Between Salvage and Silvershades: John Berger and What's Left
Pfeil, Fred, TriQuarterly
I discovered John Berger's work twenty years ago now, beginning with his masterpiece G.; and took him as the model for the committed writer I wanted to become.
"Committed" writer, "committed" writing: the very word is apt to seem quaint or even arcane today. But for me back then, just out of school and jobbing around in my early twenties, it seemed there might be a space in the national culture for writing that was both politically and formally progressive. After all, the FBI, CIA and Nixon were, each and all, in disgrace; the U.S. was finally giving up in Vietnam; new or newly mobilized constituencies of women and minorities were opening things up inside the Democratic Party and out on the streets; and in the first half of the decade there were more wildcat strikes than at any time since the heroic days of 1932-36. Still more promising was the general cultural climate such official events fed off and into, of revulsion for the deal as it went down plus the liminal sense that it just might be put together differently. In this roiling medium of jaundice, frustration and utopian desire I both found myself as a writer and politically came of age, through a set of personal circumstances which don't matter here. What does is my encounter with Berger's writing, starting with G. in 73 and stretching on through the rest of the decade; and that matters both in terms of what I wanted and what I mistook.
What I wanted, first of all, was to have the freedom Berger exercised to be both artist and intellectual, to range across fiction, nonfiction and film, and meld imagination with analysis in each; no other writer I could think of at the time, and certainly no American writer, seemed interested in even trying to be a writer like that. But I also wanted to perceive the way Berger could, and to have the forms and language with which to re-present that kind of perception. No one reading Berger's great works of the sixties and early seventies -- the art criticism of The Moment of Cubism, his film scripts for La Salamandre and Le Milieu du Monde, and A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr's stunning photo-text on the "guest workers" of Europe -- will be able to forget or ignore that distinctive movement of language and mind through which the intimate daily particular or isolated datum, seized and held up close to the eyes, blooms astonishingly out towards an abstraction that envelopes it briefly then vanishes as the narrative or argument picks up and moves ahead. Then there's G. itself, the novel in which Berger makes the marginally aristocratic nineteenth-century Don Juan of the title an incarnation of class and gender inequality, a displaced figure from mass struggles always going on elsewhere -- yet also the distorted figure of a utopian freedom not yet ours. Meditative yet committed, didactic and lyrical, Berger uses the characters and story lines of G. as raw melodic material for a host of variations, ranging from the meaning of political demonstrations and the phenomenology of imperialism to explorations of his own related dreams. The result is a giant gorgeous fugue of history and desire, a Marxist mobile built to dance in a revolutionary wind to come.
In my own work, then, I wanted to set up the same sort of left-modernist montage, to arc the gaps between technological and artistic innovation, existentialism and politics, just like my hero could, and even, really, to learn to compose sentences in the same style of lapidary assertion. ("The felt space of a life's time may be represented by a circle." "Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.")(1) That I would eventually give up on the latter aim and do something else instead is amply demonstrated by the preceding sentence -- or, for that matter, by this one as well. More to the point, though, and in hindsight, I can see now how my initial devotion to Berger failed to credit both the location of his work within postwar European left-humanist culture, and the effect on that tradition and Berger's vision alike of the wreck of Europe's own 1960s in the repressions of 1969-73. …