an interview with John Berger
We are saddened to learn of the passing of John Berger. Border Crossings has made frequent references to his work. In 1995, Volume 14, Number 2, we published a lengthy interview with him. In his introduction, Robert Enright wrote: “Berger has brought to the act of criticism an uncompromising conscience, a wholeness of vision and a spiky artfulness that is unparalleled among contemporary artists.”
With him, we learned to look, and in looking to recognize our own moral courage and sensual awareness. Berger was a beacon of hope and a humanist, speaking always, he says, “what we know in our hearts.”
Most recently in Volume 35, Issue no. 139, Border Crossings reviewed, ‘The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger,’ directed by Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, Christopher Roth and Tilda Swinton, available here.
The following interview was conducted in 1995 and published in Border Crossings issue: Volume 14 Number 2, in April, 1995.
John Berger is a polymath; he seems to know everything. And he has so thoroughly considered what he knows that it comes to his readers as gospel, as infallible, as having been hammered out on the anvil of his own labouring with language and living. He is the author of some 20 books, including seven novels, 11 collections of essays, a major book on Picasso, a pair of collaborations with photographer Jean Mohr, and an influential television series for the BBC called “Ways of Seeing.” He has won the Booker Prize (in 1972 for G), has written screen plays, dramatic plays, published poetry, written hundreds of essays and articles for magazines in Europe and North America, and has even acted in a pair of films. And throughout a good portion of his writing career he has also made drawings, which were shown most recently as part of a tributary exhibition at the Denise Cadé gallery in New York, in January of this year. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of his art criticism. From his earliest years as the art critic for the New Statesman beginning in 1952, Berger has brought to the act of criticism an uncompromising conscience, a wholeness of vision and a spiky artfullness that is unparalleled among contemporary artists. While it’s possible to not always agree with Berger’s assessments of artists and their art, it is impossible to ignore the precision and rigour of his arguments, and the language which transports them through the sea of discourse.
Psalm 139, 1991, charcoal, pencil, gouache, 25 3/4 x 19 5/8”
You’ll have to forgive the conceit but the body into which Berger has floated his bark of ideas is more accurately rendered as the see of discourse, (As Meeka Walsh emphasizes in her review of Berger’s newest novel, To the Wedding on page 54, sight is his most informing sense). Seeing is believing and through his eyes come observations of remarkable intelligence and feeling. So the declaration goes: I see, therefore I am. Berger is a writer who thoroughly banishes the divided self of Cartesian thinking. In this sense, he is one of the most complete writers I know.
Berger is always in the process of retrieving those people and ideas that have been dispossessed, marginalized or under-appreciated. These categories include everything from the poor to Van Gogh’s chair, from toast crumbs to the ways in which Caravaggio inhabits space. His deliberations are often visceral; in an essay published in Harper’s in 1989 called “Muck and its Entanglements,” Berger describes in learned detail the spring ritual of cleaning out the shithouse. Emptying his wheelbarrow provokes the observation that excrement carries with it the “smell of mortality.’ Then the essay picks up a tone of indignation and lyricism that is characteristic of his best writing. This smell he tells us, “has nothing to do—as Puritanism with its loathing for the body has consistently taught—with shame or sin or eviL. Its colours are burnished gold, dark brown, black: the colours of Rembrandt’s painting of Alexander the Great in his helmet.” What an alchemy he performs! It is the linguistic equivalent of transubstantiation, a mystery that fundamentally changes the nature of a thing; it is an act that takes the quotidian and nominates it to a state of glory. What’s evident from his voyage through the eschatology of muck is that Berger’s great strength is his ability to write personally, to speak, as he says, “what we know in our hearts.’ The book in which he brings together most successfully all the marks of his personal and critical selves is And our faces, my heart, brief as photos. A small book (it’s only a touch over 100 pages), faces is a meditation on time and space that uses every genre and literary form Berger knows: prose fiction, memoir, poem, critical essay, philosophical inquiry and manifesto. It is as emotionally and structurally coherent as any of his books. There is something about it, as Berger himself comments in the following interview, which encourages people to respond in an inexplicably personal way. I’ve read it over and over and it never fails to humble me as a writer and make me hopeful as a human being. There are two sections I especially wish were mine; his estimation of the work of Caravaggio is the finest piece ever written about that difficult and seductive painter. It makes me think there is nothing left to say. And the second section comes at the end of the book. “What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else,” he writes to his wife,
is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
This image of lucid and fearless commingling is the wish of all true lovers. It draws me to the quality of Berger for which I am perhaps most grateful. His ability to flesh out rhapsodic moments from the remorseless movements of history confirms him as one of the most indispensably elegiac writers in the English language. The capacity to memorialize our loss at the same time that everything in him resists its causes is the source of his inexhaustible passion for life and his unmoving distrust of power. John Berger is aware that he is a conservative man. His compulsion-and certainly his achievement-has been to cherish the exquisite intimacies of the body and to embrace the rhythms of its recalcitrant heart.
