A Life Experienced

Thoughts on John Berger’s prose as he turns 90

BY John Douglas Millar in Profiles | 03 NOV 16

It seemed to me that John Berger’s writing could be neatly defined as an attempt to fuse a continentally inflected materialist theory of art, one assembled from resources found in the writings of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Paul Sartre, with an Anglophone strain of radical humanism in the tradition of William Hazlitt. Reading his new book, Landscapes (2016) – the second collection of Berger’s art writing judiciously edited by Tom Overton – I find that, although this definition locates the key strains of Berger’s intellectual formation, it lacks an account of the experience of reading his work. And it is in the experience of reading Berger’s prose, singularly compelling in its capacity to project presence and intimacy, that one finds the essence of his antinomian Marxist humanism and the true measure of his achievement.

Berger’s humanism often manifests in his writing as moments of luminous particularity – a splash of lavender on a windowsill observed from a lover’s bed; a thick gobbet of cadmium red slashed across a canvas; the frost-enhanced crunch of gravel on a crisp autumn morning in the Forest of Dean – and yet this quotidian lyricism does not point towards a desire for a Francis Ponge-like objectivism. The satiated gaze after lovemaking or the nerve-intelligence in the artist’s hand is always considered within a larger social structure that informs them. In Berger’s prose, materiality, corporeality and the movement of thought intertwine and disperse as a series of vying intensities. Here, perhaps, lies the sympathy that I intuit with Hazlitt, who’s description of a funambulist might equally be applied to his own prose with its ‘vigorous elasticity of nerve and precision of movement.’1 When the poet Tom Paulin writes that in Hazlitt’s prose ‘the physical body and the visible are identified, so that sight and touch are merged, not separate, senses,’2 we might also think of Berger’s phrase: ‘language is a body, a living creature.’3 To make this more concrete, take this example from his 1962 essay ‘The Basis of All Painting and Sculpture is Drawing’, where we find Berger observing a life model:

I saw that the line down the centre of the torso, from the pit of the neck, between the nipples, over the navel and between the legs, was like the keel of a boat, that the ribs formed a hull and that the near, relaxed leg dragged on its forward movement like a trailing oar. I saw that the arms hanging either side were like the shafts of a cart, and that the outside curve of the weight-bearing thigh was like the ironed rim of a wheel. I saw that the collar-bones were like the arms of a figure on a crucifix. Yet such images, although I have chosen them carefully, distort what I am trying to describe. I saw and recognized quite ordinary anatomical facts; but I also felt them physically – as if, in a sense, my nervous system inhabited his body.4

This extract indexes Berger’s approach to the world: a fierce analytic stare coupled with an empathetic response of such intensity that he is almost able to experience another’s nervous system. The prose moves like a finger over flesh. Attention at this pitch is rare and contains its own ethics. Berger is able to imbue the word on the page with the pathos of the painterly gesture, his prose flickers between abstraction, figuration and materiality like an oil painting. Consider one of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, of which he is so fond, where the brute materiality of the gesture describing the artist’s cap serves as a reminder that the painting is a construction, an act of labour; it’s a gesture that is in constant tension with the bravura painterly realism of the aging flesh of the artist’s face. I am convinced that this tension can be located in Berger’s prose where, as Ben Lerner has said, ‘materialism – an attention to material contradiction – doesn’t mean getting rid of sensuality . . .5’ Note also the way the history of art flickers through his ‘careful’ choice of similes: at first the figure being observed becomes a kind of man-machine (albeit of a pre-industrial kind, no futurism here), then the model’s collar bone brings to mind the crucified Christ and a deeper tradition of western painting, drawing and sculpture is invoked. In Berger, the body is an archive to be unlocked by the sensitive viewer, an archive of its own frailties, the social struggles indexed in the flesh, neurons and nerves, and the shifting traditions of its representation. Take this from his 1967 book A Fortunate Man (I quote at some length here because, as an example of the prose of witness, this is unsurpassed):

She lay in a four-poster bed: her face was ashen coloured and her cheeks fallen in. Her eyes were tight shut in pain. She wheezed when she breathed especially when breathing out.

The doctor stood looking and then asked for a cupful of warm water and cotton wool. As he injected morphia into her upper arm, she flinched a little. Strange that suffering so much pain in her chest she should flinch at the pin-prick. With the warm water and cotton wool he cleaned away the droplet of blood from her worn, large arm, the colour of stone or bread, as though it had acquired the colour through its scrubbing and baking.

Then, using the same much worked arm, he took her blood pressure. It was very low. She kept her eyes shut as if the light, so soft and so precise, was pressing between them. She had still said nothing.

