John Berger and symmetries

John Berger

Following the death on the 2nd January of John Berger, a favourite writer and an inspirational human being, I was led to read (or re-read, if the annotations in pencil were truly in my hand, even if my memory of reading the book itself has vanished) his essay and our faces, my heart, brief as photos; and I was reminded, with a degree of both joy and relief, that reading and writing form a continuum, and that the one almost inevitably begets the other.

While lying in bed, reading John Berger’s strange and arresting essay, I began to drift off, as happens all too frequently when reading at night (or in the day, for that matter) and the words I read took on other shapes, that is, the eye, even though closed or half open, conjures phrases, lines, sentences; I see them, they are relayed to my brain in half sleep as though they were print on the page, but when I return my gaze to the page, no such line exists; it has been pure invention on my part, and I have taken the story off at a tangent, into a kind of dream zone, in which I rewrite the text not as image, specifically, but as words on the page which are not in fact there. I have, while drifting off, re-written the text on which my eyes were resting before I was overtaken by sleep  so that it takes a new departure, unrelated to what precedes it or what the author actually wrote.

Now, this is something, as I say, that I do quite regularly when tired; it involves a shifting from what is ‘real’ – on the page – to something which I have invented, which comes from me (I imagine) or to which I am distracted or called as if by a force outside myself or the text itself.

This happened when I was reading Berger. Waking, and reading on, I find, on page 52 of his book, the following lines. Berger is in the post office collecting a post restante letter from the woman he loves, and to whom the essay appears to be addressed, as a love letter of sorts, and he says this:

A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language. The language may change but the voice stays the same. I recognise your voice before I know in what language you are speaking. In the post office you pronounced the name you had written on the envelope, yet it was not the two words which I heard, it was your voice.

And when I read that, I thought ‘Ah yes, that is exactly what happens to me!’ In other words, I saw Berger’s comment as a direct correlation – or confirmation – of the thought I had just had about superimposing my imagined words onto the words of the text. Berger is in the post office; he hears the young women clerks talking, and he superimposes the voice of his beloved onto the text of their words. It echoes, analogously, what I have just written: the text (any text) is there in front of you, but you see (or hear) something quite distinct, authored by some(one) other.

The strangeness of this world, and all its symmetries! Reading Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography of his early years in Istanbul – which also serves as a biography of the city in which he has lived all his life – he comments that:

‘. . . what is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but its ordering, and what is important for the memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.’

Is this what guides the writer of memoir – a questing after symmetry? Or of synthesis?

To be continued . . .

5 Comments on “John Berger and symmetries

  1. I’ve been reviewing my notebooks in search of a couple of elusive ideas, and I’d just spotted a couple of instances of nap- or slewed- thinking which echo this point. (The Slew is something I’m trying to write about in terms of compositional strategies, so perhaps this’ll encourage me to shift my conceptual arse.) The first is the more relevant:

    ‘I was dropping off to sleep this afternoon when D woke me by closing a shutter, and I realised I’d been “watching” a programme in which three people dressed up as their favourite characters from a book and answered questions about that book or its author.

    The format was a not unfamiliar cross between say Mastermind and cosplay, but the interesting element was that in the few seconds I’d actually been asleep, this quiz had become a long-running ‘classic’.

    (One of the contestants was Sancho Panza, in that sense that, somewhere in every dream, a part of Don Quixote continues to unfold.)

    The readiness of the sleeper to accept the dream, as well as the rapidity of the invention, is what particularly fascinates me. On the one hand, that first, purest suspension of disbelief, that one is not asleep, which includes suspending disbelief in the coherence or otherwise of the elements of the dream, and perceiving it as narrative.

    On the other, how limitless the capacities of the creative impulse are once our limiting sense of the self is set aside. As Nietszche observed, there are vast spaces between what appear to be our most reasoned or reasonable ideas.

    (I’ll reproduce this and pick the second instance up on my blog, I think.)