Robert Enright conducted this interview, in March of this year, with John Berger by line from his home in the French Alps.
BC: I want to start with the subject of drawing. My motivation is selfish because drawing is the medium that I love as much as any. So in a general way, tell me what drawing means to you?
JB: What do drawings mean to me? I really don’t know. The activity absorbs me. I forget everything else in a way that I don’t think happens with any other activity. The act banishes everything else. When I’m drawing I’m looking and trying to put together things I’ve found a little differently from what they always are.
Untitled, 1976, 19 3/4 x 25 3/4”.
BC: Is the act of drawing an obsessive activity for you?
JB: Yes, I think as soon as I’ve begun it is. But I can go for weeks or months, or if I look back at my life, even years, without drawing. I’m not addicted in that way. But after a certain moment it does become obsessive. And then one drawing leads to another and it leads to another. To begin with they’re usually shit.
BC: Does it become an obsessive activity because of the pressure of looking? You’ve talked about the subject of the drawing meeting the aim of the drawer, intimating that when a drawing is really working there’s some kind of integral relationship between the thing being made and the maker.
JB: That’s in a piece called Drawing of a Young Woman with Hand to Her Chin about a woman named Anyishka. I had news of her from Odessa three weeks ago. She’s having a very hard time.
BC: I was fascinated by that work because you create the drawing in words. Which leads me to ask whether you actually see the act of drawing and making the drawing in words as parallel?
JB: That’s a bit complicated. It belongs to a series of short pieces that I have written over the last three or four years which will eventually be published as a book. I call them Photocopies. Each one is really a photocopy of an instant, or an encounter, or even just a story that somebody tells me. Of course I very deliberately set out to give them something of that graphic quality. But it wasn’t really to do with drawing. I work more through my eyes than any other sense. Only a couple of weeks ago I did a portrait. This was a portrait of a Polish woman who is a friend, and she and her husband and brother-in-law came and spent the evening. Mostly they were talking Polish or Russian. So I started drawing. Maybe one of the reasons that I draw is that I’m often with Russians and I don’t speak their language.
BC: And Anyishka was playing the piano which gave you an excuse to draw her. As long as someone is engaged in some other activity then you can draw them?
JB: That’s right. I drew her all evening and it was really very bad. There was one that she quite liked so I gave it to her, but I was rather ashamed of it. And then at about midnight I was by myself and I decided to try another one—one in colour with acrylic—the others were charcoal and ink. Then something began to happen. I was no longer looking at her but I wasn’t even trying to remember what she looked like. I was now drawing completely from something which was inside me. All I had to do was be intimately tuned to that. So I did this drawing very quickly, roughly. In one place I made a hole in the paper. But at the end there was a real likeness because her likeness had entered me.
BC: You say something of the same thing when you talk about Picasso and his drawings of Marie-Thérèse Walter. Your sense was that because such an intimacy existed he becomes her and that the act of drawing was an act of self-recognition.
JB: If we’re talking about important art there’s the artist’s intimacy and truthfulness to himself, but an equal intimacy to the Other. I think those Picasso drawings are like that; I think the Rembrant’s are like that. I think the artist who most often did that was probably Van Gogh.
BC: But with Van Gogh the relationship is rarely with a woman, is it?
JB: No, its not with a woman at all. But equally, it seems to me, what were talking about can be a chair. If you are the kind of person who watches and looks passionately you can be passionate about the chair’s intimacy to itself.
