Ethics and Therapy
by Steven Gans and Leon Redler
Gans' and Redler's work with and knowledge of R.D. Laing are the central theme.
Bob: Do you want to start talking about what the work of Laing means? Is there a Laingian psychology? Is there a Laingian psychotherapy?
Steve: Well, you've got to start off making a distinction between R.D. Laing the name, and the bearer of that name, Ronnie Laing, the person. On the one hand you've got an R.D. Laing logo, almost a brand name, to which at times Ronnie must have felt a prisoner, and on the other hand Ronnie the ordinary bloke, however extraordinary he might have been at times. First of all, Ronnie was a writer who sold books, and R.D. Laing was an important brand name that he perpetuated. What he did best as a writer was very artful and very important. He was a translator and mediator; he communicated original work of the most serious people—people in the phenomenological tradition, the psychoanalytic tradition, the social science tradition, the Palo Alto group family therapy, the pragmatics of communication—a whole range of subjects. He was a polymath—a guy who knew a lot about a lot of things from experience in a deep way, in a way that was quite esoteric. And yet he was able to make what he knew accessible to a wide audience. He tried to continue to work with a whole variety of different issues and concepts, all focused on the problem of madness and mad people. How could anything we know about whatever help us address ourselves to madness in some way that was useful, that could relieve the suffering that madness caused? His most original contribution, which launched his career and was the continued source of his inspiration—what he wrote about and where he wrote from—was the way he listened to mad people. Before Ronnie, few psychiatrists, if any, spoke with such a good ear for madness. There were others including Freud, Jung, Fromm-Reichman and Rosen, who attempted in some way to decode mad-speak, but Ronnie hung out with mad people. He was first of all a guy who, with other people who happened to be seen as mad, entered into a kind of a friendship; he created space that hadn't before opened up, a `between', a conversation between himself and a so-called `mad' person. And also he was very plastic and mimetic and so he could imitate and get into other people's moods, thoughts, language, world, including those of so-called `mad' people. And he was able to bring back and speak of what it was like to be `mad' (more or less). This gave `mad' people an enormous sense of relief. Someone heard them. They were not alone. Madness was not unreason, a total unintelligibility, a total difference between the sane and the mad. Ronnie showed that we're all in it together. There was not an unbridgeable gulf between sanity and madness; rather there is a continuum. Mad people said, "this guy really understands what I'm going through". This proved extremely helpful for people who thought they were going mad, or who were told they were mad. So madness was the centrepiece or preoccupation around which he brought to bear the vast array of his multifaceted erudition. He took up a vast amount of intellectual traditions as they might be relevant to a consideration of madness, bringing these considerations into the public domain and making the issues accessible, so that people could understand what was at stake. This was Ronnie Laing's great contribution, a sort of pan-theoretical consideration of madness.
Leon: There's no `Laingian' psychotherapy with a particular zone and body of knowledge and methodology and techniques which are traceable back to Laing, and that other people are following. He didn't teach that way. Those who think that they're practising a Laingian psychology or psychotherapy have probably missed the point. Beyond what he experienced and read he was a creative and profound thinker, and an iconoclast not an ideologist.
Steve: He was never a card-carrying dogmatist or dogmatic, as far as I've ever known him to be in regard to anything.
Leon: He wasn't even a `fellow traveller' of card-carrying dogmatists. He was one of the most undogmatic people around.
Bob: Dan Burston, in his biography, claims that retrospectively Ronnie will be considered to be as important as Freud and Jung. I can't myself see where he gets that from, and I certainly have very little interest in Jung.
Steve: I think at one level Ronnie will be seen to be a classic. He will enter into the canonical works of psychology/psychoanalysis. He won't be forgotten. The Divided Self is a landmark work that will be read and reread and appreciated and reappreciated. Now in terms of a kind of ground-breaking contribution, the magnitude of output, the enormity of the consequences, Ronnie does not compare with Freud, probably not. Nevertheless in Ronnie's way of putting these things, I would say both were alpha plus minds.
Bob: Well, from my point of view I find Freud, apart from one or two moments, almost unreadable. But that's a separate issue—
Leon: Do you find his case histories unreadable?
Bob: I have the problem, unlike you two, that I have never known what I really wanted to do in life—
Leon: That's an assumption you're making.
