9 Dec 2015

Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man

RD Laing by Allan Beveridge
Allan Beveridge on RD Laing
The Early Writing and Work of R.D. Laing, 1927-1960 by Allan Beveridge


R.D. Laing is a figure one tends to associate with the late sixties counter-culture, a celebrity psychiatrist who rubbed shoulders with the Beatles, and various other worthies of the time. 

Allan Beveridge’s Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man instead discusses his formation through the first three decades of his life. It ends in 1960, not long after Laing had published his classic work on schizophrenia, The Divided Self.

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that Allan Beveridge has chosen a literary title for his work, referring to works by James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. Allan Beveridge, like R.D. Laing, is a man not only well versed in the field of mental healthcare, but also philosophy and literature. 

We can also thank Laing for leaving behind a wealth of material, from diaries to marginal notes, to clinical notes and publications. Beveridge has employed these well. He devotes entire chapters and sections to R.D. Laing’s love of literature, which was by no means unreciprocated.

Laing was pleased when his writing attracted the regard of the literary world. He was grateful to win the approval of Ted Hughes and William Burroughs, and was delighted when Christopher Isherwood told him that he would include the last two pages of The Divided Self in any anthology of English prose. Laing’s work was to inspire such authors as Doris Lessing, David Edgar, Peter Schaffer, J.G. Ballard, Will Self as well as a host of Scottish writers.

It was interesting to learn that Laing had founded a society at Glasgow University, extending successful invites to MacDiarmid and Bertrand Russell. Or that he was a good friend of Rev. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community. We catch glimpses of Laing’s alternative career, as a talented musician. Of course, Laing’s medical legacy is something of a paradox:

Laing's place in the history of psychiatry and the significance of his contribution... remain contested. One view, mainly held by psychiatrists is that he enjoyed a fashionable notoriety in the 1960s when peddling anti-establishment opinions was very much in vogue, but that his views on schizophrenia were dangerous nonsense... The alternative view, mainly held by non-psychiatrists, is that Laing championed the cause of the mentally ill, in opposition to the impersonal empire of orthodox psychiatry, with its drugs and ECT, its large and forbidding mental hospitals, and its belief that the mad were incomprehensible.

Laing’s predecessors Freud and Jung were as fascinated by the arts and spirituality as he was. All three have suffered a similar fate – each of them continue to be major inspirations to artists and writers, but within their own profession, many now view them as quacks. Laing’s work is also of interest to feminists, some such as Lisa Appignanesi have written approvingly of him, others such as Elaine Showalter, have given a more mixed appraisal of his understanding of gender roles.

One of Laing's aims was to restore a more compassionate relationship between doctor and patient, at a time when psychiatry was beginning to take on a sinister authoritarian flavour. Laing opposed the dehumanisation of the patient, preferring to get to know them as an individual, and also would listen to what they were saying, no matter how surreal or cryptic their comments seemed at first. 

Of course, Laing was far from being alone in his opposition to this trend in psychiatry – others one could mention include the ever controversial Arthur Koestler, Sylvia Plath, who experienced it first-hand, and Ken Kesey, the author of One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Rather than addressing the problems and faults of society, which are major triggers for mental illness, Laing argued that psychiatry was becoming a mechanism for society to reinforce/enforce its rules, and its "normality", rather than trying to correct or improve itself. However, he opposed the term “anti-psychiatry”.

In childhood, Laing read Lewis Carroll and Charles Kingsley, although his claim to have done so by the age of five is implausible. Through an illustration in a children’s book, he learnt of the paranoid Raskolnikov hearing a stranger whispering “Murderer!” in his ear, but at school Laing complained that contemporary literature was completely ignored, with the exception of Eliot’s The Wasteland. Beveridge wonders whether Laing ever read Confessions of a Justified Sinner – there is no evidence that he ever did, although you’d think it would have been of interest to him.

The chapter “Laing and the Arts” has sections on Blake, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov (who was also a doctor of course), Kafka, Camus, and the dramatist Artaud. It also discusses The Unquiet Grave at length, a somewhat pretentious work written pseudonymously by Cyril Connolly, now largely forgotten, and perhaps rightly so. Other writers discussed, albeit more briefly, include J.M. Barrie, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, Henry James (whom Laing couldn’t stand), Elias Canetti and Colin Wilson.

The final chapter which is ostensibly on The Divided Self includes sections entitled “How Scottish was R.D. Laing?” and “Laing’s Influence on Scottish Culture”.In answer to the first question, Beveridge remarks:

[A]ccounts of Laing and his writing up until [1989] had entirely ignored his Scottish background, or, if it was mentioned at all, it was only to denigrate it, or express surprise that from scenes like these, from lowly and uninspiring beginnings, he was able to bring forth work of such intellectual breadth and sophistication. [Craig] Beveridge and [Ronald] Turnbull see the neglect of Laing’s Scottish heritage as part of a wider malaise, which they diagnose as an ‘inferiorist’ mentality, created by the relentlessly negative images of the country served up by historians and cultural commentators, both within and without Scotland. They observe that when Laing’s Scottish origins are acknowledged, it is usually to declare that he is part of a native tradition preoccupied with divided personalities…

This is a problem which is still with us, unfortunately, and not just in relation to Laing, although there are on-going efforts to counter this mentality. Only recently for example, I have heard of a novel being rejected by a publishing house in the Central Belt for being “too Scottish”, even though said novelist shows little sign of tartanry.

The issue of Laing’s interplay with his Scottish heritage features to some degree throughout Portrait. Beveridge suggests that Laing did downplay his Scottish background in The Divided Self, by only referring to two Scottish authors, and by transposing certain Scottish patients to a more genteel English setting (possibly in an attempt to protect their identity). 

RD Laing
RD Laing
In contrast, it is also pointed out that by 1967, Laing was quite openly celebrating his Scottishness. And earlier in Portrait, we read of Laing’s educational and social background, which firmly place him within various Scottish traditions.

Readers of Alasdair Gray may remember that Laing appears as a character in Poor Things. Gray considers Laing a continuing influence on his work, and has discussed him on many occasions. 

Tom Leonard regarded Laing highly and knew him personally. When Laing met Trocchi, they discussed shared interests such as Artaud and Andre Breton. On the other end of the scale, Allan Massie has a character in one of his novels refer to Laing as “half a charlatan, the other half genius.”

R.D. Laing’s life took a very different turn later in the 1960s – some would say into self-parody – and we can but hope that Allan Beveridge may tackle this in the future. Still, Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man makes for fascinating reading. My main complaint is that it has been priced a little too high for the average reader. That is the fault of Oxford University Press, not the author.