Untitled, n.d., charcoal, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4”.
BC: Is there a sense in which drawing ultimately disappoints you? When you talk about the drawing of Anyishka you say that you fall in love with her and then something is lost because no drawing can ever be more than a trace of that relationship. Is there a built-in limitation in the act of drawing when it becomes that intimate?
JB: No more in drawing than in taking photographs or in writing. It’s very strange because the whole impulse, the whole urge to make art, in a certain sense, is to save life. But at the same time you’re aware that compared to life it’s only art.
BC: Yes. Why would Picasso want to paint a young girl when he could make love to her? It seems to me a very telling observation about the way in which art can never replace the intensity of life.
JB: Yes, but drawing doesn’t disappoint me. On the contrary, I think that when I succeed in doing a drawing that is good, it satisfies me more than anything else. More than writing. Another thing I can say about the way I draw is that I use charcoal a lot. Partly because it has such a fantastic range but also because it is very easy to erase. For me, drawing is a lot to do with taking out, with returning to the white of the paper.
BC: Ironically it’s Matisse, the great bourgeois painter, who taught us that drawing is erasure.
JB: Yes, indeed. I love Matisse because he had such incredible skill. He didn’t have to erase. It’s more in what he left out. When you are writing, the point of the story, and finally I think even its truthfulness, depends upon the unsaid. So it’s a process of elimination. I think the same is true in drawing.
BC: Does your sense of perception come out of the very specific, and then go on from there to build into something larger?
JB: Yes, I think so. I don’t ever really begin with general ideas. I guess it has to do with an eye. Anything you see in nature because it’s a manifestation of life, has something sacred about it.
BC: I want to ask you about a book that has had a tremendous influence on writers in Canada, And our faces, my heart , brief as photos. It’s a hybrid that includes everything from personal essays to art criticism, from meditations to poetry. How did the form of the book evolve?
JB: I can give a simple answer because it was written as a series of letters going one way to one person. Then afterwards I didn’t want it to appear in that form. Anyway, there are three things to be said about this book which are quite interesting. First of all none of my publishers—and I have good publishers so I’m not beefing—wanted really to publish it. They didn’t see it as a viable book. But it’s a book that has led a strange subterranean life. Obviously people have discovered it, they’ve talked about it to other people and have handed it on. It’s happened like that in countries as different as Turkey and Spain. The reason why I’m telling you all this is not to boast, but because I think most living books are books where there are two things operating; the intuition that this book addressed a need, often an unarticulated need, out there in the world. And I had this feeling very strongly about faces. It was a hunch. Now what were the needs it addressed? I suppose it was the need in our contemporary times—our dark times, and our very timid and blind times—to place the experience of love and the kind of hopes and feelings that love evokes. How to place this, and how to be able to talk about it, how to have confidence in those feelings in a world that seems to offer very little confirmation. I had the feeling that this need was perhaps quite keen amongst the young.
BC: Your hunch was right. Yesterday when we spoke briefly you said something similar about To the Wedding. What’s your hunch there? What is it in that book that the world needs?
JB: The three books where I felt that very strongly were The Seventh Man, the book about migrants, faces and To the Wedding. For this last book I find it very hard to talk about because I’m much too close.
BC: Let me try and articulate what I sense is significant in the novel. It brings me to the question of love, which is something that seems always to be circulating in your writing. In To the Wedding, you really test the limits of love because of the nature of the relationship between Gino and Ninon. She’s HIV positive and clearly she’s going to die. In one sense Gino teaches her not only to love him but to love herself and her condition, without sentimentality. That strikes me as being a significant recognition. Does that make any sense of what the book is after?
JB: Yes, I think so. It’s happening in the context of this illness today. In hundreds of thousands or more cases, love is being tested in that way.
BC: You’re always populating your books with couples. In the criticism there’s Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner; I’ve already mentioned Picasso and Marie-Thérèse; there’s Rembrandt and his beloved. You even raise it to the cosmological level when you talk about the sky and the earth loving one another. It seems to me that coupling is central to your sense of how the world operates, or at least ought to operate.