Bob: Yes, that's an assumption I'm making. For example, I've written about new religious movements, I've written about psychiatry, I've written about psychotherapy, I've written about television, I've written about television audiences, I've written about arranged marriages, I've written about all sorts of things. And I've never been that committed to anything. And of course because I don't believe much about Freud, I've never really felt that encouraged to read him. But what I have read I've found so fantastical to be absurd, and not of great interest. I mean that's why I got interested in Ronnie, because what he said absolutely spoke to my personal experience, and that's as good a reason as any to get interested in things. All I know is that the games and the ways of interpersonal deception that Ronnie talks about will be with us forever, so it really just appealed to much more—[pauses]— Remember when we were at that Existential Society conference? Ronnie is the only person I know whose personal life always gets debated. The minute you mention the name of R.D. Laing, it's his drinking, alleged affairs, drugs, etcetera, etcetera. Can we talk a bit about that?
Steve: Ronnie was the first media figure in this field. The media then controlled people's perceptions about him. I think he was somewhat innocent, thinking that the media was probably a good thing. At first he thought he could use the media to kind of spread the importance of what he was trying to do, and maybe change things. But I don't think he counted on the viciousness of the media, how the press will build someone up to sell papers and then will tear them down to sell papers. What he started to get after his honeymoon period with the media was tremendous discredit. Once he had peaked, he suffered abuse. The media created the `reality' about him that they claimed to portray. Then Ronnie started to become a caricature of himself in public. And I think as his press got worse and worse it was very disheartening, more and more, to the point where he became cynical and said "Well at least they're saying something about me". The bitter irony in the title of the TV programme he made toward the end of his life—Did You Used To Be R.D. Laing?—said it all. People thought they knew in advance what he was doing—that is, drinking. The drinking thing was important, but I don't think that he or anybody fully fathomed the place it had in his life for him. He didn't suffer fools gladly. People would often speak in ways that were discordant for him. You could see how this would pain him tremendously, almost like scratching chalk on a blackboard, and it would just send shivers through him. And I think he felt at times that his exquisite sensitivity and sensibility had to be dampened down by drink. Maybe this is putting too positive a face on it, but that was my experience, that drink for Ronnie was a dampening of the terrible fine-tuning that he had cultivated. Drinking was a way of dealing with the way he found others off-key, out of tune, of course excruciating at times. We all know that he overdid it. With too much drink he'd move from being one of the most congenial people you'd ever want to be having a conversation with, to probably the most nasty person you could ever imagine.
Leon: He certainly was exceedingly sensitive. He had an amazing shit-detector in terms of any kind of lies, or deception, or pretence going on. I recognise what you're talking about. I think of how chalk screeching across the blackboard can give us a weird, uncomfortable feeling, a chill—
Steve: You get a sort of chill from that—
Leon: He was a fine musician with an exquisite ear, and it's as though he couldn't bear hearing someone playing or singing out of tune, or screwing up the rhythm, something like that. But I'm not sure that he took drink to dull those senses. That might have been part of the story some of the time but I remember he once said he needed it to get going, in terms of creative work. Also, against your interpretation, or inference, that he drank to make himself less sensitive, when he was very sloshed, he wasn't any less sensitive to that kind of deception and lies.
Steve: I agree, I agree, it didn't work.
Leon: Yeah, but what would happen when he was pissed, and would hear the wrong note or the deception, he would—
Leon: React and erupt with a fury. It could be, at least momentarily, paralysing and terrifying. I used to feel `hats off' to those who weren't affected in that way, if they could actually listen to and hear what he was saying, and weren't thrown into at least momentary paralytic terror, by his raging, when it was aimed in their direction.
Steve: I think one more thing can be said about Ronnie's drinking. Ronnie was very aware that he was a screen for people's projections and fantasies. He was constantly being taken to be a guru. Of course to some extent he staged himself as being one. But I think that he was often quite consciously trying to dismantle this idealisation or group transference. When he gave lectures or talks, he must have felt that the sycophancy that surrounded him needed to be disrupted, that people had to get out of this adulation of him. Often Ronnie was surrounded by people who thought that he was the fount of all wisdom. But he wanted to put things on a more equal level. I think he was driven to tearing himself to shreds, to sacrificing himself, holding himself up to ridicule, to show that he had feet of clay. This unfortunately only intensified his cult following. On the other hand, the more sober were not willing to hear the truth in the things that he was saying, since they were not said in a way that was expected, in an academic way. Ronnie spoke in a much more direct, experiential way, speaking from the heart, and they couldn't listen.
Leon: In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there's an injunction to attend to or listen to the teaching, not the teacher. That is, don't get hung up on judging the teacher. Attend to the teaching.
