The Flight of the Blackbird: Aboard John Berger's Motorbike

The Flight of the Blackbird: Aboard John Berger's Motorbike

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly,
All your life…
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,
Blackbird fly… Into the light of a dark black night

The Beatles

I’ve a vivid memory of John Berger whose books I’ve read and admired for years: seeing him in the flesh, donned in leathers, ridding his giant black Honda 1100 bike. It was a weirdly surreal vision of a man who’s probably the greatest living English intellectual, indeed one of the last great European intellectuals. It was a glorious summer’s day. I was about to go walking in the mountains near the ski-station Sommand, up at around 1,500 meters. Driving en route I approached Quincy, a sleepy village of a dozen-or-so-houses, nestled amidst rolling French alpage, when, suddenly, a motorbike overtook me at breakneck speed, but then pulled up abruptly at a lay-by not far ahead. (It stopped in front of a curious visitor: a stationary British double-decker bus, kitted out for a road trip, seemingly by New Age traveler-Merry Prankster types.) Off came the rider’s helmet and, shaking hands with a dreadlocked young man, his identity was revealed. I cruised by, staring in wonderment at a fast approaching octogenarian, robust and costaud—as the French might say—with close-cropped white hair. I remember thinking that the ex-pat novelist-playwright, film scriptwriter-poet, art critic-essayist looked like a cross between a portly Batman and the real life signalman Jean Ferrero, Berger’s alter-ego from his novel To The Wedding.

Berger moved to his Haute-Savoie beat of Quincy, some thirty-miles east of Geneva, in the early 1970s when peasants still toiled the land and his stone Savoyard chalet, replete with adjacent barn and traditional carved spruce balcony, had neither running water nor electricity. His abode was constructed long before skiers and holiday homes colonized the area with their kitsch wooden chalets. Back then, denizens slept and ate next to their beasts. In fact, chez Berger still hasn’t an inside WC; and every May—after the snow’s gone and before the flies arrive—the great writer takes hold of a spade and pushes his wheelbarrow to clear out a year’s “load of shit” from the outhouse—his own, his family’s and his guests’. He consecrated the act in a suitably pungent scatological essay, one of my favorites, pointedly autobiographical, laying into “elite intellectuals” like Czech author Milan Kundera, because they don’t like getting crap on their hands, because they look down on muck and on those who shovel it. “In the world of modern hygiene,” I remember Berger saying, “purity has become a purely metaphysical or moralistic term. It has lost all sensuous reality.”

It’ be wonderful to be a fly on the wall—or on a tree—somewhere, watching Berger in his yard shoveling shit. And to meet Mick, the neighbor’s mischievous dog, who mauls sheep and comes to lend Berger a paw. “The shit slides out of the barrow when it’s upended,” Berger says, “with a slurping dead weight. And the foul sweet stench goads, nags teleologically.” The smell is of decay, to be sure, but not of shame or sin, says Berger, as puritans would insist: decaying shit should have nothing to do with a loathing of the body. “Its colors are burnished gold, dark brown, black: colors of Rembrandt’s painting of Alexander the Great in his helmet.” You had to hand it to Berger, invoking Rembrandt, bringing art criticism down to earth, waxing lyrical and philosophical about putrefaction. And that little parable Berger tells, about the rosy smooth apple falling in cow dung? I still giggle: “Good morning, Madame la Pomme,” the cow pat says, “how are you feeling?” No response: such a conversation is below the apple’s dignity. “It’s fine weather, isn’t it? Madame la Pomme?” Again silence. A few minutes later somebody walks by, picks up the apple and bites into it. “See you in a little while, Madame la Pomme!” says the cow shit, irrepressibly.

It’s not that Berger likes shoveling shit. It seems that confronting shit, knowing what it is, where it comes from, how it smells, keeps you in contact with your nose and your body, with sensuous reality. And sensuous reality seems to be what Berger yearns for: the need for authentic experience, for a life without rubber gloves, unmediated by mod cons and gadget commodities, by air-conditioning and central heating. Berger’s body seems to want to feel and smell just as his brain wants to think. He claimed he came to Quincy “to learn,” to understand a disappearing world, to see and feel oppression and graft, mimicking with the French peasantry what Karl Marx’s old comrade Frederick Engels did with Manchester’s working class. Berger wanted to see where Europe’s migrant workers set off, witness the old life they’d left behind. Perhaps Berger sought, still seeks, the rawness of experience Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called “deep song,” something “imbued with the mysterious color of primordial ages,” akin “to the trilling of birds, the crowing of the rooster, the natural music of forest and fountain.” Perhaps Berger himself was searching for a sense of place, for a sense of belonging, for a foyer in a vast world?

* * *

It always struck me that people who read Berger, who love him and his words, are searching for something like that, searching for a deeper, richer meaning to the world, to their world. That’s why his words strike a cord, grab you by the collar, force you to join in. I remember my own search here, my own reactions, and one of his books that helped a lot: Another Way of Telling. Full of Jean Mohr’s vivid black-and-white photos, Berger’s longstanding Swiss collaborator, the title alone says bundles about what the book tried to do. It heralded a new, utterly original way of telling stories, of portraying lives, of sketching landscapes and vistas, with simple words and direct, almost artless images. What emerges is a very striking art form, a sort of poetic humanism, speaking out across distances and across cultures; it was pretty much as Wordsworth had put it in the preface of Lyrical Ballads: here were men speaking to men.

