Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars – “civilisation” seems to be accelerating towards self-destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance. In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book – political persuasion being the most obvious.
At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive, influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding an axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most “useful” when, to all intents and purposes, most “irrelevant”.
Gregory Bateson (1904-80) was born into a family with a history of spirited scientific controversy. His father William, a distinguished naturalist, was responsible for coining the word “genetics” and had been both translator and vociferous champion of Mendel’s pioneer work on hybrids and heredity. Gregory was named after the Austrian monk, no doubt with the hope that he would follow in his footsteps.
It wasn’t to be. Explaining to his disappointed father that he was giving up zoology for the relatively new subject of anthropology, the young Bateson spoke of his need for “a break with ordinary impersonal science”. He had grown up in a house where William Blake’s paintings hung on the walls, where art and poetry were revered as the acme of human achievement yet at the same time considered, as his father put it, “scarcely within the reach of people like ourselves”. Gregory’s elder brother, Martin, who aspired to become a poet rather than a scientist, argued bitterly with his father and eventually killed himself in a scenario that might have been invented to demonstrate the limitations of “impersonal science”. Infatuated with a girl who never gave him the slightest hope, he shot himself by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, a suicide note and a poem in his pocket.
After his brother’s suicide, an artist’s life must have seemed impossible to Gregory. On the other hand, and rather paradoxically, art was the achievement to which his dogmatic, scientific family attached the greatest value. Bateson’s choice of anthropology can be seen as a way of combining the scientific and artistic. In the opening page of his first book, Naven, a study of the Iatmul people of New Guinea, he reflected on the advantages of a novelist’s eye when it came to describing a foreign culture: “The artist . . . can leave a great many of the most fundamental aspects of culture to be picked up not from his actual words, but from his emphasis.” He can “group and stress” words “so that the reader almost unconsciously receives information which is not explicit in the sentences and which the artist would find it hard – almost impossible – to express in analytic terms. This impressionistic technique is utterly foreign to the methods of science.”
At once it was clear that Bateson’s instinct was to grasp, as an artist might, a sense of the wholeness of a culture, rather than to report particular facts. It’s not surprising that his second project, in Bali, undertaken with his wife, Margaret Mead, was the first to make systematic use of photographs in an ethnographic study. Ever resistant to the analytic and reductive, Bateson stressed that the photographs should always be seen in relation to each other:
In this monograph we are attempting a new method of stating the intangible relationships among different types of culturally standardised behaviour by placing side by side mutually relevant photographs. Pieces of behaviour, spatially and contextually separated – a trance dancer being carried in a procession, a man looking up at an airplane, a servant greeting his master in a play, the painting of a dream – may all be relevant to a single discussion; the same emotional thread may run through them.
Over his lifetime, Bateson was involved in a wide range of studies, the early anthropological explorations being followed by work on families and mental health problems (when he invented the idea of “the double bind”), studies in cybernetics and communication, and even in the “language” of dolphins and other creatures. What seems to have fascinated Bateson was the question: how does a complex culture maintain a relatively steady state, adapting to outside change and correcting internal imbalances? Perhaps, having been brought up in a family always engaged in public polemics and torn apart by the conflict that led to his brother’s suicide (another older brother was killed in the first world war), Bateson was looking for the sort of mechanisms that can prevent tension from blowing up into tragedy; hence the rather surprising way he would often mix his anthropology with diagrams of such things as thermostatic cut-out systems, or steam engine governors. In any event, it was his eye for the way negative situations are, or are not, defused before the worst can happen that led to his formulating some interesting reflections on art.
In New Guinea, Bateson had been observing the different behaviour patterns of men and women among the local people. The more the men were exhibitionist and boastful, the more the women became quiet and contemplative. It was clear that this reciprocal process was potentially dangerous: competing with each other to show off, the men became extremely aggressive, while it sometimes seemed that the women risked sinking into catatonia.