    • Thank you, Bill. I particularly like the notion that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have a permanent residency in (your/one’s) dream life. On a related theme, there was an article in New Scientist recently (someone kindly bought me a subscription for Christmas) about ‘lucid dreaming’ and ways in which one might be able to exercise a degree of ‘steering’ the dream while still asleep, and ‘aware’ within the state of sleep, that one is dreaming. One of the exercises they recommend for training oneself up to do lucid dreaming is to ask oneself at various points throughout the day: ‘Am I dreaming?’ (I kid you not). For some people this might be a redundant exercise, but I have been trying it out and it has had the very pleasing effect of blurring, perhaps irrevocably, any distinction between the states of wakefulness and dream.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I find myself levitating, that’s usually the trigger that tells me I’m dreaming lucidly rather than waking bewilderedly. (It’s interesting that we have parallel passive forms, being asleep/awake, but the very active verb ‘dream’ has no exact antonym. ‘Realising’ won’t quite do.)

    There are a number of techniques that enable levitation, but my favourite is the Imaginary Pedal, where, while walking briskly, you place one foot on the pedal of an invisible bicycle, then just forget to return it to the ground – and you’re off. Quixote taught me that, probably.

    When flight becomes a matter of willpower, it’s a sign you’re beginning to wake up.


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  4. Dyma groes gyfuniad hyfryd:
    Berger – porthor i ‘annwfn’ dychymyg wedi’i gyfnewid â’r byd ‘real’, cyfarwydd sy’n dod â hanesion a straeon a chwedlau atom o’r tu arall i len arwyneb darlun a ffotograff…
    Dwi’n cofio gweld ei gyfres ar ‘lunyddiaeth’ mewn du a gwyn ar hen deledu fy llencyndod – Berger ar rimyn o draeth ar un o ynysoedd yr Alban, stribed glanio i’r awyren fach oedd yn pwytho’r byd mawr â’r gymuned ‘ynysedig’ yn chwifio ei ddwylo enfawr labrwr, ac yntau’n fardd ac yn athronydd, yn lledu ei freichiau’n hael i gwpasu’r byd a’r bydysawd yn ei weledigaeth.
    Mae ei eglurebau mor wyrthiol o ddadlennol, fel rhyfeddod y cerbyd gyda chroen tenau o fetel fel rhyw aderyn chwedlonol, yn glanio ar frawddeg denau o draeth, rhywle rhwng yr ewyn a’r twyni…

    Wedyn, ar ôl blynyddoedd o ddarllen nofelau de’r Amerig, mewn trosiadau di-rif, hyd cyrraedd awduron o Sbaen a Chatalwnia ac awdur o Gymro, glaniais ar Richard Gwyn, sy’n pontio’r bydoedd hyn mewn un llyfr, Vagabond’s Brecwast, wnaeth agor cymaint o ddrysau ar syniadau a phrofiadau cyffredin, fe sgriblais (gair aml-ieithog difyr) ar ymyl pob tudalen o’r bron (a dwi byth yn amharchu llyfrau fel arfer) – a’i waith yntau’n cyfuno gweledigaeth bardd, nofelydd a dwys-fyfyriwr (a blogio fel Ricardo Blanco).

    A’r cysylltiad dyfnach? Mae ei fyfyrdod ar ymadawiad John Berger yn troi at fyd y cyfnos (dyna nerth cyfun-eiriau’r Gymraeg imi – gwell na ‘crepuscular’ bondigrybwyll!), y byw rhwng cwsg ac effro sydd mor gyfarwydd imi, a minnau’n syrthio i ddwfn-gwsg ar fy nhraed mewn trên, neu’n cofio hunllef mewn manylder sy’n drech na chofio’r awr diwethaf mewn golau dydd llachar.

