Ambiguity and Ambivalence – Laing

Laing also brought me to think about the nature of ambiguous or contradictory feelings. You would think that there was a widespread recognition of such an obvious and universally shared phenomenon as ambivalence, but when you enter the world of criminal justice, such subtleties seem too sophisticated and mealy mouthed to be acceptable. I recall a judge saying of a client of mine; “either he has decided to give up drinking or he has not”, sweeping away in one sentence all that we know of addiction as a relapsing condition. It is not just the tabloid press that want a neat simplicity between good and evil, in which offenders are fond of mindless violence or despicable selfishness. And yet, you only have to scratch the surface of offenders’ lives to find the same kind of muddles, contradictions and mixed feelings as the rest of us. I suppose when one is young, we expect to be muddled and we can all too easily imagine that such confusions pass into ‘knowing one’s mind’ as adulthood takes over. Laing opened up different kinds of muddles that belonged as much to adulthood as to adolescence.

Of course he took his notions to excess – for some strange reason I bought my father a copy of ‘Knots’, which were in a way poems, but more probably rather obsessional word games. Maybe I wanted him to see a more advanced conception of humankind than seemed to be open to him – I admired my father greatly but his range of experience, wide though it was from the perspective of his family origins, seemed from where I sat in all my arrogance, narrow. Whatever, this was really a tangled and strangled Laing. It sprang however from more exciting and eye-opening writing. He was able to describe how people could communicate contradictory emotions as a package – love in the eyes, control in the voice; care in the voice and cold disinterest in the body language. It suggested to me ways of seeing the world that would arise from very different experiences of it, an obvious enough idea in itself but given a startling force to a young man emerging into the wider world of adulthood.


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