Reading a lot of the stuff written in the British press about John Berger following his death two days ago, I have barely been able to recognise the writer that I have known and loved from reading – a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, comprises ten novels, four plays, three collections of poetry and 33 other books, an unclassifiable blend of ruminations on art, politics and the simple joys and beauty of everyday life. The writer I am familiar with was certainly not the ‘bludgeoningly opinionated man’ of the Independent’s write up, nor the person depicted in the Guardian’s shoddy and mean-spirited obituary.
Berger was certainly one who had very definite views, but who always, it seems to me, advanced them as propositions to be debated, rather than assertions to be simply accepted (for example, the last words of his celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing are ‘to be continued – by the viewer’). He never seemed to demand our agreement as his reader or listener, merely our engagement.
Geoff Dyer got closer in the preface to a selection of his essays published in 2001 where he wrote of Berger’s body of work constituting ‘a kind of vicarious autobiography and history of our time as refracted through the prism of art’. One of my favourite books by Berger is and our faces, my heart, brief as photos from 1984, a lyrical series of meditations, in verse and in prose, a stunning and unforgettable work which has been described as ‘a shoebox filled with delicate love letters containing poetry and thoughts on place and landscape, art, love and absence – and, pertinently this week, mortality and death. This is how the book begins (‘Aravis’ refers to the mountain range Berger could see from his home in the village of Quincy in the French Alps):
When I open my wallet
to show my papers
or check the time of a train
I look at your face.
The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.
The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.
The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.
And our faces, my heart, brief as
For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series Ways of Seeing which with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. However, Ways of Seeing represents only a small part of a considerable body of work. Since the 1950s, Berger has been prolific, producing fiction, nonfiction, polemics, art criticism, screenplays, drama, poetry, documentary films and drawings. In fact, I don’t think Berger has ever been properly understood in this country where his reputation seems to rest almost exclusively upon that TV series of nearly half a century ago.
In the last five decades, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with his novels, essays, screenplays (most notably for one of my favourite films, the Swiss director Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000), and more television documentaries (including About Time, a kind of visual accompaniment to and our faces made for the fledgling Channel 4 in 1980 which I have uploaded to YouTube from a shaky video recording, below).
Susan Sontag described Berger as ‘peerless’ for his ability to merge ‘attentiveness to the sensual world’ with ‘the imperatives of conscience’. That was an approach first seen in his photo-documentary A Fortunate Man, published in 1967. The result of a collaboration with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, the book told of the work of a John Sassall, country GP serving a deprived community in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. With this work, Berger began to reconsider what the role of a writer should be. ‘He does more than treat [his patients] when they are ill,’ Berger wrote of John Sassall, a man whose daily proximity to suffering and poverty affected him profoundly. ‘He is the objective witness of their lives,’ Berger wrote; ‘the clerk of their records.’
Berger continued the collaboration with Jean Mohr with A Seventh Man, first published in 1975, a remarkable photo essay in which he explored the experience of being a migrant worker – both the material circumstances and the inner experience to reveal how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it. The focus of the book was on the phenomenon of millions of peasants who migrated from southern Europe and north Africa to work in the cities of north-west Europe. The Seventh Man remains one of the best books about the experience of migrant workers and remains as relevant now as it was in 1975. Migrants, refugees, and the disappearing way of life of the peasantry remained key concerns of subsequent essays and fiction. Berger had, in effect, become a ‘clerk’, collecting stories from the voiceless and dispossessed, a role he would continue to perform in his work for the rest of his life.
In all his work, Berger has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art. A Marxist ‘among other things’ whose words have sometimes been those of the polemicist, his prose invariably celebrated everyday experience with subtle tenderness and a draughtsman’s close attention to detail. For me, that’s what made his despatches from zones of political confrontation such as Mexico or Palestine so powerful and memorable. Take, for example, this extract from a piece of eye-witness reportage from the occupied territories of Palestine, published as ‘Stones’ in the 2007 collection Hold Everything Dear (republished by Verso last year):
Baha shouts to warn me not to head towards the high hill on my left. If they spot someone approaching, he shouts, they shoot.
I try to calculate the distance: less than a kilometre. A couple of hundred metres away in the unrecommended direction I spot a tethered mule and horse. I take them as a guarantee and I walk there.
Where I arrive, two boys – aged about eleven and eight – are working alone in a field. The younger one is filling watering-cans from a barrel buried in the earth. The care with which he does so, not spilling a drop, shows how precious the water is. The elder boy takes the full can and carefully climbs down to a ploughed plot where he is watering plants. Both of them are barefoot.