Bob: Attend to the teaching?
Steve: Not the teacher he's getting it from—
Leon: You are reminded that it's your responsibility to find and pick a teacher, and you shouldn't accept someone as your teacher, assuming that he accepts you as a student, without being careful about this matter, maybe taking some time over it, and you might have to make certain judgements, saying `for me, at this time, this teacher, as he is at this time, is not for me'. It's one's responsibility to find the right teacher, and once you do, then pay attention to the teaching, not the teacher. So if the teacher gets pissed, or is behaving in ways that seem to others odd or offensive, within that tradition, once you've decided that he is your teacher, you just let that be, even though you don't necessarily understand or feel comfortable with what he's doing, or how he's going about it. Now there are some analogies with Ronnie, which is why I'm bringing them up, because he definitely was for some people a teacher, a kind of guru. It's nothing that he ever explicitly claimed; I don't think he ever explicitly denied it either. He was not perfectly clear about it. And he certainly was a master of some sort, like one speaks of someone `mastering' Zen, and being a Zen master. At the same time, like other characters of his kind, especially those who aren't situated within a bounded, formal tradition, he was trying to deconstruct that all the time for people. But if someone is a great adept, the more he tries to deconstruct that, and divest others of the illusion that he is someone special, he's also confirming the fact that he's got something to teach. Now Ronnie behaved badly on many occasions in terms of being rude or insulting or fucking-up things, but I don't think that he ever lost a basic integrity. Even when he `lurched' and was offensive or making others really uncomfortable, I'd say that he rarely deviated from a wise and compassionate course, straight, direct and no bullshit, certainly less than the overwhelming majority of us, including the overwhelming majority of his critics. Would you agree with that?
Steve: Absolutely. But I think that he was also very, very pissed-off about a whole lot of things that were going on in the world around him, and I think that one of the ways that he showed this was by getting pissed. I think that then people didn't like it because it didn't fit in with their expectations of what someone who was supposed to be a `guru'—a respectable, wise person—would be like. But why not? I mean is there an absolute requirement that someone should conform to the expectations of others, when those others are creating precisely conditions that are often violent, by their complacency and so-called good consciences. But it's a moot point, and perhaps he could have comported himself with a little more circumspection if he had thought of himself more perhaps in a political role of leadership, which he didn't.
Bob: Leon knew him longer than most, and the tragedy for me really was reading about him as a student, and then spending a lot of time with him at the end of his life, and I will never ever forget these final images which were just so different from all the other images—the images of a man in exile, a man who was loathed by the Establishment, a man under-rated, a man written-off, and all the time struggling with illness, and having just had a new child. And this had a profound effect on me, you know seeing how people can be destroyed.
Leon: When you say he was destroyed, what do you mean?
Bob: Well I think that if he was a man of a different culture, say French, he wouldn't have suffered such a lack of appreciation. I mean he really did want to be loved and respected by the Establishment, as all rebels do. And of course they just could not forgive him.
Steve: One of the people Ronnie pegged himself against was Nietzsche. For him Nietzsche had the kind of ear, and the kind of sharpness and brilliance and biting irony that Ronnie most admired, and it was Nietzsche who said that people can't take too much of the truth. And I think that Ronnie was aware that he was a truth-teller, and that people couldn't take it, and that successively with one person after another, he got to the point where there was an unpalatable truth that he told, that came out, that was not tolerated, and little by little he burnt his bridges. He wasn't prepared to kind of play the game that would have given him fortune, love, and fame; rather he got infamy as thanks for telling the truth—he didn't get thanked for it.
Leon: Though he certainly wanted fortune and fame—
Steve: He wanted fortune and fame. But not at the price of giving up telling the truth, according to him.
Bob: Leon, one of the things that has always struck me as being interesting is your kind of magnanimous attitude towards Ronnie, given the unpleasant things he said about you in Mad to be Normal. On the one hand he says "Leon is a little bit different from some of the others", meaning Shatzman and Joe Berke, and "At one time I would have called him my friend", and "He used to come around and sing with me", but it was all pretty disparaging.
