Mary Catherine Bateson

The Real Act of Creation: Composing Our Lives

VTR Date: January 13, 1990

Guest: Bateson, Mary Catherine


Host: Richard D. Hefner
Guest: Mary Catherine Bateson
VTR: 1/13/90


HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is Mary Catherine Bateson, Professor of Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Virginia who has been here before to discuss her compelling memoir of her parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, entitled With A Daughter’s Eye, as well as her incisive volume on Thinking AIDS.

Now, the Atlantic Monthly Press has published Dr. Bateson’s enormously touching and evocative study of contemporary women … “of five artists,” as she described her book, “engaged in that act of creation that engages us all – the composition of our lives.”

Composing A Life is her book’s title, her metaphor. And I want to ask Dr. Bateson to enlarge upon a core statement in it she writes: “Because we are engaged in a day-to-day process of self-invention – not discovery, for what we search for does not exist until we find it – both the past and the future are raw material, shaped and reshaped by each individual.” And that’s where I begin, Dr. Bateson, by asking you to elaborate upon that as a theme in your book.

BATESON: Well, I think many women have the experience of day-to-day struggle and it’s important that they understand that creative element in that struggle. That it’s not simply a matter of making the best, in a negative sense, of what they have – coping, juggling, barely getting by – that they are creating a new way of being from year to year, from day to day, and interpreting their previous learning and applying it to new things. And this I see as an essentially artistic process and I think seeing it as an artistic process may empower, release, potentiate a lot of creativity.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting, you say it is not coping, and it seemed to me that that has been the word that I’ve heard so often lately, people coping – coping with work, coping with love, coping with children – and usually women are using that word …

BATESON: It’s not only coping. One has to acknowledge it’s difficult, sometimes desperate. People get stressed out, overburdened, but it’s important not just to look at it from that point of view. I’m trying to introduce another point of view for looking at it, now just for women, for men, too, who are making creative decisions and adaptations.

HEFFNER: Well, you say for men too, and I must admit that’s what bothered me about the book. I kept wondering whether you didn’t think that men have to cope, too, and that men find themselves not thing about creating their lives, but living them and dealing with them, and why this comes out as a function of women.

BATESON: Well, there are two reasons for that. One was a little bit of mischief on my part. You know, so many books have been written about human beings that are based on research about men. So many anthropologists just go and talk to the important men in the tribe.

HEFFNER: Is that really true?

BATESON: That used to be true. It’s less true than it used to be. Carol Gilligan has shown all these accepted ideas about adolescents were derived from work on male adolescents. So I decided to write a book on human beings that started from research on women because the other has been the norm, and yet we have been able to learn from work on males and apply it to both men and women sometimes successively so. But there is another reason, and that is because I wanted to focus on two particular issues that arise in women’s lives that I think are of increasing importance for both men and women, but have always been there for women. And so my thesis is, that if we are going to learn about these two issues of discontinuity and conflicting priorities and distractions, the place to look for the experience is in women’s lives. So we have this kind of myth of the successful life; you get started early; you follow a rising trajectory; you have some kind of great success; you retire in a burst of glory and so on, but it’s a single trajectory. How many people actually live a single trajectory anymore? Most of us live zig zags. Now, this has to do with change, change in technology, change in the business environment. It has to do with longer lives, professions disappear, you have to retrain, learn new ones. But the point is that women’s lives have always been characterized by discontinuity and adapting to change, because the birth of each new child, you see, even in the traditional home where the woman was there with the children, requires a reshaping activity and you have to adjust to change all along. But not only that, you know, conflicted priorities is not just something that arises because women are torn between the office and the home, it’s an old, old problem where women have been torn between the demands of a husband, and a breast baby, and a knee baby, and a wander-off-in-the-bushes-and-get-in-trouble toddler, and they’ve had to pay attention to more than one thing at once.

HEFFNER: Yes, but traditionally haven’t they provided that continuity, while you put your emphasis in this book upon the discontinuity that they experience now. As I read, and I thought Composing a Life, I think Composing a Life is one of the most sensitive books I have ever read. I used the word evocative before, it is. It is evocative of the warmest and the best feelings. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the discontinuities you are talking about aren’t going to be exacerbated as you find it in your heart and in your mind to accept the notion that women need not provide the continuity that they have provided us with all these years. Is that an unfair burden, or an unfair observation?

