John Berger died at 90 yesterday.
What can I possibly say of interest or relevance to add to the acres of words which will be written about him and his influence on his passing?
Exactly, so I won’t try.
Except to add an autistic perspective.
I first met John Berger in 1980, on a compulsory reading list for a degree in history of art. And I still have my copy of Ways of Seeing, which I bought in the tiny (on campus) Sussex University bookshop. Back in the day of free education at University level. My campus rent was £12 a week all in, and no tuition fees to be paid. The maintenance element of the grant was means tested, with a parental contribution exacted or not depending on income. End of.
John Berger was that rare and exciting thing. An artist writer.
I was decades away from knowing that I am autistic and also dyslexic/ dyscalculic.
Things I knew back then:
There were so very many perilous authors with a penchant for specialist language (the incomprehensible). Elitists! We raged – as a student group we were (I remember) angry young things.
That I was inexplicably and painfully shy in circumstances others navigated with confidence (this felt deeply mysterious and yet somehow inevitable and entirely my fault).
That I had an unreliable brain (on-off, there and not there).
My main job was to camouflage the oceanic scale of my perplexity – but this was (I believed) because I was an utter fake. A stupid person who had faked my way to university. I had to admit it was odd but autism as an idea for myself would be light years away.
When it came to visual culture I was less stupid it seemed. But still it was uphill in my first year, before I hit my stride. Geekery of course (as now I know it to be) pulled me through.
John Berger somehow cut though all of this. Ways of Seeing wasn’t a breath of fresh air – it was an oxygen mask. He detonated all my previous schooling at A’level, and visually I began from scratch. Yet for me it mattered less how much of what he wrote could be absorbed by the intellect.
The thing to grasp was quite other and better sucked through a straw than read. In drawing back the curtains of cultural assumption Berger also appeared as a magician – signalling alternate layers of perception. Autistic people inhabit liminal spaces it seems to me, often intuitively absorbing their environments. Seeing patterns, which other people can miss. Navigating with an unerring logic.
When I watch Berger now on YouTube I don’t want to claim him as autistic. That’s not what I mean. No way.
It’s just that there’s a certain cross over in the depth of his perceptions. Ha! Ways of seeing and ways of being, if you like.
In a long conversation with Susan Sontag on YouTube (1983) Berger says,
“I’m not very verbal, I have no facility with words.”
Sontag: “I don’t believe you.”
Berger: “It’s true, it’s true.”
And he explains that he’s talking about the unsayable – that which is beyond words, he goes on to insist. Like a melody, or a pattern of colours or a geometric form. And that the struggle is to recreate that in words.
His hyperawareness of the primacy of experience above language (I now realise) chimes in with the autistic condition as I have come to know it (I use the term condition as in state rather than as per medical model).
Words for Berger (he says) must be as close as possible, but they are never close enough to the primary source. They can’t touch the non-verbal, the felt intuitive experience.
And we’re there.
This is my realm. I must feel my way. In all senses. The knowable is not always the sayable. We need gestures and babble sometimes – it’s all good. In fact it’s delightful.
What I recognised back then (without knowing it) was validation. From a man entirely connected to the primary sources of experience. A conduit, gifted with the ability to translate visual (and intuitive) perception in it’s highest forms into a language that was crystalline and egalitarian in spirit.
I recently viewed the Art of Looking a documentary about John Berger regaining vision after cataract operations (though it was so much more than this). Spending an hour in his company was to be transported back to this time, when University education was free.
As charismatic as ever at 90, he did that trick again of connecting me to myself and reminding me that there is so much good in the world. For 2016 – that was no mean feat.