few years we start to see the flaws. But the thing about people like Laing (and Freud especially before him) is that they ask the right questions. Even if they themselves can’t come up with the right answers they deserve credit for that at least.

As for Laing’s family life I was quite unaware of any of this before I did this research. Of course I’m saddened by it but I know too many Scottish families from that era that were shams; mine was one of them. What runs through most of them as a common thread is an ability to explain away their dysfunctionality: “Oh, that’s just your mother’s way,” or, “You know what your father’s like.” We shrug and get on wi’ it. What else is there?

Dave King said...

I did leave a reply, but either I did something wrong, or it got swallowed in the great melt-down.

When I did my Diploma course back in the 60's we were given the usual extensive reading list, but told that only one book was required reading :"Games People Play" by Eric Berne. A thin book, very easy to read, in no way a text book, but a classic. It was revelatory in terms of human dynamics. I believe it has never been out of print.

A fine blog, by the way.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I passed a street preacher today. She didn't have an audience. A floppy copy of the Bible (I presume) was open in her hand, though she didn't seem to be looking at it. "God would not allow anyone into his presence who had one iota of sin," she said. "Jesus solved this for us by washing away our sins with his blood."

I said to my husband, "Imagine a ridiculous problem then offer up a ridiculous solution to it." The advertiser's credo, I suppose.

Jim Murdoch said...

The daft thing is, Glenn, I actually get the logic of what the street preacher was on about even if it no longer interests me. What amuses me (and probably saddens me a little) is how few true believers don’t get it. They don’t understand the trade off that was needed to wipe out the effects of Adamic sin. The way she puts it makes it sound preposterous – how can anything get washed clean in blood? – but if Adam hadn’t sinned we’d all have been born sinless so if Jesus swaps his perfect life for Adam’s he can buy back what Adam lost. It really is simple: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. And this is where I worry when people like Freud and Laing come along because they present arguments that sound so reasonable and yet their logic is flawed.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

It's not the logic that's flawed. It's the premises. You can make perfectly logical statements from crazy premises.

A dog is a cat. Therefore, a cat is a dog.

And so on.

Stories (parables, metaphors) are immensely seductive. If you can make a story out of your nonsense it just seems more true. I didn't internalize the Christian story growing up - the closest thing to church Mom subjected us to was the Unitarian kind where symbols from a variety of religions hung in banners from the ceiling - and, no, I didn't know what they were getting at when I was little. But I've heard & read enough of the Christian stuff (and been beaten about the head with it by the legislate from the pulpit crowd) that I know it at least as well as most Christians. I mostly think it's Evil with a big big E. Original sin is sex? We are born in sin blah blah blah ... Um. No.

The scary thing about so many of these systems is that there is never any way they could be proved wrong. If there is no evidence that can be marshalled to refute Freud or Laing or the Christian preacher then I don't get why they think they need any evidence ever. You just believe what you believe and evidence to the contrary (or in support, even) is completely irrelevant.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s what you’re willing to accept as proof, Glenn. I was quite lucky in one respect in that I was brought up to not simply blindly believe. The Bible was our textbook and I was taught to reason on the scriptures which is why what some people maintain they believe drives me mad and even though I’ve long since stopped practicing as soon as someone says something stupid like “original sin was sex” I feel compelled to point out that God told them to be fruitful and fill the earth so how could it be sex? But you are right, beliefs don’t need to be true, just need to be believable but because something is conceivable doesn’t mean that’s the way things are. Freud’s proposition that Man is split into three parts, an Id, an Ego and a Superego sounds quite plausible and the truth does look as if it will be something along those lines but it’s still merely a theory. The danger is when people accept theories as fact without testing them. When I was growing up one thing that was always pointed out to me was that it was the theory of evolution and that somewhere along the line people simply stopped using the word ‘theory’ and started teaching evolution as fact and the simple fact is that evolution is still a theory, one that itself is evolving, and no one yet can sit down and provide the definite guide to the existence of life. Me, I don’t care.

McGuire said...

Read a bit of R. D. Laing - he has an interesting take on mental issues. And Glaswegian.

I saw that documentary years ago. It's brilliant, insightful, harrowing. 'To view human behaviour as purely competitive and selfish only makes human beings competitive and selfish.' - Something like that.

Adam Curtis has made another documentary which is on this month called - 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace' - which is the title of a poem by Richard Brautigan. Love the title itself - wish I'd thought of it.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

My comment's vanished too.

Jim Murdoch said...

That new documentary series looks really interesting, McGuire. And it is a superb title. I’m a huge fan of Brautigan as you may know. There’s a teaser trailer on the BBC website here.

And, Dick, yes, it’s a shame that we lost most of the comments here because there were a few interesting ones but I’ve checked through my deleted folder and they’re not there and so, oh well. We know what we said. (Actually I have no idea what I said but that’s just me and my lousy memory.)

swiss said...

brilliant article jim. i kind of come and go with laing - it depends what's been going on at work! but i love knots, always have done. if the folk at work read books this is one that i'd get them to read, over and over!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Swiss. I suppose I’m a bit the same. There are times I look at him and think, Would I buy a used car from this man? but that’s only when I look at him; when I just read him I can get quite caught up in his world.

Nordsmetal said...

good article, and also thank you for the video link for the bbc documentaries

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for leaving that comment, Nordsmetal, and glad you found the links helpful.

anatman said...

hi jim,

your reference to poems influenced by laing reminded me of this one below, which follows a similar theme.



normalcy is naturally bred
the usual using usual heads,
the sane remain the same
and stay arranged within
a world as thin as skin

the restrictions of these structures
refuse us ruptures and raptures,
and yet we still respect this surface
within which we’re captured


Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting piece, Anton. Thanks for sharing. I had to read it over several times but it’s definitely got something which is why I kept going back to the start. The word choice is certainly creative. A challenge to read aloud I would imagine. Assuming you do that sort of thing. (I don’t.)

Anonymous said...

This was a good read, excellent synthesis. I always wondered if Laing explored the more 'topological' aspect of knots, in relation to mathematics and even to the work of psychoanalysts like Lacan or, later, Bernard Burgoyne... There is indeed something to explore in the relation between Laing's work and formulae.

Two excerpts from that 70s' short film with actors mentioned at the very end of the text:

The second one features the 'game playing' knot discussed in the text.


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