I first saw Another Way of Telling in a little bookstore in Southampton, England. I was living in a town I detested, debuting in a teaching-job at the university, in a lecturing career I’d eventually ditch. Those images and words inspired me in dark days and lonely hours. There are several that linger, will always linger, of an old peasant shepherd, Marcel, who, with his fifty cows, labored high in the alpage around Sommand. Weather-beaten and wizened, we can see diminutive Marcel out in the open air, out with his dogs and his grandson, and his cattle. Two photos pair-off a close-up of Marcel’s gentle eyes and wrinkled face with that of a cow; the similarity is uncanny. Another has Marcel wearing his Sunday best, though the portrait only shows his torso; below, he’s still in grubby work clothes with boots covered in cowshit. “And now,” he beams, “my great grandchildren will know what sort of man I was.”

Yet my favorite image of Marcel, the one I remember best, was of him in his wooden alpine shack, a primitive yet dignified abode. He’s sat on a stool wearing his hat, in front of a table adorned with a checkered tablecloth. He’s eating something—some bread or maybe a croissant—dunking it into a bowl of coffee. It’s obvious he’s a poor, but it’s equally clear that he knows some tricks about the good life, about food and drink, about taste, about ordinary everyday joys: about a piece of bread, a cup of strong, black coffee, drank out of a little bowl. For ages afterwards, I thought this was an ideal image of the good life, on the sly, one I wanted to mimic wherever I went. I still think it. In dreary Southampton long ago, I thus dreamt of Alpine summits, of snow-capped peace, of cowshit, of authenticity, of bowls of black coffee and morsels of bread; John Berger took me there for a while, in spirit at least, and helped me pose a few questions about place and belonging, questions about deep experience and feeling connected to things.

Of course, I’d no idea back then that I’d live not far away from Berger, in another part of Haute-Savoie, southwest of Geneva. Perhaps it was Berger who’d subconsciously brought me to Haute-Savoie, closer to the mountains, closer to his characters, personalities I already knew intimately. The walks I took around Marcel’s old stomping ground, or Père Nicoud’s from At the Edge of the World, or Lucie Cabrol’s from Pig Earth, to say nothing about Berger’s own, those around Sommand’s alpage, were epic and dramatic. Often I’d disappear into the clouds and encounter snow even in June; on a thin slither of rock, next to a giant cross, I once hit 2,000 meters, scampering up on all fours for the last stretch, reaching the Pointe de Marcelly. I stood there, fatigued yet enthralled, and not a little vertiginous, indomitable like Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer over the Sea of Fog, surveying Berger country, with Taninges and Cluses far, far below. Another time, high above Mieussy, near the Grotte du Jourdy, I heard a massive jolt of the mountain, of the glacier shifting, of rock dislodging; for several seconds I stood transfixed and terrified, staring upwards into the mist, helplessly listening to giant boulders tumble down somewhere, perhaps over me?

At these heights, you share airspace with ubiquitous paragliders, who fill the sky and hover in cool mountain air, and marmots who lay belly down camouflaged in the rocks. They’re smart little creatures, coming out of their subterranean lairs only after the snow disappears and when it warms up. Up here, way up here, they’re also out of harms way of humans. I’d watch them with binoculars, around Pointe de Rovagne, eating lunch in the heavens, chomping away at bread and sausage, knowing John Berger was somewhere down below. The clean French mountain air and burying outhouse shit, together with the odd tipple of gnôle—hard stuff eau de vie (more than 40% proof)—has done Berger no harm. When contemporaries like Norman Mailer are riddled with arthritis and walk around on sticks, Berger looks a marvel of good health. (The contemporary Berger most admires, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, meanwhile battles leukemia.) Every year, Berger still picks up a scythe to lend a hand with haymaking, and is as full of rascally energy and enthusiasm as ever. And his writing still packs as much muscle as that black monster motorcycle he rides.

Yet I’d seen another side of action man Berger, too, one summer’s afternoon: the private man out in his garden: a mellow, polite, almost grandfatherly figure, alone in his thoughts. (It’s fascinating how Alpine village peace has whetted Berger’s appetite for transnational confrontation.) I was strolling past chez Berger, wandering up a path eager to get a view of his house and of the magnificent Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain, which, at 4,800 meters, looms dreamily in the distance. (Quincy, by contrast, is around 750 meters.) The caped-crusader’s motorcycle, his Honda Blackbird, was there, stationary, off the road, in front of the rustic chalet. Its raw power looked almost serene, Zen-like, glistening in golden Alpine sunshine; yet you sensed it was ready for action anytime, ready for radical mobilization. An instant later, there he was, the rider himself, Jean Ferrero, a.k.a. John Berger—the village “shepherd”—setting up a table for lunch en plein air. Amazingly, Jean waved and gave me a very jovial “Bonjour!” I waved back, responded likewise, and, too timid to approach, quickly scurried off. Needless to say, I wanted to approach him, wanted to introduce myself, to say “hi there,” but felt foolish and embarrassed.

At any rate, I didn’t want to violate his Sunday afternoon tranquility; and in France, nobody disturbs somebody about to dine! I knew Berger shunned the limelight, avoided the press, and deigned to give interviews only infrequently. So why would he want sycophants snooping around, struggling writers trying to seek him out? At Quincy, he gets down to his own work—to articles and poems, to painting and drawing and translating, to books and collaborations—and has a family life—Beverly, his American wife, son Yves, an artist who lives down the lane and paints in pop’s barn, and film-critic-translator-daughter Katya (from an earlier relationship), who lives across the frontier in Geneva. Berger’s many friends and colleagues across the globe speak of his hospitality, of his generosity at Quincy, welcoming guests, making cheese and picking fruit (Writer Geoff Dyer, a Berger disciple, recalls dining at the Bergers sandwiched between a Mieussy plumber and photographer Henri Cartier Bresson); but, in general, Berger keeps himself to himself.

