A Monument, A World of His Own

Unlike most public intellectuals, Berger gives hope to the precise degree that he excoriates almost everything in our world. Throughout his work, he performs that rare—that tragically rare—Marxist trick of transforming the idea that the world is horrible into a source of deep comfort, of energy, of action but also of peace.

Berger’s closeness to the material led again and again to revelation: the only way to get to the universal was through the material.

  • Tom Overton, ed. Landscapes: John Berger on Art. Verso, 2015.
    Tom Overton, ed. Portraits: John Berger on Artists. Verso, 2015.

Somewhere in the galaxy of his work—in the thousands of pages of novels and short stories and essays, in the dozens of hours of film and television—John Berger relates a story I’ve never forgotten.

A man walks along a stony beach. As he goes, he turns a single stone upright. He leaves it, standing there, on its end.

That’s it, in its entirety—that is, as nearly as I can remember. I can’t find it anywhere, not in my books or in the library or on the internet. But maybe it’s enough that I remember it—or, more precisely, maybe it’s enough that I remember why I remember it. It might seem like there’s nothing there. But like so many of the stories Berger wrote and co-wrote and recorded, the story of the man on the beach bursts into meaning at the slightest pressure.

At the most obvious, the story of the stone allegorizes the invention of language. Whatever the man’s motivation—to record his passage, to offer himself some momentary respite from the visual tedium of the beach, sheer playfulness, boredom—the moment the man turns the stone, it is converted from found to made thing, from object to sign. It becomes both a monument and a word, a particular word: presence. The stone now speaks, both for itself and the man who set it upright: I am.

And not just I am. Once turned upright, once arranged, the stone offers an address to the person or people who will see it, at whatever future point. It says: You are.

And even as it persists in a kind of outside-of-time, is ceaselessly present, the stone also stages the fall into human time. It asks not only Who will come, for the first time or again, but also: When? How far will they have traveled? Why? Where is the man going? When will he reach his destination? Is he leaving or returning? To or from what place? And why?

The turning of the stone is both a complete story and the beginning of every story. From this one small gesture, everything follows. A space, a time, a me, a you—and not just a me but a me who exists by dint of you. For this is a Bergerian story, and the one thing one can say for certain about John Berger was that he existed by dint of and for other people. There was no Other or other John Berger did not try to approach, to and with whom he did not attempt to speak. The essay “A Gift for Rosa Luxemburg,” for instance, begins: “Rosa! I’ve known you since I was a kid!” It doesn’t seem to bother him that Rosa Luxemburg is already dead.

But since I can’t find the story of the stone, we may as well begin again.

John Berger—novelist, critic, poet, Marxist; fêted, modest, his radicalism so steady as to feel like a sort of achieved and easy spiritual nobility; born in London in 1926, a resident of the Haute Savoie in France for most of his adult life—died in Paris on January 2, 2017. In 2016, before his death, Verso put out the magnificent Portraits: John Berger on Artists and Landscapes: John Berger on Art. Both volumes were edited by the younger writer Tom Overton, who catalogued Berger’s work for the British Library and is now his biographer; both volumes are essential reading not just for our political moment but outside it. He was a monument, a world of his own; at the same time, his thinking and his art—which are the same thing—address themselves at once to the past, the present, and the future.

Portraits consists of essays and excerpts of Berger’s writing on individual artists arranged from the Chauvet Cave painters forward, with stops for artists very famous and very dead to artists still living and much less well known. Some are exhibition reviews; Berger worked as a critic for the New Statesman after working briefly as a painter. (He never liked the word “critic”; he also claimed in print that he had never met anyone who loved art as much he did.) Others are letters to and from his daughter, Katya Berger, with whom he collaborated on lectures and plays, or excerpts from his fiction, and from his poetry. The pages are rife with muscular prose, sinewy intellectualism, and especially the sensual analogy for which he is most known. 

Portraits is so lively a book it can feel uncanny. Its very design is uncanny, in form as well as content: covered in a kind of linen, its cover features a tipped-in color reproduction of a Fayum portrait. Discovered mostly at a site in Fayum, Egypt, Fayum portraits were made by Coptic Christians beginning in the 1st century BCE. They are strikingly realistic, often taken from life, and used as the face panels of mummies never intended to be seen again after they were buried. Berger speculates that preserving life into death in this way must have involved a particular process:

. . . the Fayum painter was summoned not to make a portrait, as we have come to understand the term, but to register his client, a man or a woman, looking at him. It was the painter rather than the model who submitted to being looked at.

