|THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE
R. D. LAING
|Ronald David Laing (October 7, 1927 - August
23, 1989), was a psychiatrist who wrote extensively
on mental illness and particularly the experience
of psychosis. He is noted for his views,
influenced by existential philosophy, on
the causes and treatment of mental illness,
which went against the psychiatric orthodoxy
of the time. He is often associatied with
the anti-psychiatry movement although, like
many of his contemporaries also critical
of psychiatry, he himself rejected this label.
The Politics of Experience R. D. Laing (1967)
Persons and Experience
That great and true Amphibian whose nature
is disposed to live, not only like other
creatures in divers elements, but in divided
and distinguished worlds. SIR THOMAS BROWNE,
I. Experience as evidence
EVEN facts become fictions without adequate
ways of seeing "the facts". We
do not need theories so much as the experience
that is the source of the theory. We are
not satisfied with faith, in the sense of
an implausible hypothesis irrationally held:
we demand to experience the "evidence".
We can see other people"s behaviour,
but not their experience. This has led some
people to insist that psychology has nothing
to do with the other person"s experience,
but only with his behaviour.
The other person"s behaviour is an experience
of mine. My behaviour is an experience of
the other. The task of social phenomenology
is to relate my experience of the other"s
behaviour to the other"s experience
of my behaviour. Its study is the relation
between experience and experience: its true
field is inter-experience.
I see you, and you see me. I experience you,
and you experience me. I see your behaviour.
You see my behaviour. But I do not and never
have and never will see your experience of
me. Just as you cannot "see" my
experience of you. My experience of you is
not "inside" me. It is simply you,
as I experience you. And I do not experience
you as inside me. Similarly, I take it that
you do not experience me as inside you.
"My experience of you" is just
another form of words for "you-as-l-experience-you",
and "your experience of me" equals
experience of me is not inside you and my
experience of you is not inside me, but your
experience of me is invisible to me and my
experience of you is invisible to you.
I cannot experience your experience. You
cannot experience my experience. We are both
invisible men. All men are invisible to one
another. Experience used to be called The
Soul. Experience as invisibility of man to
man is at the same time more evidenhan anything.
Only experience is evident. Experience is
the only evidence. Psychology is the logos
of experience. Psychology is the structure
of the evidence, and hence psychology is
the science of sciences.
If, however. experience is evidence, how
can one ever study the experience of the
other? For the experience of the other is
not evident to me, as it is not and never
can be an experience of mine.
I cannot avoid trying to understand your
experience, because although I do not experience
your experience, which is invisible to me
(and non-tastable, non-touchable, non-smellable,
and inaudible), yet I experience you as experiencing.
I do not experience your experience. But
I experience you as experiencing. I experience
myself as experienced by you. And I experience
you as experiencing yourself as experienced
by me. And so on.
The study of the experience of others, is
based on inferences I make, from my experience
of you experiencing me, about how you are
experiencing me experiencing you experiencing
Social phenomenology is the science of my
own and of others" experience. It is
concerned with the relation between my experience
of you and your experience of me. That is,
with inter-experience. It is concerned with
your behaviour and my behaviour as I experience
it, and your and my behaviour as you experience
Since your and their experience is invisible
to me as mine is to you and them, I seek
to make evident to the others, through their
experience of my behaviour, what I infer
of your experience, through my experience
of your behaviour. This is the crux of social
Natural science is concerned only with the
observer"s experience of things. Never
with the way things experience us. That is
not to say that things do not react to us,
and to each other.
Natural science knows nothing of the relation
between behaviour and experience. The nature
of this relation is mysterious - in Marcel"s
sense. That is to say, it is not an objective
problem. There is no traditional logic to
express it. There is no developed method
of understanding its nature. But this relation
is the copula of our science if science means
a form of knowledge adequate to its subject.
The relation between experience and behaviour
is the stone that the builders will reject
at their peril. Without it the whole structure
of our theory and practice must collapse.
Experience is invisible to the other. But
experience is not "subjective"
rather than "objective", not "inner"
rather than "outer", not process
rather than praxis, not input rather than
output, not psychic rather than somatic,
not some doubtful data dredged up from introspection
rather than extrospection. Least of all is
experience "intrapsychic process".
Such transactions, object-relations, interpersonal
relations, transference, counter- transference,
as we suppose to go on between people are
not the interplay merely of two objects in
space, each equipped with ongoing intra-psychic
This distinction between outer and inner
usually refers to the distinction between
behaviour and experience; but sometimes it
refers to some experiences that are supposed
to be "inner" in contrast to others
that are "outer". More accurately
this is a distinction between different modalities
of experience, namely, perception (as outer)
in contrast to imagination etc. (as inner).
But perception, imagination, phantasy, reverie,
dreams, memory, are simply different modalities
of experience, none more "inner"
or "outer" than any others.
