Like most young art students, I read John Berger’s books ‘Ways of Seeing’ and ‘About Looking’ and they have stayed with me all my life. Something about the clarity and purity of the way he wrote, accessible yet deeply revelatory.
I went to see ‘The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger’ at Goldsmiths university yesterday. In the middle of a busy week, I drove up to London on a cold November day, knowing I needed to see it and that it had something important to say to me. The first one focused on his long-time friendship with Tilda Swinton. They had befriended and bonded with each other initially because of their shared November 5th birthday, albeit 34 years apart. John also said that it was as though they had met in a previous life, and had agreed to meet again in this one. Their attentive respectful friendship was apparent and they appeared to dearly love each other and enjoy every thing the other had to say. Berger says ‘If I’m a story-teller it’s because I listen’ and listen he does. He is entirely present with his friends. His eyes convey so much. He listens with his eyes. There is aliveness and empathy.
The camera observed how Tilda was cutting, peeling and coring apples while she sat and talked with John. The films were full of attentiveness and presence to every moment. The studies and meditations of the mountains, barns, landscapes and the movements of hands and faces, juxtaposed with academics, political conversations and analysis of the neo-liberal capitalist state of the world.. also footage and dialogue about animals in the life of the rural peasant….
The beauty of John Berger is that he is a compassionate, poetic humanist. A spiritual man, as well as an intellectual one. He still identifies as a Marxist, but does not see the two things as mutually exclusive. There is something sacred in his writing and his being. He seems so human and heart-full. He seems full of love. He has said ‘Two things have coexisted within me. One is a kind of materialism, which includes the Marxist view of history, (Permanent Red) and on the other a sense of the sacred.’ He saw this ‘not as a duality, but an essential unity.’ He refers to God in some of his writings as the ‘Sky’.
The intensity of his gaze is not one of simple objectification. It is a look which invites a meeting, where ideas are met, collide and spark from one person to another. It conveys deep fascination with all that is beheld and asks for discourse.
Academics and intellectuals often build impenetrable walls with words to use as armour and sometimes as weapons. They are only having a dialogue with each other, ie other academics. I definitely don’t identify myself as an intellectual, but I have been around them all my life, and have always noticed this. Sometimes when they are talking, I listen to them and look away, and listen attentively, coming away with one sentence when they have used fifteen to say the same thing. Most of them identify as Marxists, or coming from a Marxist perspective, however by using these esoteric wordwalls which they are very good at building as they have to write so many papers and publications, results in a feeling that they are doing little to change the world. The walls only serve to keep people out. They are only speaking to their own tribe. Berger, on the other hand doesn’t do this. He uses clear and accessible language, unsullied by verbosity, and there appears to be little ego involved in his viewpoints and ways of conveying. He writes and speaks with clarity, humanity, generosity and love. He puts his money where his mouth is. He writes to point out injustices and this is because he genuinely feels these things so deeply.
Often intellectuals are loath to appear ‘spiritual’, lest they be compared to certain writers from this genre. JB isn’t concerned by this. I read that he sees no difference between the physical and the spiritual. He knows there is an intersection where all things meet. I was touched by a quote from a dream he had, where he met someone he knew in the dream, and asked them if they had come by train or photograph. He sees the photograph as transport. I loved it when he asked if Tilda’s teenage twins liked raspberries. When they replied that they did love them, he asked them to go and pick bowls of them, add sugar and cream if they wanted, and take the bowls and find a photograph on the wall (there were many,) of his late wife Beverly, and eat the raspberries in front of her photo, which he said would make her very happy, as she loved and grew raspberries.
I was moved too, by his eyes as they lit up with excited renewed knowledge and recognition as he listened, as Tilda read him a passage he had written about the self portrait as though he had forgotten it was he who had written it. How often we forget the things we write, think, paint, feel and do.
London itself yesterday felt characterless, shut-off, corporate and cold. Even Goldsmiths did. I am so glad I went to art school before higher education became a business. The Seasons in Quincy, the landscape and glimpses of peasant life of the Haute Savoie in the Alps of south-eastern France was an antidote to that. I was glad to drive out of London and arrive back to the sea and trees.