Locals know of him, though—the man if not the œuvre. I remember an earlier occasion losing a footpath and walking across a field near the village of Onnion; a paysanne came out of her house and asked if I was looking for somebody in particular. I told her, yes, I was looking for the English writer John Berger, who I understood lived somewhere near here. “Ah oui, Monsieur Berger!” She’d never read him, but she knew exactly which house he lived in, and how I could find it. I sensed she was a little reticent at first about divulging too much, a little protective of her famous author neighbor. But she seemed convinced I was genuine, and, in the end, was proud she could help. If you walk south toward the D907, she’d said, it’s the last house on the right, next to the factory, just as you exit Quincy, just as the lane bends and narrows. You can’t miss it. There’s no fence or wall around the property. It’s open to the road. And you’ll see his motorbike if he’s there…

Wandering down to Quincy from Onnion, via the tiny neighboring hamlet St-Denis, Mont Blanc comes into its own. The great White Mountain isn’t called that for nothing. Forever snow-covered, if the weather’s fine it looks luminously majestic, like candy floss, towering above other jagged peaks; in late afternoon, just before sunset, it becomes awesomely beautiful, a throbbing red-golden pulse radiating the sun’s final energy of the day; then, at dusk, it shivers with a bluely-gray hue, seemingly about to recede into a slumbering calm. Even in pitch-black darkness, you sense Mont Blanc’s great hulking mass is lurking somewhere out there, in deep infinite space. It’s a mountain that makes you dream; I bet its magic spell has helped John Berger write his books, been his muse, his Soul Mountain, kept him young, and not a little mischievous, adding epic drama to ordinary everyday life: for a long time Mont Blanc was known as la Montagne Maudite, “the accursed mountain,” a gigantic ice-field haunted by the dead.

I’d die not to climb Mont Blanc but to see inside Berger’s house one-day, to poke around his papers, to check out his bookshelves, to see which way his desk faces, to write about it the way he wrote about Simone Weil’s writing table, in A Girl like Antigone (in Photocopies: Encounters). Hers was a desk that looked over the rooftops of Paris, a desk made for flights of the imagination. I wonder whether his looks out onto Mont Blanc? Whether it’s shaded or sunlit most of the time? I remember what writer Arthur Koestler said somewhere, I forget where exactly, about scribes. He reckoned there are really two sorts of writers: those whose desks face a wall or those whose desk faces a window. Take your pick. I can imagine Kafka’s facing a blank wall; ditto Céline’s; but Berger’s? Surely a window, surely it will look out onto a garden, perhaps a cherry tree? His depression-free workspace would surely glimmer with Gramscian optimism of the will, with hope against hope. What was it that one of Berger’s heroes, Walter Benjamin, said? “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.” Perhaps this maxim is pinned to the windowpane above Berger’s desk? I wonder, too, if Berger keeps his motorbike in the kitchen sometimes, like Jean Ferrero’s? This would separate him from most other great writers, from other twentieth-century intellectuals: he loved fiddling around with motorbikes, loved manual labor, getting stuck into things, with greasy bare hands.

I respected that earthiness. I liked the way Berger distanced himself from publicity and from a self-aggrandizing intellectual world, from closed coteries and backslapping elites. It was one of the reasons I was attracted to him. Not only did he write about ordinary people, he even lived next door to a few, too, had them around for dinner! He’d earned a living, he said, for half-a-century as a writer, yet still struggled for money, still rented his chalet from an old neighbor, Dédé and his wife. You had to admire the guy, he put his money where his mouth and words were: he often gave royalties away from his books, and over the years that would add up. He gave them away to causes to which he adhered, to causes he wrote about. He’d pen polemics for free because he believed in what he wrote. I also loved him because he lived a different life, lived it to the full, and was still doing it in old age, on his bike, out shovelling shit and making hay. I hope I can when I’m eighty. Perhaps he followed Nietzsche: Perhaps he only trusts thoughts nurtured in the open air?

* * *

Like John, Jean from To The Wedding lives in the French Alps. On a stand in his kitchen, just behind the front door, is his big bruiser motorbike. His daughter Ninon, who’s HIV-positive, is getting married to Gino, an Italian shirt salesman. And for almost the entire book, we track Jean on the road, traveling to the wedding, to a little village in Italy on the Po delta. We follow his cross-frontier derive, listen to his innermost thoughts, drift through landscapes, journey over mountain passes, encounter a motley array characters, hear testimonies from blind narrators, estranged lovers, bald hacks who wrote encyclopedias, and witness beautiful Ninon’s slow death. (The book is thinly disguised fiction: “Jean” Berger’s own daughter-in-law had just been diagnosed as HIV-positive; he was donating all royalties from the book to The London Lighthouse, an organization that supports those seropositive and living with AIDS.)

“Everything’s a question of how you lean,” explains bikeman dad Jean to his daughter when she was little. It’s her who recounts the lesson, perhaps a little parable on life: it’s all a matter of how you lean, how you deal with inertia. “If anything on wheels wants to corner or change direction, a centrifugal force comes into play. This force tries to pull us out of the bend into the straight, according to a law called the Law of Inertia, which always wants energy to save itself. In a corner situation it’s the straight that demands least energy and so our fight starts. By tipping our weight over into the bend, we shift the bike’s center of gravity and this counteracts the centrifugal force and the Law of Inertia! Birds do the same thing in the air. Except that birds, Papa says, are not in the air to make journeys—it’s where they live!” Jean talks like a Zen master, in black leathers, telling mystic anecdotes, driving his dream machine fast, conquering inertia, heels well back, elbows bent, wrists relaxed, and midriff against the fuel tank. “Speed is one of the first attributes they accredited to the gods,” says Berger. “And here in the sunlit morning before heavy traffic…Jean Ferrero is driving like a god.”