He prepared a syringe for another injection. The fifty year old daughter was standing at the foot of the bed, waiting to be told what to do.

He inserted the needle into a vein near the wrist. This time she didn’t flinch. After half the injection he paused, holding the syringe in the loose fold of skin as if it were the skin’s feather, and with his other hand he felt her neck to check the strength of her pulse in the artery and the degree of congestion in the jugular vein. He then completed the injection.

The old woman opened her eyes. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she said very distinctly, almost crisply.6

. . .

The examples of Berger’s lyricism given earlier take place in rural settings, and it is this ruralism that demarcates between Berger and his philosophical influences. Marx in London, Brecht in Berlin, Benjamin in Paris: their works were marked by experiences of the great mercantile centres of Europe and they sought to understand the fundamental break instituted by modernity between the rural and the urban. For Berger, who grew up between the wars in suburban London, the catastrophe of modernity is simply a given, and the forms of work and life with which he has therefore been most preoccupied (certainly during the second part of his life since he moved to live with the peasants of the Haute-Savioe in France) have been those of the rural poor. This sympathy is stratified in his mode of address as a writer. His commitment is to a pre-modern notion of the storyteller as both a kind of wise man and an outsider – an outsider, though, whose practice is necessary for the community’s self-understanding and capacity for action in the world. Berger’s project represents a cumulative gathering and recording of experience and its passing on in the form of wisdom, and the folk connotations of ‘wisdom’ are appropriate here: an intimate communication of the experiences of looking, reading, healing, desiring and caring, the experience of embodiment and thought, and the experience of meeting objects and others in the world with as much integrity as possible. This passing on, this act of communication is of course political. In A Fortunate Man, Berger considers the effect of a its lack:

There are large sections of the English working and middle class who are inarticulate as a result of wholesale cultural deprivation. They are deprived of the means of translating what they know into thoughts which they can think. They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. Their spoken proverbial traditions have long been destroyed: and, although they are literate in the strictly technical sense, they have not had the opportunity of discovering the existence of a written cultural heritage.7

In a sense, Berger’s project is to construct a new ‘proverbial tradition’, to translate the radical tools that might be of use to the oppressed into languages and modes of address which they can access. The television series and book Ways of Seeing (both 1972) are perhaps the greatest examples of this democratic pedagogy in action. Berger’s work translated wonderfully to the screen – no surprise, given that his writing has a natural affinity with the camera. Like slowed film, it too is able to decelerate time to reveal the previously unperceivable, though unlike the camera, Berger’s writing is desperately embodied, tracking the full perceptual gamut of the human. In Berger’s work, the nerve and the eye are always connected to the glow and ache of memory and desire.

Ways of Seeing was, as noted above, a kind of translation for English speaking audiences of the concepts found in Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), but despite Berger’s sympathy for the politics of the avant-garde and his utilization of some of its literary techniques, he does not have a natural sympathy with avant-gardism. In his beautiful fragment on Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), collected in Landscapes, it is not the book’s formal experimentation that is celebrated, but it’s humanity, its promise ‘that deep down, beneath the words, beneath the pretences, beneath the claims and the everlasting moralistic judgment, beneath the opinions and lessons and boasts and cant of everyday life, the lives of women and men were made of such stuff as this book was made of: offal with flecks in it of the divine. The first and last recipe!’8

Ultimately, Berger’s prose manifests an ethics of the committed gaze, a great sympathy for the human animal in pain and a great anger for the political conditions that extend that pain unnecessarily. As he wrote recently: ‘What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told.’8 The humbleness of the word ‘hunch’ in that statement tells you all you need to know.

1 William Hazlitt ‘The Indian Jugglers’ collected in his The Fight and Other Writings edited by Tom Paulin and David Chandler (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 116-117.
2 Ibid. From Tom Paulin’s introduction, p. xiii.
3 John Berger ‘Self Portrait’ in Confabulations (London: Penguin, 2016), p. 5.
4 John Berger ‘The Basis of all Painting and Sculpture is Drawing’ collected in his Landscapes: John Berger on Art edited by Tom Overton (London: Verso, 2016), p. 31.
5 Ben Lerner interviewed by Patrick Langley, The White Review No.13. March 2015. p. 21.
6 John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016), p. 32.
7 Ibid. 100-101.
8 John Berger ‘Forthflowing on a Joycean Tide’ in Landscapes, p. 84.
Confabulations, p. 8.

Lead image: John Berger in his home near Paris, 21 January, 2009. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

John Douglas Millar is a writer based in London, UK. His book Brutalist Readings: Essays on Literature was published earlier this year by Sternberg Press.