✓✓ Read Receipts: The Death of John Berger

John Berger

On the 31st of December one extra second was added to Coordinated Universal Time. This resulted in a number of vital systems breaking as 2016 lingered on ever so slightly longer than they expected. It seemed the year wouldn’t relent.

On the 2nd of January I was reminded of the unwavering passage of time by the death of John Berger, who as an art historian, a writer, and a communist felt particularly close to me—more so than many of the losses of 2016. I wrote my own short piece on him, and predictably, this week’s Read Receipts include a collection of eulogies to Berger, along with some of his writing.

  • Death hands storytellers the file, full of sheets of uniformly black paper. All the storyteller needs or has is the capacity to read what is written in black. So now we, too, must read John in black. He’s handed us the file. Good To Know You! by Andy Merrifield for Verso, Berger’s publisher. This was the first piece I read on Berger’s death, on the morning of the 3rd.
  • Yet to face History is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away. To decide to engage oneself in History requires, even when the decision is a desperate one, hope. Sarah Cowan writes in The Paris Review on Berger. The extract taken above is from an essay by Berger on the work of Käthe Kollwitz, an artist I’ve long admired and whose images of suffering seems more apt every day.
  • A side-effect of this ongoing relationship with Mohr was that Berger had, for many years, not only observed Mohr at work; he had also been the subject of that work. Lacking the training as a photographer that he’d enjoyed as an artist, he became very familiar with the other side of the experience, of being photographed. Geoff Dyer on Berger and photography in Aperture. It was through photography, specifically Ways of Seeing, that many came to know Berger, here Dyer sets out Berger’s relationship to Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and photographer Jean Mohr.
  • What is the value of a life saved? he asks. How does the cure of a serious illness compare in value with one of the better poems of a minor poet? remembering john berger in i-D. Megan Nolan writes on Berger’s gentle and convivial manner and his tenderness to the body, seen particularly well in A Fortunate Man, which follows Dr John Sassall, GP of a small village in Gloucestershire.
  • It is very difficult to describe how someone listens. Maybe part of it is that a silence surrounded him—the silence produced by the total absence of small talk, flattery, posturing, etc. Ben Lerner on the silence of Berger in The New Yorker. Berger’s willingness to listen is what fundamentally distinguishes his literary and political approach from any other similar critics.
  • Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held—I am tempted to say salvaged, John Berger’s Rare Art Criticism on Hyperallergic. I’ve never actually managed to read any of Berger’s art criticism, but after reading his 1957 essay Wanted - Critics, I’ll be trying to find some. Many of the issues that Berger highlights in the article remain sadly relevant today.
  • Later we walk back towards the rocky road. He picks some short mint and hands me a bunch. Its pungent freshness is like a draught of cold water, water colder than that in the watering-can. A Moment in Ramallah in The London Review of Books. In 2003 Berger wrote on his experience visiting refugee camps in Ramallah, and finds personalities and humanity between the Israeli’s attempts to dislocate and break displaced Palestinians.
  • J: I know its 43 degrees chez vous so im trying 2 fan u. will stop blowing and drink a cold yoghurt from [Ramallah] supermarket. In forest talking to St Jerome about death and other txts from John Berger on Zed Books. From a later trip to Ramallah, Berger’s writing style and acceptance of the fluidity and movement of language is a mark that conservatism does not necessarily come with age, that thought and language can exist separately.
  • We exchange winks. We reject hierarchies. All hierarchies. We take the shit of the world for granted and we exchange stories about how we nevertheless get by. We are impertinent. Impertinence: an extract and illustrations from John Berger’s final book, Confabulations, on It’s Nice That. Illustrations of flowers and stones came to be more important to Berger in later life. Here they accompany Berger’s proposition for a conspiracy of orphans.
  • In such a climate, somebody who is actually saying something, who seems to suggest that there may be a connection between what he said and what he will do, such a person is a way out of a vacuous nightmare—even if the way out is dangerous or vicious… Berger in conversation with Paul Holdengraber on Literary Hub. One of Berger’s last interviews, a phone call that traces his thoughts following the election of Trump.