JB: Yes. I think that’s true, but it’s very old, isn’t it? It’s there in the ying and the yang; it’s there in the writings of Novalis, and one could go on and on. So I don’t think there’s anything very special about that, except maybe I insist upon it more than some writers today.
BC: I think it is insistent. I would say it’s almost prescriptive in your writing.
JB: Perhaps it has to do with something which I now recognize about myself politically. As you know, I was, and in a sense remain, rather unfashionable and revolutionary because I find the state of the world intolerable. Not life. Not at all, but the way life is run. This is one aspect of my visceral being, and that probably determines to quite a large degree the choice of figures I write about -migrant workers and poor peasants or lovers, to whom the world is not often very welcoming. But on the other hand, I’m deeply a traditionalist in my imagination. The text which means so much to me is the Bible, particularly the New Testament and the Greeks. To some degree I’m interested in Buddhism and in Zen and above all in the real mystical writers. Perhaps the answer to your question about my insistence on searching for lost unity through the couple is a reminder of that for us.
BC: At the end of an essay on your mother she uses the word love and she makes the noun active. She verbalizes love and makes it sound as much like a thing you must do, as an observation about a condition that exists in the world. Was this notion of love something that was passed on from your mother?
JB: That’s very complicated to answer. I think that essay, written just after she died, is a recognition and celebration of something she gave me. Why it’s complicated is that actually I didn’t have very much obvious and evident love from her -especially when I was a child. Not because she was unloving but because of a whole variety of reasons. I was sent away to school, I saw her very little, and she was very humbly trying, along with my father, to earn the money that could send me to this school. And so I didn’t have a childhood in the ordinary sense of the term in which I was surrounded by caresses and love. So that’s why it’s quite a complicated question. Like so much in life, it’s very paradoxical.
BC : There’s a kind of searing honesty in it. I admit to being both moved and saddened by the section where you rub her hand and she thanks you for it, but lets you know it’s irritating. The reader wants the gesture to be more significant than it was, as I suspect you did. Her reaction is almost heartbreaking.
JB: Yes, but for me it’s far more a tribute to her stoicism-and you can’t be stoic without being a realist-than a complaint from my part.
BC: You haven’t talked much about your past and so I have little sense of what your life was like. You don’t give much of that away.
JB: I think it’s quite true. I’m exactly the opposite of autobiographical. I don’t really know why, but it is something that I recognize as being quite strong in myself. I think I even talk about that in the essay.
BC: You do say that autobiography is an orphan form. Is it because autobiographical writing is too self-indulgent? Is it too much about self and not enough about larger and more significant issues?
JB: You can talk here about the nature of talent because I think very often talent is a compensation for a weakness.
BC: Are you talking personally?
JB: I’m talking generally, but I’m also talking personally. I think it would be interesting, for example, to look at the biographies of really great athletes. I’d guess that quite often they had some physical difficulty early on, or thought they had. I think that when I was a kid I had a very weak sense of my own identity. I think I still have, actually. Maybe some demon in me has a sense of my identity, but I don’t. As a result of this weakness, I was able spontaneously and impulsively to identify myself with other people, obviously people with whom I’m intimate, but even just somebody I pass in the street. Maybe that began my impulse to tell and to write stories. As you can see, that is the opposite of an autobiographical impulse.
BC: Is it an escape from autobiography?
JB: If you need to escape from autobiography you can. But to be honest I don’t have the feeling that I’m running away from something.
BC: Tomas, the taxi driver, in To the Wedding is accused of using his encyclopedic knowledge as a way of not having to face the pain and the cruelty of life. Is there something of Tomas in you in this regard?
JB: I don’t fee l I have much to do with Tomas. When I was writing that section, I felt I was much more Zdena.
BC: Yes, she’s a fabulous character. In the beginning when the two of them meet I shared her irritation with him. But by the end of their encounter I’ve grown to care for him a great deal. Was that a difficult thing to pull off? Were you nervous about being able to achieve such deft manoeuvrings?
JB: No, because when Zdena and Tomas were first there I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I certainly didn’t have a plan. In fact, that part of the book came relatively easily. Somewhere behind that—at an intellectual level which has nothing to do with the level at which one tries to tell stories—was my awareness of AIDS. With AIDS many hopes and dreams were destroyed or scattered. And this was true politically in the world as well, particularly in eastern Europe. So it seemed to me that their encounter brought together these two developments of our time. One of the things which was planned in the writing of that book was that, as we know, people who are viral positive and then suffer AIDS are placed—physically and mentally—in a kind of ghetto. That is one of the most terrible consequences of this anyway terrible disease.
BC: Which is what Ninon wants to do to herself in the beginning?
JB: Of course it is, because it’s natural. But unfortunately that is confirmed by a lot of the world. In writing the book, I said two things to myself. One was to try to tell this story so that their destiny is not in a ghetto and is connected with many other things happening in our time. And the other was not to flinch from what had actually been. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to write the book in the way that I have if I hadn’t been close to people who have suffered.
BC: I suppose you have your mother’s stoicism? You don’t flinch at the consequences of this disease. There’s nothing sentimental about Ninon being able to dance so triumphantly at the end.
JB: Yes. If one wasn’t unflinching towards that there would be no triumph.
Untitled, 1976, 19 5/8 x 19 5/8”.
BC: Let me ask this very directly. Do you ever get depressed?
JB: The first thing is that I believe, and I think have always done so, in the force of evil. I think evil exists and is in and around us all. But first of all in us all. So if I have a great attachment to what is alive and its beauty, it isn’t a result of ignoring the existence of evil. I think evil begins with lies and with people pretending about the consequences of what they do, or what somebody else is. Evil begins with the liberty of man and with the creation of that liberty which is intrinsic to man.
BC: I was raised Roman Catholic and, of course, I believe in evil. The way you’re talking sounds familiar.
JB: Yes, I think that’s true. I haven’t said anything about my father. I had some arguments with him, sometimes rather bitter conflicts, but I loved him very much. He was in the infantry in World War I and he survived four years on the Western Front as a lieutenant. He was completely marked for life by that. But before he joined as a volunteer, he was training to become an Anglican priest. Then after the war he was not able to continue and so he did something completely different. But that’s just a footnote. You asked me if sometimes I’m depressed. Yes, of course. Sometimes I get very depressed. It’s always very violent and I become impotent in every sense of the word. But with the incredible luck that I have, it never lasts for very long, I don’t know why. I always forget that it’s happened before, and I always think it’s going to go on forever, but in fact it passes fairly quickly.
BC: So what’s the source of that resilience? Hope?
JB: Yes, I think so. But with hope one has to be very lucid. I don’t see hope as a sky full of light, I see it as a candle in the dark.
BC: You’ve written about Ernst Fisher and his high quotient of belief. Then you go on to quote him saying that we’re forced back to offering visions only. Is that a recognition of a certain defeat? Not for him personally, but for all human beings who have to live in the relentless movements of history? I guess I’m asking if history invariably dooms us to being utopian. Is that the best we can hope for?
JB: I don’t think so. The point about Utopia is that it imagines resolution whereas the nature of life is a constant struggle. I’m going to reply in terms that again will be familiar to you. It seems to me that there is the law of necessity and then there is also the nature of man’s freedom. This is already, by absolute definition, a conflictual situation. All attempts at Utopia really are a denial of those two principles of existence. That’s precisely why Utopianism is so dangerous.
BC: Is it a question of tendering our hope with vigilance? Is your strong sense of the need for ethical and political vigilance because the gains we’ve made are so small and their hold on society so precarious?
JB: Yes, but one has first of all to be vigilant, not only about what is happening, but about oneself. I mean one’s own capacities for evil, one’s own systems of cheating and one’s own egoism.
BC: Are you very self-critical? I don’t have a sense of that from the writing. In fact, often times the writing seems thoroughly assured, rather than in any way hesitant.
JB: Yes, I think that is true. But immediately after having written a page or a paragraph or maybe just a line, I am very critical. In fact most things-not only stories, but even essays-I write many times. Anything between four and ten drafts.
BC: I have a sense that this is really finished thinking.
