The Sense of Sight

by John Berger
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The Sense of Sight

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2518

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”)

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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 meaning in appearances, both in nature’s presentations and those constructed by seers. In the appearances men construct, Berger says, whether they be paintings, stories, or little wooden birds, a meaning necessary for human existence resides. A painting safeguards “the experiences of memory and revelation which are man’s only defences against that boundless space which otherwise continually threatens to separate and marginalize him.” Art wars with nature for humanity’s preservation but also suckles nature for the revelation that becomes the legacy. “If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.” The artist puts the world together and establishes a tradition of meaning. The wooden birds which peasants carve each winter in the Haute Savoie do not mirror nature, because in winter real birds are outside freezing to death. With this insight into the polarity of art and nature Berger announces the presupposition of all beauty: “However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.”

The real birds are outside freezing to death. Or less ominously, but still illustrative, the real tree sitting on one’s front lawn is as miserably banal to the eye as anything can possibly be, as the novelist Walker Percy has so frequently observed. What saves the eye is art. The white wooden bird in the peasant’s hut, or the Cubist remake of the banal tree, or the Mona Lisa on the wall—do they not also go empty of meaning, become simply more of that world of matter outside the imagination that first created them? What is the purpose, the helpfulness to the human eye and heart, of van Gogh prints on the walls of Ohio motel rooms? Socialist Berger would explain that the prints are a banalization effected by capitalist strategies of marketing. Fortunately, Berger only speaks of van Gogh originals—paintings created by the authentic search for reality.

In “The production of the world,” Berger tells how the paintings of Vincent van Gogh “saved” him at a time of need. He had traveled to Amsterdam to attend a meeting of the Transnational Institute, a Socialist think tank where twenty members from several countries, Western and Third World, gather to discuss the world situation. “Each time we find ourselves battling against false representations of the world—either those of ruling-class propaganda or those we carry within ourselves.” On this occasion, Berger felt unable to attend the conference; the thought of discussion filled him with dread. He attended in spite of his reluctance, but at the conference he was overcome with semantic anemia: Words and meanings would not connect. “It seemed to me that I was lost; the first human power—the power to name—was failing.” As is his custom when in Amsterdam, he visited the Rijksmuseum. The van Gogh paintings, after he had gazed at them for only a few moments, calmed the troubled Berger. A subjective revolution occurred as the reality projected in the pictures confirmed Berger’s sense of reality.

Shortly after this experience, Berger read a short story by Hugo von Hofmannsthal entitled “Letters of a Traveller Come Home.” The main character, a European recently returned to Europe, finds his countrymen empty and the urban landscape a bleak vision of nothingness. The trees remind him of trees but are not real to him. Upon this recognition “a shudder, seizing me, would break my breast in two, as though it were the breath . . . of everlasting nothingness.” The alienated European finds himself in Amsterdam one day, where von Hofmannsthal places before him some paintings that amaze him. The paintings speak intimately to the European; they are a reply to his dissociation from the material world. The paintings, the final letter in the story explains, are the work of Vincent van Gogh.

What is the secret to van Gogh’s power? Berger concludes that it is van Gogh’s ability to reconstitute reality as a result of his own uniquely personal drive to see reality being made. For Berger, “reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held—I am tempted to say salvaged.” There is nothing wrong with nature, nothing wrong with the trees Hofmannsthal’s estranged European finds so hideous. The problem is in his eyes, the sense of sight which screens out the given, a given which resists telling a meaningful story. Artists, and this was true of van Gogh in particular, yearn for reality and have the magic key—a combination of vision and technique—to unlock the hidden treasure. For Berger, van Gogh is such a success at vaporizing estrangement, because his paintings, their famous brush strokes, colors, objects, “imitate the active existence—the labour of being—of what they depict.” Those boring trees, that plain wooden chair, the commonplace objects, and, Berger would say, the stale commonplaces of the most conscientious seekers of a better sociopolitical order—all these “things” could be thought of as reality and, certainly, a reality not worth enduring, as it seems so inextricably bound with the impotence of twentieth century subjectivity. Van Gogh did not paint subjective states but brought his vision as close to the objective as possible: “He approaches so close that the stars in the night sky became maelstroms of light, the cypress trees ganglions of living wood responding to the energy of wind and sun.” His painting affirmed the objective, and this, ultimately, is what saves the estranged and alienated. “Painting after painting is a way of saying, with awe but little comfort: it works.”

Once again the reader sees the John Berger signature in the disclaimer “but little comfort.” The real birds are outside freezing; beauty is always polarized and outnumbered. Yet, Berger seems to marvel, the painting is passionately painted, the story is written, the experience is appraised. The sign maker, whether a van Gogh or an illiterate village storyteller from Berger’s mountain village, continues year after year to make signs, to signify what is. For Berger, this signifying is synonymous with producing the world. The villagers know who and what they are through the story. The tree may be banal because of one’s not having truly seen a van Gogh—the conditions for a true seeing involving a level of need that is experienced infrequently.

The sign encourages the sign reader. Does this mean the sign produces ecstasy, an escape from the ordinary? Berger says, rather, that the sign heightens the ordinary and often displays more than one might want to know. “Our deepest fears reside just behind the everyday and the banal.” Artists often paint what they dream, and their dreams persist as potential reality, such as Dürer’s watercolor of his dream of water falling from Heaven, a picture that looks like nothing so much as exploding nuclear bombs. Of this dream, Dürer admitted fright: “When I awoke my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not recover myself.” By morning, however, he had recovered enough to paint the watercolor. Obviously, his fright did not exceed his desire to see it again and to make of it a lasting sign. Similarly, Giacomo Leopardi, the Italian writer, embedded his dark pessimism in near-perfect poems. Rather than follow his logic and end his life, he named the poison, thereby producing the world.

Before John Berger or Walker Percy, Leopardi described the paradoxical transmutation which occurs when the namer applies a sign to his experience:Works of genius have this intrinsic property, that even when they give a perfect likeness of the nullity of things, even when they clearly demonstrate and make us feel the inevitable unhappiness of life . . . they always serve as a consolation, rekindling enthusiasm, and though speaking of and portraying nothing but death, restore to it, at least for a while, the life that it had lost.

There exists among twentieth century writers a tradition of hatred for this century. When has there been a time when so many voices—anthropologists, poets, social critics, neoagrarians, hippies—have proclaimed as one: “You, 20th Century, are the apotheosis of nothingness with all your wars, consumer goods, rootless urbanites, automobiles and herbicides. We cannot wait until you are finished.” Berger’s preoccupation with nothingness appears more fructive and mysterious. He traces the conjunction of consciousness and nothingness, discovering that nothingness fertilizes the life of the mind. A respectable product is created. The natural question, which Berger in these essays never plainly asks but intimates, is: “Is nothingness a blessing?” Perhaps it is the Void of Voids that the innocent writer hears when he thinks and writes about the present age. Certainly nothingness has been cited often and variously enough to make the question more than facile. The effect on readers, a positive one, cannot be disputed. Writers show no signs of ceasing their address to the mystery. As Berger states in “The White Bird,” “Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply . . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

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.

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