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Dougald Hine | Death and the Mountain: John Berger's enduring sense of hope

Dougald Hine | Death and the Mountain: John Berger's enduring sense of hope

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This is taken from Dark Mountain: Issue 1 - you can order the book here: http://www.dark-mountain.net/join-us/dark-mountain-issue-1/
This is taken from Dark Mountain: Issue 1 - you can order the book here: http://www.dark-mountain.net/join-us/dark-mountain-issue-1/

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Published by: info3895 on Aug 03, 2010
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09/25/2012

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DOUGALD HINE
Death and the Mountain:
 John Berger's enduring sense of hope
'The way I go is the way back to see the future.' Jitka Hanzlová‘How is it I’m alive? I’ll tell you I’m alive because there’s atemporary shortage of death.’ A Palestinian
1
 He is a novelist, an art critic, an essayist, a storyteller, but when Ipicture him with the tools of his trade, it is holding a scythe.
2
There are two reasons for this. No recent writer in English has beenmore intimately acquainted with death. And each year, he pays a partof his rent by helping with the haymaking in the eld above his
1Both quotations are taken from John Berger’s most recent essay collection,
 Hold  Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance
(2007)2A nal version of this article is available in Dark Mountain: Issue 1 (2010). Formore information, visit http://dark-mountain.net
house. To grasp the signicance of John Berger's work – in relation toliterature and to the present situation of the world – both of thesefacts are essential. At the centre of his work stands the decision, taken at the height of his career, to settle in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, in a valleytoo steep for mechanical farming and therefore among the lastenclaves of peasant life in western Europe. Almost four decades later,he is still there. Last year, he agreed to donate his archive to theBritish Library, on the condition that its head of modern manuscriptsshould lend a hand with the harvest during his visit.Berger's achievement has been to ground himself within that way of living, an experience which transformed his writing, while remaining a globally-engaged intellectual. More than that, it is the perspectivegiven by that grounding which explains his continuing relevance, hisability to see and name things which other commentators take forgranted.In a particular sense, he embodies the 'uncivilised writing' called forby the Dark Mountain manifesto. The concept of civilisation isentangled to its roots with the experience of cities. The writing whichthis project seeks and celebrates is 'uncivilised' not least in the sensethat it comes from or goes beyond the city limits: the physical,psychological and political boundaries within which the illusion of humanity's separation from and control over 'nature' can be
 
sustained.Such writing enters into negotiation with the non-human world onterms which may seem outlandish; it is hospitable to possibilitieswhich civilised philosophy would hardly entertain. And it is in thisspirit that I suggest we take the other theme in Berger's writing whichI want to address: his sense of the presence of the dead. Fictional asmany of them clearly are, his accounts of encounters with the dead – as individuals and collectively – amount to something closer to anuncivilised metaphysics than a literary conceit.Yet there is nothing fey about this metaphysics. To the extent thatphilosophical positions emerge from Berger's work, they do so testedpragmatically against the harshness of human experience: not onlythe tough lives of Savoyard peasants, but those of migrant workers,prisoners, political dissidents, Palestinian families. To list the peoplehe writes about in such categories is misleading, for the relentlessspecicity of his gaze seldom allows such generalisations. Thecumulative effect of his writing, though – and of the relationshipsfrom which it emerges – is to test what can be believed against whatmust be endured.He would have little time, I am sure, for much of the literature of collapse, fact or ction, because almost without exception it begins byoverlooking the reality of life for most people in the world today, forwhom there is little to collapse and who, nevertheless, go on nding ways to make today liveable and get through to tomorrow. Yet, inwhat I have called his testing of what can be believed, I suspect thereis more insight into what will endure when (or where) the certaintiesof our way of living fail us.
1. From 'Civilisation' to the mountains
 When I came here I was mostly with the old peasants,because the younger ones had gone, and they became myteachers. It was like my university, because I didn't go touniversity. I learnt to tap a scythe, and I learnt a wholeconstellation of sense and value about life.
3
To understand the question posed by his decision to settle in theHaute Savoie, it is necessary to know something of Berger's life beforethat relocation, his politics and his public prole.His rst novel,
 A Painter of Our Time
(1958) was withdrawn by itsBritish publishers under pressure from the Congress for CulturalFreedom, an anti-communist lobby group backed by the CIA. Hisearly essays, written as art critic at the New Statesman, were collectedunder the title
 Permanent Red 
(1960), a statement of political constancyborne out by a piece in his most recent collection
 Hold Everything Dear 
3John Berger quoted in Lewis Jones, 'Portait of the artist as a wild old man',
 DailyTelegraph
, 23
rd
July 2001
 
(2007).Somebody enquires: are you still a Marxist? Never beforehas the devastation caused by the pursuit of prot, asdened by capitalism, been more extensive than today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible notto heed Marx who prophesied and analysed thedevastation...? Yes, I'm still amongst other things aMarxist.
4
In 1972, he won the Booker Prize for his fourth novel, 'G.' He usedthe platform to castigate Booker-McConnell for the sources of itswealth in the Caribbean sugar trade and gave half his prize money tothe Black Panthers as an act of reparation. (The Panther activist whoaccompanied Berger to the award ceremony was alarmed by hisintensity. ‘Keep it cool, man,’ he whispered, ‘keep it cool.’)The same year, he made a television series which turned that samearticulate anger on establishment narratives of art history.
Ways of Seeing 
was an attack on Kenneth Clark's
Civilisation
(1969), alsoproduced by the BBC. Clark had offered a grand tour of the Westerntradition, introduced from the study of his country house,interspersed with globe-trotting location sequences which would
4John Berger, 'Ten Dispatches About Place' in
 Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches onSurvival and Resistance
(2007)
become the template for big-budget documentary series. By contrast,Berger stands against a blue-screen in a studio, and this is used not totransport him to any pre-lmed backdrop, but to place the mechanicsof television in shot, questioning the ways in which it can be used tolead an audience.His subject is the mystication of art, the ‘meaninglessgeneralisations’ by which professional critics deect attention from thecontent of a painting and the questions it might open up about theworld. His delivery is intense, but also playful, driven by curiosity. Youhave the sense of witnessing thought in progress, rather than thepresentation of a completed worldview. He ends the rst episode bywarning the viewer to treat his arguments, too, with scepticism.The series was repeated twice that year on BBC2 and theaccompanying book became required reading for a generation of artschool undergraduates. In an age when there were three channels tochoose between, its presenter had become, if not a household name,at least a recognisable face for a signicant part of the viewing public.So the Berger who settled in the Haute Savoie was a public gure,an acclaimed and controversial writer, an intellectual of the rst rank  –- in as much as such statements can ever be meaningful. When sucha gure leaves the city for life in a remote village, this invitesquestions. What is he going in search of? Or trying to escape from?

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Pamela McLean added this note
Thanks for this Dougald. I was half expecting this "Berger stuff" to be a bit too "literary" and "arts degree-ish" for me. But this has built a bridge between John Berger's work and my own experiences - partly in the depths of Cornwall, partly in rural Nigeria, most importantly perhaps with my repeated "culture shocks" on re-entering the fabricated "realities" and assumptions of UK urban life.
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