. . . the sitter’s look, to which he submitted, addressed him in the second person singular. So that his reply—which was the act of painting—used the same personal pronoun: Toi, Tu, Esy, Ty . . . who is here.

The passage exemplifies Berger’s technique in at least two ways. His readings of individual painters and works tend to grip the mind the way Jordan palmed a basketball. More notable even—and widespread throughout the Berger oeuvre—is that he derives a complete fictional scene from only the slightest evidence—in this case, the look in the eyes of images of people long dead. And not just that scene but the very grammar in which the fictional sitters address one another, and the figurative grammar in which one of them is painting. 

“Toi, Tu, Esy, Ty”: these are the second person informal not in Arabic but in French, Spanish, Greek, and Polish. A universal hospitality defines Berger’s criticism, and not solely in terms of the perceived degree of accessibility or the kindness of his writing—though neither is unrelated, finally, to the idea that each viewer of a work should be at home within whatever he sees, if he sees it clearly. In the course of Portraits we visit Piero Della Francesca, Titian, Claude Monet, Picasso, Vija Celmins, Prunella Clough, Randa Mdah, dozens of others. Each artist appears somehow purely themselves.

Even Berger’s takedowns are premised on empathy. Behold Berger on Jackson Pollock:

If a talented artist cannot see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs, if the situation is as dire as ours, his talent will only reveal negatively but unusually vividly the nature and extent of that decadence. His talent will reveal, in other words, how it itself has been wasted.

These sorts of dialectical armlocks—a keen reading of Pollock turns Pollock against itself (“his talent will reveal, in other words, how it itself has been wasted”)—are both a lot of fun and a bruising reminder of what revolutionary criticism should be for. Here is Berger on Henry Moore, who taught him drawing at the Chelsea School of Art:

The development of Henry Moore’s sculpture is a tragic example of how the half truths on which so much Modern Art has been based eventually led to sterility and—in terms of appreciation—mass self-deception.

Very early in Portraits, in a remarkable essay on Courbet, Berger writes “the only justification for criticism is that it allows us to see more clearly” (it makes sense that Berger’s take on Courbet would be remarkable, since both were preoccupied with painting as a faithful transcript of experience, though then again there is no artist with whom Berger did not share something or from whom he did not learn anything—a mark of the high value he placed on intellectual and artistic receptivity). Criticism is only one level of thinking; Berger’s reviews would offer a desperately incomplete representation of his total production, which is one reason why, in Portraits, Overton selects from across Berger’s oeuvre: the fiction contains art writing; the poetry contains art writing, as do the letters and the eulogies for dead friends written to long-dead artists.

The same catholic editorial procedure holds for Landscapes, with a slight modification. Overton specifies in his introduction that the book intends to survey the theoretical territory of Berger’s work on art, then offer examples of the territory described. The book’s first half is thus headed “Redrawing the Maps,” the second “Terrain”; the first contains odes to Gabriel García Márquez and to James Joyce. It also contains shorter pieces on Fredric Antal, Max Raphael, and Walter Benjamin: Marxist humanists like Berger, emigrants like Berger (though not, unlike Berger, emigrants by choice). It contains “A Gift for Rosa Luxemburg,” an ebullient, formally elaborate piece that begins in that Bergerian direct address (the same “you” that later turns up in Ben Lerner and other self-avowedly Bergerian writers of our day):

You often come out of the page I’m reading—and sometimes out of a page I’m trying to write—come to join me with a toss of your head and a smile. No single page and none of the prison cells they repeatedly put you in could ever contain you.

Berger then relates the complex history of a set of matchboxes decorated with birds he feels Rosa would like—but which he cannot give to her, since she is dead, and whose complex provenance he will instead have to describe.

