A version of this was originally published in The Hindu
I picked up a copy of John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time for a euro in Leuven’s old baroque square, an hour before I was about to get on a bus from the Belgian town to Paris. I had never read Berger before, and the faded but well-preserved Penguin paperback with a sketch of a man with a hammer was the only book I could afford. The year was 2002 and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right candidate, had won the first round of the French presidential election to the horror of many. Spontaneous protests erupted throughout France, and over a million people took to the streets in fierce opposition to Le Pen’s victory. The French students in Leuven decided that they had to return home to protest. When my friend urged me to pack light and come along, I said yes. I read Berger on the bus to and back, at night as I slept in a crowded room with friends in a borrowed sleeping bag, and in between protests. I watched the French take to their streets, laugh, argue, fight and disagree about what Le Pen’s win meant to the future of their republic. For an 18-year-old, it was a heady time. Over the next week, I marked the book, reread it and filled it with endless marginalia. One of the last notes I scribbled on the back of the book reads: “Then I shall live as my biographer, in both significance and insignificance, but always interpreting the circumstances of my present and its history.”
Toeing the official line
Berger’s luminous intelligence and the texture of his protagonist, Hungarian painter János Lavin, in exile in London left a mark. The main body of the text consists of the discovery of a journal written by Lavin. The journal records the mounting crisis in Hungary between 1952 and 1956, and Lavin’s personal torment. When the book was first published in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, it was viciously maligned. British philosopher Richard Wollheim denounced the book, and English poet Stephen Spender wrote a scathing review for the Observer. A month after its publication, it was quickly withdrawn by its publishers after mounting pressure from The Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy group. The establishment’s visceral reaction perhaps came as a response to Berger’s own refusal to toe the official line. To humanise an individual who is both flawed and ethical, who struggles with history and ideology, is a dangerous figure in times that demand great conformity. The political crisis in post-war Europe, the predicament of Berger’s Lavin, and the failure of the political all returned to the fundamental question: what happens when words and images are put in service of the state? What happens to resistance when we cede so much of our freedoms so willingly? And above all, what happens to love in the face of onslaught?
For a person on the cusp of adulthood, 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and the events that followed made little sense. What the far right and fascist politics would unleash in the years to come remained unfathomable events to reconcile with in the future. While the invasion of Iraq would happen a summer after I first read Berger, his writings alongside Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Stuart Hall and Karl Polanyi amongst others became the embodiment of political possibilities even in times of great tyranny.
What makes us human
John Berger was many things to many people. For me, Berger was an astute chronicler of his world and a militant humanist. He was a political being who saw the act of bearing witness not as a white man’s trope, often employed to neutralise the political. Instead, he inherently understood that the business of bearing witness was connected to the same structures of power that produced this catastrophe in the first place. To witness, to see, to look, and even seek all constituted for Berger a departure from other acts that affirm man as a political being. This act of being political is fundamental — it not only makes us human, it also makes it possible that we can love in the way we seem both appropriate and inappropriate, legitimate and illegitimate. Berger’s A Seventh Man, a powerful meditation on the nature of immigration to Europe, is an example. It is a story of forced departures and returns to transformed homes, with images, poetry, theory and essays. A Seventh Man was not a catalogue of pain and suffering of the millions who migrated to Europe. Instead, it was a project critical of the dehumanising and oppressive core of neo-liberal capitalism, which Berger called “economic fascism”. He wrote his truth and wrote what was important. Susan Sontag perhaps said it best: “He writes about what is important, not just interesting.”
Importance of clarity
There is, of course, a tendency to sanitise and strip a man like Berger of his politics and predilections. Throughout his life, he had sided with difficult arguments and unpopular opinions. His writings on Palestine are clear about the nature of the occupation. He writes: “There’s scarcely a Palestinian family that has not been forced during the last half century to flee from somewhere, just as there’s scarcely a town in which buildings are not regularly bulldozed by the occupying army.” Similarly, when Berger won the Booker in 1972, he donated half of his prize money to the Black Panthers in Britain and retained the rest to support his work on the study of migrant workers that became the book A Seventh Man. Berger linked the Booker’s wealth to the exploitation of the Caribbean slave trade. The extreme poverty in the region was a “direct consequence of firms like Booker.” For Berger this was a “necessary part of his political struggle.” In his words, “the sharing of the prize signifies that our aims are the same. And by that recognition, a great deal is clarified. And in the end — as well as in the beginning — clarity is more important than money.” Berger is right; clarity is always more important.