"We are all murderers and prostitutes:" R.D. Laing and the work of Alasdair Gray.

by Gavin Miller

November 25, 2002


The work of the contemporary Scottish author Alasdair Gray is particularly amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation. However, the Reichean reading which Gray's texts explicitly invite is too narrow. The ideas of Gray's fellow countryman, R.D. Laing, provide a fuller interpretation. In particular, Laing's theories clarify Gray's favoured character type. Divided selves such as the protagonists of Lanark and 1982 Janine project imaginary others in a futile inner existence, leaving behind only their bodies to transact with everyday life. Laing's writings also explain Gray's use of fantasy. In Gray's work, fantasy does not merely represent desired (but forbidden) states of affairs. Rather, like those neurotic and psychotic fantasies analysed by Laing, Gray's bizarre inner and outer worlds convey also, in a distorted form, existential realities overlooked by everyday conceptions of human life.


  Alasdair Gray is one of the few contemporary Scottish authors whose work has received international critical acclaim. Since the publication of his epic Lanark: A Life in Four Books in 1981, Gray's fiction has been the object of serious scholarly scrutiny. In particular, his writing invites psychoanalytic readings. The protagonist of the first two books of Lanark, for example, is a hysterical asthmatic who eventually commits suicide. Furthermore, Jock McLeish, the narrator of 1982 Janine (1984), is a lonely alcoholic who indulges in drunken sado-masochistic fantasies to obscure the misery of his waking existence. His daydreams end only with an attempted suicide which shatters, and then rebuilds, his fragmented consciousness.

    Contemporary psychoanalytic criticism tends to reach, almost unthinkingly, for the tools of Lacanian and post-Lacanian psychiatry. The application of such theories to Gray's writing, however, does a disservice to his local culture. There is a neglected context of Scottish thought that is as influential upon Gray as French existentialism upon the work of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. A powerful interpretation of Gray's work, this article argues, may be found in the psychiatric theories of his fellow Glaswegian, R.D. Laing. Laing's work helps to clarify the obscure psycho-analytic themes which pervade Gray's imagery and character psychology. It also throws light upon Gray's tendency to parallel his realistic narratives with worlds of allegorical fantasy.   

    From the armoured body to the divided self 

    In the third book of Lanark, the protagonist, Duncan Thaw, is reborn as "Lanark" in a fantastic world which allegorises the reality which he has tried to escape through suicide. Lanark finds himself afflicted with a fantastic disease called "dragonhide" in which the sufferer's skin gradually crusts over into a hard insulating armour. A possible psychoanalytic reading of this condition is supplied by Gray's mischievous list of plagiarisms in the "Epilogue" to Lanark: "the dragonhide which infects the first six chapters [of Book Three] is a Difplag [i.e. a "diffuse plagiarism"] of the muscular constriction Reich calls 'armouring'" (496). Consultation of Wilhelm Reich's work reveals that "armouring" is "a negative attitude toward life and sex. & a pleasure anxiety, which is physiologically anchored in chronic muscular spasms" (Function 7). According to Reich, these muscular contractions lead to "a hardening of the character &, a rigidification or a loss of spontaneity" (Function 145). Armour is removed by the physical release of emotion - prototypically, by orgasm: "Psychic health," insists Reich, "depends upon orgastic potency, i.e., upon the degree to which one can surrender to and experience the climax of excitation in the natural sexual act" (Function 6).

    David Stenhouse argues that 1982 Janine is also susceptible to a Reichean reading. According to Stenhouse, this novel "draws its theme of the connection between sexual and political repression straight from Reich's writings" (114). Stenhouse believes that Reich's work explains the psychology of the protagonist, Jock McLeish, a man whose "fantasies fetishize restraint, yet ironically & allow full vent to the feelings that he restrains in his 'real' life" (116). Jock's vivid and compulsive sado-masochistic fantasies, Stenhouse suggests, are frustrated (and consequently aggressive) desires which have acquired the vivacity of perceptions: "A Reichian would see Jock's fantasy as an elaborate fetish which held dammed up sexual energy & transformed by repression into an aggressive and sadistic fantasy" (119). Jock's eventual liberation after his attempted suicide may then be understood as a removal of the armour which has suppressed his instinctual life: "for the first time since he was thirteen Jock is able to cry&. The tears release the feelings which have been physically repressed in the body" (Stenhouse 119).

