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Disabling States of Surveillance: R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self (1960) and James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994)

La « schize de l’identité » dans How Late It Was, How Late de James Kelman (1994)
Lorna MacBean

Texte intégral


1When the protagonist-narrator in James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) loses his sight after being beaten to unconsciousness by plain-clothes police officers, the reader experiences the interior world of Sammy Samuels as he is confronted by disabling mechanisms of state administration in his attempts to adjust to and account for the immediate change in his sensory perceptions. Since at least the 1970s, the normalised vocabulary of disability has been recognised as institutionally ableist. David Bolt’s exploration of the metanarratives of visual impairment challenges the subliminal cohesion of blindness and ignorance: “[…] the seeing-knowing metaphor is profound because embedded in its foundation is the idea that not seeing is synonymous with not knowing” (Bolt, 2014, p. 18). Kelman’s use of this metaphor pits Sammy’s experience into competition with his awareness of how others see and interpret him: Sammy’s disability is made visible, but seldom recognised. This essay considers Kelman’s imagination of the onset of blindness in terms of “self-consciousness” as defined by R. D. Laing in his existential study of the schizoid individual, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (1960). For Laing, existing in dialogue with the communal is the basis for an ontologically secure understanding of the self; divisions in the personality of the healthy individual occur when the dialogic communal existence is precluded by maladaptive social relationships. As Sammy’s story unfolds it becomes clear that sight loss is not the only disabling factor he must reconcile: Kelman’s narrative confronts its hero with institutional and socially conceived barriers which prohibit Sammy’s volition and promote a state-enforced ontological insecurity.

  • 1 I had the pleasure of reading HL with students in a custodial setting. All five students found the (...)

2This study positions itself in the hinterland of scholarship which considers HL as an existentialist novel. Cairns Craig argues that Kelman’s “realism of working-class life is the basis for an engagement with the philosophical legacy of existentialism” (1999, p. 106). Laurence Nicoll notes Kelman’s allusions to Dostoyevsky and Kafka while simplifying the novel as on in which “[n]othing much happens” in “the typical existential statement of a basic situation” (2005, p. 125). Alistair Braidwood (2011) reads Kelman alongside Iain Banks using the context of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Literature and Existentialism (1949). Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger (2012) reinstate the rhetoric of realism by drawing on Michel De Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life (2003) to consider the coherence of Kelman’s social and political vision. For Anna Travis, Sammy’s interior monologue “embodies Althusser’s vision of the contradictory human subject the state creates” (2019, p. 13). Similarly, Simon Kövesi suggests that Kelman’s narrative choice “enacts a levelling set of communal artistic relations and effects even while constructing empathy for the suffering, alienated anguish of the existential male individual” (2007, p. 131). This literary existentialism is embedded in the practice of social psychology by Ian Burkitt and Paul Sullivan in their comparison of Mikhail Bakhtin and Laing where they find “[b]oth authors […] took an existentialist position on selfhood, emphasising authenticity” (2009, p. 569). However, for all this philosophical enquiry, it is noted that the question of realist representation only remains for readers who have no experience at the sharp end of the police and penal system—for many, Sammy’s trials and anguish are all too real.1 The following study focuses on Sammy’s conception and struggle to exist as he is subject to situations where he is forced to perform to survive. In using Laing’s critical apparatus, this study seeks to recover Sammy’s humanity to better understand Kelman’s use of represented disability for social commentary.

Laing as literary theory

  • 2 For an illuminating discussion on this point, see “The Self” in Chapter 12: The Divided Self, Bever (...)
  • 3 For Kelman’s own discussion of Kafka, see “A Look at Franz Kafka’s Three Novels” in And the Judges (...)

3Laing’s construction of the schizoid personality lends itself to literary theory as it views the self as a politically and socially conceived construction, one which operates in the colonial-capitalist regime to nullify social resistance. In relating the self to its spatio-temporal, socio-political context, Laing brings “a literary sensibility to the subject of madness” (Beveridge, 2011, p. 160).2 For example, in his explanation of ontological insecurity, Laing uses the literary imaginary of Franz Kafka to explain the dependency of the ontologically secure individual on self-validating dialogic social relationships (1960, p. 109). HL clearly fits into the framework of Kafka’s construction of a world without privacy, and where the volition of the protagonist is ritualistically thwarted by a seemingly omniscient bureaucracy.3 My application of Laing’s theoretical framework to Kelman’s represented blindness in HL does not propose to align Sammy and his behaviour with schizophrenia. Instead, by employing Laing’s conception of “self-consciousness” to better understand how blindness works as a literary device in the imaginary of disability, I propose that the disabling operations of the represented state in the novel force Sammy into a state of ontological insecurity. Sammy’s survival depends on being recognised as blind and, when this recognition is consistently denied by those in positions of authority, his behaviour is analogous with the ontologically insecure schizoid whom Laing coherently describes.

