Composing a Life: Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson on Our False Mythos of Achievement and the Messy, Nonlinear Reality of How We Become Who We Are
“The knight errant, who finds his challenges along the way, may be a better model for our times than the knight who is questing for the Grail.”
By Maria Popova
“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts,” proclaimed a 1924 guide to the art of living while, across the Atlantic, Bertrand Russell was contemplating what the good life really means. And yet as the twentieth century wore on and consumption eclipsed creativity, our ideals of and ideas about what constitutes a good life grew increasingly fogged by the cult of having, to which we submitted the art of being as a sacrificial offering.
In the mid-1970s, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm turned to the problem of setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture. Fromm was a seer of a different order — so much so that legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead would turn to him for advice on the most challenging aspects of living — and insisted that “the full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation.” But it took more than a decade for this sobering spark to kindle the light of awareness in the hearth of culture.
Few people have been more instrumental in this awakening to the authentic life than anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson (b. December 8, 1939), Mead’s daughter. Her 1989 treatise Composing a Life (public library) endures as an immensely insightful inquiry into our culturally conditioned mythologies of achievement and success, and what it takes to transcend them in order to live an authentic, meaningful life — a life that is invariably far messier and more strewn with contradiction than our misleading cultural mythos of self-actualization allows.
Our aesthetic sense, whether in works of art or in lives, has overfocused on the stubborn struggle toward a single goal rather than on the fluid, the protean, the improvisatory. We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist’s vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
Bateson considers why the notion of “composing a life” is the perfect metaphor for that ultimate creative act, that of self-creation:
Composing a life has a metaphorical relation to many different arts, including architecture and dance and cooking. In the visual arts, a variety of disparate elements may be arranged to form a simultaneous whole, just as we combine our simultaneous commitments. In the temporal arts, like music, a sequential diversity may be brought into harmony over time. In still other arts, such as homemaking or gardening, choreography or administration, complexity is woven in both space and time.
When the choices and rhythms of life change, as they have in our time, the study of life becomes an increasing preoccupation.
But the most robust legacy of Bateson’s foundational text — the insight that comes alive anew in our own age — is her insistence that the art of composing a life isn’t always neat and linear, just as it isn’t reserved for the privileged and for those kissed by fortune’s benevolence. Writing while the dust of Women’s Liberation and the Civil Rights movement is still settling, as people are claiming their hard-earned place in culture while juggling the demands of their daily lives, she argues that the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the historically sidelined and oppressed, and those whose lives have been violated and constricted in other ways, can partake in this art of living with equal dignity and grace. With an eye to these winding roads to self-actualization, which might appear aimless and confused to the judgmental onlooker, Bateson writes:
It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. We must invest time and passion in specific goals and at the same time acknowledge that these are mutable. The circumstances of women’s lives now and in the past provide examples for new ways of thinking about the lives of both men and women. What are the possible transfers of learning when life is a collage of different tasks? How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners. The knight errant, who finds his challenges along the way, may be a better model for our times than the knight who is questing for the Grail.
In the remainder of the indispensable Composing a Life, Bateson goes on to profile four women who exemplify this art of wresting meaning from chaotic, interrupted lives. Through their stories, she examines our inherited beliefs and misbeliefs about ambition and achievement, dismantling some of our most limiting cultural mythologies — ones with which we continue to struggle decades later, particularly in our notions of success — to reveal the innermost truths of human fulfillment.