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The Marvellous and the Terrible: Nicholas Wroe interviews John Berger for the Guardian

Kaitlin Staudt26 April 2011

Nicholas Wroe recently interviewed John Berger for the Guardian's  "A life in ..." series. Opening with an anecdote and sketch from Berger's newest book, Bento's Sketchbook, Wroe describes the drawing as "emblematic of Berger's career as combative art critic, radical writer and consistent challenger of institutional power. Here you have a snapshot not only of his relationship with art and the art world, but also of his relationship with society and authority in general."

Bento's Sketchbook is a characteristically sui generis work, combining an engagement with the thought of the 17th-century lens grinder, draughtsman and philosopher Baruch Spinoza with a study of drawing and a series of semi-autobiographical sketches, through which Berger attempts to explore the world around him and his place within it. We observe the bullishly fit and active octogenarian Berger climbing peach trees in his alpine village, talking to immigrants in Parisian suburbs and municipal swimming pools, attaching himself to a guided tour of the Wallace collection and reflecting on the physical and political similarities between the American folk radical Woody Guthrie and the Russian writer Andrei Platonov: "both lent their voices to those without a voice, and both confronted rural poverty".

"Spinoza has been in my head for a very long time," he explains. "Reading Marx as an 18-year-old, I remember him responding to a game in which he was asked to name his favourite philosopher. He said 'Spinoza'. It is in some ways a strange book - it is not directly a study of Spinoza or directly a book about drawing. I wanted to write about looking at the world, so it's more about helping people, or persuading people, to see what is around us; both the marvellous and the terrible. It's no coincidence that Spinoza worked in the then new science of optics."

The book's design elegantly incorporates text, drawings and extracts from Spinoza and is "as complicated as Ways of Seeing was 40 years ago," Berger says. "We had long conversations about the layout, about not using illustrations as they are traditionally used but rather letting them speak for themselves. In a way it was about jiggling with the conventions of what makes a book, all of which were things we talked about, albeit in a different spirit, with Ways of Seeing. So in a funny way I see it as possessing a family likeness. Its character is different, but it is definitely related."

Emphasizing the link between the spiritual and the material in contemporary life, Wroe suggests that the book is

In a sense ... a collaboration with Spinoza, and Berger says he hopes the reader will regard the Spinoza that emerges "as a companion, in some ways a contemporary, to us. We're not facing the same world as him, but in many ways it is similar, and his precise rejection of the Cartesian distinction between the physical and the spiritual seems to me more and more relevant to the crisis the world is now going through. Without wishing to idealise or simplify too much, we see some signs of its manifestation at the moment in north Africa, where the uprisings are, of course, concerned with the material conditions of the people. But there is also a more elevated spiritual vision. The two combined in Egypt and Tunisia to give the people their extraordinary sense of calm."

In Berger's kitchen is an etching of the angel announcing to the shepherds the birth of Christ, which he made when he was a teenage militant left-wing activist. He says he has never practised any religion but over the years has had close friendships with many people who do, including the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's brother, who was a monk in a nearby monastery in France. "And from about the age of 14 two things have coexisted within me. On the one hand a kind of materialism, which includes the Marxist view of history. On the other a sense of the sacred, the religious if you like. This duality never felt contradictory to me, but most other people thought it was. It is beautifully resolved by Spinoza, who shows that it is not a duality, but in fact an essential unity."

Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.

Bento's Sketchbook will be published on 16 May 2011.

John Berger will be reading from Bento's Sketchbook on 25 May 2011 at the Southbank Centre.