4Laing’s explanation of self-consciousness draws our attention to these two forms of awareness of the self as observer and observed, “as an object in one’s own eyes and as an object in the other’s eyes” (1960, p. 106). In the schizoid individual, Laing observes:

The heightened sense of always being seen, or at any rate of being always potentially seeable, may be principally referable to the body, but the preoccupation with being seeable may be condensed with the idea of the mental self being penetrable, and vulnerable, as when the individual feels that one can look right through him into his ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. (Laing, 1960, p. 106)

5In HL, Sammy’s body and his actions are observed the other characters in the story and nameless people in the street. Sammy relies on his disability being visible for survival, to validate his physical state: “A stick would show people the situation” (HL, p. 38). Without the stick, Sammy relies on his appearance for acceptance after he is ejected from the police station and tries to “patacake” his way home:

Naw but seriously, it was just how ye looked, if ye looked alright, if ye looked alright then ye were fine — if not then ye would frighten them away, if ye didnay look alright man, they would steer clear. (HL, p. 40)

6Later on in the novel, once both Sammy and the reader have become accustomed to elisions of visibility and awareness, Kelman imagines blindness as a kind of freedom from the intensity of self-consciousness:

[…] ye can imagine it, if okay ye’re blind, ye’re blind and ye’re sitting there, just minding yer own business, relaxed, ye’re enjoying a quiet pint. But cause ye’re blind ye dont know it but every cunt’s staring at ye, staring right into ye, like one of these terrible wee nightmare movies, the Twilight Zone or something. The only good thing is ye cannay see. That’s the only good thing about it. Ye don’t know they’re doing it. (HL, p. 275)

7The unknowable is more tolerable than the known in Kelman’s imagined blindness, and even, at points, offers a kind of freedom. In Laing’s depersonalized individual,

[…] there is a constant dread and resentment at being turned into someone else’s living thing, of being penetrated by him, and a sense of being in someone else’s power and control. Freedom then consists in being inaccessible. (1960, p. 113)

8This is an antithesis of what Sammy describes as being relieved of when he first acknowledges that he has lost his sight: “With one look. That’s how easy you are. And ye see the truth about yourself. Ye see how ye’re fixed forever” (HL, p. 12).

Sammy’s awakening

9From the opening line of HL, Kelman equates visibility and consciousness in the ontological state of the individual: “Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear” (HL, p. 1). Before we know anything about the identity of the person to whom the second pronoun is referring, the reader is informed that their want to be unseen is motivated by regret and guilt—“ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it”—which culminates in a despondent moral judgement of this, as yet, disembodied self: “ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man” (p. 1). As the “opening ‘Ye’ […] implicates the reader” through “a direct appeal to the reader to put himself or herself in Sammy’s place” (Braidwood, 2011, p. 43), we are immediately put into the phenomenological shoes of our narrator: experience of shame is aroused immediately in the reader before we have the chance to decide whether we are onside with our protagonist, or not. And then, we are moving—“edging”—out from this disembodied state, “back into awareness of where ye are: here, slumped in this corner” where the determiner presupposes our familiarity with the surroundings and our voiced being becomes a container “with these thoughts filling ye” (p. 1). When this awareness is achieved, third-person narration kicks in: the back which is “sore; stiff” is “his” and the “corners” now belong to “his eyes”. The first instance of seeing in the novel is an emergence from chaotic darkness—“all kinds of spots and lights”—as the first “where” of the novel is realised: “in the name of fuck…”

  • 4 His reaction is reminiscent of the humanist approach the corvids take to human remains in the old S (...)

