on Hold Everything Dear, essays by John Berger (Pantheon)

In his first novel A Painter of Our Time (1959), John Berger wrote, “We today pause to reflect on whether our severity may be made more severe; and in every one of those pauses the artist faces the same difficulty – it is the difficulty that unites us – the difficulty of making the intangible tangible, of creating a cold form to contain our fervent content. All of us know that difficulty so profoundly that we would all recognize its nature despite the totally different considerations that fill our pauses.” All of Berger’s writing – the novels, the essays, the art critiques – is founded on and expresses the necessity of encountering this difficulty.

Berger’s style, honed and austere, seems to anticipate the reader’s pauses, the pleasure of stopping to consider how he manages to pull off those transits from tangible to intangible and back. Berger’s essays on drawing, photography, poetry and painting have structured a long opportunity to build and enhance our confidence in the essential mission of art. “All art is meaningless to those for whom life itself is only a spectacle,” he wrote with a severity made more severe.

BergerColor.jpegBerger has frequently reminded us that memory and history are at desperate odds. The action of memory (circular, returning) refreshes and excites us, while history (persuading us that life is linear, the present always replaceable) works against the eternal, the simple, the deep, and the just. In the essay “A Man With Tousled Hair,” collected in The Shape of a Pocket, he said, “Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies, lies there, not in the facts.” Here, Berger shows the artist how to “be political”: to stand and speak in the gap, rather than on the opposing cliff among polemicists, pundits, self-promoting “witnesses” and bad writers.

A critic of “public narratives,” Berger has mistrusted such pronouncements but has never traded the potential clarity of language for the distortions of theory. His incisive and moving descriptions alone prove that good poetry creates good aesthetic, and not vice versa. But his contention is pointed nevertheless; he says in "A Matter of Pitilessness?," a new essay, "A revelation which confirms an insight: to engage today with the traditional vocabulary, as employed by the powerful and the media, only adds to the surrounding murkiness and devastation. This does not necessarily mean silence. It means choosing the voices one wishes to join." For Berger, rejection of certain vocabulary leads to deftness of expression and an absence of stylistic affectation.

BergerCoverHold.jpgTypically, we say there are three vocal categories in contemporary literature: the searching and questioning voices, the warning and accusing voices, and the healing and celebrating voices. Berger’s voice, lyrically composed, honors its own exceptionalism through accessibility and transparency, presented as an achievable model of speaking/seeing for everyone. It is a desperate way of perceiving, wrenched from lurking forces. Someone is being saved, saving himself for others to watch the salvaging. Thus without didacticism, Berger has denounced and penetrated, offering balm and alarm – transcending all three vocal categories.

Berger’s most recent “fiction” (to use his term), Here Is Where We Meet, (Pantheon, 2005) seems to say: Think of this as my last book. There was a sweet melancholia, poignancy tinted by fatal shadows. In “Lisboa,” a narrator named John encounters the ghost of his mother; together they roam through hidden places in the city, reflecting, sensing the quality of time. The chapter on cave paintings in France recalls his art criticism. The chapter on remembering days in Poland echoes his novel To The Wedding. Truthful to loss but without rue, this fiction is a book of final retrospection.

But not so fast. Now 81 and living in rural France, Berger has published his millennial essays in Hold Everything Dear, subtitled “dispatches on survival and resistance.” The dark is closing in: Berger’s world is one of non-stop oppression and constant war in which the victim’s “undefeated despair” is the apex of human response to an alleged global tyranny. This position has always been his core stance, but now he is fixated by it alone. “What makes a terrorist is, first, a form of despair. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a way of transcending and, by the gift of one’s own life, making sense of a form of despair” (“Seven Levels of Despair”). This statement invites debate more than concurrence. Disputation isn’t Berger’s strong suit. He makes an effort to recover from such dubious registers when he says, more Bergerishly, “The so-called war against terrorism is in fact a war between two fanaticisms” (“Flesh and Speeches”). The best of John Berger’s work emerges from intuitive spectating and fictional envisioning; his unaffecting output comes from unabated frustration. Yet even the less effective writing convinces the reader of its authenticity, even if it fails to convince otherwise.