Yet this way of talking does reflect a split
in our experience. We seem to live in two
worlds, and many people are aware only of
the "outer" rump. As long as we
remember that the "inner" world
is not some space "inside" the
body or the mind, this way of talking can
serve our purpose. (It was good enough for
William Blake.) The "inner", then,
is our personal idiom of experiencing our
bodies, other people, the animate and inanimate
world: imagination, dreams, phantasy, and
beyond that to ever further reaches of experience.
Bertrand Russell once remarked that the stars
are in one"s brain.
The stars as I perceive them are no more
or less in my brain than the stars as I imagine
them. I do not imagine them to be in my head,
any more than I see them in my head.
The relation of experience to behaviour is
not that of inner to outer. My experience
is not inside my head. My experience of this
room is out there in the room.
To say that my experience is intra-psychic
is to presuppose that there is a psyche that
my experience is in My psyche is my experience,
my experience is my psyche.
Many people used to believe that angels moved
the stars. It now appears that they do not.
As a result of this and like revelations,
many people do not now believe in angels.
Many people used to believe that the "seat"
of the soul was somewhere in the brain. Since
brains began to be opened up frequently,
no one has seen "the soul". As
a result of this and like revelations, many
people do not now believe in the soul.
Who could suppose that angels move the stars,
or be so superstitious as to suppose that
because one cannot see one"s soul at
the end of a microscope it does not exist?
II. Interpersonal experience and behaviour
Our task is both to experience and to conceive
the concrete, that is to say, reality in
its fullness and wholeness.
But this is quite impossible, immediately.
Experientially and conceptually, we have
[Under person, the Oxford English Dictionary
gives eight variants: a part played in a
drama, or in life; an individual human being;
the living body of a human being; the actual
self of a human being; a human being or body
corporate or corporation with rights or duties
recognised in law; theologically applied,
the three modes of the Divine Being in the
Godhead; grammatically, each of the three
classes of pronouns and corresponding distinctions
in verbs denoting the person speaking, i.
e. in the first, second, third person respectively,
and so on; zoologically, each individual
of a compound or colonial organism - a zooid.
As we are concerned here with human beings,
our two most relevant variants are person
as persona, mask, part being played; and
person as actual self.]
We can begin from concepts of the single
person, from the relations between two or
more persons, from groups or from society
at large; or from the material world, and
conceive of individuals as secondary. We
can derive the main determinants of our individual
and social behaviour from external exigencies.
All these views are partial vistas and partial
concepts. Theoretically one needs a spiral
of expanding and contracting schemata that
enable us to move freely and without discontinuity
from varying degrees of abstraction to greater
or lesser degrees of concreteness. Theory
is the articulated vision of experience.
This book begins and ends with the person.
Can human beings be persons today? Can a
man be his actual self with another man or
woman ? Before we can ask such an optimistic
question as "What is a personal relationship
?", we have to ask if a personal relationship
is possible, or, are persons possible in
our present situation? We are concerned with
the possibility of man. This question can
be asked only through its facets. Is love
possible ? Is freedom possible?
Whether or not all, or some, or no human
beings are persons, I wish to define a person
in a twofold way: in terms of experience,
as a centre of orientation of the objective
universe; and in terms of behaviour, as the
origin of actions. Personal experience transforms
a given field into a field of intention and
action: only through action can our experience
be transformed. It is tempting and facile
to regard "persons" as only separate
objects in space, who can be studied as any
other natural objects can be studied. But
just as Kierkegaard remarked that one will
never find consciousness by looking down
a microscope at brain cells or anything else,
so one will never find persons by studying
persons as though they were only objects.
A person is the me or you, he or she, whereby
an object is experienced. Are these centres
of experience, and origins of actions, living
in entirely unrelated worlds of their own
composition? Everyone must refer here to
their own experience. My own experience as
a centre of experience and origin of action
tells me that this is not so. My experience
and my action occur in a social field of
reciprocal influence and interaction. I experience
myself, identifiable as Ronald Laing by myself
and others, as experienced by and acted upon
by others, who refer to that person I call
"me" as "you" or "him",
or grouped together as "one of us"
or "one of them" or "one of
This feature of personal relations does not
arise in the correlation of the behaviour
of non-personal objects. Many social scientists
deal with their embarrassment by denying
its occasion. Nevertheless, the natural scientific
world is complicated by the presence of certain
identifiable entities, re-identifiable reliably
over periods of years, whose behaviour is
either the manifestation or a concealment
of a view of the world equivalent in ontological
status to that of the scientist.
People may be observed to sleep, eat, walk,
talk, etc. in relatively predictable ways.
We must not be content with observation of
this kind alone. Observation of behaviour
must be extended by inference to attributions
about experience. Only when we can begin
to do this can we really construct the experiential-behavioural
system that is the human species.
