John Berger is back

John Berger photographed by his friend Jean Mohr
When I was young, I used to love John Berger. Then I went off to college in the Big City and quickly learnt that he was out-of-date: a crusty old humanist in the cold universe of infinitely deferred closure and inaccessible meaning (and all that). So I put his books up on a high shelf and tried to get on with the unloveable Red Brigade of deconstructivists and post-structuralists I was supposed to identify with now. It didn’t really work (I did my best) and, twenty years on, the old Bolshevist has conspicuously and happily outlived the ‘theory’ nihilists. In London this month, there’s a celebration of the man’s life & work.

Sean O’Hagan wrote a lovely piece about him for The Observer last week and here are a couple of emotional pieces by the man himself from The Guardian: one about his old friend Cartier-Bresson (another sad old humanist) and one about Fahrenheit 9/11.

When I was about eighteen my Dad, who used to visit a village in the Haute Savoie close to Berger’s, walked the couple of miles up the mountain to Berger’s fantastically remote house – no electricity and no running water at the time – to ask him to sign my copy of Another Way of Telling. Berger was out but his wife promised he’d sign and return the book by post so my Dad left the book behind. When he told me he’d troubled the great man in his mountain hide-out I was mortified but, after a couple of weeks, it turned up, politely and tidily inscribed. I’m looking at it now.

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  1. Know exactly what you mean. I was reading Berger while at college and sharing a flat in Peckham with an old friend. We read the deconstructionists together to a degree. I showed her the Berger I was reading and got a look that dissed me at 1000 yards. I worked out why over time. Well, I guess she did get a doctorate and end up teaching english at East Anglia. Soon after we shared a flat I found I couldn’t understand anything she said, and also strongly suspected that neither could she.
    Anyway, she now has two kids in Norwich, so she may be emerging out the other end.

  2. I think Ways Of Seeing is a really interesting and useful book. My friend Sophie lent it to me when I was sixteen. I liked it so much and it became so useful a reference tool that I shamefully kept it and never returned it. It still has her name written just inside the front over. As you know, I too spent the best part of three years (drinking and eating fry-ups at Brunchies Cafe Great Portland St) being indoctrinated with the semiotic babble of Lacan, Barthes, Freud and the other guy who wrote about the language of signs. I loved it and embraced it all at the time. I even wrote a thesis and got a 2:1. Dug that thesis out the other day and can not understand a bloody word of it. It quite amazes me how I even managed to formulate such sentences. I still prefer Ways Of Seeing hands down.

  3. Actually, I was in college today and my friend Kirstie (the last feminist in Brighton) pulled out a Lacan. I started reading it and, by crikey, it was quite interesting.

  4. Lacan wasn’t too bad. I seem to remember a few film essays which had unbelievably long paragraphs – some ran to half a page in 8 point type (!) – mainly exploring the theme/language of signifier and signified.
    I can remember the phrasing but fuck me if I can remember what it was all about. This has got me started again. I’m going to delve back into my semiotic/theoretic annals tomorrow. I might start blogging about it too. I feel a bout of insomnia coming on….

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