Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger. Pantheon, 176pp., $28.95.
Early in this very unusual book, John Berger frames our understanding of what is to follow by explaining the inspiration behind the work: the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677), whose first name Baruch was shortened to Bento, liked to draw, and his contemporaries noted that he carried a sketchbook. They presumed he drew in it, in addition to noting down thoughts for his philosophical writings, which opposed his near-contemporary Descartes. However, after his early death—likely a consequence of inhaling glass dust from the lenses he ground to earn a living—no sketchbooks were found among his papers. This inexplicable lacuna seized Berger’s imagination, and for years he pondered what the apocryphal sketchbook would be like:
I didn’t know what I hoped to find in it. Drawings of what? Drawn in what kind of manner? . . . For a while in Amsterdam he lived a few hundred meters away from Rembrandt, who was twenty-six years his elder. Biographers suggest the two of them probably met. As a draughtsman Spinoza would have been an amateur. I wasn’t expecting great drawings in the sketchbook, were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes.
Then a friend of Berger’s gave him a new sketchbook with a sumptuous suede cover; it reminded him of Bento’s sketchbook, and he decided to create an homage to that missing document, which is the book we are holding: a loosely arrayed collection of reflections and anecdotes, plus thought-provoking quotations from Spinoza’s principal works, all illustrated with sketches by Berger himself (in addition to his writing, he has been a professional artist for over six decades).
The source of Berger’s fascination with Spinoza is not immediately apparent, as the “startling philosophical propositions” he refers to bear only a tenuous connection with his works, and in the end it seems to be biographical in nature. Berger has always been drawn to outsiders and underdogs, to radicals and to those who reject dominant paradigms, and Spinoza was all of these things. For his unacceptable readings of Scripture and his unorthodox philosophical views, he was thrown out of the Jewish community he grew up in; and though baptized, as a Jew by blood he was never fully accepted by the Christian community. In other words, Spinoza was effectively isolated from the academic life of his time. But he never retracted any of his views, instead opting to support himself with a trade and publishing his works on his own. That this story would hold much appeal for Berger is not surprising. Berger has lived and worked on a farm in rural France for decades, and his labors there have grounded his work as a writer and an artist. It is very clear that he sees the intellectual and artistic life as best pursued in complete freedom, as an adjunct to manual labor. In this light, Spinoza’s choices add up to a picture of radical intellectual freedom underpinned by everyday useful labor – in Berger’s moral universe, a perfect role model for a writer and artist.
Bento’s Sketchbook is a curious and beautiful object, both in the writing and in its design. It is a delight to handle and carry and read and mark up: it resembles an actual sketchbook, of a kind you wish you could buy for yourself at your local art-supply shop and fill up in a similar way. The boards are sturdy, the pages creamy with a nice tooth suitable for pencil sketching, and to add to the effect, in at least one place some clever designer placed an “ink stain” across from a corresponding “ink blot” over a drawing on the facing page. The drawings Berger has chosen to reproduce are somewhat unsteady of line, but they are no less vivid and vigorous for that. Moreover, they show a side of his capacity for conveying the unique energy of some small piece of the world that his readers have not had direct access to until now.
Appropriately, the writing here largely addresses the act of drawing—what it feels like to encounter a subject that calls you to make a drawing, what it feels like to make that drawing, what the act of making a drawing can mean—but as always Berger has much wider concerns in view. A long example will serve to make clear what those concerns are. Toward the end of the book Berger tells how he came to give away a Japanese Sho brush (an illustration of which is included on the facing page—a typically lovely full-page ink drawing). At the time he was an habitué of a municipal swimming pool in a suburb of Paris, where he would swim in the early afternoons. He noticed a Cambodian woman in her late fifties who swam differently from most: with remarkably slow but powerful movements, like a frog in water. (Berger makes this comparison and adds that “in the Far East the frog is a symbol of freedom.”) He also noticed a man about her age who always swam with her, presumably her husband though he had the manner of a bodyguard; he helped her into and out of the water in a way that was practiced yet mindful, less a routine than a ritual.
