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The Legacy of R.D.Laing.

The Legacy of R.D.Laing

M.Guy Thompson (ed) (2015). London: Routledge.

Towards the end of the 1970s a cluster of us, including Mike Thompson, the cheerleader in chief who has so skilfully brought together the various contributors to this book, would gather at the weekend cottage of one of the other essayists, Steve Gans, up in the hills north of Aylesbury. Amidst the wine and the spliff the conversation would invariably follow a wellworn trajectory: What would be the effect of the initiatives of Laing in the years to come? In other words what would the legacy look like ... indeed would there even be one? Perhaps to some degree responding to the bittersweet spin of Clancy Sigal's 'The Zone of the Interior' where the figure of Laing was entitled 'Dr Willie Last'.

In order to glimpse what might purport to be something of any such legacy it feels important to be crystal clear as to what was at stake with regard to Laing's ideas. After all let us set aside his unequivocal status as an iconic, mesmeric presence amidst a number of 1960s counter-cultural heroes, potentially all stemming from the initiatives of the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the like. To break free from the stultifying constraints of prevailing convention. Whatever else might be said this cannot be taken away from him. Put another way, his place within that firmament is incontestable. Whilst it feels important to recognise, indeed celebrate this, there are times when some of the ideas appear to get a little lost in the shuffle of these varied contributions.

Fundamental to the grand project, whether the emphasis was on psychiatry or psychoanalysis, was the unrelenting advocacy of careful listening. And this is never quite such a simple point. After all, an insistent phenomenological trope is the underscoring of prepositions, and what was being advocated was a listening FOR rather than a listening TO. It was not merely that those designated as mad, psychotic, would benefit from being heard, just like all of us, but rather the far bolder suggestion that what was being said was something that their doctors, analysts, call us what you will, needed to be told in order to more effectively do their job. The seemingly crazy monologues contained real information. One consequence of this would be to encourage the psychiatrists to listen to their patients in ways that their medical colleagues would, hopefully, take into account what the physically distressed were saying about their symptoms. Crucially they would be believed.

But at this point we then enter the site of a double inscription. The proposal, which is so obviously foundational to this very day, that there is a socially intelligible basis to the emergence of madness was one thing. Psychosis, initially recognised as a way in which somebody, to use an Adam Phillips insistence, was doing the best they could with what they'd got, to make inroads into the complexities of their particular social situation, then appeared to morph into something quite other. So much of these initial ideas are enmeshed in one of Laing's books, co-authored with Aaron Esterson, the utterly essential Sanity, Madness and the Family. In the preface to the Second edition they have this to say: 'There have been many studies of mental illness and the family. THIS BOOK IS NOT ONE OF THEM (my emphasis) ... but it has been taken to be so by many people'. And to some extent this continues in this 'Legacy' book.

Even Thompson at times appears to waver on the cusp of failing to distinguish between the idea that there is something wrong with someone and that crucial difference, that something has gone wrong. What Laing and his colleague so vehemently sought to contest was the idea, which prevails to this day, that the diagnosis of schizophrenia means that a person's experience and behaviour are disturbed, or, more emphatically, disturbing BECAUSE THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEM (my emphasis), and that this something which CAUSES (again my emphasis) the disturbance in the first place is called schizophrenia. As they say 'We jumped off this line of reasoning in the beginning'. Their mission statement was that they 'do not accept schizophrenia as being a biochemical, neurophysiological, or psychological fact and we regard it as a palpable error to take it to be a fact'. The mad might very well be alienated but they are not aliens. All this may seem quite obvious, elementary even, to so many of us today and we have Laing, along with the likes of David Cooper and Hugh Crawford, to thank. And let us not forget that at that time, the early 1960's, all this came as something of a revelation, in part because there was an audience beyond the narrow confines of the psychiatric community, all marinated in the Zeitgeist of the era. But enormous credit stems from the part Laing played in attempting to disrupt psychiatry's reliance on drugs, ECT, brain butchery and in many instances what amounted to imprisonment of suffering people.

