Hold Everything Dear

Issue section: 
(316)

John Berger, Verso, £14.99

John Berger has been writing art criticism and fiction with a very social sense of outrage for nearly five decades. His 1970 TV series and book, Ways of Seeing, made a Marxist approach to art and culture mainstream and him a controversial figure.

Since then, during a time of retreat for the left, Berger has written movingly about hidden suffering and hidden struggles - the plight of immigrants, the marginalisation of committed artists or the resilience of peasants half broken by the world market. In the process his profile if not his stature has declined.

Berger's writing is quirky. His lines of thought start with wry observations: "Of the billions of mobile phone conversations taking place every hour in the world's cities and suburbs, most, whether they are private or business calls, begin with a statement about the caller's whereabouts. People need to straightaway pinpoint where they are; it is as if they are pursued by doubts suggesting they may be nowhere."

But in this collection of 21st century essays he writes with a controlled anger and confronts important issues. In About Disconnecting he asks, "Is it possible that this [the US] administration is mad?" His answer is that its disconnection with reality is not caused by insanity but by growing disparity of wealth.

Berger finds hope in this disconnection. As a result of the invasion of Iraq and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina "a shift in opinion has happened almost overnight. History, throwing us all back in to our seats, suddenly opened its throttle."

Berger's combination of anecdote, poetry and meditation won't be to everyone's taste, but he uses it to great effect to penetrate the extremes of personal suffering he sees around him and he insists on the continued importance of Marxism.

Most analyses of the current situation, he says in Where are We? are presented within the framework of their separate disciplines - economics, politics, media studies, ecology, etc. To take in what is happening, "an interdisciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the 'fields' which are institutionally kept separate. Any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political."

There is a tension in the book between the search for overall analysis and the art critic's celebration of individual moments of resistance. But I found Berger's eloquent contempt for Bush's world order inspiring and his inquiries into the personal effects of globalised capitalism fascinating.

Most important of all is Berger's insistence on understanding and clarity as a precondition for turning anger against tyranny. "Every form of contestation against this tyranny is comprehensible. Dialogue with it is impossible. For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words."