It’s quite a motorbike that both Jean and John ride. Even Honda suggests that its Blackbird 1100 (1137 c.c.) has a ridiculous top-speed: 275 km/h (170.8 mph). It’s pricy and a hard-core, aficionado’s machine, aesthetically beautiful yet lethal in the hand’s of a rooky. Berger has ridden a bike almost all his adult life. He knows about bikes and still hasn’t lost his nerve. His bike has an acceleration that blows your mind: 0-100 km/h in 2.4 seconds and 0-200 km/h in 8.7 seconds! You’ll make it on time to any wedding on that thing. Yet “the speed of motorbikes (and speed has everything to do with mass and weight),” Berger once said, “is often thought of as brutal (and it can be), but it can also whisper of an extraordinary tenderness...”

Blackbirds are in fact solitary creatures by nature, and they prefer woodland and heaths as habitats, near to open ground. They have a fine lyrical repertoire, and sing richly and clearly with a mellow voice, rather like the dulcet tones of a flute. Furthermore, while the color black has connotations with death and darkness, with mystery and evil, Berger sees it also as the color of sex, of black truffles, of making out in the bare earth of a forest under an oak tree. I can visualize Berger in his kitchen, not far from an oak tree, anointing his sexy black Blackbird with pleasure and tenderness. I can see him lovingly checking the brake fluid, the cooling liquid, the oil, the tire pressure, gripping the chain with his left forefinger to test whether it’s tight enough. Turning on the ignition, he’ll watch the dials light up red and then he’ll examine the two headlights and hear the purr of his flute. Methodical gestures: careful and gentle, done as if the bike’s a living organism, done in the kitchen in front of the stove at night.

In front of Berger’s stove, in his kitchen, is the warmest spot at his chalet in winter. It’s a cozy corner that all visitors remember. Apparently, Berger’s house is pretty beat up inside; he likes it like that. I imagine there are all sorts of bike parts and gear spread about everywhere, amidst stacks of books, loose papers, scythes and work boots. I remember reading a few years ago in the conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph a surprisingly affectionate article on Berger, “Portrait of the Artist as a Wild Old Man,” which spoke about his “bashed-up home” and his curious affinity with the American polemicist Andrea Dworkin. “She emerges as an intolerant castrating feminist,” says Berger, “but in her fiction you can see that she is incredibly open, sensuous and tender. There’s a strange relationship between fury and devastating tenderness.” Just like a motorbike, I guess; just like Berger himself: pissed off and furious with the state of the world, with the Dark Age we now inhabit, yet full of devastating tenderness, too. In one of his essays on Rembrandt in The Shape of a Pocket, Berger cites Dworkin saying: “I have no patience with the untorn, anyone who hasn’t weathered rough weather, fallen apart, been ripped to pieces, put herself back together, big stitches, jagged cuts, nothing nice. Then something shines out. But the ones all shined up on the outside, the ass wigglers, I’ll be honest, I don’t like them. Not at all.”

This is Berger’s world, a world at once torn up and delicately calibrated. Not an ass wiggler in sight. He’s an intense creator, a spontaneous sketcher and poet, a stream-of-consciousness writer, a man who invents a ripped up world and puts it all back together, shining on the inside, feeling reality like the irrationalist Rousseau; and yet, curiously, he’s also a meticulous rider and realist, evaluating how things function mechanically and scientifically, thinking about objects, critically and probingly, like the rationalist Descartes. “Writing a poem is the opposite of riding a motorbike,” Berger puts it himself in Pages of the Wound. “Riding, you negotiate at high speed around every fact you meet. Body and machine follow your eyes that find their way through, untouched. Your sense of freedom comes from the fact that the wait between decision and consequence is minimal… Poems are helpless before the facts. Helpless but not without endurance, for everything resists them. They find names for consequences, not for decisions. Writing a poem you listen to everything save what is happening now… On a bike the rider weaves through, and poems head in the opposite direction. Yet shared sometimes between the two, as they pass, there is the same pity of it.” Two different modes of experiencing the world, each thought to be opposed to one another—rational mechanics and aesthetic intuition—find an overleap in Berger’s brain and in Berger’s body, a common sharing, a reconciliation. They’re unified as Berger meanders in a low gear up a lonely mountain pass and as he scribbles on a blank white page.

* * *

Berger Europeanized himself, rendered himself an outsider, a stranger, a visitor. Doubtless that helped him open up to understanding “the other,” to those who were outsiders or strangers, to those who were migrant-worker “seventh men” out of necessity. He gave up on privilege in exchange for another sort of privilege, the privilege of choice. He chose to deracinate himself, to exile himself. Temperamentally, Berger said he’d always felt European and more at ease on the continent. And he had ambitions of becoming a European writer, with a global reach. He’d quit England years before coming to Quincy, years before he’d won the Booker Prize for his novel G, about the nomadic Don Giovanni philanderer, a man who “liberated” woman as he unnerved the bourgeois moral order. The flighty G. tells us a lot about Berger, about how he always thought of himself as a European, wanting out of a restrictive Home Counties culture, of a middle-class upbringing.

Signed-off—in a clin d’œil to James Joyce’s Ulysses—“Geneva-Paris-Bonnieux, 1965-1971,” a forty-something Berger was then as seemingly peripatetic as his central protagonist, the lad G, the testosterone charged, gap-toothed nobody who couldn’t control his own modern sexuality. His dick was his eventual undoing. Formally, the book is genius, brilliantly conceived, imaginative and sexy and intriguing, a work of great modernism, executed by a master modernist craftsman, deserving of every accolade. However, it didn’t have those blemishes, those holes for light and air, those torn up defects and the wonderful humility that you find in subsequent Berger books. On one hand, it was Berger’s great cubist moment, a moment that could only be a moment: by its very success, its own dialectical act of progression, it had to devour itself, had to negate itself, had to bite its own tail. On the other hand, the accusation Berger made of Picasso in his 1965 book The Success and Failure of Picasso rang true for Berger himself. Berger’s avant-gardism, the genius of his prize-winning G, the purity of his creation, had propelled Berger so far ahead of the game that it separated him from messy reality outside, leaving him stranded, lone, an individual towering artist, just like Picasso. To move on, Berger had to go back, back to something (and somewhere) pre-modern, to a scene more traditional, full of everyday people. It’s almost as if with G he’d cut his umbilical moorings, and now, after becoming a free-floating European, he needed to re-center himself again, to somehow un-G. himself.

