Wednesday 10 October 2007

In Defence of Sweeping Statements & Anecdotal Evidence

Still thinking about Berger, I came across an interesting post from a reader who has just discovered him. Kevin Breathnach writes:

John Berger writes beautifully. Of that, there is no doubting. But he writes out of fashion, form and age. These are not essays like any I'm familiar with. At their worst, they resemble the writings of a class-conscious mind-body-spirit author; at their best, they are the work of the what Berger himself, referring to Giorgio Bassani, names the half-poet, half-historian. But poets are granted an artistic license we would not want within our historians grasp. Hold Everything Dear brims with sweeping statements and anecdotal evidence.

I responded in his comments thread, at slightly greater length than seems polite. But since I haven't had time to post anything here for a couple of days, I thought I'd reproduce my response here.

First, a quote from Mike Dibb's account of his collaboration with Berger (on a famous 1970s TV series):

Although Ways of Seeing may appear to be a succession of statements, these statements are really questions. When John speaks in conversation his sentences often end with an interrogative. "No?" he says, inviting a response, not automatic assent.

The same, I think, applies to those sweeping statements Kevin refers to. They are not made (as is conventional) from an assumed position of universal authority. (The convention of hedging one's statements in cautious terms is not a relinquishing of such authority, but a polite way of retaining it.) Rather, Berger is constantly aware of his thinking and writing as a work in progress, made from a specific, physical location, and based on what can be seen from there. (In the case of 'Hold Everything Dear', several of the essays were written from occupied Palestine and this shapes them.)

How is this different to the most strident sort of universalism? Only (I think) in that the statements truly are intended as questions. Other, contradictory statements may be made from elsewhere - and the assumption is that this should lead to a conversation, rather than a conflict over who is right. (Clearly, in the one-way medium of a book, this must be taken on trust - though accounts of his many collaborations appear to bear it out.)

Secondly, concerning the reliance on "anecdotal evidence", this is not a weakness but fundamental to his method. Berger's writing returns again and again to the theme of "incommensurability" - the claim that things cannot be measured satisfactorily against each other, except in certain limited domains, without losing what matters. The inadmissibility of "anecdotal evidence" is a tenet of a worldview in which everything that matters is capable of being reduced to statistical representation (in terms of money, or in terms of SI units) - a worldview whose limitations he seeks to challenge. But if we baulk at this, it may at least be entered in his defence that he describes himself first and foremost as a storyteller.

The first episode of that TV series ended with Berger addressing his audience: "Consider what I say," he told them, "but be sceptical..."

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.)

Wednesday 3 October 2007

I'm very excited!

Tonight I'm going to see John Berger speaking at a cinema in London. The event is a screening of Pasolini's La Rabbia, a little-known film which was the subject of one of Berger's most recent essays.

Regular readers will know that Berger's writing has had a great influence on my life and ideas. This will be the first time I have seen him speak in person - three years ago he was due to address a conference that I was at, but had to cancel (and sent Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicité in his place).

Further excitement, if that were needed, comes with the rumour of a new Berger novel, From A to X. I can't find much information about the book and its publication schedule, but it is only a few months since his most recent essay collection came out.

I hope that I'm still that active, creative and engaged when I'm eighty!

Tuesday 2 October 2007

School of Everything Goes Live!

When a new school opens in the UK, it's customary for a member of the royal family to cut a ribbon or unveil a plaque.

Adam asked me the other day if we had something similar planned for the opening of the School of Everything. I said it would probably be less an opening, more a case of leaving the door unlocked and seeing who wanders in...

Well, that's what we did! The site went live some time last Friday afternoon. (I missed the historic moment, as I was driving a van up the M1 at the time.) It's still very early days and there's a lot we need to fix, but it's exciting to see teachers starting to add themselves to the site.

So go and check it out, list something that you could teach, pass it on to your friends - and let us know what you think!

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