By John Berger
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Faced with historical grandeur or scenic beauty — a monument, say, or a particularly fine sunset — many of us are seized by that familiar and shallow impulse to photograph the moment. It’s a step-by-step protocol, faithfully traced by every tourist in the world: look, register, click and move on. Photography, then, gives us a false sense of having thoroughly gone over, of having assimilated, the scenery. Which means that taking a picture becomes for us a means to detach ourselves from what’s present before us. It allows us to say to ourselves, “There’s nothing left to see here.” In a recent interview, the writer and critic John Berger, who has, among other things, written extensively on the subject of photography, made a similar point. “I don’t like taking photographs,” he said, “because once you’re done photographing a thing, you stop looking at it. And I like to look at things.”
The visual language has been Berger’s main subject throughout his very prolific and long career. (He turned 90 this year, and, as he reveals in his recent book Confabulations, he has now been “writing for almost 80 years”.) This urge to explore the links between seeing and perceiving — as well as the philosophical and political implications of those — has animated the best of Berger’s critical work. Even the book titles rehearse and emphasise his lifelong obsession: The Look of Things (1972); Ways of Seeing (1972); About Looking (1980). Naturally enough, painting and photography take pride of place in his personal pantheon. But Berger’s interests go beyond the visible as a merely aesthetic category. His overall attempt is to engage with, as he wrote in his 1980 essay on the American photographer Paul Strand, “the meaning and enigma of visibility itself
Confabulations is a short book composed as a series of notes — pieces triggered by random objects or by memory, which seem unrelated to each other at first sight. But then, a symmetry emerges. All of Berger’s meditations recorded here, including a couple of perceptive essays on Charlie Chaplin and Rosa Luxembourg, trace a similar sort of arc from idea to image, from the textual to the visual.
Confabulations is a short book composed as a series of notes — pieces triggered by random objects or by memory, which seem unrelated to each other at first sight. But then, a symmetry emerges. All of Berger’s meditations recorded here, including a couple of perceptive essays on Charlie Chaplin and Rosa Luxembourg, trace a similar sort of arc from idea to image, from the textual to the visual. Accompanying the text here are some of Berger’s own drawings — a juxtaposition that enacts, on a formal level, the writer’s statement of purpose as articulated towards the end of this book: “I have been asking myself whether natural forms — a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower — can be looked at and perceived as messages… Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?”
These messages, though, as the author clarifies, can never be verbalised as such; and so the texts speak to something more primordial in us — they arise from, in Berger’s words, a “limitless, unknown mother tongue”, from “a language that has not been given to us to read”. All we can do, as writers, artists and thinkers, is to respond to these messages as best we can. And where are these responses to be found? Within our hearts and minds: in perception and in memory. Still, you need a good deal of originality, artistic acumen and literary talent to be able to muster up responses as memorable as those offered by Berger. At one point in Confabulations, we have the author looking above at white clouds drifting against the backdrop of a blue sky. What follows is this beautiful observation: “The movement of the curls apparently comes from inside the body of each cloud, not from an applied pressure; you think of the movement of a sleeping body.”
The rhythms of Berger’s prose — clear, balanced, carefully measured — replicate at times the rhythms of thought. Here’s a man doing his thinking on the page. He follows the diktats of the artistic impulse without reservations: the ball is set rolling with a memory or an observation, and then wherever the trail of thought leads next, the writer obligingly follows. The essay entitled “Some Notes About Song (For Yasmine Hamdan)” perfectly exemplifies this approach. Berger begins the piece in the form of a letter addressed to Hamdan, a Lebanese singer and songwriter, as well as a friend of his; a few paragraphs in, the letter transforms into a ruminative essay on the meaning of song (“All songs are about journeys”); some more pages later, we are reading about flamenco dancers; then about flowers; about prose and storytelling; about Berger’s encounter with four deaf youths in a Parisian train; about the French President making a vapid and contentless address to the nation; about the echo chamber of mainstream media, generating noise that offers “trivial immediate distraction to fill the silence which, left empty, might otherwise prompt people to ask each other questions concerning the unjust world they are living in”.
All this in the space of one essay and I am not even finished enumerating the rest of the themes that follow in its final pages. Besides, god only knows how Berger is able to bring the piece, towards its dénouement, back effortlessly to where it had started: to Hamdan and the art of the song. This doubtless gives us a good sense of what to expect from Berger’s writing in general: a densely-packed mix of thoughts, images, ideas, concepts and theories visited one after the other in a random order, all developed painstakingly with a very high regard for — and this is important to Berger — clarity of meaning. By the end of every Berger piece, the reader feels a little wiser than before, and better suited to meet a world that most forcefully communicates with us in a language that may be impossible to articulate but can still be responded to.