    A Reichian reading of Gray's work certainly seems very promising. The central character of Lanark, for example, clearly uses muscular tension to control the physiological _expression of his emotions. This capacity is consciously employed when Lanark is humiliated by the loss of his lover Rima to the villainous Sludden: 

        [Rima:] "Sludden and I often discuss you, and he thinks you would be a very valuable man if you knew how to release your emotions."

        He lay rigid, clenching his fists and teeth in order not to scream. (Gray, Lanark 457) 

    This tactic also appears in the realist narrative of Lanark when Duncan Thaw represses his frustrated desire for his ex-girlfriend, Marjory: "He lay like a corpse, his brain rotten with resentful dreams&. He wondered why his thoughts were so full of a girl who had given him so little. The aching emotions gradually became muscular tightness, his limited movement a way of saving breath" (Gray 293).

    To concentrate, however, upon the libidinal premises of Reich's theories would be a mistake. Charles Rycroft notes that Reich's obsession with sexual reflexes is an attempt to smuggle an intersubjective perspective into Freudian theory: "Reich's theory of orgasm & asserts simultaneously that orgasms are necessary for the physical and mental health of the individual considered as a single entity, and that to fulfill this function orgasms must be experienced in partnership with someone else" (49). Reich's real interest in orgasmic disorder is as the presumed cause of a certain loss of personal contact: "The orgastically ungratified person," Reich declares, "develops an artificial character and a fear of spontaneous, living reactions" (Function 149). Reich analyses faulty sexual reflexes in order to explain "the double life which people are forced to live. Their exterior attitude, which differs according to their social position, is an artificial formation which is in constant conflict with the true & nature of the person and often covers it up only insufficiently" (Reich, Character 330). Such artificial, perfunctory or insincere contact is the result of "an armor, a rigid shell" (Reich, Character 342) which explains "the difference between the manifestations of free-flowing, immediate & contact and those of secondary, artificial contact relationships" (Reich, Character 329).

    An interest in spontaneity and intersubjectivity is more commonly associated with the existential-phenomenological tradition of psychiatry developed by thinkers such as R.D. Laing. This school of psycho-analysis focuses upon spontaneity, authenticity, and human encounter, rather than on the instincts and their vicissitudes. In The Divided Self, Laing describes how an encounter with a divided, "schizoid" personality leaves the impression that one has run into a false, artificial self: "the self is never revealed directly in the individual's expressions and actions, nor does it experience anything spontaneously or immediately. The self's relationship to the other is always at one remove" (80). This parallel between Reich and Laing is particularly relevant to the interpretation of Gray's psychoanalytic themes. As Laing's biographer, John Clay reveals, "Gray had been an admirer of Laing's books since they first came out in the 1960s. [Gray:] 'I found them stimulating because agreeable. When one writer finds a second agreeable it is most certainly because number one has translated number two into number one's terms'" (228).

    Gray's metaphors may be "translated" back into Laing's thesis on the construction of autonomy through social existence. Laing contends that identity is related to the confirmation and acknowledgement supplied by others: 

        we have ego (self) and alter (other). We recognize that I have my own view of myself (direct perspective) in terms of which I establish my self-identity. However, self-identity is an abstraction.

        We recognize furthermore that ego exists for alter. This gives my being-for-the-other, or one's identity for the other &. The other I am for the other is a constant concern of us all. (Laing, Phillipson, and Lee 5) 

    For example: 

        I act in a way that is cautious to me, but cowardly to you.

