John Berger: A Writer of our Time
Had John Berger stopped writing when he left England in 1962—when not for the last time in his life he gave up one existence to set out on another—he would be remembered solely as the young Marxist art critic for the New Statesman. Brash, passionate, outspoken yet terse (‘without a blush or an ahem’, as one commentator put it), Berger’s regular articles for the left-of-Labour weekly provided the most prominent outlet in England for a socialist understanding of culture. And this during a decade of bitter and bruising Cold War polemics—battles that, even as they have since fallen into the shadows, left their mark on a generation.
Of course he did not stop writing. It was only after he moved to the continent, settling first in Geneva (with brief stints in Paris and the Luberon), and then the rural Haute- Savoie, that Berger began along the path he made his own. His subjects traversed nature, politics and art; his tools were a pen, a sketchpad and a motorbike. He wrote novels, essays, folk stories, so-called unclassifiable works of creative non- fiction. He collaborated on films, photo-texts, plays and broadcasts. Berger left England, he said, to get outside the straitjacket of English journalism. By the time he died, in 2017, he had attained the status of world elder.
Not that the English press ever particularly warmed to this new identity, or acknowledged the full scope of his achievements. In their eyes he remained, even a half-century later, the impertinent rabble-rouser he had been when he quit the homeland. On the occasion of his passing, on the second day of 2017, only months after Donald Trump had been elected to the White House and the British electorate voted to leave the European Union, the more profound connection between his work and the historical realities of its time still went unremarked. The string of obituaries mostly remembered him, in reportorial boilerplate, as ‘controversial’. They described an art critic who antagonized curators and professors with his many politicized contestations; a novelist who snubbed the Booker committee in 1972, donating half the prize money to the Black Panthers; and a television presenter who threw down a gauntlet with Ways of Seeing, taking on Sir Kenneth Clark in the process. The media always loves a duel, and Berger often obliged. True, they said, he was an incurable Marxist, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who went off to live with peasants, but he also wrote movingly about art. Now dead, aged ninety, he could be eulogized. Once yesterday’s battles have been relegated to the historical attic, prior combatants stand to be remembered for their enlivening if impractical ideals. The establishment pats the back of a former opponent. And the past can be painted as distant when in fact its unheeded energies were washing up in that morning’s headlines.
. Especially for a writer such as Berger, driven onward year after year by a sense of history and the principle of hope, the currents that flowed through his work may still continue to flow. Multiple, connected, overlapping—they reach beyond the work itself. To trace their contours, to see where they came from or where they lead, is also to explore the landscape of a half-century that extends in all directions. However eye-catching, the polemics may only have been switchbacks of a longer journey. Beneath them ran complexities, at once historical and personal, the newspapers tended not to have space for.
The home Berger died in, for example—an airy suburban flat seven miles outside the French capital—belonged to a Soviet-born writer, Nella Bielski, a woman he loved and had co-written plays with, whose novels he had translated. For decades Berger shuttled between here and another home several hours to the east, a chalet in the foothills of the Alps surrounded by fields and orchards, an old farmhouse he shared with another woman he loved, Beverly Bancroft, an American, his wife of several decades and the mother of his third child. While these pages will not veer too far into the private terrain usually reserved for traditional biography— there will be few to no doctor visits or domestic disputes and only occasional forays into the gap between persona and psyche—the doubleness-of-attachment implicit in Berger’s arrangement was emblematic of something deeper. There was far more to his work than provocation. There was also tension and multiplicity, movement and passion.
Speaking of the German-born playwright Peter Weiss (a fellow communist, émigré, and painter-turned-author), Berger once said that his autobiographical novels were ‘not concerned with revealing the secret difference between the writer’s private and public life but obsessed with the relation between the writer’s intimate self and the unprecedented events of his period’. The following chapters are haunted by a similar obsession. They take as their starting point the conviction that works of the imagination can be political just as the work of criticism can be imaginative, and that to furnish an historical lens on the past is also to re-focalize its light towards the future. ‘Meanwhile’, Berger once said, ‘we live not only our own lives but the longings of our century.’
