Writer, art critic, and general cultural giant John Berger passed away last night, the occasion for us to revisit his life and work in an interview we originally published for his 90th birthday last November. We spoke with Yasmin Gunaratnam about his lasting influence and A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger, a collection she edited with Amarjit Chandan.
To attempt to define John Berger as a writer is notoriously tricky. Beyond his Booker Prize-winning novel G. and the seminal Ways of Seeing (1972) — both a television series and a book of essays, it’s worth noting —, his output is also defined by poetry, plays, and studies, most of which are characterized in one way or another by a degree of aesthetic theorizing, along with a dose of political and social commentary.
As even a cursory glance at A Jar of Wild Flowers makes clear, his influence is just as wide-reaching as his work. The collection, published earlier this month by Zed, features artists, activists, and academics (from Ali Smith to Ram Rahman) as they grapple with his thought. We caught up with its editor, Yasmin Gunaratnam, Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, so she could take us through the book, and offer precious insight into the lasting importance of John Berger
Tell me about A Jar of Wildflowers. How did the idea come about?
The idea came from John’s friend, the poet Amarjit Chandan. Amarjit had wanted to put together a collection for John’s 90th birthday, but hadn’t been able to find anyone to develop the project with him. I heard about his plans during an interview with Amarjit that my colleague Nirmal Puwar had set up in the summer of 2015. So we began talking about what the collection might look like and how it would be different. We were pretty clear early on that it wouldn’t be a sort of gushing retrospective. We also wanted to reach beyond what Nirmal calls in her essay “the European fraternity.” So you’ll find that several of our authors are testing out (rather than taking at face value) Andy Merrifield’s claim that John’s ‘poetic humanism’ speaks out “over distances and across cultures.”
What was the process of putting it together like?
I should say that it wasn’t easy to get a contract for this type of book. It crosses genres and it was always going to be a big book. There are over 35 essays in the collection, by artists, activists, translators and scholars, so you can imagine that bringing this number and range of people together, and in a relatively short space of time, was demanding. Lots of burning the midnight oil for everyone!
The very first essay that came in was from Ambalavaner Sivanandan. It talks about John’s early support of Siva’s London-based Institute of Race Relations in 1974. This was a couple of years after John had won the Booker Prize for his novel G. The Institute at that time was struggling financially. In trying to maintain independence from government and big business, workers had ‘overthrown’ the Board of Management and its chairman. John and his wife, Beverly, heard about what was going on, came down to the Institute and offered Siva a pre-publication excerpt from A Seventh Man for the Institute’s journal Race and Class. John went on to encourage Siva to write and find a publisher for his first novel When Memory Dies. It’s a story that captures the kind of spirited defiance and generosity that flows through what John does on and off the public stage.
There’s also a gorgeous piece by Rema Hammami, a Palestinian scholar and poet who translated Mahmoud Darwish’s long poem Mural with John. And the photographer Jean Mohr, who has worked with John on several projects, sent in a moving tribute to their over 40-year partnership that describes how they met and first came to collaborate on the book A Fortunate Man in the late 1960s.
As well as these stories from friends and collaborators, there are pieces from people who have never met John, but have been working with his ideas. So there are essays from Chile, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka on the role of images in activist campaigns and transitional justice. John’s writing on art and photography and how the meaning of an image is impoverished as it moves between the private and the public has interested these writers. Heather Vrana, for example, looks at the photographs of Guatemalan Mauro Calanchina who covered student protests in the 1970s and 1980s.
What is it about John Berger that makes him so influential today?
I’ve thought about this same question quite a lot over the past few months. John’s an incredible writer and storyteller, that’s for sure. Because he’s not hemmed in by disciplinary categories and loyalties, he has this terrific, free-range imagination. I mean who else sees a bowl of fruit and thinks about how fruit is remembered by the dead, how the wrinkles in a peach bring to mind “the warm skin in the fold of a dark arm”? But there’s more to it than this. If we move past the reverie that every reader experiences with John’s writing and way with words, there’s an irrepressible hopefulness in what he does. So there’s a no-nonsense, unapologetic world-building going on, which insists that there can be a better, more generous and just world. A world without real and emotional walls, fences, and checkpoints. This is crucial to John the storyteller, and his imperative of trying to create ‘another way of telling.’ So he’s always working to produce counter-cultural narratives with others and in places such as Palestine where simply to exist and to go about the daily business of living is deemed to be a profound threat to the state, the family and the newly-fabricated citizen. In many ways this sense of besiegement and fear of the other stands in for a much wider contemporary sensibility that we can see unfolding at the moment across class, gender and often racial divides.
Sometimes the most radical gesture you can make in these circumstances is to assert the ordinary and the beautiful. Tania Nasir Tamari gives an example of the latter in her epistolary essay ‘You Came and Never Left’ when she remembers John’s note to Palestinian students demonstrating in Ramallah in October 2015. John sent them Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5. “I had to smile,” Tania says in her letter to John, “For I could see you, together with Beethoven, two tall, dashing giants, marching with the youth of Palestine, arms raised, voices resounding, calling for the end of occupation, an end to the colonization of Palestine.”
