Authors: John Berger
John Berger was born in London in 1926. His many books, innovative in form and far-reaching in their historical and political insight, include the Booker Prize–winning novel
John Berger now lives and works in a small village in the French Alps.
ALSO BY JOHN BERGER
Into Their Labours
Pig Earth, Once in Europa, Lilac and Flag
: A Trilogy)
A Painter of Our Time
The Foot of Clive
A Fortunate Man
Art and Revolution
The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays
The Look of Things: Selected Essays and Articles
Ways of Seeing
Another Way of Telling
A Seventh Man
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
The Sense of Sight
The Success and Failure of Picasso
Keeping a Rendezvous
To the Wedding
The Shape of a Pocket
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION
Copyright © 2001 by John Berger
Introduction copyright © 2001 by Geoff Dyer
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, and subsequently published in hardcover in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2001.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
All of the essays except two were taken from the following collections:
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1962) copyright © 1960 by John Berger.
The Moment of Cubism
(Pantheon Books, 1969) copyright © 1969 and renewed 1997 by John Berger.
The Look of Things
(The Viking Press, 1974) copyright © 1972 by John Berger.
(Pantheon Books, 1980) copyright © 1980 by John Berger.
The Sense of Sight
(Pantheon Books, 1985) copyright © 1985 by John Berger.
Keeping a Rendezvous
(Pantheon Books, 1992) copyright © 1988, 1991 by John Berger.
The Library of Congress has cataloged
the Pantheon edition as follows:
Selected essays / John Berger; edited by Geoff Dyer.
PR6052.E564 A6 2002 824’.914—dc21 2001036673
John Berger’s achievements as a writer are both widely recognised and – because of their diversity – difficult to grasp. Even admirers tend to know him in only one or two of his many incarnations. The questions ‘Which is his best book?’ or ‘Which book should I read first?’ are unanswerable. It is the entire body of work that is remarkable; no single volume represents Berger adequately. However, the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, in November 2001, provided a timely opportunity to try to come up with just such a book.
Throughout his working life Berger has written essays. Far from being adjuncts to the main body of work, these essays are absolutely central to it. Many of the ideas in the ground-breaking book and TV series
Ways of Seeing
– ideas which have since become part of our received cultural knowledge – were presented first and, in some ways, more sensitively, in essays for
Polemical, meditative, radical, always original (‘The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art’), Berger’s essays are, of course, extremely wide-ranging. It is not just that he has written on photographers, artists, thinkers and peasants, on zoos, museums and cities he has travelled to; these diverse concerns are often combined in the course of a single essay. Taken together, however, this signature variegation emphasises the continuities that have underpinned more than forty years of tireless intellectual inquiry and fierce political engagement. Viewed chronologically they do not simply show how his views have changed or how his thought has evolved; they add up to a kind of vicarious autobiography and a history of our time as refracted through the prism of art.
More than any other writer of the post-war period, it is Berger who has explored and expanded the possibilities of the essay. Essays by the usually cited contemporary masters of the form such as Gore Vidal or John Updike are marked by apparently effortless eloquence. In Berger’s case, by contrast, we come close to witnessing thought as an act of almost physical labour. Partly this is due to his refusal to separate the two concerns that have dominated his life and work: the enduring mystery of great art and the lived experience of the oppressed (the two come together most clearly in his essay on Joyce’s
). Partly it is due to a determination to present complex ideas in the plainest possible language. This has not been without its ironic consequences. In 1980 Berger recommended John Barrell’s
The Dark Side of the Landscape
to ‘all those interested in how class ideology produces cultural codes’. He concluded that, together with T. J. Clark, Barrell lent hope to the idea ‘that an internationally relevant English school of radical art history studies may be in the making’. The prophecy was no sooner uttered than it was fulfilled and betrayed. The ‘radical art history’ that Berger had done so much to usher in quickly barricaded itself in the cultural-studies departments of polytechnics and universities where second-rate Eagletons discoursed away in the confident belief that no one with any sense was likely to be paying attention. Nietzsche was right: ‘Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity; those who would like to seem profound … strive for obscurity.’