The one watering beckons to me and proudly shows me the rows of several hundred plants on the plot. Some I recognise: tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers. They must have been planted during the last week. They’re still small, searching for water. One plant I don’t recognise and he realises this. ‘Big light,’ he says. ‘Melon?’ ‘Shumaam!’ We laugh. We are both – God knows why – living at the same moment. He takes me down the rows to show me how much he has watered. At one moment we pause, look around and glance at the settlement with its defensive walls and red roofs. As he points with his chin in its direction there is a kind of derision in his gesture, a derision which he wants to share with me, like his pride in watering. A derision which gives way to a grin – as if we had both agreed to piss at the same moment at the same spot.
Later we walk back towards the rocky road. He picks some short mint and hands me a bunch. Its pungent freshness is like a draught of cold water, water colder than that in the watering-can. We are going towards the horse and mule. The horse, unsaddled, has a halter with reins but neither bridle nor bit. He wants to demonstrate to me something more impressive than an imaginary piss. He leaps onto the horse while his brother reassures the mule, and almost instantly he is galloping, bareback, down the road from which I came. The horse has six legs, four of its own and two belonging to its rider, and the boy’s hands control all six. He rides with the experience of several lifetimes. When he returns, he is grinning and, for the first time, looks shy.
I rejoin Baha and the others who are a kilometre away. They are talking to a man, who is the boy’s uncle, and who is likewise watering plants which have been recently bedded out. The sun is going down and the light is changing. The brownish yellow earth, which is darker where it has been watered, is now the primary colour of the whole landscape. He is using the last of the water in the bottom of a 500-litre dark blue plastic barrel.
On the surface of the blue barrel 11 patches – like those used for mending punctures but larger – have been carefully stuck. The man explains that this is how he repaired the barrel after a gang from the settlement of Halamish, the settlement with red roofs, came one night, when they knew the water containers were full of spring rain, and slashed them with knives. Another barrel, lying on the terrace below, was irreparable. Further off on the same terrace stands the gnarled stump of an olive tree, which, to judge by its girth, must have been several hundred, perhaps a thousand, years old. A few nights ago, the uncle says, they cut it down with a chainsaw.
I quote again from Mourid Barghouti: ‘For the Palestinian, olive oil is the gift of the traveller, the comfort of the bride, the reward of autumn, the boast of the storeroom and the wealth of the family across centuries.’
Later, I find a poem by Zakaria Mohammed called ‘The Bit’. It talks about a black horse without a bridle which has blood dripping from its lips. With Zakaria’s horse, too, there is a boy, astonished by the blood.
What is the black horse chewing?
What does it chew?
The black horse
a bit forged from steel
a bit of memory
to be champed on
champed on until death.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.
– John Berger
In an insightful article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, published coincidentally on the day that Berger died, Robert Minto discusses the relationship between Berger’s Marxism and his art criticism:
Berger is a rigorous thinker with a theory of art. That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s. Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
Minto notes that Berger was aware that there a problem arises in attempting to apply a Marxist analysis to art. Berger expressed the problem like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why, asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
In his article Minto sets out how Berger took up the thread where Marx left off. Significantly, he quotes from a translation made by Berger and Anya Rostock of a poem by Bertolt Brecht which includes this passage:
Yet how to begin? How to show
The living together of men
That it may be understood
And become a world that can be mastered?
How to reveal not only yourselves and others
Floundering in the net
But also make clear how the net of fate
Is knotted and cast,
Cast and knotted by men?
Yes, Berger held strong opinions, but his ideas – which were always presented with clarity – were and expressed with beauty, warmth and humanity. There is a wonderful series of films on Vimeo of him reading from his work in 2002 in his home in Quincy and in the local marketplace of Annemasse in Haute Savoie. The first episode begins with him reading his wonderful story ‘Krakow’ from Here is Where We Meet, a collection of autobiographical stories written as he approached his 80th year and imbued with the presence of the dead. In the Krakow marketplace, Berger finds Ken, his greatest childhood influence and passeur, or guide, while in the book’s opening story ‘Lisboa’, Berger sees an old woman walking across the park towards him. He recognises her walk as that of his mother, who has been dead for fifteen years. ‘The dead don’t stay where they are buried,’ she advises him.
Michael Alec Rose wrote of Here is Where We Meet that it shows how wrong it would be to reduce Berger’s imagination to politics:
In every verbal portrait he paints, every line he draws his beloved ghosts, a Polish wedding that exceeds its proverbial joy, a newly discovered cave of paintings 30,000 years old the essential point is the dignity of work and of workers, the wonder of all art in which talent meets need, where the two forces arrive together. Even to make a savory pot of soup is worthy of praise. John Berger has always strung his lyre for such unsung glories.
In the collection, The Shape of a Pocket, you will find another powerful and compassionate piece of writing: ‘A Man With Tousled Hair’. It begins with Berger’s memory of walking one winter in central Paris, and being constantly confronted with the portrait of an unknown man, painted at some time in the early 1820s, being used on the posters at every street corner announcing an exhibition of paintings by Théodore Gericault at the Grand Palais. The painting in question was discovered in an attic in Germany, along with four other similar canvases, forty years after Gericault’s early death. Soon afterwards it was offered to the Louvre who refused it.
