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Death and the Mountain
John Berger's enduring sense of hope
I’m on holiday this month, so today’s post is an older essay that I’m glad to bring back into view. It’s also part of a mini-series in which I’m picking up on’s notes on ‘Phasmatopian’ writing. As a writer of fiction, R.G. describes taking much of his inspiration these days from ‘not-fiction’ writers, including a number of us who have been connected to Dark Mountain. What struck me was that, looking a generation further back, there are some remarkable writers of fiction who had a powerful influence on me and others on R.G.’s list, and whose work is worth introducing to anyone finding inspiration from us.
One of those writers is John Berger. A quote from him opens the third chapter of the Dark Mountain manifesto, and when we were putting together the first issue of the Dark Mountain journal, I stayed up all night writing the essay that follows.
“The way I go is the way back to see the future.”
“How is it I’m alive? I’ll tell you I’m alive because there’s a temporary shortage of death.”
He is a novelist, an art critic, an essayist, a storyteller, but when I picture him with the tools of his trade, it is holding a scythe.
There are two reasons for this. No recent writer in English has been more intimately acquainted with death. And each year, he pays a part of his rent by helping with the haymaking in the field above his house. To grasp the significance of John Berger’s work — in relation to literature and to the present situation of the world — both of these facts are essential.
At the centre of his work stands the decision, taken at the height of his career, to settle in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, in a valley too steep for mechanical farming and therefore among the last enclaves of peasant life in western Europe. Almost four decades later, he is still there. Last year, he agreed to donate his archive to the British Library, on the condition that its head of modern manuscripts should lend a hand with the harvest during his visit.
Berger’s achievement has been to ground himself within that way of living, an experience which transformed his writing, while remaining a globally-engaged intellectual. More than that, it is the perspective given by such a grounding which explains his continuing relevance, his ability to see and name things which other commentators take for granted.
In a particular sense, he embodies the ‘uncivilised writing’ called for by the Dark Mountain manifesto. The concept of civilisation is entangled to its roots with the experience of cities. The writing which this project seeks and celebrates is ‘uncivilised’ not least in the sense that it comes from or goes beyond the city limits: the physical, psychological and political boundaries within which the illusion of humanity’s separation from and control over ‘nature’ can be sustained.
Such writing enters into negotiation with the non-human world on terms which may seem outlandish; it is hospitable to possibilities which civilised philosophy would hardly entertain. And it is in this spirit that I suggest we take the other theme in Berger’s writing which I want to address: his sense of the presence of the dead. Fictional as many of them clearly are, his accounts of encounters with the dead — as individuals and collectively — amount to something closer to an uncivilised metaphysics than a literary conceit.
Yet there is nothing fey about this metaphysics. To the extent that philosophical positions emerge from Berger’s work, they do so tested pragmatically against the harshness of human experience: not only the tough lives of Savoyard peasants, but those of migrant workers, prisoners, political dissidents, Palestinian families. To list the people he writes about in such categories is misleading, for the relentless specificity of his gaze seldom allows such generalisations. The cumulative effect of his writing, though — and of the relationships from which it emerges — is to test what can be believed against what must be endured.
He would have little time, I am sure, for much of the literature of collapse, fact or fiction, because almost without exception it begins by overlooking the reality of life for most people in the world today, for whom there is little to collapse and who, nevertheless, go on finding ways to make today liveable and get through to tomorrow. Yet, in what I have called his testing of what can be believed, I suspect there is more insight into what will endure when (or where) the certainties of our way of living fail us.
1. From ‘Civilisation’ to the mountains
“When I came here I was mostly with the old peasants, because the younger ones had gone, and they became my teachers. It was like my university, because I didn’t go to university. I learnt to tap a scythe, and I learnt a whole constellation of sense and value about life.”
interview with Gerald Marzorati
To understand the question posed by his decision to settle in the Haute Savoie, it is necessary to know something of Berger’s life before that relocation, his politics and his public profile.
