Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Famed as an art critic, screenwriter, and novelist, John Berger departs from traditional literary forms with A Fortunate Man. The coupling of a free-floating essay with uncaptioned photographs, which provide their own silent commentary on the essay’s subject, emphasizes Berger’s view, presented in Ways of Seeing (1972), that images precede words and that words, in turn, are necessary for thought. The essay style employed by Berger in both books permits him to delve into cultural criticism and use anthropological, psychological, sociological, economic, political, and aesthetic approaches to a single subject. This freedom allows Berger himself to act as the universal man and, in fact, he seems equally comfortable discussing the tribal antecedents of doctors, the nature of time, and the social retardation of an English village.

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Such eclecticism has troubled several reviewers of A Fortunate Man. Some are disappointed not to know more about Sassall; some find Berger’s method abstruse, his argument hard to follow. These readers were expecting, one supposes, only the story of a country doctor—a genre that has produced a number of entries, most idealized and sentimental. This is not the kind of book Berger has written, however, and A Fortunate Man can be difficult if one mistakes the subject of the essay. While Berger uses medicine and John Sassall in particular as the background for his book, he is writing in reality about cultural deprivation and existential survival.

Further, many critics find his Marxist views intolerable. His disparagement of capitalism, which he considers exploitative—an argument made very clear in his discussion of advertising in Ways of Seeing—runs counter to the prevailing liberal idea that social adjustment constitutes progress. Berger’s view that man himself must change puts the onus on each individual. While that idea may be palatable in conservative circles, his charge that the institutions of capitalistic power systematically suppress the individual self-awareness necessary for change is not.

Ultimately, the best context for judging A Fortunate Man is the one Berger himself provides—contemporary health care. It should be noted that physicians who have reviewed the book have praised it. Perhaps it touches a nerve in its portrayal of Sassall’s holistic, personal approach to doctoring. After all, the medical care with which most readers are familiar depersonalizes both doctor and patient with its technology, its fragmentary treatment, its specialization. As an institution it is overwhelmingly venal. What young doctor committed to an ideal of human service would not feel betrayed by such an institution?

Clearly, Berger’s response to such an alienating construct is not Luddite. He accepts technology and scientific knowledge as a given. His concern is simply for the place of the individual amid the social construct: Can either doctor or patient feel fulfilled, or even human, when neither knows or is allowed to know who he is? A Fortunate Man specifically contemplates a personalized, holistic approach to medical care. On the whole, however, Berger challenges all people to move toward self-awareness and moral choice or else be stricken down by the diseases of ignorance and dependence, ill beyond all cure.

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