Leon: Well I did actually comment on that, in my article for your book R.D. Laing: Creative Destroyer (Cassell, London, 1997). I found it unpleasant and hurtful. But it was a difficult relationship, and we had fallen out and apart by the early to mid eighties. I don't think what you call my magnanimity is a function of my idealising him or putting him on a pedestal, or a sort of unrelenting positive transference of some kind, but (rather) my respect and appreciation for what he taught and gave. He would have been either a saint or unreal if he didn't, at times, get fed up or feel let down by me. I think I was often inattentive or thick, relative to him anyhow, and did defer to him much of the time in a way that was unhealthy for a friendship. One of the last encounters we had was the time he came by when a friend of mine was visiting with her two little kids. He was getting pissed-off about something going on—well, he probably came bugged about something. I don't know why he happened to come over on that occasion. He certainly quickly got annoyed and irritated, and was aiming it at this woman. She finally decided she wasn't going to stick around, and went to the door to leave. As she was leaving, he had a glass of red wine in his hand, and he threw it at her.
This was not a one-off number. I'd seen him throw wine at someone, from a glass he was drinking from, on other occasions, usually when he was pissed and/or pissed off. After a while I'd try not to have red wine around when he was there. I have a number of pieces of calligraphy done by one particular Zen master which I've had framed, and there were several on the wall at any given time, and several of them have stains where the wine that Ronnie had thrown has seeped in through the frames onto the rice paper that they're painted on. And I've got a combination of two `calligraphies' there.
Anyhow, out she goes, and he started to come back to the sitting room where we had been, and I said something like: "Why the fuck did you do that?!" And he changed his direction, without hesitating for a moment or missing a step, and went not into the sitting room, where we'd been, but into my bedroo. The bedroom door was open, and in the bedroom, on the far wall, as far away as it could be from the door that he walked through to get in, there was a reproduction of the painting The Fall of Icarus by Breugel. You know, cliff in the foreground, a ship in the background and Icarus falling, having flown too close to the sun. He had given me that reproduction around 1970; it used to be hanging on his consulting room wall at 21 Wimpole Street in London. When he left for the East to take a year off and spend time meditating and so on, he pointed to a number of things and he invited me to have any of those that I wanted. One of the things I took was the sculpture of the head of the Buddha that had also been in his consulting room and is now in mine, over there. Another thing I took was that painting. Anyhow, he goes to the wall, takes this reproduction, which is framed and under glass, off the wall—a fairly large painting—
Bob: Two metres wide—
Leon: And he goes over, takes it off the wall, and smashes it down on his raised knee, saying: "You don't deserve this!" Glass shattered all over the bedroom. The picture ripped. He then throws the rest of it down, and proceeds to walk back into the sitting room, like to continue whatever. And I said at that point something like: "No you don't, fuck off, get out of here!" Which he did and, as I recall, again he didn't hesitate for a moment. I think he just turned around and left. It was only after he left that I saw a trail of blood where he'd been, because he had cut himself. He was bleeding all the way down the stairs, three flights down, and onto the sidewalk. I followed the trail later and tried to find him. Now, my take on how he'd behaved with the woman was that it was an aggressive, insulting and unprovoked attack. Why didn't I intervene, or do so more decisively? I think I had often been too reluctant to call him on these things. And as for the "You don't deserve this", I took it as "Well, why didn't you intervene sooner if you didn't like something about what was going on?" And also maybe, although it hadn't been articulated, "I came over for something, and have you been at all attentive to that? Have you been thinking at all of anyone besides yourself?" Well I was thinking of someone besides myself. It often happened that people who were my guests, who were receiving my hospitality, were abused by Ronnie. `Abused' definitely from a conventional point of view: by any stretch of anyone's understanding of conventional behaviour and hospitality; he was being rude and hurtful to people who were someone else's guests—mine—and I'd put up with it. So I can read that scenario, retrospectively, as him saying: "Well, come on, step in sooner, step in more effectively, what are you waiting for?"
Steve: It would be simplistic to put all the blame on Ronnie when he got into these states, because there is provocation in any situation when anything happens between people, and so it's not simply just speaking magnanimously. Probably I agree with Leon that we let him down. We were inadequate to the task of confronting him enough, and in a responsible enough way. There could have been something more creative to come of some moments that were quite terrifying in which he erupted and blew up. They were not actually all that terrible, except that they could and sometimes did destroy friendships.
Leon: I absolutely agree. So that's quite a painful example, but I feel that even in most of his most awful moments, with him behaving like a raging bull, or a local bully, or a Glaswegian thug, he had something to teach, he was coming from some place that was not primarily malicious or nasty or wantonly destructive. Yet it was often destructive of bullshit, of hesitation, of cowardliness, of habitual ways of being and relating that were stuck in all kinds of attachments and aversions or evasions that got in the way of waking and wising up, or even just growing up, and of helping others to become more awake, alive and responsible.
