By the time the psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989) died in France, he seemed to have become – as far as the English were concerned, at least – marginalised if not actually discredited. There were some in his own profession who deemed this very likeable and original man to be as crazy as his patients. Anyone happening to read the clutch of obituaries of him (especially the ones in the higherbrow papers), might have gathered from the grudging tone and qualified praise of some of these articles that Ronnie Laing was still stirring it, controversial as ever, to the end.
'The history of psychiatry rewrites itself so often, ' J.G. Ballard has perceived, 'that it almost resembles the self-serving chronicles of a totalitarian and slightly paranoid regime. One-time pioneers are suddenly demoted and deemed to be little more than package tourists.'1 This is also frequently the case with persons whose lives have been spent bucking some particular system. These generous-minded individuals are usually political radicals (in the leftwing sense) whose thought is lively and challenging. If, in addition, they possess singular personal charm and charisma, along with the talent to voice their original (hence also disturbing) explorations, that too will be held against them. Should they have the further temerity to do so with considerable literary wit and style, proving courageous and productive human beings into the bargain – then envy, enemies, fame or notoriety inevitably increase, followed by posthumous vilification. Come to that, just remember what befell Wilhelm Reich!
Like Reich, however, Ronnie Laing won't really go away. I'm sure he will be periodically reassessed, if not 'rediscovered' in due course. One hopes that their numerous and important books will continue actually to be read, rather than misquoted or misleadingly summarised. Laing, like his much misunderstood predecessor, caused outrage. Whether or not one agreed with him, his provocative insights were always worth having. We should admire rather than suspect such genuine and fearless people. But admiration requires a modicum of generosity, and too many medics and writers have mean or narrow minds. (Many of us, too, don't care to stick our necks out and thus possibly seem foolish, nor to admit – however obscurely – to being 'influenced' by anyone else's thought...)
Most writers, though, and certainly those worth their salt, will at some time experience (or put themselves in the way of imagining) extreme states: visions, mental distress, craziness of one kind or another. They at least will find Laing a fascinating guide through, and commentator on, these labyrinths, especially since Laing himself writes so interestingly, usefully and well. What's more, as Michael Horovitz observed soon after Laing died, he 'shared ... a near religious conviction that the arts are impoverished in isolation from each other, enriched in conjunction’. Horovitz also called Laing 'one of the few convincingly Bohemian intellectuals I have encountered, always game to talk, listen, fight, carouse or play all night – to question everything and try out any answers, without the slightest illusion that we’d ever arrive at the answer.’2 Exhilarating or exhausting, tiring or inspiring, one can see how such a man could provoke that sniffy final paragraph in The Times: 'He will be remembered less for his originality than for his ability to synthesize the mood of the rebellious young and the revolutionary elements in society; less as a self-styled "anti-psychiatrist" and for his timely concentration upon what it is actually like to be mad as distinct from the various forms which madness takes'.3
After that initial wave of regret at the passing of a thoroughly sincere and compassionate man, there flowed a whole tide of corrections, amendments, notes of dissent or reminiscence, disparaging statements and/or mealymouthed qualification of praise from professional quarters. Since then, I have seen reviews of two biographies of him – in1996 alone – so I doubt that Ronnie will be forgotten, come the millennium.4
I'm certainly glad I knew Ronnie Laing, however briefly, in the 1980s. I first met him and worked with him for a weekend in November 1985. I'd helped organize a multimedia event based on Dreams, at Plymouth Arts Centre, and other participants included David Gascoyne and Colin Wilson. There was an exhibition of dream-based paintings, sculpture and photography; films by Cocteau, Clair and Man Ray; and poetry readings. The quartet of writers involved gave talks on our particular interests and specialities, which ranged through Surrealism, translating Lautréamont, Nostradamus, the occult and – here Ronnie was riveting and proved both acute and hilarious – on the various aspects of 'vision' and 'madness', especially as defined by the psychiatric establishments of the UK and USA. We wound up proceedings on the second day with a very friendly and enjoyable symposium: everyone got on well and each fully appreciated the others' contributions; all of us were particularly impressed by, and warmed to, Ronnie Laing.
