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R. D. Laing’s account of the social self and of schizoid and schizophrenic mechanisms (1) presents similarities with Lacan’s concept of the subject and understanding of psychosis. Both Lacan and Laing owe much to the existentialist tradition (2), as exemplified by their emphasis on subjective intention and meaning, but they also depart from it. Although they make much of the concept of self-alienation, they do not share the existentialists’s belief in the « will to unfreedom » (3), and reject most of the latter’s jargon. The two men share an « anti-psychiatry attitude » and stress that « madness has a meaningful structure » (4). Moereover, their terminologies appear similar, at least on a superficial level. While Laing distinguishes between the true and false selves, which he links to Sartre’s concept of the « real and imaginary selves » (5), Lacan sees the subject as an equilibrist at the crossroads of three Orders, namely the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The feeling of estrangement from true self in the Laingian subject rests on a distorted self-perception and an alienated relationship with others. This interpretation is reminiscent of Lacan’s concept of the Mirror Stage (1949). The present essay examines the conceptual parallels and discrepancies between the two thinkers, comparing the DIVIDED SELF with the ECRITS and various critical writings on Lacan.

Laing’s conception of the divided self arose from his observations of schizoid and schizophrenic cases. According to Laing, there exist two contrasting modes of « being-in-the-world » (6), which he terms « ontological security » and « ontological insecurity ». The ontologically secure person « has a sense of his presence in the world as real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person » (7). He will face the mishaps of life without feeling his integrity threatened or doubting his, or others’, reality. Conversely, the ontologically insecure person never takes his (or others’s) identity, autonomy, realness, aliveness and wholeness for granted; these notions are constantly challenged and are a cause for intense anxiety. In fact, he may experience one of the following forms of anxiety:
-the fear of « engulfment », whereby any form of relatedness is felt as a risk of losing his autonomy, whether in being understood, loved, or merely seen; whence the necessity for isolation,
-the dread of « implosion », which results from his perceiving himself as a vacuum, susceptible to being filled up with implosive reality and consequently obliterated,
-the dread of « petrification and depersonalisation » by the other who is thought to attempt to reify the subject, causing him to doubt his very existence and subjectivity; he sees the « act of experiencing the other as a person as virtually suicidal » and tends to reify the other in turn (8).

Basic ontological insecurity results in a split (schizoid mechanism) between body (perceptible by the other) and mind (concealed and protected from the world by the corporeal envelope) wherein the person feels most closely identified with the mind (9). The outward self is what Laing views as a « false self system », while the inner self is the individual’s « true » self or what the existentialists defined as the « authentic » self.
Like Laing, Lacan sees the subject as split, as a « barred subject », the bar signifying the split, gap or « béance » which separates the « I » from the « me » in spite of their hallucinatory (specular) identification (Imaginary) and marks the lack expressive of the subject (Symbolic or pertaining to language). Therefore, « the subject is nothing but a split between two forms of otherness: the ego as other and the unconscious as the Other’s discourse » (10). The splitting of the I into ego (false self) and unconscious suggests that, as in Laing’s concept of the self, there are two sides to the self: one exposed and the other hidden. Yet, Laing’s divided self seems to have no unconscious; he is extremely aware of both his hidden inner true self and his outward false self, though perhaps less of the latter. Moreover, his divided self is borderline (schizoid) or psychotic (schizophrenic), while to Lacan the split is the norm. For, although traumatic, the split is no indication of madness. Lacan claims that in psychosis this split has not occured, resulting in the individual’s unconscious thought processes being openly displayed (instead of hidden as in the case of neurosis)(11). Contrary to Laing, Lacan doesn’t have any belief in a true or real self that could counterbalance the notion of false being, since he sees ego thinking as consisting of conscious rationalizations in accordance with one’s ideal self-image. The Lacanian being is thus essentially phoney (false). However, Lacan insists upon the notion of the subject’s truth. This very notion is made possible by its remaining divorced from either a true or false self (in Laing’s sense) and therefore from being.

