release date: 01 march 2022
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A couple of episodes back I mentioned the writing of John Berger, how I’d been re-reading a large volume of his selected writings. That re-reading prompted me to search my bookshelves for another of his many books. This one, published in hardback in 2011 by Pantheon Books, New York, is titled
“Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?”
Its a thoughtfully produced 160 pages of musings, anecdotes and philosophical inquiry about the nature of art and includes numerous reproductions of Berger’s characteristic exploratory, evocative drawings, punctuated with quotes from 17th century Dutch philosopher, writer, outcast and lens-grinder Benedict Spinoza – the Bento of the title. The book is episodic, diaristic, provocative, inspiring.
At home alone on a rainy morning, I decided to read a few pages out loud. The book fell open to a story John Berger narrates about a chance encounter arising from his everyday life as a senior citizen living in Paris in 2010 ( he was born in 1926).
Among many other things, it’s an illustration of how art can work, before, beyond and outside of commerce, fame, spectacle or ‘isms, to create meaning in life, to connect people.
As I read the story, out loud, I was surprised by the strong affect his writing conjured in me, and as I’d read the story before, it had that air of vague familiarity that allows one to better appreciate the craft of the writer, an almost haptic appreciation of the essay’s structure.
For me, this ten page essay is emblematic not only of of Berger’s style and brilliance as a lifelong writer but of – as I imagine it – his emotional being, his inner crucible of empathy, insight, anger at injustice and his complete inhabitance of life.
So, this episode is simply my reading of those few pages on another rainy day here in Redfern Sydney, on Gadigal country.