John Berger – A Life on the Page

Why bother? There are various inflections a critic can adopt in asking this elementary question dogging their craft: anger, deflation, befuddlement, Coovadian deadpan, or even stentorian certainty, which is really just a mask for being plaintive, the default tone of Brian Griffin, Family Guy’s boozy mutt with literary pretensions. In making sense of the life of John Berger, the luminous art critic, essayist, novelist and – for me – model of a writer, it is both profane and fitting to invoke a cartoon comedy in an obituary.

John Berger, 1980 (Jean Mohr)

Berger, who died on 2 January aged 90, watched cartoons, closely. At least, one infers this reading his well-known essay on Francis Bacon. In a move typical of his wandering and combative style, Berger invokes the classical figuration of Walt Disney to restate a few things about 1972 Britain’s most respected living painter. The truth of Bacon, thought Berger, was not to be found in Samuel Beckett’s approach to despair, a default critical position, but in the “surprising formal similarities” and “mindlessness” shared by Bacon with Disney.


Two things strike me about Berger’s short essay. One: for a critic often pilloried as cheerless by detractors, Berger demonstrated keen awareness for the role of pleasure in human happiness. Cartoons make us laugh. “The gift of pleasure is the first mystery,” writes Berger in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984), an elliptical investigation of time and space marked by the author’s tendency towards aphorism, moralising and lyricism. Of course, it bears stating that Berger’s writing is as often occupied with things that thwart happiness – poverty, exile, loss, invisibility – as those that make it possible.


And two: Bacon endured. Berger’s visibility was at an all-time high in 1972 when his essay appeared. He was the narrator of a four-part BBC 2 television series titled Ways of Seeing. His experimental historical novel G (1972), which is partly set in nineteenth-century Pietermaritzburg and includes a passage on the Xhosa seer Nongqawuse, was awarded the Booker Prize. Mindful of the immiseration caused by the award sponsor’s “extensive trading interests” in the Caribbean – the Booker Group is the United Kingdom’s largest food wholesale operator – Berger donated half of his prize money to the London-based Black Panther movement.


Radical politics aside, Berger used his award speech to stake a claim for the role of the novel. It asks questions, he said, “which no other literary form can ask: questions about the individual working on his own destiny; questions about the uses to which one can put a life – including one’s own. And it poses these questions in a very private way. The novelist’s voice functions like an inner voice.” The critic’s voice – mine here, yours on Facebook – does the opposite: it speaks in a very public way, often as loudly as possible. But here’s the thing: opinion is a meritocracy, now in the age of data capitalism as much as in the late golden age of paper, Berger’s time.


And yet, Bacon survived Berger’s critical revision, as did Picasso, the “vertical invader” whose accomplishments and late-career lapse into mannerism Berger chronicled in his argumentative book, The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965). Something is revealed about the nature of criticism in the artist’s ability to endure, or, as was said of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, abide. Criticism, be it fusty essaying of this sort, or the jazzy punditry of Facebook, is an accessory practice. It is saying, not doing. What distinguished Berger was his attempt to weld the two possibilities – saying and doing – together.

Criticism, he writes in Art and Revolution (1969), a book-length consideration of expressionist Soviet-era Russian artist Ernst Neizvestny, is always “a form of intervention” between the work of art and its public. “In most cases,” acknowledged Berger, “very little depends upon this intervention.” Cue Brian Griffin sighing, “Why bother?” Indeed. Berger, though, was an idealist. “Occasionally,” he thought, “criticism can be creative – not so much by virtue of its quality of perception as by virtue of the circumstances upon which it may act.”


While Berger often wrote about canonical artists – including Durer’s self-portraits (“He was the first, one-man avant-garde”), Turner’s landscapes, and, to shift things from the long-ago past to the nearly synchronous present, Geoff Dyer’s bricolage history of photography, The Ongoing Moment (2005) – he also looked elsewhere. To Soviet Russia and Neizvestny, an artist whose figurative modernism shares affinities with the muscular distortions of Dumile Feni and Sydney Kumalo. And, more recently, to Palestine and the work of documentary photographer Ahlam Shibli.


