Someone Named John Berger Retires From This World

Örsan Karakuş
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I am struggling to form a couple of sentences that have some purpose for days on end. When the subject in question is John Berger, one feels like one is lost inside some enormous jungle. Actually, what bothers me is not getting lost in this jungle; but rather facing the fact that when someone like him is gone, everyone feels the need to write like they have the obligation to say something as if in some unvoiced agreement.

What might be the possibility of coming across John Berger in real life? I guess, what relieves me even a little, is the slight chance of contacting him even through a letter, and the fact that I am aware of this. On the other hand, when I was talking with Şener his words really comforted me: "Don't worry; he was a master who was frequently remembered and mentioned sometimes to the point of excess when he was alive." In this respect, he is a rare person who had the chance to get the respect and attention he deserved not only after his death, but also when he was alive. Therefore, this essay may be considered as an attempt to make some notes to our personal histories as to how we regarded him throughout his life, an attempt to appreciate the things he bestowed us and to show our respect.

I met John Berger when I decided to work with what is visible, but especially with photography, and since then, I've made a point of keeping a close touch with his works. I have read some of his books or parts of his books multiple times, and each time, I relish in discovering something new in his flowing, plain literary style. In an 50-minute program combining interview, documentary and conversation titled "Spectre of Hope" in 2002 which he made with one of my favorite photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, he introduces himself simply as:

John Berger:


Occupation: Author,

Education: Painting

And adds: "I try to put what I see into words."

I find it oddly pleasant that one can tell a life of 90 years and a career that exceeds half a century in a single sentence that plainly and openly but seriously. This man who devoted all his life to the act of "seeing" and all that is associated with it, finally explained it with the help of words, and struggled to remind people of this dulled sense.

When he was only 5, John Berger tells that he observed the world and realized the inequality of it. His mother is striving to make money by making candies, cookies and chocolates to send him to school. In a recollection, Berger tells that a man came to buy 2 bars of chocolate, and when her mother told the price he had to walk out because he came up short on the money. Berger says "I did not judge my mother nor did I judge him for not having enough money," and adds laughing "I was just waiting for Karl Marx."

Although he was never involved with a communist party or similar organizations, John Berger always described himself as a Marxist, and it was not solely some discourse or a decision made upon reading specific works.  He lived a village life in Haute-Savoire in the French Alps for nearly 40 years, and he tells that he has worked with peasants in the fields, trying to do the same work they do as much as he can. And when he was doing it, he was aware of the importance and the power of human labour. Because when he was 16, the period in which he lived in the UK, he went to a nearby coal mine, and spent a whole day with the workers observing them, telling about how he was deeply affected by this experience. He was encountering the raw side of human labour; his respect for human labour grew stronger in his youth. So much so that, these experiences in his life encouraged him to work on "A Seventh Man" after many years, and to observe and tell the stories of migrant workers. It is obvious how he managed to narrate the stories of migrant workers who never belonged any place with a profound empathy, without ever looking down on them, and in a plain but never simplified language in the "A Seventh Man".

Authorship which he chose as a profession surely is an extensive field and it is possible to talk about Berger's storytelling, penmanship, poetry, criticisms and commentatorship separately. For even we mostly give prominence to his ideas on seeing, he is also a writer who won the Booker prize for his novel "G". On the other hand, he also has short stories which influenced plays in the UK, and when all his works are considered, it is possible to recognize the strength of his vision – even indirectly. Along with his literary works, we know that he was a self-taught painter, and he had always been glued to his brushes, pastels, and pencils, and that he never abandoned this passion of his. However, the most important thing that support this is a statement by him in an interview he gave a short while before his death in a documentary (The Four Seasons in Quincy) made about him, which also gave the title of the interview: "If I'm a storyteller it's because I listen." In fact, this powerful way of storytelling which can be found in everything he told us about seeing is a result of his reading the "visible"/ "seeing" through narrating a story put him into a distinctive place. We also witnessed this in "Understanding a Photograph" which collected his essays published in 2015.

The notion of listening John Berger mentions, doesn't involve passivity in the sense that we know. It requires one to extend it to the limits, and cease to be an audience to include oneself into that life. Hence, one should draw a crucial line here. This man who never lost his vitality after all those years; with his eyes that revealed his attention, curiosity and sincerity; who observed and kept his vision alive, and hang on that moment in life for dear life, could only become a storyteller in this way.

Berger's passion for what is "visible" and seeing is the unique reason that originally introduced him to us, bringing him from distant lands to here. When he broke loose from the boarding school which he spent most of his childhood, home to oppression and torment as he called "a little totalitarian system" when he was 16; he decided not to go to a university, hurled himself into life in a literal sense, and taught himself painting on the other hand.

Soon after we are born, our eyes become used to light and radiance, and function perpetually apart from sleep, conveys life that flows before us to our brain to be analyzed or restored by recording the instantaneous snapshots, and objects that come into our sight. However, this unconscious way of accumulating information is unable to go beyond being a mere reflex. But in some days, we manage to capture and apprehend something we are unable to see deliberatively till that time for an instant. An empty tea glass, a chair, maybe a towel, a slipper that is crooked or laying face down, the expression of bust/sculpture we pass by when we walk out on the street, a hand, and maybe a familiar face disguise something we know but unable to see to that moment. Through these incidents, we get acquainted with the act of seeing as well as the stories of things we see. We sometimes imagine these stories or discover them through the traces. And Berger turns up with the awareness of this, and urges our dormant consciousness. He begins with the representation of images, and calls out to us; he recommends that we cease looking for seeing or at least that we make an effort for it. At first, it sounds very simple. And it is until we seize the chance to face the fact we can comprehend the difficulty of it. Among the pile of images thanks to the power of social media, it seems hard to cast aside a period in which all kinds of media paralyze our sense of sight. However, "Ways of Seeing" which was first published in 1970s, a period in which this feeling had not been analyzed let alone conceptualized, departed with the call of "don't just look, but see!" in an effort to address everything on the subject from Renaissance to media producing images in the 70s. Moreover, it made such an impression that it fueled many discussions.

It must be hard for humanity who had produced in various fields for thousands of centuries to deaden their sight with every passing period, and to ease and break down their apathy even in the least. Today, it is even hard for us who try to create and tell things in visual arts to shake off this apathy, we can only imagine the effect and the potential change rendered possible by getting familiar with "Ways of Seeing" in those who are only viewers, and who are maybe not involved with what is visible.

All these words fail to sum up what Berger did and struggled for, yet my aim was not to describe his life or to write an ordinary farewell essay; it was just to leave something that would trigger curiosity, or some trace for curiosity. When we have read his last work "Confabulations", he already began to work for his next work; he was carrying on tenaciously, carrying on swimming, dreaming of the time he would be able to climb on his motorbike, and continuing to create with the same tenacity. One should pay attention to John Berger who rejected baseless optimism, but kept on believing that hope is the light glowing in the dark, and try to persist on hoping. It is not a final farewell to someone dead, but an acknowledgement, a stand-in-silence for a beautiful person who has left a tree to be fed.

Berger imagines the moment he is buried with his lover, and adds:

"It is strange that this image of proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough."