Knots: The Poetry of R. D. Laing

In the pre-psychotic realm of my youth, I discovered the works of Scottish (anti) psychiatrist R. D. Laing. His seminal offering, The Divided Self (1960), became for a time, my Bible, offering me reassurance that my deeply held fear of madness was proof of my sanity. A few years later, I remember, during my chaotic career as an undergraduate, sitting at a table of my university refectory, smoking and drinking an innumerable coffee. Poised on a wave of my own sense of urgency, I knew not whether to retreat from or entreat with words the grizzled middle-aged, presence who reclined in the seat opposite me. Soon, my dilemma was resolved; the presence spoke. Complete with perfectly crumbled Scottish vowels and the scrag-end of a roll-up, he introduced himself and told me that he lectured in psychology. Immediately interested, I began to converse and confessed to him my fascination with all things Laingian. To my great delight, he claimed that he had worked with Laing and eyes twinkling, rasped, “The trouble with Ronny was…like many of us, he couldn’t resist a pretty girl.” I never spoke to the man again, confining him to the annals of lecherous old devilment. However, whenever I ruminate about my first and only hero of psychiatry, I smile at the memory of meeting someone who had known him, smug in the knowledge that we all are only one handshake away from greatness.
Whilst, R. D. Laing’s (1927-1989) most widely read writings are books detailing psychological analyses of psychosis. He, also, intruded upon the sacred soil of poetry. His 1970 volume, Knots, operates most successfully as an encoding of his ideas in the loosely defined form of poetry. The text is divided into five sections which can be read as individual dialogues or mini play-lets. Ultimately, a deconstruction of relationships, the “knots” of the title connote impasses; the conflicting passage of the Western interpersonal being. For in our relationships with others, subjectivity is both defined and denied.
Stylistically dense to the point of being terse, on first reading Knots may appear irritatingly abrupt and lacking in the artifice of rhythmic mellifluousness and beauteous language. However, the circuitous dialogue merely reinforces Laing’s notion that relationships are constricted by the production of thoughts, which lead to neurotic beliefs, which, eventually become interpreted in our behaviour and ensuing relationships. Although, the book is not entirely successful as a work of poetry, it offers many insights into the psychology of relationships. As someone who has been profoundly affected by Laing’s theories about the, “family nexus,” whereby family life was deemed accountable for the presence and sustenance of psychosis,
I particularly enjoyed the first part of the book. For, here, his views about the injunctions of the family are most fully transcribed.

Do We Choose Madness?

Theories about the causes of mental health issues continue to accumulate ad nauseum. I have often ruminated about the root of my own mental distress and long ago, tired of the traditional nature/nurture model. However, I have often been drawn to Satre’s argument that one chooses madness. For, whilst, ostensibly appearing to reinforce the fallacious and reactionary notion that individuals are blameworthy for their own mental health conditions, a further exploration of Satre’s theory reveals a much broader and satisfying analysis.
Satre’s view, represented in his seminal book about the writer Jean Genet, eschews the existence of subconscious and unconscious factors. Negating the theory of the unconscious, Satre theorises about a pre-conscious mind. I believe that this constitutes an unsatisfying compromise in reaction to the one dimensionality of the model of unified consciousness. Thus, I would argue that a more comprehensive theory of the acquisition of a choice to be “mad” would incorporate the influence of unconscious and subconscious processes upon the conscious being. I will, now, support my argument with an example from my own lived experience.
Famously, Shakespeare argued that life merely is a stage. If this is true, twenty years ago I was a player; a student whose performance skills left much to be desired. My projected self, like the Laingian false self, gradually crumbled the weight of its often contradictory inner reality (real self). I firmly believe that inauthenticity in one’s external presentation of selfhood emanates from the presence of conflicting and damaging emotions projected in behaviour which contrasts with the nature of the unconscious and subconscious thought processes of the individual. The longer one manifests inauthentic behaviour, the more likely mental health issues are to develop. Recovery is only possible when one can unravel oneself.
Life is about unravelling; only the moment of death reveals pure self.

To all interested parties. My first novella is finally available. “The General Paralysis of Sanity,” by Louise M. Hart is available from the website of my publisher, CHIPMUNKAPUBLISHING, or from all the usual sources. You would be mad not to read it!