It’s simplifying things to call John Berger a Eurocentric left-wing analyst of art and culture, but I’m going to do it. He was born in London in 1926, and has written more than twenty books — mainly novels, performance scripts and art criticism. The recent novel To the Wedding was popular, and he is respected for his perceptive, unconventional collections of essays on art and photography — About Looking, and Ways of Seeing. He has lived for many years now in a French mountain village.
This book is made up of twenty-eight essays averaging about six pages each, a photograph, and a drawing of a woman. Each essay presents a short scene, a meditative portrait of a person or a couple of people, usually set in a clearly-realised landscape.
There are several pieces about individual farm workers, one about the still-birth of a calf, a meditation on Simone Weil which holds the subject’s identity back until almost the end of the piece (and the limit of our patience), a reminiscence of a Czech painter living in Paris, a tale about reading a story to three men in prison, a meditation on the relationship of the cruel landscape of the Greek islands and the Greeks’ concept of the flesh, and a variety of other topics.
There are narratives, that is, stories told by Berger, or told to him and retold to us. Sometimes they are reflections on a place — a ferry trip in the Mediterranean, say — or a climate — Barcelona suffocating under summer heat. The author often features in these scenes as an observer, standing quietly to one side.
Most of the characters seem to be special friends of his, though a number are strangers. The blurb says that each scene is about someone for whom Berger felt a kind of love, though in the book he is scrupulous in not exposing his personal feelings.
It’s a set of concerns and a tone of voice — patient, engaged yet restrained, and painfully clear-sighted — that you want to agree with. The author’s inclination to understatement is refreshing after the gushy gruel that passes for essay writing today. But Berger clamps a tourniquet too tightly around his feelings for my liking.
The piece on Barcelona, to take an example, contains oblique references to a ‘she’ who is absent. The veils of reticence are lifted just enough, at the very end, for us to learn that ‘she’ died eleven months before, and was known to the author. We presume Berger was close to this friend, but we are not told anything of their relationship, or of her age or occupation. She may have been an old cleaning lady he knew, or a farmer’s wife — such people appear elsewhere in the book. She may have been his beloved wife, or his only daughter. We never get to know; and because the words have done their job of drawing us inside the writer’s thinking mind, and because his restraint is paradoxically so moving, we want to know who this woman was, and how she mattered to him.
The first edition of this book was shorter, published in German, and was titled (in German) A Man and Woman, Under a Plum Tree. With a slight but politically interesting alteration, that’s the title of the first essay in the book and of the photograph it’s based on, a blurry shot of Berger and a woman standing in a small clearing surrounded by foliage: ‘A Woman and Man Standing by a Plum Tree’.
Why did Berger call these brief meditations ‘photocopies’, when another writer might have called them ‘photographs’, or ‘snapshots’? For two reasons, I guess.
You photograph some person or some moment that you ‘own’, and the snapshot is a personal memento of that moment — you could call it a ‘momento’, perhaps, which is how I used to misspell the word for many years.
A photocopy is easier to make than a photograph, and less personal. You photocopy something to keep an image of it, not because you own it, but because you don’t own it — a poem from a volume you’ve borrowed from the library, a recipe in a friend’s magazine, or a document from a file someone has left in your In-tray.
Berger has thought deeply about these things. I was impressed by his analysis of photography in the book About Looking, published in 1980. ‘The camera relieves us of the burden of memory,’ he wrote. ‘It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.’
In an essay published twelve years later he shifts his position: ‘All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget,’ he recants. ‘In this — as in other ways — they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers.’
I’m reminded of a perceptive remark of Proust’s about the essentially elegaic nature of snapshots: ‘A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality, and shows us things that no longer exist.’
Let’s look again at the image that opens that first essay. It is a hazy photograph of Berger and a woman (the photographer, we realise, after we read the essay) and a plum tree, taken with a pinhole camera: a plain box with a piece of film at one end and a tiny hole in the other. This clumsy device played no part in the development of photography — lenses were in common use for projecting bright, clear images of the landscape for hundreds of years before photographic emulsions were invented.
It gives an image with infinite depth of field and not much sharpness (because of diffraction caused by the edges of the pinhole, and subject movement during that tedious exposure). In fact the ghostly figures standing under the plum tree are unrecognisable, and thus all the better as a subject for a ruminative essay.