His first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958) was withdrawn by its British publishers under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist lobby group backed by the CIA. His early essays, written as art critic at the New Statesman, were collected under the title Permanent Red (1960), a statement of political constancy borne out by a piece in his most recent collection Hold Everything Dear (2007):
Somebody enquires: are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analysed the devastation…? Yes, I’m still amongst other things a Marxist.
In 1972, he won the Booker Prize for his fourth novel, G. He used the platform to castigate Booker-McConnell for the sources of its wealth in the Caribbean sugar trade and gave half his prize money to the Black Panthers as an act of reparation. (The Panther activist who accompanied Berger to the award ceremony was alarmed by his intensity. ‘Keep it cool, man,’ he whispered, ‘keep it cool.’)
The same year, he made a television series which turned that same articulate anger on establishment narratives of art history. Ways of Seeing was an attack on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), also produced by the BBC. Clark had offered a grand tour of the Western tradition, introduced from the study of his country house, interspersed with globe-trotting location sequences which would become the template for big-budget documentary series. By contrast, Berger stands against a blue-screen in a studio, and this is used not to transport him to any pre-filmed backdrop, but to place the mechanics of television in shot, questioning the ways in which it can be used to lead an audience.
His subject is the mystification of art, the ‘meaningless generalisations’ by which professional critics deflect attention from the content of a painting and the questions it might open up about the world. His delivery is intense, but also playful, driven by curiosity. You have the sense of witnessing thought in progress, rather than the presentation of a completed worldview. He ends the first episode by warning the viewer to treat his arguments, too, with scepticism.
The series was repeated twice that year on BBC2 and the accompanying book became required reading for a generation of art school undergraduates. In an age when there were three channels to choose between, its presenter had become, if not a household name, at least a recognisable face for a significant part of the viewing public.
So the Berger who settled in the Haute Savoie was a public figure, an acclaimed and controversial writer, an intellectual of the first rank — in as much as such statements can ever be meaningful. When such a figure leaves the city for life in a remote village, this invites questions. What is he going in search of? Or trying to escape from?
In this case, there are facts and statements on the record which provide answers, but I suggest we approach these slowly, with care. What we are after is subtler than a statement of intent or a record of circumstances.
To begin with, we can rule out certain familiar explanations. A Romantic imagination may be drawn to an idealised notion of rural life, but the experiments in self-sufficiency which follow seldom survive more than a couple of growing seasons. Nor does Berger fit the type of the recluse, retreating from the uncomfortable gaze of critics and readers. Those who visit report a household characterised by its broad hospitality: Geoff Dyer recalls sitting at dinner between the local plumber and Henri Cartier Bresson.
If Berger’s move to the Haute Savoie was a search for anything, I would say he was seeking a deeper understanding of hope. Two experiences, in particular, make sense of this: one common among his peers, the other quite unusual — yet, from a global perspective, altogether more widespread.
The first is the historical disappointment of the 1960s, described in his essay, ‘Between Two Colmars’ (1973):
In 1968, hopes, nurtured more or less underground for years, were born in several places in the world and given their names: and in the same year, these hopes were categorically defeated. This became clearer in retrospect. At the time many of us tried to shield ourselves from the harshness of the truth.
That defeat in its different forms, political and cultural, echoes across the writing of a generation: a great lost love, whose absence exerts a physical force upon the course of their lives and work, with utterly different results. To feel the range of that experience, the extent to which it embraced individuals and movements which had perhaps no more common ground than a sense of possibility — and then of the loss of that possibility — we might put Berger’s refections alongside those of Hunter S Thompson:
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of…
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Plenty of intellectual and literary careers of the late 20th century were shaped by the attempt to make sense of that high-water mark, to come to terms with — to find ways of speaking and thinking about — the hopes that failed, whether by re-narrating the stories of those events, or deconstructing the possibility of hope itself.
Few writers have engaged more directly in this process of coming to terms than Berger, and some might find here another explanation for his relocation: a retreat, not from public attention, but from history and its disappointments. What is missing from such an explanation, however, is the other set of hopes whose disappointment shaped the development of Berger’s thinking and led him to the situation of the peasant village.
