Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Note On R. D. Laing's Knots: A Song Of Trees, A Labyrinth, And The Sea

The voice seems to begin innocently enough:

The patterns delineated here have not yet been classified by a Linnaeus of human bondage.

The voice is that of R. D. Laing. It has already told two things. First, that it is not the voice of Linnaeus. Second, that no Linnaeus has yet classified the types of human bondage of which the voice of R. D. Laing will delineate some patterns.

The "not yet" of the page is dated 1969. This is patently play on the “Knots” of the title, immediately deepened by “delineated” and “Linnaeus”.

In fact, the surname of Carolus Linnaeus, author of the System Naturae, descended from the Latin name his father assumed after a large Linden tree on the family’s land, Linnagård.

The Swedish linn or lind is in German the Linde of Walther von der Vogelweide:

Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ mugt ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem wald in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nahtegal.

Under the linden
On the heath
Where we two bedded—
There you still may see
pretty broken blooms and grass.
In a hollow on forest’s edge
Sang the pretty nightingale:

Did R. D. Laing know von der Vogelweide’s Linden?

What matters is that Linnaeus himself was by the late Nineteenth Century known as much for his style as for his scientific classification.

So August Strindberg--Swede, playwright, and apophenic—judges: Linné var egentligen en poet, som råkade bli naturforskare—“Linnaeus was in reality a poet who decided to become a naturalist.”

Through Linnaeus and the Linden—let there be no doubt about it--Laing metamorphosizes into poet, expanding the ambiguities of “knot” from the “knots” of binding and bondage, through the “not” of what does not yet exist, and most subtly, to the knots of trees, where branches used to grow, and which evidence themselves visually as gnarled patterns in planed wood.

Once poet, Laing’s polysemy expands naturally to the nautical, wherein knots as a measure of speed in fluid media ultimately derives from the knotted rope to which was tied what was called in English the “chip log’, a wood panel weighted at one end to float upright. As the chip log stayed relatively still and resisted the water, the sailor who held the rope counted the knots played out on the line, tied 47’ 3” apart, while another hand timed the playing out with a sandglass measuring a period of about thirty seconds.

Is that enough for a poet and his beginning?

The allusion to Somerset Maugham’s Human Bondage, and its protagonist, Philip, clubfooted like the poet Byron, orphaned young and raised among cold surrogates, retreating into reading “as a refuge from all the distress of life”, later schooled in Heidelberg--is pedestrian and almost afterthought.

Starting out the poet offers patterns and no types or system.

“Delineated” the patterns are sketched out as lines and are visual like knots in wood, as well as thrown out as chip logs to measure speed by knots in rope playing out astern.

If Linnaeus is poet become scientist, Laing is scientist become poet. He exists on the page where he binds himself to his own past and what he has seen, familiar as a matter both of recognition and the habits of his own family. His purpose, however, is to remember and name, and the bind becomes double, for that is half the task of the Linnaeus who does not yet exist:

They are all, perhaps, strangely, familiar.
In these pages I have confined myself to laying out
only some of those I actually have seen. Words that
come to mind to name them are: knots, tangles,
fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds.
I could have remained closer to the ‘raw’
data in which these patterns appear. I could
have distilled them further towards an abstract
logico-mathematical calculus.

The promise of an almost calculus, empirically derived, as something the poet could do, but would not, returns again to almost Linnaeus and his family’s Linden. “I hope that they are not so schematized”, he goes on:

that one may not refer back to the
very specific experiences from which they derive;
yet that they are sufficiently independent of ‘content’, for
one to divine the final formal elegance in these
webs of maya.

From what has gone before, the specific experiences must be what Laing has seen. If there is any reference back, how can the reference be to anything but Laing’s own memory and experience?

On the other hand, to be empty of content is to be stripped of particulars and becomes formal elegance.

What eventually comes to mind is the construction of typologies, that is, of types that are generalized from specifics and applied to a much larger scheme.

Both as a poem and as a study in psychology, Knots treats the games Laing has seen people play, including his own family, with one another and in language. No small number of the games involve what Gregory Bateson called the doublebind, a form of damned if you do and damned if you do not, but unfolding from greater power over lesser and designed both to obtain obedience and obedience seen as an act of free will:

It is our duty to bring up our children to love,
honour and obey us.
If they don’t they must be punished,
otherwise we would not be doing our duty.

As a typology of the thinking that manifests itself in the tyranny of authoritarian parents over their children the passage is clearly analytic and Linnaean:

If they grow up to love, honour and obey us
either we have brought them up properly
or we have not:
if we have
there must be something the matter with them;
if we have not
there is something the matter with us.

