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(A Swedish) Encounter with Gregory Bateson

by Erik Graffman

Relational psychologist, educator, writer and translator of Gregory Bateson. In Sweden & France.

(A Swedish) Encounter with Gregory Bateson There is a mystery about Gregory Bateson, about his reputation. Though almost a quarter of a century has passed since he died, he is still a hidden entity. That is, without an echo in public debate, unknown to most – except among psychotherapists and educators with an interest in systems theory; among certain anthropologists and some odd researchers within biology, politics or economy and artificial intelligence. But look up his name on the Web, with any better search engine, and you’ll get at least sixty thousand hits – where the best have been there since long, extensively quoting and describing him as possibly the most innovative thinker of the entire 20th century. As such, I’d also regard him, but it isn’t always easy to suffer his lack of recognition.

In the late 60’s, many of us became inspired by the brilliant Scottish psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, and it was probably in his pamphlet, The Politics of Experience, where I first heard of Bateson. To later find his lecture in the report from the notorious London Congress, The Dialectics of Liberation. This was in 1967–68, and both books were among the ones to immediately be translated into Swedish, the same year; telling us something about the excitement of those times. While other and heavier tomes were dedicated to Gregory Bateson; quite impressive. So I looked around and finally found his just-released collection, Steps to an Ecology of Mind – and though I neither understood nor managed to read it all at once, I was captured. His way of reasoning was so versatile and profound, so elegant and obviously honest, without rhetorical overtones. And once you’ve begun to grasp Bateson, it’s hard to let go of him.

Let me make a digression. On my way to a psychology exam, I’d also done a semester of philosophy. A disappointment, alas – without any real, existential questions, more like some kind of advanced grammar. And the bombastic Norwegian professor was tiresome. But later on I discovered his fellow-countryman and far superior colleague, Hans Skjervheim, through a booklet of translated essays, with a crystal clear account of all the essential philosophy I had lacked. Not the least about how your own reflection must come first and be able to justify all so-called science or research, as soon as this concerns human beings or society, any social phenomena. As we can never be fully extraneous to those or that, which we study, we’re always a part of and implicated in… Thus briefly put, this may sound simpler than it really is; contrary to all empirical objectivity. But what I didn’t know then, was that just this was something Bateson was deeply aware of and naturally presumed. An insight which still today is not at all that granted, but which must have prepared me.

Skjervheim and others (e.g. Anthony Wilden) thus paved my way to Gregory Bateson. Around the same time, I found my practical mentor in the North American, Walter Kempler, who was then introducing his existential brand of family therapy in Scandinavia. Kempler was a charismatic and confronting master, highly suspicious of all theorizing. But his constant attention to the here and now of context, to relations before individuals, made him ”systemic” long ahead of the Italian franchisement of that term. Just as the only psychology Bateson showed any respect for was Kempler’s, i.e. Gestalt. As a newly hatched psychologist, I was working with drug addicts and a research grant. Though now I got hooked on family therapy. And the complexly fascinating, both symmetrical and complementary relationship between existential reason and eco-systemic theory is something which has come to haunt me since then.

In Sweden, there was as yet no established, postgraduate training in family therapy, so I applied for a one-year scholarship in California. Where, in May 1975, I was able to meet with Bateson in a three-day workshop at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, south of San Francisco. He then lived nearby with his family, and was partly involved at Esalen but mainly at the University of Santa Cruz, as the professor of an ambitious course, ”The Biology of Culture and Consciousness”. We were a small group, more in awe than at home with Bateson’s oeuvre, and with a tedious physicist among us. Though even if less stimulated, Bateson was impressive. Overly tall, bohemically shuffling and heavy as he eased down on the floor, where we were crouching on big pillows. With an immediate, palpable authority in his sonorous, British drawl. On the last day, his wife Lois joined in, with their then six-year-old daughter. Bateson had brought along a big eucalyptus branch, and tried to make us see its reciprocal structure as grammatical in the spirit of Goethe; while little Nora, who had grown up with a chimpanzee as playmate, nosily climbed around us.

Later on I went to a kind of double lecture and debate with Carl Rogers and Gregory Bateson. We came to a big (gym?) hall, full of people and poorly ventilated. Rogers opened with a sermon on the importance of ”The Concept of the Person”, which never seemed to end. When Bateson finally climbed the rostrum, however, we all became attentive. He looked at us and started to to talk about how hot it was, and that most of us probably wanted to get out in the summer evening. And that this, our context, was primary to us all. Which he could hardly compete with, as he felt the same. Thus, metalogically, he vaulted himself up and onwards. And eventually, as it became hard to follow him, we were still spellbound by his highbrow presence.

Almost thirty years have passed since then, and I’ve begun to grasp Bateson a little better. For instance, that we live in a single, singular world, where the split between inner and outer, between subjective and objective, really is an illusion. Where mind and body (or matter) are just two different perspectives of the same unity. What Bateson may have meant to so-called family therapy is evident in other parts of this book. While I believe him essential to ever transcend our whole, manfully paranoid and scientifically secularized, culture.

(For the 2nd edition of Familien – pluss én, H. Hårtveit & P. Jensen; copyright: Erik Graffman & Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 2004.)

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