        You act in a way that is courageous to you, but foolhardy to me. (Laing, Phillipson, and Lee 11) 

    Authentic, spontaneous identity may be imperilled by a family context where one is 

        subjected to subtle but persistent disconfirmation, usually unwittingly. For many years lack of genuine confirmation takes the form of actively confirming a false self, so that the person whose false self is confirmed and real self disconfirmed is placed in a false position. Someone in a false position feels guilt, shame, or anxiety at not being false. (Laing, Self and Others 84) 

    If, argues Laing, self-_expression does not meet with the confirmation of others then the self's inner intentions do not find an outer, shared reality. As a defence mechanism, the individual comes to prefer a life of apparent "inner" spontaneity, cut off from a socially existing "false self" which is experienced as alien and "outer."

    A reading of Gray's work that employs Laing therefore escapes the narrow libidinal model of a Reichean interpretation. Jock McLeish, for example, is not so much instinctually repressed as existentially stifled. Jock recalls an incident in which he is taken by his parents to buy clothes for his college life. His father tells him that "'what an employer values in a man - what a man values in his workmates - what a man values in himself - is consistency'" (Gray, Janine 202). He is shocked when Jock displays an unforeseen, spontaneous inclination: 

        "Have you any idea of what you would like, Jock?"

        I pointed to a rack of bow ties and said, "I would like those."

        Mum and Dad stared hard at me and then at each other. They were alarmed. (Gray, Janine 202) 

    This burst of individuality is so surprising precisely because Jock has hidden his spontaneous life behind a false-self system (or, in Reich's terms, a "characterological armour") created within his family. The continuing victories of this compliant, secondary self lead the adult Jock to his final despairing attempt at suicide: "I am now exactly the man she [Jock's mother] wanted me to be - heavily insured with a company car when I require one, expense account, index-linked pension and no connection at all with the real women she would have despised" (Gray, Janine 28).

    Jock's family context is also abetted by the torments inflicted upon him by his schoolteacher. "Mad Hislop" deprives Jock of the capacity for spontaneous emotional _expression. Jock's inability to feel pity begins when he is beaten by Hislop for looking on the latter with sorrow: 

        [Hislop:] "Hold out your hands, and double them."

        I did so in a daze of astonishment. Did I cry out at the first blow? Almost certainly, but afterward I did not flinch and certainly did not weep&. I glared at him with a rigid grin I can feel on my face at this very moment, and I stepped toward him and raised my hands till they almost touched his chin and I whispered, "Again!" (Gray, Janine 85)   

    The social context in which Jock receives this treatment demands that, as a "real" man, he armour himself with an appropriate indifference rather than supply a spontaneous but "unmanly" response such as tears, terror or rage.

    Throughout Gray's fiction, such corporal punishment creates a core of enfeebled spontaneity surrounded by a hard shell of deadened conformity. Gray presents this existential disorder as physically correlated with the Reichian motif of muscular spasm. In the minor novella The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985), the protagonist is humiliated by an encounter with his father during a live television show: "Kelvin &compressed himself as nearly into an egg-shape as an angular man could. For a moment Hector McKellar feared this egg might roll off the chair but putting out a probing hand he found it muscularly rigid and perfectly stable" (Gray 132). Certainly, this somatic response is linked to the beatings Kelvin received as a child: "He heard his father say that his condition was not new - he had always gone like that after a good thrashing, and always took ten or twelve minutes to recover" (Gray, Kelvin Walker 134). This Reichian muscular phenomenon is not, however, the essence of Kelvin's problem. Rather, it is a means to maintain some self-confidence in face of his father's withering disdain: "Kelvin had tied his body in a knot for two reasons. One was to shield it from the flaying glance of the studio audience and of those extra millions who were surveying him through the cameras, the other was to protect a precious core of certainty from the shattering contempt of his father" (Gray, Kelvin Walker 134). Kelvin's knotted-up body protects him from the hostile attributions of others; the suppression of instinctual response is a means by which he can refuse to recognise the hostile and mocking minds of those who witness his humiliation.

    A reading which employs Laing therefore contextualises muscular spasm as one particular means by which the other may be negated and no longer responded to as a living consciousness. This basic pathology - a loss of intersubjective experience - is apparent, for example, in Thaw's attempt to protect his own inclinations from the stifling atmosphere at his school. He is interrupted while dreaming up a new story in his maths class, and protects himself by ceasing to attend to others as living beings, instead regarding them as pure sense-data lacking life or significance: "He stared at the teacher's mouth opening and shutting and wondered why the words coming out could hurt like stones. His ear tried to get free by attending to the purr of a car moving slowly up the street outside and the faint shuffle of Kate Caldwell's feet" (Gray, Lanark 154).

