Sex and temperament: Mead, Bateson and Fortune, New Guinea, 1933.

It was the most complicated of things, a love triangle involving young professionals who were meant to collaborate, and who did, but whose contrasting personalities and diverging agendas immediately led to tensions which would tear them apart. Two of them came as a couple; after the events had unfolded, they had decoupled and recoupled in a new configuration. The abandoned husband would never properly find his feet again, the two others staying together in a stormy, intellectually rewarding marriage lasting a little over a decade.

I am talking about the most famous and mythologised of all anthropological love affairs of the last century. It began with what George Stocking, a leading historian of anthropology, once spoke of as ‘one of the great moments in the history of anthropology’. Enter the dramatis personae.

Gregory Bateson, today recognised as a major thinker across disciplines, was a young man with wavering confidence. His oldest brother had died in the war, the second brother committing suicide soon after. His father, the famous biologist William Bateson (who in his day coined the term ‘genetics’), wanted Gregory to follow in his own footsteps, but on a train to Cambridge, the youngest Bateson, grief and responsibility weighing heavily on his shoulders, was nonetheless persuaded by the Melanesianist A.C. Haddon to take on anthropology. His efforts to do anthropological fieldwork in New Guinea were initially unsuccessful – the Baining, whom he tried to study, but failed, were later described as ‘the most boring people in the world’ – but by autumn 1932, things were looking up, as he had discovered a fascinating ritual of gender inversion among the Iatmul up the Sepik River.

One day, a canoe carrying two other anthropologists of Bateson’s generation arrived in his village. Reo Fortune, a Newzealander, had made his name with The Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), an account focusing on ‘the black art’ among the men of an island off New Guinea, praised by his mentor Malinowski at the LSE. His wife, Margaret Mead, had acquired fame for her first book, the bestselling Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), an analysis of adolescence and gender in a society which valued freedom and responsibility more than guilt and shame.

Fortune and Mead, who had already collected data on a couple of New Guinea groups, were now looking for a fieldsite upstream from Bateson’s, and he suggested the Arapesh, a people renowned for their crafts and aesthetic sensibility. They remained in contact with Bateson through mutual visits, and by the end of the fieldwork, Fortune and Mead could no longer salvage their marriage.

This dramatic affair is fairly well known through professional lore, correspondence, biographies and Mead’s memoir Blackberry Winter, but we cannot know every minute detail of the drama up the Sepik River in 1932–33 as it unfolded. This is why Lily King’s recent novel Euphoria is such a riveting read and also a frustrating one for an anthropologist who is not only a lifelong Bateson aficionado, but who is also above average interested in the history of the discipline (cf. Eriksen and Nielsen, A History of Anthropology). King has endeavoured to do nothing less than to reconstruct, in a fictional form, the triangular relationship, with all its energies, passions, sparks of intellectual excitement, deceptions and emotional turmoil and, not to forget, the physical privations (less in the case of Mead and Fortune than of Bateson, as they had brought with them many a creature comfort from Port Moresby) and sheer alienation experienced in a society which would be difficult to make sense of on a good day.

King paints the personalities of the protagonists with a clear, sharp brush. Bateson (‘Bankson’) is the gifted, but shy public schoolboy who feels that asking probing questions of the informants would be unacceptably intrusive, thereby missing out on a wide range of ethnographic details. He enjoys mind games, is good with metaphors and comes across as a caring and compassionate man. Mead (‘Nell Stone’), who would later conquer the American public sphere with her wit and quick tongue, is efficient, systematic and direct in her manner as a fieldworker and a companion, brave and ambitious in her forays into some of the more demanding fieldwork sites in the world. She believes in humanity and takes pains to find goodness in the society she studies. Fortune (‘Fen’) is quite the opposite. He is a tough cookie from down under, sees no reason to trust anyone, rarely backs off from a potential fight, threatens and cajoles to get the material he wants, regards his famous wife with a heady mixture of envy and admiration, and harbours genuinely mixed feelings for the tall, mild-mannered and obviously learned and intelligent Englishman.

