On John Berger, 1926–2017

One way of thinking of the uniqueness of John Berger’s accomplishment is that he wrote almost completely without irony. The particular joy of his work comes directly from this unyielding earnestness, a profoundly difficult thing to pull off.

No matter what he was looking at, Berger never stopped asking uncomfortable and therefore stimulating questions.

A few months ago, while watching the lush and loving Tilda Swinton and Colin MacCabe documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, I found myself thinking what an endless series of portraits this man has given rise to, and will keep giving rise to. The beauty of the film’s montage—much of it of Berger’s Alpine home—is a self-conscious tribute to the beauty Berger teaches us to see in the world, in art and outside it.

Berger’s decision in the early ’70s to spend what turned out to be five decades of his life in a small village in the French Alps is easy to misunderstand. He wasn’t seeking a refuge from the world, but the right kind of contact with the world. The film overflows with his charm and energy as a friend and neighbor; there’s none of the solitary artist pose. Peasants were a major reason he came; his son became one. And peasants became essential to his politics.

Lyrical about the man, the film skimps on his politics—something that often happens with efforts to sell a political or philosophical outsider to a mainstream audience. The weird thing is of course that one of the best exemplars of transporting seemingly taboo perspectives into the family living room was Berger himself. In 1972, his BBC show Ways of Seeing suddenly made it clear to viewers and to TV executives alike that it could be tremendously enjoyable to look at art through Marxist eyes. The series spent a still-startling amount of time on landscape as property, and on the sexism of nudes.

No matter what he was looking at, Berger never stopped asking uncomfortable and therefore stimulating questions. One of his most beloved essays is about the disappointment of looking at animals in zoos. Berger prefigured what came to called Cultural Studies, doing it without the jargon (not that jargon isn’t sometimes in order). He did it for fun, for the fun that was waiting there in the beauty, and he did it with existential seriousness. He once said he thought he was seen by others as “indecently intense.” One way of thinking of the uniqueness of his accomplishment is that he wrote almost completely without irony. The particular joy of his work comes directly from this unyielding earnestness, a profoundly difficult thing to pull off.

When Berger’s politicized version of the Don Giovanni story, G., won the Booker Prize, he famously pledged to give half the prize money to the Black Panthers. Less famously, he devoted the other half to the research on migrant workers in Europe that became A Seventh Man, an unclassifiable classic, mixing texts and photographs and blank spaces, that has not always been seen for what it is: an account of what it feels like to the peasants of the world to have been torn out of everything they knew and sent off to work in strange cold places.

“What it feels like” is an unstable and even dangerous criterion, and has been a subject of considerable controversy within Marxism. Long ago, Perry Anderson, in an argument with his fellow Marxist historian E. P. Thompson—who like Berger was a believer in the supreme value of experience—suggested that if you uphold the truth of experience or individual will, there is no reason to think you will not end up, analytically speaking, with complete randomness. “Why should the intersection of rival collective wills,” he wrote, “not produce the random chaos of an arbitrary, destructured log-jam?” What prevents it from “dissolving into a relentless war of all against all?” When Lenin and Trotsky worried that the Russian peasantry was too individualistic to go along with the revolution, that was one thing they feared.

Tethered as it was to experience, and peasant experience in particular, Berger’s Marxism was always idiosyncratic. In his 1970 essay on Walter Benjamin, he calls for a political “re-examination” of Marxist tenets, inspired by “the fact the proletarians of consumer societies are now less likely to arrive at revolutionary consciousness through the pursuit of their directly economic self-interests than through a wider and more generalized sense of pointless deprivation and frustration.” He does not quite say that the proletarians of consumer societies could be counted, at least partly, among the global system’s economic beneficiaries. But not wanting to live like or among the system’s beneficiaries, whoever they were, seems one motive that took him to the village in the Alps.

As many have noticed, Berger was a moralist. This means, among other things, that what animated him was less the fact of suffering or deprivation than the consciousness of injustice and above all consciousness that he himself was a beneficiary of it. In “Image of Imperialism,” his meditation on the famous photograph of the dead Che Guevara, he wrote: “Guevara found the condition of the world as it is intolerable.” But then he adds a kicker:

It had only recently become so. Previously, the conditions under which two thirds of the people of the world lived were approximately the same as now. The degree of exploitation and enslavement was as great. The suffering involved was as intense and widespread. The waste was as colossal. But it was not intolerable because the full measure of the truth about these conditions was unknown—even by those who suffered it.

Politically, what mattered was not how much suffering there was, but how it worked and who knew it. Guevara, like Berger, knew himself to be a beneficiary of injustice and, finding that intolerable, acted accordingly.

In “Photographs of Agony,” a 1968 essay that would prove a major influence on Susan Sontag, Berger made a precocious case against humanitarianism in photography. What the photographs are supposed to provoke us into doing, he said, is not making charitable contributions to well-meaning NGOs but taking action against “the wars which . . . are being fought directly or indirectly in ‘our’ name.” Those of us who are preoccupied with what is being done in our name these days, as Americans or Jews or both, will be remembering one of Berger’s strong late-life gestures: his 2006 endorsement of BDS.

I once heard John Berger speak at the vernissage of a photography exhibit in Geneva. He was speaking in voluble French about the work of his friend Jean Mohr. His sparkling and passionate sentences rose up and hurried forward like waves on a windy day, smashing every so often into an “I mean, I mean,” in English. It felt like the model of a way of being—a way of being where you were not thinking of yourself or the impression you were making and could therefore plunge into what really mattered, whatever the idiom, aesthetic perfection be damned. Whatever else they are, Mohr’s portraits of Berger’s neighbors in the Alps suddenly look to me like windows into Berger’s soul, tranquil and restless at the same time. No justice, no peace. His soul would not want rest on any other terms.

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