Berger soon made acquaintance with the woman and her husband/bodyguard (who rarely spoke), and he learned that she was swimming to ameliorate her arthritis. She had fled her art studies in Cambodia just before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the capital and began deporting its inhabitants to the countryside, where they would be
surrounded by enemies—Vietnamese, Laotians, Thais—and were on the point of being tyrannised and massacred by their own political visionaries, who transformed themselves into fanatics so that they could inflict vengeance on reality itself, so they could reduce reality to a single dimension. Such reduction brings with it as many pains as there are cells in a heart.
She had never stopped painting and still did so as much as her physical pain would allow her, and Berger reflects that he found it “impossible to separate the pain to which her body was apparently heir from the pain of her country’s history during the last half century.” Shortly thereafter he decided to make her a gift of the Sho brush, modestly leaving it in a wrapped box at the pool for her to receive when he would not be present. When he next saw her at the pool, after he returned from some months of travel, she expressed delight at the gift and simply asked: Bird or flower? That is, which subject would he prefer her to paint with the brush, as a thank-you gift? He chose the bird.
When he later received the drawing—left, in reciprocal modesty, for him to receive in her absence, for as Berger observes, “no gift can be accompanied by a claim”—he found it beautifully done. It had an overall unity, but it felt bifurcated somehow. The bamboo perch was done with a fluid line and was executed perfectly, but the bird was stiffer, as if it were embroidered onto the painting. The bird was “inexplicably homeless.”
He framed the drawing and hung it, and many months later, looking something up in a Larousse Illustré (an illustrated one-volume encyclopedia sold in France in a new edition each year) he happened upon an illustration of a little bird that was puzzlingly familiar to him—puzzling, that is, until he realized he was looking at the model that his Cambodian friend had taken for the painting of the bird. “And again,” Berger concludes, “I understood a little more about homelessness.” On the facing page, he furnishes a long quotation from Spinoza about how we conceptualize time in spatial terms.
I relate this story and its surroundings in some detail—though with nothing like the thoughtful, judicious beauty with which Berger relates it—because this particular section of Bento’s Sketchbook best exemplifies the overall character of the book: an unusually inclusive expression of everything Berger has been interested in throughout his work. In fact, in Bento’s Sketchbook we find all the principal lines of his life’s work braided together into a single remarkable offering.
Perhaps the most central of these lines is the wonderful storytelling, which provides a form for whatever else Berger has to say, whether he is writing an essay or a novel. Berger is skilled at sketching a scene, making vivid the unique qualities of every human being he encounters, and drawing us along a chain of events that leads to a conclusion that is almost always unforeseen. Along the way he aims to expose what he knows of a single human soul who has been at the receiving end of some vast tragedy: a civil war, a disastrous revolution, a political tyranny, or one of the pervasive injustices that we all live with, for the most part unthinkingly, every single day. In the course of these reflections he reveals his own politics, which he terms “Marxist,” but since Berger has never been a systematic political thinker, his politics are not so much a set of intellectual positions as they are a sensibility, a strong conviction that it is no longer just the ambitions of tyrants, but even more pervasively, the prevailing winds of global capitalism that threaten and diminish our common humanity. And animating those political concerns is the final line of Berger’s work: his lifelong commitment to, and fascination with, the visual and its representation (or augmentation) by art. His art criticism has always been unique in that he does not merely excel at describing a work and contextualizing it: once he properly places the work in our minds, he proceeds to inhabit the work, subject, and artist, laying these all out in a fashion that illuminates the work from within. On the whole, although much of the book explicitly addresses itself to the nature of drawing and its philosophical and political dimensions, perhaps the finest passages in this book are taken up with this exact kind of sensitive noticing and imagining when confronted with another’s work of art, as above with the painting of the bird.
Bento’s Sketchbook may have started out as an homage to Spinoza’s missing sketchbook, but he has inevitably created a broad sort of self-portrait in these pages. If it turns out to be the last work Berger produces (and we can hope not), it would certainly be a worthwhile valediction for a man who has seemingly never once lowered his eyes from the realities of this world, be they beautiful or hideous.
Jeremy Hatch is a book reviewer for various websites and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him blogging on arts and literature at JeremyHatch.com.
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