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Friday, August 2, 2013

Living #Laing by John von Daler

                 I had for some weeks been teaching "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia #Plath at the Universities in Copenhagen and Odense. To aid my students in understanding the great split in the personality of the young woman in the book, I had recommended reading R.D. Laing's "The Divided Self", a book I was very interested in at the time.  
                 Laing, like so many others in the seventies, was trying to transcend the bad habits of modern society to establish a more direct and empathic relationship between people. One of his ideas entailed listening more openly and directly to what his patients were telling him. He wanted to give them credit for knowing something about themselves and for often choosing the right solutions in their own lives, even if that solution involved suicide.
                On a train on my way back from Odense after one such lecture, I sat in a compartment with four elderly ladies who wore hats and gloves, all of whom were reading magazines about homemaking and fashion. An elderly man sat across from me by the window. He was dressed in dirty overalls and a t-shirt and had some beers which he drank non-stop on the three hour trip. I myself was about 30 and looked appropriately long-haired and sandalized.
                The old man spent most of the trip muttering to himself while everybody else read. Every once in a while he would look directly at one of the women and start a ferocious monologue on the injustices of life. This speech outlined an existence gone wrong and misused. It always ended with a declaration of his intent to commit suicide, "Yep, just gonna finish it all off, I am, just turn off the old faucet, close the old door, click the old switch!" Usually he took a break and a sip from his beer at this point while eyeing the chosen lady over the bottle. Each lady in turn rejected him politely but firmly with a "Well I never..." or a "Now, you know that just won't do..." as they clucked their ways back to their magazines and anonymity.
                The old guy spent most of the trip on these pointless attempts at recognition, but as we approached Copenhagen, having used up all the ladies, he finally got around to me. I had been reading Laing all the way and I must say I was primed for action.
                First he described in a few disconnected sentences the tribulations of a long life gone awry, "...all smashed it was, and couldn't be repaired, at all, at all, nope, and me without nuthin'..."
                After an extended introduction when he  reached his usual climax, "...and so I'm a gonna split, kick it over, take a flight, turn the key..." I interrupted him.
                "If your life has been so awful and you have no way out, then I think you should go ahead and put an end to it."
                The ladies froze in their reading positions. The compartment was silent and except for the clickety-clack of the wheels of the train. Just as I was about to resume my reading he leaned over to me with tears in his eyes.
                At this moment we arrived in Copenhagen and as the ladies scurried out of the compartment, my new friend put his arm around me and ushered me through several small passageways and doors at great difficulty to us both, as we were glued together in his embrace. On the platform I finally got out from under his arm and wished him well.
                "You should marry my daughter. Here, have a beer. No beer? All right, but you're getting my daughter. And if I had had a fortune it would be yours, but ok, my daughter is what I got."
                As I walked away from him toward the exit I had the feeling that he was not moving, because he in fact did not yet know where he was going. I do not know whether our little exchange gave him a new lease on life at least for a day or two, but at a distance I still heard him promising, "She's yours, no strings attached, for the taking, yes, sir, for the taking...Just say the word..."

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