[Marxism] interesting but long article on R. D. Laing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 16 12:03:47 MDT 2009

Gary MacLennan wrote:
> I am inclined to think these days that Laing represented the bad side of the
> 60s - the irrational, ignorant, self-satisfied & arrogant libertarian
> impulse.
> I used to teach his book "Sanity madness and the family": and I blush now to
> think of all the stupid crap I pontificated on about the myth of  mental
> illness.  I got most of it from Laing's  and Szasz' books.  Still since
> those days like the Ancient Mariner I have penance done and more will do.
> Clip:  "RD Laing frequently asserted that mental illness was rooted in the
> family, yet he treated his own family abominably. He abandoned his first
> five children and left them in penury. He went on to father five more
> children with three different women, had innumerable affairs, was subject to
> violent drunken rages and became obsessed with his own fame. Yet he treated
> patients with extraordinary compassion and empathy, qualities he denied his
> own family."  Available at
> http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article6058901.ece

Laing was an important counter-culture figure in the 1960s and 70s. His 
"Divided Self" ended up on bookshelves next to Paul Goodman's "Growing 
Up Absurd" or Charles Reich's "The Greening of America". With the 
Vietnam War raging, many could sympathize with Laing's belief that 
bourgeois society itself was insane.

Laing's message was effectively conveyed in Milos Forman's 1975 "One 
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", based on Ken Kesey's novel. After watching 
the video, I was rather stunned by the level of misogyny in the film. 
Louise Fletcher's Nurse Mildred Ratched is a grotesque figure who 
constantly reminds Billy, the stuttering mental patient, that she is 
friends with his mother and is not above informing her about 
indiscretions inspired by the free-spirited Randall McMurphy, played 
unforgettably by Jack Nicholson.

After having sex with a prostitute that McMurphy smuggled into the 
hospital on Christmas Eve, Billy's stutter disappears. When Nurse 
Ratched observes the aftermath of the preceding evening's drunken 
celebration, she tells Billy that his mother will be shocked by his 
misbehavior. This leads him to cut his own throat and McMurphy to 
attempt to strangle hers. As his hands tighten around her neck, 
squeezing out her life, we see mental patient Christopher Lloyd looking 
on in glee, mouthing the words, "Yes, yes!". I distinctly recall that 
audiences found this scene to be positively cathartic. Finally, the 
forces of sexual repression and straightness would get their 
comeuppance. It is also interesting to note that Ratched's sadistic 
attendants are exclusively African-American.

Nowadays few people outside the literature departments of some colleges 
take R.D. Laing seriously. While his parent-hating views might have 
seeped into the popular culture, few clinics are now set up based on his 
precepts. As fashionable as his views were in the 1970s, by the end of 
the 1980s they were passé. Dolnick writes:

"Done in by drugs and drink and the whim of intellectual fashion, Laing 
was suddenly old news. His fall was fast and painful. In November 1983, 
for example, he showed up drunk and stoned for a lecture to the Oxford 
Psycho-Analytic Forum. He came onstage to rapturous applause, walked up 
and down in silence for several minutes, began to speak, and then 
interrupted himself to tug at a tooth that was bothering him. After a 
prolonged and silent struggle, he wiggled the tooth free, declared the 
lecture over, and left the stage for the nearest pub." (p. 136)

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/madness.htm

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