Precis: The Divided Self

R.D. Laing, 1955

A classic of existential psychology, Laing’s book is also known as foundational to the short-lived and little respected school of anti-psychiatry which he disavowed. Better, Laing’s work is an important influence on one Felix Guattari, whose work Capitalism and Schizophrenia with Gilles Deleuze is quite essential to contemporary thought.

I read this book looking for a critique of existing mental health paradigms, and instead found a rather narrow and humanistic case for taking people at their word even when it is hard.

Here, I will present my interpretation of the book, which is not so much about schizophrenia (the explicit subject) as torn selves and unsustainable relationships with the world. This essay focuses on the commonality between “normal experience” (in modern western cultures?) and all the fucked up shit that can go wrong in your head to make you talk crazy and have no friends. I’m going to conclude by disagreeing with Laing, that we’re all just people, but I want to foreground his thought, which is fascinating, and just drop in my conclusion at the end.


Laing opens with some very direct and agreeable claims. The term “schizophrenic” should be used to describe people who are internally cut, with a tear within their self and a rift between their self and their world. Most psychology, Laing says, tries to explain human behavior in mechanistic terms, willfully neglecting the patient as a human agent. Psychiatrists are trained to see symptoms and mechanisms, and thus disregard authentic being. Laing draws on existential literature for the concept of a human as a form of being thrown into the world and forced to confront its actions as its own identity; he’s quite fond of Sartre’s account of the waiter acting in bad faith. Laing dumbs it down for this book, assuming the distinction between person and organism is rather clear, which is fair enough here. Make eye contact with the person and assume they are acting freely doing what they wish. The “patient” is a person and you should respect that. For this reason, existential psychology is more about biography than psychology: all actions taken by a person belong to that self that acts. Thus, we will imagine that the words used by a schizophrenic are essentially meaningful and either spoken frankly or in some other sensible tone, such as humor or politesse. In other words, we will imagine that they are not “mad,” just misunderstood.

What does it mean to say that some people are divided? It means that their self lacks ontological security: it is not confident about what distinguishes it from the, impressions, sensations, waves, and streams composing the universe. The self is not sure what it is, compared to what others think of it. The self is lost, perhaps in a Kafka-esque world of infinite confusion, where it is turtles all the way down and they are made of red tape. (Laing compares this to Shakespheare, where the world is crazy, but the characters still basically make sense.) This torn self is not master of its own home and is uncertain about itself.

Laing explores several case studies of individuals who have tried to live as someone other than themselves, and feel tortured, frustrated, and angry. One young man knows he was unwanted his whole childhood and now believes he has a terrible smell, a delusion arising from his deep shame about his body and masculinity in particular. Another individual pays a visit to a professor’s classroom, as a specimen of the schizophrenic condition, and is so caught up in backhanded compliments and rumination on the teacher’s cruelty in asking for the visit, that he rambles on rather incoherently in changing tones and voices.

Such people are, in Laing’s estimation, especially skilled at sensing what others see in them, how they judge them, and what they want from them. They are too empathetic, in a sense. The trouble is that they can do little to block out the intentions of others and lose control over their own self. And so they are torn within. For them, to be observed is to be changed. They are way too observed and thus way too changed.

They are also divided from the world. It is not just that one’s account of one’s self is drowned out by other voices, but also that the whole world seems to be unbearable. It crushes them, steals from them, threatens their life. Such people get the impression that others are constantly trying to change them into something they do not want to be. The whole world is a “dark sun” shining negative energy on them.

Quite often, they feel the body to be part of the harsh outside world and disidentify with it. They also may choose to isolate themselves from others, being deliberately cryptic because they don’t expect or want to be understood by the likes of those around them. Sadly, there is no harmony to be found within, as that is the basic problem to begin with, so the retreat is in vain. All of these feelings, thoughts, and behaviors leave the schizophrenic deeply divided, and rather uncomfortable, frustrated, and out of touch.

Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun music video captures the dark sun concept perfectly. There’s this insane dark force asking us to be impossible versions of ourselves and it kinda makes us all want to die.

What I love about existential psychology is that we can identify with all of the above, as these are conditions common to any being. Do we not encounter the same “dark sun” in the world, and also develop our own methods to hide from it? Does this not drive us to conformity and then, perhaps, to vicious over-conformity, repeating traumatic behavior but role-playing as the aggressor now, rather than the victim? Undeniably, the last turn of this system is common to us all: dark judgments we hear made against us by others repeat for years in our own heads in voices that are ultimately our own. 😞
Laing presents a beautiful analogy to animal camouflage, “the very fact of being visible exposes an animal to the risk of attack from its enemies, and no animal is without enemies. Being visible is therefore a basic biological risk; being invisible is a basic biological defence” (110). To avoid the black sun schizophrenics shuffle their behaviors and words about to distract, confuse, and avoid coherence. Their word salad and unkept appearance is a defense mechanism. They would rather not be scrutable, by their enemies or even by themselves.

I think the most important contribution of this book is that it shows the way to speculate about the self as a manifestation of fields of force. Here, the mind is a geological process creating expressions of personality and desire. The human, seemingly just an existential being of will, must contend with strange virtualities, such as the dark sun or identification of the body with the outer world. In so doing, it may act in ways that violate mutual terms of sanity or not. By respecting the subject as an existential actor, we end up with a deconstructed concept of selfhood. Laing speculates that the only working “cures” for schizophrenics are situations that motivate people to play at sanity.

It’s great fun to harvest the schizophrenic experience for new fundaments of (post-)normal psychology. But, I disagree with Laing’s direction here, that schizophrenics and everyone else are quite alike. We’re really not all the same. Why do some selves crack in harsh conditions, while others do not? Why do some have better ontological security than others, even when this seems poorly correlated with overbearing parents or love and acceptance?

This book does not give an etiology or diagnosis for schizophrenia. It’s just an account of its inner workings, once it’s up and running. And so I’m left with renewed enthusiasm for theories of brain chemistry, diet, the unconscious, or any other that Laing rightly accuses of treating the body as a mechanism.

This is a young man’s book (Laing wrote this about his experiences in his 20s). The first chapter dismisses all approaches that regard the subject as a broken medium. Later chapters imagine that the medium is working just fine, given what its content is. Yet his ultimate point is that the content of the schizophrenic mind does, in its expression, make the medium (say, of speech) appear broken because, originally, the medium itself has been broken in the past (split from itself, from the outer world).

What animal is this? Duck? Or rabbit?

If Laing is right, he is wrong. If content is king, the medium is worthy of our attention. If schizophrenics are just people too, something else must account for what makes them different. What reminds me of the author’s age is that he is so zealous about making his essentially outsider case and so hot to promote it to central attention that he demands we ignore the rest of the science of psychology, which at the time of writing was still quite new (invented in its modern form only at the turn of the century). Laing presents one of the drawings where you can see it one of two ways, but there is a gestalt shift between them. He then argues that we cannot understand a person’s expression as content and form. Either you are talking to a person or you are observing symptoms.

Ultimately, his example makes possible another account, where talking to people means engaging with selves that are not unified, or only ever becoming unified. In this possibility, the duck and rabbit are both latent possibilities to the same squiggle of biographical ink.