    The divided self is built not around repression per se, but rather employs repression to depersonalise others and thereby ensure the survival of a supposed "inner" spontaneity. Depersonalisation is described by Laing as "a technique that is universally used as a means of dealing with the other when he becomes too tiresome or disturbing. One no longer allows oneself to be responsive to his feelings and may be prepared to regard him and treat him as though he had no feelings" (Divided Self 46). This refusal to recognise the other, Laing informs us, may become habitual and total: "one may experience the other as deadening and impoverishing. A person may have come to anticipate that any possible relationship with another will have the latter consequences. Any other is then a threat to his 'self'" (Divided Self 47). The withdrawal behind the armour of a false self leads, however, to an even weaker experience of spontaneity which seems yet further imperilled by relations with others: "to the schizoid individual every pair of eyes is in a Medusa's head which he feels has power actually to kill or deaden something precariously vital in him. He tries therefore to forestall his own petrification by turning others into stones" (Laing, Divided Self 76).

    Understanding the metaphor of petrification is therefore vital to a proper appreciation of Gray's narratives. Although Lanark shatters his lover's dragonhide, he eventually fails in his relationship with her because of his own persistent indifference to her personal existence. As Rima tells him: "'No matter how bad things get you will always plod on without caring what other people think or feel'" (Gray, Lanark 456). She can only reply with her own refusal to recognise Lanark: "He went to the entrance and turned, hoping for a look of friendship or recognition, but her face was so full of stony pain that he could only shake his head" (Gray, Lanark 430). A subsequent request from the politician Sludden that Lanark be a delegate to a political assembly plays upon the latter's propensity to devalue the everyday world of personal relations: "An intoxicating excitement began to fill him and he frowned to hide it. He saw himself on a platform, or maybe a pedestal, casting awe over a vast assembly with a few simple, forceful words about truth, justice and brotherhood" (Gray, Lanark 460). Lanark's false-self system therefore intensifies: he reflects, '"leaders need to be mostly dead. People want solid monuments to cling to, not confused men like themselves. Sludden was wise to send me. I can never melt'" (Gray, Lanark 508). The means to this depersonalised attitude is certainly Lanark's instinctual repression - as Sludden remarks, "'What Rima and I admire in you is your instinctive self-control. That makes you a very, very valuable man'" (Gray, Lanark 459). Nonetheless, this armouring acts primarily as an insulation from intimate personal relationships: the "excited love of his own importance as a provost and delegate" (Gray, Lanark 461) severs Lanark's relationship with his son, Sandy, a bond which he briefly, and belatedly, understands to be "the realest thing in the world" (Gray, Lanark 467).

    Although Jock McLeish's life follows a similar pattern to Thaw-Lanark's, he eventually finds a more secure return to personal relations. Jock's greatest failure is his abandonment of his college girlfriend Denny, an action accomplished only by phenomenologically reducing her to the level of the mechanical and inanimate: "She screamed like a steam whistle. I bolted" (Gray, Lanark 291). Soon afterwards, Jock is drawn further into a context of depersonalisation by his unloving marriage to Helen, a fellow student whom he believes is pregnant with his child. Their marriage is dependent upon Jock's submission to Helen's father, a man whose "righteous indignation made him look as solid as granite" (Gray, Lanark 297). Jock's solace (so he believes) in his consequent misery is a life of drunken sado-masochistic fantasy. This existence, however, merely perpetuates his withdrawal from social relations: "When I'm at home at the weekend I make a practice of pubcrawling. I spread my drinking between about twenty pubs, visiting six or seven in a single night but never the same pubs two nights running. In this way nobody gets to know me thoroughly or notices how much I drink" (Gray, Lanark 161). Jock's eventual drunken encounter with a boy in a grocer's shop begins, however, to rupture his armouring against others: "The boy took the stolen groceries from my pocket, laid them on the counter and said quietly, 'Out of respect for your age and pity for your condition I am taking no steps in this matter. But if I find you doing this again I will inform the police'" (Gray, Lanark 173). Jock initially resists this insight into the reality of his being-for-others. The reader therefore finds him counting out sleeping pills, ready to die rather than to remember this moment of interpersonal contact (or "recognition"): "he came round the counter and quietly put his hand in my pockets and took out all I had stole and laid it on the counter and 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50 will do the trick" (Gray, Lanark 163-64).