10The reader wakes up with Sammy and learns that our “here” is outside, on the street, and that the literary shoes that form the first object to be described in detail in the novel do not even belong to our protagonist: “His feet were back in view. He studied them; he was wearing an auld pair of trainer shoes for fuck sake where had they come from” (HL, p. 1). Sammy laments the exchange of his new shoes for old trainers—“Some fucking deal” (HL, p. 1)—but quickly adopts a fair-game stoicism: “Unless they thought he was dead, fair enough” (HL, p. 2).4 The reader is taken from Sammy’s eyes to his feet and then to the eyes of other people which become disembodied and so luminous in his hungover stupor that he is forced to cover his own eyes:

[…] people — there was people there; eyes looking. Terrible brightness and he had to shield his own cause of it, like they were godly figures and the light coming from them was godly or something. (HL, p. 2)

11This inferiority may be just the fear of a hangover talking, but for the reader the protagonist has been born through darkness to the realisation of the bodily existence, shown his humanist relationship to the communal, and been confronted by the other in “these gentlemen foreigners” being led by “some beautiful female” before our protagonist is even named: “the bold Sammy gets to his feet” (HL, p. 2). As if suddenly on stage, Sammy becomes aware of people “watching; no watching but fucking staring, staring right into Sammy” before we are introduced to the villains of the work—the “sodjers”, or police—crucially by Sammy’s recognition of their eyes:

[…] they were sodjers, fucking bastards, ye could smell it; even without the uniforms. A mile away. Sammy knew them, ye can aye tell, their eyes; if ye know these eyes then ye aye see them, these kind of eyes, they stay with ye. (HL, p. 3)

12Sammy’s deeper knowledge comes from an experience that he describes as supernatural—“Ye develop a second sight with these bastards” (HL, p. 13). Sammy sees through their disguise immediately—he identifies the danger within a streetful of tourists and businessmen, which, as Maley suggests, is a deliberate juxtaposition which calls into question Sammy’s conception of “municipal solidarity” (HL, p. 3): “There is a link between the two, because tourism is business and business wants to police the working class, to either keep them out of sight, or in their place” (Maley, 2000, p. 67).

The moral (re)positioning of the reader

13Kelman’s imagination of blindness can be seen to “create equality of knowledge (or lack of it) between the reader and narrator” (Sharkey, 2012, p. 115) but both are eluded by Sammy’s “blank-outs”. As Maley notes,

The ‘political’ crimes that the police are interested in are never fully elaborated. They serve, though, to create the impression that there is a political sphere outside of Sammy’s predicament, something that the novel itself works to undermine. Sammy doesn’t like having ‘blank-outs’. (p. 170) He had one just before being blinded. The ‘state authorities’ don’t like these blanks either. Anything could happen in the space of a blank. (1996, p. 112)

14When Sammy is returned for questioning, the police interrogators speak in presuppositions which imply their minds are already made up—their questioning is a formality (HL, p. 170). Sammy’s answers to their questions, whether deliberately elusive or not, supply an incomplete account of Sammy’s alleged crime. For the reader eager to make judgement on Sammy, his answers frustrate them as much as the police:

We were both steaming, know what I mean, we were hitting it, cause of that extra dough I had christ I was just filling up the glasses man that’s what I was doing, so who knows, who knows, being honest, I couldnay tell ye who I saw and who I never saw. That’s what I’m saying, I blanked out. Then I was captured by yous guys. (HL, p. 170)

15The dynamics of Sammy’s interaction with the plain-clothes police officers puts the moral judgement back on the reader: whose side do we read on? Are the actions of the officers hard to believe for some? Are we to count ourselves as part of a class which does not wish to know the sordid details? And, has Kelman relieved the narrator of their omniscient position only to indict his reader with it instead? As I will outline further below, instances of Kelman’s positioning and re‑positioning of the reader indicate his novel’s engagement with a reader-orientated metafictional tradition which characterises Scottish literature. In the Laingian framework, the reader becomes the keeper of the diagnosis—not of Sammy’s blindness, but of his completeness as a human being.

16Kelman’s use of the deictic second-person pronoun overlaid with third-person narration and reported speech invites the reader to experience in solidarity with Sammy, but narratorial privileges are regularly exercised. The first point where Kelman draws our attention to the reader’s limits of observation is when Sammy, after punching one of the “sodjers”, is subject to police brutality. The reader is not permitted to observe this physical attack: “But ye’re as well drawing a curtain here, nay point prolonging the agony” (HL, p. 6). For Sammy, the agony is just beginning as the curtain is drawn; the reader, however, is spared any graphic descriptions of the further violence inflicted on Sammy beyond the account of the “sodjers” catching up with him:

[…] he couldnay break loose, he couldnay, they had him, they fucking had him man the two of them, one hand gripping the back of his neck and another on his left wrist and another yin twisting his right arm all the way up his fucking back and it was fucking pure agony like it was getting wrenched off man ye could feel it in the fucking socket and the side of the ribs; and then their breathing, big breaths in and out. Then they turned a corner into the back close. (HL, p. 6)

  • 5 See the one night stand in Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice—“oot through the back (...)

