Sunday, 7 October 2007

Stilted Conversations

The event was a screening of Pasolini's 'La Rabbia', but the lights above the entrance to the Curzon cinema spelt out the main attraction: JOHN BERGER IN CONVERSATION. Inside the foyer, the weight of expectation was uncomfortable. For many of us, this was a rare - perhaps a once-only - chance to be in the same room as someone whose life and work had mattered to us deeply. In such situations, the asymmetry between reader and writer always reminds me of a teenage crush.

He looked uncomfortable, too - escorted by the organisers, seated on a stage, enduring our applause. There are writers who seem to relish these occasions, the literary festival or the staged conversation, as if it is payment in fame for the loneliness of their trade. These are not, generally, my kind of writer.

And yet he looked very much himself. Unimpressed with the sound of his own voice, answering slowly as if all his thoughts were work in progress rather than polished objects, and politely declining to answer where he felt he had nothing to add, which was often. It was good to hear him speak. Yet there was little flow to the conversation, the questions or comments from the audience, the host's rephrasing and Berger's response or lack of it. There seemed on many sides a desire for something more or other.

His most animated response was to a questioner who wanted the film to have been more explicitly a call to action (of a dogmatically socialist sort?). His response was to defend the room for imagination and less explicitly political work, yet there was a greater sense of a shared energy between him and the questioner than when others asked about Pasolini's technique or the film's place in the history of cinema.

I should mention his voice. It was not a surprise to me, because I have heard or watched a number of interviews with him, but it is still strange. After thirty-some years in France, he no longer speaks like an Englishman, but with foreign cadences. (He says that nearly all the contemporary poetry which has mattered to him he has read in translation. Now, at this end of a long life, he speaks his native language as if translating himself.)

The other extraordinary thing is his age. There is no way that anyone who didn't know would guess that he is eighty. Physically, he could be twenty years younger, and even then his vigour would be remarkable. (Having been with my elderly grandmother a few days earlier, I struggle to reconcile the fact that they were born in the same year.)

It was a strange evening, too short, but lengthening it would not have helped much. How would I organise it differently? A different venue, for a start, and a different format - one in which the fact that we were gathered around this man and his work was acknowledged, but also the possibility that this shared focus meant we had much to learn from each other. I am sure there were many people present who I would have gained from meeting. What if we had been gathered into smaller groups, to talk with each other, with John joining each group for a while, then moving on to the next?

That's only a thought. There was another meeting the next night, organised by the Institute for Race Relations and held at the London School of Economics. Perhaps it came closer to my idea of how a writer like Berger could be "in conversation" with his readers. I don't know, because the organisers informed me that they had run out of places - and, on the night, I wasn't feeling up to gatecrashing.

Has anyone else had the same experience of the awkwardness of these kind of events? Is it inevitable? Is there, I wonder, something unhealthy about the intensity of the relationship some of us develop with a writer like Berger? Have you been at events which worked better? Or am I being unrealistic? Let me know.

(Berger's essay on La Rabbia is published in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. A version of it is available online here.)

1 comment:

Antonio Dias said...


Thanks for the link to this older post.

Berger is at the center of my pantheon also. I regret that I probably will never be in the same room with John Berger and am politely envious of your soon to be second opportunity!

Your questions about format are directly useful to the discussion on this year's Dark Mountain Festival, as they would be to any such gathering.

The main point I take from this – your musings as well as the wider discussion – is that there is no "right" way. That making room for varied attacks is probably good.

I think any desire to have any situation come out "perfectly" is more dangerous than any failure to meet everyone's expectations.

Your musings after your experience seeing Berger mirror my own feelings about events I've attended, or any sort of situation, whether intentionally planned or not. I expect that over time and in hindsight I will process an event – if it has made enough of an impression – and that in the long-term I am responsible for what I get from a situation, not its sponsors or hosts, etc.

This view seems to me central to the kind of personal responsibility for my own awareness – and the atmosphere of a shared sense of this awareness for all of us – that is intimately connected to breaking through our consumerist habits that foster and maintain us in the thrall of toxic, negatively dependent, relationships.

An acknowledgement of this – a certain degree of acceptance of rough-edges and an opening towards unexpected directions within the moment might help, but then again….

We can't manufacture a mood or a set of underlying assumptions and pour it over a group of people. The attempt will likely sour as many as it coddles and in either case is counterproductive.

An acknowledgement of the acceptance of uncertainty is about as far as I would wish to go to try to "promote" an atmosphere. We'll all still be bringing our own mix of perception and bias and we'll all still be responsible for what we gain, or IF we gain from an encounter.

That I see the "answer" to be elusive and the topic ineffable doesn't diminish its importance. Bringing effort, attention, and awreness to how we come together, especially when we meet "intentionally," is vitally important. How we evolve our expectations and communicate our availability to the requirements of conviviality affects everything we do.

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