Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


Three or four years ago R.D. Laing, the existential psychiatrist, went on a widely publicized and somewhat disastrous North American speaking tour. I heard him in a crowded gymnasium at the University of Guelph. Most of us who turned out that night had done so, it seems, expecting Laing would perform some of his hit numbers for us. Lyrics from from golden oldies such as The Divided Self, The Bird of Paradise and The Politics of the Family, maybe.

When it quickly became clear that he wasn’t going to do that, that he was ‘into’ something new, different and confusing, people grew restless, grumbled loudly and/or left. The fact is, Laing was boring that night. The subject he was groping with in more than two hours of slide show and meandering — often obvious, occasionally elliptical — chatter, was natal and prenatal experience. Now in The Facts of Life we have his first new book in half a dozen years. Its subject is the one he was wrestling with that night in Guelph. The Facts of Life is as fascinating as his lecture was boring and confused; it’s full of the kinds of insights many of us came to expect from Laing in the sixties. But the Laing of the sixties, like the times, was primarily concerned with what he called “the politics” of experience. The Laing of the mid-seventies, again like the times, is far more introspective.

The Facts of Life begins with several pages of autobiography; additional snippets of autobiography appear throughout the book. We learn that Laing wasn’t allowed out until he was five and only then on a leash. He never played with other children. According to Laing’s parents, all sexual activity between them had ceased long before he was conceived; they had no idea where he came from. We learn that at age sixteen, he still knew nothing of “the facts of life.”

Having told us these things, Laing then turns the tables on us. Without explicitly stating that he’s doing so, he tells us on page after page that all of us, whatever our ages, whatever our experience, know much less about the facts of life than we think we do. He speculates, for instance, in a series of prose poems, on the extent to which the journey of the very seed of ourselves to implantation may resonate through our entire lives:

one may spin, revolve, float, fly;
be dashed gainst rocks;
be washed ashore and be washed away again;
before journey’s end.

Our whole lives may reverberate with the experience “of being sucked in, drawn in, pulled in, dragged down; of being rescued, revived, succored, welcomed; of trying to get in, but being kept out; perishing through fatigue, exhaustion; frantic, helpless, impotent, etc.” Laing believes many of us suffer lasting effects from having our umbilical cords cut too soon, or even at all. “What ’s the harm in waiting?” he asks. He suggests our navels may be the very cores of our being, the source of ‘gut’ feelings. (Contemplating one’s navel, he implies, may thus be the most significant thing one can do.) Laing then asks an intriguing question: “If you were to die now and be reconceived tonight, which woman would you choose to spend the first nine month of your next lifetime inside of?”

As usual, there are a number of fascinating case histories in The Facts of Life. Again, as usual, many of the case histories reveal Laing’s contempt for his medical and scientific colleagues. He tells of a fifteen-year-old girl who was locked away because she enjoyed staring at (meditating on) a blank wall for several hours a day. “I am told,” he says, “the average Canadian watches television for five hours a day. Would they be any the worse for staring at a blank wall ...?”

He describes a clinical demonstration when he was a medical student that turns out to have been central to his development as a psychiatrist. A seventeen-year-old male patient was being grilled by a medical consultant about whether he masturbated and how often. The patient was humiliated. Laing, who had never heard the word ‘masturbate’ used in public, “cringed in terror at the prospect of the consultant asking [him] the questions he asked his patient....” It seemed to Laing even then that the definition of schizoid in medical textbooks (“the split between head and heart”) was an excellent description of the medical training he himself was being given.

Laing reports that he finds it more and more difficult to write. Anyone who’s read much of his work can understand why. Indeed, one can foresee the day when he will lapse into the silence either of futility or madness. As he himself puts it, “If one thinks about what is the case and what is not the case seriously, intensely and long enough, one seems either to drive oneself insane or to come to the conclusion that almost everyone else is, or that we all are...”

Like Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, most of Laing’s books end with conclusions in which nothing is concluded. “If I could tell you, I would let you know,” he says in The Bird of Paradise. “The statement is pointless/The finger is speechless” are the closing words of Knots. On the last page of The Facts of Life, Laing tells us, “This book makes no pretensions to be a guide to the perplexed. I am myself perplexed.” But, as always, in trying to convey the nature of his own perplexity, Laing succeeds in helping us open our eyes to our own.

— Globe and Mail, July 3, 1976

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