Blog post

"An uncommon optimism"—John Berger on BBC Radio 4 and in the Scotsman and the New Statesman

Kaitlin Staudt 8 June 2011

John Berger guested on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" show yesterday to discuss Bento's Sketchbook, and how his relationship with Britain has changed since he moved to live in France.

Visit the BBC to listen to the interview in full.

Susan Mansfield interviews John Berger for the Scotsman. Discussing the relationship between Spinoza's philosophy, Berger's drawings, and ways of understanding the world, Mansfield questions Berger's understanding of hope:

Spinoza has been a favourite of Berger's since he was a teenager, "when I read not always understanding, perhaps very seldom". In the writing of the book, he regarded the philosopher more as a "companion" than a "master". Both Berger and Spinoza share a fascination with the nature of looking: Bento worked as a lens grinder in the new science of optics; both men liked to draw. "Right from the beginning, I didn't think it was a book about Spinoza. I thought of it as a book about the world we are living in, and which so often we refuse to look at, for the good and the bad. The project was to try to see the world today in which we are living."

Too many of today's problems result from not seeing clearly, Berger says. He talks about the "new financial order" which he describes as "economic fascism ... where the virtual is more important than the real and the productive. It produces a growing opposition between the rich and the poor, and in all the thinking and the reasoning that goes on, the sense of what exists at ground level is absent...I ask Berger about hope. The Marxist ideology has failed, the world languishes in the consequences of a version of capitalism gone mad, yet he seems to be on the side of hope?

"Of course I am!" he says, blue eyes shining.

In Bento's Sketchbook, he writes: "Hope is a contraband passed from hand to hand, and story to story."

"I'd rather reject the terms optimistic and pessimistic. They suggest a calculation of how things are going to evolve, and if it's going to evolve in the way you want, you're optimistic. That has very little to do with despair and hope. Hope is not a form of guarantee, it's a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.

Also following Berger's vision of hope, Colin MacCabe reviews Bento's Sketchbook for the New Statesman:

[Berger's] method is not the more geometrico or the "geometrical manner" of axioms and theorems favoured by Spinoza; rather, it consists in the effort to capture the world in a sketch. The work's conceit is that Berger is reproducing the sketchbooks that we know Spinoza filled, but which have long since disappeared. This does not mean that Berger draws in the manner of 17th-century Amsterdam. What he is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza's attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world. A huge supermarket on the outskirts of Paris reveals a world in which everything is stolen from the poor. A visit to a swimming pool brings home the distant tragedies of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Perhaps the author's greatest gift to readers is his implacable reckoning with the situation in which the world finds itself. There are few consolations on a planet where it becomes ever more difficult to communicate messages of hope about our future. As Berger writes to Arundhati Roy, "Words... are like stones put into the pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into the river."

And yet, somehow, despite his determination to look the meanness of our times in the face, he manages to simultaneously affirm the possibility of a brighter future. Here Spinoza's belief in an ordered universe that is susceptible to being understood functions as a continuous promise and ambition.

Berger's words and images, rendered serene by age and habit, provide an exhilarating and unflinching account of global devastation and ordinary life. They also offer us an uncommon optimism.

Visit the Scotsman to read the interview in full.

Visit the New Statesman to read the review in full. 

Filed under: broadcast, interviews, reviews