Putting things in boxes

Adam Kuper

  • To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead edited by Margaret Caffrey and Patricia Francis
    Basic Books, 429 pp, £17.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 465 00815 1

Margaret Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, spent nearly two years in the interior of New Guinea between 1931 and 1933. Just 29 years old when they set out, Mead had already published two bestselling books, Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing up in New Guinea. Fortune, a highly competitive, paranoid and occasionally violent New Zealander, had yet to make his name as an anthropologist. Conditions in the field were rough, sometimes dangerous. They both had recurrent bouts of malaria. And they became thoroughly fed up with each other.

They also found themselves at odds with the people they were studying. When Mead and Fortune first penetrated the Sepik region it had only recently come under effective Australian control. Their bearers, coastal men, dumped their baggage as soon as they breasted the Prince Alexander mountains, leaving them stranded among an impoverished and scattered Arapesh-speaking population. They settled down to fieldwork, but while Arapesh of both sexes were gentle and considerate, Fortune found the men unmanly and Mead thought them all rather boring. She became seriously depressed.

In August 1932, they moved on, making what Mead described as a ‘perfectly arbitrary decision’ to follow a tributary of the Sepik and study the first group they came across. They landed up among the Mundugumor, who had been pacified only three years before. The Mundugumor were much better off than the Arapesh, but they were aggressive, indeed ferocious, men and women alike – reputed to practise cannibalism and certainly given to infanticide. The men often left their wives if they got pregnant, accusing them of infidelity. The women were just as bloody-minded. ‘Although women choose men as often as men choose women,’ Mead wrote, ‘the society is constructed so that men fight about women, and women elude, defy and complicate this fighting to the best of their abilities.’ In particular, mothers set their sons against their fathers. They warned that the old men were prepared to sell their own daughters in order to get co-wives for themselves. Deprived of their sisters’ bride-price, the sons would have no chance of marrying. Nobody co-operated with anyone else unless bullied into collective projects by people they themselves described as ‘really bad men’. Fortune thought the Mundugumor behaviour natural if repellent; Mead was appalled by them and believed that they hated themselves, writing of ‘the conviction of every Mundugumor that he is doing wrong and that he is being wronged by others’.

The day before Christmas 1932, they left to take a holiday at the government station at Ambunti and to look for a new research base. On their way up the Sepik they stopped in Kankanamun, where an English anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, was camped. Fortune and Bateson had been fellow students at Cambridge, working under Alfred Haddon, one of the pioneers of British anthropology, but Fortune, who saw himself as a colonial outsider, was wary of Bateson, the son of a famous Cambridge biologist. (Fortune told Mead that Haddon had been friendly enough towards him, but that he had given Bateson his mosquito net.)

‘As anthropologists do, we began talking – and kept it up for 30 hours on end,’ Bateson wrote home. ‘The result has been a very odd party.’ Mead was enchanted. ‘He’s six feet four and yet has all the slender unplaced grace of the most complete fragility,’ she gushed in a letter to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. ‘You’ve no idea how moving six feet four of vulnerable beauty is. He gets all the points, is extraordinarily sensitive to people.’

Mead and Fortune set up camp on the shore of Lake Chambri near Bateson’s field site, and began a four-month study of Tchambuli fishermen and traders. The Tchambuli had been driven from their homes by the Iatmul – the tribe that Bateson was studying – and had returned only in 1926, when Australian control was established in the area. The men were struggling to re-create their rituals and to restore their elaborate cult houses. Arty, narcissistic, catty, constantly bickering, they reminded Mead of suburban American housewives; she told Benedict that they were more neurotic than any set of men she had ever come across. The women, in contrast, were co-operative, practical, no-nonsense business people – with a tendency to indulge their preening menfolk. In their dances women courted men who were disguised as women, reflecting, Mead wrote, a situation in which men were nominally in control ‘but in which the actual initiative and power is in the hands of the women’.

Bateson was astonished by Mead and Fortune’s research methods. ‘They bully and chivvy their informants and interpreters and hurry them till they don’t know whether they are on head or heels,’ he wrote home to his mother. ‘But in the end I was converted and I am going to do some bullying too.’ Influenced by Mead he began to focus on transvestism and ritual homosexuality.