17Until entering the close, Sammy and the plain-clothes officers were visible to other characters in the book; the performance is viewable to the street—“shoppers roundabout; women and weans; a couple of prams with the wee yins all big-eyed staring at him” (p. 6). Kelman’s visceral descriptions of the officer’s attack on Sammy dissipate as they enter the site of “the back close” which connotes socially deviant behaviour in the Scottish literary imaginary.5 The curtain drawn by the narrator is not just a protection for an audience potentially sensitive to graphic violence by soldiers of the state, but also serves as mimesis of the deliberate ignorance afforded to classes of people in society who, because of their compliance, are not brought into contact with the state. Equally, the curtain is drawn to preserve Sammy’s dignity: are we to deny the possibility of a reader who may enjoy reading the violence enacted upon him? Kelman’s choice here displays a reluctance to exhibit Sammy’s weakness for fear of it being taken advantage of. Perhaps Sammy’s interior monologue is enough of an intrusion: we do not need to see him defeated on the ground.

18Kelman’s narrative plays with the idea of deliberate ignorance in Sammy’s perception, too. For example, when Sammy is released from the police station the first time, after the onset of sight loss, he momentarily muses: “Funny how the sodjers released him, when ye think about it. Nay point in thinking about it. Except see when ye did, know what I’m saying, it was funny” (HL, p. 39). The litotes “funny” here reveals the wrongdoing: Sammy was released so that the violent treatment in custody could be covered up. The behaviour of the police is considered only briefly before we are taken back to the immediacy of his sensory experiences in the next sentence: “A car whooshed by”. The use of the colloquial rhetorical question, “know what I’m saying”, implies there is a tacit agreement made between narrator and reader to gloss over the malfeasance of the police in shared resignation. Kelman uses the dialogue between Sammy and the reader in a “process of interpellation by showing a character presenting ideas as truths to themselves, then exposing these truths to a social reality that conflicts violently with them” (Travis, 2019, p. 15). The sticking point, for the reader, is that Sammy has already revealed his opinion on the injustice of his “doing”:

Sammy dragged the t‑shirt out the trousers to examine the body, letting the screw see he knew the score, like he was making notes for future reference, once he stuck in the auld compensation claim I mean ye cannay go knocking fuck out of cunts and expect them no to submit their claim through the proper channels, no if ye’re an official servant of the state I mean that’s out of order, banging a citizen. (HL, p. 8)

19This potential prolepsis of the novel transpires to be futile: Sammy’s performance to the screw is not matched by his performance to the administrator in the Dysfunctional Benefits Department. The reader is left to wonder at Sammy’s inaction when reporting his blindness to social work, then, when the bruises become the least of his worries:

When do ye say ye lost yer sight?
Last week, Monday or Tuesday — Tuesday I think.
Are ye saying something caused the dysfunction. Or else did it just happen?
Well something must have caused it.
What do ye think?
Will I put ‘dont know’?
Eh, aye.
Ye were in police custody at the time?
That’s right.
Ach my own stupidity son a wee altercation with the sodjers; they gave me a doing. Sammy shrugged. One of these things; I was silly and so were they.
They gave ye a doing?
And ye’re saying ye were silly?
… (
HL, pp. 96–8)

20Up until this point, Sammy has performed his part well—cadging cigarettes from the sodjers; of the empowered-by-experience prisoner to the screw outside his cell; through his ambiguous answers in interrogations by police officers. Sammy maintains a coherent self under “[s]tate surveillance from the street to the cell door” (Kövesi, 2007, p. 148). Crucially, it is when Sammy drops this performance that he forecloses his case: by admitting he got “a doing”, he makes a mistake in the script. And Sammy’s recognition of this is immediate: “Ye no got a delete button?” (HL, p. 98). From here, Sammy’s reluctance to blame the police, and to hold them to account, increases in self-reproach as the novel progresses: “It was his own fucking stupit fault anyway man know what I mean ye blab, ye just blab” (HL, p. 99).

  • 6 Within this framework, Kelman is not without a sense of humour. See p. 91 where Sammy seeks recogni (...)