It is quite possible to study the visible,
audible, smellable effulgences of human bodies,
and much study of human behaviour has been
in those terms. One can lump together very
large numbers of units of behaviour and regard
them as a statistical population, in no way
different from the multiplicity constituting
a system of non-human objects. But one will
not be studying persons. In a science of
persons, I shall state as axiomatic that:
behaviour is a function of experience; and
both experience and behaviour are always
in relation to someone or something other
When two (or more) persons are in relation,
the behaviour of each towards the other is
mediated by the experience by each of the
other, and the experience of each is mediated
by the behaviour of each. There is no contiguity
between the behaviour of one person and that
of the other. Much human behaviour can be
seen as unilateral or bilateral attempts
to eliminate experience. A person may treat
another as though he was not a person, and
he may act himself as though he was not a
person. There is no contiguity between one
person"s experience and another. My
experience of you is always mediated through
your behaviour. Behaviour that is the direct
consequence of impact, as of one billiard-ball
hitting another, or experience directly transmitted
to experience, as in the possible cases of
extra-sensory perception, is not personal.
III. Normal alienation from experience
The relevance of Freud to our time is largely
his insight and, to a very considerable extent,
his demonstration that the ordinary person
is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what
a person can be.
As adults, we have forgotten most of our
childhood, not only its contents but its
flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know
of the existence of the inner world: we barely
remember our dreams, and make little sense
of them when we do; as for our bodies, we
retain-just sufficient proprioceptive sensations
to coordinate our movements and to ensure
the minimal requirements for biosocial survival
to register fatigue, signals for food, sex,
defecation, sleep; beyond that, little or
nothing. Our capacity to think, except in
the service of what we are dangerously deluded
in supposing is our self-interest, and in
conformity with common sense, is pitifully
limited: our capacity even to see, hear,
touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in
veils of mystification that an intensive
discipline of un-learning is necessary for
anyone before one can begin to experience
the world afresh, with innocence, truth and
And immediate experience of, in contrast
to belief or faith in, a spiritual realm
of demons, spirits, Powers, Dominions, Principalities,
Seraphim and Cherubim, the Light, is even
more remote. As domains of experience become
more alien to us, we need greater and greater
openmindedness even to conceive of their
Many of us do not know, or even believe,
that every night we enter zones of reality
in which we forget our waking life as regularly
as we forget our dreams when we awake. Not
all psychologists know of phantasy as a modality
of experience, and the, as it were, contrapuntal
interweaving of the different experiential
modes. Many who are aware of phantasy believe
that phantasy is the farthest that experience
goes under "normal" circumstances.
Beyond that are simply "pathological"
zones of hallucinations, phantasmagoric mirages,
This state of affairs represents an almost
unbelievable devastation of our experience.
Then there is empty chatter about maturity,
love, joy, peace.
This is itself a consequence of and further
occasion for the divorce of our experience,
such as is left of it, from our behaviour.
What we call "normal" is a product
of repression, denial, splitting, projection,
introjection and other forms of destructive
action on experience (see below). It is radically
estranged from the structure of being.
The more one sees this, the more senseless
it is to continue with generalised descriptions
of supposedly specifically schizoid, schizophrenic,
There are forms of alienation that are relatively
strange to statistically "normal"
forms of alienation. The "normally"
alienated person, by reason of the fact that
he acts more or less like everyone else,
is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation
that are out of step with the prevailing
state of alienation are those that are labelled
by the "normal" majority as bad
The condition of alienations of being asleep,
of being unconscious, of being out of one"s
mind, is the condition of the normal man.
Society highly values its normal man. It
educates children to lose themselves and
to become absurd, and thus to be normal.
Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000
of their fellow normal men in the last fifty
Our behaviour is a function of our experience.
We act according to the way we see things.
If our experience is destroyed, our behaviour
will be destructive.
If our experience is destroyed, we have lost
our own selves.
How much human behaviour, whether the interactions
between persons themselves or between groups
and groups, is intelligible in terms of human
experience? Either our inter-human behaviour
is unintelligible, in that we are simply
the passive vehicles of inhuman processes,
whose ends are as obscure as they are at
present outside our control, or our own behaviour
towards each other is a function of our own
experience and our own intentions, however
alienated we are from them. In the latter
case, we must take final responsibility for
what we make of what we are made of.
We will find no intelligibility in behaviour
if we see it as an inessential phase in an
essentially inhuman process. We have had
accounts of men as animals, men as machines,
men as biochemical complexes with certain
ways of their own, but there remains the
greatest difficulty in achieving a human
understanding of man in human terms.
Men at all times have been subject, as they
believed or experienced, to forces from the
stars, from the gods, or from forces that
now blow through society itself, appearing
as the stars once did to determine human
Men have, however, always been weighed down
not only by their sense of subordination
to fate and chance, to ordained external
necessities or contingencies, but by a sense
that their very own thoughts and feelings,
in their most intimate interstices, are the
outcome, the resultant, of processes which
A man can estrange himself from himself by
mystifying himself and others. He can also
have what he does stolen from him by the
agency of others.
