John Berger, witness to the human condition (1926-2017)

He sought to protect and if necessary salvage humanity from the inhumanity of consumer capitalism. This gives all his work the quality of resistance. Defiant resistance in the face of likely defeat.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 January 2017
Oysters in Paris. John Berger and Anthony Barnett. Some rights reserved.

Oysters in Paris. John Berger and Anthony Barnett. Some rights reserved. (Photo Judith Herrin).

The world is a much colder place. A source of indefatigable energy has completed its physical life. The fires John lit in so many of us will live on. None with his intensity.

John’s laughter, over a table, down the phone, filled your lungs. Accompanying its shared pleasure there was always the thrill of menace. His wicked intelligence and extra-ordinary sensitivity could tumble your own perception. And you grew. Anyone he engaged with enjoyed a conspiracy of discovery with him. A sprinkle of his attention could make people blossom. Also his pauses: no one paused better than John. Or could give what, for you or me, would be a passing word such careful hesitation. He could consider an “and” for what seemed like minutes as if he was a nervous shopper uncertain that an apple was ripe but unable to put it down.

He is inside me. Since I got to know him in the early seventies the steel of his judgment, the resilience of his politics, the tenderness of his attention, has shaped my own. He showed me how to take grapes from a bunch, to cook and eat artichokes, to breathe before performing, to open oysters and later, to chop wood.

How the two of us struggled, hands sore, opening oysters in Paris without oyster knives! Now we have a new home and Judith just bought a dozen oysters for 1 January. We had not had any since we moved in. While I opened them we talked about John. When we sat down, I said “I feel we have finally arrived”. As we set their thick, rocky shells, with their exquisite, pearl-like layered insides, and gentle, almost flowering bodies resting on them, between us, on a plate of ice and lemon, without our knowing it was the night John lay dying.

A few, immediate stories.

When John was called up by the army in 1944, aged 18, he was sent to Northern Ireland on an officers’ training course. He may have run away from his St Edwards boarding school that he hated but he was still ‘officer material’. After he had went through the course he informed those in charge that he would refuse a commission. He was not a pacifist but he did not want to become an officer. They took their revenge by making him a corporal and ordering him to take the trainee officers through the course, time and again, for the rest of his two years. I think of him running with heavy weapons, crawling through the mud, dealing with the reactions of the upper-class boys. It made him extremely fit and strong. It may have saved his life too, as many of those from his initial training course were to be sent to the front line of the invasion of Normandy.

The experience also gave John a route out of England’s ridiculous and then very confined class system. It meant he knew, from experience, that he was more than the equal to the upper class while he shared something of what it could be like to be a young, working class man who had to suffer their shit. He became an outsider to the system who carried no chip on his shoulder – it gave him a rare social purity in post-war Britain.

John was a Communist. He was the only true Communist I have ever known and perhaps the only true Communist there ever was after 1945. That’s to say, a Marxist revolutionary who supported the Soviet Union but whose soul and integrity was untouched by Stalinism. It is hard to communicate the horrible pressures of the mid-century domestic cold war on anyone who supported the Soviet Union against the west. The existence of Communists was tolerated if closely spied upon in Britain. Any attempt to break out into larger influence was ruthlessly stifled whenever possible. When, as a critic with a growing reputation writing for the New Statesman, John asked to join the Party, they said that perhaps it would be better for them if he did not. Later, they asked him to join the Party - and he said that perhaps it would be better for them if he did not. Thus, technically, he never was a member of the Communist Party and was never compromised by when he had to leave. That made us laugh. In one of his last political essays he wrote about Rosa Luxembourg. She was his kind of Communist, who warned against the threat of Stalinism that she foresaw. And, of course, with Nella Bielski, John wrote deeply about the Gulag.

In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for G. In his speech, he condemns the way prizes create a culture of competitive celebrity. In those early days, this did not include deciding the prize just before the ceremonial dinner and then announcing it with all the shortlisted present. Instead, to ensure the winner was there, John had been forewarned. That is why his speech is so carefully crafted. You can read it here. He tried it out with me beforehand. He was particularly adamant that, desperately broke though he was at the time, he could not take all the prize money as it had originated in the slave plantations that were the foundation for Booker’s sugar interests. But, as he explains in the speech, he needed funds badly to write what became A Seventh Man, on the migrants in Europe. He announced he would therefore share the prize with the London Black Panthers. After he sat down, George Steiner, who I think was on the jury and must have argued for G, was furious, especially with the cunning way John did not give it all away in a gesture of indifference. “You Leninist”, Steiner snarled. At least, that is the story John told me, with some pleasure.

