A Writer of Our Time
When John Berger died, on January 2, 2017, the world lost one of its most beloved and singular voices just when it could least afford to. Almost two years later, Joshua Sperling has published A Writer of Our Time, the first book to take full stock of Berger’s lifelong contribution and development. Berger, Sperling writes, was a cultural pioneer who helped usher in ideas about art and politics that have since become part of the standard repertoire. Always open to the world, Berger let himself be shaped by his time—the postwar years in Britain, the ups and downs of the Cold War, the hopes and disappointments of the New Left—but he also took on an active role shaping it in turn. Few of his contemporaries were as savvy as he was when it came to navigating the contradictions of his era. And throughout his multiple metamorphoses, he somehow always remained loyal to the commitment he assumed as a young man, a commitment perhaps best described as Marxist, humanist, and populist.
I sat down with Sperling on a cold winter morning in Oberlin, Ohio, where he teaches film and writing, to talk about his book.
Sebastiaan Faber (Rail): Your title, A Writer of Our Time, is a nod to Berger’s first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1985). But is it also a statement about the significance that Berger’s work still might hold for us today?
Joshua Sperling: Berger always wanted his life to be embedded in the struggles of his time. And yet, in England, two images of him coexist. On the one hand, he was a satyr: the young Marxist unable to control his passions, incontinent, almost embarrassing in his frothiness. On the other, especially later in life, he was a wizard who lived on a mountaintop, an oracle in the mist. Both images have some truth to them, of course, but both end up photoshopping him out of history. My book wants to put him back in. Berger spent his life swimming through history, battling its waves and undertows. It’s ironic that he died right after the tectonic shifts of Brexit and Trump. His life has a lot to teach us about where we are now: a time of immense confusion and political pressures. And all of a sudden the culture wars are back. So many of the questions Berger was asking in his youth—what can art do, how can it be part of politics, part of common experience—seemed rather distant to me when I first encountered them in 2012, in the middle of the Obama administration. Now they now feel much closer.
Rail: I like the idea of Berger swimming through the waves. The image that came to me while reading your book was that of a tacking sailboat, avoiding cliffs and currents, and managing to stay afloat. Unlike other members of his generation, Berger never felt the need to repudiate his own past. Despite his drastic reinventions, he managed to stay loyal to himself.
Sperling: It’s one of the fundamental dialectics of his biography. Berger’s whole life is predicated on the notion that sometimes you must make certain choices that are real. But other times you have to reject choices that are not real, but that are foisted upon you. The idea today, for example, that you have to choose between being a cosmopolitan, urbane liberal, or being a nationalist reactionary. This is stupid. It’s a distraction.
Rail: Berger himself was something of a populist.
Sperling: Absolutely. I actually think he has a lot in common with someone like Bernie Sanders. In the 1980s and ’90s, they were both thought to be fossils, just doing their own thing in the backwoods, not where the action was. They weren’t fashionable. They weren’t on the Blair and Clinton train. But nor were they seduced by the intellectual fashions of poststructuralism. Berger really did not fit into that metropolitan intellectual discussion. For a long time he appeared to many as irrelevant or outmoded. But, like Sanders, he’s newly relevant again.
Rail: Berger, you explain, was among the first in postwar Britain to discover the work of Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, and Georg Lukács.
Sperling: It’s funny. I began to work on Berger while doing a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Yale. To be honest, what first drew me to him was that I was starting to get sick of theory, of academic philosophizing. But it didn’t take me long to discover that it was Berger, in fact, who served as the conduit for so many of the central currents of Western Marxism, all of which have since become canonical to the humanities.
Rail: His wife during the 1960s, Anya Bostock, played a crucial role here, you point out.
Sperling: She was an extraordinary woman whose work as a translator has never received the credit it deserves. Born in China, the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, educated at Oxford, she was for years an invaluable conduit to European thought. And not just for Berger. It was Bostock who translated Benjamin, Lukács, Ehrenburg, among others into English.
Rail: Was Berger a romantic?
Sperling: The thing is that Berger always believed in the importance of place. He understood that people need to feel at home, rooted to a landscape. The cosmopolitan dream of in-flight magazines is not going to work for the majority of the world’s population. People need community, neighborhoods, maybe even a homeland. I know that last word is tricky. But to his credit, Berger never once equated it with ethnicity, nor even with the idea of the state. It’s no coincidence that, later in life, the two groups he came to advocate for were the Zapatistas and the Palestinians.