Towards the end of 1986, the editor of the men's magazine Club International (or was it Fiesta? I’d written for both…) asked me to do a set of interviews. Readers, he assured me, would welcome a provocative yet intelligent feature-article, stimulating yet out of the ordinary. The first interview, now I look back upon it, was perhaps in itself a rather suitably schizoid undertaking. The conversation might well have appealed to Ronnie, for it was with my alter ego. (I must explain: in the past I've often used as pseudonym a name given to the heroine of my 1970 novel, Instrument of Pleasure. This adopted female persona has assisted me to introduce and/or translate a wide range of French erotic authors, from Comtesse Mannoury d'Ectot to Emmanuelle Arsan.) At any rate, to the editor's evident satisfaction, I interviewed the notoriously libertarian Celeste Piano on one of her rare forays to London. The editor therefore agreed to go as far as allowing me (as he slyly put it) a similarly free hand for the next interview. The only proviso was that, as with Celeste, the colloquy should place its emphasis on sexuality.
I felt in good humour, and the assignment had set me a challenge. Musing, as I was, about identity, truth and transgression of various kinds, I at once thought of Ronnie Laing. The magazine's munificence at that time enabled me to take him to an excellent lunch at a favourite local restaurant. I remember that during the short walk back to his home, Laing nipped smartly into a nearby off-licence and bought a bottle of brandy: with it, that afternoon, the taped interview which followed was generously lubricated.
R.D. LAING AN INTERVIEW
World-famous psychologist Dr. R.D. Laing has published many influential books, among them The Self And Others, The Divided Self, The Politics Of Experience, Knots, The Facts Of Life and Wisdom, Madness And Folly. His theories and writings on schizophrenia and the family have been highly influential. Laing lives in a large period house near Chalk Farm Station. A relaxed, congenial greyhaired Scot in his late fifties, he was dressed in sweater, cord trousers and trainers. Half-spectacles bobbed perilously on his nose as he welcomed me indoors. We emerged for lunch at a nearby restaurant, during which the conversation took in dreams, the USA, the enormous sexual appetites of the French writers Maupassant and Flaubert along with the inroads of syphilis, into them, Baudelaire, Goncourt, Daudet etc; AIDS; madness, and much else. On our return this discussion ensued:
Laing: I' m sure you know the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. One of his nicest vignettes concerns a whore in a Vienna whorehouse who was convicted, not of being a prostitute, but for wearing in a brothel a military medal!
Lykiard: To which she wasn't entitled?
Which she'd been given as a present, by one of her customers. She was convicted for some sort of dishonourable mockery of the system. Of course, it turned her customers on.
Shades of Genet's play The Balcony?
Of the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. In the early '60s, I'd a friend who choreographed striptease for this club, one of the leading striptease places at that time. Two numbers drove the customers wild: an American football number, done by girls with steel helmets on and nothing else. A sort of skit, but, it was the combination of that male activity and these girls doing it... The other was a striptease in reverse. We had someone coming completely dénudée, then slowly dressing herself.
A nice idea.
Which really got people screaming!
I don't know the annual number of visitors to the Raymond Revue/bar, for instance, but going on from there, do you think nudity has now become more accessible and perhaps less mysterious, so erotic tastes have turned jaded? Are we looking for other things, or will that particular demand remain constant?
The situation has not changed nearly as much as it may appear to have done, via more open presentation in the media of naked human beings or of physical intimacy. The access human beings have for such intimacy is still of a very limited and restricted order. Despite the media, access to real, unleashed harmless fun and pleasure between each other's bodies is not generally open… You ask why, but students or factory workers don't feel it is… There's not easy access between body and body, between women and men. A study done by a couple of sociologists in Britain in the '50s found that 85% of working class married men and women over 45 had never seen their spouses naked.
Extraordinary. Let alone having seen a blue film or sex show.