If we are stripped of experience, we are
stripped of our deeds; and if our deeds are,
so to say, taken out of our hands like toys
from the hands of children, we are bereft
of our humanity. We cannot be deceived. Men
can and do destroy the humanity of other
men, and the condition of this possibility
is that we are interdependent. We are not
self-contained monads producing no effects
on each other except our reflections. We
are both acted upon, changed for good or
ill, by other men; and we are agents who
act upon others to affect them in different
ways. Each of us is the other to the others.
Man is a patient-agent, agent-patient, interexperiencing
and interacting with his fellows.
It is quite certain that unless we can regulate
our behaviour much more satisfactorily than
at present, then we are going to exterminate
ourselves. But as we experience the world,
so we act, and this principle holds even
when action conceals rather than discloses
We are not able even to think adequately
about the behaviour that is at the annihilating
edge. But what we think is less than what
we know: what we know is less than what we
love: what we love is so much less than what
there is. And to that precise extent we are
so much less than what we are.
Yet if nothing else, each time a new baby
is born there is a possibility of reprieve.
Each child is a new being, a potential prophet,
a new spiritual prince, a new spark of light,
precipitated into the outer darkness. Who
are we to decide that it is hopeless?
IV. Phantasy as a mode of experience
The "surface" experience of self
and other emerges from a less differentiated
experiential matrix. Ontogenetically the
very early experiential schemata are unstable,
and are surmounted: but never entirely. To
a greater or lesser extent, the first ways
in which the world has made sense to us continues
to underpin our whole subsequent experience
and actions. Our first way of experiencing
the world is largely what psychoanalysts
have called phantasy. This modality has its
own validity, its own rationality. Infantile
phantasy may become a closed enclave, a dissociated
undeveloped "unconscious", but
this need not be so. This eventuality is
another form of alienation. Phantasy as encountered
in many people today is split off from what
the person regards as his mature, sane, rational,
adult experience. We do not then see phantasy
in its true function but experienced merely
as an inclusive, sabotaging infantile nuisance.
For most of our social life, we largely gloss
over this underlying phantasy level of our
Phantasy is a particular way of relating
to the world. It is part of, sometimes the
essential part of, the meaning or sense (le
sens: Merleau-Ponty) implicit in action.
As relationship we may be dissociated from
it: as meaning we may not grasp it: as experience
it may escape our notice in different ways.
That is, it is possible to speak of phantasy
being "unconscious", if this general
statement is always given specific connotations.
However, although phantasy can be unconscious
that is, although we may be unaware of experience
in this mode, or refuse to admit that our
behaviour implies an experiential relationship
or a relational experience that gives it
a meaning, often apparent to others if not
to ourselves phantasy need not be thus split
from us, whether in terms of its content
Phantasy, in short, as I am using the term,
is always experiential, and meaningful: and,
if the person is not dissociated from it,
relational in a valid way.
Two people sit talking. The one (Peter) is
making a point to the other (Paul). He puts
his point of view in different ways to Paul
for some time, but Paul does not understand.
Let us imagine what may be going on, in the
sense that I mean by phantasy. Peter is trying
to get through to Paul. He feels that Paul
is being needlessly closed up against him.
It becomes increasingly important to him
to soften, or get into Paul. But Paul seems
hard, impervious and cold. Peter feels he
is beating his head against a brick wall.
He feels tired, hopeless, progressively more
empty as he sees he is failing. Finally he
Paul feels, on the other hand, that Peter
is pressing too hard. He feels he has to
fight him off. He doesn"t understand
what Peter is saying, but feels that he has
to defend himself from an assault.
The dissociation of each from his phantasy,
and the phantasy of the other, betokens the
lack of relationship of each to himself and
each to the other. They are both more and
less related to each other "in phantasy"
than each pretends to be to himself and the
Here, two roughly complementary phantasy
experiences wildly belie the calm manner
in which two men talk to each other, comfortably
ensconced in their armchairs.
It is mistaken to regard the above description
as merely metaphorical.
V. The negation of experience
There seems to be no agent more effective
than another person in bringing a world for
oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture,
or a remark, shrivelling up the reality in
which one is lodged. The physical environment
unremittingly offers us possibilities of
experience, or curtails them. The fundamental
human significance of architecture stems
from this. The glory of Athens, as Pericles
so lucidly stated, and the horror of so many
features of the modern megalopolis is that
the former enhanced and the latter constricts
Here however I am concentrating upon what
we do to ourselves and to each other.
Let us take the simplest possible interpersonal
scheme. Consider Jack and Jill in relation.
Then Jack"s behaviour towards Jill is
experienced by Jill in particular ways. How
she experiences him affects considerably
how she behaves towards him. How she behaves
towards him influences (without by any means
totally determining) how he experiences her.
And his experience of her contributes to
his way of behaving towards her which in
turn . . . etc.
Each person may take two fundamentally distinguishable
forms of action in this interpersonal system.
Each may act on his own experience or upon
the other person"s experience, and there
is no other form of personal action possible
within this system. That is to say, as long
as we are considering personal action of
self to self or self to other, the only way
one can ever act is on one"s own experience
or on the other"s experience.