What is literature? Why write? For whom? Though such questions have gone fitfully in and out of fashion ever since Sartre famously posed them in the pages of Les Temps Modernes, German tanks having just retreated from France, the cast of thought and feeling that was their impetus remained a constant for Berger long after the spirit of ’45 had otherwise dispersed. Perhaps for this reason, he may be the best guide we have to help answer them. To look carefully at his life and work—but especially the work—is to expand our sense of what it means to be a committed writer in the modern age: a period of unprecedented migrations, immense political pressures, incessant culture wars and the perennial struggle for belief. Throughout the years, such questions were never merely rhetorical.
But nor, for Berger, were they there to be thought through exclusively on the level of theory, much as Sartre himself had tried to do, or, after him, Adorno. There are some choices that cannot be deduced. Commitment was never only about an attitude—like a pose or a position—one could adopt at will. It meant more than being for or against. It required effort, determination, obstinacy, sacrifice. It took place in and through time.
The decision to leave England was the most critical of his life. A good deal of what follows explores the work he did before he made it. ‘The forgotten fifties’, as it has been called, like a hovering half-recollected parenthesis—after the war but before the sixties came swinging in—was a decade in England suffused by ‘the colour and mood of ration books’, in the words of the painter John Bratby, ‘the general feeling of sackcloth and ashes after the war’. It was an historical moment at once near to and distant from our own, when new taboos competed with new freedoms and, as we will see, art and politics were made inextricable, often frustratingly so, producing a tangle of contradictions that was also the buried root structure for Berger’s towering career once he broke free from native soil. Everything he did in exile would have been unimaginable without it.
If leaving England was the most pivotal decision of his life, running away from school at sixteen to study art was a close second. Born on Bonfire Night in 1926 to middle-class London parents, Berger was a precocious student. Like so many English boys of his background, and given his early academic talents, it was almost certainly taken for granted that he would one day study at Oxford or Cambridge and then pursue a reputable profession like that of his father: managerial accounting. In their youth both of his parents had been idealists. Berger’s mother, Miriam, was once a suffragette, and his father, Stanley, originally intending to be an Anglican priest, had enlisted in 1914 when war broke out, serving all four years as a junior officer on the front lines, and even staying on after the armistice to help bury the dead. By the time they started a family, though, the couple were well settled down in the middle-class suburb of Stoke Newington. Miriam was a stay-at-home mother and Stanley had perfected the demeanour of an upright English gentleman—‘a man of great integrity and dignity’, as his son later put it; but also, by virtue of working as director of the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants, ‘a front man for every conceivable kind of shark and crook’. By all accounts Stanley possessed a deep psychic wound from the war. He kept it private, but its indirect presence impressed itself on the imaginations of his two sons (John had an older brother). And the confused feelings Berger likely had as a result, a mixture of compassion for his father’s pain and anger at his silence, help to motivate what will become a recurring motif in this book—namely, his uneasy relations, alternately affectionate and conflictual, with a series of English mentors and father-figures, possibly even with England itself. ‘I was born of the look of the dead’, he later wrote in a poem, ‘Self-portrait 1914–1918’. ‘Swaddled in mustard gas / And fed in a dugout ... I was the world fit for heroes to live in.’
At age six, he was sent to boarding school, first outside Guildford and then to St Edward’s, Oxford. In interviews Berger was always reticent about discussing his early child- hood except to stress the loneliness of his home (he often likened himself to an orphan), and then the ‘totally barbaric’ culture of the English boarding schools. Perhaps as a means to cope, he drew and painted and wrote poetry. If art, as he was to later claim, was always bound to be used as a weapon, he at first turned to it as a weapon of self-defence. Through the imagination the senses expand; through the recounting of experience the senseless takes on shape.