Berger jobbed as an art critic for much of adult life, using its defining attributes of economic precarity and philosophical contingency to sharpen his vision on art and situations in life sharing these circumstances. He was self conscious about writing criticism in the tradition of Walter Benjamin. Aspirations aside, these two towering figures from the canon of twentieth-century criticism shared notable affinities: they both enjoyed middle-class metropolitan upbringings; both possessed strong Marxist beliefs, and were, fundamentally, intellectual vagrants.


Berger recognised the limitations of the practice of thoughtfulness. “The intellectual,” he offers in A Fortunate Man (1967), a masterful portrait of an English country doctor named John Sassall, “seems to be part of the apparatus of the State which controls him.” His move to a village in Giffre River valley, France, in the early 1970s, cemented his reputation as a kind of anti-cosmopolitan working in one of the most metropolitan trades, art criticism.


Where Benjamin is best on translation, unpacking his library and the elusive truth of Parisian malls, Berger the critic excels at noticing how artists notice the world. Perhaps aware of the limitations interventionist criticism posed within a system of accelerating commodity capitalism, of which the art market is nowadays a rampant expression, Berger explored other ways of telling. Aside from his criticism and novels, he wrote essays, poetry, even social reportage. A Seventh Man (1975), a collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr that takes as its starting point Europe’s economic dependency of migrants, remains pin sharp in its observations.


“A man’s resolution to emigrate needs to be seen within the context of a world economic system,” writes Berger. “Not in order to reinforce a political theory but so that what actually happens to him can be given its proper value.” But, concedes Berger, the language of economic theory is abstract. “Metaphor is needed. Metaphor is temporary. It does not replace theory.” In other words, magical thinking can only go so far.


In 2016, as both metaphor and theory are eclipsed by stream of consciousness meditations on cats and the lives of others, Berger can seem like a remote figure. He was, in some ways, a kind of post-hippie Thoreau who reached his prime in the decade of discontent. His writings, and occasional diagrammatic explanations of sex, are grounded in a heteronormative worldview. Unlike the naturalist David Attenborough, Berger’s television persona tends towards big rambling ideas, not just in Ways of Seeing, but also in his hour-long 1983-television showdown with his intellectual ally, Susan Sontag.


YouTube is the wrong way to discover Berger. A better place to start, especially for a South African, is Ernest Cole’s 1967 book House of Bondage, in particular the double-page spread on page 29 and 29 portraying a group of would-be mineworkers undergoing a medical examination. Count the thirteen men, look at their bodies stripped naked and arms extended above their heads, and then turn to A Seventh Man. Look at Mohr’s photographs of Turkish men doing much the same for German doctor. The shared humiliation is palpable.


“Nothing has prepared him for this situation,” writes Berger, projecting himself into the mind of a naked Turkish migrant worker. “It is unprecedented. And yet it is already normal. The humiliating demand to be naked before strangers.” This is one reason why Berger still matters. Witnessing, though, was not enough for the lapsed Londoner; it was irreducibly wed to interpretation; and the whole, in Berger’s opinion, was called storytelling. “Storytellers,” he told a young Geoff Dyer in 1984, “lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.”


Naming matters, especially self-naming. By identifying himself as a storyteller, Berger was expanding his agency, staking claims to bigger possibilities. This is why he expressed kinship and solidarity with fellow storyteller Gabriel García Márquez, not some ritzy New Yorker producing meta-fiction. “García Márquez sets out to preserve a mystery,” wrote Berger in 1982 review of the Colombian author’s novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). Almost unavoidably, Berger offers comment about himself, on the ambition of his storytelling.


Storytelling is the use of language. Berger speculated in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos that language is “potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man”. Poetry, he added, makes language care. “There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.” Home, caring, storytelling: Berger’s ideal for living still poses a radical challenge.

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