Jan 2010

Bateson on ‘The Sacred’

Everyone who knows me is aware that I can be rather evangelical about the work of Gregory Bateson, and in particular about his collected essays, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. There are two reasons for this unabashed proselytizing.

Firstly, from a purely personal standpoint, when I first began to get my head around his work it was an incredibly satisfying experience. While I was certainly learning plenty of new ideas, much of it felt more like I was having long-held suspicions confirmed. A thousand things I’d been thinking about and grappling with — for the best part of 20 years — up until Bateson, they’d been like so many fragments of paper… each hinting at something beyond it, but something still unconscious and inaccessible. Steps to an Ecology of Mind didn’t tell me what it was. It just showed me that I didn’t have a random bunch of paper fragments; I had an unsolved jigsaw.

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The picture is almost always a little bigger than you imagine.

The second reason I spend so much time banging on about Bateson’s ideas is because I think they are incredibly important. I believe we are facing an imminent crisis arising from the unsustainable nature of our civilisation. Not only does Bateson offer us an incisive explanation of this crisis, he provides a perspective on it that I believe is invaluable should we wish to deal with it effectively.

Having said that, I often suspect I detect a tone in some of Bateson’s work that suggests he didn’t think we had a hope in hell of dealing with this crisis effectively. Not because we don’t have the necessary tools or wherewithal. But because we don’t have the vision. Our epistemology is savagely flawed.

I think my, shall we say… “Batesonian proselytizing” is an attempt to share that realisation. Or at least suggest to others that it’s there to be shared. Of course, when I thrust a copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind into someone’s hand, I’m immediately forced to launch into a lengthy explanation of how to read the book. It’s not Finnegans Wake or anything, but nor is it the easiest text to get into. And it’s very easy to get discouraged. I started reading it three times before it finally clicked with me. Though it’s worth pointing out that I never once considered not reading it after that first abortive attempt. You only need to spend an hour or so browsing Steps to an Ecology of Mind to know that there’s something valuable there.

Earlier today, I was listening to a talk Bateson gave in 1971 on the subject of The Sacred. It’s labelled “a lecture on Consciousness and Psychopathology” though his rambling, conversational style definitely puts it under the category “talk” rather than “lecture”. About halfway through, he muses:

There are things, you know, that people do… that just give one the shivers. They will put the potted plants on the radiator… and this is just bad biology. And I guess “bad biology” is, in the end, bad Buddhism… bad Zen… and an assault on The Sacred. And that, really, is what we’re trying to do; defend The Sacred from being put on the radiator in this sort of way.

Gregory Bateson | 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology

This simple metaphor (much of the talk is about the necessity of bridging the gap between the metaphorical and the literal) sums up the challenge facing humanity today. It’s the very heart of Colin Tudge’s argument in the essential So Shall We Reap, for instance. It’s at the heart of the Climate Change debate and almost all environmental activism.

If you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, why not download and listen to the talk. It barely scratches the surface of Bateson’s work, and like his books can be a little opaque in places (in the sense that he’s discussing complex subjects that are by their nature rather difficult to discuss and often inhabit that fuzzy area where language has trouble finding a firm grip). Nonetheless it’s filled with wisdom, warmth, humour and genuine insight. And there’s not much about which that can be said.

Gregory Bateson: 1971 lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (Part 1) | (Part 2)

Posted in: Opinion