In G we glimpse Berger battling with central dilemmas in the modernist tradition, dilemmas incarnated in himself: the schism between the liberated artist and the condemned masses, between the self and society, between sensuality and technological progress, between belonging somewhere and feeling at home everywhere. When G.’s father Umberto recalls later in life a terrifying childhood encounter with a revolting crowd, he muses: “Such a crowd is a solemn test of a man. It assembles as a witness to its common fate—within which personal differentiations have become unimportant… It has assembled to demand the impossible. Its need is to overthrow the order which has defined and distinguished between the possible and the impossible… In face of such a crowd there are only two ways in which a man, who is not already of it, can react. Either he sees in the promise of mankind or else he fears it absolutely.”

For Umberto, the crowd is at best remote and abstract, at worst insane and rabid. He doesn’t like crowds. A sane man, Umberto thinks, exempts himself from the crowd, from the mass of the world, so as to see what he can or can’t take from that world. The organism, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the crowd, of remoteness, of an abstraction: it’s an act of individual immediacy, of presentness, of pure Being, a shared moment yet a solo flight of hereness. The only poem to be written about sex, says Berger in G, is “here, here, here, here—now.” Thus the dramatic tension, the central fault-line structuring G, structuring Berger himself: Is the meaning of life a sexual or a revolutionary process? Is it a spontaneous eruption or a rationally planned act? Is the secret of reality motorcycle maintenance or motorcycle riding? Is history made in the crotch or in the crowd? Or, as Berger would likely ask, where can you find the contact zones, the points and body parts of potential overlap? How can the sexual climax become a revolutionary climax? How can a bike become not only a bike?

In a way, the real climax of G didn’t come in the text at all. Its real climax came later, at the awards ceremony, when Berger publicly laid into Britain’s literary establishment, tearing into them as he’d soon tear into Britain’s tweedy bourgeois art establishment with his classic TV series Ways of Seeing. The explosiveness of Berger’s smoldering volcano, his anti-imperialist Marxist allegiances, erupted in person as he denounced the Booker McConnell foundation, whose name the prize bears, as an agent of English imperialism. For 130 years, he told startled and embarrassed black-tie listeners, their extensive trading interests had ripped off the West Indies: “The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers.” He was sharing the £5,000 prize money with the London-based Black Panther movement “who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation.” The other half will finance his project about migrant workers, what would transpire as the magnificent trilogy Into Their Labors. “The sharing of the prize,” Berger said, “signifies that our aims are the same. By the recognition a great deal is clarified. And clarity is more important than money.”

* * *

Since G, Monsieur Berger de Quincy, the man on the Blackbird, has given us narrations and criticism, poetry and plays, film scripts and fulminations more traditional in conception, more grounded in their drama, more artisanal in their internationalism. Indeed, with trademark poetic, pared-down prose, for over thirty-years he’s recounted not “cubist” tales of arrogant, swashbuckling Don Juan-wannabes but epic visions of ordinary human madness, of ordinary human yearning, often of ordinary human death. I’ve always been struck by Berger’s idea that storytellers borrow their authority from the dead. It’s a curious phrase, a haunting notion. Perhaps decades of riding a motorbike at high speeds on icy mountain passes has taught Berger the thin-line between living ecstasy and rapid death: a split second lapse, a patch of black-ice, a mishap by somebody else, a careless motorist, a drunk…and it’s all over, you’re over the edge, rolling down, down into the valley of the damned.

Most stories, Berger says, in a review of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold — a book Berger loves — begin with death. (“The day before yesterday a friend of mine killed himself by blowing his brains out,” begins Berger’s essay.) That’s why, he thinks, storytellers are “Death’s Secretaries”: it’s death that hands storytellers like Berger the file, and the “file is full of sheets of uniformly black paper.” Raconteurs must “have eyes for reading them and from this file they construct a story for the living.” “All the storyteller needs or has is the capacity to read what is written in black.” If all history boils down to class struggle, to people fighting for their rights, and if romantics in our unromantic world are condemned to death at birth, perhaps it’s little wonder that death should inspire writers like Berger and Márquez, two romantic Marxists. Knowing about death lets them appreciate the wonders of the life-spirit, of daily life as epic drama and Greek tragedy, as flying into the light of a dark black night.

The dead have a handy habit of cropping up in Berger’s literary universe, and of animating his humanist voice. Lucie Cabrol, the dwarf-like “Cocadrille” of Pig Earth, the Alpine outcast and colporteuse who had an axe buried in her scull, is a classic Bergerian dead soul. But even in death she lives on, drinks gnôle in her three afterlives, and (“Jean”) Berger communes with her and with other village dead. He hears the voices of those who worked themselves to the grave, or who did themselves in because they could no longer find work. Ditto Boris, another Mieussy ghost, recounted and recast in the light of Berger’s lively imagination. His death is a chronicle foretold in Once in Europa, when the strapping Boris falls for a cute city gal in an affair fated to end badly. As Berger writes at the beginning, “Boris died like one of his sheep, neglected and starving.” And then there’s Ninon’s death, likewise presaged in To The Wedding; and the homeless tramps set alight by kids, or vagrant Luc who tosses himself off a bridge, one of the opening gambits of King, Berger’s stray dog yarn.

