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Bibliography Main Page [link]
Politics of Experience & The Bird of Paradise

The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise

Penguin 1967
Pantheon 1967


· Summary ·

The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise was published 1967, and went through numerous editions, selling 6,000,000,000 copies in the United States alone. This collection of essays (dating back to 1962) was such an astonishing success that transformed Laing from the darling of British Left and artistic avant garde into an international guru on a par with Americans Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Why?

Up to this point, Laing's books had merely hinted at Laing's spiritual, mystical side and, with the exception of Reason and Violence (with David Cooper), said little about his political leanings.

By contrast with its predecessors, The Politics of Experience combined an outspoken anti-imperialist sensibility with a strong mystical bent, at a time when religious and political radicalism were both quite popular, and frequently intertwined in the popular imagination. As in Self and Others, Laing now defined normality as a state of unconscious complicity in "social phantasy systems". Indeed, by Laing's reckoning, the pseudo-sanity of the normal person is more akin to a deficiency disease than it is to genuine mental health. And whereas most mental health professionals defined mental health in terms of the absence of troubling symptoms, of unresolved unconscious conflicts, and so on, Laing said that true sanity involves the dissolution of the socially adjusted ego in a process which, following Jung, Laing termed "metanoia". The transcendence of the ego can be sought deliberately through meditation and spiritual practices, or it can occur spontaneously. The mad person, said Laing, has been catapulted into this process unawares, and without skillful guidance, will go astray. So the therapist becomes a spiritual midwife or a shaman of sorts, while his patient becomes a "hierophant of the sacred".

It is interesting to note how often and how earnestly Laing disparaged normality with religious tropes and metaphors. In chapter 3, for example, he says (p. 68): "We are all fallen Sons of Prophecy, who have learned to die in the Spirit and be reborn in the Flesh". And again, in chapter six :

"There is a prophecy in Amos that a time will come when there will be a famine in the land, 'not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord'. That time has now come to pass. It is the present age (p.144)."

Many took offense at Laing's religious imagery, and said that his prophetic airs ill suited a man of science. But much as he lamented the loss of the numinous, Laing was not advocating a return to a repressive, theocratic society, or advocating the revival of religious creeds based on particular forms of belief. Indeed, Laing was not offering a solution here, but merely calling attention to the disappearance of sensibilities that were formerly integral to human experience. The awareness of the tragic, the sublime, the absurd, of the prevalence and persistence of evil, the peace that passeth understanding -- these are severely stunted, if not actually extinguished in the struggle to adapt to technological society. And all the agencies and institutions that promote normalization - the family, schools, universities, churches, as well as business and the military - were called to account for their role in promoting our deepening self-estrangement.

Unfortunately, most of papers here, which deal with social phenomenology, violence and normality, group psychology, existential psychotherapy, schizophrenia, and so on, were grasped dimly, if at all, by most of his young admirers - a fact that dismayed Laing considerably, as he frequently admitted in private. And because of their diverse nature, they did not attempt to integrate the disparate threads of theory and research that characterized his work to date. Nevertheless, the book was extremely popular for a decade or so, and despite some notable lapses into polemical excess, is still provocative and illuminating for those who care to re-visit it.


· Contents ·


The Politics of Experience
1 Persons and Experience
2 The Psychotherapeutic Experience
3 The Mystification of Experience
4 Us and Them
5 The Schizophrenic Experience
6 Transcendental Experience
7 A Ten-Day Voyage

The Bird of Paradise

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