Holding On To A Dear Life

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Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

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