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A metaphor for thought—the Times Literary Supplement reviews Bento's Sketchbook

Kaitlin Staudt20 May 2011

Richard Turney reviews John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook for the Times Literary Supplement. Describing the book as a "combination of story, memoir, dream, essay and drawing," Turney focuses on the process of looking with which Berger engages, in particular Spinoza's concept of the eyes of the mind as metaphor for thought:

Each drawing acts as either the origin or destination for a piece of writing, with the link between image and text sometimes obvious ("The bicycle I made a drawing of this morning is over sixty years old ..."), sometimes rewardingly oblique. In between, Berger's participating "I" narrates stories of the urban poor, of exiles and peasants. The settings are generally prosaic - a "hard-discount" supermarket, a public swimming pool - and occasionally surprising: in a dream space "somewhere to the side of language" he dismantles an invisible "block" that imprisons a woman. There are pieces concerned with how drawing can create, or substitute for, various types of presence (a drawing of flowers nestles among the real bouquets placed in a coffin). If there is assurance in the efficacy of drawing as a mode of thinking, the potency of drawings as acts or performances is less certain. With its many explicit and implicit question marks, Bento's Sketchbook retains the private, exploratory feel of a sketchbook.

What characterizes the writing is its sense of the inexplicable. "We feel and know we are eternal", from the Ethics, introduces Spinoza's writings to the text. Another "Bento" quotation - "we, like waves of the sea driven by contrary winds, waver, unaware of the issue and of our fate" - captures the often melancholy tone. "I live in a state of habitual confusion", writes Berger "... by confronting the confusion I sometimes achieve a certain lucidity". Against this sense of chaos, both the act of looking and its traces acquire a ghostly quality; but then the drawings are also vital and immediate.

The rest of the review is available behind the Times Literary Supplement paywall.

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