There's something rather wonderful about discovering that John Berger, whose books more or less changed my life, also happens to share my taste in music!
I mean, as man born the same year as my grandmother, it would be understandable if he had paid little attention to the popular song of recent decades. But in his new book, 'Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance', there is an essay on erotic desire which quotes Nick Cave.
Then I came across this radio broadcast from the BBC World Service. (Be quick, it's only available till Saturday - the interview is about two thirds of the way through the programme.) Here he elaborates on his appreciation of Cave. "It's to do with the way that desperation and... not exactly pleasure, but fulfillment, are two profiles of the same face. Black beside gold, if you want to put it into colours."
He goes on to enthuse about Johnny Cash's final album, tracks from which have been haunting my playlist for months.
I've felt for a long time that there is a common theme, an attitude, which links the work of those artists and writers I admire - setting it apart from much else that you read or hear. It is touched on by the title of Berger's collected poems, 'Pages of the Wound'. What I am talking about is an attitude to brokenness which is quite at odds with the assumptions of our society - a recognition that the place of brokenness, the wound, is also the place of hope. In fact, the only place at which hope - which is quite different to optimism, or faith in Progress - can begin.
By contrast, most of our culture proclaims the desirability of unbroken perfection, fulfillment, satisfaction - so the wounds which we all carry become a source of shame, something to be evaded, or fixed with quack cures.
As I see it - and I suspect Berger and Cave might agree on this - the connection between brokenness and hope is the great, though often mislaid, insight of Christian theology.
In another key, the denial of brokenness characteristic of our culture may be connected to the categorisation of reality which Berger has always challenged. Years ago, he wrote about the last day in the life of his friend, the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer. A quote from Fischer has stuck with me:
The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that, for instance, some people say I should not have spoken about love and about the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.
These categories are broken things presented as wholes. By challenging that presentation, by acknowledging the (damaged) connections between them, we may do something to limit the damage they continue to do.
In the World Service interview, Berger returns to this theme, when asked about the way he writes about Palestine, Iraq and the War on Terror alongside poetry, art and desire:
One of the reasons why we all can, at times, have a feeling of really being lost... is the way that - and this often begins at school, but now it goes on an enormous amount in the media - the way that subjects are divided up into special categories. [My understanding of this] may have something to do with the fact that I never went to a university - and universities are where all those categories and the walls between them... they are strongholds of those kinds of divisions. I never went to university, I left school when I was sixteen and that's all the formal education I ever had. After that I went to art school, but what did I do, I looked at films and drew naked models. Maybe it was something to do with that - maybe there was an advantage of feeling free to go from category to category...
I discovered Berger's books as I was beginning to recover from the disorienting experience of three years as an Oxford undergraduate. I learned from them a new way of learning, which was really an old way - led playfully, by curiosity, through conversations and encounters, across categories, wounded and hopeful. I don't know that any of my colleagues would realise this, but for me the vision of the School of Everything owes a great deal to John Berger.