John Berger’s Dispatches

by Yule Heibel on February 18, 2005

I’m having a hard time with language lately. It feels strange because it seems to be blending into an envelope without markers, eluding me with its absence of edge. Guilt over the language-based tasks I’m leaving undone, including (e)mail to friends as well as various official words I need to shoot through the fog, magnifies my sense of being swallowed, of being enveloped in a less-than-pleasant embrace.

I think in part I may be suffering from a defensive reaction to what I jokingly call “the Canada syndrome,” which is that fantastic ability people here seem to cultivate (especially at all and every bureaucratic level, whether school, government, or dog-catcher committee) that allows them to formulate plans and programs, to mandate them into action, and then to “celebrate” their achievements (“A” for effort), even if actual outcomes or progress or achievement is nil, inconclusive, and just plain white-washed. (On the national level, see, for example, any and all discussion as well as actual fact on Canada’s supposed participation in the Kyoto accord.) “Canada syndrome” is starting to make me feel like I’m living in that fairytale about the emperor’s new clothes, for it’s everywhere and at every level, and my response is a petulant silence reminiscent of the little Berliner in winter, who says, “‘Serves my old man right if my fingers are freezing — why doesn’t he buy me some gloves?” So, I’m looking for some way to kick myself into action, or (pardon the pun), take the gloves off ….

Oh well. Let’s read someone who really can write, shall we?

John Berger has an amazing way with words, acknowledging their ability to shroud and cloud and obfuscate, yet managing to shape their elusive two-dimensionality into substances with weight and heft and routine-stopping obstruction. I go through entire ages when I can’t stand reading Berger, and at other times note that his are exactly the words I need to read. Open Democracy posted his essay, That have not been asked: ten dispatches about endurance in face of walls. Berger doesn’t write about the rich; he focusses on the poor, and on what is obdurate and lasting. From Dispatch Nr.4:

Nihilism, in its contemporary sense, is the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit, considered as the end-all of social activity, so that, precisely: everything has its price. Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice. [More…]

Dispatch Nr. 5 states:

The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.

A story refers life to an alternative and more final judge who is far away. Maybe the judge is located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill, where the day’s luck has changed (the poor have to refer often to bad or good luck) so that the last have become first.

Story-time (the time within a story) is not linear. The living and the dead meet as listeners and judges within this time, and the greater the number of listeners felt to be there, the more intimate the story becomes to each listener. Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall. [More…]

Berger intersperses his dispatches with quotations from the Russian writer Andrei Platonov (1899-1951).

Happiness is not something to be pursued, it is something met, an encounter. Most encounters, however, have a sequel; this is their promise. The encounter with happiness has no sequel. All is there instantly. Happiness is what pierces grief. [More…]

Berger examines the spatial relations between people — the rich have residences, the poor, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. Instead of residences (where one can be alone, too), they have “homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up,” but these dwellings are not associated with the fortress-like comfort afforded by the rich. The connective tissues of a home’s walls seem instead to be made of human fibre. The poor, in consequence, live out in the open, massively.

There is a ceaseless spatial negotiation which may be considerate or cruel, conciliating or dominating, unthinking or calculated, but which recognises that an exchange is not something abstract but a physical accommodation. Their elaborate sign languages of gestures and hands are an expression of such physical sharing. Outside the walls collaboration is as natural as fighting; scams are current, and intrigue, which depends upon taking a distance, is rare. The word private has a totally different ring on the two sides of the wall. On one side it denotes property; on the other an acknowledgement of the temporary need of someone to be left, as if alone, for a while. Every site inside the walls is rentable – every square metre counted; every site outside risks to become a ruin – every sheltering corner counted.

The space of choices is also limited. They choose as much as the rich, perhaps more, for each choice is starker. There are no colour charts which offer a choice between one hundred and seventy different shades. The choice is close-up – between this or that. Often it is made vehemently, for it entails the refusal of what has not been chosen. Each choice is quite close to a sacrifice. And the sum of the choices is a person’s destiny. [More…]

It’s difficult to plan for a future, since futures are fantasy constructions for the rich if predicated on capital-D development. The poor experience the future through generational continuity:

The future is not awaited. Yet there is continuity; generation is linked to generation. Hence a respect for age since the old are a proof of this continuity – or even a demonstration that once, long ago, a future existed. Children are the future. The future is the ceaseless struggle to see that they have enough to eat and the sometimes-chance of their learning with education what the parents never learnt.

“When they finished talking, they threw their arms around each other. They wanted to be happy right away, now, sooner than their future and zealous work would bring results in personal and in general happiness. The heart brooks no delay, it sickens, as if believing in nothing.”

Here the future’s unique gift is desire. The future induces the spurt of desire towards itself. The young are more flagrantly young than on the other side of the wall. The gift appears as a gift of nature in all its urgency and supreme assurance. Religious and community laws still apply. Indeed amongst the chaos which is more apparent than real, these laws become real. Yet the silent desire for procreation is incontestable and overwhelming. It is the same desire that will forage for food for the children and then seek, sooner or later, (best sooner) the consolation of fucking again. This is the future’s gift. [More…]

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