Rail: You quote Simone Weil: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” For Berger, it seems to me, rootedness was more than just a need. It also provided a moral grounding, something of an antidote to everything that he’s allergic to: elitism, the art world, high theory, a certain type of sterile modernism. Rootedness, for him, is a guarantee of the real, the authentic, actual experience.
Sperling: Yes. And with this, the inescapable fact of physical effort, the sense of exhaustion in your muscles....
Rail: And yet at the same time, Berger seems to share with Edward Said the idea that the intellectual as a moral figure must, by necessity, be displaced or uprooted.
Sperling: It’s another of the basic contradictions of his life. In fact, the two figures that became central to Berger in his later work—and with whom he sympathized most, to the point of romanticization—were the peasant and the migrant worker. It’s not by chance that neither has really been accounted for in traditional Marxism. To Lenin, peasants embodied the idiocy of rural life, while guest workers could never be organized as effectively as the native labor force. But in the 1970s Berger collaborated with the photographer Jean Mohr on A Seventh Man (1975), a book about migrant workers in Europe. And he realized that almost all of the migrants he spoke to were the children of peasants. This is why, for Berger, the peasant and the migrant are not opposites: they are often separated by a single generation.
Rail: Berger became so fascinated with peasant life that he struck down roots as a French peasant in the Haute-Savoie…
Sperling: The truth is, of course, that he was neither a peasant nor a migrant worker. He lived in voluntary exile. He was relatively privileged. Though he would have recoiled from the word, he was an expatriate. I personally regard these contradictions sympathetically, as what gave his life meaning. His critics called him a hypocrite.
Rail: And yet the figure that emerges from your biography manages to maintain an admirable amount of integrity.
Sperling: Every radio has both a front side and a back. In my book I wanted to engage with that hidden side, not to disprove the front, but to show, and especially to young people, that you actually have to be quite clever to preserve your integrity. You have to be smart about it. If not, your ideals are going to be stolen from you pretty fast.
Rail: Berger had a complicated relationship to fame.
Sperling: There’s no question he sought it out. But only to thumb his nose at it. In the 1970s, after the enormous success of Ways of Seeing (1972) and the Booker Prize, he enters something like a midlife crisis. But instead of buying a sports car and dating a grad student, he moves to a small village outside Geneva to live in a house without electricity or heat, with an American woman, Beverly Bancroft, who was a very warm and grounded person. At that moment his work changes, too. He begins to write in a whisper. And it’s at this point that he’s discovered by a whole generation of young readers who are disenchanted with the high intellectual culture of the moment.
Now we would call Berger an eco-socialist. He understood that the capitalist market system feeds not only on human exploitation but also cultural and natural destruction. Moving to a peasant village also forced him to adjust his political horizon. In the long epilogue to Pig Earth (1979), the first volume of his “Into Their Labours” trilogy, he states that the leftist dream of a revolution that’s just around the corner might have always been a chimera. For him perseverance, survival, and resistance become the key ideas. The struggle, he realizes, may last multiple generations; sometimes it’s enough just to keep alive certain ways of life.
Rail: You got to meet Berger in person.
Sperling: I went to see him in the Haute-Savoie in 2012, when he was 85. We spent a long afternoon in his garden drinking espresso. For me it was an extraordinary experience. There’s a whole tradition of young writers who visit their heroes only to discover that they are huge assholes. With Berger, it was the opposite. As he grew older, he became younger. It’s common for angry young men to turn into right-wing curmudgeons. Not Berger. He softened with age. He became more sentimental, less cynical.
Rail: He was known for his charm.
Sperling: He was a great seducer. He had a way of looking at you, listening to you, as if he was just as profoundly interested in what was interesting to you. When we said goodbye, he gave me a tremendous bear hug. He radiated the same, brotherly love you see in Caravaggio, Walt Whitman, or Van Gogh. Of course, Berger’s life was much less tragic than theirs. In fact, he had a rather charmed life. Which is also ironic. So many of his heroes, whether Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, or the art historian Max Raphael, were Jews who were forced into exile, and eventually suicide. Berger himself managed to survive the tragedies of the 20th century. But he nevertheless made these absolutely central to his thought.