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Journeying for a Sense of Place

I’ve a vivid memory of John Berger, whose latest book, Here is Where We Meet (Pantheon), appeared this past summer: seeing him on his giant black motorcycle. I was about to go walking in the mountains near Sommand and was driving up a narrow road that passed through Quincy, a village of a dozen-or-so houses nestled amidst rolling Alpine pastures. Suddenly, a motorbike overtook me at breakneck speed, but then pulled up abruptly at a lay-by not far ahead. Off came the helmet and the rider’s identity was revealed. I cruised by, staring in wonderment at a fast approaching octogenarian, robust and trapu—as the French might say—with close-cropped white hair. I remember thinking that the English ex-pat novelist-playwright, film scriptwriter-poet, art critic-essayist—how do you classify this guy?—looked like a cross between a portly Batman and C. Wright Mills’ elder brother; yet instead of an urban warrior piling into Columbia University, Berger’s beat is rural Haute-Savoie, France, some 30 miles east of the Swiss city of Geneva.

He’d moved to Quincy in 1974, when peasants still toiled the land and when Berger’s Savoyard stone chalet, replete with traditional wooden balcony and adjacent barn, had neither running water nor electricity. His abode was constructed long before skiers and tacky wooden chalets colonized the area. Back then, denizens slept and ate next to their animals. Berger arrived a little after he’d won the coveted Booker Prize for his “cubist” novel G, about a nameless marauding Don Giovanni philanderer, who liberated woman as he subverted the social order. But the real climax came later at the award ceremony, when Berger told startled black-tie listeners that for 130 years, Booker McConnell, the prize’s sponsor, had ripped off the West Indies and forced citizens to migrate to Britain. Berger wanted everybody to know that he was sharing his prize money with the London-based Black Panther movement, which Berger said had “arisen out of the bones of what Booker and other companies have created in the Caribbean. The sharing of the prize signifies that our aims are the same. By the recognition a great deal is clarified. And clarity is more important than money.”

French mountain air and the odd tipple of gnôle have done Berger no harm. When contemporaries like Norman Mailer are riddled with arthritis and walk around on sticks, Berger looks a marvel of good health. And his writing still packs as much muscle as that monster motorcycle he rides. Yet the man has also mellowed with age. I’d seen another side of him, too, one summer’s afternoon last year: the private man out in his garden. I’d just moved to the Haute-Savoie myself, not a million-miles away from Quincy, and was strolling past chez Berger with my wife, wandering up a path eager to get a view of his house and the magnificent snow-capped Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain, which looms in the distance. The caped-crusader’s motorcycle was there, stationary, off the road, in front of the rustic chalet. Its raw power looked almost serene, Zen-like, glistening in golden Alpine air, yet you sensed it was ready for action anytime, ready for radical mobilization. An instant later, there he was, the rider himself, setting up a table for lunch en plein air. Amazingly, he waved and gave us a very jovial “Bonjour!” I waved back, responded likewise, and, too timid to approach, quickly scurried off. In France, nobody disturbs somebody about to dine!

In coming to Quincy Berger turned his back on his hitherto insider status. He’d been a fully paid-up member of North London’s left intellectual smart-set, a New Statesman journalist and art critic, orbiting in an obvious, closeted metropolitan setting. Instead, he uprooted and went to live amongst semi-literate peasants whom he’d henceforth document, learn from, and labor alongside. What had he forsaken? Phoniness, comfy literary cliques, the limelight, seductive city lights? Perhaps. What had he sought? Authenticity, the need to see and feel oppression close-up, unmediated in real life, mimicking with the peasantry what Frederick Engels had done with Manchester’s working class? Maybe Berger sought out a rawness of experience that Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called deep song, something imbued with “the mysterious color of primordial ages,” something akin to “the trilling of birds, the crowing of the rooster, the natural music of forest and fountain.” Perhaps Berger was simply searching for a sense of place, and a sense of belonging?