Steve: It was clearly the case that Ronnie was asking for some kind of engagement, that would in some way be of sufficient strength to hold him in a way in which he wouldn't be allowed to go on a rampage. Now the guy who could really do that for him, and who did it for him often, was Hugh Crawford. And in many ways it was when Hugh died that Ronnie became a rogue elephant.
Leon: I think most of us let him down. I feel I let him down. I definitely think I wasn't responsible enough and, in no small part, that's probably why I was often on the receiving end of his wrath. There are all kinds of teachers, and all kinds of relationships between teacher and taught. Ronnie could also be very gentle, but he definitely wasn't a `grandmother'. He was a tough character. But there were many times over the years when I was troubled, and caught up in layers of suffering, when he was extremely generous, a good friend, and a good helper. I wasn't always smart enough, open enough or courageous enough to get it. It took me a long time to be able to take responsibility for my own life and for others. I could wonder if he mightn't have found a better way to convey what he wanted to convey than he did. Well, "Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone".
Steve: If we knew then what we know now!
Leon: Or, indeed, what many ordinary people think of just in terms of being mature and responsible in a conventional way, never mind Levinasian ethics. It took me many `at bats' before I got to first base. I was for a long while quite untogether and wasn't fully responsible, not to myself, not to the others around me. However, something told me that this guy had something really fine to teach me and others. I was going to stay in there, stay for the course, however difficult it was. The alternatives seemed less demanding but also less worthwhile.
Bob: And what was that?
Leon: Let me answer that with a story or a phrase that I think Steve alluded to, maybe today or on some other occasion. One of the things Ronnie would often say in terms of some profound learning was "Don't get it from the Babylonian Talmud, get it from where the Babylonian Talmud got it from". Now one could interpret that in various ways, but one of those ways that I think is valid is: don't get it from any source of knowledge in terms of, say a text or body of knowledge, or any ritual, or any tradition, get it from where that's getting it from, get it at source. Now I think he did that. I've met a few people who probably are in that league in terms of getting it from source. What it was, was a kind of wisdom and compassion. I'd say he was an enlightened being. Not one without flaws, not absolutely free and clear, but well on the way. Now I'm sure a lot of people would consider that to be an idealisation of Ronnie, maybe including many of the people closest to him, as he could be such a bloody pain in the neck, or a bullying or raging bastard. Nevertheless this was a special guy. What drew me to him might have been all kinds of fucked-up attachments and transferences, call it what you will, but deep down I knew: `this is right, stay with it'. I kept postponing going back to the USA. I wasn't going to stay in London, I was going to go back, and I had a job lined up at a university to do my last year of psychiatric residency, and would have been able to spend at least half my time with the Civil Rights Movement in the South for that last year, and part of it teaching in Washington. I passed it up; I kept delaying going back, and the phrase I used for myself at the time was `there's unfinished business here'. I didn't have a clue quite how unfinished it was, or the depth and extent of the path to be traversed, but I definitely had the sense, albeit with fear and trepidation, that here was a source of profound teaching. He was tuned-in to something, he was tuned-in to some of the greatest traditions, in the West and in the East, of deep, deep understanding. Deep understanding that can't really be separated from either wisdom or love.
Bob: He didn't just play at things—
Leon: No, he didn't. Or if he `just played', he `just played' in the finest sense. He could just play, and usually play justly too, or play in the service of justice. He was seldom just fooling around. The people you refer to made those judgements according to their limited understanding. Such people might have thought "Ah, you see he's not really practising as the yoga teachers I know practise. He isn't staying within this or that tradition, he's not adhering to the rules of this or that discipline". No, he was a free spirit, he was a free soul. He connected up with the core and heart of various traditions but he didn't accept, without question, anyone else's rules of the game.
Steve: I don't know about fooling around, because if a fool persists in their foolishness, of course that's also the path towards wising-up, and I think that—
Leon: But he wasn't playing around in the sense of a dilettante or in some superficial way.
