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John Berger

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John Berger died yesterday. Reviewing his selected essays in the LRB in 2002, Peter Wollen wrote:

Berger, despite his concentrated seriousness, is quite capable of breaking out of the box, seeing things in unexpected new ways, becoming excited by the unusual and the perverse and the eccentric, bringing a pungent subjectivity to the most delicate of judgments. For me he is the man who has written movingly about Seker Ahmet and the Douanier Rousseau and the Facteur Cheval, artists from outside the mainstream, who created their own strange worlds, in which the perspective was disjointed, ‘deeply and subtly strange’, or in which ‘clumsiness was the precondition of eloquence’ or which were filled with ‘strange sculptures of all kinds of animals and caricatures’. Or Grandville’s engraving of a bear dejectedly pulling a pram. Or the amateur artists of Hiroshima. Or the carvings of white wooden birds, with wings and fan tails, about six inches long, made from well-soaked pine-wood and hung in the kitchen of a peasant home, in Czechoslovakia, in the Baltic lands, or in Berger’s own Haute-Savoie. This is the Berger I admire most, a man who is at home anywhere, curious, intense, always on the side of the underdog and the eccentric, always thrilled by creativity.

On a visit to Palestine in 2003, Berger reflected in the LRB:

The time of the victors is always short and that of the defeated unaccountably long. Their space is different, too. Everything in this limited land is a question of space, and the victors have understood as much. The stranglehold they maintain is first and foremost spatial. It is applied, illegally and in defiance of international law, through the checkpoints, through the destruction of ancient roads, through the new bypasses strictly reserved for Israeli settlers, through the fortress hilltop settlements, which are really surveillance and control points for the surrounding plateaux, through the curfew which obliges people to stay indoors night and day until it is lifted. During the invasion of Ramallah last year, the curfew lasted six weeks, with a ‘lifting’ of a couple of hours on certain days for shopping. There was not even enough time to bury those who died in their beds.

Berger was also one of the London Review Bookshop’s ‘first and most loyal customers’.

Comments on “John Berger”

  1. Fred Skolnik says:

    I am not familiar with John Burger’s work and certainly do not wish to disparage it at such a time but rather to wonder why the Editors choose to highlight once again a piece of anti-Israel writing. There is nothing “illegal” about a military occupation as a result of war, nor about the security measures required to maintain it, including checkposts, curfews and security roads, and certainly not in the face of the barbaric Arab attacks on Israel’s civilian population under the occupation. It is a shame that no one thought to add a few words about blowing up Israeli women and children in buses and restaurants by these same terrorists.

    • tompirracas says:

      John Berger’s work is almost always worth reading. I suppose the editors chose the piece they did as that was the only piece John Berger contributed to the LRB.

    • mototom says:

      Dear Fred,

      it’s Berger, by the way.

      Being critical of Israel’s policies does not mean that one celebrates the deaths of Israelis.

      Many folks will have been critical of the colonialist policies of the UK (in Ireland for example) or France (e.g. in Algeria) and have not been silenced by the actions of the IRA of the ALN.

      John Berger is well worth discovering – give him a go.

      All the best,

      Tom

  2. Fred Skolnik says:

    Lest there be no misunderstanding in the matter, here are just a few of the 60+ terrorist attacks carried out in 2003 when you were bewailing the checkpoints and curfews:

    5 Jan 2003, Tel Aviv, 23 killed, 120 injured by two suicide bombers who detonated bombs about 30 seconds apart near Central Bus Station
    5 Mar 2003, Haifa, 17 killed, 53 injured by suicide bombing on bus en route to Haifa University
    11 Jun 2003, Jerusalem, 17 killed over 100 injured by suicide bombing on bus
    19 Aug 2003, Jerusalem, 23 killed 133 injured in suicide bombing in Jerusalem on bus filled with Jewish worshippers
    4 Oct 2003. Haifa, 21 killed 60 injured by suicide bombing in a restaurant

    • name says:

      It’s not a numbers “game”, but if it were you’d still lose: a single airstrike on Gaza kills about as many as all these attacks combined, and Israel “mows the lawn” quite regularly, and with great relish.

      Responsibility for peace always lies with the strong. Israel is the most powerful military power in the region, something that was made clear in its resounding victory in the six day war of ’67. Ever since then, it has disappointingly shown that the only “peace” it is interested in is the sort Tacitus describes in (what he claims to be) the first Caledonian words recorded in history (i.e. “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”), the kind that only dead Arabs can provide.

      • Fred Skolnik says:

        If it still isn’t clear to you I will explain it once again: Arab civilians were killed in Gaza because Hamas turned residential neighborhoods into war zones, manufacturing, storing and firing rockets at Israel’s civilian population from in and around schools, playgrounds, hospitals, clinics, mosques and residential buildings. You can be a hero with your own children. Don’t dare tell me how to ptotect mine.

        Israel cannot impose peace on Arab extremists whose delared aim is its destruction and Israel is not going to allow Hamas to set up its rocket launchers 15 feet from Jewish Jerusalem and 15 miles from Tel Aviv.

  3. michael bosley says:

    Can we imagine a TV series as radical as “Ways of Seeing” nowadays? Properly creative, and radical not just in terms of its anti-hegemonic stance, but in its unapologetic intellectualism.

    More likely, Berger would be required to dress up as an “artist” (in paint-spattered doublet and hose)and filmed marching across Namibian sand dunes (to illustrate the concept of how on some days the weather is quite warm), followed by a jump cut to him participating in a hip-hop rap battle in downtown New York to demonstrate …erm…well, basically, to generate some Tweets about, oh, whatevs…#twerkart! Trrrending!!!!;)

    2017 has started as well as 2016 ended.

  4. markbow says:

    What a shame that a post intended to mark a great writer’s death has been eclipsed by a discussion of Israel, initiated by someone who appears to have no particular interest in Berger’s work, and can’t even do him the courtesy of spelling his name correctly. Mr Skolnik’s question was about the editor’s choice of passage. He has his explanation, but continues to assail us with what he considers relevant facts, and with familiar arguments. Berger’s time in Palestine moved him deeply and he wrote about it beautifully. He gave voice to people whose lives, through no fault of their own, is hell and whose experience is seldom heard. when it is heard it results in predictable protest – it’s not been “verified” or counterbalanced. It can’t stand unanswered.


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