So how did the double inscription emerge? There had been plans for there to be a second accompanying volume to compliment the first by examining family interactions in which no one had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. The idea being that whilst mad-making behaviour would be always present in families of so called 'schizophrenics' it might also be located in families with no pathologised members. But no second volume was to see the light of day. So there was no access to any response to the crucial question as to why potentially mad-making behaviour was only linked to some and not to others. By slipping past this question Laing moved towards an insistent proposition that there were no 'normal' families, was no 'normal' society, and on to rendezvous with the idea that the most elevated form of 'sanity' was to be found in those who refused to conform to the madness of our prevailing culture. The catatonics of the mad became the heroic super-sane response to a mad and alienating world. Exemplified by the rallying call of Deleuze and Gattari that 'A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch' (AntiOedipus Penguin Classics, 1977: p 2). Although a better model for what is never sufficiently spelt out ... for one's own child?

Boldly or injudiciously, depending on one's viewpoint, Laing moved into attempting two things simultaneously: a presentation of genuinely serious concerns regarding the pernicious confusions of the 'mental illness' brigade inmixed with the dubious, outlandish claims that it is none other than society itself that is responsible for the anguish of madness. This may have been freighted by a narrative seductiveness in a 1960's Britain just emerging from post Second World War austerity, but unfortunately started to leak psychological plausibility. Thus critically damaging much prospects of any genuine lasting legacy.

This is not to suggest that there is no merit to the book, but perhaps a more critical perspective might have been more illuminating. Peter Mezan's mood music piece is a fine evocation of the charismatic Laing, and at least Doug Kirsner does his best to stir the pot but there are some odd turkeys lurking within the pages. Anyone who can seriously suggest, as Pickering does, that 'bodies are absent in psychoanalytic therapy', or that the two body psychology of Laing's existential approach might be placed under the rubric of Postmodern Psychoanalysis (Schulman) are the mere appearance of instances of the faintly risible.

But leaving such considerations aside, for me the pick of the bunch of these varied essayists is Mike Thompson's story of a period in one of the Philadelphia Association's 'Post-Kingsley Hall Households: Portland Road'. Underpinned by the idea of setting up a house in which people might live while in the throes of a psychotic episode. And Thompson does a fine job of presenting the complexities of allowing 'Jerome' and his madness to run its course. Nevertheless there emerge vestiges of an infelicitous vocabulary, somewhat redolent of an insistent 1960s bass line: the Beatles 'All you need is love'. At one point the proposal is that the principle response to 'Jerome' was 'benign neglect', which given the enormous amount of CONCERN (my emphasis), illustrated by countless evenings when the conversation would be dominated by considerations of what to do next, feels an injudicious phrase. Yet by the end of the chapter we come up against 'It was our love for Jerome that finally had its way'. 'Love' has now become a 'magic word', a word seemingly capable of resolving the enigma of how 'Jerome' found his way, a word now so slippery as to become almost meaningless.

A fellow traveller back at the weekend cottage, Steve Gans, takes this a step further. On full tilt he insists 'To be sure, Ronnie had awakened to love'. To be sure? Many claims might be made with regard to 'Ronnie' but in Thompson's account of 'Jerome's' difficulties it was Laing who was verging on panicking in the face of what, at times, appeared to be an intractable madness. And we have not even touched on his son, Adrian, and his admirable biography of his father which draws attention to his dealings with his own children, so often appearing to turn his back on them in pursuit of his destiny. It was Jenny Diski in her review of that biography (London Review of Books 22/9/94) who had this to say 'To find authenticity in the signs of madness is like finding a desirable simplicity in poverty: and only those not obliged to experience either can afford such intellectual slackness'. What's love got to do with it?

But despite these caveats and the overblown flyleaf claim that this is 'the most authoritative, accessible, and personally revealing book on R.D. Laing' (genuine contenders are the aforementioned biography and Bob Mullan's Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing) let us raise a glass to another perfectly acceptable attempt to keep the Laing flag flying and his never less than interesting entanglement with the issues of insanity.
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Author:Oakley, Chris
Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Words:1684
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