21In contrast to his initial bravado, Sammy tends towards attitudes of inferiority and self-loathing the more frequently his blindness is denied. Even when Sammy’s blindness is made visible, it is not recognised.6 For example, after Sammy constructs his own white stick at home and dons sunglasses to voyage out to the Dysfunctional Benefits Department, the security guard persists in feigned ignorance:

There: carry on in a straight line; thirty yards; there’s a swing door to yer left. Go through it and the Reception’s on yer right. Give the Reception Officer the card. Try and keep to the inside when ye’re walking. And next time come through the gate.
Sammy sniffed and said, It’s cause I’m blind; I couldnay see it.
Aye well next time.
Sorry I just didnay see it. (
HL, p. 88)

22This is an example of Marx’s mystification: how figures of authority deliberately obscure and intentionally deceive to defend their status quo. Another occurrence of mystification is, of course, when Sammy is confronted by the medical doctor’s inability or reluctance to diagnose him:

In respect of the visual stimuli presented you appeared unable to respond.
So ye’re no saying I’m blind?
It isn’t for me to say.
Aye but you’re a doctor.
Yes. (
HL, p. 225)

23In response to this resolutely Kafka-esque position from the doctor, Sammy responds in a way which harms his own survival: “Sammy crumpled up the prescription and flung it at him: Stick that up yer fucking arse!” (HL, p. 225). As Sammy is “[b]linded by the ‘state authorities’”, he discovers he is “at the mercy of those authorities in the most acute way” (Maley, 1996, p. 109). Sammy has the right to his own personal experience and, when it is consistently denied, he is made to adopt a schizoid pattern of behaviour: to be made ontologically insecure by his failed conformity to the state through an Althusserian interpellation of the subject.

Recognition and dialogue

24Being recognised is an imperative for dialogue to take place; if one is not respected enough to be recognised, then a dialogic relationship is inconceivable. Laing accounts for this:

The need to be perceived is not, of course, purely a visual affair. It extends to the general need to have one’s presence endorsed or confirmed by the other, the need for one’s total existence to be recognized; the need, in fact, to be loved. Thus those people who cannot sustain from within themselves the sense of their own identity or, like Kafka’s suppliant, have no inner conviction that they are alive, may feel as if they are real persons only when they are experienced as such by another […]. (1960, p. 119)

25Even Sammy’s initial act of violence is a demand for recognition. In the myriad of visibilities in the novel’s opening—being disembodied, self-validated, ignored by tourists, seen by tourists—Sammy seeks recognition as “the bold Sammy” (HL, p. 2) even through methods he knows will ultimately lead to his own destruction: “But there it was again: he felt good; he felt really fucking good. Comfortable. Tense as fuck, but comfortable at the same time” (HL, p. 5). This is, in accordance with the above quotation, quintessential schizoid behaviour.

26In contrast, Sammy’s presentation of states of ontological security are reserved for points in the novel where he is alone and unobserved by either the state or street. In the house, the reader is allowed into Sammy’s interior—e.g. his divulging of previous crimes and dynamics of his relationship with Helen pp. 138–44—we get the fuller picture of his character away from prying eyes. He has normal conversation with his neighbour, Boab. More than any other environment in the novel; we hear more music in the house. Up until now, it has been playing in Sammy’s head. Kelman constructs a relationship directly from character to reader by creating a shared playlist that signals a more positive mental state: “There’s another way ye know ye’re on the mend, that’s when ye find yerself humming a tune” (HL, p. 113). Sammy “can be himself in safety only in isolation, albeit with a sense of emptiness and unreality” (Laing, 1960, p. 114).

27Ten days into Sammy’s narration, he is finally able to have a bath:

Safe at last. He lay there all warm and comfy, the world gone, all the trials and tribulations, out the fucking window, just him in the middle of a massive big ocean, a wee toty island, just lying there, a whale drifting by, the mind getting set off by music. (HL, p. 153)

28Sammy “is assuring himself that he exists by always being aware of himself. Yet he is persecuted by his own insight and lucidity” (Laing, 1960, p. 119). However, the safety does not last long, and again Sammy warns his reader:

Aaahhh — the only problem being how ye’re so vulnerable, just so relaxed, the ideal time for some cunt to reach ye — how easy it was, the ideal time, the ideal place, and he didnay even have a weapon to hand; not one. (HL, p. 153)

29In a reference to Tuco’s ill-fated bath in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)—and with Sammy’s aspirations to Texas perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised—Sammy’s peaceful attempts at existential bliss are rudely interrupted by Sammy’s embodied sensing of “sodjers”: “that sudden feeling man right in the gut” (HL, p. 156). The narratorial sanctity of his home is invaded (to a soundtrack of country music) by police and Sammy is immediately put back in handcuffs, blindfolded (ironically) and returned to the police station for questioning.

