Spinoza of Wall Street

John Berger Writes on Art, Politics and Philosophy

Two Wheels Good: John Berger briefly discusses this 60-year-old bicycle, a painted sketch of which he includes in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook.’
berger/ pantheon books
Two Wheels Good: John Berger briefly discusses this 60-year-old bicycle, a painted sketch of which he includes in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 15, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Bento’s Sketchbook
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.

John Berger: His fragile art sits alongside massive social ideas.
Jean Mohr
John Berger: His fragile art sits alongside massive social ideas.

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.