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Posts Tagged ‘John Berger’

Staff Picks: Yeltsin and Yelling

September 11, 2015 | by


From They Live, 1988.

We published Padgett Powell’s “Boris Yeltsin Spotted in a Bar” in our Summer issue. It spoke to me, but I don’t know why. It’s basically a list of items you’d find in a well-stocked hardware store, followed by a meditation on a drunk spouse, followed by the appearance, in an American bar, of someone who may or may not be the deceased Russian statesman. But its narrator, with his digressive style, is lonely in a way that makes him obsessed with everyday mysteries, and he felt very alive to me, in his mania. That story is from Powell’s new collection, Cries for Help, Various­, where—be still my beating heart—it sits among a Yeltsin trilogy, rounded out by “Yeltsin Dancing” and “Yeltsin and Canaries.” As with the rest of Cries for Help, these stories are at once absurd and plaintive; they generate the kind of curiosity you feel when you see one boot sitting in the middle of the street, or the same stranger in three different neighborhoods in a day. Critics sometimes dismiss Powell’s fiction—as with Barthelme’s before him—as directionless riffing, but these aren’t non sequiturs: his sentences gather pathos as they accumulate. He’s hidden a lot of sadness in such a funny book. —Dan Piepenbring

Last weekend, I rewatched John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, a subversive and satirical take on capitalism. Midway through the film, with the planet in jeopardy, two protagonists engage in an exhausting six-minute fight; one has insisted that the other don sunglasses that allow him to see Earth’s invading aliens. I see now that the scene is an astute comment on human nature: even when the future of the planet is at stake, people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. This realization comes only from having read Lee Billing’s essay at Nautilus about digging into Stanislaw Lem’s early sixties philosophical tract, Summa Technologiae. The book—which sounds dense but also brilliant—examines questions about our relationship with technological advances, such as “Where are the absolute limits for our knowledge and our achievement, and will these boundaries be formed by the fundamental laws of nature or by the inherent limitations of our psyche?” In Lem’s appraisal, the potential obsolescence of the human race will be determined by the unpredictability of human behavior—an unpredictability he experienced firsthand as a Polish Jew in World War II: “We were like ants bustling in an anthill over which the heel of a boot is raised … Some saw its shadow, or thought they did, but everyone, the uneasy included, ran about their usual business until the very last minute, ran with enthusiasm, devotion—to secure, to appease, to tame the future.” —Nicole Rudick
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Your Very Own Celestial Clock, and Other News

June 15, 2015 | by


The gilt cover of Matisse’s Ulysses, from 1935.

  • John Berger is eighty-eight, and still seeing—which isn’t to commend him for having retained his eyesight, but to say he’s still an acute observer. “I live enormously through my eyes. The visible is simply a very important part of my experience of being in this world … my own story doesn’t interest me. There’s a risk of egocentricity. And to storytellers, egocentricity is boring.”
  • “The world made this book true while I was writing it, which of course is the paranoid’s greatest fantasy.” The deeply surveilled world of Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, seemed improbable, if not impossible, before the Snowden leaks. Now the book is positioned not as a techno-dystopian fable but as an aspirant to that lofty title, “The Great American Internet Novel.”
  • Our London editor, Adam Thirlwell, on Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works: “The mystery arises through a pragmatic attention to physical detail … a truth recognized subtly in the way a choreographer describes making a ballet on a dancer. The dancer is the ballet’s pivot. For there Ferri was. She wasn’t Mrs. Dalloway, or Virginia Woolf. Nor was she Juliet. Or rather, she could allude to all of these—she contained multitudes—but the allusions were only flourishes. Really, she was only herself, and that was everything.”
  • Meanwhile, Anne Washburn’s new play, 10 out of 12, is set entirely in the vicinity of a thespian’s nightmare: a tech rehearsal. It is, in essence, a play about figuring out how to stage a play: “Washburn stakes out the tech rehearsal as her territory, a hitherto unexplored subgenre of backstage drama as far as I know, and uses its technology to subtle effect. Washburn’s play, drawn from tech rehearsals of her own shows and listening in on others, provides a fairly faithful reproduction of this ugly task. All of the action and dialogue, which are meant to appear spontaneous and random, are carefully set forth in the 142-page script. Her clever idea is to have the audience listen in on headsets, tuned to the same channel that the tech crew is using to talk to one another while the work continues.”
  • What to do with those sixteen thousand bucks you have under the mattress: buy a rare 1935 edition of Ulysses with etchings by Henri Matisse. “Matisse’s mythical Nausicaa design is embossed in gold on the front cover of the edition, displaying four shapely nudes enclosed in a sphere with Roman numerals forming a celestial clock.” (As if Matisse would have included nudes who weren’t shapely.)

Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water

June 12, 2015 | by


A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves
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People Are Still Liars, Leading Thinkers Say, and Other News

January 22, 2015 | by


Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve, ca. 1920.