Having given half his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers, Berger used the remainder to fund a study of the experience of migrant workers. The book which resulted from this, A Seventh Man, is one of four such collaborations with the documentary photographer Jean Mohr. In these works, words and images meet on equal terms, taking turns to present the stories of their subjects.
In the case of A Seventh Man, photography is as much subject as medium. It is where this ‘story of a migrant worker in Europe’ begins.
He looks for the photo among the over-handled papers, stuffed in his jacket. He finds it. In handing it over, he imprints his thumb on it. Almost deliberately, as a gesture of possession. A woman or perhaps a child. The photo defines an absence. Even if it is ten years old it makes no difference. It holds open, preserves the empty space which the sitter’s presence will, hopefully, one day fill again.
Photos, too, are among the items brought back to the village by those who return as ‘heroes’, whose stories inspire a younger man with thoughts of the city.
He has talked with them. They take him aside as though inviting him into their conspiracy. They hint that there are secrets which can only be divulged and discussed with those who have also been there. One such secret concerns women. (They show him photographs in colour of naked women but they will not say who they are…)
Whilst listening, he visualizes himself entering their conspiracy. Then he will learn the secrets. And he will come back having achieved even more than they, for he is capable of working harder, of being shrewder and of saving more quickly than any of them.
This leap of the imagination, this conspiracy of hope is — at the personal level, the level of experience — what brings the worker to the city. At the same time, he is brought there by the workings of a world economic system, and the book’s achievement is to hold both of these perspectives in view.
For the workers Berger and Mohr meet in Geneva, Stuttgart, Vienna, the reality of life in the city is hellish, a sentence to be served, before the longed-for return. Yet even this will be incomplete.
The final return is mythic. It gives meaning to what might otherwise be meaningless… But it is also mythic in the sense that, as imagined, it never happens. There is no final return. Because the village has scarcely changed since he left, there is still no livelihood there for him. When he carries out one of his plans, he will become the victim of the same economic stagnation which first forced him to leave.
The stories of the migrant workers are quite different from those of the 1960s radicals; the pattern of hope and its defeat both more and less final. (The book ends with a dialogue between a returned worker and his younger cousin, as the cycle begins again.) Yet if Berger’s refections on hope and its defeats take a different path to his contemporaries, the experience of A Seventh Man may explain why.
What can be said for sure is that it was Berger’s research with migrant workers which led him to leave the city. The decision was driven by the same engaged curiosity that runs throughout his work, as he explained in an important interview with Gerald Marzorati for the New York Times in 1987:
…meeting these men, I began to understand that the majority of them were the sons of peasants. Now certain things about their lives I could imagine as a writer: the city’s impact, the solitude. But I couldn’t imagine what they had left behind. What were the peasant’s values, his view of his own destiny…?
So it was then I think that I made the decision: I wanted to see if I could write about peasants. Write about what mattered to them. And to write about them in this way — to understand their experience of their world — I’d have to live among them.
To live among them was not simply a matter of location — a rustic farmhouse with a picturesque view — but of participation in the life of the community, which meant its work.
To a peasant, when an outsider wants to come and to talk, he usually wants to take something, exploit him… But if you are, as I was, prepared to get dirty with them, clean stables and work the fields and so on — and do these things ludicrously badly, so that they are master and you the idiot — if you can do this, the distance can be overcome, a closeness felt.
It was not only in the fields that Berger became aware of his ignorance, but in his writing. The novel which he had intended to write did not work: the technique of the novel itself proved unable to accommodate the experience of the people whose stories he wanted to tell.
In the peasant village, money plays little role day to day: work is done, needs are met, use-value created, entertainment made, within a dense fabric of relationships, habits and practices. There is nothing utopian about this — to be a peasant, as Berger reminds us, means an ‘almost unimaginable burden of labour’ and the obligation to meet a master’s demands before the basic needs of one’s own family — but nor does it mean the same thing as being without money in a city. The novel, with its best and worst of times, belongs to the age of cities and to the possibilities, the choices and risks of a milieu in which money means everything. These choices and their consequences shape its twists and turns, in a way which is alien to the experience of the village.