The three anthropologists visited one another frequently and talked endlessly, often through the night, ‘cooped up together in a tiny eight-foot-by-eight-foot mosquito room,’ Mead would recall, ‘analysing ourselves and each other, as individuals and the cultures that we knew and were studying, as anthropologists must’. Debates became more and more involuted and passionate, and the emotional temperature rose perilously high. Mead and Bateson became lovers. ‘Because – in the last year I’ve tried monogamy pretty hard – and I did have the sense that a part of me was going numb,’ she wrote to Benedict. ‘So I do feel that I’ve given monogamy – in an absolute sense – a pretty fair trial – and found it wanting – and now it’s fair for [Reo Fortune] to try my culture for a change – if he can do so without violence to his own temperament.’ But as she knew very well, Fortune was monogamous and jealous. ‘These last months have had all the quality of near madness,’ she later reported to Benedict. ‘Gregory and I fully expected that the most possible outcome would be that Reo would shoot me, then Gregory, then himself – and there was nothing we could do – except try to hold on patiently from day to day.’

Fortune was certainly capable of running amok. He knocked Mead down, later writing to Bateson to explain that he had no alternative because she had sworn at him (in Samoan). She was pregnant at the time, and blamed her subsequent miscarriage on him. Many years later, Fortune told me that Mead had eventually rounded on him and said he was such an aggressive man that he should go off to study warfare in another tribe. He obliged, and then one day a runner came with a letter from Mead announcing that she was going off with Bateson. ‘What would you have done?’ he asked me. I shook my head and asked what he had done. ‘I took my rifle,’ he said, ‘and shot a native on the opposite hill.’

Yet Mead’s break with Fortune was not easy. ‘Oh, dear – I wish you hadn’t hit me where it would show that night over there,’ she wrote to him when she was on her way home from New Guinea. ‘I wouldn’t have had to go away from you.’ (She didn’t necessarily object to men hitting women. Writing to Benedict about one of Bateson’s former girlfriends, Mead remarked: ‘She apparently needs to be given a few black eyes, and he has no genius for aggression.’)

Returning to New York, she planned to marry Bateson, explaining to friends that only married people could finish their conversations. Bateson was in England, hoping for a job at Cambridge, concerned that her divorce might scupper his chances. She imagined herself crawling to safety in his house,

in which I live, under a complete cloak of your name and my identity is only that of being your wife, and no one knows anything else about me at all they are just pleased when I understand what they say, these your learned friends, who sometimes come to tea. And nobody knows that I have ever written a book . . . in your house, I could just live happily folded away.

This was a fleeting mood. The conviction that she was duty-bound to work at her science, for the common good, was far more powerful. And while she might occasionally fantasise about being a conventional wife, she believed – not unrealistically – that she was fundamentally polygamous, and that she could and usually did love more than one person at a time. She was also bisexual. Her most enduring attachment was to Ruth Benedict. ‘Schematising my life, there has been you and you steadfastly since you came into it,’ she wrote. When she started an affair with another man after seven years of marriage to her first husband, she chose (‘I haven’t any illusions about his having chosen me’) the linguist Edward Sapir, who had been Benedict’s lover. She confessed to Benedict that she had acted out of a sort of identification with her. ‘Ruth, Ruth, you’ll never doubt that I love you, love you, love you? Soon I’ll make you believe it.’ Falling in love with Bateson, she assured Benedict that ‘one perfect relationship never threatens another perfect relationship – that it is only imperfect, incomplete, or partially realised relationships that interfere one with the other. I feel no pull in myself between you and Gregory – no sense of counter or opposing systems.’ Benedict, who was also bisexual and polygamous, eventually gave her up as a lover, but they remained close friends. (Mead made a point of trying to keep close to former husbands and lovers.)

Mead married Bateson in 1936, in Singapore, and they went on to do fieldwork in Bali, where they explained to the villagers that they were of the caste that made books. In Bali they pioneered the use of photographic records in ethnographic research. In spring 1938 they briefly moved back to New Guinea, and returned to New York only when war threatened in 1939. Here they had a daughter, the child Mead had always longed for (her friend Dr Spock was her paediatrician). But the war separated them. Bateson served overseas with the OSS while Mead was drawn into war work in Washington, producing reports on the national characters of allies and enemies, together with Benedict and another lover, the predominantly homosexual English writer Geoffrey Gorer. After the war Bateson had a series of affairs, which Mead tolerated. ‘I have always been prepared for you to want more than I can offer at 46, and by that very wanting turn towards younger women,’ she wrote to him. She even helped him to get what he wanted. She was used to organising other people’s lives, and got fed up only when they dithered. ‘The moment in which the girl you think you want has agreed to go to England with you and marry you, and your wife has co-operated up to the hilt in helping you arrange that, hardly seems the moment to give the trip up and be psychoanalysed instead,’ she chided Bateson in the summer of 1947, as their marriage was breaking up.

