Learning from John Berger
January 19, 2017
In the past weeks so many persons around the world are together in remembering John Berger — as though he were a friend, almost as though we are all friends. As though in this mourning there is some elation reminiscent of another time and another life when it was possible to pronounce the word solidarity without embarrassment, if also a little naively, considering how much remained unresolved and quite beyond the youthful leap of left politics. Berger was what a young person would want to be, then, when we first ‘knew’ him.1
I like to re-read And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1992), written in his chosen form of poetry and prose approximating to a philosophical essay. Always this writerly approximation. I have not read his essays on art for some time now but today his (then) precipitous discourse rings in the mind like a bell, a bell that tolls because of course it seems difficult to reclaim the proselytising exuberance of seeing, looking, acting on and with and towards some breakthrough — of meaning. With faith in the pact between image and word. But why call it ‘discourse’; it was not a word in common use in the mid-1960s and Berger’s prose was idiosyncratic, with an impetuous, risk-taking curiosity and a matching aesthetic.
That it was good enough to call oneself an art critic is what I must have surmised from the pantheon of male critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg) active in New York where I was studying in the early 1960s. It was probably on my return to India in 1965 that I read Berger and developed my engagement with an altogether different species of critic. “Peerless”, as Susan Sontag says, admiring Berger’s ability to bring “attentiveness to the sensual world”, and combine it with “imperatives of conscience”2. Though Sontag does not say so, this portrays Berger as an English radical: one who combined the liberatory aspect of romanticism with working-class consciousness. We know that Berger chose to live in France because it is more hospitable to Marxism; I suggest that he retained an aspect of English radicalism which gained him noble precedents – like Raymond Williams.
In 1968 I went to London for further study and by then the Marxist Berger was almost like a neighbour, offering first-hand lessons on how to inhabit the world, how to be punctual to a cause and place stakes in the future – as if one’s life depended on it. As it should.
In 1972 Berger was to become a ‘TV star’, guiding the viewer into ways of seeing; taking the citizen by the hand and stepping into an open labyrinth, decoding an enigma so as to be able to speak about art and/in/for society. In a recent interview Berger said: “I’m no navigator – absolutely the opposite”; that he is a lookout guy full of curiosity about instruments and things, but as happy to actually just look at the ocean and make imaginary travel. I think he was a navigator. He steered a couple of generations out of the hold and offered, purposefully, playfully, such of those leftist freedoms that could and did nix aesthetic constraints.
Berger was a public intellectual, the kind of figure we much admire. Yet, oddly, he did not seem to function from within the classical/definitional arena of the public sphere. The public intellectual, positioned in the (bourgeois) public sphere, engages in discourse with due protocol. This does not quite fit Berger. He was a critic and a novelist; also amateur philosopher, amateur historian (harking to the root of the word amateur: amour, the one who loves / loves his vocation), populist, propagandist and poet. So, yes, this aspectual configuration is what made him a public intellectual.
Halfway through his life, he set aside his more performative profile and became the fortunate man determined and able to live by his convictions – in simple environments, and, for extended parts of his long life, in (participatory) proximity to migrant labour and settled peasantry. He committed himself to the humbler task of storytelling. Among other historical and contemporary accounts of effaced citizens, Berger’s From A to X: A Story in Letters (2008) speaks about two militant figures – lovers apart – incarcerated ‘terrorists’ whose struggle can be located in any part, which means all parts of the world where there is poverty, injustice and resistance. As he tells his stories, Berger’s style of writing moves from documentary account to letters to fiction; from speech to confession to text, and back – a relay that sustains its humanist ardour and proposes its own poetics.
In an article published in 2003, ‘Written in the night: The pain of living in the present world’, Berger wrote in revulsion against global capitalism: its strategies for satiating desire under lethal command. Characteristically, he added a brief testimony – in favour of pain, survival and the night: “I write in the night, although it is daytime.” This reversal between night and day was, I believe, a ruse to gain insight: how the desperate are seen to signal ‘danger’; coerced into a pact with terror; expelled from the narrative of construed and consensual history.
I write this obituary with no legitimate claims. I have gradually contracted into the sphere of aesthetics. Berger was still, at the age of ninety, thinking about the political future of humankind.
1. I met Berger on two occasions in 1969. Brief unforgettable meetings.
2. Sontag was in fact his ‘peer’ in the way she made an ethical entry into a mid-twentieth century aesthetic. With a difference, however. Younger by almost ten years, she developed a discursive essay-form that owed its intensity to a frisson in thought: between extrapolative brilliance (her American ‘style’) and reflexive criticality of the European intellectual tradition to which she committed herself. Berger and Sontag might yet be peers: cognizant of the historical imaginary; interlocutors of the contemporary, of political camouflage and chicanery. More than anything else, alert to violence, to the wounding systems of power and to pain suffered in person.
This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in The Wire
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