Ways of Seeing: John Berger

johnbergerWays of Seeing was on the syllabus.  I hardly approved.  My university was a place to read works from well before the twentieth century and I felt an ignorant dull pain at the thought of people like John Berger and Marshall McLuhan being taken seriously.  I resisted reading Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut and I thought that art criticism had ended quite nicely with Ruskin and Pater, thank you very much.

But John Berger never went away for me because he said things too brilliant for me to ignore.  Just as assortment of his thoughts should be the best tribute to him.  He died 5 days ago at age 90.  He was always a presence–that rarity, a “public intellectual” who was also heart-breakingly perceptive.  I’ve accumulated the quotations below in a lazy way:  from http://www.goodread.com.

The final quotation has absorbed and provoked and comforted and angered me on many occasions.  It is the one that gets me more than any other.

“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.”
John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous
“Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.”
John Berger
“Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.”
“When we suffer anguish we return to early childhood because that is the period in which we first learnt to suffer the experience of total loss. It was more than that. It was the period in which we suffered more total losses than in all the rest of our life put together.”
“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.”
“The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences.”
“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which as beggar is a reminder of nothing.”
“I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”
John Berger


“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”
John Berger

And this place, of which Berger writes, can be totally invisible and incorporeal and yet remain a place.




Author: Gubbinal

Bookish, tea-drinking cat-lady who loves great poetry and music and is in the midst of dying

2 thoughts on “Ways of Seeing: John Berger”

  1. “This is the Berger I admire most, a man who is at home anywhere, curious, intense, always on the side of the underdog and the eccentric, always thrilled by creativity.” This is from a piece on the LRB blog on 3rd Jan that you may want to follow up.


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