Thirty years ago, I spent a week in New York interviewing Margaret Mead for a BBC Horizon programme on her life and work. At one point she became irritated by my line of questioning, and objected: ‘You are always putting things in boxes. That is so British!’ Having read this engrossing collection of letters I realise that she was projecting: her whole career was devoted to putting things in boxes, even if she was never quite sure which one she belonged in herself.

The central question she grappled with throughout her professional life was the relationship between what she called culture and sex and temperament, by which she meant something like personality. She believed that a genuine scientific breakthrough had been made in the course of those long nights on the Sepik when she and Bateson and Fortune had analysed each other and the peoples they had been studying. They had been stimulated by the arrival of the proofs of Benedict’s book Patterns of Culture, whose thesis was that cultures were rather like personalities: each had its own style and its own way of dealing with the world. But Mead was particularly interested in cultural variations in gender roles. Among the Arapesh, men and women alike were ‘feminine’, unaggressive and nurturing. Among the Mundugumor, both sexes were ‘masculine’, assertive, careless of others. Among the Tchambuli, the men behaved like suburban housewives, the women like American businessmen.

Not that gender was completely unrelated to biological facts. ‘The assumption that men and women are essentially alike in all respects, or even in the most important ones,’ she wrote, ‘is a damaging one, as damaging as the assumption that they are different in ways in which they aren’t different, perhaps more so.’ But temperament was less malleable than gender. Mead was convinced that certain fixed personality types crop up in any population. As a rough approximation, the three anthropologists placed people on an imaginary compass as they talked in their little room on the Sepik, classifying their ethnographic subjects, their common friends and, of course, themselves. Fortune finally rebelled against their ménage à trois when he found himself cast as an unbending northerner, while Bateson and Mead declared themselves to be supple and open southerners.

These temperamental differences seemed to Mead more significant than any others. Indeed, she began to talk about marriages between people who occupied different positions on her compass as ‘cross-racial’. She told her sister that because she and her husband (the New Yorker cartoonist William Steig) were different temperamental types they should probably not have any children. Compass position was also seen as more significant than sexual orientation. ‘The kind of feeling which you have classified as “homosexual” and “heterosexual”,’ she suggested to Benedict, ‘is really “sex adapted to like or understood temperaments” versus “sex adapted to a relationship of strangeness and distance”.’

She remained faithful all her life to this system, which she called (rather confusingly) the ‘squares’. She never published it, however, because she could never quite settle on the criteria for classification. ‘The great news of the moment and the reason why I have felt so desperately unreal the last two weeks is at last revealed,’ she wrote to Bateson from New York in 1933:

Ruth is a westerner . . . it clears up so much . . . But now it is all clear. And I am really very glad for it gives me a first class westerner to make me respect them, and we needed that badly. . . It clarifies all the things in my relationship to Ruth which have been unclear. She is no longer in love with me, or with anyone, and that is just as well . . . It is simply amazing how confusing it is to wrongly identify anyone. We’ve got to get some criteria.

At one time she flirted with the idea of physical markers:

Last week I was all for writing you that the shoulder point was no good, for Ruth has square shoulders, but the soft southernish lines in other ways. So does Pelham, and I was placing them both as southern. But I am back again to feeling the physical criteria as sound, and by them and by all the data I can organise at present, Léonie and Ruth are both western . . . And anyway, one can live as long as there is clarity and one feels one’s square position strongly enough. The minute one loses that everything starts slipping again. What amazes me is how anyone has any sense of reality at all without it. I rather doubt if they do. I think we pass over into a new level of integration which is incomparable, but it’s no rock of ages until we get to be a little better diagnosticians.

It was all a dreadful muddle. Mead’s data were also suspect. She worked hard and very quickly, and she certainly paid attention. Fortune and Bateson never knew whose pig was dead, she said: ‘I always knew whose pig was dead.’ On the other hand, she conceded that her two husbands were much better linguists than she was. After her death, Derek Freeman launched an attack on her apprentice field study in Samoa, treating it, absurdly, as the foundation on which the whole edifice of 20th-century relativism rested. Certainly by comparison with the contemporary studies of Malinowski – or even of Fortune – her research was patchy and her findings were not always reliable. But perhaps more damaging was her penchant for imposing patterns, putting things into boxes. It was a proclivity that in a sense served her well after the war, when she became an American guru, with neat solutions to every problem, from the legalisation of marijuana to the future of the planet.

In the 1990s a postmodernist movement in American anthropology urged ethnographers to implicate themselves in their studies. Margaret Mead had already done so. Every ethnographic issue and every theoretical problem she addressed was inspired, in large part, by a drive to find out something about herself. Her example is not altogether encouraging, but she makes an interesting subject. These fascinating, beautifully edited letters bring out the unity of her life and her work.