If one of the functions of writing is to make the reader see, and see again, here is a brief list of what John Berger made visible. Paintings, photographs, advertisements, motorcycles, swimming pools, the aging body, migrating workers, and mass demonstrations; the intricate pattern of colors in the roads of Lisbon; the shit of cows in the French Alps. And always, politics as something tangible in its effect on people, animals, objects, and writing itself.
Berger, who had turned ninety in November, died in Paris on January 2, leaving behind an oeuvre as distinctively his own as the things he wrote about, a vast corpus of fiction, essays, histories, plays, films, and collaborations, an energetic, messy sprawl that can sometimes be hard to make sense of, especially in its palpable sense of principled opposition to the contemporary idea of the writer as entrepreneur.
Berger’s early book Ways of Seeing, which began life as an underfunded BBC television program, built upon his initial career as a painter and an art critic. The critical sensibility Berger pioneered in Ways of Seeing, with its foregrounding of gender, class, consumerism, and capitalism within the context of western art, can seem relatively familiar from our perspective. Whether it is his discussion of the male voyeurism prevalent in the painting of nudes or what he called, in a typically wonderful turn of phrase, the “bogus religiosity” that surrounds original works of art, “the final, empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture,” we can translate Berger’s insights easily enough into contemporary concerns.
What has travelled less well, perhaps, is Berger’s interest in the visual objects of high culture themselves, his fascination with Cézanne and the Impressionists or, later on, with Caravaggio, whom he saw as “the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back streets,” and in whose paintings he saw a technique he could apply to his own work as a writer. Even the idea that high art and its reception can be liberated from the realm of the elite by locating it within its material circumstances seems to place Berger as the last in a particular line of British Marxism that includes George Orwell (the directness of whose prose is a forerunner to Berger’s) and the Welsh scholar Raymond Williams (who took literary forms like the “country house poem” and put them within the context of land and labor relations). It contains, at its heart, a western, post-war optimism that it seems impossible to share today.
If a prize encouraged conformity, it merely reinforced capitalism’s vision of society as nothing more than a division between winners and losers.
Yet in other ways, Berger was so prescient that we haven’t quite caught up with him. If his acceptance speech on receiving the Booker prize for his novel G, in 1972, began doing the rounds on the internet in the aftermath of his death, it is for reasons other than that of mere sentimentality. Pointing out Booker McConnell’s long legacy of colonial exploitation in the Caribbean, Berger gave half his prize money to the Black Panthers in Britain. A prize could be useful if it stimulated independence, questioning, and a search for alternatives, he went on to say. If it encouraged conformity, it merely reinforced a conventional idea of success, of capitalism’s vision of society as nothing more than a division between winners and losers.
Yet Berger’s performance of defiance (contemporary examples are hard to come by; one thinks of Arundhati Roy using her Lannan Foundation award to support radical social movements in India, or of Namwali Serpell sharing her prize money for the Caine Prize for African Writing with all the shortlisted writers) didn’t end with the money he gave away. Even the half he kept pioneered a new project, an account, in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, of migrant workers in Europe and the families left behind in their countries of origin.
Berger’s understanding of forced migration, of its implications for the modern world, and for the writer choosing to portray that world, was unusually prescient, capable of grasping its past colonial antecedents as well as the future iterations that have produced the pustular symptoms of Brexit and Donald Trump’s wall. A year after he won the Booker, Berger settled down in the village of Quincy in the French Alps, where he remained until he moved, near the very end of his life, to a suburb of Paris. His intentions were to immerse himself in the rhythms of the agricultural life that often lies at the lost end of migration. It would result, among other works, in his fiction trilogy, Into Their Labours, two collections of stories and a novel that traced, over two decades, the transformation of independent peasants into migrant labor adrift in alien cities, a relentless process that still goes on, furthered now by private capital, authoritarian governments, climate change, and resource wars, by the powerful idea that the only alternative to modernizing in the ways demanded by capitalism is to be subject to a kind of evolutionary extinction.
In such a world where everything seemingly wants to be money, Berger rebelled with joy in order to point out the more important things.
Against this extinction, Berger practiced a kind of immersion, in community, in family, in friendship, and in collaboration, that gave him depth without ever narrowing his vision. He offered, through example, a model for living freely and honorably, something one can get a glimpse of in the recent documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger by Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton, and Christopher Roth (and which should be seen, in a sort of Berger celebration, in conjunction with Alain Tanner’s moving feature film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, which Tanner co-wrote with Berger). His writing offered, in parallel, an aesthetic model that remains utopian in its love for rebels (artists, lovers, migrants, workers, gardeners, cooks), lingering over the wealth of texture in the world while blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction in a manner that has asserted its influence over writers as different as Arundhati Roy, Geoff Dyer, and Teju Cole.
“You are worried,” one of Berger’s contrarian farmers says, in the story, “The Value of Money,” to a tax inspector he has kidnapped. “I regret to have to tell you that there is a tax to pay on worry! There’s also a tax to pay on pain and a tax on shivering. A thousand francs a shiver!” The farmer, Marcel, is only throwing back at the taxman the absurd logic of the modern world, its taxes and its percentages, its instrumental grinding away at the relationships we try to form with our selves, with each other, with animals, with nature, and even with death. In such a world where everything seemingly wants to be money, Berger rebelled with joy in order to point out the more important things. As he put it in his Booker acceptance speech, “in the end—as well as in the beginning, clarity is more important than money.”