Andy Merrifield: Engaging and insightful about finely textured humanism
Andy Merrifield’s study of John Berger offers an engaging and astute overview of the “white-haired novelist, playwright, film scriptwriter-poet” and “art critic-essayist”. And like Berger’s lengthy appellation Merrifield’s book contains an array of insights about the man, the artist, the “concerned citizen” and the “uneasy rider” aboard his Honda Blackbird. The motorbike, writes Merrifield, stood outside Berger’s Quincy farmhouse, isn’t just “a machine to confront walls; it is the ticket to ride towards a modern destination, a metaphor of modern politics, even of modern life”. Berger himself explains his passion for the open road in more fecund terms, saying aboard a motorbike “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 travelling,” an experience which “bestows a sense of freedom”. Freedom, especially of the creative variety, is important to Berger, which is one of the reasons he felt inclined to leave England. “I didn’t really feel at home there,” he once explained, “So often I had the feeling when I was with people, when I spoke, that I embarrassed them. I think because they considered me indecently intense.” Merrifield notes that it was also Berger’s empathy for the European intellectual and the European way of thinking that intensified his desire to leave and thereby be “unashamedly intellectual…unashamedly intense.”
Born in 1926 in Hackney, London, Berger moved to Geneva in 1962. He moved again in 1975 to Haute-Savoie and the sleepy village of Quincy, where he still resides. To escape, Merrifield suggests, “the society of the spectacle” and to enjoy the simple life among Europe’s peasants and migrant workers. The move from Geneva to Quincy signifies an important change in Berger’s personal and professional life. He left behind his old influences (Georg Lukács, Robert Musil), his own history of the novel and his partner at the time Anya Bostock. Thus the move gave rise to “a new chapter, to a different mode of expression, and ultimately to a new woman,” by the name of Beverly Bancroft. In Quincy, the couple, living among the locals would “share peasant habitat and habits, share with them the same duties of fatherhood and motherhood, and comparable standards of comfort (and discomfort); they would participate in village life, in village ceremonies, in births and marriages, in sickness and death.” Berger would also go on to write about these experiences and observations in order to inscribe this particular way of life in history, and in doing so would adopt new influences, including Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin, subsequently replacing his modernist voice (established in the likes of G.) for the artisanal craft of storytelling.
Merrifield explains that from about the same time animals began to figure heavily in Berger’s oeuvre, just as they did in his everyday rural life. Inspired by his quotidian tasks, and Marx’s theory about humans and animals as species-beings who resemble each other, Berger made Parting Shots from Animals, which Merrifield says is a documentary that would never get made today. It is “too sombre in mood, too ironical in tone, too ambiguous in meaning” the biographer explains. I expect he’s right. The idea that alienation between humans within the act of working is deeply bound up with the alienation of humans from animals, symbolising the loss of meaningful connection to nature and a double estrangement in which both lose something of themselves, is complicated at best. To explain, Merrifield draws together a number of interpretative frameworks making the book a little bit too theory-laden for a lay reader. The conscientious biographer does, however, surmise his subject rather accurately as a “finely textured humanist” with “a Blakeian impulse for mystical transcendence” and a love for animal and mineral Marxism. He also documents the complex trajectory of Berger’s professional life with great skill, showing how the modernist novelist, who had given the English novel an art-house Continental twist, has evolved into a craftsman storyteller. In tandem with Berger’s own philosophy, Merrifield conjoins different aspects of Berger, demystifying ostensible disparities and deriving new meaning from his art, his life and his politics.
Early on in the book, the biographer asserts that “in dealing with Berger’s art, in analysis and criticising it, in admiring and edging nearer and nearer to it, we will somehow discover, unveil, the man himself, and his times, our times”. Berger seems indeed omnipresent, installed in our cultural consciousness, perhaps due to the longevity of his career but more likely due to his intensity, lingering and engrossing. “People who read Berger, who love him and his words, are often searching for the like themselves,” Merrifield says “searching for a deeper, richer meaning to the world, to their world. That’s why his stripped-down prose, his increasingly mystical words, carefully chosen earthly (and earthy) words, always strike a chord, always grab you by the collar, force you to join in”. And join in we do whether to look at art or to explore the various facets of Marxism. Berger’s appeal is fortified by his engaging personality, by his uncompromising candour and intellectual rigor. His large and varied body of work offers the biographer an instant chronology of the writer’s ever-changing style and ideas, ordered neatly in Merrifield’s book.
All the key aspects of Berger’s life, which have dominated his long career, are explored here to provide a comprehensive overview of this fascinating cultural figure. Merrifield does well to contextualise Berger’s personal concerns, social insights, varied fiction, aesthetic theory and political commentary, in this concise but meticulously thought-out edition. At 86, Berger remains an unapologetically committed writer, critic and activist still campaigning about social injustices such as the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He once said that he developed an aversion to power early on and that the feeling never left him. It is therefore perhaps his “gut solidarity with those without power, with the underprivileged,” that makes him so humane and so likable. Or maybe it is his indecent intensity. Either way, Berger seems to have that rare quality that Søren Kierkegaard wrote about because he always manages to “catch the reader, not in the net of passion, nor by the artfulness of eloquence, but by the eternal truth of conviction”.
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: April 2012
Paperback: 224 pages
ISBN: 978186189 9040