The choices a peasant actually makes are largely ones he is forced to make — choices of reaction. Something happens suddenly, you’re up against it, what do you do?
For the Booker prize-winning novelist, it was necessary to begin again, to find a new way of telling. If the books which Berger has written since have often been published as novels, this says as much about the publishing industry as about his relationship to the novel as a form. He is more likely to speak of himself as a storyteller, and of a village as a place that tells stories.
This new way of writing emerges in Pig Earth (1979), the first of three books which explore — through stories, essays and poems — the movement from peasant society to the city. Early in the book, he describes the role of storytelling in the fabric of a working village. Stories are told differently, with a certain tolerance, since they inevitably involve those ‘with whom the story-teller and listener are going to go on living’:
Very few stories are narrated either to idealise or condemn; rather they testify to the always slightly surprising range of the possible. Although concerned with everyday events, they are mystery stories. How is it that C . . . , who is so punctilious in his work, overturned his hay-cart? How is it that L . . . is able to fleece her lover J . . . of everything, and how is it that J . . . , who normally gives nothing away to anybody, allows himself to be fleeced?
This earthy sense of the mysterious belongs to the ‘constellation of sense and value about life’ which Berger learned from the old peasants. He returns to the theme in a later essay, ‘A Story for Aesop’ (1987), contrasting the contemporary novel with the attitude of the storyteller.
Everything he has seen contributes to his sense of the enigma of life: for this enigma he finds partial answers — each story he tells is one — yet each answer, each story, uncovers another question, and so he is continually failing and this failure maintains his curiosity. Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories — only confessions, communiqués, memories and fragments of autobiographical fantasy which for the moment pass as novels.
In ‘The Storyteller’ (1978), he argues that this ‘traditional realism’ of storytelling culture has something in common with science:
Assuming a fund of empirical knowledge and experience, it poses the riddle of the unknown. How is it that…? Unlike science it can live without the answer. But its experience is too great to allow it to ignore the question.
For Hamlet — and, surely, for Shakespeare himself — there were ‘more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’ The history of the 17th and 18th centuries is one of the massive expansion of knowledge through science — or ‘natural philosophy’, to use the language of the time. Yet it is also a history of contraction: the contraction of ‘reality’ to that which can be bounded within the nutshell of the way of knowing which modern science makes possible. Hamlet’s position, that the world is fundamentally mysterious, ceases to be intellectually respectable. Mystery can exist only as a territory to be colonised and brought into the light. That this is possible is not a fact which science established, but a belief system with which it has been entangled.
In this sense, Berger’s storytelling epistemology — these ways of knowing which can live without the answer, but cannot ignore the experience — may be open to terrain which is shut to the classically modern approaches to reality. It is with this possibility in mind that I invite you to approach the most mysterious aspect of Berger’s later writing: his earthy sense of the presence of the dead.
2. Seeing the Dead
“Until the dehumanisation of society by capitalism, all the living awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future. By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.”
‘Twelve theses on the economy of the dead’, 2008
“Often when I shut my eyes, faces appear before me… They belong to the past. The certainty with which I know this has nothing to do with their clothes or the ‘style’ of their faces. They belong to the past because they are the dead, and I know this by the way they look at me. They look at me with something approaching recognition.”
and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, 1984
In the first episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger contrasts the straightforwardness with which a group of schoolchildren talk about what they see in a painting with the technical language and vague generalisations of professional art historians. The latter, he suggests, seem intent on masking the images out of fear of their directness, of the questions they might prompt.
Were we to enter a classroom or seminar in which Berger’s later writings are under scrutiny, I suspect we would find a similar evasion going on. The situation is hypothetical — I do not know whether anyone is teaching these texts in English literature departments — but I do know that, within the bounds of civilised literary criticism, there is no framework for engaging with the questions which arise if we take them seriously. Grown-ups are not meant to see dead people and, if they insist that they do, this is likely to be pathologised.
