Ways of Witnessing


Arts & Culture

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:

Marxism sees history as an arena of struggle but to what extent do you see romanticism or love as a refuge from history and “the laws of change which spare nothing”?

… During the Soviet revolution and the civil war people didn’t stop falling in love. Think of Mayakovsky who wrote extraordinary love poems at the same time that he was writing political poems. The problem is that in an individual life they often do not confirm one another. If one denies too much those subjective intuitions which romanticism is about and which are frequently expressed in love then something withers. The consistent, logical political line cannot bring them back. When that withering takes place there is political danger.

But Dyer’s boldest and best question is his last:

Finally I would like to take a line from the play you have written with Nella Bielski, A Question of Geography: “Each of us comes into the world with her or his unique possibility—which is like an aim, or, if you wish, almost like a law. The job of our lives is to become—day by day, year by year, more conscious of that aim so that it can at last be realized.” What do you see as the job of your life?

I don’t think I can answer that … Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories—and I often think now that even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job your life is because you are so aware of what you lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

Read the whole interview here. “Berger is not an academic, but he’s deeply learned and passionate,” Dyer said almost thirty years later. “What you get in his books is a total engagement with whatever he happens to be writing about.”