    Jock's eventual recovery is certainly, as Stenhouse has noted, an _expression of inhibited "affect," or "tension." However, in recovering pity for both himself and others, Jock renews his phenomenological commitment to interpersonal experience. As Jock reflects before his release from his petrified condition, his life after Denny was an endless effort to escape the recognition of others: "If I stop travelling and stay in one place I will become a recognisable, pitiable ('Out of pity for your condition I will take no action') despicable drunkard" (Gray, Lanark 176). By refusing to acknowledge the reality of others, Jock could escape confrontation with his own pitiable self as perceived through their eyes. By accepting their reality, he can begin to build an authentic self that is active in the objective world.

    An interpretation of Gray's work based around Laing therefore understands the fundamental meaning of armouring as an attitude of depersonalisation. This arises in a stifling social context which causes the individual to retreat from personal relations. Unlike a Reichian reading, the fundamental concepts of a Laingean interpretation are notions such as authenticity and intersubjectivity; instinctual repression is pathological insofar as it interferes with the essential human need to find confirmation of spontaneous life in the responses of others.   

    Fantastic realism 

    Laing's work does not only illuminate the schizoid character type which Gray so insistently represents. His ideas are also relevant to the function of imagination and fantasy in Gray's work. Psychoanalytic reading typically understands fantasy as symbolisation of a desired, but prohibited, condition. Given the premises of traditional Freudian theory, however, this assumption is problematic. Rosemary Jackson, for example, faces head-on the conclusion that fantasy as transgressive desire is 

        close to Freud's notion of art as compensation,& an activity which sustains cultural order by making up for a society's lacks. Gothic fiction, for example, tended to buttress a dominant, bourgeois, ideology, by vicarious wish fulfilment through fantasies of incest, rape, murder, parricide, social disorder. Like pornography, it functioned to supply an object of desire, to imagine social and sexual transgression. (174-75) 

    Such a psycho-analytic reading of fantasy must reduce it to the symbolisation of various shocking and revolting activities - as Jackson concludes, "on a thematic level, & fantastic literature is not necessarily subversive" (175). Precisely this problem could, for example, beset a psychoanalytic reading of 1982 Janine. If fantasy is indeed "vicarious wish fulfilment," then Jock's sexually sadistic fantasies are representative of his forbidden inmost desires - at best, the text could have a forensic value as a study of masculine brutality.

    A Laingean reading, however, provides an account of fantasy which is more generous to Gray's fiction. Laing argues that the divided self, no matter how petrified, still fantasises about the acknowledgement of others: "The self avoids being related directly to real persons but relates itself to itself and to the objects which it itself posits. The self can relate itself with immediacy to an object which is an object of its own imagination or memory but not to a real person" (Laing, Divided Self 86). "Object" should here be understood as the (needlessly obscure) psycho-analytic term for another person. Consider, says Laing, a patient who "could never have intercourse with his wife but only with his own image of her. That is, his body had physical relations with her body, but his mental self, while this was going on, could only look at what his body was doing and/or imagine himself having intercourse with his wife as an object of his imagination" (Laing, Divided Self 86).

