Madness and the Bird of Paradise

Quotes from the writings of R.D. Laing, Scottish psychiatrist

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “What’s madness, but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance.” On the face of it – as disruptive poetic vision – it seems true enough. Society makes of man an object, crushing the individual, indifferent to his spiritual warfare.

The controversial Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who “pioneered the humane treatment of the mentally ill”¹, similarly located “madness” in society rather than in the individual. I’m intrigued by the quotes below, and yet there is a caveat contained in the Guardian/Observer article at the bottom of my post: “RD Laing was depressed, alcoholic and often cruel”¹, the authors say, and for an expert on the mental health of the family, he was a distant, alcoholic father. (This contrast between the individual’s genius and his life is itself a fascinating subject: we see cruelty in so many so-called “great” men.)

+++

“Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”

“Whether life is worth living depends on whether there is love in life.”

“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.”

“The condition of alienation, 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 years.”- RDL, from The Politics of Experience/The Bird of Paradise

 

“Schizophrenia cannot be understood without understanding despair.”

“In a world full of danger, to be a potentially seeable object is to be constantly exposed to danger. Self-consciousness, then, may be the apprehensive awareness of oneself as potentially exposed to danger by the simple fact of being visible to others. The obvious defence against such a danger is to make oneself invisible in one way or another.” – RDL, from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

“We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.”

“We are all murderers and prostitutes – no matter to what culture, society, class, nation one belongs, no matter how normal, moral, or mature, one takes oneself to be.”

“This last possibility [of developing psychosis] is aways present if the individual begins to identify himself too exclusively with that part of him which feels unembodied.” –RDL, from The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity 

“The group, whether We or You or Them, is not a new individual or organism or hyperorganism on the social scene; it has no agency of its own, it has no consciousness of its own. Yet we may shed our own blood and the blood of others for this bloodless presence.”

“But since society, without knowing it, is starving for the inner, the demands on people to evoke it in a “safe” way, in a way that need not be taken seriously, etc., is tremendous—while the ambivalence is equally intense. Small wonder that the list of artists, in say the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked on these reefs is so long…”

“The schizophrenic may indeed be mad. He is mad. He is not ill. I have been told by people who have been through the mad experience how what was then revealed to them was veritable manna from Heaven. The person’s whole life may be changed, but it is difficult not to doubt the validity of such vision. Also, not everyone comes back to us again. -RDL, Transcendental Experience in Relation to Religion and Psychosis, The Psychedelic Review

“The fountain has not played itself out, the Flame still shines, the River still flows, the Spring still bubbles forth, the Light has not faded. But between us and It, there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete. Deus absconditus. Or we have absconded.” -RDL, Transcendental Experience in Relation to Religion and Psychosis, The Psychedelic Review

“Where can you scream? It’s a serious question: where can you go in society and scream?”RDL, Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R. D. Laing

“I am a specialist, God help me, in events in inner space and time, in experiences called thoughts, images, reveries, dreams, visions, hallucinations, dreams of memories, memories of dreams, memories of visions, dreams of hallucinations, refractions of refractions of refractions of that original Alpha and Omega of experience and reality, that Reality on whose repression, denial, splitting, projection, falsification, and general desecration and profanation our civilisation as much as anything is based.”

RDL, The Politics of Experience

“The human mind has to ask “Who, what, whence, whither, why am I?” And it is very doubtful if the human mind can answer any of these questions.”

“In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal.” -RDL, The Divided Self

“We are bemused and crazed creatures, strangers to our true selves, to one another, and to the spiritual and material world…”
 
 
“The individual in the ordinary circumstances of living may feel more unreal than real; in a literal sense, more dead than alive; precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question…. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. He may feel more insubstantial than substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable. And he may feel his self as partially divorced from his body.”
 
“Human beings seem to have an almost unlimited capacity to deceive themselves, and to deceive themselves into taking their own lies for truth.”
 
“Normality 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 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.”
See:
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