Berger also read intensely: Hardy, Dickens, Maupassant, Chekhov, Hemingway, as well as many of the anarchist classics, including Kropotkin. At fourteen, having come across three pamphlets put out by the Freedom Press, he even began a correspondence with the poet and critic Herbert Read, asking the older writer (a figure with further cameos in the pages ahead) to comment on some of his first poems. Read wrote back, critical but encouraging, and Berger carried around the reply in his pocket for months, long before the two would duke it out in the letter pages of the press.
We will never know the full extent of Berger’s misery at St Edward’s, but he later called it ‘fascist training ... a training for army officers and torturers’. In 1942, as the wider world warred with fascism at large, Berger left. Needing to occupy himself for two years (at eighteen he was going to be called up), and against his father’s wishes, he accepted a scholar- ship to the Central School of Art on Southampton Row in London. The experience was revelatory. For the first time in his young life he tasted independence—creative, literary—and also danger. In a city at war, he lived on and off in a cramped boarding house with a fellow student—a young woman who was, he later confided, the first woman he ever loved. ‘There are so many things which overlay one another’, he said of his memories of that year—1942: ‘There was the bombing, which meant that one had a very, very short perspective and a kind of enormous urgency living in that period. And then there was the art school, which was a completely new world to me; and then there was living with this girl. And I suppose this was ... the first time in my life I could begin to choose solutions to problems that were posed by myself as opposed to merely choosing one way of getting through what other people were making me do.’
The art school, the bedroom, and wartime London—these were the three formative theatres of Berger’s adolescence. In 1944, aged eighteen, he joined the army. On track to accept an officer’s commission, he refused to apply after initial training. In what he later called an act of ‘silly little bureaucratic revenge’, he was appointed instead to the non-commissioned rank of lance corporal, and stationed in a training depot. Spared from Normandy, he stayed on in Northern Ireland, in the small port town of Ballykelly, where he bunked with working-class men for two years—an experience that would have been unusual for someone of his class background. The contact with what the army called ‘other ranks’—recruits who, as Berger later reflected, ‘had spent the first eighteen years of their lives very differently from me, but whose company I preferred’—gave him a new reason to write: the men, many of whom, he often said, were near-illiterate, passed along stories for him to transcribe for their girlfriends and parents. Apocryphal or not, the role was one he would cast himself in for much of his life. The mythopoetic roots had set: he was at once a soldier and a scribe; on demobilization he continued to speak on behalf of the working poor. Decades later he sometimes joked that he went to art school to be able to draw naked women all day; but with a grant from the army he attended Chelsea, where he drew pictures of men at work in bell foundries and building sites.
It was the collective spirit of the home front and of postwar reconstruction that nourished his early socialism and cultural convictions. ‘God forbid we need a war to make art’, he said years later in a radio broadcast, ‘but we do need a certain sense of purpose, a sense of unity.’ When that unity began to fray, with postwar populism ceding to the paranoia of the Cold War, and the pressures of the early 1950s extending to aesthetic debates—abstraction or figuration, autonomy or purpose, the individual or the collective—Berger gave up painting for journalism. He contributed regular arts reviews to the New Statesman, and by the time he was in his late twenties, after a meteoric rise, he was being talked about as one of the brightest young critics of his generation: eloquent and energetic, but also forceful and at times a menace. Having missed combat in the war, he got a taste of it in the culture pages of the magazines. ‘Whenever I look at a work of art as a critic’, he said at the time, ‘I try—Ariadne-like for the path is by no means a straight one—to follow up the threads connecting it to the early Renaissance, Picasso, the Five Year Plans of Asia, the man-eating hypocrisy and sentimentality of our establishment, and to an eventual Socialist revolution in this country. And if the aesthetes jump at this confession to say that it proves that I am a political propagandist, I am proud of it. But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.’
This was the birth of Berger the firebrand, the Marxist agitator—the Berger commemorated in the official obituaries some sixty years later. It was an identity he inhabited, often cultivated, over the years; and yet it was only one—the louder—of his many voices. From the very beginning there had always been a tension between an outward intransigence and an inward searching—a tension from which his best work arose. But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter ... In that about-face was contained all the generative contradictions of his life project.
