By John Berger
Pantheon, 176 pages, $28.95
Can a mass of ordinary, well-meaning people, without great wealth or political power, radically change the structure of the society in which they live?
It’s a question that has been much on the world’s mind this past year. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, autocratic rulers and their regimes have been overthrown. In Israel, the summer’s J14 protests forced the country’s government to respond to questions of economic and social injustice. And in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted political dialogue toward similar concerns.
But there are plenty of reasons for discouragement. In Iran, Algeria, Bahrain, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, protests have been met with horrifying violence. Recent elections in Egypt have favored far-right Islamic parties. In Israel, the results of the Trajtenberg Committee, set up to address protesters’ grievances, have been a disappointment and anti-democratic legislation continues to make its way through the Knesset. In America, the future of the Occupy movement is in a fog. All the while, global finance is in turmoil and the specter of ecological catastrophe comes ever closer.
What if, in the face of entrenched financial, political and military power, progressive change brought about by ordinary citizens is not possible? What then can be done?
It’s a question that has been on the mind of the British novelist, essayist and art critic John Berger, not just for the past year, but for decades. In his latest book, “Bento’s Sketchbook,” he reflects: “What one is warning and protesting against continues unchecked and remorselessly. Continues irresistibly. Continues as if in a permissive unbroken silence. Continues as if nobody had written a single word. So one asks oneself: Do words count?”
In “Bento’s Sketchbook” Berger turns to an unexpected source for insight: the 17th-century philosopher Baruch, or Benedict, or “Bento,” Spinoza. The premise of the book is based on a sketchbook Spinoza is supposed to have kept, but which was lost or destroyed. Berger, who is an artist as well as an art critic, sets out to reimagine the lost works.
The writings and drawings that fill “Bento’s Sketchbook” are not really a recreation of Spinoza’s own sketches, however. Rather, they are Berger’s, composed under the influence of Spinoza’s thought. Loosely connected essays on art, politics and life in Berger’s adopted French village of Quincy are mixed with his ink drawings and selected passages from Spinoza’s works. Throughout, Berger offers unflinching insights into the predicaments of our time and how we might face them.
Berger has said in interviews that his interest in Spinoza stems from the philosopher’s rejection of Cartesian mind-body dualism in favor of an ontology that unites both mind and body — “thought” and “extension” — as part of an all-encompassing source. Whether one subscribes to every aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy isn’t what’s important, however. For Berger, it’s the emphasis on connection and continuity that matters.
Throughout his writing, Berger has emphasized these qualities. Works that connect to and are continuous with the world reveal the truth, while those that remain in a separate paradigm of “art for art’s sake” disguise it. Most photography, for example, isolates an image from its context, and so presents an artificial, misleading version of reality. In contrast, Berger writes, the pictures of a photographer like Paul Strand “enter so deeply into the particular that they reveal to us the stream of a culture or a history which is flowing through that particular subject like blood.”