Personal action can either open out possibilities
of enriched experience or it can shut off
possibilities. Personal action is either
predominantly validating, confirming, encouraging,
supportive, enhancing, or it is invalidating,
disconfirming, discouraging, undermining
and constricting. It can be creative or destructive.
In a world where the normal condition is
one of alienation, most personal action must
be destructive both of one"s own experience
and of that of the other. I shall outline
here some of the ways this can be done. I
leave the reader to consider from his own
experience how pervasive these kinds of action
Under the heading of "defence mechanisms",
psychoanalysis describes a number of ways
in which a person becomes alienated from
himself. For example, repression, denial,
splitting, projection, introjection. These
"mechanisms" are often described
in psychoanalytic terms as themselves "unconscious",
that is, the person himself appears to be
unaware that he is doing this to himself.
Even when a person develops sufficient insight
to see that "splitting", for example,
is going on, he usually experiences this
splitting as indeed a mechanism, so to say,
an impersonal process which has taken over,
which he can observe but cannot control or
There is thus some phenomenological validity
in referring to such "defences"
by the term "mechanism". But we
must not stop there. They have this mechanical
quality, because the person as he experiences
himself is dissociated from them. He appears
to himself and to others to suffer from them.
They seem to be processes he undergoes, and
as such he experiences himself as a patient,
with a particular psychopathology.
But this is so only from the perspective
of his own alienated experience. As he becomes
de alienated he is able first of all to become
aware of them, if he has not already done
so, and then to take the second, even more
crucial, step of progressively realising
that these are things he does or has done
to himself. Process becomes converted back
to praxis, the patient becomes an agent.
Ultimately it is possible to regain the ground
that has been lost. These defence mechanisms
are actions taken by the person on his own
experience. On top of this he has dissociated
himself from his own action. The end-product
of this twofold violence is a person who
no longer experiences himself fully as a
person, but as a part of a person, invaded
by destructive psychopathological "mechanisms"
in the face of which he is a relatively helpless
These "defences" are action on
oneself. But "defences" are not
only intrapersonal, they are transpersonal.
I act not only on myself, I can act upon
you. And you act not only on yourself, you
act upon me. In each case, on experience.
If Jack succeeds in forgetting something,
this is of little use if Jill continues to
remind him of it. He must induce her not
to do so. The safest way would be not just
to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce
her to forget it also.
Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may
make her feel guilty for keeping on "bringing
it up". He may invalidate her experience.
This can be done-more or less radically.
He can indicate merely that it is unimportant
or trivial, whereas it is important and significant
to her. Going further, he can shift the modality
of her experience from memory to imagination:
"It"s all in your imagination."
Further still, he can invalidate the content.
"It never happened that way." Finally,
he can invalidate not only the significance,
modality and content, but her very capacity
to remember at all, and make her feel guilty
for doing so into the bargain.
This is not unusual. People are doing such
things to each other all the time. In order
for such transpersonal invalidation to work,
however, it is advisable to overlay it with
a thick patina of mystification. For instance,
by denying that this is what one is doing,
and further invalidating any perception that
it is being done, by ascriptions such as
"How can you think such a thing 1"
"You must be paranoid." And so
VI. The experience of negation
There are many varieties of experience of
lack, or absence, and many subtle distinctions
between the experience of negation and the
negation of experience.
All experience is both active and passive,
the unity of the given and the construed;
and the construction one places on what is
given can be positive or negative: it is
what one desires or fears or is prepared
to accept, or it is not. The element of negation
is in every relationship and every experience
of relationship. The distinction between
the absence of relationships, and the experience
of every relationship as an absence, is the
division between loneliness and a perpetual
solitude, between provisional hope or hopelessness
and a permanent despair. The part I feel
I play in generating this state of affairs
determines what I feel I can or should do
The first intimations of non-being may have
been the breast or mother as absent. This
seems to have been Freud"s suggestion.
Winnicott writes of "the hole",
the creation of nothing by devouring the
breast. Bion relates the origin of thought
to the experience of no-breast. The human
being, in Sartre"s idiom, does not create
being, but rather injects non-being into
the world, into an original plenitude of
Nothing, as experience, arises as absence
of someone or something. No friends, no relationships,
no pleasure, no meaning in life, no ideas,
no mirth, no money. As applied to parts of
the body - no breast, no penis, no good or
bad contents - emptiness. The list is, in
principle, endless. Take anything, and imagine
Being and non-being is the central theme
of all philosophy, East and West. These words
are not harmless and innocent verbal arabesques,
except in the professional philosophism of
We are afraid to approach the fathomless
and bottomless groundlessness of everything.
"There"s nothing to be afraid of."
The ultimate reassurance, and the ultimate
We experience the objects of our experience
as there in the outside world. The source
of our experience seems to be outside ourselves.
In the creative experience, we experience
the source of the created images, patterns,
sounds, to be within ourselves but still
beyond ourselves. Colours emanate from a
source of pre-light itself unlit, sounds
from silence, patterns from formlessness.
