Tag Archives: John Berger


11 Sep

confabulationsOne of the things that delights me about the work of John Berger is that you can dip in at random and find something that provides context to almost anything you care to name. This morning I try the trick with Confabulations, a gathering from his late notebooks published last year:

‘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. I picture myself not so much a consequential, professional writer, as a stop-gap man.

After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognized and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them.

So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins.’

What a concise and wonderful way of summarising the process of writing. Firstly, the notion that if you don’t write something, it risks not being told. This might not be the greatest of losses to humanity, but then one never knows what one wants to say, as E.M. Forster nearly said, until one has said it.

Secondly, the notion of ‘letting the words slip back into the creature of their language’: Berger considers language as an animate being, back into which words can mysteriously slide. This idea of the creature of language is much more attractive, as a metaphor, than the ‘virus’ of language which fascinated Burroughs (and which might be traced to a reading of Chomsky).

And thirdly, the notion of words forming a community, a host of other words lying there in wait, to align themselves or dissociate from those returning: a fluid body of words, a jostling mass of word-molecules, contesting the writer’s choice, questioning the decisions of their creator, but not their creator, as the writer only ever borrows words, and – as an animate body – confabulating among themselves as to where they want to go, what they intend to mean.

‘The opposite of love’ and the abuse of power: with Gérard Depardieu and John Berger

2 Apr

Depardieu sticks out his tongue as his stomach takes centre stage

I missed the film Welcome to New York, a thinly disguised account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when it was released a couple of years back, but watched it last night with Mrs Blanco. The film stars Gérard Depardieu as ‘Georges Deveraux’ and the first twenty minutes of the film are pretty ghastly, with a lot of fumbling and groping, forced laughter, ice-cream smearing and buttock-slapping, climaxing in a display of loud, ursine grunting from the gross and panting Depardieu, who hasn’t even bothered to take off his raincoat. Later, we are treated to the formidable sight of the actor stripping in a police cell, his stomach unfurling from his pants like a mudslide, under the bewildered gaze of a police guard, who, as Depardieu struggles to pull on his socks, is heard to mutter ‘quite a workout’. But the later scenes between Depardieu and his wife Sophie (played by an exasperated Jacqueline Bisset) are fraught with a compelling and awful tension. In one their arguments, the Bisset character tells Depardieu that ‘the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference’.

But I have begun with a digression, since the comment that the Bisset character makes to her chronically sex-obsessed husband reminded me of something John Berger wrote, in an entirely different context:

The opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate. If love and hate have something in common it is because, in both cases, their energy is that of bringing and holding together – the lover with the loved, the one who hates with the hated. Both passions are tested by separation.

And, of course, separation can lead to indifference, or else arise from it. Indifference to the object of one’s emotions, whether originating in love or hate, leads to, or is born of, separation.

In and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Berger wrote of his stay in Livorno during the late 1940s. The city was war-scarred and poor, and Berger learned, he says, for the first time, ‘the ingenuity of the dispossessed.’ And he writes:

It was there too I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.

Which brings us back to Depardieu, in his role as a fictionalised Strauss-Kahn. In a peculiar little intro to the film, the actor tells reporters he was moved to take the part because he doesn’t trust politicians and ‘hated’ the person he was playing in the film. Now, I don’t entirely trust this contrived little vignette, but concur fully with Berger’s aversion. I have an instinctive distrust of anyone who wants to exercise power, whether in politics, local government, or institutions such as ‘The University’. Welcome to New York is about the gross misuse of power (Do you know who I am? Deveraux asks the terrified hotel cleaner before sexually assaulting her). The arrogance of that question! It speaks of the assumption of power allowing ugly minds to prosper in the exercise of self-aggrandisement. But it is a question that every tin Hitler wants to ask, across the spectrum, and which might better be re-phrased: Do you know who I think I am?


John Berger and ‘bearing witness’

19 Mar

and our faces

On page 29 of and our faces, our hearts, brief as photos, Berger describes a landscape that lies before him as he is raking hay in a field: a small hillock on which stand three neglected pear trees – two in leaf, one leafless and dead, the dead tree flanked by the two living ones – and behind them the blue sky with large white clouds. The sight catches his eye and, he says, it pleases him.

I have often wondered at these glimpsed moments; of observing a landscape in a state of almost absolute clarity; a mode of perception that nonetheless has something almost dreamlike about it.

He goes on:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests.  The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

Curious about this paragraph, and remembering a phrase from an article by Geoff Dyer written shortly after Berger’s death, I look up the original 1984 interview (from Marxism Today) to which Dyer alludes. The interview closes – one gets the impression that the young Dyer is extraordinarily excited at being able to interview his hero (an impression confirmed by the later Guardian article) – with the impossible question: What do you see as the job of your life? To which Berger answers, modestly:

I don’t think I can answer that … Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories—and I often think now that even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

In order to be a witness of the kind Berger is describing, one has to be in a certain state of receptiveness in the first place. You have to be porous enough to ‘let it in’; whatever it is. In Berger’s case it was the landscape of the three pear trees on a hillock, in this instance. But it might be anything. In a post from August 2015 – Sleepwalking near the Río Orlina –  I too was struck by an otherwise unremarkable landscape, ‘a small cliff or outcrop, framed by dusty green vegetation’, and I wonder now whether I was doing something similar: sleepwalking into a physical landscape that seemed somehow to correspond with images originating in the inner world. For that is what is happening: that particular landscape comes alive because it fits into the wider puzzle of one’s life; maps onto some inner template that is ordinarily inaccessible to us, but which helps to provide a symmetry of sorts. And here’s the thing: you will probably never know why that image or that landscape fits.

To take it one step further, I wonder whether this state of being a witness, of deep immersion in – and recognition of – a locale or landscape, is akin to what is commonly known as ‘inspiration’, and that one has already to be receptive to such a state in order to enter into it. As Picasso said: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you at work.” You don’t simply happen upon inspiration. You have to be in a state of mind in which it finds you. You might be raking hay, or sitting at your desk looking though old photographs (another way of raking hay), but in some manner you will always be the observer – even the unwitting observer -bearing witness.

tree in alberas

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 . . .