Well, if you've never seen your husband or wife naked you can imagine why you might be driven to see a blue film. According to the first Kinsey Report, the average length of time the American male spent with his penis inside a woman – from putting it in to taking it out – was two-and-a-half minutesl That was in the late' 40s or early 1950s. But you've got to contextualize it, put it into a whole cultural-social context. The interest is in actually seeing those parts of a woman that appeal to man's depravity revealed in a photograph in a magazine. I'm sure Club International wouldn't have a circulation of 200,000 if men and women were more accessible to each other for that sort of spice, that enjoyment.
Agreed. I wonder how much this is a matter of ignorance, difficulty of availability of information, or even a sort of concealed social policy: if it's discovered how enjoyable sex can be, we'd have anarchy. Because people don't want to work, really. They want to enjoy themselves. They might then question their work: if play is fun, why work? If sex and women's bodies are pleasurable, let's spend more time with them – not just two-and-a-half minutes.
Let's have two-and-a-half hours! Or whatever. They'll still get back to work in the morning. You can't blame it on long and fatiguing hours. There's plenty of time. If all the guys in all the pubs round here wanted to spend the time making love with women during the time they're drinking in the pubs and telling jokes about doing it, they could do so. It's not a matter of time.
No, for in that case, during periods of depression and mass unemployment, sexual activity should increase, people would look for that rather than for jobs. And if they really wanted sex they wouldn't channel their desire into so many other forms of amusement or diversion.
I'll make a vast generalization: take a country like Brazil, which isn't sexually uptight. People work hard there. Sex has never been a particular preoccupation of the working class ... But one of the main changes in the last 20 years or so is the advent of control or partial control of procreation. So sex for recreation and sex for procreation has a clear dividing line, laid down by biological, technological possibilities.
Magazines like Club International, say, are still read mainly by men. Are they written and compiled mostly for men by men, like pornography and erotica in general?
No question that the style of published erotica – in the last 100 years or so and today – is mainly male eyes behind the cameras, so to say. Mainly females photographed, mainly males who buy this… With the socio-economic, ideological balance of power between men and women evening up at present, there seems to be a certain diminution of patriarchal power. And a certain increase in matriarchal/feminine power. I don't imagine that'd mean a decrease in erotica, but it might result in more erotica from a woman's eyes, looking at men, with that type of look that men have been able to indulge themselves in, in relation to women. Women are beginning to get the chance now to look at men that way, looking at their bodies as erotic aesthetic objects. Some women certainly like to look at that erotica which has been largely a male industry through the eyes of men.
Yet take a film like Pumping Iron 2, featuring female bodybuilders. Is it a slightly grotesque example of women wanting equality? A desirable enhancement of femininity?
Sex is so much tied in with power, control, domination. The old Freudian position about women's penis-envy is a case in point. I completely agree with those feminist writers of either sex who made the point that it's not so much that cannons, machineguns, revolvers, rockets, etc. are penis symbols, but that the phallus is a symbol of the power which the person who inhabits the body that happens to have a phallus or penis wields in the world. If 'soft' rather than 'hard', 'rounded' rather than 'angular' contours were tokens of power, then just as many men would want to have female physical attributes as women are said to want to have male attributes. But I haven't found that in my own practice. If I hadn't read this in books, I wouldn't have been able to make such a generalization out of my own experience of women both professionally and personally. What many men think is envy of themselves on the part of women loops back into the thought that, 'I would like to be you, in order to be a man, to make love not with another man, but with those attractive women that you can make love with, including myself. I would like to be you in order to make love with me.' Which is a rather nice thought men tend to despise. The gay male hasn't found it necessary to pine for being a woman in order to make love to a man… Interestingly, though, there seem to be far more men who want to have a sex change, to become women. Very often because they want to be attractive to men. And not so many women wanting to have sex changes – which is just as technically feasible – in order to become attractive to women.
The more extreme feminists would say this is because women are the superior sex: 'Men see our bodies as more desirable, hence more powerful, than their own.' Thus the bodybuilding idea, on one level. And men can't give birth to children!
The men I've known who have wanted, or actually made, the physical switch to becoming women, have usually been dissatisfied with their gay life with men. They wanted to attract men, in the physical personae of women. You might say a militant feminist lesbian wouldn't demean herself by wanting to change bodies with a man in order to have an affair with a fellow woman. She doesn't feel that necessary to do. And I think what you said is true, as far as one dare generalize about it: women in a sense have more confidence in the destiny of their own sex than men have as regards their sex. We're moving into the biological-technical revolution where individual men (think of the implications of sperm banks!) are less individually necessary than individual women.