The first half of Landscapes is most interesting in the way that it operates as a kind of Bergerian primer. The Benjamin essay is slight but fascinating: Berger took Benjamin as his primary theoretical departure point for Ways of Seeing, the 1972 four-part BBC television series for which he is still best known. But the essay on Raphael is perhaps most moving, intellectually and emotionally. A refugee from occupied France, Raphael died penniless in New York in 1952. He hoped that mathematics might be able to provide an explanation for artistic excellence: an idea that seems easy to dismiss as totalizing or paranoid, or both. Berger recuperates Raphael’s theories without ever suggesting any veil of pity need be drawn aside. (The same is true of Berger’s explication of Benjamin’s suicide: “he was very conscious of the degree to which a life is given form by its death; and he may have decided to choose that form for himself, bequeathing to life his contradictions still intact.”)

Berger writes that for Raphael “the function of the work of art is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains.” And that activity is the emergence of the universal from the concrete: from a closeness with wood, paint, stone, that then becomes, somehow, accessible. In turn, this encounter invites us into other moments in history; for Berger as for Benjamin, the past could communicate a potential for revolutionary change. It could reveal a kind of utopianism. The essence of art, for Raphael, “was the undoing of the world of things, the construction of the world of values, and hence the constitution of a new world.” And not, Berger specifies, transcendental values—but no more and no less than creation in common.

To read Berger in conversation—sometimes embarrassingly direct conversation—with his intellectual influences is to remember that life exists only because it is mutual—not anyone’s, but ours. Pleasurable and useful, chastening in the best sense are Landscapes’s essays on the historical function of the museum, on criticism, on the futility of trying to make art under late capitalism. But it was Berger’s fervent faith in the common, the shared, that make this collection a sublime and inexhaustible exhortation to collective courage: to keep making, and to keep looking, even as we realize that the purpose of most art we will ever see is to reinforce unfreedom and aggravate by concealing the unstaunched suffering of humankind.

Eighteenth-century English landscape painting was the actual and ideological fruit of the enclosure movement: common land became private property. But the point of looking at paintings made for owners to crown their ownership is that to clear eyes, either the artist’s or the viewer’s, historically specific ideological content can operate as a sort of formal constraint. Like Benjamin, Berger “wanted the art of the past to realize itself in the choices men make today in deciding their own historical role.” Made in conditions of unfreedom—made to further that unfreedom—a landscape painting, if it was created with a spiritual intensity and a fidelity to the material, could still serve as a truthful, universal reminder of what could and could not survive unfreedom. The tidiest brushstroke of the best landscape painting will cry for justice—its very aesthetic perfection would remind us that it came at the cost of a tide of peasants’ blood.

Taken together, Portraits and Landscapes form a neat dialectical pairing. (The editorial concept was Overton’s, he told me by email, in a series of notes that revealed his almost silly suitability for what is likely one of the most important archival tasks of the new century.) But neither Portraits nor Landscapes posits any sort of summa of an unquestionably inexhaustible career. Both volumes only open more hallways, and at the end of them more doors. There’s something wonderfully comforting about this, about the way that every one of Berger’s texts can serve as a primer to his thought or a further complication of whichever one a person happened to have read or watched last.

For example, if you are not a British person and didn’t get Berger young, you can now watch Ways of Seeing in its entirety on YouTube. Or, if you’re interested in B-sides, you can watch John Berger talk to his close friend Susan Sontag on one of his less popular BBC programs, Voices, in 1983. The two have come to talk about stories, Berger says: “We both write fiction: novels, and short stories. And tonight we are going to exchange views and experiences about this activity, somewhat mysterious, really—this activity of telling stories.” The circumlocution could not be more Bergerian. He proceeds:

If I think of somebody telling a story, I see a group of people huddled together, and around them, a vast space, quite frightening. Maybe they are huddled against a wall. Maybe they’re around a fire. And somewhere, for me, in the very idea of storytelling, there is something to do with shelter. The shelter perhaps of the voyager, the traveler, who has come home, who has lived to tell the story. Or the soldier who has come back, who has survived. So there is this almost physical sense of habitation, where the story represents a kind of habitation, a kind of home. But then, inside the story, there is another kind of shelter. Because what the story narrates and tells is sheltered from oblivion, forgetfulness, and daily indifference.

