Berger
Type
Regular
Category
Column
Reading

On losing John Berger

Today I read that you had died.

I can’t stop the ache in my throat, the breaking pressure in my chest, even though you are no more absent to me now than you have ever been. I only knew you through your writing: novels, essays, poems – and once a letter, written in blue biro on the back of a bill, in response to one of mine.

I wish I had met you. In a way, I did: I met you through the particular intimacy you offer every reader. It’s an intimacy that always holds the necessary space. You write words with air around them, words in which another might find herself and thus find the world. Your writing always turns us outwards, to our own worlds and to the worlds in which others live.

When I think of you, I think of water. Your work wells out of broken ground and flows with increasing vigour towards an uncertain horizon; a deepening confluence of clear energies, gathering into itself all the colours of the skies it runs beneath. It’s your reticence, your fierce honesty, your humour, your courteous attention to all things. The transparencies of the self you lay down on paper. For you, everything holds the same unending miracle of being. You listen to stones and to children; you are as fascinated by the making of soup as by the complexities of art. Every thing is holy.

So often you surprise me with tears. Not because you manipulate emotions, but because you do the opposite: you invite a recognition of feeling that rises innocently through layers of scars, illuminating the present beauties that surround us always – even in the darker times, even in the darker places. Some people say you are sentimental because you are so unafraid of the naked expression of feeling, but they are wrong. You know there is no division between intellect and feeling. You understand that, just as feeling without intelligence is a reduction of human capacity, intellect without feeling is warped and truncated, a damaged and damaging thing.

For a Marxist, you are an exemplary Christian. I think the only human hierarchy you respect is from Corinthians: So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Your work is always, in the most unillusioned of ways, about love. It is love stripped of the sentimental glaze that transforms it into a lie, love that embraces without possession, love that knows how to let go, how to suffer, how to leave, how to celebrate, how to laugh. You know laughter is a resistance against the worst things.

That is why we, your readers, love you.

You are never above anything. You always insist on holding open the space of beauty, unembarrassed by its extravagance or humility, attentive to all its motley and various hues, its grandeurs, its minutiae. You understand the eye’s desire to colonise and possess, the rapacious claim the gaze makes over everything it sees, and you resist everything that means. You show instead how the eye might become a generous organ, how perception might be a conduit of quiet attention, a witness to a relationship that is always transient and mortal, a space in which everything is permitted to exist in its own time, for its own reasons.

You obey every human imperative except power. Perhaps that is what I most admire. So few of us are able to extricate ourselves from that spiritual criminality; so few of us can see the world freed from that distorting lens. Without ever claiming a lack of complicity – something that is available to none of us – you say no. Your denunciation is absolute. You chronicle the murderous, soul-killing ideologies of our time. You turn and listen to those who have no power, and you never judge them. But for those who have power, for those whose greed is closing its fist over our planet, for those whose only measure of worth is money, your judgment is pitiless.

I am so sad today, but it is a selfish mourning. It is me I mourn – the me who lived in a world where you too were breathing. You lived generously and lovingly, awake to the end. I wish we may all live so well. Now you will always exist in the present tense. Your gifts remain, not to be mourned, but to be taken and used. The world is not darker because you have died. It is brighter because you were alive.

 

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Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent novel is The Bone Queen.

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