Berger’s oeuvre over the years has reveled in deep song, has danced to its beat: he’s narrated with trademark poetic, pared-down prose tales of ordinary human madness. (Ditto the wonderfully reflective touching films he’s scripted with Swiss cineaste Alain Tanner, especially Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000.) Berger’s take on art—in his seminal Ways of Seeing (1972) and elsewhere—is similarly compelling in its anti-elitism. He sees paintings not so much as canvases hung on smart gallery walls than as keys to the meaning of life, as windows on our world, as images of human sensuality and destiny. Berger empathizes with artists and their subjects, gets inside their heads and bodies, and has written jubilantly, inimitably, about Picasso, Leger, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Modigliani, Courbet, Matisse, Goya, Velázquez and many more. If we stare at paintings, he says, paintings begin to stare back at us, tell us about ourselves: “The gaze of Aesop makes me hesitate,” Berger notes in front of Velázquez’s great canvas. “He’s intimidating, he has a kind of arrogance. A pause for thought. No, he’s not arrogant. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The presence of Aesop refers to nothing except what he has felt and seen. Refers to no possessions, to no institutions, to no authority or protection. If you weep on his shoulder, you’ll weep on the shoulder of his life. If you caress his body, it will recall the tenderness it knew in childhood.” And of Van Gogh: “His paintings imitate the active existence the labor of being of what they depict. Take a chair, a bed, a pair of boots. His act of painting them was far nearer than that of any other painter to the carpenter’s or the shoemaker’s act of making them. He brings together the elements of the product—legs, cross bars, back, seat; sole, upper tongue, heel as though he too were fitting them together, joining them, and as if being joined constituted their reality.”

Writing, for Berger, should also be an act of joining together different aspects of reality, of making sense of ostensibly disparate things, of demystifying the process of their production and creation. In Pig Earth, the first volume of Into Their Labors, his trilogy on peasants and migrant workers, Berger literally goes back to the land outside his front door, to the physical graft of sowing and hoeing, of raising livestock and wallowing in shit. As participant and observer, the task of the writer is “to struggle to give meaning to experience.” Writing, he says, “has no territory of its own…and is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about.” It involves homing in and backing off, having a realist eye that’s a stickler for particularity as well as surrealist mind that dreams of universality. Thus, Lucie Cabrol, the dwarf-like “Cocadrille” protagonist of Pig Earth, an Alpine outcast and colporteuse, is real enough, yet she’s also make-believe, a character in Berger’s own febrile imagination. The axe buried in her scull likely happened, but her afterlife, her “Third Life,” is a trope that enables Berger (“Jean”) to commune with the village dead, to hear the voices of the damned who worked themselves to the grave; or who did themselves in because they could no longer find work.

Storytellers, Berger says, borrow their authority from the dead: they’re “Death’s Secretaries.” But knowing about death also lets Berger appreciate the marvels of the life-spirit. And like his hero James Joyce, he understands bundles about life as it’s lived everyday as epic drama and Greek tragedy. Meanwhile, he’s kept a firm grip of his longstanding Marxist credentials—“Yes, I’m still amongst other things a Marxist,” he confessed recently in Le Monde Diplomatique (“Ten Dispatches about Place,” August 2005)—and morally condemns the brutality that often accompanies such everyday experience and sensuality. Berger is at his best when he’s tender rather than angry, and is most effective when that tenderness communicates moral outrage. His worst writing is when his moral outrage becomes obvious or contrived, when moral indignation leads his artistic flourish. His last novel, King (1999), an aberrant magical-realist portrayal of homelessness, viewed through the lens of an eponymous talking dog, exhibits some of Berger’s hits and misses. The novel’s conception is brilliant, genius even, yet its opening pages are preachy and heavy-handed:

A month ago a gang of kids poured petrol over an old man who was sleeping in a street…A heretic’s death. What the hell do you mean? The poor sod didn’t know one church from another. Maybe his heresy was to have no money?

Compare that with the deft-subtlety later on of a vignette on the vagrant Luc, who killed himself by diving off a bridge. This is Berger’s political theory at its best:

Now that he’s dead, I want to show Luc a wall I remember where mushrooms grow in spring. Hidden in the grass they are black and cool like a black nose pointing at the sky. They smell of earth and the breath of old women who tell fortunes for a bar of chocolate. Luc will find a kilo of morilles there. And we’ll cook them together with parsley and garlic and then make an omelette with four eggs and a tablespoon of white wine to make it light, and we’ll halve the omelette between us. The dead man and the dog.