Sontag jumps right in. “But you’re talking about stories in a very—hmm—remote kind of society that’s quite different from ours. Because surely storytelling is much more diversified in the societies that we know.” She tells him that he should be affiliated with the oral tradition, that his theory doesn’t account many other storytelling occasions, the kind that arise by mediation, through the visual, and so forth and so on. She, by contrast, is a city dweller. She gets going. And yet it is she who seems least comfortable.

As Berger proceeds to demolish her, you can watch Sontag’s feet move under the table: she’s uncomfortable, and she can’t hide it. There is no getting around the fact that Berger’s work, read now, can come off as kitschy, deluded, masculinist, creepy, essentialist, romantic, or sentimental. His closeness to animals—birds, cattle, and dogs, primarily—might alarm a more urban person. Blue-eyed, craggy, huge-headed, he was aware that he sometimes came off as a man of “indecent intensity.” In G. he includes a drawing of a penis with an eye for a glans and two breasts on the shaft. Better that he remain famous for the two things everyone seems to know he did: either Ways of Seeing, or having given half the 1972 Booker Prize money he won for G. to the London chapter of the Black Panthers. (He used the rest to research and write an examination of migrant workers—A Seventh Man, from 1975—with the photographer Jean Mohr.)

Or maybe it isn’t. Borges—a weak character, a political reactionary who allowed himself to become famous—wrote with highly reliable insight that fame is a form of incomprehension; by contrast, Berger seems not to have wanted to be famous at all. The cheap Pelican paperback edition of Ways of Seeing describes not its author but the text’s widespread adoption in British public schools. And in whatever register his strangeness is always a function of his straitening kindness. He is mannered in his simplicity even as he takes other people to task for their mannerisms. He writes of Roland Barthes: “It is a valuable experience, making Barthes’s acquaintance. I imagine that he is an excellent teacher and a very good friend. His points of departure are often small, and even precious . . . yet he is to be trusted. And that is rare.”

But there can be no doubt that Berger understood society, cities, the modern, the world for which Sontag spoke or the heavily psychologized, therefore “modern” interior state that Barthes explored. He understood enough about these things to reject most of them, and not just in Ways of Seeing. His principled rejection of fanciness is the central source of his decency. Berger couldn’t have given a fuck about glamor, which he understood, rightly, not to function without some sense of hierarchical social envy. Watching him talk with Sontag for no more than five minutes offers many different lessons. You can, for instance, find an eloquent demonstration of Berger’s total superiority as a novelist. He leans forward, toward the person to whom he is speaking; she leans away.

Or perhaps another way of understanding Berger’s talent, of beginning to re-approach his extraordinary legacy—immediately after his death he was called the “best ever art writer” by David Shrigley, among hundreds of other artists, thinkers, and writers who have mourned and celebrated him publicly—might be found in what Overton calls “the Stanley knife moment.” At the beginning of the first episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger rips open a Botticelli Venus with a knife. Despite its retrospective kitschiness, the shot startles: we don’t quite know it’s a reproduction he’s tearing until he tells us. But past Berger’s undeniable showmanship, perhaps something to do with his frightening, almost unreal sincerity—lies the gesture’s undeniable beauty. The drawn-out, ripping stab of the Stanley knife as it tears through the canvas echoes the more likely gesture with which one might approach a canvas: the stroke of a brush.

Berger’s closeness to the material led again and again to revelation: the only way to get to the universal was through the material. The super-precision of the Stanley knife stroke seems to have come from Berger’s own time as a painter, and then as a lifelong practitioner of drawing—but wherever it came from, only that kind of insight can ensure the exquisite meaningfulness of the moment. If you are walking on a beach, for example, and it occurs to you to turn a stone, you must know that any heretofore horizontal stone is capable of vertical life because it is made of stone. Its own weight becomes the downward force that holds it upright.

In any medium, this sense of material specificity as the first and only source of artistic achievement may be the talent for metaphor. What is the most dramatic change I can make in this stone that will make it, somewhat paradoxically, more stonelike than it already is—while at the same time impressing into it whatever obsession has driven me to make art? This effort, if it succeeds, becomes a testament to the artist’s ingenuity as a symbol of a more universally human ingenuity, even human survival as such. (Berger’s writing on the lives of peasants, migrants, workers, and prisoners often emphasizes the ingenuity their forms of survival share with all art). Inside necessity (of form, of the material, of the physical world, of whatever psychological implacability drives the artist) appears, breathtakingly, possibility itself.