    Gray's fiction depicts a similar imaginative response to an alien social environment. In Lanark, Duncan Thaw undergoes a repressive upbringing typical in Gray's narratives. He is beaten as a child for expressing his taste in food; and when these beatings fail, he is forcibly pacified by being dunked in a cold bath. Even as a child he is cut-off from his peers; he refuses, for example, to mix with the local girls who "were all too obviously the same vulgar clay as himself" (Gray, Lanark 135). An advert, however, gives him inspiration for an imaginary social relationship: "he saw a placard & advertising Amazon Adhesive Shoe Soles. It showed a blonde girl in brief Greek armour with spear and shield and a helmet on her head" (Gray, Lanark 135). This blonde figure constantly recurs in his childhood daydreams. For example, while out hill-walking, "he seemed just able to see a figure, a vertical white speck that moved and gestured &. To Thaw the movement suggested a woman in a white dress waving and beckoning. He could even imagine her face: it was the face of the girl in the adhesive shoe-sole advertisement" (Gray, Lanark 140). In puberty and adolescence, this imago is superimposed upon the real (and quite unsuitable) blondes upon whom Thaw has a crush. The image of the blonde teenager, Kate Caldwell, for example, is plucked out of perception and stored away in Thaw's imagination, creating "a small perfect image of Kate Caldwell smiling and beckoning inside him" (Gray, Lanark 175).

    A similar upbringing is presented in Gray's novelist collage, Something Leather (1990). One of the characters who recurs throughout this patchwork of short stories and recycled scripts is a typical schizoid self: Harriet Shetland is beaten by her nurse in order to produce a child "as clean, pretty and passive as an expensive doll" (Gray, Something Leather 23); unsurprisingly, "by the age of four Harry's face wears an intense frown as if she is trying to remember the exact shape of something stolen from her" (Gray, Something Leather 23). This early relationship helps to create the adult Harry, an artist whose imagination obsessively returns to the few instances in her life of personal contact. In particular, Harriet's inner life recalls Hjordis, a childhood friend whom she asked to spank her. Like Thaw, Harry revels in erotic adventures with her imaginary love-object. Until, that is, the death of the real Hjordis: "Hjordis keeps this dream world working. Harry has not seen or heard of Hjordis for over twenty years. There is no obvious reason for imaginary Hjordis to vanish because the real one dies, but it happens" (Gray, Something Leather 152). Without the confirmation supplied by this imaginary object, Harriet's sexuality is a futile and empty libido: "Sometimes she masturbates but it is joyless exercise. She listens to a clear childish voice chanting Give me somebody. Give me somebody. It is her own voice" (Gray, Something Leather 152).

    This depiction of fantasy as a yearning for companionship by a schizoid self has unfortunate implications for artistic creation. As Harry's headmistress reminds her, "'the highest art is made through intacoss [ie. intercourse] with all humanity'" (Gray, Something Leather 139). How can this be achieved through an art that merely exteriorises the inner life of a divided self? This is precisely the problem apparent, for example, in one of the marginal characters in Something Leather. The unnamed "Glasgow comedian" reflects on his closest personal relationship: "when we made love I imagined other women instead of Donalda, and other men instead of me. I could not ejaculate without imagining & a tyrant with a harem of captured brides, a cowboy sheriff with a jail full of deliciously sluttish prostitutes. My book is full of these fancies" (Gray 196). The analogy with Gray's own writing is all too clear. What is less clear is how Gray's work may escape the implication that it too is essentially an act of masturbation.

    A fantasy life of object relations conforms in one respect with the model derived from Freud's analysis of dreams - namely, his assertion that "when the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfilment of a wish" (121). This assumption grounds the expectation in literary criticism that imaginative creation must represent a desired condition which is in some way tabooed, censored, or forbidden. However, in the framework advanced by Laing, fantasy may have a different role. As Daniel Burston notes, "seen in context, a neurotic's fantasies or a psychotic's delusions may be intelligible as symbolic representations of actual states of affairs" (126). This function is again clear in Laing's example of the married patient who attempts to communicate his schizoid condition: "This patient would have been psychotic, for instance, if, instead of saying that he never had intercourse with his wife 'really,' he had insisted that the woman with whom he had intercourse was not his real wife" (Laing, Divided Self 87).