30Paradoxically, in attempting to persuade Sammy to comply with their investigations, the police are the only arm of the state to acknowledge Sammy’s blindness. At different points their interrogation, the police suspend their denial of Sammy’s blindness in an effort to appear on Sammy’s side—helping him to light his cigarette and telling him where the ashtray is (HL, p. 15); showing him the photograph while acknowledging he can’t see it (HL, p. 200); This changes, however, when they threaten Sammy for a confession: “I suspect there’s nothing fucking wrong with them at all” (HL, p. 181). Recognition and denial become, then, tools of manipulation.

31Many of Sammy’s observers try to penetrate his mental self through sceptical questioning, interrogation, and invasions into his home; however, Sammy’s interior is the reserved right of the reader only. Sammy narrates his own story and we, the reader, have the only morally permissible invitation to look into his mind and soul.7 The disorientation of blindness and distorted perceptions are portrayed in the collagic, multimedia constructions of character and place on stage, in RudeMechs 2003 production.8 Kirk Lynn’s adaption of the novel for stage demonstrates the way in which Kelman uses the phenomenon of sight to navigate the reader.9 The video design included three cameras, three screens (surrounding Sammy), two DVD players, two switchers, and a backdrop of greenscreen to project video on. Sammy, the character, is centre stage, only able to visualise while the audience see every aspect of the stage and manipulation of media. The narrator is stage right, out of the scene but able to interject. Despite some questionable interpretations—the clip in the footnotes shows how Sammy is portrayed as much more servile than in Kelman, and the screws outside the cell door become theatrical characters—the performance and set design focuses the audience on the deceptive potential of their own perception. If “looking is power, and Sammy has none, because the boot of the state has stamped out his sight” (Kövesi, 2007, p. 148), then the reader has ultimate seeing power: the omniscient narrator is replaced by the omniscient audience who are afforded a panoptic perspective.

32At the end of the novel, Sammy’s blindness is recognised by his son and friend—they help him; the bartender does not ignore Sammy but serves him a pint; the street taxi pulls in for Sammy as he waves it down with his stick. Thus, Sammy’s exit—“out of sight” (HL, p. 373)—in the final clause of the novel is analogous with finding freedom from those who would put him under their power and control: he not only escapes from the pursuit of the police and social work and Ally (the questionably-intentioned rep), but ultimately evades the judgement of the reader, too, by becoming literally inaccessible. By the end of the story, Sammy has re‑equipped his ontological security without state apparatus, and instead frees himself from all forms of surveillance by simply not being seeable; with his self-made stick, the help of his neighbour, the support from his son (occurrences of self-validation), the protagonist finally achieves embodiment and personalisation (Laing, 1960, p. 118).


  • 10 See the opening line: “hoping yer body will disappear”: which I assumed to refer to Sammy’s body, b (...)

33Of course, there is one character missing from the above discussion who is never seen or heard from in the novel and so neither observes Sammy, nor is observable by the reader. Helen, Sammy’s partner whose house he returns to, remains conspicuous by her absence. Her character is only related to the reader through the rose-tinted recollections of Sammy who is sure, upon sight, he would be forgiven: “it would be fine, once she saw him” (HL, p. 11). Helen is depicted through the lens “of a chauvinist, ethnocentric and masculine Western ideology” (Maley, 1996, p. 111) and this remains unchallenged. Helen is, as other nameless women are in the novel, a crutch in Sammy’s process of depersonalisation: an opportunity to feel loved and therefore seen (see places such as p. 90, p. 81, p. 82; where unnamed women help Sammy): “Uch. If Helen could see him” (HL, p. 85). If Sammy’s Helen McGillvray is cast into the Classical role of her namesake, Helen of Troy, the consequences of her disappearance become as literary as Sammy’s (Samson’s) growing beard (which he presumably delays shaving off until he is out of the city so he can change his appearance to further evade the police). What if, like her literary predecessors, Helen is the catalyst for Sammy’s downfall? After all, he has “blabbed” to her about his past (HL, p. 144) and let her know that he is again seeking a “turn”—it was this that caused the argument: “it wasnay her place to tell him he couldnay go out earning” (p. 154). In disappearing—from her house, from her job, from the sight of Sammy, the police, and the reader—Helen is only depicted through Sammy’s memories and imaginings which repeatedly only recognise her-as-woman-as-literary-device. In her absence, both Sammy and Kelman deny Helen her own humanity. Again, this serves to reflect the reader’s morality back at them: do we resent Helen for abandoning Sammy in his hour of need? Do we suspect Sammy of being capable to murder or disappear Helen?10 Do we empathise with Helen who, fed up with Sammy’s indecision and excuses (as the reader comes to be), does a “midnight flit” and leaves him to his own devices? Do we judge her as anti-socialist if she has grassed Sammy in for political activity? The answers to these self-reflexive questions are unique to each reader as we are left to make our own judgments as to “who is the monster here? […] What is it that society will not see, in terms of shame, inequality, injustice, that provokes the endless formation of monsters?” (Punter, 2000, p. 120).