Both Laing and Lacan borrow from Heidegger the idea of the existence of a « truth, » which is distinct from what the subject finds himself, more often than not, forced to present to the world. In Laingian terms, this truth is an inner truth, or what the individual experiences as his existential truth. However, Lacan believes this truth to be beyond the subject, in fact, to belong to the Other; for the analysand’s speech remains the discourse of the Other (his unconscious), detached from subjective involment, and his « analysis entails a significant deciphering process that results in truth, not meaning » (12). Although Lacan understands reality to a great extent as an existentialist might (in so far as man’s Being-in-the-world or -with-others is circumscribed by his historicity (13)), there is no question of authenticity for him: the subject will always remain alienated. Lacan took over two important notions from Heidegger. Firstly, language is the locus of meaning: « without language there [is] neither self nor world; » man is the agent of language, not its creator; language speaks through man (14). Secondly, one must beware of the subversion of fixed meaning (as the Word is the word of the Other), hence Lacan stresses fluidity of meaning. Thus, he holds that the analyst must distinguish two registers in the patient’s discourse:
-the speech which takes its orders from the ego (empty speech) and is addressed to the other (the patient’s imaginary counterpart) through whom the patient’s desire is alienated,
-the speech which is beyond the language ordered by the ego (full speech) and is addressed to the Other, or subject of the unconscious (15).

This concept of true and empty speech evolved from Heidegger’s idea that Rede (discourse) « is the way in which we articulate ‘significantly’ the intelligibility of Being-in-the-world. Rede discloses Being, Gerede (idle talk) signifies a sort of everyday Being. While Rede aims at bringing the hearer nearer to participating in a primordial disclosure of Being, Gerede does not communicate in such a way as to allow Being to be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. Gerede moves further and further away from the disclosure of Being and truth » (16). Likewise, Lacan believes that emphasis should be laid on the subject’s truth, or full speech (Heidegger’s Gerede), as this is where the subject reveals his alienation (in the Other’s desire). On the other hand, the analyst should be especially wary of empty speech, which is a disguised form of demand (for the analyst to comply with the analysand’s vision).
Lacan’s concept of the truth of the subject is closely related to his understanding of trauma. The truth that slips out in the patient’s discourse for the analyst to uncover, is nothing but a metaphor for, or symptom of, the traumatic signifier. Trauma involves fixation or blockage. Any traumatic event that has thus remained fixated outside language–unsymbolised because language is the antithesis of fixation; it allows for displacement and substitution–is bound to irrupt in parapraxes of all kinds. Thus, through listening literally (à la lettre) to his patient, the analyst must lead him to, and bring him to speak, « the signifier to which he has been subjected » (17). According to Lacan, that revealing truth or signifier is synonymous with the patient’s experience of the Real. For the Real is that which has remained unsymbolized, by reason of the presymbolic or a priori unspeakable nature of the phenomenon perceived. The role of the analyst is to help the analysand deal with the Real, not with reality.
Laing’s notion of the real isn’t so different from Lacan’s. Their similarity becomes apparent if Laing’s real is understood as the unnamable reality of those others with whom the individual cannot deal, and not as the Sartrian real (Laing’s true) self. Laing too believes in listening to the patient’s discourse. He too takes pride in his ability to decode the patient’s metaphors. Yet, by trying to make sense of the patient’s speech and failing to identify his metaphors as mere signifiers, Laing falls into the trap of responding to his demands. Indeed, he often allowed his patients to stay with his family (18).

Against most psychiatric and psychoanalytic views (that while the neurotic starts by repressing the id’s exigencies, the psychotic starts by denying reality (19)), Laing argues that, although ontologically insecure regarding their being-in-the-world, neither the schizoid nor the schizophrenic lose contact with reality and withdraw into themselves. They retain an acute awareness of reality, merely seeking to isolate themselves because sharing their experiences with others has become too threatening (20). Rather than give a definition of schizophrenia, Lacan concentrates on postulating a logical basis for the latter, or more precisely the necessary preconditions of psychosis (21). Lacan’s view is that in the case of psychosis, the individual forecloses that part of reality which his ego has rejected as unbearable. He acts as if neither his perceptions (representation) nor his emotions (affect) concerning the unbearable representation of reality had ever reached his ego. He refuses to symbolise it, and this reality that hasn’t been symbolised is kept apart from the self (remains in the Real) and represents a threat to the self. Following the L schema, psychosis results from the imaginary other supplanting the Other as locus of truth (22). « In both neurosis and psychosis there comes into consideration the question not only of a loss of reality, but also of a substitute for reality » (23). In the case of the psychotic, as the place of the Other is altered, a gap occurs in the Imaginary Order leading to various imaginary distortions and delusional perceptions of the Real, such as voices. In other words, the dangerous « mOther’s desire, » threatening to engulf or swallow up the child, has not been « Named-by-the-Father » which would allow for the symbolisation or naming of the « primordial signifier » and the annulment of the mother-child unity. The naming marks the child’s « separation » from the mother and entrance into « triangulation; » it anchors him in language and makes him a subject. If the child fails to assimilate this primordial signifier, he « cannot come to be in language » (24). Psychosis thus consists in the child’s refusal to submit to the Other as language and represents the victory of the child over the Other.