BergerHand_0.jpgHold Everything Dear begins with “Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead,” a sort of three-page addendum to his last novel, with some political flavoring. The last section of the piece begins, “How do the living live with the dead? Until the dehumanization of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead.” Dehumanized or not, we haven’t yet given up speculating about dying and the dead, as any enthusiastic Catholic or evangelical Christian will tell you. Hyperbole has always allowed Berger to loom above the merely analytical; his warnings have been alluring. In any event, the first eleven parts of this essay on the dead are purely lyrical. Berger hasn’t lost his dreamy edge, but he speaks exclusively this time from the watchtower.

In “Wanting Now,” he writes, “Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfillment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremecy.” Hold Everything Dear is filled with beautiful brief stretches like this. The phrase “the changing of something” makes way for Berger’s political views, exercised in his several mentions of the Israeli-Palestinian debacle. Certain European intellectuals have long embraced the Palestinians as their favorite victims, even when Muslims were being liquidated en masse in their own eastern European backyard. If the reader approaches this book with any knowledge of Middle Eastern history since 1948, he probably will be sympathetic to Berger’s case for the Palestinians but will gain no mental traction from it.

About Arafat, the failed diplomat, Berger writes, “Under his leadership the Palestinian Liberation Organization also contributed, on occasion, to the rubble of words. Yet into Arafat’s faults were stuffed, like notes into a pocket, the daily wrongs his country suffered.” This is a forgiving portrait, but truly, all Arafat ever stuffed into his pockets was cash. Then, Berger returns to his theory on suicide bombers, saying “The wall and the annexation of still more Palestinian land cannot promise security for the state of Israel; it recruits martyrs.” If only Israeli security did depend on the Palestinian people. For relief from facile politics, best to turn directly to the poems of the great Mahmoud Darwish.

One of my favorite sections is “I Would Softly Tell My Love,” dated 2002. Here, Berger speaks to the late socialist Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet. In the middle of the piece comes this remarkable sequence:

BergerBW.jpeg“Nearly all the contemporary poets who have counted most for me during my long life I have read in translation, seldom in their original language. I think it would have been impossible for anyone to say this before the twentieth century. Arguments about poetry being or not being translatable went on for centuries – but they were chamber arguments – like chamber music. During the twentieth century most of the chambers were reduced to rubble. New means of communication, global politics, imperialisms, world markets, etc., threw millions of people together and took millions of people apart in an indiscriminate and quite unprecedented way. And as a result the expectations of poetry changed; more and more the best poetry counted on readers who were further and further away.”

Hikmet is a poster poet for “undefeated despair” and his ghostly presence adds the metaphysical touch that Berger carries off so well. As it happens, my grandfather attended a German elementary school with Nazim Hikmet in Constantinople (they were both born in 1902, and Hikmet’s father became the Turkish consul to Hamburg) and himself survived the Second World War in a Vichy-run internment camp. Emigrating to the US, my grandfather became a true Stevensonian democrat and mistrusted all things socialist (except Social Security), but he loved Hikmet’s poetry, lived through the war with the poems in Turkish, and would quote lines to me when I was a child.

The chapters on Pier Paolo Pasolini and Francis Bacon come as a diverting relief. And then we find “Ten Dispatches About Place,” an answer to, “Somebody enquiries: Are you still a Marxist?” This fine essay includes bursts like this: “Of the billions of mobile telephone conversations taking place every hour in the world’s cities and suburbs, most, whether they are private or business calls, begin with a statement about the caller’s whereabouts. People need straightaway to pinpoint where they are. It is as if they are pursued by doubts suggesting that they may be nowhere. Surrounded by so many abstractions, they have to invent and share their own transient landmarks.” It hardly matters if his point is accurate ("most begin"?) because it sounds true within the context and critical mood he creates. This piece is as riveting and shrewdly perceptive as anything Berger has written on modern life and the way power channels through it. He talks of “the offshore demented dream of the new ongoing power: the dream of undermining the status and confidence of all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single, fluid market.”

Hold Everything Dear is an essential element of Bergeriana. And as for the answer to the question posed earlier, Berger responds: “Yes, I’m still amongst other things a Marxist.”

[Published September 11, 2007, 148 pp., $21.00.]