Death, too, haunts Here is Where We Meet, Berger’s first “novel” since his stray dog yarn, but in ways that presage renewed life. As always, his text runs roughshod over genres: neither pure fiction nor straight memoir, eight short stories converge (and diverge) into Berger’s most surrealist trip to date, his paean to dead souls, his exquisite corpse, a book that’s as tender as the night. He floats in and out of a dreamy, subliminal zone where space and time lose all sense of geography and temporality, and where living landscapes in Lisbon, Geneva, London, Madrid, Kraków, and the Ardèche harbor furtive afterlives. Buried pasts become sacred presents in which roam his mother and old teachers, former lovers and dear friends, all long departed but seemingly never, ever forgotten; personal time melds with grand historical time, a blind Jorge Luis Borges communes with a limping Rosa Luxemburg, Rembrandt’s Polish Rider with Cro-Magnon cave paintings; rivers literally thousand of miles apart merge into one torrent of imagination; the boy Berger watches an aged John make sorrel soup while dreaming of father’s trench warfare and wild Polish country weddings. Past encounters offer Berger special Proustian keys for unlocking the future, for conveying his quantum curiosity. “The number of lives that enter any one life is incalculable,” he says.

Rendezvousing with his mother in Lisbon—“a city of endurance, unanswerable questions and pet names”—she reminds him: “everything begins with a death.” “Isn’t the beginning a birth?” he queries. “That’s the common error, and you fell into the trap as I thought you would!” “The births happened precisely because they offered a chance of repairing some of what was damaged from the beginning, after the death. That’s why we are here, John, to repair…to repair a little of what was broken.” “Why did you never read any of my books? … All my books have been about you.” “They were about everything in the world but me! I’ve had to wait until now, until you are an old man in Lisboa, for you to be writing this very short story about me.” You can’t afford to make a mistake anymore, she scolds, about whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth.

Hesitantly and insecurely, Berger greets mom across a golden curtain of sunlight and water. Before her, like all adult men, he remains a little boy. Without a mother, without those friends and mentors whom he’s outlived or outgrown, he’s alone: Here is Where We Meet strikes the reader as an orphan form, a book borne out of a sense of loneliness, a recognition of Berger’s own mortality, his irreconcilable homesickness, his yearning to be at home everywhere. His presence unnerves, unnerves because of its strange invisibility: he’s there but he’s not there, he sees but can never quite be seen. In fact, Berger sees things mere mortals can’t see, a little like a trenchcoated Bruno Ganz from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, an unlikely angel, coursing around a universe that’s both monochrome and color; color for celebrations, for remembering the bride’s dress; monochrome for Rosa’s dark locks, for the gray history of her smashed in head, her lifeless body fished out of the Landwehr canal.

Like Bruno Ganz, the angel Berger—berger means shepherd in French—reminds us of everyday joys of life at its most simplest, of experience most rooted and immediate, of slicing leeks and savoring beer, of plum brandy and newborn kids, of first snow and nightjars, of motorcycle boots and fried potatoes. Berger really notices things, really knows how to look, how to hear and feel little details around him. And he remembers. His pen flows as Walter Benjamin’s flowed in Naples or in Berlin, chronicling montages, glimpses and motifs. Autobiography, Benjamin once said, has a lot to do with time, with sequence, with “the continuous flow of life”; but Benjamin’s concern was with something different, with discontinuities and moments: he remembered only spaces. Ditto Berger, who writes as evocatively about bustling public squares as he does about darkened, deserted forests. He has a painter’s gift for sketching with words colors and sensations, for evoking tonalities and moods of landscapes that literally blossom with child-like wonderment, with an almost-naïve purity of a romantic poet, as realities invented rather than discovered: “It is pointless,” he says in one Geneva rencontre, “to search in the places where people are instructed to look. Sense is only found in secrets.”

