Surviving the nights and imagining a new day

October 31, 2008

Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival & Resistance

By John Berger

Verso, 2008

142 pages, $26 (pb)

John Berger's latest book Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance consists of 16 short essays, written between 2001 and 2006, concerning "surviving the nights and imagining a new day" in the era of unimpeded capitalism and the "war on terror".

For Berger, in particular, this means finding meaning in a world in which Marxism is temporarily on the retreat. "Are you still a Marxist?" someone asks him.

Berger muses on how to reply: "Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today.

"Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analysed the devastation?

"The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading".

The theme of dislocation and disorientation emerges again and again in the book: "People everywhere — under very different conditions — are asking themselves — where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a life-time?"

Berger's search for answers to these questions sees him discuss a wide range of political and cultural topics: the plight of the Palestinians, the music of Dvorak, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the paintings of Francis Bacon, the films of Pasolini, Hurricane Katrina, the invasion of Iraq, the stories of Platonov, the poetry of Nazim Hikmet, 9/11, the July 7 bombings in London, the philosophy of Spinoza and Heidegger, and much else besides.

Berger eventually concludes that "the answers abound in the multitudes' multiple ingenuities for getting by, their refusal of frontiers, their search for holes in the walls, their adoration of children, their readiness when necessary to become martyrs, their belief in continuity, their recurring acknowledgement that life's gifts are small and priceless".

The small but priceless gifts of ordinary lives eked out in a hostile world are described by Berger in prose reminiscent of the muscular lyricism of the best of Albert Camus' early essays.

But the idea that the meaning of life is to be found in the everyday struggles of ordinary people against oppression is not one that endears him to capitalism's academic scribes.

In a review in the June 15 2007 Murdoch-owned Times Higher Education Supplement, sociology professor Frank Furedi accuses Berger of romanticising the exotic and ignoring the banal and familiar: "The emotional passion with which Berger writes about life in Palestine stands in sharp contrast to his more analytical take on the bombings in London in July 2005."

In fact, a great part of Berger's essay on the July 7 bombings is on the experiences of the London victims of the bombings — "people on their modest way to work", as Berger describes them — and throughout the book he is simply concerned with the experiences of ordinary people, irrespective of whether they are going to work on the London Underground or looking down the barrel of an Israeli rifle at a checkpoint in the occupied territories.

How could Furedi have so confused Berger's genuine internationalism with a tendency to romanticism? The answer surely lies in his barely disguised antipathy to Berger's left-wing politics.

According to Furedi, Berger is guilty of an "uncritical embrace of an embarrassingly moralistic rendition of outdated leftist vocabulary" and he asserts that Berger has "cobbled together a world dominated by a 'new world economic order' where most nations have been turned into vassals and where the profit imperative explains the big events of our time".

"Cobbled together" indeed! Readers of Green Left Weekly can assess for themselves whether Berger is guilty of "cobbling together" an "outdated" non-description of reality.

I'll leave the last word to Berger. In response to the question whether he is still a Marxist, he eventually answers: "Yes, I'm still amongst other things a Marxist."

This beautifully written and thought-provoking book will bring pleasure and enlightenment to everyone concerned with the survival of human culture in the 21st century.

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