    Dragonhide, in Gray's work, is exactly such a fantastic symbolisation of an obscure subjective reality. It communicates the idea of the petrifying schizoid self, a notion far removed from the twentieth-century commonplaces of Freudian (or Reichian) theory. Petrification, for Laing, is one response to an "antithesis between complete loss of being by absorption into the other person (engulfment), and complete aloneness (isolation)" (Laing, Divided Self 44). Petrification (or dragonhide) is at one pole; the alternative is a parasitical absorption into the other person: "Utter detachment and isolation are regarded as the only alternative to a clam- or vampire-like attachment in which the other person's life-blood is necessary for one's own survival, and yet is a threat to one's survival" (Laing, Divided Self 53). Two other of Gray's fantastic diseases - the leeches, "'using their vitality to steal vitality from others,'" and the sponges, "'hiding behind too many mouths'" (Lanark 54) - present alternative (though equally deficient) responses to one's existence for the other. For example, Lanark's friend, Gay, who suffers from "mouths," exists at the other extreme to dragonhide, as an extension of another ego:  

        she unclenched [her fingers] to show the palm &. A mouth lay on it, grinning sarcastically. It opened and said in a tiny voice, 'You're trying to understand things, and that interests me.'

        It was Sludden's voice. (Gray, Lanark 45) 

    She is like a pseudopodium stretching out from Sludden: "Her feet were not engaging the slippery pavement, and though her body was light it felt as if an elastic cord fixed to her back were making forward movement more difficult with each step" (Gray, Lanark 45).

    Laing's work therefore illuminates Gray's tendency to present a story in a realist mode which is supplemented by a fantasised or fantastic parallel. As Cairns Craig has noted, Gray's work does not allow imagination to masquerade as creative freedom: "'fantasy' repeats in emphatic form the conditions of everyday life" because "escape into an alternative world is an escape leading only to repetition in another dimension" (Craig, "Going down" 98). The fantastic repetition may involve narration of a purely marvellous world where the laws of nature work differently. It may also take the form of inner-worldly fantasies in the consciousness of a character - this is the case with both Jock McLeish and Duncan Thaw. The latter, for example, is often driven to statements which seem to be delusive, but which, in fact, express the reality of his society and of his petrified condition: "'Men are pies that bake and eat themselves, and the recipe is hate&.' & he also felt buried up to the armpits in a heap of earth and rocks" (Gray, Lanark 188). In this utterance, Thaw cryptically expresses both his armoured schizoid condition and the repressiveness of the social organisation which is anchored in this character type. His "madness" is an attempt to convey an experience and insight beyond the ken of his community.

    A similar representational use of fantasy has been noted in 1982 Janine, again by Cairns Craig. The fantasies which plague the inner-life of Jock McLeish are not, in fact, images of his frustrated desires. Rather, they are symbolic of Jock's spiritual imprisonment: "the fundamental concealment in Jock's fantasies is that the woman on whom he exercises his imagination is, in fact, himself, translated into an adult continuation of his adolescent storytelling" (Craig, Scottish Novel 187). As Jock remarks, his stories are about a "woman [who] is corrupted into enjoying her bondage and trapping others into it. I did not notice that this was the story of my own life. I avoided doing so by insisting on the femaleness of the main character" (Gray, Janine 193-94). Peculiar though it may sound, there is something realistic about Jock's fantasies: "The sexual fantasy world of Jock's inner consciousness is not, in fact, a retreat from reality or its explanation in an alternative form; it is simply its replication" (Craig, Scottish Novel 187) - what seems to Jock to be imaginative freedom is merely an elaborately distorted brooding on his own spiritual imprisonment. As Stephen Bernstein notes, Jock's fantasies stem from the way he has sold himself out to the expectations of his society:  

        Jock tacitly suggests that he had been forced to prostitute himself throughout adult life. Prostitution and the internal division it implies go on to become central metaphors&. For Jock the basic transaction of a body rented out for the pleasure of others encompasses vast areas of personal, class, and institutional behaviour. (Gray, Janine 67) 

    Jock's obsession with prostitution fills his sexual fantasies; yet this recurrent motif is not, of course, a symbolisation of some obscure wish in Jock to become a sex-worker. Rather, the fantasy is an insistent attempt by Jock to grasp the subjective reality of his life.

