John Berger (1926 – 2017)
John Berger was born in London on November 5, 1926 and died in Paris on January 2, 2017 at the age of 90. A prolific writer, Berger published over 50 books on art criticism, novels, and poetry, among them G., a novel that won the Booker Prize, and Ways of Seeing, regarded as the “Little Red Book” of the artist’s community. Berger was emblematic of the politically engaged intellectual. He sided with immigrants, peasants, unskilled workers, slum dwellers, political dissidents, Palestinians, and the contemporary Zapatistas. He influenced many people, from the famous, such as Susan Sontag, Arundhati Roy, and Subcomandante Marcos, to the anonymous. Much has been written concerning him.
As one of his many readers, his death hurts. Each of his readers has their reasons for mourning his death. In my case, his death hurts as much as the death of Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Monsiváis, Susan Sontag, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Eric Hobsbawm. These writers of the post-War II generation have left a lasting impression on me. As I reflect on his public life, what most impressed me about Berger was his willingness to cross frontiers — intellectual, personal, and territorial — as a necessity for living a more meaningful and fulfilling life. The first frontier that he crossed is the most memorable for me.
Berger recognized the famous mentors who intellectually influenced him, primarily European political exiles and refugees living in London. Of all who influenced him, Berger regarded Ken (no last name was given) as his passeur, a type of coyote (smuggler) who guided him during his passage from an innocent teenager to a mature young man. As “the most influential person” of his formative years, Ken was a wandering bohemian intellectual and jack of all trades from New Zealand who had traveled and seen the world. They discussed books and art, played cards and chess, and walked the streets of London.
Under the tutelage of the much older Ken, Berger’s schooling also included accompanying his passeur to the working class bars of London. Although under age, Berger was never stopped from entering the taverns, “not on account of my size or appearances, but on account of my certainty,” a lesson Ken instilled in him. “Don’t look back,” Ken taught him, “don’t doubt for a moment, just be surer of yourself than they are.” On one occasion a drunk insulted Berger, making him cry. Ken took Berger outside, away from the bar, and comforted him. He used this incident to teach Berger the lesson of toughing it out, telling him, “if you have to cry . . . cry afterward, never during! Remember this! Unless you’re with those who love you, only those who love you, and in that case you’re already lucky for there are never many who love you — if you’re with them, you can cry during. Otherwise, you cry afterward.”
Even though Ken did not paint or write for a living, Berger learned much from him, appreciating his company and lessons on life, including “the gift of sharing with me what he knew, almost everything he knew, irrespective of my age or his.” Besides the importance of sharing knowledge, he learned from Ken assurance, to take risks, and not regret the important decisions one makes in life. These qualities came to shape his life. After a few years of pupilage, Berger told Ken that he regarded him as his teacher. Ken responded by providing Berger another lesson, “I didn’t teach. You learned. There’s a difference. I let you learn! And there were a few things I learned from you!” Berger’ passeur “had delivered his charge; the frontiers were crossed.”
In spite of Berger’s later fame, Ken continued to be Berger’s passeur. In one of their last gatherings, Berger showed him sketches that he had drawn at the Prado museum in Madrid. He informed Ken that he did the sketches sitting down because he was too old to stand up. Upon hearing that, Ken put Berger’s sketchbook down. Berger wrote on that incident, “he abhorred self-pity. The weakness, he said, of many intellectuals. Avoid it! This was the only moral imperative he ever imparted on me.” He stayed in touch with Ken (no last name was given). The last time they met Ken told him he was going home to New Zealand where “no grass is greener anywhere in the world.” He went home to die. Death was a central theme of Berger’s writings.
The second frontier that Berger crossed was giving up the paintbrush for the pen, becoming over the years a first rate art critic, one who upset the arrogant world of London’s artist community. He crossed the third frontier in 1972 after winning the Booker Prize for his novel G. and the success of Ways of Seeing, a highly acclaimed four-part BBC television series and accompanying book. He could have taken advantage of his fame to write novels and make a lot of money. Instead, he used half of the award money from the Booker Prize to work on A Seventh Man, a book on immigrants in Europe that received little attention. (He donated the other half of the money to Great Britain’s Black Panther Party). Berger regarded A Seventh Man as one of his most important works. Published in 1975, I regard this book as the best work on immigration and the immigrant experience.
He crossed another frontier soon after. He gave up the comforts of London and moved to Quincy, a small and remote village in France where he lived an anonymous existence among poor peasants. In Quincy, he wrote Into Their Labors, a trilogy of novels on the French peasantry.
As I reflect on Berger’s writings, I learned from him to regard art as history and history as a tool for interpreting the present. This learning is manifested in his 1988 essay, “The Fayum Portrait Paintings (1st-3rd century).” Painted at a time when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire, Berger informs us that these Egyptian paintings are the earliest portraits that have survived. He wrote, “The Fayum portraits touch us, as if they had been painted last month. Why? This is the riddle.” In seeking to answer this riddle, he begins with an interpretation of the paintings, pointing out that the portraits were of urban middle-class folks who were about to die or had recently departed. As such, the portraits are hybrids, a product of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian cultural influences. Therefore the clothes, hairstyles, and jewelry of those being portrayed were fashioned in Rome, the capital of the empire. Greeks painted them in their artistic style and that the portraits were “sacred objects in a funerary ritual which was uniquely Egyptian.”
After this artistic and historical interpretation of the portraits, Berger connects the Fayum paintings to the present. He argued that that these paintings, as the earliest surviving portraits, haunt the memories of our age of endless dislocations, “the century of emigration, enforced and voluntary. That is to say, a parting without end …”He continued, “The sudden anguish of missing what is no longer there is like suddenly coming upon a jar which has fallen and broken into fragments. Alone you collect the pieces, discover how to fit them together, and then carefully stick them to one another, one by one. Eventually, the jar is reassembled, but it is not the same as it was before. It has become flawed and more precious. Something comparable happens to the image of a loved place or a loved person when kept in the memory of separation.” This passage captures the feeling I have with the departure of John Berger.
Juan Mora-Torres. Associate Professor of Latin American History at DePaul University. A former Teamster, he has worked in the agricultural fields, canneries, and as an adult education instructor. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Wayne State University (Detroit). His research and writings focus on the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, Mexican migration, popular culture, working class formations, and Mexicans in Chicago. He is the author of The Making of the Mexican Border (University of Texas Press, 2001), and he’s currently working on Me voy pa’l norte (I’ m Going North): The First Great Mexican Migration, 1890-1940. The Making of the Mexican Border won the Jim Parish Book Award. Mora-Torres is the Board President of El BeiSMan.