And in turn, this might be another way of describing why Berger’s output is at once so remarkably unified and so various. As always, Berger seems to have written a fine miniaturization, a metaphor for precisely this. In G., the narrator interrupts a sex scene involving a maid, Leonie, who is betraying her fiancé, Eduard, to sleep with G., the titular protagonist. First he addresses Leonie:

He has never seen you naked and now you are.

And then he skips about seven carriage returns before delivering a lengthy ars poetica:

Some say of my writing that it is too overburdened with metaphor and simile: that nothing is ever what it is but is always like something else. This is true, but why is it so? Whatever I perceive or imagine amazes me by its particularity. The qualities it has in common with other things—leaves, a trunk, branches, if it is a tree: limbs, eyes, hair, if it is a person—appear to me to be superficial. I am deeply struck by the uniqueness of each event. From this arises my difficulty as a writer—perhaps the magnificent impossibility of my being a writer. How am I to convey such uniqueness? The obvious way is to establish uniqueness through development. To persuade you, for example, of the uniqueness of Leonie’s experience by telling you the story of what happened when Eduard discovered that Leonie had been unfaithful to him. In this way the uniqueness of an event can be explained by its causes and effects. But I have little sense of unfolding time. The relations which I perceive between things—and these often include causal and historical relations—tend to form in my mind a complex synchronic pattern. I see fields where others sees chapters. And so I am forced to use another method to try to place and define events. A method which searches for co-ordinates extensively in space, rather than consequentially in time. I write in the spirit of a geometrician. One of the ways in which I establish co-ordinates extensively is by likening aspect with aspect, by way of metaphor. I do not wish to become a prisoner of the nominal, believing that things are what I name them. On the bed they were not such prisoners.

The passage is remarkable for its autobiographical mawkishness—G. is eminently an early novel, even as it is a novel of genius—and because the excellence the narrator claims for himself is so clearly Berger’s own. The plot centers on G.’s several Don-Juan-ish affairs but includes Milanese labor strikes, aeronautical derring-do, and an extraordinarily misguided adventure in which G., disaffected, possessing no formal political affiliation, attempts to bring a peasant woman to an ambassador’s ball as an act of personal vengeance and ends up discovering political commitment at the same moment that he dies. (The plot, we could say, is an allegory of the birth of Berger the radical out of the death of Berger the aesthete). In short, often koan-like paragraphs, Berger frees himself from the development of historical narrative on a single, one-directional temporal trajectory. In the passage above, he frees his characters, too, from a description of their sex by drawing down in front of them a sort of curtain of intellection, which then becomes a kind of suspensefulness, multiplying the intense erotic charge of the reminder at paragraph’s end that people have been fucking this whole time, within the non-narrative space of his excursus. In turn their sex across class boundaries and social convention becomes a metaphor for the writer’s own desire for freedom from the conventions of critical opinion. It is all very effective and astonishing. 

As in Berger’s criticism, there is no hypostatic conception of the beautiful, or of any other aesthetic category. (The novel’s most famous line: “Never again will one story be told as if it were the only one.”) But everywhere he seeks that place where the concrete and the abstract meet, where the diachronic splits open into the synchronic, and vice versa: where chapter becomes field. The horizon, the edge of the ocean, is revealed to be the same as the curtain of a massive theater. Actual and virtual meet; the last line of the novel is simply: “The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily lowered upon existence.” Berger was able to figure to himself and to others our world as one spreading potentiality, its farthest but starkest shore the stroke by which our surroundings became visible. While examining the painter Robert Medley, he offers a startling metaphor reminiscent of Heraclitus’s notion of god as a child playing on the seashore, or of the work of genius itself—of “getting hold of some horizon and using it as a skipping rope to gig with.”

In his talent for metaphor—that is, for border-crossings in their starkest at once literal and figurative poetic form—also abide Berger’s politics, his unflinching inability to be anything less than humane. After September 11, Berger—a lifelong Marxist, though a member of no communist or socialist party—published Hold Everything Dear, a collection of political essays that reads more like moral philosophy than politics and more like storytelling than either genre. He thinks about terror and about forced migration, and about prisons and walls: “The present period of history is one of the Wall . . . concrete, bureaucratic surveillance, security, racist walls.”