Death, too, dramatizes his recent Here is Where We Meet. I remember reading a chapter there, on Geneva, sat on a bench near Plainpalais in Geneva, vowing it was about time I wrote something on John Berger, musing about death and motorbikes, and about blackbirds and the Beatles. Berger likes Geneva more than I did when I lived nearby. I thought it gray and over-priced, drab and uninspiring place, without the dynamism of a big city or the restful charm of a small provincial town. Berger says Geneva has a “slight stoop due to short-sightedness.” The Argentinean maestro wordsmith Jorge-Luis Borges lived there but then Borges couldn’t see it. Maybe I didn’t know it well enough from the inside. I’d often read in Geneva University’s library, at the Uni-Mail building, along the Boulevard du Pont d’Arve. Afterward, I’d walk across the street and go down a narrow lane where a couple of used bookstores faced each other, on opposite sides of the street. The patron of both is a burly, bearded man of Ukrainian origins, brusque yet welcoming. In the summer, he sits outside on a stool bare top, with his gut hanging over his pants. He knows about literature and writes novels. The first time I went there I told him I was a writer, a struggling English writer, who’d lived in New York before moving to France. He asked if, when I come again, I could smuggle him in some meat, since it was cheaper in France than in Switzerland, he said, and better quality. Then he asked me if I knew John Berger. “Not yet,” I told him. He lives in the region, he said, and comes into the store sometimes.

Berger rides his motorbike again in Here is Where We Meet, off along the road between Warsaw and Moscow, a latter-day Polish Rider, and nearer to home, with his daughter on the back, to pay homage to Borges who’s buried at Geneva’s Plainpalais cemetery (tomb no.735). Like Borges’s pen, “riders wear summer gloves on their hands for the pleasure of precision,” says Berger. As I read Berger, almost in the shadow of Borges’s final resting place, the wind whipped up dead leaves. Death, for Berger, is like autumn leaves, leaves soon to be swept away, taken by a breeze; but spring always comes around again, and death anticipates renewed life, the gift of life, a yes rather than a no. All we need to do is transcribe those black files and transport them, by blackbird. For Berger, death presages hope, like it does in Spain, like it did for Lorca, whom Berger cited years earlier in his Picasso book: “In every country death is finality. It arrives and the blinds are drawn. Not in Spain. In Spain they are lifted… A dead person is more alive when dead than is the case anywhere else.”

In Here is Where We Meet, eight short stories converge (and diverge) in Berger’s most surrealist and autobiographical trip to date, his exquisite corpse, a collection that’s as tender as the night. Berger floats in and out of a dreamy, subliminal zone where space and time lose all recognized empirical moorings of geography and temporality, and where living landscapes—in Lisbon, Geneva, London, Madrid, Kraków, the Ardèche—harbor furtive afterlives. Buried pasts become sacred presents in which roam his mother and old teachers, former lovers and dear friends, all long departed but seemingly never, ever forgotten; personal time melds with grand historical time, a blind Borges communes with a limping Rosa Luxemburg, Rembrandt’s Polish Rider with Cro-Magnon cave paintings; rivers literally thousand of miles apart merge into one torrent of imagination; the boy Berger watches an aged John make sorrel soup while dreaming of father’s trench warfare and wild Polish country weddings. Past encounters offer Berger special Proustian keys for unlocking the future, for conveying his quantum curiosity. “The number of lives that enter any one life is incalculable,” he says.

Rendezvousing with his dead mother in Lisbon—“a city of endurance, unanswerable questions and pet names”—she reminds him: “everything begins with a death.” “Isn’t the beginning a birth?” he queries. “That’s the common error, and you fell into the trap as I thought you would!” “The births happened precisely because they offered a chance of repairing some of what was damaged from the beginning, after the death. That’s why we are here, John, to repair…to repair a little of what was broken.” “Why did you never read any of my books?” he wonders. “All my books have been about you.” “They were about everything in the world but me! I’ve had to wait until now, until you are an old man in Lisboa, for you to be writing this very short story about me.” You can’t afford to make a mistake anymore, she scolds her son, about whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth.

Old man Berger greets maman across a golden curtain of sunlight and water, hesitantly and insecurely. Before her, like all adult men, he remains a little boy. Without a mother, without those friends and mentors whom he’s outlived or outgrown, he’s alone: Here is Where We Meet is an orphan form, as book borne out of a sense of loneliness, a recognition of Berger’s own mortality, his irreconcilable homesickness, his yearning to be at home everywhere. His presence unnerves, unnerves because of its strange invisibility: he’s there on his motorbike, but he’s not there, he sees but can never quite be seen. In fact, Berger sees things mere mortals can’t see, like a trenchcoated Bruno Ganz from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, an unlikely angel, coursing around a universe that’s both monochrome and color; color for celebrations, for remembering the bride’s dress; monochrome for Rosa’s dark locks, for the gray history of her smashed in head, her lifeless body fished out of the Landwehr canal.

In speaking of death, the angel Berger reminds us of everyday joys of life at its most simplest, of experience most rooted and immediate, of slicing leeks and savoring beer, of plum brandy and newborn kids, of first snow and nightjars, of motorcycle boots and fried potatoes. Berger really notices things, really knows how to look, how to hear and feel little details around him. And he remembers. His pen flows as Walter Benjamin’s flowed in Naples or in Berlin, chronicling montages, glimpses and motifs. Autobiography, Benjamin once said, has a lot to do with time, with sequence, with “the continuous flow of life”; but Benjamin’s concern was with something different, with discontinuities and moments: he remembered only spaces. Ditto Berger, who writes as evocatively about bustling public squares as he does about darkened, deserted forests.

