John Berger, 1926-2017
In one of the thirty or so stories in John Berger’s Photocopies (1996), the then seventy-year-old author, who lived in a French alpine village, visits an old friend in Paris, the photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson, at the time in his eighties. The two men have a rambling and suggestive conversation about “the instant of taking a picture… ‘the decisive moment,’” as the photographer had once put it.
Later that afternoon, in the Paris Metro, Berger says, “I find a seat in a coach which is more than half full.” He notices that “at the end of the coach, a man in his early forties makes a short speech about his handicapped wife whom he is leading by the hand and who follows him with her eyes shut. They’ve been turned out of their lodgings, he says, and they risk to be separated if they apply to any institution.
“You don’t know, the man tells the coach, what it’s like loving a handicapped woman – I love her most of the time, I love her at least as much as you love your wives and husbands.
“Some passengers give him money. To each one the man says: Merci pour votre sensibilite.
“At a certain moment during this scene I suddenly glanced towards the door, expecting [Cartier-Bresson] to be there with his Leica. This gesture of mine was instantaneous and without reflection.
“Photography, [Cartier-Bresson] once wrote in his maternal hand-writing, is a spontaneous impulse, which comes from perpetually looking, and which sees the instant and its eternity.”
Berger’s vignette of a person literally forced to declare his love to the world in order to survive, as well as his “snapshot” or “photocopy” of it, is titled, “A Man Begging in the Metro.” Most of the other pieces in Photocopies have similarly simple labels. “A Woman and Man Standing by a Plum Tree,” “A Young Woman with Hand to Her Chin,” “A Bunch of Flowers in a Glass.” They’re the sort of titles usually attached to photos or paintings.
Like much of Berger’s other work – from his cultural criticism in Ways of Seeing to his periodically collected volumes of essays, such as The Sense of Sight, to his novels (A Painter of Our Time, G., and the later trilogy, Into Their Labours) – the compact narrative about Cartier-Bresson and the man begging in the Metro courts the danger of sentimentality or of the portentous turning into the merely pretentious. After all, the subways of Europe are filled with people begging, selling street newspapers, telling public tales of woe. Who knows if the begging man and his blind wife are who they claim to be? Does it matter? Aren’t we allowed to give in to “compassion fatigue” and stop looking? Berger asserts that the condition of perpetually looking – in his case, looking from a political perspective of human solidarity – is what gives rise to the spontaneous impulse that occasionally permits us to “seize the instant and its eternity.” While there are innumerable snapshots, and now “selfies,” that can record the instant, it is those works which also point to the instant’s eternity that provide a succinct definition of art. For an artist, to arrive at the unexpected consideration of the eternity of an instant is what justifies running the risk of failure.
During the course of Berger’s conversation with Cartier-Bresson, the photographer periodically fingers his camera, even though he’s officially given up photography some two decades ago. He’s turned to drawing, something Berger also does. But Cartier-Bresson still has his camera at hand, and occasionally picks it up, glances through the viewfinder without clicking, puts it down again. Then, at some point, holding the camera, looking at Berger, he clicks the button, Now on the back jacket of Berger’s Photocopies, I’m looking at Cartier-Bresson’s photo of Berger, taken that day. The picture is shot from above, so that Berger’s face, with its wavy white hair, is tilted upwards, imploringly, urgently alive. One of his hands juts forward, magnified by its proximity to the camera lens, the fingers spread as though forcefully making a point.
I once heard Berger give a reading in Berlin. It was at the Literature House, a villa on Fasanenstrasse in downtown west Berlin that now contains a basement bookshop, a garden restaurant, and the various rooms of the building where readings and exhibitions are held. The walls of the upstairs room in which Berger was appearing, along with several other rooms in the villa, were covered with his framed drawings, so that we were surrounded with his work as well as being in his presence. I recognized him from Cartier-Bresson’s photo, as he entered the reading hall from a side door and walked across the room to take his place behind a table on a platform at the front.
He had recently published a book called King, written from the point of view of a dog living among an encampment of homeless people alongside a busy English motorway. He took the persona of the stray dog seriously enough to give samples of its barking – and momentarily Berger’s face took on the lineaments of a rather fierce terrier – which he interpreted as proclamations of “I’m here! I’m here!” When the host of the reading, in conversation with Berger, offhandedly referred to the characters in the book as “drop-outs,” Berger interrupted him, banging his hand on the table, to insist that the homeless and the poor were not marginal, but central, since they constitute the most numerous proportion of the global population. Berger’s anger struck me as refreshingly vigorous and healthy, a rude insistence in the middle of a polite literary evening that the world is imperative, that, as he’d written, “we live in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope.”
After the reading, and before the obligatory autographing session, I ran into Berger downstairs – he had gone there in search of an ashtray – and we had a brief conversation. When I mentioned that I was from Vancouver, he immediately asked me if I knew Hugh Brody, an anthropologist who had once lived in British Columbia for some time. I liked Berger’s characteristic impulse to make even our fleeting exchange specific and, as it happened, I did in fact know Brody, and admired the stories he told.