    Tair stori’n gryno iawn:-
    Untro breuddwydiais bod cymydog wedi cynnig dodrefn ‘4 piece’ crand – fel newydd sbon – ond i nhad eu hebrwng o’i dŷ yntau i’r mans moel lle trigasom fel teulu o fewn dyddiau – a minnau (yn fy mreuddwyd o hyd) yn anghofio sôn. A’r wythnos wedyn, mor fyw oedd y cof – yn ymddiheurio wrth fy nhad a dioddef ei lid llym. Cof mor gryf am ddychymyg, y bu rhaid i mi esbonio wrth y cymydog ymhen degawdau wedyn, ac ymddiheurio wrtho, er i mi wybod mai ffug atgof oedd yn blingo fy nghydwybod!

    Wedyn, tro arall, colli fy waled ar siwrne o’r gorllewin, wedi i ni aros am ysbaid i fwynhau rhyw hanner awr wrth yr afon a’r hen bont yng Nghenarth. Roedd fy nghof mor fyw – gweld fy mhwrs yn fy arffed a thybio iddo lithro i’r llawr yn dawel pan agorais ddrws y car yn y maes parcio… felly ffonies yr orsaf heddlu agosaf at Genarth a gadael y manylion hynny i gyd. Ac yn wir i chi, ymhen rhai wythnosau dyma alwad gan heddwas i ddweud bod fy mhwrs a’i gynnwys ganddynt yn ddiogel… (fel y tri thro arall y collais swmp o arian – diolch i Ragluniaeth!) ond yn syndod anghredadwy i mi, roeddwn wedi colli’r arian rhyw ddeg o filltiroedd yng nghynt, mewn garej! Ond hyd yn oed o ddeall hyn, a derbyn y pwrs a’r arian yn ôl, mae’r cof ‘dychmygol’ yn fwy manwl, yn fwy byw ac yn fwy cofiadwy a chredadwy hyd heddiw nac unrhyw gof am y digwyddiad ‘iawn’.

    Yn olaf, (gallaf ymhelaethu ugeiniau o straeon cyffelyb) mae’r sôn am ‘Lucid Dreaming’ (‘breuddwydio eglur’? Neu’n aml yn fy mhrofiad i – hunlunio liw dydd – ‘sleepseeing by the light of day’) yn ymarfer mor gyffredin i mi hyd nes i mi ddioddef iselder dwys – y gallu i gyfeirio a chyfarwyddo fy naratif ‘byw’ ym myd breuddwydiol, cyfareddol y lled hepian, a’m hoff arfer o hofran yn fy sefyll cyn hedfan ar wib dros gaeau a choedwigoedd, tirwedd garw’r mynyddoedd neu doeon a simneiau y trefi… fel yr animeiddiedig grwt yn llaw’r dyn eira ‘yn hedfan fri uwchben’…

    Yn gryno, i mi does dim wal ond rhyw len denau a thryloyw rhwng yr hyn a welwn mewn golau dydd o’m cwmpas, neu ar bapur neu ganfas mewn fframyn, neu rwng dau glawr a’r sinema personol, y realaeth ategol (os dyna ‘augmented reality’) pan fyddaf yn cau, neu hanner cau fy llygaid.

    Rhyw ddiwrnod, rhaid imi gwpla’r stori fer iasoer a ddechreuais ysgrifennu, am blentyn sy’n dihuno ym mherfedd dywylla’r nos, a heb agor ei lygaid yn sylweddoli ei fod yn gallu ‘gweld’ o’i gwmpas… ac nid yw bellach yn cysgu ar ei ben ei hun yn y gwely, ond bod yno ryw gorpws benywaidd lwyd a sgerbydol ei golwg arswydus, mewn carpiau pydredig llychlyd… Ac eto, wrth edrych ‘heb edrych’ medrai oddef yr olygfa hunllefus hon a dal, o’r braidd, a llwyddi i ddal i anadlu’n dawel ac isel er bod ei galon yn llamu o’i fron fel cwningen mewn sach gynfas bras…
    A stori ‘wir’, o’m plentyndod fy hunan yw honno…


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