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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.”

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

“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.

Bateson with her mother, Margaret Mead, in 1960 (Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives)
Bateson with her mother, Margaret Mead, in 1960 (Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives)

Bateson writes:

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.

Art from Daytime Visions by Isol

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.

Complement with Nietzsche on how to find yourself, then drink in more of Bateson’s intelligent and sensitive insight into modern life in her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:


Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

Wisdom on artistic paralysis from Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and others.

Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Picasso proclaimed in contemplating how creativity works and where ideas come from. He is, of course, Picasso — it may be tempting to dismiss his insight with an “Easy for him to say!” sigh. But anyone who has endeavored in a creative field has felt first-hand this yin-yang of action and ideation. (The same, I’ve long believed, holds true for the larger question of “finding” one’s creative purpose and path in life — we make the trail by walking it, only to turn around and “find” a path.)

For writers, there can be a particularly disorienting disconnect between knowing this correlation intellectually and being petrified by facing the blank page. Much of that psychoemotional paralysis comes from our pathological perfectionism, the antidote to which Jennifer Egan captured perfectly in her advice on writing: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

And yet something often stands between knowing this and living this. That’s what eight of today’s most celebrated writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Mitchell, Philipp Meyer, Alaa Al-Aswany, and Daniel Kehlmann — explore in this wonderful micro-documentary from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel, which has previously given us celebrated authors’ advice to aspiring writers and Patti Smith’s advice to the young.

Highlights below — please enjoy:

Jonathan Franzen:

The blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.

David Mitchell:

A blank page is also a door — it contains infinity, like a night sky with a supermoon really close to the Earth, with all the stars and the galaxies, where you can see very, very clearly… You know how that makes your heart beat faster?

Margaret Atwood:

There is something compelling about the blank page that beckons you in to write something on it — it must be filled.

Philipp Meyer:

I don’t think “writer’s block” actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero… The point is actually to get stuff on paper, just to allow yourself to kind of flow. It is only by writing that you’ll discover characters, ideas, things like this.

Alaa Al-Aswany:

The blank page gives a horizon for what you can write, because you always have this conflict between what you want to say and what you could say. And writing is this conflict.

Joyce Carol Oates:

I would never write first — I don’t think that’s good at all. As soon as you write in language, it becomes frozen. It’s better to think first — to think for a long time — and then write when you’re ready to write. But writing prematurely is a mistake.

Couple with this growing library of great writers’ advice on the craft and artist Sol LeWitt’s electrifying wisdom on how to overcome creative block and self-doubt.


The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Clarifies the Central Anxiety of Existence

“Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”

The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Clarifies the Central Anxiety of Existence

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Italo Calvino wrote in 1970 as he reflected on photography and the art of presence. That same decade, Susan Sontag considered how photography mediates life’s relationship with death, that ultimate commemoration, observing: “We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.” A year later, she would go on to expand on these ideas in her timeless treatise on photography, exploring its function not only as commemoration but as “aesthetic consumerism” — an insight which time has proven astoundingly prescient as we confront the insatiable voraciousness of visual culture in the age of the social web.

Nearly half a century later, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole — perhaps Sontag’s closest contemporary counterpart — examines this dual role of photography as commemoration and consumerism in an essay titled “Memories of Things Unseen,” found in the altogether spectacular Known and Strange Things: Essays (public library).

Teju Cole (Photography: Martin Lengemann)
Teju Cole (Photography: Martin Lengemann)

Cole writes:

Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.

But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.

But memory itself is an imperfect memorial: The events of our lives are similarly shadowed by the photographs of those events. Who hasn’t looked at an early childhood photograph of oneself, predating the age of conscious remembering, and not felt the mirage of a memory in beholding that moment? In those instances, what we remember is what was captured, which releases in us a believable conjecture about what was, and the conjecture becomes calcified into an unremembered memory.

The same Möbius strip of representation and remembrance, Cole suggests, exists in our collective memory. He recounts a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of works from the ancient Middle East, just as the news media were reporting on the accelerating destruction of artifacts in Syria and Iraq. (That the “news” as we know it is an overwhelmingly photography-driven industry, selling the immediacy of the present using what is invariably in the past as its chief currency, is a paradox so self-evident that it need not be belabored.) Cole writes:

Next to a selection of second- and third-century Syrian gravestones (many of them fresh with the pain of loss and inscribed with the names of the dead and the word “Alas!”), there was an old photograph reproduced from a book of the Temple of Bel, an important archaeological complex in Palmyra. About a week later, the iconoclastic fanatics of ISIS blew up this very temple. The photograph was unchanged; it was still there on the wall of Room 406 at the Met, but it was now filled up with the loss of what it depicted. The Roman-era columns of the temple still stand in rows in the grainy image — ravaged by time, but standing. In life, they’re gone.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford Universities, uses sophisticated imaging techniques to aid conservation, epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. One of the institute’s current efforts, the Million Image Database project, involves photographing artifacts that are at risk of being destroyed for military or religious reasons, a bleak necessity in a world in which the beauty or importance of an object does not guarantee its safety. The goal of the project is to distribute up to five thousand modified cameras, to professionals and to amateurs, and use them to capture a million 3-D images. Already, more than a thousand cameras have been distributed, and the 3-D data from them are being received (though the directors of the project, to protect their associates on the ground, are leaving a lag of several months before they make the images publicly available). In the event of some of the objects being destroyed, the detailed visual record could be enough to facilitate a reconstruction. Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.

The camera obscura, one of the 100 ideas that changed photography

And yet photography, after all, is a technology — both of thing and of thought — and like any technology, it is animated by a dual capacity for good and evil. Parallel to this constructive use of photography as reconstruction of collective memory, Cole points to its destructive counterpart — its use in monitoring and manipulation, a kind of “aesthetic control” to Sontag’s “aesthetic consumerism.” He writes:

Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance. And in fact, much of the intent behind the collection of these images is indeed surveillance: the government retains our images in order to fight terrorism, and corporations harvest everything they can about us in order to sell us things.

But the most disquieting aspect of this perpetual photographic documentation is that we have reached a point where these images of us will long outlive us and might, in theory, last forever. “All eternity is in the moment,” but when the moment ceases to be ephemeral and instead lasts forever, it ceases to exist. Paradoxically, rather than furnishing a greater gateway to eternity, eradicating the moment extinguishes eternity altogether. When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal.

Eadweard Muybridge: Sequenced image of a rotating sulky wheel with self-portrait
Sequenced image of a rotating sulky wheel with self-portrait by Eadweard Muybridge, who changed modern consciousness by freezing the flow of existence.

Cole illustrates our confused relationship to temporality with a sobering anecdote of a self-annihilating exchange with a friend via SnapChat, one of our few deliberately ephemeral technologies:

The voiding of the record on Snapchat was startling. But it was also a relief. Our real selves remained, but the photographs were no longer there, and something about this felt like a sequence more preferable to the other way around, where the image lives on and the model is irretrievable. But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.

I’m reminded of Sarah Manguso’s magnificent meditation on time and memory, in which she crystallized the paradox: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.” I take from Cole — an inference that no doubt suffers the typical bedevilments of interpretation — that the camera lens has become the supreme focal point of that existential anxiety, through which we exorcise the ultimate fixation on freezing the flow of existence. To commemorate life in the act of living it seems to be the human condition — or the human curse.

Complement the wholly terrific Known and Strange Things with Sontag on selfies, selfhood, and how the camera helps us navigate complexity and this animated history of photography, from the camera obscura to the camera phone, then revisit Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises.


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