Poets are a special case: the poetic license is a day-pass from the asylum. Yeats is allowed to be silly, because poetry is not required to make sense. And to the extent that Berger’s writing about the dead is discussed, there is an attempt to qualify it as poetry. ‘The first eleven parts of this essay on the dead are purely lyrical,’ writes Ron Slate of ‘Twelve theses on the economy of the dead.’ (The final part is sectioned off, presumably because ‘the dehumanisation of society by capitalism’ is hardly a lyric theme.)
Part of the problem is that our culture lacks a developed discourse about metaphysics. We still have religion, but in Europe it has been privatised, while in America — where it persists in a public form — it has been largely bastardised into pseudo-science by those who mistake Genesis for a physics and biology textbook. And so, if I talk about the seriousness of Berger’s sense of the dead, this will be misheard: people will think I mean the kind of para-scientific assertions about communication with the dead made by Spiritualism. What characterises such assertions, however, is their claim to direct knowledge: it is in this sense that they mimic science, posing as the colonisation of the unknown. What Berger has to say about the dead is a cohabitation with mystery, not an attempt to enclose or eliminate it. It rests on two assumptions: that the set of things which exist is larger than the set of things which may be talked about directly; and that things which may not be talked about directly, may nonetheless be approached indirectly.
Let us step back for a moment, onto easier ground. John Berger writes about death, again and again. There are essays on the deaths of his friend and mentor Ernst Fischer, his neighbours François, Georges and Amélie, the poet Mayakovsky, the sculptor Zadkine; on a photograph of the corpse of Che Guevara; on drawing his father’s body in its coffin and on his final conversations with his mother. These may be personal accounts, but they are not the occasional pieces which many writers offer in tribute to loved ones; rather, they contain the heart of his thinking.
‘The day before yesterday a friend of mine killed himself by blowing his brains out,’ begins a piece in which he goes on to write about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It is in this text that he first voices the idea of the storyteller as ‘Death’s secretary,’ death as the organising principle which makes sense of a life. Most stories, he says, begin with a death, and this is true of his own fiction. His most beautiful novel, To the Wedding (1995), is a love story in which a young woman learns that she is going to die, turns away her lover, only for him — slowly — to convince her that her coming death does not cancel out their love. The characters of the Into their Labours trilogy, navigating the survival of peasant society into its absorption into the city, are accompanied by the dead and, in some stories, join them: Pig Earth ends with a barn-raising among the dead, Lilac and Flag (1992) with a ship carrying those who have died in the city back to the mountain that stands behind the village.
The autobiographical novel, Here is where we meet (2005), proceeds through a series of encounters with the ghosts of family, friends, lovers and heroes and it is in this book that we find one layer of explanation for the centrality of the dead to Berger’s worldview. He is writing of time spent with his father, before he was six years old, by the river at the bottom of their suburban garden:
Those Saturday afternoons were the beginning of an undertaking my father and I shared until he died, and which now I continue alone… An agreement that he could share with me, as he could with nobody else, the ghost life of his four years of trench warfare, and that he could do so because I already knew them…
We fought about my future with no holds barred and no exchanges possible, yet neither of us forgot for a second during the fight that we shared the secrets of another incommensurable war. By being himself, my father taught me endurance.
After the war, Berger’s father had stayed in the army for another four years, as part of the war graves operation which sought to recover, identify and give dignity to the bodies of the dead. Born in 1926, Berger says of himself, in a poem entitled ‘Self-portrait: 1914–18’, ‘I was born by Very Light and shrapnel / On duckboards / Among limbs without bodies.’ The sense of duty to the dead is the shared undertaking ‘which now I continue alone.’
Yet, as Berger insists in perhaps his best known line, ‘Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ So there are other layers of explanation, other partial answers. The endurance learned from his father is also a key term in his description of his peasant teachers. Walking in the mountains, Berger tells Marzorati:
Here you sense how close the peasant lives to the reality of death… What I mean is that the peasant keeps the dead alive. The dead are with him, constantly recalled. Which is to say that history is alive for the peasant as it is not for others.
Now, we are returning to the mystery, because we must confront a question which has a deep bearing on Berger’s stance towards the people among whom he has lived. The peasant worldview, as he describes it, lives publicly and matter-of-factly with the company of the dead, in a way which stands outside what is socially acceptable as reality among grown-ups in civilised conversation. In relation to these two approaches to reality, where does Berger place himself?
