Essays Writings

Seeing in the Dark: A Tribute to John Berger

A tribute to a writer by whose work so many of us found our bearings. Written for Contemporary Theatre Review.

The news came last thing at night. Next morning, the loss lay quietly over everything, like a fall of snow. John Berger, who once wrote that all storytellers are Death’s secretaries, had died.

Storyteller was what he liked to be called, a term that could stretch to take in the many roles he played. Among them, the role of thinker. He thought through stories. He was a thinker who wrote from the heart, who refused the separation between heart and head that runs deep in the dominant culture against which he fought with every sentence. One of his last books takes the form of a dialogue with the 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, to whose work he had been drawn as a young man on account of ‘his rejection of the Cartesian division between the physical and the spiritual, between body and soul.

With words he made spaces into which the reader could enter. All writers do this, but he was more aware of it than most, because he started as a painter. Handled with skill, paint opens out beyond the two dimensions of the canvas. In his hands, the linearity of the written word deepened into a space to be inhabited, a space in which you could find shelter. Like many others, I found shelter in his words.

After his death, his friend Anthony Barnett wrote: ‘He ended a form of isolation in many he never met.’ Strictly speaking, this is true; at least, it was my experience. I was twenty-five. I’d just walked away from the beginnings of a career at the BBC. When The Shape of a Pocket landed in my hands one lunchtime in a bookshop in south London, it read like a letter from the wiser friend I badly needed. Yet we did meet — and not only that one time, years later, at the British Library, but many times, and I know I am not alone in this experience: his books were places where we met. They were shaped by the commitment to hospitality which was central to his way of being in the world. This is why the grief feels so personal: we have lost someone we knew and felt known by, someone whose generosity touched our lives.

Writing this, I catch myself hesitating between ‘we’ and ‘I’. There are writers you meet at the right time in your life, books that you find at a crossroads.(‘This is a book about keeping rendezvous,’ Berger wrote. ‘The ones I failed to keep are another story.’) I know that I do not speak for myself alone, but also that my experience is not everyone’s. In particular, I wonder how differently those who know Berger only or mainly through his most famous work — the TV series and the book of Ways of Seeing, the Booker-winning G.— encounter him? Watching him on camera in that famous shirt, or in the scene where he has invited a group of women to discuss the female figure in art, for all that he may have grasped the insights of feminism, there is something of the playboy to him, an echo of the seducer at the centre of that novel. Soon afterwards, this was gone.

Both the novel and the series were made in 1972. A year later, he came to settle in the village of Quincy in the Haute Savoie. His neighbours were among the last generation of peasants in western Europe. For the next forty years, he lived and worked alongside them, bearing witness to their way of living. He did so with an unmistakeable respect, as unable to romanticise the hardships of their lives as he was unwilling to accept the categories through which the world at large would see them. Much changed in his work from that point. The nature of this change was not a turning away — ‘Yes, I’m still amongst other things a Marxist,’ he could write in 2005, still true to the pledge made in the title of his first collection, Permanent Red — but a deepening, hinted at in those ‘other things’.

He belonged to that generation of European intellectuals who were in their late thirties or early forties in 1968. Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard: all of them were born between 1924 and 1930. As much as any of them, Berger’s work was shaped by the events with which that year became synonymous:

In 1968, hopes, nurtured more or less underground for years, were born in several places in the world and given their names: and in the same year, these hopes were categorically defeated. This became clearer in retrospect. At the time many of us tried to shield ourselves from the harshness of this truth. — Ernst Fischer: A Philosopher and Death (1974)

The work of coming to terms with that historical disappointment was the context within which what we think of as postmodernism took shape. Struggling with the esoteric idiolects of its major theorists, the uninitiated reader may suspect that she is swimming through clouds of intellectual squid ink, thrown up as they made their retreat from the streets to the seminar room. If this is not entirely fair, still the contrast to the hospitable quality of Berger’s prose is striking. He wrote with a desire to be understood.

He did his thinking through stories. It would never have occurred to him to construct an explicit architecture of theory, though he referred with appreciation to the work of others who did just that. Still, among the many ways of seeing Berger, I find it helpful to see him as a postmodernist, albeit of a different type. Running through his later work is a careful attempt to disentangle the ethical commitments of his Marxism from the logic of progress and the historical optimism of modernity, and to re-entangle it with a vernacular metaphysics, tested against the hard experience of life on the wrong side of the walls that divide the world. There is a universality to this writing, but it is arrived at through a grounding in place, the particular soil of Quincy, which he called ‘my university’. He did his thinking around the kitchen table or in the cowshed, rather than the seminar room, and this is why his work seems to belong within the category which Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash proposed in the title of their 1998 book, Grassroots Postmodernism: the search for routes out of the dead end of modernity, not as a theoretical exercise, but a matter of life and death, among the billions of people whose ways of living are subject to ongoing processes of so-called modernisation.

When I arrived in Mexico in 2011, I found that his book on migrant workers in Europe — written in the mid-1970s — had just been translated and published there in Spanish; its account of the migrant experience spoke directly to those away in the North and to the families they had left behind. The morning after we heard the news of his death, my partner’s Facebook feed was full of tributes from friends in Palestine. Few European thinkers of our time have mattered more to people on the wrong side of history’s walls.

His death comes at a time when the world seems to be darkening. There is much in his work that can help us learn to see in the dark. I think of the speech he gave to fellow members of the Transnational Institute in the early 1980s:

Suppose… that we are not living in a world in which it is possible to construct something approaching heaven-on-earth, but, on the contrary are living in a world whose nature is far closer to that of hell. What difference would this make to any single one of our political or moral choices? All that would have changed would be the enormity of our hopes and finally the bitterness of our disappointments. — Leopardi (1983)

At a time when many on the left seem to insist that there can be no sense of belonging or commitment to place which does not darken into blood-and-soil fascism, his example shows that this is false — though his insistence on hospitality challenges those who are trying to articulate the importance of place and belonging to do so without sliding into the mentality of the wall-builders. Meanwhile, the kindness which everyone who knew him remembers, and which shines through his writing, challenges us to find less destructive modes of expression than the culture of performative indignation that pervades the space of political conversation in the age of Twitter. And when despair closes in, when the struggle to make sense of the world seems lost, I will find myself going back to his words, to passages like the one that closes his essay on Leopardi:

The production of reality has never been finished, its outcome has never been made decisive. Something is always in the balance. Reality is always in need. Even of us, damned and marginal as we may be.

That afternoon, it began to snow. I sat down to write to a friend who had been working closely with him over the last few years. I wrote of the sense of a great debt, one that could never be repaid — and then the realisation that what we received from him had never been meant as a loan, but as a gift. What a lifetime of generosity. How lucky we were.

Published in Contemporary Theatre Review: Volume 27, Issue 3.