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Bento and Berger

rsz_flower_66.jpg In which it is claimed that the practice of drawing can lead two thinkers centuries apart into a new symbiosis opening the way to political transformation. But what kind of transformation? Book review
Susan James
12 January 2012

John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook.  Verso, 2011. 167pp. 

John Berger, From A to X. A Story in Letters. Verso, 2008. 197pp.

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In Bento’s Sketchbook, John Berger interweaves his own drawings, reflections and narratives with quotations from Spinoza’s Ethics. A picture of a Japanese brush accompanies a poignant story about a Cambodian painter whom Berger gets to know at his local swimming pool, and is juxtaposed with Spinoza’s discussion of the way we experience events that are comparatively far in the past or future: ‘we refer them all, as it were, to one moment of time’.  

A drawing of a dancer holding the Bridge pose is set alongside an explication of its creation and meaning, followed again by Spinoza: ‘we sense and experience that we are eternal’.  Linking these recurring elements together is an old story that Spinoza (or Bento, as Berger calls him) kept a sketchbook, prompting Berger’s wish to reread ‘some of Spinoza’s startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes’.  But the project also unleashes a grander symbiosis.  ‘As time goes by, the two of us – Bento and I – become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.’

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Berger’s sense of inhabiting Spinoza seems to derive from his attachment to four central Spinozist themes:  that what we usually think of as independent individual things are really just modes or aspects of a single whole, and are constantly affecting and being affected by one another; that any individual mode, whether a human being or a poppy, is one body and one mind among others, involved in a continual exchange of motions and ideas with other bodies and minds; that as we learn to see the world as it is, we become increasingly attuned to the features of it that are unchanging or eternal; and that this process of extending our understanding is collective as well as individual, political as well as philosophical. These claims are in some ways hard to reconcile, but Berger steps lightly over the difficulties.  Explicitly in Bento’s Notebook, and implicitly in From A to X, he relies on them to generate a blurry yet inspiring image of political transformation.  

As a guide to philosophical understanding, Spinoza argues, our everyday experience is seriously misleading.  Suppressing or ignoring the interactions that bind individuals together into a whole, we encounter the world as a realm of discrete objects and we systematically misinterpret which properties belong to what.  To gain a more accurate grasp of ourselves and our environment, we have to correct these misrepresentations; and drawing, Berger suggests, is one of the tools we can use.   When one draws one becomes aware of the relationship between hand, pen and paper, and attentive to the desires that flow from artist to subject and back again.   A presence emerges, ready to be questioned.  With line, light and shadow one must find a way to represent the relationships through which an object is constituted, and ultimately a way to convey something of its eternal nature.  As Berger puts it, with an uncharacteristic touch of pomposity, ‘we who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.’  

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The ‘we’ is important. Berger’s drawings are often created as gifts, expressive of the lasting or ephemeral relationships with other people through which he evokes the texture of his own life.  Many of his sketches depict faces, each carrying the traces of earlier interactions and destined to pass on something of itself to those who encounter it.  Seen like this, drawings belong within a narrative and, like the narrative itself, are shared.  Narratives make us what we are, Berger implies, and in making them we remake ourselves.  In A to X (which also contains drawings, this time of hands), an isolated political prisoner writes terse, despairing notes on the back of letters that his lover A’ida sends to keep him alive.  She retells their past. (‘Agree to this version?’)  She brings him the missing world.  (‘Make no mistake about it, it wasn’t the blue of any sky, it was the blue of small ripe plums.  And their blue is what I send you in your cell tonight as I write in the dark.’)  She strives to empower him. (‘When they next confiscate everything from you, tell yourself, my on-the-ground-lion, the story of how we flew in the CAP 10B.  Listen to my voice telling it.  Our two versions will be one then.’)  Representing their two separated bodies and minds as a whole, A’ida practices on a small scale what both Spinoza and Berger regard as a potentially transformative kind of politics, capable of riding out uncertainty and dealing in communities as well as individuals.

Coming to understand oneself as part of the whole that Spinoza calls God or substance brings with it a radically altered grasp of time.  Rather than focusing on individual objects, each with its own limited duration, one is meant to grasp the aspects of the world that are eternal or unchanging until, at the limit, one’s own mind becomes part of the eternal mind of God.  

Spinoza thus allows for a sense in which one can survive bodily destruction and become eternal, but only at the cost of one’s individuality.  Something survives; but it is not one’s self.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Berger seems both attracted and repelled by this culminating doctrine of the Ethics, which part of him sees as a recipe for madness.  To be deprived of any temporal reference point would be a form of torment.  ‘Géricault, in his piteous mad portrait of the mad woman in the Paris hospital of La Salpetriere (painted in 1819 or 1820), revealed this haggard look of absence, the gaze of someone banished from duration.’

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And yet a deep desire to circumnavigate our everyday temporal perspective runs through both Berger’s books. ‘What was essential’, he writes of a particular friendship, ‘was another sense of time which could accommodate both the long term (centuries) and the urgent (half past two tomorrow afternoon).  Here again, narrative is a vital tool. ‘Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless.’ 

Making something indelible brings it within the realm of memory, opposing it to the forgotten; and it is the forgotten, so A’ida remarks to her lover, that is the opposite of the eternal.  For Berger, then, eternity goes with remembering.  We make things eternal by inscribing them in history and ensuring that they can be heard.  But while this is surely an attractive view, it distorts Spinoza’s analysis of time.  In the Ethics, remembering belongs to the realm of everyday experience and is indissolubly linked to narrative.  A grasp of eternity, however, is the fruit of a distinctively philosophical kind of understanding, which shifts our attention away from transitory particulars and focuses it on the unchanging or divine.  On this vital point, it seems to me, Bento and Berger not only remain distinct.  They go their separate ways.  

All images are © Verso except last, which is a photograph by Rama of an original painting by Théodore Géricault

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