Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

R D Laing

Old books, new blog post

Reading brilliant books I haven’t looked at since 60s, 70s. Seem like new books. Did I just forget? Am I or the times so different?

I’ve gone back to R D Laing, for instance. Everyone seemed to be reading and talking about him then. He had rock star status, becoming the guru for a generation. His books sold like hit albums and his lectures here and all over America were sold out. His ideas about Sanity, Madness and the Family ( incidentally one of his book titles ) were discussed in lay circles, far wider than the world of psychiatry. The establishment despised him, the kids worshipped him and his trajectory was similar to many other rock stars: immense international fame followed by increasing drug dependence, in his case alcohol. Then suddenly he was yesterday’s man. Now few have ever heard of him.

I won’t try to summarise his ideas here, but I recommend him because his writing has resonance today. He speaks directly to the alienation so many feel. Even those opposed to him admit that he is intellectually formidable, widely read beyond his field and a stylist whose prose will last. But, of course, Dr Laing’s thinking had sources and his work had collaborators. So I am now reading them, some for the first time. His immediate collaborators, Dr Aaron Esterson and Dr David Cooper were soon left behind, but did fascinating and valuable work with him and on their own. He was close to Dr David Winnicott, that most human of child therapists. Laing sent him the draft of his first book and Winnicott was so entranced he read it in one two hour sitting. Laing was analysed by Charles Rycroft and worked at the Tavistock Clinic. In America he was inspired by the ideas of Gregory Bateson and Thomas Szasz.

I knew he had been influenced by Sartre. Indeed, he and David Cooper had written a book on him. There were influences as far back as Husserl. I tried to engage him in politics, but he was not interested. He raved about the madness of the world – this was the time of the Vietnam war and the Kent State shootings – but we talked at cross purposes. Family politics were his obsession. He also had a rare capacity of empathy, especially for those suffering from the diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Now we have existential and phenomenological psychoanalysis, neither of which are as off putting and difficult to understand as they might seem. I won’t bore you with more. But I’m having a feast, reading familiar books which have become unfamiliar; and new books, their discovery delighting me.

Of course, after fifty years, maybe it’s not surprising that a book might read like a discovery. One forgets. But a book is only made up of symbolic signs on sheets of paper or a screen. It has meaning only when a reader engages with those signs. That is when writer and reader meet. So each book is a unique achievement of that collaborative moment and is different each time, much in the way that a theatrical performance, the coming together of player and audience in one space and time, is a unique, unrepeatable event.

The world has changed in fifty years, politically and culturally, so ideas are inflected. They take on a different meaning. You see this, say, in productions of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus: they are different plays in countries with different regimes. Each generation has a different definitive Hamlet. So reading Laing and others now makes them a new experience. It’s not that they are different. I am. Or more accurately, I’m both the same and profoundly different. My experiences through all those years have changed me. I need explanations for a new me in a new world.
So each book is a new book. I will return to this another time and would like to hear your feelings, too.

Meanwhile, here’s a short list of a few books by the writers mentioned above.

Laing, R D – The Divided Self. Knots.

Mullan, B – Mad to be Normal.

Phillips, Adam – Winnicott

Rycroft, Charles – Viewpoints. A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.

Szasz, Thomas – The Myth of Mental Illness.



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