JB: Yes. I could say something more about that. It will perhaps surprise you, but I’m not a very verbal person. Writing for me is a continual struggle with words. They do not come very easily or naturally, and almost never do they lead me. But somewhere in my imagination there is something which is like a melody in music, or maybe like a drawing. And then begins the long effort of trying to find words which will not do violence to that melody or that drawing, which will-as far as possible-be faithful to it. So when I’m finished, if I have the feeling that they are reasonably faithful, then I forget them. And that faithfulness is not a question of accuracy in the automatic sense; it’s not a question of naturalism; and it’s not a question of making a copy. It’s a question of tact. I think the real gift of the imagination is that of tact.
BC: You mean discretion?
JB: No, not discretion and not politeness. But respect for what is. Tact is tactile, it’s to do with touching. When people write not so well, it seems to me that it is always a form of tactlessness. We haven’t talked one single moment about other writers of our time. Why I so much admire Raymond Carver, for example?
BC: Because he’s the most tactful writer you can think of?
JB: Yes, like Chekhov in the last century.
BC: I’ve never heard the word tact used in that way. It goes beyond a sense of aesthetics?
JB: Completely. It seems to me to do with faith and ethics.
BC: Although in some ways the making of art, the attempt to try and get our experience into some form that makes sense of what we do, to write stories that, as you say, speak to what we know in our hearts, is ultimately an ethical act, no matter the subject with which it deals.
JB: Yes, I think so. And it’s to do with what one can always see more simply long ago. It’s there so incontrovertibly in Homer, in his absolutely infinite respect for what is.
BC: You must be one of the most complete combinations of the elegiac and the hopeful of any writer I know. You quote approvingly that beautiful phrase from Rembrandt about tenderness experiencing itself as the end of the world. That strikes me as being the essence of the elegiac.
JB: I don’t know because I don’t see myself very clearly. When you say that, I immediately think of Ahkmatova, a poet for whom I have enormous respect and love. I think she was that: with all of the harshness around her and even in herself, because she was quite a harsh woman. So I can recognize it in others.
BC: But you have written that “it’s on the site of loss that hopes are born.”
JB: I believe that. Everybody knows that. But another artist today whom I admire enormously is Tom Waits.
Tom Waits, 1991, charcoal, 25 7/8 x 19 5/8”.
BC: Now what is it in Waits that so attracts you?
JB: Well, I thought of him because of what you just said about the elegiac and the hopeful. “Waltzing Matilda” is about it. Every old man in his wheelchair knows it. I think that’s why I love Waits so much.
BC: Do you believe in mystery?
JB: We’re surrounded by it. At the same time, I hate mystification. But that’s quite different.
BC: Is the act of making art—in any of the areas you work—an attempt to demystify, or to enhance the nature of the mystery all around us? Which direction does it move?
JB: I don’t know, it’s too big a question. I only know that in my own particular case, when I try to write something, whether it is an essay or a story or a play, for me to summon the energy to do it, I have to believe-and it may be an illusion-but I have to believe that what I am trying to say has two qualities. One, that it is actually some thing quite common and has been lived by millions of people. And the second quality is that it hasn’t yet been said or said enough so that, in very modest terms, it represents a breakthrough.
BC: In one sense you see your role as being a witness?
JB: Witness, yes, but maybe one has then to add that the witnessing we’re talking about is not just a question of recording. If we go back to what I was saying about the drawing of the Polish woman. I had been observing her and suddenly she was inside me, and then I could bring out at least an aspect of her. So I use the word witness in that sense. There’s nothing objective in the usual sense of the term, nothing documentary about witnessing. Witnessing is a form of being, of trying to make oneself open, not of observing.
BC: You have no sense of the hierarchies of genre do you? In faces the parts which are meditation or personal essay or poem or criticism seem to occupy an equal place of value for you.
JB: That’s completely right. For me there is no hierarchy at all. Also, insofar as I can observe myself, if I’m writing a poem or if I am writing about a book that somebody else has written, I don’t feel another part of myself being used. It seems to me they’re always the same parts.
BC: One of the things that I find most remarkable about your criticism is that it’s never formal. What really brought that home to me was the essay on Caravaggio in faces. Your explanation of his claustrophobic use of space was that it was a function of his being poor and crowded and your sense that the poor fear distance and solitude. So his space is a reflection of what he knows and his comfort with in it. That’s a very different analysis than a formalist would make. You always tie your criticism to something real in the life of the painter. Is that a necessary strategy for you?
