I watched George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address in the winter of 2008 with a sort of blistering rage and worry about the state of the world. I don’t remember, now, what the seed of the trouble was—maybe Iraq, maybe climate change, maybe the sort of dread about nothing in particular and everything all at once that overwhelms me when the world seems to be floundering and slipping away from the all things bright and beautiful and fair. I felt, deeply, a sense of wrongness in the world that I was powerless to combat. When I think of then, of myself at that particular time of life—twenty-five, and maybe too old too be so adolescently dramatic and naïve—I imagine my fingers to be more like dry wooden twigs than flesh and blood, grasping at a world in winter.
Regardless, watching someone I believed then to be criminally idiotic speak about my country, I was crying and sputtering with rage. The friend I was watching the speech with got up, walked across the room to the bookshelf, and tossed a small white book at me. “There,” he said. “Read that and you’ll be fine.”
It was John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. I read it, and the world as I knew it, changed. I liked the quiet crackling of Berger’s rage, that he wrote of how the cramped crook of a boy’s body shooting marbles in a Palestinian settlement spoke of an undefeated despair and familiarity with unkindly small spaces. I liked the image of an old couple, crossing a check-point, holding hands no matter the age—a conspiracy of two against the world. I loved Gareth Evan’s poem at the start—where “the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat for the journey.”
I fell for the way of seeing the world that came through Berger’s words—here was love and fury and a seething peace within it all. The dead were among the living, and living smelled of the gasoline of motorbikes as much as the freshness of hay. The despair had grace and teeth, the ghosts had blood and bones. My own writing, when I’m reading Berger, is more bodily—I leave muscle and heart and bones and teeth and hands and skin and hair and blood on the page to a degree I’ve never come to from anyone else. His writing makes me aware that I am alive, mortal and physical, while tattooing an eternal, earth-bound mysticism and immediate humanitarian outrage into my being. The blinders are off, the gloves are off, and any shred of artifice joins them—butchered and beautiful—on the floor.
After Hold Everything Dear, I devoured everything that I could borrow from my friend, find in libraries, or otherwise get my hands on. I love, particularly, the Into Their Labours trilogy and To the Wedding. Into Their Labours are loosely connected stories about three generations in a small village in France, but the story, I think, is the same as small-town anywhere. The binding love, the sense of place, the dirt and reality rather than a sanitized Euro Disney history—this is the world I believe to be real. Each one of those stories opened something within my heart and worldview a little more, made me believe in the stubborn strength of humanity to lurch forward. When I didn’t like the ending of the trilogy, when I cried at how the heirs of a pastoral village end in the slums of a nameless city—this colors how I see the present world’s migrations and crowdings and inequities. Berger’s writing, gently and ferociously, reminds me who we are, and who we may be.
The same in To the Wedding, where the wedding reads like some frothy fantasy of a quaint village—except for the politics that almost keep a father out of the country and the disease that stalks the bride. To have harsh reality and fairy tale idealism holding hands on the page…this burnt something about tradition and mystery into my being that no church service or religion could ever have done.
I’ve sobbed in public while reading several of his books—And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos while sitting on the bench outside an underwear outlet, Here is Where We Meet while sitting in a shack at my job as a ski patroller, most memorably. Arguably, I’m hysterical and dramatic and like to draw attention to my literary loves. It’s partly true. I’m operatic in my reactions to what I love. I cry, sometimes a lot. Because I’ve found that Berger’s writing touches something like my bones, the reaction seems authentic. I’ve checked myself, many times, to make sure that I’m not in love with the idea of someone moved to tears by words on a page. I don’t think I am. The emotional reaction slows me back down to the pace where I can absorb the weight of the words, of the world as Berger points it out. Beautiful words that renew my faith in the world also change the beat of my heart and the timbre of my breath. It makes me wonder just how razor thin that faith must be if each renewal tingles my spine.
With Berger, I know I’m not alone in this breathless wonder. When I worked at a school library, the drama teacher and I found that we both love To the Wedding and stood in the hallway beaming and almost teary-eyed, each putting a palm over our own hearts and gesturing at the air with the other hand while jointly saying, again and again, “It’s just…”
Out of the last nine years that I’ve known about John Berger, I have feathered my bookshelves with copies of most everything of he’s written. Often, I check the “B” section of a bookstore first—not that I’m necessarily looking to buy more of his books, but I like to see them there. It’s my iteration of a rosary or a station of the cross, I suppose. My Berger collection is separated from most of my books, surrounded by the poetry and the other books that mean the world to me.
Yet, I thought today, about how long it has been since I’ve read any of the books. Certainly I still carry them around like totems—I spent this last summer with an abbreviated book collection and am sure at least Hold Everything Dear was saved out from storage. But I haven’t read them, any of them, for at least a few years. The poem I wrote in response to Hold Everything Dear fell out of my copy, dated January 30, 2008, along with a letter from my original Berger librarian, sent to my first Montana address that September. I know I’ve read the book since then, but can’t think when.
All the same, I was shaken to hear that Berger passed away yesterday. He was ninety, I never met him, he did not write back when I tried to write him a letter once, and he is not mine, personally, to mourn. Grief, I believe, is for those who knew him as the man, rather than those who knew him as the Writer. Nevertheless, I’ve been stumbling on something between gratitude and grief about his passing. I met Berger, as it were, when the world seemed dark with a government I did not like or trust. My worries and sadness about the world going forward now, rather than nearly nine years ago, have suddenly deepened. Between refugees and ISIS and Russian hacking and climate change and a President-Elect with climate deniers and white supremacists as confidants and advisors, I keep coming to the sense that the dark side is winning.
Lazily, selfishly, I wanted Berger and more like him to see me through this patch of history. I wanted his older world gravitas and someone who stole art supplies and made love to a woman he called Oslo (because it rhymed with First Snow) in the London Blitz to light the way for me through this modern mess.
But then I return to why I haven’t read Berger in a few years: I haven’t needed to. I used to need to, like needing a bandage over a wound, like an invalid heals in stages. I needed both the healing and then the proud badge of the scar. There are no scientific realities—other than death, digestion, decomposition, and the trading forms of released molecules—where fur and feathers become flesh, where flesh becomes bone. But that was the image that struck me today, still musing about why the death of a man I did not know causes such a hiccup in my heart—Berger’s books gave me something I needed, something I could hold, until the words slipped under my skin and into my solid, mortal bones. His writing helped me become who I am, and now that I am this creature with those particular tattoos on my bones, the only way forward is to be the incarnation of all that blood and passion and light and critical love and championing of this world.