BATESON: Well, I think it’s a translation of something that several people have said. One of the things that I believe is that we should sometimes regard marriages that end, not as failures, but as a relationship, or marriage, that was successful for 10, 15, 20 years, but when two people are growing and changing 50 years may be a little long for the same face across the breakfast table. So I think some people see my work as subversive because I think it’s very destructive to treat all divorces and separations as failures, sometimes they’re graduation ceremonies. In that sense, it is important not to encourage women just to hold on for dear life to existing activities, relationships, marriages, but make them willing to move. At the same time, one of the things that fascinated me about the women that I interviewed, and I can see it in my life, too, is they never quite leave anything behind completely, even when they’re forced from one profession into another, when they leave a marriage, they start a new one, you see them trying to sustain friendships, trying to use previous skills, trying to recycle. These are not women who throw away the past and move on. These are women who are discovering new kinds of continuities and I think we need new kinds of continuities to deal with a world that is changing. We don’t balance that just by standing still.

HEFFNER: Yes, but these are four and then five rather extraordinary women, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether what you described about their lives and their abilities – and your prescriptions which you derived from what they did – pertain to the rest of, I was going to say mankind, forgive me,, womankind.

BATESON: Humankind … our kind.

HEFFNER: Humankind … but you wrote about women.

BATESON: No, you know the idea for this book, the first impetus for this book, came from the work on my parents’ lives. And particularly, interestingly enough, from working on my father’s life because at a certain point if you looked at his professional history he had studied the Balinese, alcoholics, dolphins, New Guinea, schizophrenia, he moved from field to field like some kind of butterfly. You know people are always complaining that women have no staying power, they don’t stay with the same thing, and at a certain point he realized that in all that work he’d been working on the same central issues and he put together an anthology called Steps to an Ecology of Mind because all those different things were steps to an understanding he could not have had if he hadn’t switched subject matter, he wouldn’t have found out what he was really working on. And one of the things that I try to show with these women’s lives is that as they move from years in which they’re mainly focused on children, to years outside the home, as they move from one career to another career say, because their husband moves to the other side of the country, this kind of thing, there are basic continuities, the patterns recur, and the patterns are more abstract, they’re making growth possible, caretaking, trying to create environ … you know, when you’re running a research lab in a company, or if you’re a secretary in an office, you are both of those things. You are creating an environment of a certain sort in which a number of different people live and grow or fail to grow, and this is true, as true, in many ways for the secretary who saves her boss’s life, as it is for the woman CEO.
HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me that you take this, what you describe as this genius for continuity, and you attribute it to the women you describe in your book, and yet your point seems to be that we must learn to live with discontinuity and with recreating our lives. Now how do we make those jive?

BATESON: I think that this is, in many ways, the fundamental conundrum we face at the moment. You think of a high-tech company, just to move away from lives and have another kind of example, what do they have to do? They bring out a product. They work very hard to develop it for a couple of years, and that product is obsolete in another couple of years. And yet, if the company is to succeed, which a lot of high-tech companies don’t, they have to find a way to institutionalize the process of innovation, to create a continuity within that discontinuity. What I’m talking about is a related problem. We have to live in change, and find ways of affirming our most basic convictions, our personal styles, our talents across wide gulfs of change.

HEFFNER: Do you believe in … when you write Composing a Life, there is, of course, that overwhelming sense of continuing composition, of drawing from the raw materials what you would have them make, and you create them out of your own life. Again, I come back to whether the genius of femininity has not been the maintenance of continuity, and whether in our own times with, as you suggest the emphasis in our modern economic life upon discontinuity, whether we needn’t look, not at an embracing of discontinuities but rather back to those whose hand always rocked that continuum? I knew you would look like that.

BATESON: (Laughter) Look, some of these divisions of labor are going to change. Some of them will change because tasks will begin to be divided more evenly, one hopes. In the process, tasks are going to be reinterpreted. I’ll give you an example of that, at the moment a large number of caretaking tasks are female ghettos and they’re underpaid and underrespected, and underrewarded. I would like to see a society where men went into elementary school teaching, and kindergarten teaching, where men were involved in care for the sick, but not at a distance as physicians only, but in every way. And I think that will happen partly b a change in the division of labor, but it will also happen as we change our values.

HEFFNER: Which way? Good or bad, as you say as we change our values? Are you going to be more comfortable, morally, in this new life?

BATESON: I am. I think change always created degrees of moral discomfort and discomfort for all the people involved, but I think a set of social arrangements that were predicated on what I see as injustice is not the way to produce moral comfort for everyone. Let’s try and make a society where the rewards, the excitements are more equally divided.

HEFFNER: I wouldn’t quarrel with you on the question of equality or the equal division of both the rewards and the burdens. But I guess I had been trying to tease out of you an answer to the question as to whether whatever continuity there has been, that has been productive and good, has been a real goal … will be one of the prices we will pay for the notion of composing and recreating our lives? In fact, even insisting that that’s a positive good, and meeting the economic discontinuities of our times with political discontinuities, social discontinuities, and now familial discontinuities.

