Eschatology is enjoying a heyday. Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars, have all intensified the impression that human ‘civilization’ is 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; it is almost a rule that the big literary prizes go to those writers involved in a political struggle or simply siding with the victims in the world’s upheavals. Indeed, a political ‘alibi’ of this kind seems almost essential for a ‘serious’ novelist nowadays.
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 a political axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most ‘useful’ when, to all intents and purposes, most ‘irrelevant’.
Gregory Bateson was born in 1904 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 cham¬pion 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 anthropo¬logy, 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 our¬selves.’ Gregory’s elder brother, Martin, who had rejected this limitation and 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.
Clearly, 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 achieve¬ment to which his dogmatic, scientific family attached the greatest value. Bateson’s choice of anthropology and its specifically, as he always insisted, ‘human’ element’, can be seen as a way of combining the scientific and artistic, so resolving the career conundrum his parents had created for him. In the opening page of his first book, Naven, a study of the Iatmul Indians of New Guinea, Bateson reflected on the advant¬ages 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 and inter-related¬ness of a culture, rather than to report particular facts. It’s not surprising, then, that his second project, in Bali, undertaken with his wife, Margaret Mead, was the first to make systematic use of photo¬graphs in an ethnographic study. Ever resistant to the analytic and reductive, Bateson stressed that the photographs not be seen separately but always in relation to each other:
“In this monograph we are attempting a new method of stating the intangible relation¬ships among different types of culturally standardized be¬ha-viour 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 discus¬sion; the same emotional thread may run through them.’
Over the space of a lifetime, Bateson involved himself 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 various other creatures. Behind it all, 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 vehement public polemics and torn apart by the conflict that led to his brother’s suicide (another older brother was killed in World War I), Bateson was looking for the sort of mechanisms that can prevent tension from blowing up into conflict and 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 radically 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 the one type of behaviour stimulated the other and that this reciprocal process was potentially imbalanced and 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 because this was the name of the series of bizarre rituals which 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 now assumed, with great excitement and relief, what was the traditional beha¬viour 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 sado-masochism, corrective influences would very probably be doing their work unacknowledged. It might actually 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 anthologized in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) now focused on problems of epistemology: what knowledge do we really have, how we get it and how it is organized. While man was an immensely 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. What’s more, the information that was present to the conscious mind tended to be selected, moment by moment, on the basis of its relevance to short-term goals, rather than a respect for overall system: medical science, for example, studied a disease in isolation until it found a cure, then shifted its attention elsewhere, giving little thought to the wholeness and integration of body and mind. 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 sixties, 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) mind set 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 offering a complex mediation between conscious and unconscious, 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 again as an account of Balinese social organization (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.” 151
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 immediately 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 inter-relation 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 that 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.