Tag Archives: Memoir

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 . . .