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A man of scruple on the arts


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"When my father died recently," wrote John Berger in the 1972 essay "Drawn to That Moment," "I did several drawings of him in his coffin, drawings of his face and head."

He then immediately tells us an anecdote about the listless life drawing class of painter Oskar Kokoschka.

Kokoschka told the model to pretend to collapse, whereupon the great painter feigned an examination of his heartbeat and announced to the shocked students that the model was dead.

A little while afterward, the model got to his feet and resumed the pose. "Now draw him," said Kokoshka, "as though you were aware that he was alive and not dead."

What kind of writer and painter tells us that he draws his own father in his coffin merely as a prelude to a spiffy anecdote about a great expressionist? But wait. "To draw the truly dead involved an even greater sense of urgency," writes Berger. "What you are drawing will never be seen again, by you or by anybody else.

In the whole course of time past and time to come, this moment is unique: that last opportunity to draw what will never again be visible, which has occurred once and which will never reoccur."
The visual is always the result of an unrepeatable momentary encounter, Berger insists in the next paragraph.

In the middle of the next paragraph, he finally admits, "I was using my small skill to save a likeness, as a lifesaver uses his small skill as a swimmer to save a life." Finally, at the end of the paragraph, he tells us, "I was the last ever to look on the face I was drawing. I wept whilst I strove to draw with complete objectivity."

John Berger, at 75, is one of the greatest living writers in the English language. And in every word of every sentence, we are jolted by the realization that he is not kidding -- that he is never kidding.

He is in this masterful lifetime of writing essays bringing us a vision of monumental strength and integrity; he's one novelist, poet, painter and essayist that all manner of fellow writers would be overjoyed to see win the Nobel Prize.

Except for one thing -- awarding Berger with a prize is a hazardous activity.

When the Booker Prize was awarded to his greatest novel, "G.," in 1972, he called the whole episode "distasteful" in his acceptance speech, gave half the money to the fledgling British branch of the Black Panthers and kept the other half apologetically so that he could travel in research for a project about "the migrant workers of Europe." He made sure that the prize committee knew that the Panthers would use the funds to combat the "extreme trading interests in the Caribbean" of Booker McConnell, who established the prize in the first place.

Berger isn't a Marxist. He has, all his life, been a kind of post-Marxist -- i.e., one who was guided through Marx by Walter Benjamin and came out utterly bereft of Marxism's tinny esthetic vulgarity and with an insistent worldview that is resolutely dissident and as personal as any you'll find.

You don't roll your eyes when you read Berger -- you learn how to use them in ways you've never suspected before (or even thought possible).

His subjects are most often art: Pollock, Picasso, Matisse, Watteau, Grunewald, Corot, LeCorbusier, Francis Bacon, Paul Strand, Modigliani, Monet, among the many in the "Selected Essays." And Rembrandt, Brancusi, Van Gogh and paleolithic cave painters in his new essay collection "The Shape of a Pocket." But Berger is no more an art critic than James Agee was a movie critic or W.H.  Auden a poetry critic. A practitioner of his major subject? Of course.

But quite beyond that, a writer whose cardinal subject (there are many others all through his work) merely opens up singular investigations of civilization and culture that are, quiet as it's kept, among the great literary achievements of their time.It is Berger's utterly resolute political dissidence that, for instance, kept his BBC series "Ways of Seeing" off America's PBS airwaves despite the fact that its ideas are vastly more cogent than any found in those by Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski in PBS' Golden Age of Brit-Think.

Fortunately, the book version of "Ways of Seeing" has always been around to do its revelatory work -- to remind us, for instance, that a Gainesborough painting is a rite of property ownership as much as it is anything else (before it is anything else).

Berger, we are always aware, is not kidding. Empty rhetoric is for others. So are the uneasy obfuscations of the insecure. His prose style, especially in his later years, is aggressively simple.
None of the jargon infestations of much modern criticism have ever found their way into his work. And yet he can sometimes be fiercely difficult.

He isn't afraid of theory and when, for instance, he writes in "The Shape of a Pocket" about paleolithic cave paintings that lie dormant in the rock itself, you are reading the utterly immersed and mystic voice of the art practitioner, who is, in every professional instant, finding the work commanded as much by the materials as the Eye.

The linguistic simplicity doesn't make the mysticism any the less knotty.

What Berger's life -- which is omnipresent in his essays but never sloppy or confessional -- underscores at every instant is what we always know: that he is that rarity of rarities, a man every bit as good as his words (or, at least, one who is intended to be).

He doesn't just admire and study French peasant life; he has, for decades now, lived in a small village in the French Alps to be close to it.

Who else could find a whole essay in his yearly mucking out of the outhouse, a task that has him muttering in anger but also meditating. "What makes s--- such a universal joke is that it's an unmistakable reminder of our duality, of our soiled nature and our will to glory.

It's the ultimate in lese majeste. . . . Evil hates everything that has been physically created. The first act of this hatred is to separate the order of words from the order of what they denote."

And he is, as the new essays of "The Shape of a Pocket" reinforce, an aphorist of luminous power, as one would expect from a writer of such craggy, mountainous integrity: "There are many forms of madness which start as theater (as Shakespeare, Pirandello and Artaud knew so well). Folly tests its strengh in rehearsals."

In the hell of painter Hieronymus Bosch, "There is no horizon. . . There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamor of the disparate, fragmentary present.

Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium. . .

"Compare this space to what one sees in the average publicity slot, or in a typical CNN bulletin, or in any mass media news commentary. There is a comparable violence, a comparable wilderness of separate excitements, a similar frenzy."

To which the most effective literary antidote I can think of are the essays of John Berger, as intellectually necessary as any English language writer now living.

Jeff Simon is The News' Sunday Arts and Books editor.


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