Significantly, Berger first wrote for the radio. He was a writer who came of age working within the modern means of communication at a time when postwar society was radically
democratizing itself. For the rest of his long career he continued to write for as wide an audience as possible, and often appeared on television. The plain style he worked within was a pitch for broad persuasion and accessibility. The etymology of the term ‘broadcast’ is revealing: it originally meant ‘to sow by scattering’. With his work Berger cast as broad a net as possible. He deliberately wrote in an idiom that could travel—that could speak to the uninitiated.
And so for many thousands of students since the 1970s, Berger was simply the man with a Joe Namath haircut speaking to them about art from in front of a blue screen. It is strange, the power of television. For years Ways of Seeing (1972) was shown in art schools or introductory art history courses as a means of accelerated cultural detox. The intervention, as we will see, proved transformative. So much of what has since become central to the humanities curriculum —Walter Benjamin’s essay on mechanical reproduction, the feminist critique of the male gaze, the semiotic deconstruction of advertising, the shift from immaterial genius to a material analysis of culture—all this first hit the nervous systems of students accompanied by Berger’s stare and lisp and corrugated brow. His charisma was a kind of radiance.
Throughout his life he was famously a seducer—charm and intellect at once inseparable and entrancing—but he was also a confidant. ‘He is the best listener I know’, said John Eskell, the country doctor who once helped him through a break- down, and who in turn became the subject of A Fortunate Man, one of Berger’s most moving and evocative portraits. ‘He listens to everyone’, Eskell added, drawing his own picture of the portraitist, ‘no matter what their station in life’:
He is as interested in a peasant as he is in an intellectual. He always wants to be very accurate in his replies to any question you put to him. He pauses for quite a long time and eventually comes out with a very definite answer which is strictly truthful. He is never afraid of saying that he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand. He considers making love to be the most worth- while thing in life. He is a nervous man in the sense of being highly sensitive to his surroundings, but he is not nervous in a neurotic way. He is very conscious of everything that goes on around him. He disciplines himself to write so many hours a day and he does a lot of research in Public Libraries, and he has the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which he reads avidly. Always consistent in his polemical arguments. Against ‘the System’ in Russia particularly concerning Writers, Painters, Sculptors ... Always extremely polite and gentle. Occasional severe temper-tantrums, mainly concerning domestic situations.
Tantrums aside, anyone who has spent an hour in Berger’s presence can attest to the electric attention he brought to each moment, the sense that as you were talking to him he was devoted entirely to you and no one else. As you spoke, you became a more deliberate and consequential version of yourself, his own unhurried, Delphic cadences rubbing off on every exchange. And anyone who has seen even ten minutes of him on YouTube will have at least a partial sense of this: the personal luminance, the mix of self-assurance with professions of humility, the laser-like focus of his mind and eyes. Throughout Ways of Seeing it was there for all to see: Berger in his patterned shirt and trousers in the National Gallery, or in a television studio, or surrounded by children looking at a Caravaggio, or the only man in a roundtable of women.
Laura Kipnis once pointed out that because he was so unusually handsome—a leonine beauty he grew into with age—Berger also had to grow accustomed to being looked at. It is no surprise, then, that he became a theorist of the gaze. Or, for that matter, an expert in the arts of showman- ship. He wised up to the importance of self-presentation early. The author photographs were always deliberate. The American edition of his first book, for example—a collection of essays released in England under the title Permanent Red, but softened for the stateside audience and rechristened Toward Reality—showed a man in his thirties full of swagger and purpose, whose looks risked turning self-belief into self- regard and confidence into arrogance: the deep-set eyes, twin furrows on his brow; the cigarette a nod to Brando or Dean; the angularity of his collar sharp enough to cut canvas with. No doubt the marketing department at Knopf knew what they were doing—who knows how many extra copies of books have been sold because of the photographs on their jackets? But Berger did too. Looking and carrying himself the way he did opened doors that would have been closed to a four-eyed Marxist bookworm. He could get away with more.