BATESON: One of the things I’ve been interested in is what happens to refugees, male and female. The world is full of them at the moment, this is the age of the refugee, I’m sorry, the century of the refugee, and you can look at individuals, and you can say that some individuals respond to the most radical uprooting with an assertion of individual continuity and the ingenuity to find ways of expressing it. And other people, their identity is brittle, they cannot imagine being themselves in a new environment, and they’re completely disabled by it. Now, what do we have to do to create individuals who can handle discontinuities that they don’t choose, they’re forced upon them, as so many discontinuities are, and handle them by finding continuity within this discontinuity? Most of this has to do with education. It has to do with giving people, and I think that’s one of the most, let’s say non-representative facts about the women I write about, is they’re all women who had a very good start educationally, and a rather general start. They are all women who had liberal educations, and I think that’s key. If you go through school, training to do one particular kind of work, to work on one particular kind of machine or computer or whatever, and you go out and you expect to do that all your life, you are going to be unemployed someday. But if you go through school learning to learn, that’s a job that’s always available.

HEFFNER: What a wonderful way of putting what I try unsuccessfully to say to my students and to my academic colleagues. May I ask a question that may be totally unfair, but it’s really a quest for information, for knowledge? When you talk about the century of the refugee, and certainly this is true, it has been since the early years of our century, is there any indication in that continuous discontinuity of who succeeded best in maintaining sanity, and the sanity of those who found themselves for days, or weeks, or months, or decades refugees – women? Men? Is there any indication?

BATESON: I think there are … there is some indication, and I know about it really from a different context, but there are situations where women do better. The way I read it is that women are more often continuing a career they’ve been in all along. If they are sustaining their family in a new place it’s easier to interpret that as the same activity. And men have in the past defined their identities vocationally, you are your work if you’re a man, and so that when that is disrupted, or your land that you inherited from your father, and when that is disrupted you get very disrupted people.

HEFFNER: Women who have … upon whom their vocation has been imposed, seemingly, throughout history remain the glue, the providers of continuity.

BATESON: When you set it up so that you have this kind of a sharp world distinction, it’s not surprising that one sex does better than the other under certain extreme circumstances. One would like to see both men and women have the continuity and the adaptability.
HEFFNER: What will change that will provide that ability to find continuity in discontinuity? What will change in our educational system, in our families, etc.? Do you see, I guess I’m asking whether you see anything that is productive of hope in your own understanding of what’s going on in our society?

BATESON: Well, at the moment I think we have a very important resource of women, this is why I write about them, of women who have had to adapt per force, and that it’s useful to mine their experience. I think I guess I’m not terribly hopeful for an immediate improvement in the educational system, it seems to be moving in the direction of, until recently perhaps, of vocational emphasis. I’m not sure that back to basics and Western Civ. and so on are the solution, but I guess I’m trying to contribute to a kind of symbolic change where people begin to look at their lives differently just as we’re looking at our lives differently as we understand their duration. I just had my 50th birthday …

HEFFNER: Congratulations, you’re a baby.

BATESON: I’m a baby, you got it, that’s exactly how I feel. I’m going to do a heck of a lot of things.

HEFFNER: In the next 50 years.

BATESON: You have it. That’s exactly it, but that’s a new way of looking at a 50th birthday that’s developed in the last decade or so. It takes a while to understand these changes. I’m trying to supply a set of metaphors for looking at discontinuities that are forced on people that will tickle their imaginations and help them to discover the creative process of finding continuities and transferring learning within those. People need symbols, they’re been given stories about what lives are supposed to be like that are no longer applicable and they’re always holding their lives up and comparing them to a traditional model of a successful life and saying, “What is wrong with me?” When they should be saying, “You know, I’m not doing badly, I’m doing a creative job.”

HEFFNER: Now tell me, how does this differ from coping?

BATESON: Day to day it involves a lot of the same things. If people, when they’re coping, can look at coping as creative and not as a response to desperation, that’s just fine. I started using the metaphor of improvisation, thinking about this as a desperate activity. You ought to have your lines that you can recite, you ought to have directions to follow, and instead you’re trying to think of something to do. But then I realized that improvisation is a creative process, coping is a creative process, call it coping, but call it coping not as if that were a compromise with reality, but call it coping recognizing that it’s a dance with reality.

HEFFNER: I love that expression “A dance with reality,” and that, I’m afraid, Dr. Bateson is the point at which they say we have no more time. I would like sometime to get you to come back, talking about Composing a Life, to indicate to what degree all of our social and religious thrusts work against this egocentric … if, or if that’s quite the right word … this ego-central notion of making ourselves for the next program, okay?

BATESON: Glad to do it.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me again today, Mary Catherine Bateson. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation;; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.