In Pig Earth, he acknowledges that he and his family ‘remain strangers who have chosen to live here.’ Among the things they do not have in common with the peasant families around them is religion. (Though, elsewhere, Berger describes himself as ‘croyant’, a believer: ‘I hate most churches, but that’s a different thing.’) The question, however, is not whether he shares their beliefs, but what attitude he takes towards them. Does he carry with him to the mountains, however politely he keeps it to himself, the civilised assumption that these are obsolescent superstitions? Or does he meet his neighbours on equal terms?
The man who emerges from the essays, the stories, the interviews, could only do the latter. Like the anthropologist Hugh Brody, whose work he admires, Berger is incapable of treating people as relics or as marginal. Rather, he encounters them as his contemporaries, dwelling at the centre of their own worlds.
This attitude had always been accompanied by a quest for historical understanding, as he writes in A Seventh Man:
To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its centre. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment.
But there is a shift, which seems to date from the start of his ‘second education’, his initiation into this other ‘constellation of sense and value’. Increasingly, history and experience are consciously set in relation to something else, an explicitly metaphysical dimension. In his most intimate book, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (1984) — seemingly a collection of love letters — he frames this in terms of the changing understanding of death, once thought of as ‘the companion of life’:
Time was death’s agent and one of life’s constituents. But the timeless — that which death could not destroy — was another. All cyclic views of time held these two constituents together… The mainstream of modern thought has removed time from this unity and transformed it into a single, all-powerful and active force.
This reassertion of ‘the intractable’, ‘the timeless’ unbalances the dominance of history in conventional Marxist thought, and tips in favour of the specific — the present moment, rather than the anticipated future — which Berger’s painterly attention and ethical instincts had always leaned towards. ‘Let’s take our bearings within another time-set,’ he writes, twenty years later. ‘The eternal, according to Spinoza is now.’
All of this constitutes, among other things, a subtle deconstruction of the concept of progress in Marxism. Revolution — a word which always suggested the cyclical rather than the linear — is now conceived as including ‘a break-out from the prison of modern time.’ Yet this does not affect the existing obligations of resistance.
‘Suppose,’ he suggests to his comrades at the Transnational Institute, ‘that we… say that we are not living in a world in which it is possible to construct something approaching heaven-on-earth, but, on the contrary are living in a world whose nature is far closer to that of hell; what difference would this make to any single one of our political or moral choices?’ None at all, he answers: ‘All that would have changed would be the enormity of our hopes and finally the bitterness of our disappointments.’
The same love letters in which the politics of time first comes to the fore are also the source of Berger’s most direct, personal and uncanny writing about the presence of the dead. Over a page and a half, he describes the faces which appear before him when he shuts his eyes. ‘I related this experience once to a friend,’ he says — and here, too, it is related as experience, not as fiction or parable or metaphor.
The face looks straight at me and without words, by the expression of the eyes alone, it affirms the reality of its existence. As if my gaze had called out a name, and the face, by returning it, was answering, ‘Present!’
At the end of this passage, he says simply, ‘They belong to the past because they are the dead and I know this by the way they look at me… with something approaching recognition.’
I do not believe that I can convince you as to what John Berger may or may not believe about the dead. All I invite you to do is dwell with that passage — find the book and read it in full — and consider whether or not he is being serious in describing it as ‘experience’. Consider, moreover, how different the world might feel if one were to take such an experience seriously, without claiming anything more than a partial ability to explain it.
I am sure that Berger understands the difficulty that we are having here. As he — well, the narrator, but you know what I mean — says in Here is where we meet, ‘I risk to write nonsense these days.’ It is true: we risk to write nonsense when we attempt to acknowledge that reality may not be limited to things which do, or even could, make sense.
3. The luxury of nihilism
“Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life.”