Steve: I know why people would think that, or say that at times. We had a reading group and we would read Heidegger, and it was quite interesting because he would come in there with a deft kind of acuity, squeezing out the juice at the core of what Heidegger was on about, speak of it, and then that was the end of it. It wouldn't be like most people who would be discussing this sort of thing who spend eight, ten weeks dealing with each nuance and making a meal of it. He really was into getting the nourishment at the heart of it, but he wasn't into the development of it particularly for its own sake, as a kind of an elaboration. And so not only did he not write about his spiritual life, he didn't write about his intellectual life. He was a thinker, but he never really wrote about the depths at which he was thinking, and the texts with which he was engaged. But when you say `spirit', it's reminding me of this kind of maybe wordplay, because the word `spirit' also means spirits, the alcohol that we were talking about, but it also means spirits in the term of spooks, or being haunted, and so it's not clear what `spirit' really means. There's no way one can separate one kind of spirit from another kind of spirit absolutely. So I think actually that there's a way in which Ronnie was haunted by spirits, of which his spiritual life was an outcome. He had a sense of connecting with the source, as Leon said, and being kind of the conduit in some sense, through which the legacies and the inheritances of these traditions would come through. And insofar as he did that, he was prepared to pay the price. A legacy that you inherit has a cost that you have to pay. You just don't get a transmission without it changing your life. In fact many people who read all this spiritual material, or even become quite academically proficient in it, are relatively clueless as to the heart of the matter, and hence remain indifferent to the heart.
Bob: Johnny Duffy—Ronnie's oldest friend—said to me he'd never encountered such an unhappy man as Ronnie. Could you both talk about that, particularly in the relation to this idea of the wounded healer?
Steve: Well I would say that I felt connected to Ronnie when I first met with him, and we got on a kind of friendship basis. I used to come over to his house and we used to talk and drink and smoke almost every week for some period of time. I think we recognised in one another a kind of despair. I had carried around for a long time a kind of a black cloud of despair and Ronnie often seemed to suffer from despair. It's very hard to characterise exactly what despair is like, and in fact one of the things that happened to me, probably pretty directly attributable to my analysis with Hugh Crawford, was that my despair lifted, it blew over after a time, and I couldn't get it back even if I wanted to. Just to give you a flavour of it, think of Beckett, and the atmosphere of his writings. I lived with Beckett's work in a dark room also listening to Wagner endlessly, and that's how I spent most of my early student days, in the mode of Russian nihilism. Occasionally I just about hung in the game and kept the thread with the system going; I didn't drop out, but I was very withdrawn at university. And I think that Ronnie was very withdrawn, that he was very isolated, despite his wide circle of comrades. He often expressed his deep disappointment about the cruelty of humanity. And I think he was very, very deeply wounded and pained, and this goes back to his earliest years.
Leon: Of course he was in a lot of personal pain. What immediately springs to mind is the time he felt betrayed by his partner's infidelity and deception. He was really thrown.
Bob: Manifested how?
Leon: Well he was—
Steve: Very angry.
Leon: He was very hurt and very angry, he was walking around like a raging bull. He invited me around that time to come and see the film Raging Bull with him at the Screen on the Hill up the road. He was himself like a wounded and raging bull at that time. He was behaving in ways that people found bullying, objectionable and transgressive. I remember on one of the occasions, when I was feeling particularly anxious, depressed, untogether, helpless and hopeless, he said to me, almost snarled at me, "Do you think you're suffering more than I am?" Well, that's a tough question to answer. I would say that I was suffering differently than he was, and that there was something about his suffering which made it seem to me, then, and seems to me now, as well, more liveable with, because it was more authentic. Now, at this time in my life, I don't claim to be free of suffering, nor am I complaining that I'm immersed in suffering, but such suffering as I have is of a different order; it's both more and less my own; there is less confusion, perplexity, dependency and fear implicated. So when he would say things like that, I wondered if he actually could understand where I was coming from and what it was like for me.
I had asked him to take me on in therapy within my first couple of years in London. I needed to be in therapy again. He said he'd think it over, but before he could respond, I decided it wouldn't be a good idea. I knew I was wanting to stay, and wanting to work with him, and I thought if I really open up this terrified, fragmented—I can't even call it a `selfish self', because I'm not sure that there was much of a sense of self, yet there was selfishness—I thought if I open up that can of worms, this guy will tell me to fuck off. When I brought it up with him, years later, he said "You miscalculated". But I've answered your question on his pain by speaking about my own, and I think his question, "Do you think you're suffering more than I am?" was telling me not only that he was suffering too and he wasn't going on about it, so why was I? You know, what a drag and waste of spirit! But he was also trying to lure me out of my narcissistic prison, and invite me into the possibility of a different kind of relationship which required that I could see, hear and be with him otherwise that I was, be concerned with and relate to his otherness, and be able to respond in responsibility for him, and not treat him so much just as someone there for me— you know, me, me, me— which, in a way, I lapsed into in responding to your question!