    Laing's work therefore suggests an alternative way to reconcile psychoanalytic insights with an emancipatory potential in literary fantasy. A Laingean approach bears some comparison to the Lacanian argument advanced by Jackson. She argues that fantasy may contain "a desire for something excluded from cultural order - more specifically, for all that is in opposition to the capitalist and patriarchal order which has been dominant in Western society over the last two centuries" (Jackson 176); in particular, "through the introduction of some of the theories of Freud and of Lacan, it has been possible to claim for the fantastic a subversive function in attempting to depict a reversal of the subject's cultural formation" (Jackson 177). Though the thematics of fantasy may often be reactionary, fantasy in its highest form is a challenge to various presuppositions of Western culture: the "unified, stable 'ego'" and other such "categorical structures" are threatened by "fantastic works where the 'I' is more than one" (Jackson 176). A reading of Gray's work in Jackson's terms would seize upon, for example, Jock's suicide attempt in 1982 Janine, where the single narratorial voice fragments into a polyphonous multiplicity.

     A Laingean reading of Gray's fiction certainly shares such an orientation towards what is excluded from the cultural order. However, it is more sympathetic to Jock's return to a unified, stable ego. Jock recovers from his breakdown, and proceeds (he hopes) towards a life in which such categorical structures as selfhood, spontaneity and autonomy will play an important part. This process of breakdown and recovery points to a final psycho-analytic underpinning for the use of fantasy in Gray's work - that of Laing's notion of madness as a spiritual voyage. To Laing, Jock's fragmented self would not be the destination, but a stage in a journey: "If the 'ego' is broken up, or destroyed (by the insurmountable contradictions of certain life situations, by toxins, chemical changes, etc.), then the person may be exposed to other worlds, 'real' in different ways" (Laing, Politics of Experience 115). Because "psychotic experience goes beyond the horizons of our common, that is, our communal sense," (Laing, Politics of Experience 109) "madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death" (Laing, Politics of Experience 110).

    Jock's own breakdown leads him to understand what was previously beyond the bounds of his common sense. To attempt suicide, he recognises, was "a typical piece of human daftness, & a fit of despair because I could no longer stand work that I hate, work that was killing me!" (Gray, 1982 Janine 186). Gray's fiction both represents this process of breakdown and recovery, and invites the reader to participate with it through the act of reading. This may involve the depiction of the psyche of an alienated, schizoid individual, or of a bizarre alternative reality. The aim, though, is the same: in both cases, the reader is invited to consider existential realities - such as spontaneity, authenticity, and truly altruistic love for others - which are excommunicated from our common experience. Fantasy, in Gray's work, is frequently realism.   


    In The Politics of Experience, Laing issues one of his typically provocative statements: "We are," he claims, "all murderers and prostitutes" (11). In a literal, legal sense, we are not. But, when put next to Gray's fiction, this claim makes sense. Murder and prostitution are powerful metaphors for the denial of our own possibilities. We depersonalise others - "kill" them, so to speak - as we retreat into our inner lives, leaving our bodies to transact with the so-called "real world" of mutual exploitation. It is a commonplace that "imagination" is a good thing; with imagination, we project, plan, create, innovate, and invent. However, in a society where human potential is alienated, and the fact of this alienation removed from rational discourse, imagination can only return obsessively to this loss. Gray's work focuses on the imprisonment of imagination in neurotic and psychotic fantasies which reveal our own "murderous" and "prostituted" lives. Because the everyday discourse of reality is so defective, the first task of his imaginative literature is to reveal the existential and interpersonal world which has been obscured by our society. 

      Works cited 


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        Gray, Alasdair. 1982 Janine. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985.

    Gray, Alasdair. Something Leather. Rev edn. London and Basingstoke: Picador, 1994. 


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        Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967. 13-137.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Gavin Miller ""We are all murderers and prostitutes:" R.D. Laing and the work of Alasdair Gray.". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/miller-we_are_all_murderers_and_prostitutes_rd_. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 22, 2002, Published: November 25, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Gavin Miller