Laing’s account of one of his patient’s fear of engulfment is an interesting example of the manifestation of the signifier in the subject’s unconscious. The patient had recurring nightmares about « a small black triangle which originated in the corner of his room and grew larger and larger until it seemed about to engulf him–whereupon he always awoke in great terror » (25). The growing triangle may be read metonymically as the Other’s desire to enter his self (his room), and the whole dream may be a metaphor for the patient’s refusal to enter triangulation.
Like Lacan, Laing tends to insist upon the importance of the gaze of the mOther in the development of the one’s neurosis or psychosis. According to Lacan, the mother is the catalyst of the infant’s identification with other human beings. This identification is illustrated by the child’s relation to his mirror (the Mirror Stage) which allows him to experience the image with which he identifies (first alienation through the Imaginary) as whole. Later, the child will learn to integrate the image of himself reflected back by his parents. How this parental Other sees him is linguistically structured (second alienation through the Symbolic), impregnated as it is by their subjective reactions to the child (whether verbal or purely behavioural). In his presentation of the case of David, a bordeline schizophrenic, Laing recounts how, « all through his childhood, [David] had been very fond of playing parts in front of the mirror » (26). In front of the mirror, David played women’s parts, which he claimed was what his mother wanted him to be. So far, this underlines the child’s inscription within the desire of the Other, and is in total agreement with Lacan’s theories. David had never imagined any possibility beyond experiencing his inner self as real and his outward (acting) personality as false. And Laing seems to believe that to be sane consists, for the most part, in « playing at being sane » (27), while this is often the limit of the psychoanalytic cure. Lacan would probably have argued that the failure of symbolic separation between mother and child had resulted in the subversion of the child’s subjectivity, which could be restored to the child if the analyst leads him to the truth of his signifiers.
Similarly, Laing’s interpretation of the « Fort!-Da! » game differs widely from Lacan’s. Laing claims that « in attempting to overcome the loss or absence of the real other in whose eyes he lived and moved and had his being, he becomes another person to himself who could look at him from the mirror », and that the « actual self outside the mirror [is] the one which one could imagine would most readily be identified with his mother » which he introjects as « a persecuting observer in the very core of his being » (28). It seems rather that it is his reflection that the child identifies with the mother, as it ‘disappears’ when she does. It also appears that it his reflection that is the persecutory, scrutinizing instance. Thus, in hallucinating the disappearance of his reflection, he manages to preserve his actual self from scrutiny. In so doing, he symbolically achieves separation from his mother. According to Lacan’s explanation of the game, through his play on the opposite phonemes « o-o-o » and « a », the child has given a name to the phenomenon of presence and absence and is born into language (29).

Language is the only possible manifestation (devenir) for the Lacanian subject; it is the very condition of its subjectivity. Whereas alienation is a permanent and necessary feature of the Lacanian subject, it is an unnecessary condition imposed by society on the Laingian self. The Lacanian subject is responsible for his subjectivity; the Laingian self is victimised. In spite of his early marxist inclinations, Lacan does not seem to have reflected them in his psychoanalytical writings. His understanding of self-alienation as a cultural product is in accordance with Lévi-Strauss’s idea that the social laws regulating marriage and kinship are structured like a language (30). He argues that the subject is first and foremost a slave to the authority of language in precedence to society (31), thereby exculpating society from primary responsibility for its subjects’ alienation. Conversely, Laing’s work is influenced by the Marxist critique of ideology in the same way as Herbert Marcuse’s ONE-DIMENTIONAL MAN (1964) (32). From a Kleinian perspective Laing’s arguement exemplifies the type of thinking that happens in the paranoid schizoid position. But whether this is grounds for casting aspersions on Laing’s theories of the divided self, or exempting Lacan from criticisms is too big an issue for this paper.

