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Quotes from the Masters: R.D. Laing

June 28, 2013

“What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience. It is radically estranged from the structure of being. The more one sees this, the more senseless it is to continue with generalized descriptions of supposedly specifically schizoid, schizophrenic, hysterical ‘mechanisms.’ 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 labeled by the ‘formal’ majority as bad or mad.” 
― R.D. LaingThe Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise

human tracesOver the years I took quite an interest in madness, insanity, and the subjects related to it of psycho-analysis and psychology. I read Freud and his distinctions between the unconscious, the ego and the super-ego. I read Jung on the collective unconscious. I read the author of the above quote, Laing, his works, the politics of experience, the divided self and self and others. I read a great work of fiction, called Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks, describing the successes and failures, of two figures trying to understand and cure madness around the beginning of the 20th century through very different methods, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebiére.

The interest sprung from experience of mental health issues within my family, and from a fear from a young age that I was destined/fated to succumb to something similar to my dad and my brother and lose self-control of my life at a crucial time. This quote really sums up well what a complex issue it is, and how it is tangled up intricately with how normal standards dictate a particular picture of how things should be in the world and in our social relationships.

Laing wanted to show the potentially empowering side of madness. That it was not just a weakness, a deviation. But that it could sometimes be better in touch with our real experience of the world than the normal perspective. The era Laing had to deal with was one with a very conformist approach to things. And one with a religious and moral influence on interpretations of mental illnesses, that tended to skew in favor of judgment rather than understanding.

The global world we live in now has some pernicious influences, but thankfully a mass conformity is something that is receding in favor of an appreciation of individual differences and uniqueness, and a celebration of this. Maybe this will mean a better future for people previously dismissed as mentally ill, and treated as second-class citizens. Maybe this will mean in the future we will be more open to new and innovative interpretations of reality that differ from the norm, and provide fresh insights.

It is a good prospect that contrasts sharply with the pessimism in Laing’s day. A clear sign that things have improved in this area of care in the last fifty to a hundred years.


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