This pre-formed pre-light, this pre-sound,
this pre-form is nothing, and yet it is the
source of all created things.
We are separated from and related to one
another physically. Persons as embodied beings
relate to each other through the medium of
space. And we are separated and joined by
our different perspectives, educations, backgrounds,
organisations, group-loyalties, affiliations,
ideologies, socio-economic class interests,
temperaments. These social "things"
that unite us are by the same token so many
things, so many social figments that come
between us. But if we could strip away all
the exigencies and contingencies, and reveal
to each other our naked presence ? If you
take away everything, all the clothes, the
disguises, the crutches, the grease paint,
also the common projects, the games that
provide the pretexts for the occasions that
masquerade as meetings - if we could meet,
if there were such a happening, a happy coincidence
of human beings, what would now separate
Two people with first and finally nothing
between us. Between us nothing. No thing.
That which is really "between"
cannot be named by any things that come between.
The between is itself no-thing.
If I draw a pattern on a piece of paper,
here is an action I am taking on the ground
of my experience of my situation. What do
I experience myself as doing and what intention
have I? Am I trying to convey something to
someone (communication)? Am I rearranging
the elements of some internal kaleidoscopic
jigsaw (invention) ? Am I trying to discover
the properties of the new Gestalten that
emerge (discovery) ? Am I amazed that something
is appearing that did not exist before ?
That these lines did not exist on this paper
until I put them there? Here we are approaching
the experience of creation and of nothing.
What is called a poem is compounded perhaps
of communication, invention, fecundation,
discovery, production, creation. Through
all the contention of intentions and motives
a miracle has occurred. There is something
new under the sun; being has emerged from
non-being; a spring has bubbled out of a
Without the miracle nothing has happened.
Machines are already becoming better at communicating
with each other than human beings are with
human beings. The situation is ironical.
More and more concern about communication,
less and less to communicate.
We are not so much concerned with experiences
of "filling a gap" in theory or
knowledge, of filling up a hole, of occupying
an empty space. It is not a question of putting
something into nothing, but of the creation
of something out of nothing. Ex nihilo. The
no thing out of which the creation emerges,
at its purest, is not an empty space, or
an empty stretch of time.
At the point of non-being we are at the outer
reaches of what language can state, but we
can indicate by language why language cannot
say what it cannot say. I cannot say what
cannot be said, but sounds can make us listen
to the silence. Within the confines of language
it is possible to indicate when the dots
must begin.... But in using a word, a letter,
a sound, OM, one cannot put a sound to soundlessness,
or name the unnameable.
The silence of the preformation expressed
in and through language, cannot be expressed
by language. But language can be used to
convey what it cannot say - by its interstices,
by its emptiness and lapses, by the latticework
of words, syntax, sound and meanings. The
modulations of pitch and volume delineate
the form precisely by not filling in the
spaces between the lines. But it is a grave
mistake to mistake the lines for the pattern,
or the pattern for that which it is patterning.
"The sky is blue" suggests that
there is a substantive "sky" that
is "blue". This sequence of subject
verb object, in which "is" acts
as the copula uniting sky and blue, is a
nexus of sounds, and syntax, signs and symbols,
in which we are fairly completely entangled
and which separates us from at the same time
as it refers us to that ineffable sky-blue-sky.
The sky is blue and blue is not sky, sky
is not blue. But in saying "the sky
is blue" we say "the sky"
"is". The sky exists and it is
blue. "Is" serves to unite everything
and at the same time "is" is not
any of the things that it unites.
None of the things that are united by "is"
can themselves qualify "is". "Is"
is not this, that, or the next, or anything.
Yet "is" is the condition of the
possibility of all things. "Is"
is that no-thing whereby all things are.
"Is" as no-thing, is that whereby
all things are. And the condition of the
possibility of anything being at all, is
that it is in relation to that which it is
That is to say, the ground of the being of
all beings is the relation between them.
This relationship is the "is",
the being of all things, and the being of
all things is itself nothing. Man creates
in transcending himself in revealing himself.
But what creates, wherefrom and whereto,
the clay, the pot and the potter, are all
not-me. I am the witness, the medium, the
occasion of a happening that the created
thing makes evident.
Man, most fundamentally, is not engaged in
the discovery of what is there, nor in production,
nor even in communication, nor in invention.
He is enabling being to emerge from non-being.
The experience of being the actual medium
for a continual process of creation takes
one past all depression or persecution or
vain glory, past, even, chaos or emptiness,
into the very mystery of that continual flip
of non-being into being, and can be the occasion
of that great liberation when one makes the
transition from being afraid of nothing,
to the realisation that there is nothing
to fear. Nevertheless, it is very easy to
lose one"s way at any stage, and especially
when one is nearest.
Here can be great joy, but it is as easy
to be mangled by the process as to swing
with it. It will require an act of imagination
from those who do not know from their own
experience what hell this borderland between
being and non-being can become. But that
is what imagination is for.
One"s posture or stance in relation
to the act or process can become decisive
from the point of view of madness or sanity.