There’s a very different photograph of the author on the back of the book — a crisp and articulate portrait — by the most famous photographer on earth, the wealthy scion of an industrial French family, Henri Cartier-Bresson, now nearly ninety. The gap between the two portraits is instructive.
Cartier-Bresson is a master so far beyond and above his art that twenty years ago, when he was in his late sixties, he abandoned it to go back to pencil sketching, which he’d learned as a young man. I have often wondered if that grand renunciation was a gesture of disdain, or weariness, or anguish in the face of photography’s intractable glibness.
Berger records a thoughtful meeting with Cartier-Bresson in this book. He notices Cartier-Bresson’s handwriting and sees it as remarkably maternal, of all things. He mentions Cartier-Bresson’s three escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps, and his liking for a treatise on Japanese archery. Berger asks him about the concept he invented, the ‘decisive moment’ in street photography, but he doesn’t get far. Cartier-Bresson quotes Einstein: ‘I have such a feeling of solidarity with everything alive…’
But Berger doesn’t confront him with the question why, like the poet Rimbaud, he abandoned the art at which he excelled. No doubt it’s a painful question, and it might well be unanswerable.
Politics. Few of the pieces are overtly political, though one — towards the end of the book — warmly presents the point of view of the Zapatista peasant rebels in present-day Mexico struggling against what Berger calls the forces of the Free Market, and another essay laments what the Free Market has done to Russia.
The death of the Marxist god, once a colossus on the horizon, must be a bleak and painful loss to left-wing idealists, one more devastating than the Death of God to the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. They at least had science and economic materialism to take His place. Denial is the first response: ‘Deep down,’ Berger writes forlornly, ‘people know, when they wake up at 4 a.m., that, one day, the system is going to crack.’
The piece about Russia focuses on a young woman glimpsed in a French news photograph in October 1993. She’s defending the parliament in the Moscow White House against Yeltsin’s tanks, defending the old Communist ideals in a modern Russia where, says Berger in a sacerdotal voice, ‘all the sacrifices of three generations have been sacrificed on the altar of the Free Market.’
The writing is generally good throughout this book. It strives to give the impression of taciturnity and blunt truth. I wonder, then, about what went wrong in this essay. Addressing the Russian girl in the photograph, he writes ‘It is hard to decide whether you are a child or a grandmother. (At historic moments two, three, or even four generations are sometimes compressed and co-exist within the lived experience of a single hour. Those who believe that history is finished have forgotten this.)’
One can sympathise with Berger’s dislike for the capitalist vultures circling the gutted Russian economy, but surely there’s no need to concoct what in another context Germaine Greer has called ‘manufactured insights’, or to sink into propaganda. Berger was wise to abjure sentimentality elsewhere in these essays. Here it leaks in, transforming drama into melodrama, and turning his bony style to mush.
This appropriation of a distant person’s feelings reminds me of his plausible but phoney remark about Van Gogh: ‘When he painted a road, the road-makers were there in his imagination. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labour of existence; and this labour, recognised as such, was what constituted reality for him.’ It’s true that as a young man Van Gogh identified ardently with the working poor, but his painting made the leap from dreck to art not when he had been anointed by a vision of the nobility of labour, but when he took painting lessons in Paris and brightened up his palette.
On the other hand, Berger has devoted a lifetime to thinking about what art means to us. Reminiscing about an artist friend he makes a sharp point: ‘We weren’t somewhere between success and failure, we were elsewhere.’ That distance from the values of the marketplace is not an absolute good — there’s nothing morally wrong about fashion — but it is invigorating.
Berger is seventy now. He reminds me of Samuel Beckett, another British exile who marooned himself under the grey skies of Europe. They both stand at a slight distance from the culture they eloped with, France. Beckett was taciturn about the country he chose to devote himself to in 1931, as he was about everything, but Berger often rehearses his love to those he left behind — his English-speaking readers. ‘The past grows gradually around one,’ he has said in another book, ‘like a placenta for dying.’
He has also said that the human imagination has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist practice or philosophy. ‘It dreams,’ he writes, ‘like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.’
This book is dappled with dreams like that.