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.
I’ve always been intrigued by your author’s bio, which says that you live “in a small rural community in France.” Where exactly are you?
I live in a little hamlet called Quincy in the French Alps, about fifty kilometers west of Mont Blanc. There are only about a hundred people in the community, and I’ve been here for thirty-four years. We live in an old farmhouse—but all the houses here were farmhouses, in the sense that they were once the homes of poor peasants.
Has this been an ideal place for you to write and work, to observe the world from a quiet distance?
I don’t really think of it like that, because that suggests a monastic retreat. And it’s not like that. First of all, in a small village like this the social life is more present, more intrusive, than in most cities. So it’s not so quiet and calm. I think the reason I stayed is because I learned so much. I ran away from school when I was sixteen, and when I came here it was like arriving at a university. The old peasants, nearly all of whom have now died, were my teachers. From them, I learned about the trials by which peasants lived, not only here but all across the world. What I wrote about them ultimately spoke to people living in rural areas from Turkey to Mexico to Korea.
Tell me about your interest in Spinoza, whose meditations on ethics and metaphysics serve as the jumping-off point for this book.
My interest in Spinoza dates back a very long time, because although I didn’t go to university I read an enormous amount when I was young. And I came across Spinoza quite early on. I sensed something in his writing which fascinated me and helped me to see, to look at life. If one wants to be very simple about it I suppose that fascination, or that secret, has to do with his rejection of the Cartesian division between the physical and the spiritual, between body and soul. Because Spinoza maintained that the two are indivisible and that the body is not a kind of machine, as Descartes suggested.
Yes, I was a painter until my early thirties. And although I had always written on the side, I thought of myself primarily as a painter. I practiced as a painter and taught drawing at an art school for a while, too.
Part of what fascinates you about Spinoza is the fact that he was said to have kept extensive sketchbooks of drawings that were lost. Are there other authors you think of as both writers and artists?
Well, to be honest, I haven’t thought so much about that. It’s true that there are writers who are talented and have drawn well, like Günter Grass. And then, of course, there are painters who were marvelous writers—like Van Gogh, in his letters; or Delacroix, in his journal. But, actually, a lot of the writers who have been important to me, who have kept me company so to speak, have actually been poets, like Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Yeats.
As a writer, your books have crossed and mixed genres, blending stories, essays, and a very intimate form of art criticism all your own.
To tell the truth, I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.
Your books are full of fraternal voices, whether historical figures or friends or fellow writers like Arundhati Roy. Is it a conscious decision to include so many characters from your life?
Yes, I suppose it’s a choice, but it’s not that one day I sit down and say, I want to write about Arundhati Roy. She appeared in my imagination, in my mind, and I didn’t refuse the idea. I think that we often imagine that writers make more choices and decisions than they really do. Some of what happens is quite natural, and most of the real decisions are about correcting or eliminating.
One idea that you return to in your writing is the question of how art ages, how it is physically altered and understood differently over time.
Yes, there are paintings or books that certainly seem to age and there are others that remain very contemporary—the way people see them may change, but they don’t seem obsolete. A dramatic example is the two Egyptian portraits included in my novel From A to X that were painted in the second century. When you look at them they seem completely contemporary. You have the feeling that that man and woman could be living today, but in fact they are nearly two thousand years old.
Another great subject of yours has been the transformation of modern Europe, which is at the heart of your peasant trilogy, “Into Their Labours,” as well as the more recent political essays of Hold Everything Dear.
Yes, not only of Europe, but the world. And of course with these historic changes, what also changes is how we imagine or perceive the future. And it seems to me that when I’m writing—and it’s not only me, but many writers—when we write, we’re writing for the future. Not in a pretentious sense, out of a feeling that what we’re writing is immortal, but in that addressing the future, among other things, we’re also addressing the question of human hope.
The experience of riding a motorcycle—a recurring motif in work—is here compared to Spinoza working on his lens grinder. Both require a heightened sense of concentration and awareness that epitomizes your concept of “ways of seeing” the world.
Yes, that’s right, exactly. There are really two things about riding a motorbike that help to explain my passion for it. One is that the relation between a decision and its consequences is so close. And since you are so vulnerable, it demands a quality of observation that is extremely intense. This observation is not only of what is happening but also of what may happen in the very next instant. Most bikers observe ten times more than those driving four-wheeled vehicles—their actual survival depends on it!