Struggling for a Russian Bateson
Struggling for a Russian Bateson
The late 1970s to the early 1980s in Russia is regarded as the very apotheosis of "Brezhnev's era of stagnation". Nothing worked, this huge land was frozen in a condition of inactivity that was paralleled by the marasmus senilis of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev. Towards the end of his rule he could hardly talk.
But in downtown Moscow astonishing things were happening. Former microbiologist and hypnotherapist Joseph Goldin, a charismatic figure who lived in a dilapidated three-storey apartment building on Yuzhinsky Lane, set about organizing a Moscow branch of the Esalen Institute. He was quite convinced that this was possible — to start a branch of Esalen in the very center of the Communist world — "in the center of the cyclone", so to speak.
In the late 1970s I had just graduated from the Physical Faculty of Moscow State University and was a member of a group of enthusiasts who gathered around Joseph Goldin and were inspired by his aims. It was in his circle that I became acquainted with modern trends in humanistic psychology and read a number of important books in English, such as Erick Berne's Games People Play. It was in this book where I first came across the name of Gregory Bateson. Then I translated The Book of Est by Luke Rhinehart, which describes the experience of attending Werner Erhard's famous est-training. My translation was conducted for the purposes of our small circle and typed up in several copies that circulated within the group. There was simply no way to publish books like these in the USSR — they were considered to be incompatible with Marxist-Leninist ideology — so samizdat (self published) books were very common.
Actually, nothing came of Joseph Goldin's plans at that time. However, had his efforts occurred seven or eight years later at the height of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, the results might have been quite different. But even in the early 80s Joseph Goldin achieved some amazing things. Since he had a keen understanding of the functioning of the Soviet bureaucratic machine and of its "undocumented options" he managed to organize several visits to Moscow of key personalities in the Human Potential Movement, including Werner Erhard and Michael Murphy. It was Michael Murphy who first gave me first-hand information about the important yet enigmatic figure of Gregory Bateson, who had then only recently passed away. But I had no access to genuine Bateson texts and for me he remained a mythical figure for another 10 years.
Then Leonid Brezhnev died, the regime changed, and in the mid 80s Gorbachev's perestroika took hold. This Russian word means "reconstruction" and reflected the irrational belief of soft-liners within the Communist establishment that there was some mysterious "hidden potential" within Socialism that could be activated to make the dying Soviet system work. We now know that these hopes were futile. But back then we were all seized by this new experience of political and social life. Our "human potential" circle disintegrated of its own accord. Joseph Goldin became involved in the first Soviet-US "spacebridges" which linked Russian and American audiences via satellite TV. These were lead by Vladimir Posner on the Russian side and Phil Donahue on the American side.
Due to the relaxation of state censorship and the ideological press, more and more New Age books became available in translation. I read everything I could find and came across the name of Gregory Bateson in increasing frequency. I found references to him in books by Allan Watts, Ronald Laing, Fritjof Capra and Stanislav Grof. He was constantly cited in the books on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that first appeared in Moscow around that time. Once I happened upon an American magazine with an article describing the cybernetics of a schizophrenic family. I cannot now recollect the author but perhaps it was Mara Selvini Palazzoli. The article intrigued me, but I couldn't find out anything more about the subject. Back then, we were very limited in our ability to search for information, the internet still hadn't reached Russia. So I had no overall, coherent picture of Batesonian ideas.
A radical shift in my relationship with Bateson came a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In 1993, Bateson's well-known article Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia appeared in the Moscow Psychotherapeutic Journal. This was the first Russian translation of an authentic Bateson text and for me it was a veritable culture shock. Through mutual friends I contacted the translator, Michael Papush — a Moscow psychotherapist — who gave me a photocopy of Bateson's book Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
Steps to an Ecology of Mind is quite a diverse and multidimensional book and Bateson himself recommended reading it selectively. So I focused on Part III: Form and Pathology in Relationship, which contains articles connected with Palo-Alto Project, the theory of schizophrenia and double bind theory. The more I read the more excited I became. The passion these texts evoked in me had a serious systemic basis. One of Bateson's most important concepts is "the pattern that connects". I realized that for me, personally, Batesonian ideas themselves were "connecting patterns", perfectly linking the two parts of my mind, which then existed in regrettable separation. That is, his ideas connected my "scientific mind" with my "humanitarian mind".
