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R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Tavistock, 1959; reprinted Pelican Books, 1965) is an extremely interesting, absorbing and sometimes moving account of madness and the process of going mad. Its purpose is to make the world of schizoid and schizophrenic persons comprehensible. It is a precocious work, written when the author, a psychiatrist, was twenty-eight. It is less original than he thought when he wrote it, but the sense of discovery which sets its tone provides some of the book’s charm. Laing surely succeeds in making one feel, ‘Yes, it must be like that to be mad.’ His narrative makes one experience the continuity between the world of the schizophrenic and one’s own, and this diminishes the safe distance which is usually maintained between one’s own private feelings and hose of the ‘lunatic’. Those who have had any experiences of books about psychiatry written for non-specialists (and a fortiori those written for professionals) will appreciate that this is a considerable achievement. As Laing points out, the use of an elaborate nomenclature to classify the symptoms of psychotic patients which has typified psychiatric writing for the last century has had the effect of defending the minds of the sane from the realities of insanity: they provide ways of not understanding the person who is mad.

Thus, the professional ‘alienists’ have somehow alienated us from these people by reification and depersonalisation of the odd aspects of their behaviour; thereby they cease to be seen as human beings who live inside their own worlds. Mental illness is not a thing; it is a whole way of life. It is really in this apparently trite point that the strength of Laing’s narrative lies: ‘...if we look at the behaviour of the psychotic from his own point of view, much of it will become comprehensible’. ‘No one has schizophrenia, like having a cold. The patient has not "got" schizophrenia. He is schizophrenic.’ What we are pleased to call ‘delusional statements’ ’are literally true within the terms of reference of the individual who makes them’. The point is made succinctly by the apocryphal story of the patient taking a lie-detector test. When asked if he was Napoleon, he replied ‘No’. The lie-detector recorded that he was lying. There are many anecdotes of this sort which lampoon the traditional psychiatrist, but the serious content of the book is contained in the life stories of nine people who became schizophrenic. Laing presents these with great sensitivity, and it is primarily for these that the book is worth reading. The appeal of The Divided Self is therefore really nothing to do with its being a psychiatric work. Rather (to use the terms of the quotation which heads one of his case studies) it has to do with his insight into people and his skill at improving ‘the biography of the person’. Perhaps one should add that all good psychotherapists do this in their consulting rooms. Laing has decided to transcend the pseudo-scientific jargon in which their public utterances are usually couched.

Some literary critics tend to be very sceptical of the value and relevance of the writings of psychologists in describing and illuminating human nature. I once, for example, heard F. R. Leavis firmly dismissing them in comparison with the work of a great novelist. I think that Laing's book helps to show that this can be a mistaken view. Psychiatrists are privy to aspects of experience which normal life is specifically designed to hide or avoid, and it seems silly not to enrich our study of man by availing ourselves of the results of this discipline. Some most moving and disturbing literature draws on this world. I am thinking of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and, in my opinion, Peter Weiss, the author of the play ’Marat/Sade’. Kierkegaard's major philosophical writings were deliberately composed to evoke responses from the reader rather than to convince him didactically. One could also list a handful of psychiatric works which — though written from a different point of view — are just as evocative. The most famous case study was the autobiography of Dr. D. P. Schreber (1903) and Freud's study of it (1911). See also H. M. Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity (St Louis, 1941); Robert Lindner, Rebel Without a Cause (Paperback reprint: Grove Press, New York); Ludwig Binswanger, ‘The Case of Ellen West’, in: Rollo May et al. (eds.) Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology, New York, 1958.

It would also be a mistake to avoid psychiatric writings which are less evocative. Osborne's ’Luther’ for example, benefited greatly from Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther, and Erikson's other writings are extremely illuminating. The literature of psychoanalysis contains a number of classical and near-classical works. Freud's Introductory Lectures are still the best introduction, while his Interpretation of Dreams is his masterpiece. Karl Menninger's Man Against Himself (1938) is a classic of the application of psychoanalysis to psychiatry, and the best interpretive works on Freud are Philip Rieff's Freud: the Mind of the Moralist (1959) and Norman 0. Brown’s Life Against Death (1959).

I mention these as ways of entering the literature of psychiatry, because I suspect the motives of those who might wish to dabble in the subject. It should be appreciated that the study of human nature at the extremes of experience requires the same sort of serious, committed reader that is demanded by literary criticism. It is at least inconsistent to criticise middle-brow writings for their cultural shallowness and then to pontificate on psychology and the social sciences, having read few or none of the classics in the field. Psychiatry attracts dilettantes who read in order to find a glib solution to their own problems. This is just as much a travesty as it is to read a novel and submerge one's critical faculties by identifying wholeheartedly with one character. No more than literature does psychiatry welcome remarks of the ignorant or the self-indulgent.

I have said, in effect, that some psychiatric writing is good literature and that it should be read seriously or not at all. One could let the argument rest here, but it would be disingenuous to do so. It would also be foolish, since one might well be asked to explain the literary merits of the following statements from Laing's book: in schizophrenia, the self attempts to become 'a relationship which relates itself to itself', within which there is a duality whereby the inner self splits to have a sado-masochistic relationship with itself. If one perseveres in reading the book, this claim becomes comprehensible, but it is no use pretending that Laing is entirely free from jargon, even though it be of a different sort from that which he criticises in the writings of traditional psychiatrists. Nor can one deny that a comparison of this analysis with that contained in a good novel could well lead a literary critic to conclude that the psychiatrists just aren't in it. I take it that it is the use of jargon or technical language which alienates students of literature from scientific writings about people. Good literature succeeds in the evocation of ideas and feelings by keeping the language alive — by using words in such a way that they do not become clichés. Scientists and philosophers, on the other hand, are desperately attempting — as one might put it — to fail at this same task. For a scientific analysis to be successful, all those who understand it must do so in exactly the same sense, The long-term aim of science is to subsume all phenomena under universal laws which can be written in textbooks to be understood and applied by anyone with the requisite mental capacity and education. The results of science (I say nothing about scientific research) are to be communicated didactically, not evocatively.

