Learning from his family, his animals and his work with tribal people, Gregory Bateson saw the creative potential of paradox
There are times when a dilemma that seems like agony in adolescence can not only provide the basis for a prestigious career, but also lead to a profound shift in the world of ideas. Thus it is that the predicament faced by the 17-year-old Gregory Bateson, following his brother’s suicide in 1922, turns out to be extremely relevant to us today, for it eventually led him to revolutionise the study of anthropology, bring communication theory to psychoanalysis (thus undermining the Freudian model), invent the concept of the ‘double bind’, and make one of the first coherent, scientifically and philosophically argued pleas for a holistic approach to the world’s environmental crisis. Seeking to condense Bateson’s work into one core concept, one can say that, above all, he proposed a paradigm shift in the way we think of ourselves as purposeful, decisionmaking actors in the world.
Born in 1904, Gregory was named after Gregor Mendel, the monk and botanist who opened the way to an understanding of how hereditary traits are passed on from one generation to the next. Gregory’s father, William Bateson, had championed Mendel’s theories in England, involving himself in years of violent polemics as to the nature of the evolutionary process, and coining the word ‘genetics’ in the process.
So this was a family of scientists. William’s wife Beatrice worked with him on his research, and his father had been an academic. Gregory’s eldest brother John was studying biology at the University of Cambridge when he was conscripted to fight in the First World War, and killed in 1918. His other brother Martin also went to Cambridge to study zoology. Gregory, some five years younger, was expected to do the same, like his namesake; high achievement, in the Bateson family, was the only justification for living.
Yet his father insisted that the greatest achievement of all was art. Art was sublime, science a poor second. His father collected art, in particular the work of the visionary William Blake, whose original watercolour Satan Exulting Over Eve (1795) hung on the wall in the sitting room. And he associated the special genius of the artist with the idea of the genetic leap, the kind of evolutionary change that can take the race to a higher level of development. It’s just that he did not believe his family could aim so high.
Given these conflicting messages – you must achieve, but you are not capable of the highest achievement – it was probably inevitable that one of the three sons would seek to be an artist. Belligerent and exhibitionist like his father, furious too with the British establishment that had supported the war that killed his brother, Martin gave up science for poetry and the theatre. His father opposed him. The two argued and fought. Eventually, infatuated with a young woman who did not return his affection, Martin chose his dead brother’s birthday to go to the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus and shoot himself in the head. He was 22.
Gregory, hitherto considered the dummy of the family, now found himself saddled with all his parents’ considerable expectations. The very day after Martin’s suicide, his father wrote to the boy in boarding school to remind him that only ‘great work’ makes life worthwhile, but, once again, that ‘art is scarcely in the reach of people like ourselves’. Martin’s death proved this. ‘Fix your mind on some impersonal definite interest,’ his mother told him in a separate letter.
Gregory was about to go to university: Cambridge, of course. ‘I was left holding a sort of bag,’ he later reflected, ‘protecting these people as if they were made of glass.’ His parents insisted he study zoology; they seemed frightened of anything wayward, psychological, unstable. Yet for Bateson the only worthy object of study appeared to be human behaviour, the kind of complex circumstances – the war, British academia, his family background – that had created the drama he was living through. What he would eventually do was to use the tools of observation and analysis that his father taught him, the zoologist’s attention to patterning and morphology, to bring a fresh approach to the study of behaviour in groups, and above all how individuals communicate and relate in groups. Rereading his two great works, Naven(1936) and Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), it is evident that his influence in various fields has been enormous; also, that the message he eventually formulated through the 1960s and ’70s remains as urgent as ever.
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