The portrait is of a man who was an inmate of the asylum of La Salpetriere in the centre of Paris. There Gericault painted ten portraits of people certified as insane, only five of which survive.
In his story, Berger tries to explain why he found this painting so haunting as he walked the streets of Paris. He writes:
In 1942 Simone Weil wrote: ‘Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.’ When she wrote this she was certainly not thinking about art.
The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through? It is a recognition that the sufferers exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled ‘unfortunate’, but as a man, exactly like we are, who was one day stamped with a special mark of affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable to know how to look at him in a certain way.
For me, Gericault portrait of the man with tousled hair and disarranged collar and with eyes which no guardian angel protects, demonstrates the ‘creative attention’ and contains the ‘genius’ to which Simone Weil refers.
To what an extraordinary moment this painting belongs in the history of human representation and awareness! Before it, no stranger would have looked so hard and with such pity at a lunatic. A little later and no painter would have painted such a portrait without exhorting a glimmer of a modern or romantic hope. Like Antigone’s, the lucid compassion of this portrait coexists with its powerlessness. And those two qualities, far from being contradictory, affirm one another in a way that victims can acknowledge but only the heart can recognise.
This, however, should not prevent us from being clear. Compassion has no place in the natural order of the world, which operates on the basis of necessity. The laws of necessity are as unexceptional as the laws of gravitation. The human faculty of compassion opposes this order and is therefore best thought of as being in some way supernatural. To forget oneself, however briefly, to identify with a stranger to the paint of fully recognising her or him, is to defy necessity, and in this defiance, even if small and quiet and even if measuring only 60cm. x 50cm., there is a power which cannot be measured by the limits of the natural order. It is not a means and it has no end.
Berger’s work is full of passion and deep compassion for the dispossessed of this world. There are moments that reflect his curiosity and the joy he experiences in the small, often overlooked, details of human interactions and the natural world (in Why Look at Animals? he penned one of the best books about the relationship between humans and other animals). I treasure my collection of his books, and still can’t adjust to the idea that there will be no more.
And this is how his beautiful book, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, ends:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
About Time: Channel 4, 1980
On BBC iPlayer
At the moment there are three programmes by or about Berger available on the iPlayer: About Song and Laughter is a Radio 3 feature from 2015 in which Berger meditates on the power of song and the life of Charlie Chaplin; in a tribute for the Today programme, the director of Ways of Seeing, Mike Dibb, and Tom Overton, who is currently writing a biography of Berger, joined the programme to remember their friend; while from 2001 there is a World Service interview with Berger on his 75th birthday in which he talks about his home in France, his work and his hobby of motorcycling.
- John Berger: 90 years of looking, listening and seeing (this blog, marking his 90th birthday in November 2016)
- A Smuggling Operation: John Berger’s Theory of Art by Robert Minto in the Los Angeles Review of Books
- “I think the dead are with us”: John Berger at 88 by Philip Maughan in the New Statesman, June 2015)
- A letter to Rosa Luxemburg (New Statesman, Sept 2015): ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.’
- Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?
- Why Look at Animals? (this blog)
- Here Is Where We Meet (this blog)
- John Berger: From A to X (this blog)
- Fayum mummy portraits: the earliest painted portraits (this blog, post inspired by an essay in The Shape of a Pocket)
- Ten Dispatches About Place: thoughts by John Berger (‘Yes, I’m still among other things a marxist.’): Orion Magazine
7 thoughts on “John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’”
Thank you for this beautifully written piece about a writer whom I know from one book only: “To the Wedding.” It was superb. Now I’ve added “Ways of Seeing” and “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos” to my must-read list.
Your blog is wonderful. I especially like the fact that you write at length, great enough length to shed much light on your subjects.
Reblogged this on msamba.
Thanks Gerry very much. I’m not familiar with Berger’s works but will ‘rectify’ this. He seems to go where few dare to tread. Thank you also for providing links, will bookmark.
The ‘phosphate of calcium’ passage is divine. Thank you Gerry for lifting me out of the everyday.
Thank you for writing this piece to counter the mealy mouthed obits littering the main stream press and the BBC. God forbid we Brits should be seen celebrating the life of an intellectual.
I am grateful for all your generous comments. I have inspired myself to re-read several of his books, beginning with ‘and our faces’ and Here is Where We Meet. In today’s Guardian Suzanne Moore in ‘I do not recognise the stereotype of John Berger as a dour Marxist – his work embodied hope’ writes a personal appreciation of the man she came to know personally after receiving an email from him out of the blue (http://bit.ly/2jek8Aw) More like it!