Perhaps, in the end, the real characters in Here is Where We Meet aren’t people at all, but places: the “heres” and “wheres” that make human encounter possible and meaningful—and sustainable. “So time doesn’t count and place does?” he asks, teasing his mother. “It’s not any place, John, it’s a meeting place.” The meeting places Berger offers us here are veritable antitheses of the alienated “Nowheres” we’re creating today, where a singular, empty present presides, and where all history and memory, past and future have been evacuated, ripped off and plundered by capitalist “Digital Time.” Digital time, says Berger in August’s Le Monde Diplomatique, “continues forever uninterrupted through day and night, the seasons, birth and death.” It’s the air-conditioned nightmare of a strip mall, a fake smile and a pinstripe on the job. It’s as indifferent to specificity and quality as money, and contrasts to the cyclical time of nature, of cold and warmth, of presence and feeling, of pain, of the gratitude of watching donkeys graze in June. Digital time knows only vertical columns of ones and zeros, of cash flows and Dow indices. Within Digital time, no whereabouts can be found or established; journeys no longer have a specific gravity of a destination. Destination has lost “its territory of experience.”

Following signs in airport lounges, at supermarket checkouts, on motorways, cell-phones and desktops will never lead to a destination. When we arrive there we realize we’re not in the place indicated by the signs we followed. And nobody can give us directions, because we don’t know what to ask for, nor do we know any backtracks or short cuts. On this journey, on the journey toward a destination, toward a real sense of place—a meeting place—well-trodden paths are warnings rather than guides. Keeping a Bergerian rendezvous is to arrive by accident, by chance, by a special means of traveling. For me, that motorbike, that black monster I glimpsed outside his Quincy chalet, is the ticket to ride in this quest for a modern destination. For clues, for a possible ontological road map, we can consult Berger’s essay “How Fast Does It Go?” from the appropriately titled Keeping a Rendezvous (1992). In hitching a ride we can become born-again Phaedruses, rewriting our own Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the post-Seattle age, reuniting technology and poetry, analytical rationality with romance, feeling the breeze in our hair as we cruise yet having direction and purpose to our forward motion. Moreover, our motorbike is a vehicle—not a juggernaut—that we know how to repair when it breaks down.

Aboard the Berger bike, “except for the protective gear you’re wearing, there’s nothing between you and the rest of the world. The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are travelling.” Your contact with the outside world is more intimate. You’re more conscious of the road surface, its subtle variations, its potholes, whether it’s dry or damp, of mud or gravel; you’re aware of the hold of the tires, or their lack of it; bends produce another effect: “If you enter one properly, it holds you in its arms. A hill points you to the sky. A descent lets you dive into it. Every contour line on the map of the country you’re driving through means your axis of balance has changed…This perception is visual but also tactile and rhythmic. Often your body knows quicker than your mind.” Liberty here comes from the relationship between oneself and space, between subjectivity and spatiality, not from the speed at which you’re traveling.

After a few hours of driving across the countryside, you feel you have left behind more than the towns and villages you’ve been through. You’ve left behind certain familiar constraints. You feel less terrestrial than when you set out. Supposing at this moment you stop, cut the engine, take off your helmet, stretch your back and your neck, and then walk a few paces along the road, into a wood or a field. You look around. There’s nothing spectacular or picturesque. But you’ve stopped, and this already makes the spot special … The point of arrival is unique, and recognizable as such.

Perhaps aboard the Berger bike we can experience, en route, not so much Che’s “Motorcycle Diaries” as Subcomandante Marcos’s “pocket” of resistance, hiding out in the trees of the Chiapas, watching the slow beat of the herons’ wings, reading Pig Earth in the bush. The Mexican campesino has received his message from the French countryside: he understands the approach of the hesitant flight of the heron. The Zapatista’s call of “WE ARE HERE!” gives us one alternative definition of a PLACE, of a territory of experience outside the flattened logic of neoliberal economics. There, we can meet each other by listening together to the silent mountain forest, by cutting the engine, by knowing we’ve arrived, like a migratory bird. Beside our bike, with our helmet off, we can then follow the heron, sailing high above the lake: Don’t fret, my little one. Fly! Everything’s going to be all right. Fly!

*See Berger’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos in
The Shape of a Pocket (Bloomsbury, 2001).


Andy Merrifield

ANDY MERRIFIELD is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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