But despite their topicality Berger’s explicitly political essays could easily be called full-scale refutations of modern consciousness. They are helpful: without his gift for global abstraction we might forget that walls make of the whole world not a theater but the negative image of a theater, a large prison, one in which all workers are treated like prisoners—in which every dispossessed and alienated person shares their unfreedom with everyone else. In “Where Are We,” he writes, “The precondition for thinking politically on a global scale is to see the unity [his italics] of the unnecessary suffering taking place.” All across Hold Everything Dear—my favorite of his many collections—Berger is as always relentlessly uninterested in limiting his mind to the concrete:

The promise of a movement is its future victory; whereas the promise of the incidental moments is instantaneous. Such moments include, life-enhancingly or tragically, experiences of freedom in action. (Freedom without actions does not exist.) Such moments—as no historical “outcome” can ever be—are transcendental, are what Spinoza termed eternal, and they are as multitudinous as stars in an expanding universe.

By “incidental moments,” Berger means the flashes of sacrifice, compassion, decision, trust all movements contain—the moments when eyes meet and hands reach out. These to him exist outside time and regardless of a movement’s fate. As with the passage in G., the historical works with and through the timeless, the momentary: these two concepts were to Berger portrait and landscape, figure and ground. He began his work as a critic with one question: “Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?” That question never left him, even when he didn’t pose it specifically. But the question of social rights was always a subset of the idea of universal justice, which required an idea of the universally human.   

The dialectical back-and-forth between general and particular, universal and concrete, produced a bravery at once invisible to its excruciatingly modest possessor and a lamp to the thinking world. In 2003, Berger visited Palestine. The resultant essay, “Stones,” is among his most exquisite and challenging, not least because it skips right over the piety that his writing might somehow efface the people who welcomed him into their homes. How could it, if he was truthful? He also brought with him that way of seeing so capacious and so much his own:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. The dead are the martyrs of the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000. The martyrs include all those killed by the Israeli army and settlers, and those who decided to sacrifice themselves in suicidal counter-attacks.

Berger treats these images as if they were Fayum portraits—including the images of martyrs. His materialist philosophy was a complete ethical system; he wrote wonderfully on the reasons why suicide bombers transmute their despair into death precisely because he treated everyday things—including and at the same time, the portraits of history’s murdered and of people who blew themselves up as they blew up other people—as if they were art. In turn, he looked at much of the world’s most valuable and venerated art as if it were no better than any other everyday thing: Henry Moore was no more deserving of worship than your shoes.

For precisely this reason, and unlike most public intellectuals, Berger gives hope to the precise degree that he excoriates almost everything in our world. Throughout his work, he performs that rare—that tragically rare—Marxist trick of transforming the idea that the world is horrible into a source of deep comfort, of energy, of action but also of peace. He was as certain as anyone that pain was near-constant, that uncertainty surrounded the flickering light of consciousness, that the only hope of stripping away the blindness to which we are subject as individuals was closeness to one another: this was freedom in action, and it was always possible. “I am convinced of such moments in the night,” Berger writes of what freedom he thinks remains to us, “though I do not know why.” If I had ever met John Berger, I would have suggested to him that his great theme was love.

Or maybe I wouldn’t have spoken to him at all. Like many thousands of people, I feel an almost unnerving affinity for Berger’s work—I feel to him a closeness that amounts almost to a fictional relationship. I feel I have been close to him since I first read the groundbreaking essay “Looking at Animals” and decided I must must must become some sort of thinking person. You don’t need to talk to a writer like that, one whose ideas are already interwoven with most of your own. Everything he wrote is that good.

And anyway how do you even write about—what do you say to—a person who is newly dead? If the absence of a need to speak to someone who is still here is intimacy, then the inability to speak to someone who isn’t here any longer may be a pretty good definition of grief: words neither come to you nor have anywhere to go. When I began this review essay—that is, when John Berger was still alive—I had wanted to write something very stupid about how Portraits felt not just uncanny but creepy. Verso had put out a book that looked and felt like a mummy. It was the kind of retrospective you’d pull together after a person had died. Honestly that wasn’t much of a place to start, but it was what I had. It felt at least like a slightly edgier starting point than the unreconstructed notion that all one of the most influential minds of the 20th century had ever really written about was love. And I felt decidedly uncomfortable with the grief a book designed the way Portraits was designed induced in me for a person who had not yet died.