If, as I have suggested, Berger’s writing is underpinned by a metaphysical position beyond the Pale of civilised modernity (or, for that matter, almost anyone else’s brand of Marxism), this could sound like a particularly extreme version of the escapism with which he has sometimes been charged. What I want to emphasise, then, is the context from which his position emerges, because it seems to me that such attitudes to reality may prove to be more enduring and more useful than is generally anticipated in our age of global disruption — and that the opposite may be true of many positions generally assumed to be more advanced, civilised, modern or any of the other terms by which the way some of us happen to see the world today implies its superiority over the ways that people have seen it in other times and places.
Because, whatever we make of Berger’s ways of seeing the dead, they do not belong with that form of belief in ‘life after death’ which seeks to distract from or justify present suffering. ‘I’ve always put life before writing,’ he tells his mother’s ghost. (‘Don’t boast,’ she tells him.) And the man who emerges through these texts is committed to the question of how to live — and how to live well, in the aesthetic and the ethical (which is to say, the political) sense of the word. Specifically, he is driven to explore this question from the perspectives of those whose lives take place outside the walls whose building he sees as ‘the essential activity of the rich today.’ (Physical walls, as in Palestine, but also walls of unseeing: in the end, Berger’s allegiance to the poor is inseparable from his insistence on the importance of seeing, for — he tells us — only the poor can afford to see the world as it really is.)
In the process, it seems to me, his philosophical project — not a systematic philosophy, but an improvised, jugaad philosophy — is to test our ways of seeing the world, to find those which will hold up against the extremes of human experience.
Nihilism, in its contemporary sense, is the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit, considered as the end-all of social activity, so that, precisely: everything has its price. Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice. But not one to which the poor often succumb.
Nihilism, it seems — and, perhaps, other positions characterised by a metaphysical vacuum — can only be sustained when backed up by a high standard of material living and the accompanying distractions. Beyond the walls, other ways of seeing do better. The harshness of life for the majority of the world is documented with unflinching anger in his latest essays, but a kind of hope — or, at least, an ‘undefeated despair’ — remains in people’s ‘ingenuity for getting by, their refusal of frontiers… their adoration of children… their belief in continuity, their recurring acknowledgement that life’s gifts are small and priceless.’
Berger is not concerned with advising those in the rich world who fear the collapse of their way of living. Yet, in another sense, I think he saw all this coming a long way off. Because there is an ambiguity in his explanations of his decision to go and live among peasants. At times, as in the Marzorati interview, he speaks of bearing witness to the elimination of a way of life:
You cannot imagine the fatigue and the hardening. No one would wish that traditional peasant life continue exactly as it is. One would wish it to change. But change how? Is the answer simply progress? Does anyone still believe progress solves everything, eliminates all problems and contradictions?
The fact is that progress, as it dawned in the Enlightenment and developed in the 19th century, has not paid off on all its promises. And now, a culture, the culture of peasants, a culture that might help us to reassess ‘progress’ — this culture is simply being eliminated, or at least allowed to disappear.
Yet this is balanced, elsewhere, with a sense of the potential resilience of this culture, as in the essay which comes at the end of Pig Earth:
If one looks at the likely future course of world history… the peasant experience of survival may well be better adapted to this long and harsh perspective than the continually reformed, disappointed, impatient progressive hope of an ultimate victory.
In contrast to the ‘serviced limbo’ of the citizen, the ‘unprotected’ peasant knows how to ‘wrest some meaning and continuity from a cycle of remorseless change.’ Such a capacity for wresting meaning from the uncontrollable is, for me, at the heart of the cultural challenge laid down by the Dark Mountain Project. And reading that passage, I can’t help feeling that Berger’s journey to the mountains was not so much a retreat from history, as a long bet on the endurance of those people he defines as ‘a class of survivors.’ With their refusal of belief in progress, they remain — for him — history’s last best hope.
In this, he has much in common with Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN, a man with whom he has met and corresponded, and of whose writing he once said, ‘[it] combines modesty with unflinching excess.’
The excess is not that of political extremism… The excess comes from their conviction (which personally I accept completely) that they also represent the dead, all the maltreated dead — the dead who are less forgotten in Mexico than anywhere else in the world.
It takes one to know one, as they say.
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