There are men who feel called upon to generate
even themselves out of nothing, since their
underlying feeling is that they have not
been adequately created or have been created
only for destruction.
If there are no meanings, no values, no source
of sustenance or help, then man, as creator,
must invent, conjure up meanings and values,
sustenance and succour out of nothing. He
is a magician.
A man may indeed produce something new- a
poem, a pattern, a sculpture, a system of
ideas - think thoughts never before thought,
produce sights never before seen. Little
benefit is he likely to derive from his own
creativity. The phantasy is not modified
by such "acting out", even the
sublimest. The fate that awaits the creator,
after being ignored, neglected, despised,
is, luckily or unluckily according to point
of view, to be discovered by the non-creative.
There are sudden, apparently inexplicable
suicides that must be understood as the dawn
of a hope so horrible and harrowing that
it is unendurable.
In our "normal" alienation from
being, the person who has a perilous awareness
of the non-being of what we take to be being
(the pseudo-wants, pseudo-values, pseudo-realities
of the endemic delusions of what are taken
to be life and death and so on) gives us
in our present epoch the acts of creation
that we despise and crave.
Words in a poem, sounds in movement, rhythm
in space, attempt to recapture personal meaning
in personal time and space from out of the
sights and sounds of a depersonalised, dehumanised
world. They are bridgeheads into alien territory.
They are acts of insurrection. Their source
is from the Silence at the centre of each
of us. Wherever and whenever such a whorl
of patterned sound or space is established
in the external world, the power that it
contains generates new lines of forces whose
effects are felt for centuries.
The creative breath "comes from a zone
of man where man cannot descend, even if
Virgil were to lead him, for Virgil would
not go down there".
This zone, the zone of no-thing, of the silence
of silences, is the source. We forget that
we are all there all the time.
An activity has to be understood in terms
of the experience from which it emerges.
These arabesques that mysteriously embody
mathematical truths only glimpsed by a very
few - how beautiful, how exquisite - no matter
that they were the threshing and thrashing
of a drowning man.
We are here beyond all questions except those
of being and non-being, incarnation, birth,
life and death.
Creation ex nihilo has been pronounced impossible
even for God. But we are concerned with miracles.
We must hear the music of those Braque guitars
From the point of view of a man alienated
from his source creation arises from despair
and ends in failure. But such a man has not
trodden the path to the end of time, the
end of space, the end of darkness, and the
end of light. He does not know that where
it all ends, there it all begins.
The Politics of Experience (1967), publ.
Routledge & Kegan Paul. First Chapter
7th October 1927. Born in Govanhill, Glasgow,
Scotland. Only son of David McNair Laing
and Amelia Laing nee Kirkwood. During the
pregnancy, his mother constantly concealed
the fact that she was pregnant by wearing
a heavy overcoat whenever she went out. Ronald
Laing claimed later to remember his moment
August 1932. Began to attend John Cuthbertson
Primary School, Glasgow, aged four.
1936-1945. Attended Hutcheson's Boys' Grammar
School, Glasgow, where he was an excellent
student. Studied the Classics extensively.
Learned Greek and Latin. Showed exceptional
musical ability. Was elected as a Licentiate
of the Royal Academy of Music on 30th March
1944, and an associate of the Royal College
of Music in April 1945. Read numerous works
of philosophy while still at school, including
Freud, Marx, Nietsche and especially Kierkegaard.
1945-51. Studied Medicine at Glasgow University.
Prominent member of the university Debating
Club and the Mountaineering Club. Met his
first girlfriend, a French exchange student
called Marcelle Vincent. Failed his final
exams early 1950, which he successfully resat
in December 1950. Spent a brief period as
a houseman on a psychiatric ward, which inspired
him to pursue psychiatry. During this period
he met Aaron Esterson, with whom he later
co-authored Sanity, Madness and the Family.
1951. Spent six months working as an internist
at the Killearn Neurosurgical Unit, near
1951-53. Conscripted as an officer into the
Royal Army Medical Corps. Posted to the British
Army Psychiatric Unit, Netley, near Southampton,
and then to the Military Hospital at Catterick,
11th October 1952. Married his girlfriend
Anne Hearne, who had become pregnant.
7th December 1952. His wife Anne gave birth
to a girl called Fiona.
July 1953. Published a paper in the Journal
of the Royal Army Medical Corps - 'An Instance
of the Ganser Syndrome.'
Late 1953-56. Left the army. Went to Gartnavel
Royal Mental Hospital, Glasgow, to complete
his psychiatric training. There he set up
an experimental treatment setting - the 'Rumpus
Room', where schizophrenic patients spent
time in a comfortable room. Both staff and
patients wore normal clothes, and patients
were allowed to spent time doing activites
such as cooking and art, the idea being to
provide a setting where patients could respond
to staff and each other in a social, rather
than institutional setting. The patients
all showed a noticable improvement in behaviour
as a result of this. Later moved to a senior
registrar's post at the Southern General
September 1954. Laing's second daughter,
Susan, was born.