I have concentrated on general points about the language of scientific analysis because its application in the particular area of the study of people is not so easily explained. In fact, Laing's book nicely exemplifies the problems involved. He says that 'an authentic science of persons has hardly got started by reason of the inveterate tendency to depersonalise and reify persons'. His own book attempts to 'give an account of a quite specifically personal form of depersonalisation and disintegration at a time when the discovery of "the logical form through which unity of the personal can be coherently conceived" is still a task for the future'. That is, we talk about people in everyday life and (more carefully) in literature, but we don't know what language to use when we try to do science about them. We don't seem able to relate the novelist's description of a person either to the scientist's study of the biochemistry and behaviour of the animal called man or to Laing's account.

Laing's problem is especially difficult. On the one hand he is opposed to treating man as an object or thing, while at the same time he is dealing with a type of person (the schizophrenic) who does just this to himself. The language in which Laing chooses to discuss the world of the schizophrenic is that of existential phenomenology, and it is to the existential tradition that he acknowledges his main indebtedness. Thus, we are given the following picture of the origins and phenomenology of schizophrenia: The inner core of a person is his 'self'. The self is in the world and relates to the world by means of its body. Most people — most of the time — feel basically safe in the world; Laing calls this 'primary ontological security'. Some persons, however, become ontologically insecure, i.e., they feel persecuted by reality itself. We are not clearly told how this occurs, though the life experiences in his case studies make it plausible that they would feel this way; but one is still left wondering why others with similar experiences did not become schizophrenic. The man who becomes schizophrenic becomes preoccupied with preserving rather than gratifying himself; the ordinary circumstances of living threaten his low threshold of security. His dread of his own dissolution into non-being becomes so great that the self retreats into a central citadel; by being unembodied it seeks to transcend the world and hence to be safe. The self becomes dissociated both from its own body and from the whole external world of people and events. It is thereby precluded from having a direct relationship with real things and real people; it relates instead to objects of its own imagination and memory. Its own bodily experiences and actions become alien — part of a false-self system. Thus, the self becomes 'a relationship which relates itself to itself' (Cf. supra). This relationship sustains an illusion of omnipotence and freedom within (and only within) the circle of its own shut-upness in fantasy. The psychotic's freedom consists in being inaccessible. Action is the dead end of possibility. It scleroses freedom. Laing concludes that there is one basic defence in every form of psychosis: 'the denial of being as a means of preserving being'.

Clearly, the language of existential phenomenology is hard to reconcile with the mode of expression which is familiar in fiction. However, if there is a division in our ways of understanding human life, this language must be placed on the same side as that of literature. Indeed, existential phenomenology owes its inception to an attempt to transcend the divisions between the inner subjective world and the outer objective world on the one hand and between the mental world and the physical (including the body) world on the other. On the whole, one may say that if it has healed the former rift, it has done so at the expense of widening the latter. That is, we now have a sense of persons as 'beings-in-the world', but we see them as agents and seem unable to reconcile this viewpoint with that of natural science, which latter is concerned with material objects and physical events. For example, Laing describes the origin of one form of schizophrenia as the result of an attempt to strip the self of all behaviour, and he then argues that the schizophrenic ceases to be schizophrenic when he meets someone by whom he feels understood. How are we to reconcile this with the scientists' attempt to explain the cause of schizophrenia as an inherited metabolic defect and to cure it with enzyme inhibitors or electroconvulsive therapy?

Laing is right to point out that a smile is something other than 'contractions of the circumoral muscles'. The depersonalisation of man is just as mistaken as the false personalisation of things. Similarly, the study of man must take seriously the fact that 'The experience of oneself and others is primary and self-validating. It exists prior to the scientific or philosophical difficulties about how such experience is possible or how it is to be explained'. Finally, he is right to claim that there is no solution which perpetuates the dualism between the mental and the physical: '... we have already shattered Humpty Dumpty who cannot be put together again by any number of hyphenated or compound words: psycho-physical, psycho-somatic, psycho-biological, psycho-pathological, psycho-social, etc, etc'. However, having said these unexceptionable things, Laing embraces the viewpoint which is basically idealistic and mentalistic. This is no more helpful than the materialistic, behaviourist position which he so effectively criticises.

Psychiatry is at present vacillating between physiology, phenomenology, behaviourism, and biology, among other isms and ologies. This is not the place to develop a philosophical thesis about a conceptual framework which might overcome the discontinuity in our understanding of persons, but one might hint at some of the elements of the problem. Selves, minds, and bodies now have intentions, contain thoughts, and commit actions at the same time that they are molecules, cells, and organisms. The problem is to find a language which meets the needs of scientists for material objects as the basic particulars of their investigations at the same time that we have a unified conceptual scheme which allows us to speak of chemical reactions, movements, hopes, and biographies without experiencing a series of discontinuities. My own guess is that the viewpoint of the biologist (with persons as one of the kinds of organisms which he studies) could find ways of accommodating the languages of the physiologist, the psychologist and the novelist. However, at present we must live with schisms. This is the serious cultural and philosophical issue which makes us sense that all the talk about 'two cultures' refers to something important, even though the discussants are unable to picture the gulf at all clearly. Until it is spanned, we will have both scientists and students of literature very unsure about what to do with works like The Divided Self. It is a plausible book, but one can't begin to see what it would be like to say that it is true.

Reprinted from Delta No. 38, Spring 1966, pp. 13-18.

Copyright: The Author

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