In everything he did John addressed the human condition. This was his genius. In his novels, his essays or when he wrote about art, he was always exploring aspects of what it means to be human, and the many ways there are of being human. He sought to protect and if necessary salvage and certainly to defend humanity from the inhumanity of consumer capitalism, doing so by revealing the truth of the specific. This gives all his work the quality of resistance. Defiant resistance in the face of likely defeat. The poor, the ill, animals, the prisoner, especially the political prisoner, the migrant, the peasant, the Palestinian: he saw none of them as failures. All in different ways were up against our human fate, so that their experience is the truth of what is being done to us all. He was not sorry for them; it was not a patronising sympathy that he extended. On the contrary he strove to see life through their eyes – as they see truly.

I was never completely convinced. Once he had joined us for a holiday in Italy where we were staying on the outskirts of a village. As we walked through it, there were two mentally disabled men sitting together on a step. Finally, after many years of thinking that I had been completely diplomatic, in my total enthusiasm for his Pig Earth trilogy, I plucked up my courage and said quietly, that there is also such a thing as rural idiocy. He replied, “You know, Anthony, what I admire about you is your patience”. I report this only to demonstrate John’s capacity for tolerance which is not much noted.

When he was talking on the phone about the book that was to become King, he described how he was writing an account of the life of squatters as narrated by an alsatian. “You mean, from the point of view of the underdog?”. He laughed and laughed with delight. He saw the truth as belonging to the poor – it was all they had. I thought of King and its dramatic denouement when the refugee Jungle at Calais was dismantled. Such was his premonition.

We had only one direct disagreement where neither gave way. I did not approve of his writing that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses should be withdrawn. John was right to see Rushdie as part of an elite he himself was in no way comfortable with. But he was wrong to equate the fatwa with the protests of the oppressed that had to be respected, as it was a ukase of the most authoritarian kind that had to be resisted.

When he addressed the human condition, he did so in the most complete way possible. Simon McBurney calls him a philosopher and this is right. But he was against any ‘philosophy’ abstracted from the human condition that it is supposed to address, or formulated for the classroom or university. In his thought, writing and enquiry John, while intensely learned, was utterly hostile to official writing that separates us from the truth of our condition. For the whole of his life, despite the great influence he sought and exercised, he would never join the officer class.

Perhaps the best way to describe how he worked and lived is to say that John sought to be a true witness of the human condition. Which is why he never attempted to create a system, or build a framework that could only get in the way. The act of witnessing joined his writing to his constant drawing and watercolours.

To witness something, whether it be singing, or light, or time, or digging, or a tree, or the nature of sex, or love, or language, or money, it has to pass the only test that matters: that of being shareable – by being shared. Hence John’s love of collaboration. And of images which exist as shared experience. And also of inspiring letter writing in a beautiful hand.

To be a witness is to make something recognisable. This involves a great effort of exploration that leads not to a conclusive definition but to the question that follows an act of discovery: “Is this not so?” With extraordinary fierceness John battled to retain an openness that was never soft and gave him a capacity for listening and compassion that have been widely saluted. Most important was the reaching out. It was fierce and people loved John for it. He ended a form of isolation in many he never met. Those who did meet him often never recovered. Why would you want to?

He could be distracted, but no one could slow down the energy. There was a very tough side to John – an uncompromising, focused self-belief. He was elemental. He had to be, to tackle the human condition in a way that could be shared and therefore changed by being shared. Here is an example of his writing about this, in a essay on the credibility of language:

“One does not look through writing on to reality – as through a clean or dirty windowpane. Words are never transparent. They create their own space, the space of experience, not that of existence. Clarity of the written word has little to do with style as such. A baroque text can be clear; a simple one can be dim. Clarity, in my view, is the gift of the way the space, created by words in a given text, is arranged…. Authenticity in literature does not come from the writer’s personal honesty…. Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience. Its energy is to be found in how one event leads to another. Its mystery is not in the words but on the page.”

The other side of his discussion of language was a lifelong assault on mystification, guff, words intended to still the spirit and steal from the pocket, the infernal noise of consumerism.

Being a witness demanded being accessible and this could lead, sometimes to exaggerations and simplifications that the ‘sophisticated’ could mock. This usually hid an embarrassment at what he revealed and a discomfort with his adamantine contempt for venality and arse-licking. But he did have a weakness for performance. A wonderful reader of his own work especially, he longed to be a singer and tried to act. In this supreme art he seemed to me to be hopeless. There was too much John in him and so he was always John-trying-to-act.

He wrote a short essay, “13 Theses on the Economy of the Dead”, which was contrived. The final one is among the best.

“How do the living regard those who are 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 inter-dependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this inter-dependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.”

John, capitalism is in big trouble and you will not be eliminated.


PS: For a thorough obituary see Tom Overton's in The Telegraph. His account of John's wartime Northern Ireland experience is more accurate than my recollection of what John told me, John trained working class recruits not officers.

Anthony Barnett is writing The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump.

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