What do you think is the difference between pornography and erotica?
I don't know how to use those words. If you look up the word pornography in the OED it says: 'Writing about courtesans and unchastity.' So that doesn't quite seem to fit. I think it's to do with harmlessness. I've got a general philosophy of harmlessness. I think it's a good idea that other people don't do me any harm. I don't like people doing other people in, against their will, in a really vicious, nasty way, for sheer spite, malice or self-indulgence. I don't like that happening, whether it's men and women, women and women, men and men. Nothing to do with sex, that. It's a general idea of live and let live. If we wish to turn our sex life into a Genetian scene by consent, dramatizing between ourselves some sort of delight or pleasure, by together making our bodies the occasion of some Absurd or Surrealist Theatre – then I don't feel any desire to stop anyone doing that. And if I feel like doing that, I don't feel like anyone's gota right to stop me doing that with someone else who feels like doing that with me. But not damaging another human being for the sake of pleasure and the power there is in being able to damage, the pleasure in being able to harm… I don't think power itself is a bad thing.
If exercised properly?
The proper exercise of power's the best way to keep down violence. If everyone knows where they are, when all's said and done it'd be quiet and peaceful. It's when there's a loss of power that things get out of hand. Violence breaks out both on the so-called powerful side and the power-less side and the whole thing becomes a total mess. That's one of the things I learned in the Army: if you've got a volunteer army, everyone in it because they consent to be in it, they all get on perfectly well, we've got our ordered system. Otherwise you get reciprocal violence breaking out and people actually lust to damage others, to destroy other people. Now I don't like that, whether it's done in the field of sex or not!
As far as causing damage goes, in this battlefield of life and sex, let's go on to the possible effects of pornography… My working definition of pornography is that pornography degrades, turns people into objects, while erotica celebrates equals-in-pleasure, sharing. It seems pornography demands exploitation of some kind. It's an extremely difficult definition to make.
A very useful distinction to make, which I completely agree with. Between people enjoying themselves physically together and not coming out of this maimed, damaged or deliberately harmed for the sake of the pleasure involved in doing harm to somebody through sexual acts, i.e. degrading someone, doing them in, physically, emotionally or mentally. I think that's indecent. Let's call that pornographic sexuality. Leaving aside a type of feminist objection to human bodies being looked at objectively, whether women' s bodies or men's…
You mean looking equals exploitation?
Well, not necessarily: I think you can look at a woman (as I hope liberated women can look at a man) and appreciate the beauty of the human form, desire it if you happen to desire it - and that isn't in itself exploitative.
Looking is free, thought is free.
Desiring is not in itself doing anyone any harm.
Agreed. Many of the world's greatest artists in all artforms have produced erotica ranging from marvellous to very poor. This proves it's an age-old preoccupation, so surely thinking persons must be anti-censorship ... But other than in terms of 'damage' where do you draw the line?
I'm entirely pragmatic about censorship. I think censorship is simply a form of 'consensus-reality', where the most active political people in power impose upon other people. In terms of what they're not allowed to see, touch, experience and so forth. I can't imagine any society in which there's a total anarchic free-far-all. Every society, in order to maintain its form and shape, has to put contours in its vision and limit the vision of practically everyone in that society. I'm for as little censorship as pragmatically feasible to maintain the coherence of any collective way of life… But a lot of people are frightened to think realistically. Because when they start thinking realistically about sex or about war their minds boggle: 'What do you do when you don't know what to do?' People are always trying to find, to make up some reason for what to do and then they do it… That's just going into the future with a projective image in front of them that justifies their action. We're in this world, programmed as we are, so I find the best thing for myself is to keep out of harm's way, not let others do me in, not go out of my way viciously to exploit other people. And to get as much enjoyment out of it in the meantime.
Do you have a favourite erotic book? One that's valid as literature or entertainment which you feel other people should read or would enjoy?