But he also understood, and on so many levels, how the stares of others could turn into a prison—and how television too, no matter how powerful or ubiquitous a medium, could become just another box to escape. For decades Ways of Seeing was synonymous with John Berger, and vice versa. The royalties certainly didn’t hurt, but the influence of the show (later adapted into a mass-market paperback) became something of an albatross. Even today the series continues to stand as the high-water mark for his visibility, but taken out of context it can misrepresent the entirety of his achievements. Like the cropped portrait Berger cuts out from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars at the start of the first episode—a fragment later run through an industrial printer and disseminated— Ways of Seeing was only one passage, albeit the most famous, from a much larger and more dialectical panorama. It is that larger canvas that those who know it find so inspiring.
‘It is not enough for us to argue for Berger’s name to be printed more prominently on an existing map of literary reputations’, argued Geoff Dyer as early as the 1980s, ‘his example urges us fundamentally to alter its shape.’ The enormous range of his interests was at once central to his identity, and at times an impediment to his career. Berger wrote about painting, of course, but also animals, protests, peasants, revolution, medicine, migrants, the cinema. He was never any good at that high-minded responsibility of the professional critic—canon formation—and so it is perhaps fitting that his own position within it remains inchoate. His stature is undisputed, but the total significance of his work is often misunderstood. He simply produced too dizzying an array of forms for a culture rooted in specialism to come to grips with. Hence, precisely, the odd pressure put on Ways of Seeing—as a kind of metonym or placeholder in the meantime.
When not caricatured as a rabble-rouser, Berger has been eulogized as a one-of-a-kind polymath. But this too may be misleading. Academics do not take him seriously enough, while others can lend him a gauzy, unassailable aura that has the concomitant effect of photoshopping him out of history. The sixty-year body of work he left behind is one of the most wide-ranging and beloved of any postwar writer; but it is also (as Dyer again pointed out, this time a few years later) one of the least worked through.16 In the chapters that follow, I will argue that what makes Berger so critically elusive is precisely what makes him so historically significant. To appreciate this we must repatriate him to history, and to his peers. We will then be able to see that the prolific diversity of his output was less an expression of an individual ethic of experimentalism than it was a prolonged attempt to bridge the philosophical opposites of his time: between freedom and commitment, ideology and experience, word and image. The net effect of the work is to disrupt categorical divisions and disciplinary systems too often taken for granted. It reminds us there is a territory and not just a map. Like the borders between countries, the borders between disciplines are not natural features of any landscape.
And luckily not every reader first comes to Berger through Ways of Seeing. The roads leading to his work are often unpaved, the points of entry as diverse as the career itself. A good way to come at him, according to Ben Ratliff, ‘is to do it by mistake or serendipity, to discover him in the wrong box ... Individual, unmanaged, unmediated discovery, an outsider’s discovery, probably suits him best. Not the kind that happens in a curriculum. He didn’t like school!’
I first discovered John Berger’s work when I was twenty- two. I had gone to college to study physics, but by the time I graduated I knew I would not become a scientist. I spent a year saving up and then travelling, and it was several months into a long trip to India and Nepal when I bought About Looking from a used bookseller in the Freak Street neighbourhood of Kathmandu.
‘To be a polymath’, Susan Sontag once said, ‘is to be interested in everything—and nothing else.’ Berger was similar. ‘If I’ve written about a lot of different kinds of things,’ he put it more simply, ‘it’s because I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of things. So are most people.’ But the quality of that interest, the tone and tact of it, branched off, as we will see, in the mid 1970s from the main trunk of metropolitan intellectual discourse. (So much so that when Sontag and Berger met up for a televised conversation in the early 1980s, what might have been a philosophical love-in turned into some- thing of a struggle for common ground: Berger’s Confucian slogans seemed to slide right off Sontag’s New York bearing.) ‘One of the functions of writing stories’, he once said, ‘is to take people out of the ghetto that other people have built around them.’ In retrospect, the abiding concerns of his late essays may have been the same as those of the postmoderns, from Derrida to Deleuze; it was just his style that was so different. Instead of solecistic punning or gleeful spirals of metaparadox, his written prose could progress like a trundling walk, as if he was pushing a wheelbarrow. What he said of his friend Romaine Lorquet’s site-specific sculptures in the hills of the Vaucluse was also true of his essays: they belonged outside in both a literal and figurative sense. People talk about outsider art; Berger was an outsider theorist. Of all the philosophers to have emerged from the New Left, he was perhaps its only plein-air practitioner.
