Published in the Times Literary Supplement, April 2019
Thinking and doing – thinking and being – were so inextricably intertwined in John Berger’s life that to call Joshua Sperling’s book an ‘intellectual biography’ feels a little tautological. For Berger, intellectual work and that of the body were interdependent, so much so that when he discussed the writings of his declared Marxist forebears like Victor Serge, Max Raphael, and (most crucially) Walter Benjamin, he couldn’t help but point out their physical puniness, their literal short-sightedness, for all their visionary thinking. The embodiment of radical thought preoccupied Berger throughout his long career as an art critic, broadcaster, artist, playwright, novelist, poet, screenwriter and, latterly, farmer. In his best essays, creative practice is deeply intermingled with the sensual experience of place: the steam and lather of his father’s barber shop as a source for Turner’s paintings; the feeling of soil and moss for Courbet’s. Berger’s own distinctive physicality, unforgettably imprinted on the memories of the countless viewers, who, then and now, tuned in to his hugely influential Ways of Seeing TV series from 1972, was rangy, spring-loaded, the very opposite of the stiff and static Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation (1969) provided the impetus for Berger’s polemical riposte. That contrast encapsulates the central argument that runs through Berger’s output: how should an intellectual be? Berger, true to form, addressed the question not by saying but by being. His own life was an answer to the question.
Sperling’s book follows much the same route as Geoff Dyer’s Ways of Telling, his 1986 critical study of Berger. Sperling’s has the upper hand by virtue of its extended timeframe – Berger really did burn and rave right up to his death in 2017, writing fierce indictments of US foreign policy well into his eighties – but the cautious prose in both books illustrates by contrast the peculiar force of Berger’s own. He was blunt to a fault. What Sperling calls ‘Berger English’ (‘almost like Business English or subtitled English’) is an apt account of the sometimes alienating terseness of his prose (the ‘pomposity of brevity’, as Dyer accurately characterised it). Despite his implicit criticism of Clark’s top-down traditionalism, Berger could at times share his antagonist’s tendency to talk down to his audience: the curse of the natural polemicist. The roots of this are made clear in Sperling’s account of Berger’s early career. Formed in the febrile environment of Cold War British intellectual culture, Berger’s art criticism of the early 1950s for The New Statesman drew battle lines between the realist and the modernist, the politically engaged and the merely aesthetic. To read Sperling’s assessment of the diametric poles of cultural criticism at the time – the liberal aesthetes Herbert Read, David Sylvester and Stephen Spender in one corner, Berger and his fellow leftist thinkers Eric Hobsbawm, Doris Lessing and so on in the other – is to access a lost world of high stakes intellectual fervour. Berger even planned to write a manifesto entitled, in pointed, punning contrast with the tastes of his enemies, Art For Our Sake.
What a visual expression of Berger’s lifelong Marxist affiliation might look like – how politics, to paraphrase Benjamin, might find its aesthetic – led Berger to favour artists of a sometimes didactic literalness, most of whom remain as overlooked as they were in Berger’s own time. Few art critics have had less influence in terms of the public taste in art, a truth he himself acknowledged with a shrugging ‘so be it.’ His disdain for the notion of critics as instruments of the market is as unsurprising as his hatred of the term ‘the art world’, with its implication of a sealed space, disconnected from the concerns of the world beyond the gallery walls. By contrast, it was the openness to the experience of the other that drew Berger, again and again, to certain artists who, for him, made that openness the pivot of their practice (Van Gogh, the cave painters of Chauvet, Grünewald, and many others). He would later identify this openness as a form of hospitality. When, in his acceptance speech after winning the Booker Prize for his novel G. in 1972, he talked of a moment of transcultural communion before the advent of slavery, Berger foreshadowed the profound generosity at the heart of his later writing: ‘there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals.’ That’s the hospitality he meant.
Berger’s most crucial art-historical touchstone was, perhaps surprisingly, cubism. Eschewing its conventional placement as revolutionary precursor to radical forms of abstraction in visual art and design, he saw cubist painting as (in Sperling’s words) ‘the orphaned child of revolutionary dreams’. Cubism’s semi-transparent, overlapping planes, and its blurring of contour, were to become the visualisation of an investigation into the nature of social relations, a Marxist revelation of the ‘self-conscious awareness of process’, all that is solid literally melting into air. Cubism provided Berger, at last, with a means to reconcile the politically engaged (however against-the-grain his reading of it was) with the formally radical, and its influence resonated in unusual ways throughout his wide-ranging career. Berger’s reading of cubism runs like a spine through Sperling’s account of his output. It’s there in the montage-like structure of Ways of Seeing (both the programme and the book), in the fragmentary layout of his collaborations with the photographer Jean Mohr, even in his experimental film work with Alain Tanner in the 1970s. And even now, the flow of text across the cover of the ubiquitous Ways of Seeing – it starts before it starts, like a surprise attack – remains disruptive. Berger’s writing as a whole might be seen as an expression of the fundamental cubist principle: many viewpoints, some hard-edged, others feather-light, each overlapping, of the same thing – the world as it is.
Cubism also taught Berger a kind of elliptical, shorthand approach to fiction. His early novels shared some of the polemical fervour of his early criticism. A Painter of Our Time, from 1956, for instance, features barely-concealed send-ups of his ideological enemies and leaves the protagonist, the fictional painter Janos Lavin, as nothing more than, as Berger himself happily admitted, ‘the mouthpiece’ for his own polemics. The triumph of the Booker-winning G. (1972), by contrast, is in its willingness to embrace the promise of cubist aesthetics, allowing a multiplicity of positions and modes of speech equal footing within the narrative. If that sounds far from formally ground breaking so long after Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses, it is perhaps in Berger’s politicisation of modernist aesthetics – Sperling calls it ‘a time bomb of political modernism’ – that its true significance lies. As Berger himself, far more pithily (and influentially) had it: ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ It is characteristic of Berger to make a statement sound like a promise.
Displacement, the disruption of old certainties, the fragmentary nature of selfhood: Berger’s post-war intellectual landscape was formed by and hovered around these ideas throughout his career. From the mid-1970s to his death, he lived in self-imposed exile from his native England, living and working in Quincy in the Haute-Savoie in rural France and writing his celebrated trilogy of what he called his ‘peasant novels’, Pig Earth, Once in Europa and Liliac and Flag, collectively (and Biblically) entitled Into Their Labours. Sperling delineates Berger’s Eurocentric mental map as ‘a federation of provinces and landscapes’ enlarged, though never made international, by his escape from the metropolitan culture that made him (and, it should be said, sustained him). His was a rooted Europeanness whose intermingling of manual and mental labour drew its energies from the land itself, an unbroken archipelago of crossing paths. Here is Where we Meet is the title of one of Berger’s last works of fiction, its title at once an evocation of the significance of collective endeavour and of the specificity of place; its title could stand as Berger’s epitaph. What counted, for Berger, was meeting, and meeting here. What made the difference was a way of seeing – and in Berger’s writing, time and again, ‘seeing’ always implied a viewing, thinking body, with a position and a history – and the possibility, even the necessity, of seeing again. Seeing better.