Gregory Bateson is by common consent a profound and complex thinker, and King’s lightly fictionalised Bateson (Bankson) does little to add or subtract from posterity’s image of the man. With Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), the novel brings her to life in a way rarely seen in retrospective accounts of the woman; she was young then, and vulnerable, not yet the ‘formidable woman’ she is usually typecast as: Nell Stone once remarks to Bankson that there ‘seems to be a stench of failure about us’. She is earnest and confident, but aware of her own limitations, and extremely hard-working. Many, including a few anthropologists, have attempted to demolish Mead – her work in Samoa was allegedly flawed and marked by wishful thinking; she was too much of a fast thinker, not enough of a plodding scholar to be taken seriously in the professional guild; she did so well in so many arenas that she had to be superficial, and so on – and in its fictionalised way, Euphoria gives a portrait of Mead which is both credible, endearing and commanding of the reader’s respect; a young woman in the interior of New Guinea, struggling with a violent husband and recurrent physical ailments, yet persevering in her doggedly systematic study of kinship, gender, ritual and art in a remote people lacking books, coins and metals.

With Reo Fortune (‘Fen’), the situation is again different, and I must admit that having completed the novel, I scanned the Internet for traces of indignation among his defenders. There were none to be found. He doesn’t seem to have any. Fen, Nell Stone writes in her (fictional) diary, didn’t really want to study the natives. He wanted to be one of them. He worked with them, got high on local drugs, went shirtless and sweaty for days, and was uninterested in keeping his part of the husband-and-wife agreement that she should study the women while he should do the men. His notes were sketchy and less tidy than those of his wife. Years later (in 1939), Fortune would write a very bad-tempered article about the Arapesh where he openly argued against his ex-wife’s view of gender equality and tranquility in this group (in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies), claiming that conflict and warfare were institutionalised aspects of their political world. In the novel, Fen is portrayed bluntly as an uncaring and selfish macho man who dreams up secret plots that will enable him to outshine his famous wife upon their return. Characteristically, Fen repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tries to impregnate his wife.

Although he was still young at the time of his divorce from Mead, Fortune would never subsequently publish anything of significance, apart from an acclaimed grammar of the Arapesh language. After a few years of temporary appointments, he settled as a lecturer in social anthropology at Cambridge, where he stayed until his retirement in 1971. He was known as ‘a difficult colleague at the best of times’. Perhaps it was the divorce that broke him as a man; perhaps it was his personality that broke the marriage. Lily King provides answers, but Euphoria being a novel, they are difficult to evaluate, and I cannot help thinking that she might have done without the passages about the unsuccessful attempts at impregnation. Fortune may well have been a cruel man, but delving into these details seems just as cruel.

I recently asked one of Bateson’s close relatives what she thought about the novel. She sort of shrugged and said that well, it’s a novel. Touché. On the other hand, it is more than a novel insofar as it builds on meticulously collected facts; but it is also less than a novel by the same token. As a work of documentary fiction, Lily King’s evocative and powerful novel inevitably influences our views of the protagonists, her depictions of the tall, feverish, bored, brilliant Bankson, the small, vivacious, structured Nell (her hair in a sensible bun most of the time), and the dark, brooding, volatile Fen, reverberating at the back of our minds whenever we contemplate their respective contributions to knowledge. Such is the power of fiction; such is the hybrid nature of knowledge.

Lily King: Euphoria. Picador 2014.

2 thoughts on “Sex and temperament: Mead, Bateson and Fortune, New Guinea, 1933.

  1. Hei, jeg har nettopp lest Euphoria, for jobben min som sjefredaktør oversatt litteratur i Aschehoug 🙂 Jeg liker den veldig godt, synes den er fascinerende og medrivende, men er (som vanlig?) i tvil om markedspotensialet i Norge – er romanen for spesiell til å nå et bredt publikum/kjøpegruppe? Hva tror du? Hilsen Gunn Reinertsen Næss

    • Hei! Vel, jeg er også usikker på potensialet i Norge. Men det er ganske mange som har studert sosialantropologi her og som følgelig bør være i målgruppen, og den eksotiske settingen bør også ha appell for en del.

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