Our Pervasive Madness

"In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal.

A man who prefers to be dead rather than Red is normal. A man who says he has lost his soul is mad. A man who says that men are machines may be a great scientist. A man who says he is a machine is 'depersonalized' in psychiatric jargon. A man who says that Negroes are an inferior race may be widely respected. A man who says his whiteness is a form of cancer is certifiable.

A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from 'reality' than many of the people on whom the label 'psychotic' is affixed. 

Psychiatry could be, and some psychiatrists are, on the side of transcendence, of genuine freedom, and of true human growth. But psychiatry can so easily be a technique of brainwashing, of inducing behaviour that is adjusted, by (preferably) non-injurious torture. In the best places, where straitjackets are abolished, doors are unlocked, leucotomies largely forgone, these can be replaced by more subtle lobotomies and tranquillizers that place the bars of Bedlam and the locked doors inside the patient. Thus I would wish to emphasize that our 'normal' 'adjusted' state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities."

R. D. Laing, Preface (Pelican Edition, 1964) to The Divided Self


Komal said…
I agree only with the last paragraph.

The analogies he draws in the first paragraph are just wrong. Being racist is not a psychologically ill state, even if it is morally wrong. Anyone who genuinely believes those things -- that he is a machine, that his whiteness is a form of cancer, or that he has lost his soul -- is delusional. These are genuine beliefs we are talking about, not metaphors, and not statements of value. The state of depersonalization is not comparable to taking the philosophical position that the body is a machine. People who are depersonalized actually experience their bodies differently, as unfamiliar and as acting autonomously, beyond their control.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Komal

He isn't saying that racism or grandeur are psychiatric conditions, or that psychiatric conditions are in fact normal states. As a psychiatrist, Laing is well aware of what constitutes what. His point is larger. I must point out, The Divided Self was written in late 50s (and this preface in 1964 with a later edition) and the social role and perception of psychiatry was much different from today. Laing is pointing out how even what are considered as 'normal' and 'sane' minds may contain highly distorted and dangerous ideas, while at the same time people who are declared 'psychotic' may in their psychosis express elements that are existentially meaningful. The book The Divided Self was an existential analysis of Schizoid and Schizophrenia, and it is in this context the preface was written.
Komal said…
Ok, then all I will say is that in that paragraph he overstates his point.
Raajii said…
This gives me so much to think about - thank you for quoting this :-)
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