The Sense of Sight

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

On her arm, the beggar woman carries a basket of sick cats: an emblem of pity, off which she scrapes a living. Most of those who pass place a coin in her outstretched hand. (“On the Bosphorus”) . . . The faces of the rich bourgeois women of Istanbul, sick with idleness, fat with sweetmeats, are among the most pitiless I have seen. (“On the Bosphorus”)

John Berger, the English author of books on painters and painting, novels about politics, stories of peasant life, and poetry, is above all a student of polarities. Country life and city life, nature and art, illumination and emptiness, wealth and poverty, life and death—a sense of polarities haunts The Sense of Sight. Berger is himself a polarity. An intellectual and artist, he lives in a peasant village in the French Alps, his companions the unlettered villagers whose daily rhythms have not altered from those of peasant forebears living centuries ago. As one might suspect, Berger writes from a Socialist impulse. Awarded the Booker McConnell Prize, the prestigious British literary trophy, for his novel G (1972), Berger attacked, in his acceptance speech, the Booker McConnell Corporation for its exploitation of West Indian workers on the corporation’s sugar plantations. He then gave half the prize money to revolutionary groups representing the workers. Since the 1960’s, Berger’s explanations of the sociopolitical underpinnings of the visual arts further established his location in the capitalist-Socialist polarity. Yet his intelligence and style announce an emphatically personal center and make him attractive to readers regardless of ideology. The casual Western reader, suppressing twinges of doubt in the case of anticapitalist theatrics at the awards ceremony, and ignoring rare doctrinaire excesses such as Berger’s suggestions that only the Soviet Union and Mao’s China have waged a successful war on poverty, will be impressed by Berger’s original mind and his power with the English language. Whether inclined to agree with Berger’s politics, the reader will be convinced that conscience leads Berger, rather than Berger leading conscience.

The Sense of Sight contains previously uncollected writings, a few from as far back as 1960. Essays on art, profiles of artists, writers, and peasants, book reviews, introductions, travel pieces, and poems are arranged under eight headings which the editor, Lloyd Spencer, intends to function as a story of the author’s development. It is an engaging format. Paging at random through the book, one finds an essay, a Dürer watercolor with a brief explication, a poem, another essay, and so on. Berger has a gift for seductive titles: “The eyes of Claude Monet,” “The secretary of Death,” “The production of the world,” “Modigliani’s alphabet of love,” “The eaters and the eaten.” Berger’s personal creative presence is nowhere suppressed, and an attractive persona it is—poet, critic, and artist who simultaneously bleeds for the Third World while divining the rationale of color choice in Paul Bonnard’s paintings. Comprehensive is what Spencer would have the reader conclude about Berger—in touch with almost everything and capable of explaining almost anything.

Whether a clear story emerges in this collection, as Spencer intends, is debatable. The editor’s story may not be the same as the reader’s. What does come across is Berger’s power to see and tell and, as well, his ability to analyze seeing and telling. Berger’s explanation of what specific artists—Albrecht Dürer, Frans Hals, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Francisco José de Goya—did when they painted is enlightening. Occasionally, Berger’s assumption of limitless depth in his subject defies translation (“It is difficult to describe this in words, yet it is what makes nearly every Goya portrait unmistakably his”), but more often Berger’s thoughts are genuinely inspired.

His central intuition, which informs generally all the writing in the book, is that sight hunts meaning—thus, one meaning of the book’s title. A concomitant of the hunt is awe: “What is profound about the Genesis story is that it acknowledges the mystery of the visible’s coming into being.” The awe Berger feels before the fact of appearances—“at a certain moment, the visible was born”—extends to the fact that there exist receivers of the appearances. Appearances, normally separated, disparate, “have to be brought together by the one who is looking and questioning. A revelation is this fusion.” For Berger, meaning and appearance become identical, or, meaning is the fruit of seeing, the sense of sight. This perhaps suggests the labyrinth of epistemology, but Berger is addressing the seeing done by painters, an activity carried on without caring much about the technical-philosophical definitions of perception, appearance, and reality. Berger pursues the meaning that comes from the coincidence of imagination and nature. For him, these two momentarily become one when revelation—meaning—occurs. The artists whom he discusses sought this union and found it increasingly elusive. Whether it is Dürer’s puzzlement over the meaning of his own self as mediated by a self-portrait, or Monet having “sad eyes” because of an inability to adjust to the transience of phenomena, the artist is often someone who wants to see a meaning beyond his grasp. As modern painters such as Monet despaired, unable to finish a picture because nature changed too rapidly, a way out of the despair sprang up in the precocious eyes of Cubism. For Berger, the Cubists’ style was little short of miraculous, as it leapfrogged what would have seemed to be the developmental stages leading to its existence. Berger gives a partial explanation for this in the technological realities that were so rapidly changing life on the planet. Unfortunately, World War I began and the Cubist light was snuffed.

Despite the frustrations of Impressionists such as Monet, whose paintings forced the history of art “to admit that every appearance could be thought of as a mutation and that visibility itself should be considered flux,” there is...

(The entire section is 2518 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, January 15, 1986, p. 723.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, December 1, 1985, p. 1300.

Library Journal. CXI, April 1, 1986, p. 144.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, February 23, 1986, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, November 29, 1985, p. 45.

Time. CXXVIII, July 21, 1986, p. 73.