But then, after his death, scrambling to find in my pages the one story that struck me as most essentially him—I remembered that John Berger was a blessedly creepy man. (“He was very conscious of the degree to which a life is given form by its death.”) He is of all the living and dead writers I have ever encountered perhaps the most scintillatingly consistent—his vocabulary shifts, but his ideas do not—and his fluency with death seems to have been one of the most consistent things about him. All his writings touch the subject in one way or another. In a way, it is inevitable that death as much as love would be his great theme. There is no greater challenge to the humane imagination, no more permanent border across which to extend one’s hospitality, than the border between the living and those who are no longer alive.

For Berger, life was but the timebound core of a permanent state of death. Overton calls this Berger’s Magical Realism (the idea derives from García Márquez, among others), but it could be said to be the structure of his universe: resistance lived in small, intimate spaces, timeless inside time—which served as the scene and function of storytelling and of seeing, the habitation into which each reader or viewer would be welcomed. In Hold Everything Dear, he metaphorizes these spaces as “something like a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of history.” The same structure appears earlier, in “The Shape of a Pocket,” his long correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, and in his conversation with Sontag. In “The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol”—a story from the Into Our Labors trilogy that became a play by Berger’s longtime friend Simon McBurney—he writes, “The dead surround the living, and the living become the core of the dead.”

Berger expanded this dialectical structure from the relationship between death and life to the relationship between hope and fear. Hope was generated by comfort with death; fear was generated by the thinness of a life that could think its meaning was to be found in denying mortality. His comfort with death as much as his radical politics—as much as his profound and careful understanding of historical, structural violence—led him to understand and to empathize with suicide bombers. Death was shape and meaning; of course the despairing would seek it; of course it would ennoble them. “Stones” ends with a visit to a giant, ancient cairn at Finisterre in France:

I gaze at the stones corbeling out. They are the same as millions of other stones on the beaches of this coast, except that here they speak and are eloquent, due to their arrangement.

Chaos perhaps has its reasons, but chaos is dumb. From the human capacity to arrange, to place, come language and communication. The word place is both verb and noun. The capacity of arrangement and the capacity to recognize and name a site. Aren’t both inseparable from the human need to respect and defend their dead?

A strange comparison occurs to me. What inspired hundreds of people to work together to build this ship of stones is perhaps quite close to what inspires kids in Palestine to hurl stones at the tanks of an occupying army.

In 2009, Berger visited Palestine again, after the death of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He reflects on the difference Darwish’s death makes to his sense of the poet’s presence—not diminished, but changed. He is attempting to elucidate something mysterious, and to clarify he tells a story. Once, when he was driving with his son, a bird struck their windshield. They stopped the car and Berger picked it up. He held it as it died. The moment recalls others—the moment in an earlier essay, “Kraków,” when a much younger Berger learns of the death of Ken, his first teacher, and in his grief is offered a passenger pigeon to hold. Or the outstanding closure of “The White Bird,” a lecture on aesthetics Berger never gave because he hated the idea of lecturing and which was instead turned into yet another essay, ending with another long ars poetica and then a flip back into the real, the embodied, the vulnerable:

. . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

The white wooden bird is wafted by the warm air rising from the stove in the kitchen where the neighbors are drinking. Outside, in minus 25°C, the real birds are freezing to death!

Such was John Berger, who dared every unlikely comparison, who thought that likeness through unlikeness made solidarity, beauty, pleasure, kindness, making, and thinking itself. But if we are to believe him, such people do not leave us. They remain, to guide us. (Berger uses the French word passeur, smuggler or ferryman or guide, to describe Ken.) They press in around us, enlivening us, giving us their dreams. Such is the case with Berger. His thought is a destination, a place we would do well to visit whichever way we move through life, art, responsibility, political action. After his death, each of his stories has become an instruction and a habitation—a nudge toward the better world, a stone turned upright.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More by this Author