Having said all of this, it’s important not to get too carried away when we talk about John’s influence. The opportunity to access, read, to look, listen, write, and show can’t be taken for granted. In her piece on the ‘Danger of Ways of Seeing in Pakistan,’ Salima Hashimi recounts, with great wit, being summoned before the Board of Governors of her College in the early 1980s. She was being investigated as part of an inquiry into “accusations made against some of the faculty members who were deemed to be propagating profane ideas through their lectures and studio projects.” Salima’s crime was screening Ways of Seeing for her students. That the films came via the British Council saved Hashimi in the end. As she puts it: “I was apparently in the clear because the British Council, as a responsible extension of Her Majesty’s Government, could not possibly be involved in any disingenuous educational activity, which could lead young people astray.”
Has John Berger taught you a different manner of looking at art? And, if so, in what way?
What he’s taught me is to look for a story in art, to try and understand as much I can about the context and the process of making an artwork and to tune into what an image triggers in me. His perspective on the conditions in which art is produced and how these might make their way onto the canvas has always been provocative. I suppose most people will have some experience of this through Ways of Seeing, which he made with Mike Dibb. I use the films and the book with my students at Goldsmiths. We talk about how what we see and the ways we see are not neutral or natural but historically and culturally honed. The episode on the male gaze is such a powerful demonstration of how John has transformed a conventional reading of art. What John identified in the continuities between oil paintings — some as early as the 15th century — and modern advertising opened my eyes to the cultural history and politics of looking that lies behind the European male gaze.
To come back to your question about John’s way of looking at art, the German writer and one of John’s translators Hans Jürgen Balmes gives a wonderful example of what I mean by John teaching me to look for a story in art. In the essay Hans describes a visit with John to a museum (Am Römerholz) in Winterthur, Switzerland. They were standing in front of a Goya painting of slabs of salmon. John became enthralled with one detail of the still life — the color of the salmon’s flesh. At the time when Goya was painting (1808-12), Madrid was under siege and there was no food in the city, so the fish that Goya painted were entirely imagined. “Do you note the red trace of blood?” John asked Hans. “In a fish shop that would be a most uncomfortable detail, but here it is the point where hunger breaks through the pink.” What an astounding interpretation! I mean it completely changes how you see that image. Of course there are risks involved in moving between the singularity of an artwork and your own feelings and interpretations. And because of the sorts of stories and conversations that John tries to create, he does sometimes fly close to the sun. In fact, these risks are the stuff of his work. “To separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator,” he has said, “is to stay on dry land and never put to sea…”
It seems there are two sides to John Berger, one artistic, the other political; yet the essays continually appear to reinforce the notion that these two are, in him at least, one and the same. Do you agree, and how do you think that is?
Yes — though John, I am certain, would refuse the divide between art and politics. With his beloved philosopher Spinoza he sees life as interconnected so there’s no contradiction for him in drawing from the worlds of politics, philosophy, literature, poetry, film, and art. We can also understand more about his approach by taking account of those who have influenced his thinking. In Tom Overton’s recently edited collection of John’s writings, Landscapes, the first section of the book is given over to key figures such as Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Gabriel García Márquez whose work has been a touchstone for John. There are also essays on lesser-known people, several of whom were Jewish political refugees and were crucial to John’s intellectual and political formation in postwar London. Among them were the art historian Frederick Antal and the writer Ernst Fischer. I get the impression that these were individuals from whom John could see and feel how art was politics and vice versa. He very much learnt from their example how it was possible to live life differently, without much money and without having to court the establishment.
It’s relatively easy to see John’s politics in obvious places, like when he’s writing about incarceration or the experience of exile and migration. But there is also politics in how John ekes out and listens for marginalized voices and for different ways of living together. These can often be stories or ways of life that are disappearing or have become extinct. His attentiveness to alternative cosmologies is there in all of his writing and pops up in surprising places. John was one of the first people, apart from the scientists, who were allowed into the Chauvet cave in south-east France.
Kathryn Yusoff quotes a fantastic line in her piece: “The precondition for thinking politically on a global scale is to see the unity of unnecessary suffering taking place.” How do you see that idea, and Marxism in general, in relation to Berger’s work?
I love that essay by Kathryn because she carves out such an interesting path through John’s writing, based on her personal connections to his work. When Kathryn emphasizes the need to think in global terms about the “the unity of unnecessary suffering,” it seems to me that she’s thinking across two levels at once, about the need to recognize the local while also dismantling the barriers that try to keep different forms of suffering separate. So it’s an exact mirror image of what we are seeing unravelling on the world stage at this moment in the aftermath of Brexit and with the new era of Trumpism, which is about a retreat into isolationism and nativism and the peddling of a fantasy of a pecking order of disconnected injustices.
I do think that the notion of thinking globally about solidarity has something to do with John’s Marxism, that tradition of naming and unmasking exploitation and suffering which exists alongside the sensual, utopian Marx. The coming together of these in John’s work is all the more creative because of the sheer range of what he covers. His keen sense for the untold story can whisk you away to so many different places and to lives in which suffering is normalized and accepted as inevitable.
But don’t take my word on John’s extraordinary range. If you want proof, try this experiment. Go into your local bookshop and ask where you can find books by John Berger. They will be all over the place, in the poetry section, in art, literature, politics, sociology and, as I found out the other day, under ‘aesthetics’ in philosophy. Somewhere along the line, whether you’ve registered it consciously, and whether you like it or not, John Berger has spoken to something in your life. This brings us full circle to your earlier question about John’s enduring influence. For me, he continues to be influential because he continues to be relevant.