John Berger who died last week may not be a household name, but he was known to many thoughtful people round the world, some of whom like me viewed him as a hero. He was best known for his 1970s TV series, “Ways of Looking” which demonstrated that so-called high culture was often a mask for lazy, prejudicial views of art. His perspective was influenced by the critical skills of Karl Marx and others of the socialist tradition. The same perspective led to him donating half of his Booker Prize for his novel “G” to the Black Panthers. He continued to write on visual art over the years, while also producing novels that reflected his involvement in peasant life in Haute Savoie, his radical political commitment, and the mixture of anger and compassion with which he approached the suffering of human beings. His geatest novel, perhaps, is “To the Wedding” which balances grief and optimism without compromising either.
He remains a hero to me because unlike many on the left side of politics who had expressed unwise admiration for socialist regimes, he recognised his error of judgement after the collapse of the Soviet block, but did not renounce his marxism, or his search for a genuine political expression of it. For this reason many of his obituaries have been critical, reflecting the dominant view today that rejection of capitalism is a sign of lunacy. He remained convinced that an unrestricted and triumphalist capitalism was destroying the natural world, wiping out traditional ways of life, distorting language, impoverishing billions of people while enriching a few, and not even truly enriching them, because it reduces the dimensions of life to mere consumption.
In his analysis of the one dimensional world of global capitalism Berger visited and revisited his special sources of inspiration in the art of the past, challenging the reader with dimensions of humanity revealed by cave painters or Rembrandt or Goya. Increasingly he found support from radical Christian voices who wanted to draw on the God-dimension of their tradition to provide resources for social and political liberation. He was always insistent that any claim of transcendence had to be grounded in the life of the world: word and vision had to be incarnate in the universe, especially in flesh and blood.
He had almost certainly read Pablo Neruda’s poem:
was born in the blood
grew in the dark body, beating
and flew through the lips and the mouth…..
which draws of course on John’s Gospel, “the Word was made flesh.”
He was forever aware of small moments of transcendence in the lives of men and women, often in good work, in the words of a poem, in the angle of a photograph, in the curl of a leaf. All of these, for him, brought news from nowhere, from the Utopia that beckons to us and invites our hope. He was someone above all who exhibited the twin qualities that The Italian socialist Gramsci recommended, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
His faith in the transcendent possibilities of beauty, truth and justice, was also expressed in his habitual courtesy and kindness, which are attested by all who met him, as well as those who like me, sometimes bothered him with correspondence. He had a robust sense of the worth of every person including himself, reserving his most severe rebukes for those who would deny it by their actions, policies or inertia.
When Jesus was asked how a person could get Life, he responded with the traditional Jewish commandments to love God and your neighbour. In his atheist way, John Berger did both of these. For me, he has Life.