One of the charges this book sets itself, then, is to live both in the library (or archive) and the open field, to chart the connections between the texture of experience, the weight of politics, the power of art, and the way history bends and doubles back and moves fitfully forward. What I lay out is a triptych: the three lives of John Berger. The first section unearths his early career as a journalist and cultural combatant in 1950s England—a period of Cold War frustration that produced the knot of antinomies he never stopped trying to disentangle. The second section reconsiders Berger’s transformative middle-period—an exuberant, sensuous, and enormously prolific decade-and-a-half. Though nominally based in Geneva, Berger travelled Europe by motorcycle and 2CV, riding the wave of the 1960s until its revolutionary force crashed into the breakers of the decade to follow. The third and final section follows him to the hills of the Haute- Savoie. By this point, our era of neoliberal globalization on the rise, Berger refashioned himself as a resister (no longer a revolutionary) and a chronicler of peasant experience.
The book as a whole considers a range of media: painting, television, literature, photography, film. Each chapter examines a central philosophical question that preoccupied Berger for years, or sometimes decades. Each chapter also circles around a distinct form—art criticism, the modernist novel, the documentary photo-text, the narrative film—and a distinct solution to the problem of contradiction, whether through polemic, confession, intermediality, montage, the process of collaboration, or the physical experience of work. Berger’s was a rare and special trajectory: he went from the archetype of an angry young man to become a travelling modernist and then, finally, a storyteller for whom obstinacy and compassion were inextricable.
For most of us, the twin poles of hope and despair are defined and experienced privately. For Berger, at least as refracted through his work (itself a prism of the public and private), they were often tied to the imagined fate of the broader body politic. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz once referred to a ‘peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical’ that sometimes takes place such that ‘events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner’. Though Berger primarily wrote prose (he said he only turned to poetry when he could do nothing else), the burden and the touch were the same even as his community shifted over the years, at once settling down and growing ever more global and multitudinous. The emotions preserved in his writing can thus be read as a gauge,
almost an archaeological record, of leftist hope—a movement that is doubly mirrored, as, for him, the art he most admired and wrote about worked in just the same way: as a mediator between hope and despair, the past and the future, backwards and forwards.
Berger certainly meant to combine art and politics, but he also moved on a dialectic of change and continuity. Around every corner he seemed to reinvent himself and yet stay true to the same basic set of principles and sympathies. (These were sympathies, it should be noted, not parts of a well-oiled system. What W. G. Sebald found in Peter Weiss was also true for Berger: that his politics were not merely a wish for the next victory but an ‘expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time’.) Over his sixty-year working life, there were no renunciations or born-again conversions. What there was instead was a near-constant response to historical situations as they changed around him. For Berger, experience was the truest fund of knowledge—and knowledge, in turn, for it to be worth anything, had always to lead back and into experience. It had to be put to use. Knowledge is there to help us enter, however brashly or modestly, the historical process.
- an edited excerpt from A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger by Joshua Sperling, 50% off as part of our end-of-year sale (ends January 1, 2019). Full details here.
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The first intellectual biography of the life and work of John Berger.
Drawing on first-hand, unpublished interviews and archival sources only recently made available, Joshua Sperling digs beneath the moments of controversy to reveal a figure of remarkable complexity and resilience. The portrait that emerges is of a cultural innovator as celebrated as he was often misunderstood, and a writer increasingly driven as much by what he loved as by what he opposed. A Writer of Our Time brings the many faces of John Berger together, repatriating one of our great minds to the intellectual dramas of his and our time.