  • John Berger goes for a swim: “I have my favourite municipal swimming pools, where I go to swim up and down at my own pace, crossing other swimmers whom I don’t know, although we exchange glances and sometimes smiles … As swimmers we share a kind of egalitarian anonymity. No shoes, no marks of rank, just our swimming costumes. If you accidentally touch another swimmer while passing him or her, you offer an apology. The limitless cruelty towards others like ourselves, the cruelty of which we are capable when we are regimented and indoctrinated, is difficult to imagine here.”
  • Do you have $300,000? Give it to James Patterson. (He needs it, right?) These are the things he’ll give you in return: “a first-class flight to an undisclosed location, two nights stay in a luxury hotel, fourteen-carat gold binoculars, a five-course dinner with the author, and a copy of Private Vegas that will ‘self-destruct’ twenty-four hours after the purchaser begins reading it. The precise nature of the explosion has not been revealed, but it is believed to involve a bomb squad and an exotic location.”
  • Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has broken box-office records largely by attracting white men from Middle America—not typically a movie-going lot—and so finds itself at the center of the culture wars. Is the movie mere war propaganda, as its critics avow, or are its fans just intent on reducing it to jingoism? “Go ahead and attack Eastwood for making a movie that’s totally uninterested in the underlying politics of the Iraq conflict, and that depicts its Arab characters in cursory and stereotypical terms. That’s entirely legitimate, and indeed I think those America-centric aspects partly undermine the film’s aims. But to assign Eastwood some Bush-Cheney war-booster agenda because he supported Mitt Romney in 2012, or even because some unknown proportion of moviegoers have seized on it that way, simply isn’t fair.”
  • On the problem of lying, which still gets people riled up and has been linked since at least the earliest days of the Christian church to “the problem of human existence itself”: “We all do it, and we all damn it. In many traditions, both Western and Eastern, it is considered among the most blameworthy of acts … I have friends who could laugh off being called an adulterer but would storm out of the room if I said, ‘You’re a liar.’ ”
  • Not unrelatedly, it turns out that “the truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.”


Ways of Witnessing

November 5, 2014 | by

Geoff Dyer and John Berger, 1984.


Marxism Today, December 1984.

I read Berger’s Ways of Seeing and then started to read more and more of him, and I found it all very stimulating and exciting. He was doing something that I hadn’t come across before in English writing—bridging the gap between criticism and fiction and so on. All with that level of political engagement that was absolutely de rigueur back in the early eighties. He was my favorite writer, and I interviewed him for Marxism Today. —Geoff Dyer, the Art of Nonfiction No. 6, 2013

John Berger is eighty-eight today—I’d been curious for a while about his interview with Geoff Dyer, so I finally did the obvious thing and Googled it. Lo and behold: the December 1984 issue of Marxism Today has been digitally archived by, with the Dyer-Berger exchange complete and unabridged. The interview, “Ways of Witnessing,” sits among such fare as “Hopes, Dreams & Dirty Nappies” (“What can utopias do for mothers and mothers do for utopias?”) and a column called “Video Viewpoint” (“Perhaps 1984 will be remembered in some small footnote as the year in which video tapes started to live up to the claims several people, mostly video producers to be sure, had been making… ”). The cover story: “Santa’s Dramatic Intervention.”

At the time, Berger was soon to release And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, but he doesn’t discuss the new book much. Instead—as you might anticipate given the venue—he and Dyer talk a lot of leftist shop: “My reading tended to be more anarchist than Marxist-Kropotkin and all the anarchist classics,” Berger says. And on why he never became a card-carrying Communist: “I had reservations about the party line in relation to the arts.”

Dyer would’ve been twenty-six when this interview came out; there’s not a lot of his voice here, and certainly none of his humor comes through. But you can sense, maybe only because of his later comments, his eagerness to please Berger, or at least to convey the scope of his intellect. Toward its midpoint, the conversation turns to romanticism, and here it’s somewhat less arid: Read More »


John Berger on ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’

November 22, 2011 | by

Photograph by Jean Mohr.

The British author and artist John Berger (G., To the Wedding, Here Is Where We Meet, Ways of Seeing, Another Way of Telling) has for decades been writing books that are one of a kind: impassioned, big-hearted, politically engaged meditations on art and history, creativity and experience. Fluidly moving between fiction and essay, art criticism and memoir, Berger has emerged as a sort of Zen master of the written word. “Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless,” he writes. “In our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.” His new book, Bento’s Sketchbook, takes the life and work of the seventeeth-century philosopher Benedict “Bento” Spinoza—who earned his living, coincidentally, as a lens-grinder in Holland—as the inspiration for reflections on subjects ranging from ripe quetsch plums to Japanese Shoh paintbrushes and his Honda CBR 1100 motorcycle. I recently spoke to Berger by phone in France. Read More »