R.D. Laing's Language of Experience

By Miller, Gavin | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

R.D. Laing's Language of Experience


Miller, Gavin, PSYART


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. The 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".

keywords: R.D. Laing, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, rhetoric, experience, phenomenology, understanding

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_miller01.shtml

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 (for further details, see Showalter 220-47; Mullan Creative Destroyer 26-29, 89-91, 214-16, 304-6; Miller 53-85). 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" (Laing Wisdom, Madness, Folly 68-76). 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" (Showalter 224). 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 (see Burston 9). 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" (Showalter 236).

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. …

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