JB: I don’t know that it’s a strategy. It’s just a way of working and a habit. But maybe it begins the other way around. In the case of Caravaggio maybe it has nothing to do with museums, or with even looking at Caravaggio. It is to do with being in the back streets or the bars of Rome, or somewhere else in Italy.
BC: Or your memories of the paintings you did in Livomo?
JB: Not only my memories of the paintings, but of being in Livomo. Then when I see Caravaggio, that comes back to me. If my criticism is not formal, it’s because of this distinction between art and life.
BC: You don’t buy it at all, do you?
JB: Exactly. I don’t buy it. And when I’m writing about painting, I’m always aware of or trying to write about life.
BC: Your writing is both visceral and rational. The only writing I can think of that’s like it, oddly enough, is Metaphysical poetry. It strikes me as being simultaneously locked into the mind and the body without any separation.
JB: Yes, I recognize that when you say it. And like I said, l owe a lot to the metaphysical and mystical poets. But I would say that I owe much more to a writer like Camus, where one might perhaps find the same thing.
BC: Doesn’t Camus define glory “as the right to love without limits?”
JB: Yes, yes. He was an enormous influence on me when I was young. I now have lived for 30 years in France, and people ask why did you choose to come to France. I wouldn’t exactly say I came to France because it was the country of Albert Camus, but the fact that he was alive and writing was a consideration.
BC: Did you also leave London because you had grown to dislike London?
JB: I hadn’t grown to dislike London, I always disliked London.
BC: There has been speculation about your choice-about whether you left to run away from a world rather than to go to one? It’s a cruel question in a sense, because it implies you weren’t able to handle English society.
JB: That’s very curious. It’s also more complicated because I left London in 1960 and I spent almost 15 years living on the Continent writing books, like the book about Picasso or G or Corker’s Freedom. But then in the mid-’70s, I did come to live here in this village and I started writing about peasants. And at that moment a lot of people-including friends-said, “You’re just retiring, you’re running away from something.” Now I didn’t feel like that at all because I had a sense that the lives of peasants were actually quite central, even to the modem period. I think I was guided in a slightly prophetic way because now everybody is becoming aware that the disappearance of peasants and their way of cultivation, their relation to the land and to the planet system, is an incredibly important world question. Even the toughest politicians in Russia, after having destroyed millions, would be happy if they could reinvent peasants. So it was not as marginal a choice as it appears.
BC: I remember fondly a piece you wrote, published years ago in Harper’s. I think it had a much more sanctified title, but it was basically about the necessity of cleaning out the shithouse in the spring. While I recognized the activity I thought it might be a prescription for the imagination as well. You talk about demons and about the darker side. Is it necessary to go down to the place of excrement in Yeats’s term?
JB: I don’t know. I wrote it spontaneously because it’s something I do—and have done many times—in the spring. I suddenly thought maybe I should write about it. It just came like that. But behind it-and I may sound sort of folksy and primitive but it seems to me that the avalanche of information and images that we have about the world have become increasingly bodiless, disembodied-especially in the media. And the screen on which we see them actually becomes an opaque screen between people and physical life. That also means that it becomes an opaque screen between things that are done and the consequences of those things. One of the most monstrous and terrible examples, of course, is the Gulf War. But if one becomes much mote modest, it is also to do with the fact that we all shit, and we shouldn’t forget that or deny it. In the same way—but not in any kind of sadistical way—there is a deep crisis caused by the fact that people eat meat and refuse to picture abattoirs. The whole notion is lost that the eating of meat is a sacrifice. The crisis is there because without the notion of sacrifice life becomes both much more solitary and, in a way which I can’t quite explain, much more despairing.
BC: In one sense what you’re recognizing is the need for ritual, that we have to find ways to contain our experiences and to structure our emotions, which is what ritual does.
JB: Exactly, exactly. And it seems to me that the best stories, without ever falling into symbolism or anything with a capital letter, actually describe what happens as a certain aspect of ritual.