I had had a serious education (my specialization was theoretical physics) so I felt perfectly at home among Von Neuman's "games", cybernetic circuits, feedbacks, statistical redundancies and the like. But Bateson was applying all these matters to the world of behavior, emotions and even — amazingly! — art. Of course I was well acquainted with Norbert Wiener’s works on the application of cybernetic ideas to physiological and sociological matters, but Bateson was aiming even further, to an extent that seemed almost impossible. To me, the most striking thing was his notion that the behavior of madmen — seemingly the most absurd and chaotic phenomenon of all that can be found in the world of human interactions — appears to be formalized and predictable, almost mathematical. Apparently chaos is no longer that chaotic when broken down into logical levels.
The possibility, demonstrated by Bateson, of linking the Platonic world of rigorous formalism with the hurly-burly world of living organisms impressed me then and still impresses me now. It was clear that these articles must be translated and made available to a Russian audience.
My initial plans were quite modest. I could not consider translating such a voluminous and diverse book as Steps to an Ecology of Mind in full. I decided to work on just one section, Form and Pathology in Relationship, which is dedicated mostly to the cybernetics of schizophrenia. By the end of 1997, 10 articles were ready for publication (Michael Papush’s 1993 translation, plus nine others translated by me). I had already lined up a small private publishing house to publish what should have been a modest but decent paperback. But then the economic crisis of 1998 happened. My publisher went bankrupt, as did thousands of small businesses across Russia.
Here I should say a few words about the copyright situation in Russia. The Russian Federation is assignee to the Soviet Union which was a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention in 1974. Hence, books published before 1974 are not copyright on the territory of the Russian Federation. This applies to Steps to an Ecology of Mind because it was initially published in 1972.
The economic and social chaos, the avalanche of bankruptcies and the galloping inflation that followed the 1998 crisis put my publishing plans into doubt. I appealed one by one to the few remaining publishing houses that specialized in psychology but nobody wanted to take the risk. They all considered the project to be commercially unviable.
Nevertheless, through trial and error, my search for a publisher finally bore fruit. At the beginning of 1999 I was approached by Dmitry Leontiev, the director of Smysl, a Moscow publishing house. He had rejected my project several months before but was now applying for a grant from the Soros Foundation to publish a number of books and he wanted to include Steps to an Ecology of Mind in his list. I submitted an extract of my translated Bateson text and, of the six books that Leontiev applied for money to publish, only Steps to an Ecology of Mind won the grant. So I set about translating the rest of the book.
The first part of 2000 saw experts at the Soros Foundation and scientific editors of Smysl scrutinizing the translated text. Finally in November 2000 book was published. What had been unimaginable only a few years before was now reality.
The works of Bateson pose a serious challenge to the translator. First, they are highly complicated in content, second, the form in which this content is presented can hardly be called simple. Bateson's love of citing sophisticated and sometimes obscure poetry (like that of William Blake, Wallace Stevens or Thomas Elliot) creates a lot of problems. Some terms coined by him (e.g. “difference that makes a difference”) are difficult to translate into Russian for they are based on play on words. Many of the examples he provides to explain his complicated concepts involve cultural realities that are completely unknown in Russia, and consequently explain nothing to the Russian reader. Fortunately by 1999 I had internet access and that helped me to clarify what Bateson was saying.
The internet also enabled contact with Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead and head of the Institute for Intercultural Studies (http://www.interculturalstudies.org) which holds the literary rights of Gregory Bateson. She kindly commented on some of the most difficult parts of her father's book. I reproduce a small part of my correspondence with Mary Catherine Bateson as I think her comments could be of value to English readers as well.