Charlotte Riedberger – Trinity College Dublin, 1997


(1) R.D.Laing (1959), THE DIVIDED SELF, An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, London : Penguin Books.
(2) See Laing’s preface to the Original Edition wherein he acknowledges his « main intellectual indebtedness » « to the existentialist tradition », in THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., p.10, and see Lacan (1977), ECRITS, A Selection, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, W.W.Norton & Company Inc., p.103 & 175.
(3) Introduction to G.N.Izenberg’s (1976)THE EXISTENTIAL CRITIQUE OF FREUD, The Crisis of Autonomy, Princeton : Princeton University Press.
(4) Benvenuto & Kennedy (1986), AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, Free Association Books Ltd, p.46.
(5) R.D.Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., pp.84-85.
(6) A typical existentialist self-evident catch phrase, traceable to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein or presence in the world, which involves both Innenwelt (the private world of the self or the self in relation with himself) and Umwelt (the public world or the self in relation to others).
(7) ibid., p.39.
(8) ibid., pp-43-49.
(9) ibid., p.65.
(10) B.Fink (1996), THE LACANIAN SUBJECT : BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND JOUISSANCE, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.44.
(11) ibid., p.45.
(12) ibid., p.21.
(13) J.Lacan, « The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis » (1953), in ECRITS, op.cit., p.103.
(14) G.N.Izenberg, THE EXISTENTIAL CRITIQUE OF FREUD, op.cit., p.264.
(15) Benvenuto & Kennedy, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, op.cit., p. 87.
(16) ibid., p.85.
(17) B.Fink, THE LACANIAN SUBJECT,op.cit., pp.23-27.
(18) R.D.Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., p.50.
(19) J.Laplanche et J.-B.Pontalis (1967), VOCABULAIRE DE LA PSYCHANALYSE, Presses Universitaires de France, under « deni », pp.115-117.
(20) R.D.Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., p.43.
(21) Rosenbaum and Sonne (1986), THE LANGUAGE OF PSYCHOSIS, New York : New York University Press, p.100.
(22) Benvenuto & Kennedy, THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, op.cit., p101.
(23) ibid, p.144.
(24) B.Fink, THE LACANIAN SUBJECT, pp.49-59.
(25) Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., p.50.
(26) Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., pp.71-72.
(27) Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., p.148.
(28) Laing, THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., pp.116-118.
(29) J.Lacan, « The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis » (1953), in ECRITS, op.cit., pp.103-104, & Benvenuto & Kennedy, THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, op.cit., pp.89-90.
(30) Benvenuto & Kennedy, THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, op.cit., p.88.
(31) ibid., p.109.
(32) See Laing’s preface to the Pelican Edition (1964), wherein he complains that »our civilization represses (…) any form of transcendence. Among one-dimensional men, it is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, that he cannot entirely deny or forget, will run the risk either of being destroyed by the others, or of betraying what he knows. (…) A man who says he has lost his soul is mad. (…) I would wish to emphasize that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often (…) the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities », in THE DIVIDED SELF, op.cit., pp.11-12.


Benvenuto & Kennedy (1986), AN INTRODUCTION TO THE WORKS OF JACQUES LACAN, London: Free Association Books Ltd.
B.Fink (1996), THE LACANIAN SUBJECT : BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND JOUISSANCE, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
S.Freud, Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920), in ON METAPSYCHOLOGY, London: Penguin Books, 1991.
G.N.Izenberg (1976), THE EXISTENTIAL CRITIQUE OF FREUD, The Crisis of Autonomy, Princeton : Princeton University Press.
J.Lacan, ECRITS (1966), from ECRITS I & II, 2 volumes, Coll. Points, Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1971; and ECRITS, A Selection, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1977), W.W.Norton & Company Inc.
R.D.Laing (1959), THE DIVIDED SELF, An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, London : Penguin Books.
J.Laplanche et J.-B.Pontalis (1967), VOCABULAIRE DE LA PSYCHANALYSE, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Rosenbaum and Sonne (1986), THE LANGUAGE OF PSYCHOSIS, New York : New York University Press.