He has a painter’s gift—unsurprisingly for an ex-painter—for sketching with words colors and sensations, for evoking tonalities and moods of landscapes that literally blossom with child-like wonderment, with an almost-naïve purity of a romantic poet, as realities invented rather than discovered: “it is pointless,” he says in one Geneva rencontre, “to search in the places where people are instructed to look. Sense is only found in secrets.” Perhaps the secret of Here is Where We Meet, John Berger’s secret, isn’t found in people at all but in places, in places which don’t have signposts or billboards: in the “heres” and “wheres” that make human encounter possible, meaningful, and sustainable. It’s the heres and theres, too, where the dead commune with the living, reach out across the black divide, through the flames, keeping history alive in space. “So time doesn’t count and place does?” Berger asks, teasing his mother. “It’s not any place, John, it’s a meeting place.”

* * *

You encounter the concept of place—the idea of meeting places—everywhere in John Berger’s oeuvre, everywhere in John Berger’s imagination, everywhere in John Berger’s politics. They’re there in Quincy, they’re there as he rides his bike, and they’re there in his head. “Questions of geography,” “questions of place,” a “sense of place,” the “place of painting,” “meeting places”—keeping rendezvouses—are the lifeblood of Berger the man, the artist and the concerned citizen. A place, he says, is more than an arena. A place surrounds something, expresses a presence not an absence, a fullness and connectivity; it implies something alive, the consequence of an action and an activity. A place is the opposite of empty space, the opposite of something artificial and inert, of something prefabricated and self-consciously manufactured, of a decoration or a representation.

Bergerian meeting places are veritable antitheses of the manufactured “Nowheres” we’re creating today, where a singular, empty present presides, and where all history and memory, all past and future have been evacuated, ripped off and plundered by “Digital Time.” Digital time, Berger says, “continues forever uninterrupted through day and night, the seasons, birth and death.” It’s the air-conditioned nightmare of a strip mall, a fake smile and a pinstripe on the job. It’s as indifferent to specificity and quality as money, and contrasts to the cyclical time of nature, of cold and warmth, of presence and feeling, of pain, of the gratitude of watching donkeys graze in the June alpage. Digital time knows only vertical columns of ones and zeros, of cash flows and Dow indices.

Within Digital time, no whereabouts can be found or established; journeys no longer have a specific gravity of a destination. Destination has lost “its territory of experience.” We see territories of experience, says Berger, in the poetry of Emily Dickinson just as we see desolate spaces in Lars Von Trier’s film Dogville, where people are left stranded, cut off from the past and insulated from the future. Here there’s only a present without presentness. Following signs in airport lounges, at supermarket checkouts, on motorways, on mobile phones and desktops will never lead to a destination. When we arrive we realize we’re not in the place indicated by the signs we followed. And nobody can give us directions, because we don’t know what to ask for, nor do we know any backtracks or short cuts. On this journey, on the journey toward a destination, toward a real sense of place—a meeting place—well-trodden paths are warnings rather than guides. Keeping a Bergerian rendezvous is to arrive by accident, by chance, by a special means of traveling.

For me, that motorbike, that blackbird monster I glimpsed outside his Quincy chalet, is the ticket to ride in this quest for a modern destination. For more clues, for a possible ontological road map, we can consult Berger’s essay “How fast does it go?” from Keeping a Rendezvous. In hitching a ride we can become born-again Phaedruses, rewriting our own Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for our global age, our post-Seattle world order, reuniting technology and poetry, analytical rationality with romance, feeling the breeze in our hair as we cruise yet having direction and purpose to our forward motion. Moreover, our motorbike is a vehicle—not a juggernaut—that we know how to repair when it breaks down or goes off course.

Aboard the Berger bike, “except for the protective gear you’re wearing, there’s nothing between you and the rest of the world. The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are traveling.” Your contact with the outside world is more intimate. You’re more conscious of the road surface, its subtle variations, its potholes, whether it’s dry or damp, of mud or gravel; you’re aware of the hold of the tires, or their lack of it; bends produce another effect: “If you enter one properly, it holds you in its arms. A hill points you to the sky. A descent lets you dive into it. Every contour line on the map of the country you’re driving through means your axis of balance has changed… This perception is visual but also tactile and rhythmic. Often your body knows quicker than your mind.” Liberty here comes from the relationship between oneself and space, between subjectivity and spatiality, not from the speed at which you’re traveling.

After a few hours of driving across the countryside, you feel you have left behind more than the towns and villages you’ve been through. You’ve left behind certain familiar constraints. You feel less terrestrial than when you set out. Supposing at this moment you stop, cut the engine, take off your helmet, stretch your back and your neck, and then walk a few paces along the road, into a wood or a field. You look around. There’s nothing spectacular or picturesque. But you’ve stopped, and this already makes the spot special … The point of arrival is unique, and recognizable as such.

I wonder whether Berger ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It was the cult book of my youth, along with Kerouac’s On the Road. A lot that he has to say about motorbikes chimes with Robert Pirsig’s profoundly moving book from 1974. “Tensions disappear along old roads like this,” said Pirsig at the beginning of his spiritual cross-country voyage, with his young son Chris behind, hugging him just as Ninon would hug Jean. “We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass… I whack Chris’s knee and point up. ‘What!’ he hollers. ‘Blackbird!’” You see things on a motorcycle, Pirsig says, in a way that is completely different from being in a car. “In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV.

You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

In a funny kind of way, G and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have plenty in common. Both texts are working through the same problematic; and it’s no coincidence that they appeared within two-years of one another, written by men of the same generation (Berger, born 1926, Pirsig 1928), writers with similar passions, similar impulses, who’ve used motorcycles figuratively to understand the world. Each book, too, could have been written only in the decade of the 1970s, in the post-1960s period, a time of taking stock, of reconsideration. To a certain extent, it was a period of disillusionment, of emptiness, a breech, and these two books sought to address that breech, to leap across it, to build a bridge. The dust had settled from counter-cultural exuberance; people had gone home after the parties, after the be-ins, after the street protests. The sixties had been the epoch of the orgasm, the groovy dimension of impulse and individual liberty, like G fucking to his heart’s content without structure, without constraint, without neither history nor society getting in his way. Yet in the 1970s, reality bit back, turned square: freedom gave way to necessity, the self to society, the individual to institutional order. And the economy was upending, going into slump.