Bob: Steve, when you said that you couldn't get the despair back even if you wanted it, are you saying that your relationship with him lifted it?
Steve: I didn't have therapy with Ronnie.
Bob: No, but we were talking in connection with him. Why were you saying that you lost that despair?
Steve: I lost it as a result of therapy with Hugh Crawford, I think. But I don't think Ronnie ever lost it you see, I think that was the thing. He always carried it. You remember the quote from Zorba the Greek—"What good are all your damn books if they don't teach why we die?" I think he was troubled by fates worse than death, territories that were nightmares, terror, terrifying nightmarish spaces. Books were only a partial panacea. I think music was the thing that really lifted his despair; when we really got to a certain point in a conversation, at a certain point it had to stop, and it was just, you could see, somehow unbearable for him at a certain point, because of the intellect just leading to too many cul-de-sacs, that is just unsatisfying, and he'd get behind the piano and start to play some Chopin, and then all of a sudden you know he would be a different Ronnie, he would brighten up and lighten up—
Leon: And could at that time seem happy indeed, and ecstatic—
Steve: It was the closest that I've seen him being in a state of relief or remission.
Bob: One of the things I really want to talk about is his attitude to love. One of Ronnie's quotes that I like, which I've used, is the one about the absence of love, or even the absence of the memory of love, or the absence of a memory of an hallucination of love—you know, Ronnie says that without these life would not be worth living. How was love defined in his life, and how did he live that?
Leon: In The Politics of Experience he writes about love as letting the Other be with concern and affection. I think he was pretty good at letting others be. There wasn't always affection, but neither was there pretence at affection. But letting the Other be is already a certain kind of affection. This is one of the things he taught just by how he was, and may be one of the most valuable things that we took away from our time with him.
Steve: It's not by accident that the Philadelphia Association got its name—philia + delphos: brotherly and sisterly love. Philia also has an affinity with agape, which is a kind of fellow feeling, a kind of kinship with your fellow man. This is a kind of leaving, allowing, giving permission, letting be. I've never really come across anyone who was less likely to lay a trip on anyone than Ronnie. He wasn't trying to induce people to conform and collude with his expectations in order to make him feel better. He was not trying to enlist others to become the supporting cast in his scenario. He was not trying to get a particular reaction from someone, to be a mirror for him to reflect back to him how he wanted to see himself. It was very liberating for anyone to be allowed to be in that way by him.
As for intimacy—Ronnie was seen as attractive by both sexes. He had sexual relations with quite a number of women, and had many admirers amongst women. He was quite a strongly loving person, and quite a warm person. Nevertheless, he never lost what at times was a palpable sense of despair that hung over him like a black cloud. I would say that the despair that I had felt for most of my life was lifted from me as a result of my therapy with Hugh Crawford, which opened my heart. I don't feel I could do the kind of therapy work I do, unless I do it with an open heart. So there's a certain kind of loving proximity—agape—that happens in a therapeutic situation. I also find it fulfilling to be called on to offer this kind of welcome. As for my personal life, I'm pleased to say that I'm in a surviving marriage of thirty-seven years, a loving marriage—
Leon: I had to separate from him; there had to be a break between us in order for me to—
Leon: Yeah, I had to get free of him spatially, and over time, to free myself of certain attachments to him, and certain numbers that I was caught up in with him.
Bob: Do you think you've been elected as Chairman of the PA because you were seen as his protégé?
Leon: No, but maybe someone else better answer that one. I don't think so.
Steve: I think that Leon was seen as Ronnie's protégé when Ronnie was part of the company—
Leon: Which I think worked against me.