An anthology of world erotica would have to include extracts from the Karma Sutra, the Arabian Nights, Tantric Sexuality… Thinking of European erotica, well, it's been a long time since I read Fanny Hill: I remember being very impressed by that at the time. In my teens I was very taken by Tropic of Cancer, which you daren't mention nowadays to feminists, but I was very taken by the gusto and candour of that book. And I found it sexually invigorating to read. It was a great release – yes, I can certainly mention Henry Miller, and his girlfriend for a while Anals Nin… A few passages she wrote come across from a woman's point of view of unabashed enjoyment. In contrast I might say that books like Stendhal's On Love and even Proust, Tolstoy – practically all the books involving themselves with sexual passion and jealousy never really describe the actual act, what happens when you get out of the salon and take your clothes off. ..
And the visual arts? Any image, film, painting, you think specially erotic or which has influenced you erotically, and how?
There's a book of female nude photographs I came across in a Glasgow bookshop about 40 years ago. I can't remember whether they were all by the same photographer - no, an anthology, I think… This was the first time I can remember (I was maybe 16 or 17) actually casting my eyes over the female frame, the female body naked. I'm very glad to have found that book! If I think of some of Picasso's work in the late '20s, early '30s, they express particularly intensified eroticism. That later series he did, with himself as a quasi-Satyr figure: male and female forms melding into one another, with a sense of tremendous passion. That could never be popular because he was coming out of a Cubist period then. No question of any prudery, but in terms of the language of visual presentation, it's not accessible to most people immediately. We're trying to think of actual depictions of people making love in high Art, and there's not a lot of them. Rodin, The Kiss. And his girlfriend's sculptures, even more extreme…(5)
Not much either, in terms of 'lineaments of gratified desire '– people happily post-coital! A picture by Courbet of drowsing lesbian lovers –
[At this point there was a telephone call from a patient. Laing had time to agree that Courbet's was a powerfully sensual painting, and I expressed the hope that women artists would now feel freer to tackle more explicit sexual images, whether hetero- or homo-sexual, before we were obliged to bring the discussion to a close. Affable and unhurried as ever, Dr. Laing showed me out into the singularly mild December evening.]
The above interview never did in fact appear as intended in the UK. The very literate and accommodating editor (of whichever magazine it was) duly moved elsewhere, and no one seemed interested in the interview until an obscure German-language literary magazine, Proposition, based in Tübingen, printed it bilingually in its fourth issue, January 1990. It was published for the first time in full in the UK as a separate title in the Stride Research Series. Then as now, it may be read as a brief token of appreciation for the life and work of an extraordinary, humorous and most humane medico-literary man.
1. J.G. Ballard: A User's Guide To The Millennium (Harper Collins. 1996).
2. M. Horovitz, in The Independent, 2 Sept 1989.
3. Unsigned obituary, in The Times, 25 Aug 1989.
4. The Wing of
Madness: The Life and Work of R.D. Laing, Daniel Burston (Harvard
University Press, 1996).
5. Presumably, Camille Claudel.
Glasgow-born R.D. Laing (1927-1989) was one of the most controversial and original psychoanalysts of the twentieth century. On the final pages of his last book, Wisdom, Madness and Folly (1985), the fascinating autobiography of his first 30 years, Laing maintained: ‘The personal area tends to be ignored by most psychiatrists. Why? Professionals, I think, fear it as much as patients. Psychiatry tries to be as scientific, impersonal and objective as possible towards what is most personal and subjective. The disordered suffering treated by psychiatrists has to do with what are our most personal and private thoughts and desires…’ Laing felt Western medical training was in this sphere unsatisfactory: ‘The result is that when doctors are faced with this inner suffering, they are disorientated, insofar as they refer themselves back to their conventional training for orientation.’ Laing’s always radical views guaranteed that his writings on schizophrenia, families, politics and art would offend, delight and reassure many. ‘My own impression’ he wrote in The Voice Of Experience (1982), ‘is that there is hardly anyone I know who has not had at least a whiff of hallucination. But hallucinations are not supposed to be normal these days, and most people want to be normal, or at least appear to be…’