Berger’s stories are invariably about ultimate subjects – death, love, art. The dead – in Homer and Ezra Pound’s Cantos – come to the trenchlike fosse, demanding blood. Because they prey upon my mind these days, it is John Berger’s preoccupation with mortality that immediately calls to me. As he remarks, “Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency that belongs uniquely to life.”
Recurrently, Berger offers a requiem to those who are no longer with us. Whether telling the story of how the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer died, almost literally in Berger’s arms, or puzzling out the mystery of the revolutionary Russian poet Mayakovsky’s suicide, or presenting a triptych portrait of the deaths of three of his neighbours from the peasant village where he lives, Berger ponders the relationship between the death recounted and the storyteller who tells the tale.
Writing of a close friend who, shockingly, “the day before yesterday… killed himself by blowing his brains out,” Berger recognizes – as the friend’s death “assembles a thousand memories of his life” – that a “certain kind of story is told to contest the opportunism” of life’s tendency toward simplifications. “In one sense a story does not go anywhere, it just is – as my departed friend now is in my imagination.” A moment’s reflection “shows that any story drawn from life begins, for the storyteller, with its end,” Berger says. “It is in this sense that one cay say that storytellers are Death’s secretaries. It is Death who hands them the file. The file is full of sheets of uniformly black paper but they have eyes for reading them and from this file they construct a story for the living… We Death’s secretaries all carry the same sense of duty, the same oblique shame, and the same obscure pride which belongs to us personally no more than do the stories we tell.”
If many dead bodies and their stories lie before me, Berger also reminds me that he and I are not indifferent to living flesh. On the Greek island of Sifnos, a harsh place of marble, goats, olive trees, bitter laurel, hibiscus and cacti, Berger asks himself, as he looks beyond the church cemetery to the sea, “What can flesh mean here? Sarka in Greek. All over the world women and men picture their bodies to themselves differently, for this picturing is influenced by the local terrain… the surrounding natural risks… Flesh here is the only soft thing, the only substance that can suggest a caress; everything else visible is sharp or mineral, shattered or gnarled…
“Consequently, the body is aware of a cruelty even before it is aware of pleasure… Thus for everybody, not just philosophers and theologians, the physical lurches constantly towards the metaphysical. The lurch doesn’t require words, a glance is sufficient. There’s nobody here who isn’t an expert in longing, in the long drawn-out desire for a life a fraction less cruel. And oddly, this co-exists with the beauty and is part of it.”
At the end of Photocopies, sitting on a bench outside a public swimming pool in a Parisian suburb, “my towel drying in the sun, I open a book that has just been sent to me from New York,” a collection of letters and communiques written by Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatista insurgent movement. Berger notes that the style of this revolutionary’s writing “combines modesty with unflinching excess… The excess is not that of political extremism… The excess comes from their conviction (which personally I accept completely) that they represent the dead, all the maltreated dead – the dead who are less forgotten in Mexico than anywhere else in the world.”
Here, in a Paris suburb, where kids are clowning around on the edge of the swimming pool, and where the local Lebanese shopkeeper has given an elderly homeless man “a bag of black bananas because they are far too overripe to sell,” Berger reflects on the briefly headlined, quickly forgotten, half-a-world away “ideological struggle between a few thousand faceless but true men and women, hidden in the sheltering mountains, and the triumphant World Order. How is such an unequal duel possible, if ‘only for a moment’?”
Berger observes that “everywhere these days more and more people knock their heads against the fact that the future of our planet and what it will offer or deny to its inhabitants is being decided by boards of men who control more money than all the governments of the world, who never stand for election, whose sole criterion [is profit]. Deep down people know, when they wake up at 4 a.m., that, one day, the system is going to crack. At dawn they bow their heads once again and obediently try not to go under. But the doubts are beginning. And at 4 a.m. the Subcomandante talks to us.”
But at the very end, it isn’t only politics on Berger’s mind, but also language. He quotes a passage in which Subcomandante Marcos explains why he is addicted to postscripts when he writes letters. Marcos says, “It happens that one feels that something has remained between the fingers, that there are still some words that want to find their way into sentences, that one has not finished emptying the pockets of the soul. But it is useless, there never will be a postscript that can contain so many nightmares… and so many dreams.”
Berger, too, leaves us with the images of words stuck between the fingers like crumbs, and the sense that he hasn’t finished emptying his own pockets yet. Both the stylistic “excess” that comes from the conviction of “representing” the dead, and the modesty of “Death’s secretaries” are stances that serve the narratives we make about those who are now only here in us, rather than among us. Both Berger, with an “urgency that belongs uniquely to life,” and Subcommandante Marcos, with his postscripts, recognize that what they have to say is not “the last word.” There are words to be written “after writing.”
Berlin, January 3, 2017. John Berger, 5 Nov. 1926 – 2 Jan. 2017. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Stan Persky, The Short Version (2005).