John Lennon and RD Laing – two individuals who worked in entirely different cultural fields; the one a singer, songwriter and pop star, the other a psychiatrist (perhaps experimental psychiatrist), writer and radical thinker of the left. What they had in common, was arguably the fact that they were both utopian visionaries, and both were radical in their thinking.

Take Lennon’s song, Imagine, for instance. On the face of it, it might seem an innocent bit of daydreaming, but on closer inspection it turns out that it is a radical questioning of the way human beings live, and have lived, for generations. Here are the lyrics of the song (and imagine you can hear Lennon singing it in his inimitable way):

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one … ”

It is easy to overlook just how radical this song is in its critique of the manifold ideological blindness’s that govern most – fortunately not all – of human life today. In the first verse, as well as the second, the hold that religion has on most people’s lives is implicated. The blind, often fanatical belief in the penalties and retributions meted out to people in hell after death, and the countervailing belief in the rewards and supposed delights (including sexual ones, in some religions, while others seem to rule out all enjoyments of a sensual and sensuous nature) of heaven act as powerful constraints on people’s actions, resulting in indescribable strife and conflict, all of it unnecessary, of course, should one follow Lennon’s sound advice. (Ironically, the word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare”, which means a binding together!) The recent news that Tunisia, so soon after its transition to democracy, is facing the spectre of religious extremists making it impossible for others (tellingly, artists) to practice their newly-won freedoms which, supposedly, result in blasphemy, is a case in point.

Nationalism, implied by the word “countries” (in the second verse), that people, by implication, “kill and die for”, also appears to evaporate before Lennon’s benign, but powerful imagination. For make no mistake: the beginning of all social and political change lies rooted in the imagination, without which no alternative to an unjustifiable or undesirable state of affairs would be thinkable. It was imagination — the ability to imagine an alternative social order — that has been fundamental to the overthrow of many a dictatorship or unjust social order. The ability to generate novel insights through imagination is what Kant had in mind when, in his Third Critique, he wrote of “aesthetic ideas” which generate infinite thought.

Our oft-glorified economic system also comes in for a beating where Lennon invites us, in stanza four, to imagine a world without possessions, where everything is shared, in this way precluding the need for greed, and for deprivation. Perhaps this requires the greatest imaginative effort of all, for nothing appears to be as dear to most people as their cherished possessions. Today more than ever, “having” has eclipsed “being” as that which people desire most. It is probably true that, as many a Western movie had it, a man could more readily be lynched in the Wild West for stealing (especially another man’s horse) than for murder.

The controversial Scottish writer and psychiatrist, RD Laing, who did not hesitate to imagine an alternative society, in which people would not be alienated from their own better selves, makes a compatible companion for Lennon. This is what Laing says in what is probably his best-known book, The Politics of Experience (1967):

“No one can begin to think, feel or act now except from the starting point of his or her own alienation … humanity is estranged from its authentic possibilities … our alienation goes to the roots. The realisation of this is the essential springboard for any serious reflection on any aspect of present inter-human life. Viewed from different perspectives, construed in different ways and expressed in different idioms, this realisation unites men as diverse as Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Tillich and Sartre.”

There are many reverberations of like-mindedness between Laing and Foucault (and also Althusser) when it comes to perceiving the sources of alienation as residing in the very institutions that people cherish – institutions that reduce individuals to what Foucault graphically described as “docile bodies”, or individuals who are discursively constituted as economically productive, but politically impotent. In an intellectual biography of Laing that appeared in 2000 (The Crucible of Experience: RD Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy) Daniel Burston phrases this aspect of Laing’s work as follows: “Families, schools, and churches provide us with little more than systematic training in self-estrangement and inauthenticity – a secular equivalent to the Fall.”

Small wonder that Laing believed insanity to be more than just a little the function (and a symptom) of mainstream society’s valorised conventions and practices, or that it is largely socially “constructed”. This explains why his thinking has persistently exercised a fascination on those psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts who believe that it is imperative to augment their disciplines by thinking sociologically about “mental health” or insanity. This also explains why Laing believed that listening to the language of the insane could reveal an intelligibility that might indicate the sources of their “condition”. After all, in what he believed to be an unjust, irrational society, the supposedly “sane” among us are those who have adapted to such a society, and who perhaps deserve the epithet, “insane” more than those who have failed to adapt to it.

To be sure, there are many aspects of Laing’s life that strike one as bizarre, to say the least (his fascination with LSD, for instance). But the courage he showed in taking a critical stance on the connection between extant society and insanity, as well as the force with which he tried to imagine a different, more humane society, deserves one’s respect, and assures his place among original, imaginative intellectuals. And it places him firmly in the company of Lennon.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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