34This article interrogated Sammy’s need to be seen and the state’s refusal to recognise him. Sammy is never in dialogue: he is on trial. And so, too, becomes the reader through Kelman’s metafictional narrative which directs moral judgement to the reader. As evidenced above, in contrast to these confrontations with the state, when Sammy is alone, with family, or inaccessible/unobserved by the reader, he presents as ontologically secure. The state, through its actors, promotes ontological insecurity, and Kelman’s novel painfully highlights what Bolt and other Disability Studie researchers call for: a distinction “between biological impairment and social disability” (Bolt, 2014, p. 16). Sight loss does not disable Sammy’s sense of self: he retains this in his stoic attitude, the music he chooses to play, the family and friendship bonds he relies on. In Laing’s construction of the ontologically insecure person, Sammy’s self-consciousness serves to reinforce his awareness of himself despite the state’s competing apprehensions of him. Through Sammy, Kelman displays several discontinuities in the self (temporal and spatial) in Sammy’s constant struggle for self-preservation. Outside of the house or of Sammy’s safety in not being seen, the danger is in being seeable (to police, to Ally, to potential robbers in the close) (Laing, 1960, pp. 108–9). Aside from questioning Sammy’s political allegiances and criminal integrity through his dealings with the police and “state authorities”, the reader is positioned and repositioned as judge, onlooker, and, at times, co‑accused. At the end of the novel, the protagonist and story have disappeared, and the reader is invited, whatever their moral persuasion, to join in the resignation of Sammy’s pun: “What a state. What a state” (HL, p. 76).

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Braidwood Alistair, 2011, Iain Banks, James Kelman and the Art of Engagement: An Application of Jean Paul Sartre’s Theories of Literature and Existentialism in Two Modern Scottish Novelists, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Beveridge Allan, 2011, Portrait of the Psychiatrist as a Young Man: The Early Writing and Work of R. D. Laing, 1927–1960, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Bolt David, 2014, “Community, Controversy, and Compromise: The Terminology of Visual Impairment”, in Metanarratives of Blindness: Re‑reading Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing, Michigan, Michigan University Press.

Burkitt Ian & Sullivan Paul, 2009, “Embodied Ideas and Divided Selves: Revisiting Laing via Bakhtin”, British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 389–577.

Craig Cairns, 1999, The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and the National Imagination, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Hames Scott, 2009, “Eyeless in Glasgow: James Kelman’s Existential Milton”, Contemporary Literature, vol. 50, no. 3 (Fall), pp. 496–527.

Kelman James, 1994, How Late It Was, How Late, London, Vintage.

Kelman James, 2002, “A Look at Franz Kafka’s Three Novels”, in And the Judges Said… Essays, London, Polygon, pp. 264–313.

Kövesi Simon, 2007, James Kelman: Contemporary British Novelists, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Laing R. D., 1960, The Divided Self, London, Penguin.

Maley Willy, 1996, “Swearing Blind: Kelman and the Curse of the Working Classes”, Edinburgh Review, vol. 95, pp. 105–12.

Maley Willy, 2000, “Denizens, Citizens, Tourists, and Others: Marginality and Mobility in the Writings of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”, in D. Bell and A. Haddour (eds), City Visions, Harlow, Pearson, pp. 60–72.

