Saturday, October 7, 2017

I have depassed myself

‘I’m already demode, depasse. I have depassed myself into a void,’ wrote R.D. Laing in his diary in the early 1970s. Born 90 years ago today, R. D. Laing was, for a time, one of the most famous psychiatrists in the world, but he eventually ran foul of the medical establishment, and his own life was dogged in family discord (he had 10 children by four women) and depression. Although an inveterate keeper of notebooks, only a few diary excerpts have been published - in a biography written by his son A. C. Laing.

Laing, an only child, was born in Glasgow on 7 October 1927. He did well at school and his parents enrolled him in Hutcheson’s Boys Grammar school. By the age of 15 he was already familiar with the writing of many European philosophers. He moved onto Glasgow University to study medicine, graduating in 1951. He was conscripted into the British Army, serving in its Netley psychiatric unit, before taking up a post at the Glasgow Royal Mental Hospital, where he became the youngest consultant in the country. There he met, and came under the influence of, the neurosurgeon Joe Schorstein and the psychiatrist David Henderson. He married Anne Hearne in 1952, and they had five children, before divorcing. He married Jutta Werner in 1974, and they had three children. Out of wedlock, he also fathered two children with two other women.

From 1956 until 1967, Laing work in London, at the Tavistock Institute, a centre for psychotherapy, latterly as the principal investigator for the schizophrenia and family research unit. During this time, he published the first of many influential books, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, in which he offered new and controversial ideas on the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia. In 1965, Laing, with others, set up the Philadelphia Association which launched a radical experiment at Kingsley Hall, London, to house and treat those seriously affected by schizophrenia without restraint or drug therapies. During its five year life, Kingsley Hall became notorious as a place where people could regress into infantile and uninhibited behaviour before, supposedly, resurfacing with a new and authentic sanity. Laing, himself, was experimenting with LSD, and is said to have taken it with Sean Connery in 1964 (before it was illegal). At this time, he was among the most famous therapists in the world.

In 1971, Laing and his family travelled to Sri Lanka to find out more about meditation from Buddhists, and to India where he learnt Sanskrit and met the guru Govinda Lama. Further books followed, The Politics of the Family (1971), The Facts of Life (1976), and The Voice of Experience (1982). In 1985, he published his autobiography, Wisdom, Madness and Folly, but, by this time, a tendency to alcoholism and depression was leading him into trouble with the medical establishment, and he gave up practising medicine. He died in 1989. Further information is available from the R. D. Laing Institute, an issue of Janus Head, Allan Beverage’s article in BJPsych Bulletin, the BBC, Wikipedia, or Adrian C. Laing’s article in The Guardian.

According to his son and biographer Adrian C. Laing, R. D. Laing was ‘an avid keeper of diaries, drafts of his books both published and unpublished, notes, scribbles, loose thoughts, recollections of dreams, jottings, correspondence, tape-recordings, transcripts of tape-recordings and press cuttings.’ As far as I can tell, none of the notebooks or diaries have been published in their own right. However, in the biography of his father - R. D. Laing: A Life (Peter Owen, 1994) - A. C. Laing does refer occasionally to the diaries, and quotes from them a few times. The following extracts (which include excerpts from his father’s diary) are taken from the 1997 paperback edition by HarperCollins.


‘The last entry in Ronnie’s diary that is in any way remotely concemed with ‘politics’ was made on 23 March 1970 under the heading ‘My Relation to Politics’. Here he admitted, to himself at least, that the political movement ‘is far more vast than I can comprehend and apart from its existence there is very little I can say about it’.


‘On 7 October 1967 Ronnie celebrated his fortieth birthday and wrote a rough entry in his diary marking “the transition from Icarus to Daedalus from Oedipus to Laius from enfant terrible to grand old man or everyman’s favourite uncle from disciple to Guru from Isaac to Abraham. From simply son to father to one of the elders who has failed. . . From Jesus to Joseph. From one of yesterdays [sic] young men of tomorrow to one of tomorrow’s old men of yesterday”.’


A few days after Ronnie s forty-fourth birthday on 7 October 1971, he recorded in a diary a visit to a wise man by the name of Mufti Jal al-Ud-din. The note Ronnie made of that encounter indicated what they discussed. Ronnie numbered the topics: “1. What is man’s chief end in life?; 2. What is the correct way to live?; 3. What is the method to rid oneself of the corruptions that defile the heart and weaken wisdom?” In answer to these questions, the wise man replied: “if you wish to help your fellow man there is no better way to do so than to give up the world, renounce everything and take up the robe and bowl”. This did not seem to provide Ronnie with a satisfactory answer. He wrote in his diary: “It would be a blessing were I to find the right man for me. Maybe there is not such a man, maybe I cannot recognize him.” ’

‘When Ronnie and his second family returned from India on 20 April 1972, much had taken place since their departure for Sri Lanka in March of the previous year. Ronnie had deliberately kept out of touch with events not just in London but the West as a whole. He had been reading a great deal but his interests were confined solely to books on Eastern theology and philosophy. He had a lot of catching up to do. Moreover, shortly after his return to London he experienced a serious collapse in his own self-confidence, prompting the following entry in his diary in May 1972: “I’ve got to keep my nerve - or lose it - everything is completely uncertain. I’ve lost my motivations and beliefs - there is nothing I want to do and I don’t want to do nothing. It’s really like starting a new life and I would be just as glad not to. I’m already demode, depasse [sic]. I have depassed myself into a void.” ’


‘One of most important events in Ronnie’s life in 1979 was the permanent replacement of his secretary by a woman from New Zealand - Marguerite Romayne-Kendon - for it was with Marguerite that Ronnie would spend the last few years of his life. The following year Ronnie saw many friends and other people he felt attached to pass away. He wrote in his diary on 3 August, “Sartre died two/three months ago, then Roland Barthes, yesterday Hugh Crawford. Peter Sellers and Ken Tynan.” The next month he added the name of Franco Basaglia. Before the year was out there were others to mention: David Mercer, Jesse Watkins (the sculptor who was the subject of ‘A Ten-Day Voyage’ in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise), Steve McQueen, John Lennon. Of 1980 Ronnie wrote, “death has had a good harvest this year”.

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