Steve: It probably did. And now I think that as time has gone on, Leon has un-coupled from being a Ronnie protÈgÈ, but he is someone who embodies the tradition that Ronnie generated in setting up the Philadelphia Association, which was intended to be something like an academy in the Platonic sense, if you will. It was meant to be a scene in which a whole range of diverse influences would meet and perhaps inspire one another. In the days when I just came round in the early 1970s there were within the PA scenes within scenes, scenes that would deal with the body, scenes that would deal with theatre, scenes that would deal with birthing, scenes that would deal with a whole range of ways of addressing mental distress and suffering, of which psychotherapy would only be one strand. As time went on, and part of the reason for the blow-up that resulted in Ronnie leaving, and shaped the way the Philadelphia Association developed after that, was the desire on the part of some members to become more acceptable within the psychotherapy community as a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training organisation. The Philadelphia Association with Ronnie the enfant terrible as Chair was seen as a radical organisation, not properly psychoanalytic-psychotherapeutic. This all shifted when Ronnie left and the UKCP (the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy) started. We were more and more seen not only to be offering the equivalent to all the groups in terms of the rigour and structure of our psychoanalytic course, but we were also offering a philosophical critique of psychoanalysis dismantling some of the rather crude psychologistic thinking that is rife in psychoanalytic circles. So the PA gained more of a good reputation post Ronnie. But after Ronnie there was no-one amongst the group who took the lead to orchestrate the Philadelphia Association. No one took over for Ronnie as Chair. We more or less saw ourselves as a kind of collective, as a kind of leadership that was a collective leadership, a kind of consensus of a collective, and no-one wanted to be put in the centre, or put anyone in the centre, and no-one wanted to assume that, and so on. Eventually we started to fall out with one another. And Leon was chosen as the one person whom everyone felt was fair. Not only was he even-handed and not biased in one way or the other, but he kept alive our eclipsed tradition. As it turned out the group split. There were those who really did not want to continue in what I would consider the tradition of the Philadelphia Association. They really wanted to belong to the psychoanalytically-orientated psychotherapy institution, and forget about anything else. And they saw us as die-hards, as those who wanted to preserve Ronnie's legacy and move on from there.
Leon: I hope I wasn't unfair. There was no question that I was completely against the Philadelphia Association being reduced to being a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training organisation, and it was well on the way to becoming that, or indeed had pretty much become that. And that was a betrayal of the tradition, and certainly of the best of Laing, and the best of what brought us together—
Steve: But you were still fair in allowing everyone a place who wanted it, and seeing our differences as not ultimately incompatible.
Leon: I was insisting that the Philadelphia Association was a charity concerned with mental suffering, and the radical relief of mental suffering.
Steve: And you got the support of the great majority of the members who agreed with you.
Leon: It hadn't been sufficiently articulated until I began to articulate it.
Steve: No, it was eroding slowly and imperceptibly in a way that people were not really noticing—
Leon: So that even some of the members who haven't split off, who are still with us, some of our colleagues really aren't wanting much more than a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training organisation, and probably are somewhat suspicious and distrustful of me, and probably not very comfortable with me as Chair, and the direction that Steve and I both want to move in, which is not going back to how things were, but which is a going back to the source, to the roots of what, in the association in the name of philia, once inspired us and others.
Steve: A more inclusive rather than exclusive—
Bob: I always thought the Philadelphia Association was centrally concerned with phenomenologically-inspired research programmes. That it was about phenomenological enquiry—
Steve: Well I agree, I think that phenomenology is the basis of continental thinking, and all continental thinking that is contemporary takes its jumping-off point from the analysis of experience started by Husserl. This is a rigorous way of looking at experience and meaning, a way of giving attention, and being mindful of how experience is constituted and how things come to mean. But I think that what happened within the phenomenological tradition, and more recently, say in the last fifty years, was that a lot of the students of Husserl and Heidegger broke away from strict phenomenology, so that you get a Foucault who talks history, you get a Derrida who talks about the complexities of language, you get a Levinas who talks about ethics, you get a whole new set of initiatives, that I think are inspiring a lot of us in various ways. So jumping off from phenomenology and its existential kind of elaboration, and moving more into what's called postmodern thinking—whatever exactly you may mean by postmodern—are what is in play at the moment, and we're too involved in it to see it in perspective.
Bob: Leon, you passed that question on to Steve—why?
Leon: Probably because Steve grew up intellectually in the phenomenological tradition, and has taught in the phenomenological tradition, and is much more versed in the Western phenomenological tradition than I am, and can speak more articulately about it.
Bob: But as Chairman, do you simply chair other people's views and intentions and interests?
Steve: I feel that he's being unduly modest. Leon can also lay claim to quite an education in phenomenological and contemporary traditions of discourse.
Leon: I've got my own points of view, and they've been deeply informed by phenomenology. Particularly phenomenology as mediated through Laing initially, and then more through Heidegger than Husserl, and perhaps most importantly in terms of what I would call Eastern phenomenology, which was very much a part of the PA tradition in the early days, but is hardly a part of the PA tradition any more, even though there are several of us with an interest in Eastern religious and spiritual discourses and practices
To order your copy www.justlistening.com