Miller Mitch & Rodger Johnny, 2012, “The Writer as Tacitician: James Kelman’s Everyday Practice”, Scottish Literary Review, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 151–68.

Nicoll Laurence, 2005, “The Novels of James Kelman”, in J. Acheson and S. C. E. Ross (eds), The Contemporary British Novel, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 59–63.

Punter David, 2000, Postcolonial Imaginings: Fictions of a New World Order, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Boston.

Sharkey Cameron, 2012, Textual Resistance, Cultural Legitimacy and the Politics of Representation in the Fiction of James Kelman and William McIllvanney¸ unpublished MPhil thesis, University of Glasgow.

Travis Anna, 2019, “Interior Monologue as Social Critique in James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994)”, Études britanniques contemporaines, no. 56. Available at <>.

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1 I had the pleasure of reading HL with students in a custodial setting. All five students found the opening to the novel especially arresting. I noted that, linguistically, even the most rooted Glaswegian had to look at the words twice and again which indicates to me that Kelman expects even readers familiar to these experiences and the vernacular to pay close attention to Sammy’s enunciations. The reading of HL in this class informed my analysis of the text and I am grateful to those students for privileging me with their insights.

2 For an illuminating discussion on this point, see “The Self” in Chapter 12: The Divided Self, Beveridge, 2011, pp. 299–300.

3 For Kelman’s own discussion of Kafka, see “A Look at Franz Kafka’s Three Novels” in And the Judges Said… Essays, London, Polygon, 2002, pp. 264–313.

4 His reaction is reminiscent of the humanist approach the corvids take to human remains in the old Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies” (Anon., traditional). Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland (Edinburgh, 3rd edition, 1847), p. 165.

5 See the one night stand in Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice—“oot through the back close and inty the dunny (it wisnae for the first time)”; John Maley and Willy Maley From the Calton to Catalonia (1990), “Back closes runnin wae dug pee and East End young team runnin wae the San Toy, the Kent Star, the Sally Boys, the Black Star, the Calton Entry Mob, and the Cheeky Forty, the Romeo Boys, the Antique Mob, and the Stickit Boys” (p. 1); Rudy and Alice sit drinking in the back close in Peter Mullen’s The Fridge (1995) as the court becomes stage for a spectacle which many of the inhabitants of the surrounding tenements choose to ignore, crucially for the above reading, by closing their curtains.

6 Within this framework, Kelman is not without a sense of humour. See p. 91 where Sammy seeks recognition from another blind man by way of a handshake, but “didnay find him”.

7 Of course, the “reasonably-minded” reader is at liberty to disbelieve Sammy’s account—can we imagine a reader who is constantly expecting Sammy to regain his sight as if he had been kidding on to everyone, including the reader; a reader who is not in solidarity with Sammy, but who thinks he gets what he deserves—as in Laing’s example of sightloss as a punitive measure: being “struck blind” by visible guilt? (1960, p. 107).

8 <>.

9 <>.

10 See the opening line: “hoping yer body will disappear”: which I assumed to refer to Sammy’s body, but what if he has disposed of Helen’s corpse and blanked‑out from the grief?

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Lorna MacBean, « Disabling States of Surveillance: R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self (1960) and James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lorna MacBean

University of Glasgow
Lorna MacBean graduated from University of Glasgow (2022) with a PhD on Scotland’s infamous travel writer William Lithgow. Lorna is co‑founder of the Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literatures and continues to research Scottish literature and culture in that century as co‑investigator for the British Academy-funded project, Walking Perths Past, supported by the Strathmartine Trust. Lorna was twice awarded the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network Foundation Award for her research on the library of R. D. Laing which has collected interviews and items for an exhibition of Laing’s annotations and use of books, publication forthcoming.
Lorna MacBean a reçu un doctorat de l’Université de Glasgow (2022) pour une thèse sur l’auteur de récits de voyages William Lithgow, à la réputation trouble. Lorna est la co‑fondatrice du Symposium for Seventeenth-Century Scottish Literatures et poursuit des recherches en littérature et culture écossaises du xviiie siècle pour un projet fondé par la British Academy, Walking Perths Past, projet soutenu par le Strathmartine Trust. Lorna a par deux fois reçu le Glasgow Medical Humanities Network Foundation Award pour ses recherches sur la bibliothèque de R. D. Laing, travail qui rassemblait entretiens et objets pour une exposition des annotations de Laing et de son rapport aux livres, et dont la publication est en cours.

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