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Very compassionate, but seems not very therapeutic
on 25 October 2007
Laing's compassion for those currently mentally ill (and others), as found in this book and others by him, is powerful. It's very fortunate that he raised his voice (and wrote so well) about the coldness and at time inhumanity that can be found within psychiatry.
Existentialism may, in some hands, support healthy therapy but it seems it may also serve, as it seems to in this book, as:
a) a largely empty explanatory system, i.e. a rich set of concepts that enable one to create a great story about what is going on with someone, but a story that leads nowhere outside of itself. Satre's "Saint Genet" seems such an application, an interesting framework perhaps for a "biography" but layered in fictitious play.
b) a false comfort system that might lead troubled people to see themselves as an important part of some global battle against alienation ... instead of facing real immediate needs.
Getting a job may be more important than ecstasy. Taking a pill may be wiser than considering one's "false self" or going further on some great voyage toward transcendence. True, Laing has acknowledged the value of pills and the possibility of genetic/biochemical causes, but, as seen in this book, that was a very tiny part of his concern. What he wanted, this overcoming of the false self, this ending of violence seemed to have turned out to be largely orthogonal to the needs of many of the psychotic, for many of whom the right medication and daily routine has enabled them to enter the mainstream of society productively. Whether existence precedes existence was of no consequence to these people in getting well; now that they are, they can decide to what extent existentialism and Laing's vision counts. My impression is that, except for the great contribution he has made in encouraging compassion to them, his analyses matter very little and rightly so. It seems unfortunate that his great compassion (and writings on) got mixed in with his attempts to apply his existentialist notions, which tend to be very complicated.
Kingsley Hall, as described by Laing himself in interviews, was a compassionate start at providing humane mental health treatment, but seems to have been therapeutically a mess. Sartre seems vastly less effective than some of the growing number of anti-psychotic medications and it seems a great disservice to the many of the mentally ill to suggest otherwise. Despite some disclaimers, Laing, as in "The Divided Self" and "The Politics of Experience", seems to have done just that. He witnessed some terrible medical practices and he recognized they were so and called attention to that, but then he opted for mind games like existentialism and knots instead of providing practical guidance. "The Divided Self" is great in some ways and, for a young man of 28, forgiveable.
Nonetheless, "The Divided Self" seems a bad book for most anyone who is mentally troubled and it seems a bad book for most anyone who will be dealing with anyone mentally troubled. Boring practical choices made day to day seem infinitely more useful than such existentialist analysis and fantasies of transcendence.