BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 13 SEP 05
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Issue 93

John Berger: Here is Where We Meet

BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 13 SEP 05

This season of events dedicated to John Berger took its title from his recent novel, the narrator of which makes this observation of a set of Cro-Magnon cave paintings at Chauvet in France: ‘I come upon a small overhanging rock which is shaped like the tip of a pancreas and on it are two red paintings, probably of butterflies.’ The image works because of the one detail that Berger has shaded into unexplained obscurity: he doesn’t tell us that a pancreas looks like a leaf. It is exactly this kind of verbal tact that has made Berger’s work – as art critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker and more – seem both audacious and almost untenably modest.

A celebration of Berger would have to be, then, a hommage to a singular presence and to its creative dispersal across an astonishing number of media and milieux. If he is still best known for his Ways of Seeing (1972), neither of its manifestations, as a television series and a book, has really weathered its reputation as a radical intervention. The series has to some extent been neutered by nostalgia for an age when television could do that sort of revolutionary thing, and the book overtaken by more detailed developments in art history and translations of works that pre-date Berger’s volume, such as those by Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes. So it was instructive to see it set again in the context of its author’s interests in and exchanges with television, film, photography, theatre and politics.

The opening event, however, risked a certain sanctimony, an easy accommodation of the venerable renegade to literary respectability. ‘What the Hand is Holding: Writing Now’ was an evening of readings and discussion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring Berger and a cast of writers a touch too comfortable with the role of adoring acolyte. Novelists Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels slipped too readily into platitudes about the ineffably personal, while the audience eagerly applauded the slightest twitch of its twin, the political. Only Geoff Dyer, who read his own hilarious account of the life of Jackson Pollock in the style of a breathless magazine profile (‘more drinking … ’), seemed to have spotted the glint of mischief in Berger’s own eye.

The most intriguing aspect of the season was the intermittent appearance of its subject: an octogenarian tangle of lucid tics and tremors, sudden accesses of enthusiasm and brusque dismissal. Berger has a habit of responding to the most innocuous question with alarming displays of what can only be described as Action Thinking. On the last night of ‘Here Is Where We Meet’ he engaged in a dialogue on creative collaboration with Simon McBurney, of theatre company Complicité. Handed a series of objects – a Neolithic hand axe, a vase of roses, a mobile phone – Berger sighed, moaned, lapsed into silence, quivered, and finally performed extempore reflections that were thrilling, courageous and embarrassing in equal measure.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.