Confabulations by John Berger

Supposing writers and painters have their different ways of arriving at their understandings, in Berger we have both. One can expect a breadth and depth in his observations of the world, whether picture or text. He wrote this near the end of his long life and yet it is full of the artist’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about life. He is is a philosopher, but totally committed to being a politicised one. It is impossible to imagine otherwise with Berger. Politicised and energetic, oh to be as connected with the world at that age. It’s a slight work, but there should be more of those. It says a lot and enough.

He takes small things, the shape of a flower, deaf people signing on a train, and turns these into reflections of a grand scale, but most simply stated, about the world and our part in it. How we listen and act, use language, relate to music and God. And overarching all this, always there, the glue that connects everything in his understanding of the world, our position of slaves, the position of our masters.

So, he may write of the song:

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. When it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song while filling the present hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further.

But at the same time, he has this limitless capacity to combine such observation of the world with political commentary which is ever strident, even though it can be elegant and moving as well.

…today, the ever expanding human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by Market Forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely, a utopia in which, in Milton Friedman’s words, ‘each man can vote for the colour of the tie he wants.’

In any utopian vision happiness is obligatory. This means that in reality it’s unobtainable. Within their utopian logic compassion is a weakness. Utopias despise the present. Utopias substitute Dogma for Hope. Dogmas are engraved; hopes flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.

Immediately I wonder if this should inform my reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. To read any Berger is to be given new armoury with which to set out into the world, new measures against which to weigh the words of those who claim to be the makers of our fortune.

History is important. Yes, Berger, thank you for insisting upon that, and for explaining that much we think is new now and disconnected to the past, is not.

All this comes together  in his concluding piece called ‘How to Resist a State of Forgetfulness.’ It reads in part:

During the last week I’ve been drawing, mostly flowers, motivated by a curiosity which has little to do with either botany or aesthetics. I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us. Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?

For me there is nothing mystical in this exercise. It is a gestural exercise, whose aim is to respond to different rhythms and forms of energy, which I like to imagine as texts from a language that has not been given to us to read. Yet as I trace the text I physically identify with the thing I’m drawing and with the limitless, unknown mother tongue in which it is written.

In the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.

Much of the information is about what was once called politics, but politics have been superseded by the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism with its traders and banking lobbies.

Politicians, of both Left and Right, continue to debate, to vote, to pass resolutions, as if this were not the case. And, as a result, their discourse refers to nothing and is inconsequential. The words and terms they repeatedly use – such as terrorism, democracy, flexibility – have been emptied of any meaning….

Another chapter of the information which which we are bombarded concentrates on the spectacular: on shocking, violent events wherever they occur across the world. Robberies, earthquakes, capsized boats, insurrections, massacres. Once shown, one spectacle is replaced by another, deprived of context, in numbing succession. They come as shocks not stories. They are reminders of the unpredictability of what can happen. They demonstrate the risk factors in life.

Add to this the language used by the media to present and classify the world. It is very close to the jargon and logic of management experts. It quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality. It deals with percentages, shifts in opinion-polls, unemployment figures, growth rates, mounting debts, estimates of carbon dioxide, et cetera, et cetera. It is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.

And so what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.

Meanwhile, around us, the planet is over-heating. The wealth of the planet is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; the majority are underfed, junk-fed or starving. More and more millions of people are being forced to emigrate with the slimmest hopes of survival. Working conditions are becoming more and more inhuman.

Those who are reading to protest against, and resist, what is happening today are legion, but the political means for doing so are for the moment unclear or absent. They need time to develop. So we have to wait. But how to wait in such circumstances? How to wait in this state of forgetfulness?

Let us recall that time, as Einstein and other physicists have explained, is not linear but circular. Our lives are not points on a line – a line which is today being amputated by the Instant Greed of the unprecedented global capitalist order. We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centre of circles.

The circles surround us with testaments addressed to us by our predecessors since the Stone Age, and by texts which are not addressed to us but which can be witnessed by us. Texts from nature, from the universe, and they remind us that symmetry co-exists with chaos, that ingenuities outflank fatalities, that what is desired is more reassuring than what is promised.

Then, sustained by what we have inherited from the past and what we witness, we will have the courage to resist and continue resisting in as yet unimaginable circumstances. We will learn how to wait in solidarity.

Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.

I hope he is right and that the circularity of the centre of a rose will save us, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to visualise. We have let evil men take over the world, in the large main the politicians of all types get fed enough scraps by their Masters to make them happy to be compliant. These evil men already own the natural resources of the world, we have even let them buy most of the world’s water. When Google and the rest of them have finished developing AI to an appropriate level, which must be just around the corner, most of us will be entirely redundant. A small number might exist as  the provider of organs for harvesting.

Are there enough good smart young people to work against the Dark Side? Does Google get them all? Do none of them have enough of a sense of morality to go another way?

I find it hard to believe that twenty years ago this would have been science fiction, but now it is just the version of the present we are most likely heading towards. Do we have time? I so hope that Berger is right.