So too with Jack and Jill, who went up the hill but soon fell out in the tangles of their feelings expressed in words:

it hurts Jack
to think
that Jill thinks he is hurting her
by (him) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by making her feel guilty
at hurting him
by (her) thinking
that he is hurting her
by (his) being hurt
to think that she thinks he is hurting her
by the fact that

da capo sine fine

The last is a logical and psychological loop, phrased neatly as an infinite refrain by way of the play on the musical notation da capo al fine--roughly, "Return to the beginning and conclude where you find the word fine."

In this case the band plays on sine fine--without end, and thus without the word fine anywhere to be found on its own.

What more apt as poem, typology, and almost calculus ad infinitum:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

da capo sine fine

If this sounds like a broken record, that is exactly what it is, a record of broken people and their speech.

Is there any way out?

Laing ends his work curiously enough, with a direct allusion to the Zen topos of Yoka Daishi (Yongjia):

Foolish, with wrong interpretations,
they miss the pointing finger of the empty hand.

Mistaking the finger for the moon
their practice is confused
and they fabricate complexity with senses and objects.

[tr. Yasuda Joshu & Anzan Hoshin]

which becomes in Laing's poem first the logical complexity of the pointing finger:

Put the expression
a finger points to the moon in brackets
(a finger points to the moon)
The statement:
‘A finger points to the moon is in brackets’
is an attempt to say that all that is in the bracket
(.............................................................................. )
is, as to that which is not in the bracket,
what a finger is to the moon

and then the denouement of yes or no and simple presence:

What an interesting finger
let me suck it

It’s not an interesting finger
take it away

The statement is pointless

The finger is speechless

Whether Laing knew Walther von der Vogelweide or not, his final advice to Jack and Jill, it would seem, is very much that of the Minnesinger, to wit: to stop talking and bed down under the linden or not, as one chooses.

R. D. Laing died of a heart attack playing tennis in 1989.

Which is more curious--psychiatrist ending as poet, or poet issuing as remedy the psychiatric and logical prescription of Far Eastern monk?

In fact, in many ways R. D. Laing and Jacques Lacan paralleled one another, though is much different modes. Lacan, having spent the last years of his life modeling the psyche he investigated according to Knot Theory and Topology, closed all his clinics before his death and declared the clinic to be the world.

R. D. Laing, on the other hand, marginally, if very rightly, identified with the anti-psychiatry movement, declared the psychiatrist no more or no less patient than those he treated and investigated knots with the voice of a poet.

Does it amount to the same resting place approached from two different directions?

Ultimately, it is clear, the purpose of Laing's poem was not to tie knots, but to unravel them by description according to type.

There is another strange and striking dimension to Laing in Luis Borges' work, of all places, specifically in his short story, "The Garden Of Forking Paths", wherein the Englishman Stephen Albert unlocks the legended labyrinth of Ts'ui Pen:

"An ivory labyrinth!" I exclaimed. "A minimum labyrinth."

"A labyrinth of symbols," he corrected, "An invisible labyrinth of time. To me, a barbarous Englishman, has been entrusted the revelation of this diaphanous mystery. After more than a hundred years, the details are irretrievable, but it is not hard to conjecture what happened. Ts'ui Pen must have said once, 'I am withdrawing to write a book'. And at another time: 'I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth.' Every one imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were the same thing....Two circumstances gave me the correct solution of the problem. One: the curious legend that Ts'ui Pen had planned to construct a labyrinth that would be strictly infinite. The other: a fragment of a letter that I discovered."

[tr. D. A. Yates]

Borges' story was translated into English in 1958. Does not R. D. Laing's poem seem the Englishman's version of an infinite labyrinth, constructed as a work of poetry and unraveled with the metalogical unknotting of Zen?

The letter Borges' character discovers is but a line, though one is to imagine it written in a fine and caligraphic Chinese hand:

"I leave to various futures (not all) my garden of the forking paths."

"[T]hey are sufficiently independent of ‘content’", Laing says about his typologies, "for one to divine the final formal elegance in these
webs of maya.

For one to divine? Is that the reader or the writer or both? Or has not one been pleasantly tricked by this bridge builder into constucting as one reads not just a quasi-Linnaeus and quasi-calculus, but in its knots, an enlightening infinite labyrinth unraveled in the process of the poem itself?

Jack and Jill went up the hill. And did what came naturally. Da capo sine fine.

by E. A. Costa (June 2008-9)

[copyright eac 2008]

1 comment:

Andrew F Giles said...

Marvellous, insightful, readable post. Thanks very much.