This dualism was legion in G, as it was in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; and Berger aboard his Honda Blackbird and Pirsig aboard his Honda Super Hawk (305 c.c.), riding along different roads, an ocean apart, take to their motorbikes as well as their pens to probe it: the romantic, intuitive paradigm of an easy rider, of experiencing your bike as poetry, as sensual stimulation, as cruising—epitomized by the heady 1960s—pitted against the scientific, factual side of things, the mechanics of the motorcycle, the rational, underlying principles of its maintenance, of checking oil, of technical troubleshooting, responsive to classical Newtonian method—epitomized by the more sober 1970s. By then, the motorbike had broken down and needed fixing. What could poetry do, or even art? Something had given way, but what? The individual, apparently, was beholden to some underlying social morality, to the rules of social reality, to the rational order. This was G.’s undoing: the crowd that his father detested so much finally got to his wayward son.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the dualism persists, exaggerated, perhaps, because now the worm has turned, now the romantic, intuitive side of riding the motorcycle has been utterly suppressed by “reason,” by a supposed technological fix, by the maintenance of human problems through “rational globalization.” It’s everywhere this credo, perceived as normal and eternal: There in No Alternative (TINA). It’s CDs and DVDs and technological gismos and “rational” free markets that are assumed to underwrite freedom and personal wellbeing. It’s a juggernaut we’re riding on now, or else being pushed along by, unable to harness it, something out of control in the name of sound science, of what’s best for “us.” “There is no horizon there,” says Berger in The Shape of a Pocket. “There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamor of the disparate, fragmentary present.” The search for wholeness and meaningful experience is a necessary though elusive task: How to piece together the world-picture with a self at the center, intact and connected, with a Being in place as well as a Becoming over space, and with a past anchored in time?

Berger aboard his Blackbird equips us with the ingredients for a reconciliation: he gives us a presentness and hereness as well as a thereness, a sense of Being somewhere as well as a sense of Becoming, of going elsewhere, to a destination. Therein reigns the flight of the blackbird and Berger’s journey in search of a sense of place, his quest for a territory of experience—of deep experience and deep song. And for the writer Berger, like the rider Berger, there’s a necessity to give meaning to this experience, to demystify its production and creation, to join up experiences, to critique fragmented experience, to condemn our current sense of nowhere and non-place.

Berger says the incoherence before us is a New World Order that Subcommandante Marcos, writing from the Chiapas jungle in southeast Mexico, labels a “Fourth World War.” (The Third World War was the so-called Cold War.) During the late 1990s, Berger corresponded with the Zapatista insurgent, the black-ski-masked rebel, our very own postmodern Che Guevara. Letters of immense lyrical beauty and intense political passion flowed between the French countryside and Chiapas bush, which the Zapatistas have staked out since their uprising of 1994, declaring it an autonomous zone outside national and international “free” trade. The Fourth World War, says Marcos, is “being conducted between major financial centers in theaters of war that are global in scale and with a level of intensity that is fierce and constant.” Yet this apparent infallibility comes up hard against the stubborn disobedience of reality. Everywhere, Marcos says—in the Chiapas and beyond—the full pockets of the financiers meet “pockets of resistance” of all different shapes and sizes, and of different colors. Berger has helped outline the shape of a few of them.

Meanwhile, he’s been watching, beside the roadside in Quincy, herons return to same mountain patch every spring. “There are two herons circling with slow wing-beats,” he says. “They were low enough for me to see the black feathers like ribbons which trail from their ears… Yet what caught my breath, Marcos, was the leisure, the ease with which they were doing this. In that leisure there was a momentary yet supreme confidence and sense of belonging… And this made me thing of you in Chiapas and of your struggle to restore what has been stolen.” So the blackbird encounters the heron, and Berger’s Motorcycle Diaries embrace Subcomandante Marcos’s pocket of resistance, deep down in the Chiapas, where he reads Pig Earth in Spanish in his hut.

If we look hard enough, we might even catch a glimpse of the Subcomandante aboard his own blackbird, taking off across Mexico. Looking like Zorro, or Mad Max, Marcos has recently blazed out of the Zapatista’s stronghold on a black motorbike, with a hen hanging off the back, for a six-month tour “to listen to the simple and humble people who struggle.” He’ll be unarmed and alone as tours all Mexico, reaching out to anti-capitalist and leftists organizations everywhere he goes. On his bike, he can travel fast and won’t be encumbered; and, en route, he can stay in intimate contact with people. The Mexican campesino has received his message from the French countryside: he understands the hesitant flight of the heron. The Zapatista’s call of “WE ARE HERE!” gives us an alternative definition of a PLACE, of a territory of experience outside the flattened logic of neoliberal economics. HERE is where we meet, listening together to the silent mountain forest, cutting the Blackbird’s engine, knowing we’ve arrived, like a migratory bird. Beside our bike, with our helmet off, we can follow the heron, sailing high above the lake: Don’t fret, my little one. Fly! Everything’s going to be all right. Fly! Together, beside Jean Berger, we can fly to the wedding. We can fly into the light of a dark black night…

-- Andrew Merrifield (25/05/2006)

Readers Comments

  1. Lily Tuck says... Sunday 25 July 2010

    Did you ever get to meet John Berger?

  2. Moving and inspiring essay, thanks!

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