Bateson called his book Naven after the series of bizarre rituals that he came to see as “correcting” this behavioural process and guaranteeing stability. In these complex ceremonies men dressed up as women and vice versa. The women assumed the traditional behaviour of the men while the men were abject and passive, even submitting to simulated rape. Crucially, Bateson observed, no one was conscious of what the social function of the ceremonies might be. For the participants, the rituals had religious significance and that was that. Where competing behaviour patterns could push people to extremes, Bateson concluded – and he mentioned such things as the arms race and sadomasochism – corrective influences would very probably be doing their work unacknowledged. It might in fact be important that people remained unaware of what was happening.
Turning to modern western societies, the key difference Bateson noted was the prodigious empowerment of the conscious, purposeful mind at the expense of less conscious practices and traditions. Much of his work (excellently anthologised in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) now focused on problems of epistemology: what knowledge we have, how we get it and how it is organised. While man was a complex mesh of mind and matter, and human society a dense labyrinth of interlocking systems, human consciousness, Bateson speculated, contained only very limited information about the whole. Since technology had hugely increased the power of conscious purpose to intervene in the world and alter the environment, the danger was that each “improvement” of our situation – a vaccine, an insecticide, a dam – would in fact upset a delicate balance. Back in the 60s, Bateson was among the first to appreciate the dangers of man-made climate change.
Where does art come into this? The curious nature of Bateson’s “epistemological” approach was that it prevented him from proposing remedies to the problems he identified. His thinking contained a kind of catch-22: the conscious mind, his own included, was of its nature incapable of grasping the vast system of which it was only a very small and far from representative part; hence any major intervention to “solve” a given problem would always be ill-informed and inadvisable. The only possible solution would be a radical change in our way of thinking, or even our way of knowing, a new (or ancient) mindset in which conscious purpose would be viewed as only a minor and rather suspect part of mental life.
Dreams, religious experience, art, love – these were the phenomena that still had power, Bateson thought, to undermine the rash/rational purposeful mind. Of these four, art enjoyed the special role of fusing different “levels of mind” together: there was necessarily consciousness and purpose in the decision to create, but creativity itself involved openness to material from the unconscious, otherwise the work would be merely schematic and transparent.
Discussing a Balinese painting that at the most immediate level shows a cremation procession, but can also be read as a phallic symbol (the tall cremation tower in the centre has an elephant on each side at the base) or as an account of Balinese social organisation (the etiquette and gaiety of the funeral crowd smoothing the turbulence of grief), Bateson remarks that the painting is profound because not “really” about one or the other, or even all three, but about their connectedness. “In a word, it is only about relationship and not about any identifiable relata.”
Similarly, a novel whose characters develop in a mutually defining play of identities, each changing in response to the others, expressing together a collective ethos of which none is fully representative – one thinks of the Karamazov brothers and their appalling father – undermines the notion that anyone can grasp the overall pattern of which they are a part. So, quite apart from any political content, narrative can induce a contemplative respect for the mysterious interconnectedness of the world, something that, hopefully, might lead to more cautious behaviour and a little less enthusiasm for dramatic intervention. It was a defining moment in Bateson’s own career when, having elaborated a series of ideas about mental illness that led to the development of modern family therapy, he withdrew from the field, shocked by the hands-on interventionist approach that his research colleagues had begun to employ.
Did Bateson really imagine that humanity might be enchanted into a less destructive, more meditative mode by reading stories and looking at pictures, or better still listening to music, which was pure complex interrelation without any suspicious content?
Probably not. Perhaps, true to his own reasoning, he wasn’t trying to “be practical”, but to offer an attractive idea we might enjoy reflecting on. One of the characteristic aspects of his work is his attempt to draw science into the realm of aesthetics. Having likened the prospect of benign government intervention in social behaviour to the task of reversing an articulated lorry through a labyrinth, he concludes: “We social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honoured, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty.”
Rebelling to the end against his father’s tendency to place artistic genius on a pedestal and beyond the reach of ordinary minds, Bateson invites us all, whatever we may be up to, to put beauty before “practicality”. His achievement was to offer convincing scientific arguments for our doing so.
The Guardian, Saturday 13 September 2008