John Berger and symmetries

7 Mar

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 . . .

4 Responses to “John Berger and symmetries”

  1. Bill Herbert March 7, 2017 at 15:13 #

    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.)

    • richardgwyn March 7, 2017 at 18:08 #

      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.

  2. Bill Herbert March 7, 2017 at 18:35 #

    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.


  1. Waukendremes, 1 | gairnet provides: press of blll - March 22, 2017

    […] An interesting blog post from Richard Gwyn about the not uncommon experience of falling asleep while reading reminds me I’ve been exploring a few angles of this phenomenon over the years. […]

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