November 1955. A third Daughter, Karen, was
1st January 1956. Qualified as a psychiatrist.
May 1956. Read Colin Wilson's recently published
book The Outsider, which he vowed to emulate.
Began writing The Divided Self.
Late 1956. Appointed as a senior registrar
at the Tavistock Clinic, London. Accepted
for training as a psychoanalyst by the Institute
1957. A son, Paul was born.
1958. Began the research that led to Sanity,
Madness and the Family. Also began a series
of seminars that involved him with a number
of people who were to go on to become important
collaborators, including Aaron Esterson and
April 1958. Adrian Laing born.
1960. The Divided Self published by Tavistock
Publications. The book received favourable
reviews but at first did not sell well. Laing
qualified as a psychoanalyst and set up a
private practice at 21 Wimpole Street, London.
Began to experiment with drugs, especially
1961. Self and Others published by Tavistock
Early 1962. Met Gregory Bateson, another
important colloborator, while on a research
trip in the United States. By this time his
marriage was beginning to break up, and he
began an affair with a Daily Express journalist
called Sally Vincent. Appointed Clinical
Director of the Langham Clinic in London.
1963. Began to appear in the popular media.
1964. Wrote most of the articles that were
later compiled into The Politics of Experience
and The Bird of Paradise. Appeared on British
television five times. Sanity, Madness and
the Family, which had been co- authored with
Aaron Esterson was published, as was Reason
and Violence, which was co-authored with
David Cooper. Met Timothy Leary in New York.
1965. Started another affair with a German
graphics designer called Jutta Werner. The
Divided Self, reissued by Penguin Books,
became an immediate bestseller. Opened the
Kingsley Hall project with Aaron Esterson,
David Cooper and others. This was an experimental,
non-hierarchical community, were schizophrenics
were given space to work through their psychoses
without resort to drugs, ECT or surgery.
Inspiration came from Laing's 'Rumpus Room'
project, Cooper's 'Villa 21', a community
for schizophrenics with no distinctions made
between staff and patients, and Esterson's
experiences of a kibbutz for schizophrenics
15th to 30th July 1967. Took part in the
Dialectics of Liberation Congress, intended
to bring together left wing politics and
pschoanalysis. Gave a speech entitled 'The
Obvious', which was later published in an
anthology of speeches from the congress.
1967. The Politics of Experience and The
Bird of Paradise, his most commercially successful
book, published by Penguin in Britain and
Pantheon in the US.
September 1967. His girlfriend Jutta Werner
gave birth to a son, Adam.
1970. The Kingsley Hall Project closed.
April 1970. Had a second child by Jutta Werner,
a girl called Natasha.
1971. Knots published by Penguin in Britain
and Pantheon in the US.
March 1971. Went to Ceylon with Werner and
their two children, where he spent two months
studying meditation in a Buddhist retreat.
After their visas expired, they moved on
to India, where Laing spent three weeks studying
under Gangroti Baba, a Hindu ascetic, who
initiated Laing into the cult of the Hindu
goddess Kali. Also spent time learning Sanskrit
and visiting Govinda Lama, who had been a
guru to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.
April 1972. Returned to London.
5th November to 8th December 1972. Embarked
on a lecture tour of the United States. Appeared
on TV with Norman Mailer. Met Elizabeth Fehr,
a psychotherapist who used 'rebirthing' psychodramas
to treat patients. Laing would go on to adopt
these rebirthing techniques himself.
Late 1973. Began running regular rebirthing
Valentine's Day, 1974. Married Jutta Werner.
24th June 1975. Max, his third child with
Jutta, was born.
1976. Do You Love Me? and The Facts of Life
published. These works sold poorly in Britain
and America, but were popular in continental
March 1976. Susie Laing, his daughter from
his first marriage, died of leukaemia.
1978. Conversations With Children published.
21st April 1978. Laing's father died at 5.15pm,
the exact time of Laing's birth.
September 1980. Took part in a three week
conference, 'The Psychotherapy of the Future',
at Zaragosa, Spain. Other notable figures
involved included Fritjof Capra, Stanislav
Grof, Jean Houston and Rollo May.
15th September 1984. Ronald's 9th child,
Benjamin, was born to his girlfriend Sue
February 1985. His autobiography, Wisdom,
Madness and Folly, was published. A portrait
of Laing was unveiled at the National Portrait
Gallery of Scotland.
1986. Divorced from Jutta Laing.
1987. Was forced into resigning from the
medical register of the General Medical Council,
effectively preventing him from practicing
6th January 1988. Marguerite (née Romayne-Kendon)
and Ronnie's son Charles is born
1988. Participated in a Canadian documentary
entitled Did You Used to Be R. D. Laing?
23rd August 1989. Died of a heart attack
while playing tennis in St. Tropez, France.
Sources Clay, John. 1996. R. D. Laing: A
Divided Self. London: Sceptre. Laing, Adrian.
1994. R. D. Laing: A Life. London: Harper