DF Dear Mrs. Bateson! At the moment I'm working at the article "Minimal Requirements for Theory of Schizophrenia" in which Gregory Bateson refers to "telencephalized brain":«At this point it is necessary to compare three types of hierarchy with which we are faced:From Webster I know that: "telencephalon — the anterior subdivision of the embryonic forebrain or the corresponding part of the adult forebrain that includes the cerebral hemispheres and associated structures", but "telencephalized brain" still doesn't make sense to me. Could you please help?
a) the hierarchy of orders of learning;
b) the hierarchy of contexts of learning;
c) hierarchies of circuits structure which we may - indeed, must - expect to find in a telencephalized brain».
MCB Dmitry! In general, I assume that GB here means "a brain (advanced to the point of) having a telencephalon". This is part of the neocortex found in mammals. Implicit here is that this furthest front part of the cortex is the newest or most evolved part of the brain. The reference to embryology in the dictionary definition seems irrelevant (the last evolved part of the brain would be the last to develop in the embryo).
He seems to have coined the verb. It's pretty clear but probably unnecessarily mystifying. He could as easily have said "mammalian", but the eye would slide over it without recognizing that he is saying that higher levels of learning require the best available brain.
So that explained telencephalisation. But the most serious problem of translation arose with double bind, perhaps the most important of all Bateson's terms. Not only is the concept of a double bind difficult to understand – for it implies understanding Bertrand Russell's multi-level logical typing – but the very verbal construction is another of Bateson's play on words.
The English adjective "double" splits into two semantic branches — one of which corresponds to the notion of "twofold" or "dual" while the other corresponds to the notion of "duplicitous" or possibly "tricky". For this second semantic branch the Collins Dictionary gives the following synonymic row:
double (adj) — deceitful, dishonest, false, insincere, knavish, perfidious, treacherous, vacillating.
This meaning is reflected in the idiomatic constructions: doubling, double-dealer, double-faced, double-tongued, double-talk, double-cross, double-think etc. From the standpoint of the subsequent notion of the pathogenic and schizophrenogenic characteristics of double bind, this second branch is possibly even more important than the first.
The problem is that in Russian there is no one adjective that combines both these connotations. That is why in Russian literature on psychology and psychiatry translators have used about a dozen variants to translate this phrase. None of them is adequate. It is interesting to note that the concept of double bind started infiltrating Russian thought long before Bateson himself was first mentioned.
That is why for the Russian edition of 2000 Michael Papush and I wrote an extensive foreword explaining this complicated linguistic situation. For the term double bind we proposed a neutral minimalist variant that back-translates into English as "dual message". This variant emphasizes the idea that double-binding is first of all a communicative phenomenon. This Russian variant is now being used with increasing frequency in Russian professional circles.
In October 2006 Moscow publishing house URSS (http://urss.ru) published Bateson's Mind and Nature in my translation for which URSS bought the Russian publishing rights from the Institute for Intercultural Studies.
Using internet search engines I keep a constant track of Russian publications and can certify that the number of times Bateson is cited is growing steadily. Nevertheless Bateson's legacy and ideas are still relatively unknown in Russia, certainly much less than they deserve to be.
I am now working on a translation of Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a second (posthumous) collection of Bateson's essays edited and published by Dr. Rodney E. Donaldson in 1991. In its structure this collection is similar to the famous collection published in 1972 but is, strangely, little-known. Sacred Unity is, to a considerable degree, composed of articles that Bateson wrote towards the end of his life, indeed, some he wrote while writing Mind and Nature. Unfortunately, the tragic circumstances of the last part of Gregory Bateson's life meant that Mind and Nature was brief. The articles in Sacred Unity can be regarded as expanded commentary on many of the complicated items that are only briefly touched upon in Mind and Nature and are therefore extremely important.
Moscow, Russia, November 2006