Icanhasjohnberger

Bento’s Sketchbook is the latest in the John Berger oeuvre. Don’t trust my judgment about the book’s quality, but Michael Ondaatje’s. When asked recently by an interviewer which writer influenced Ondaatje’s writing, Ondaatje responded with admiration for John Berger’s writing. One of the things Berger accomplishes in his book that uses Spinoza as a touchstone for reflections about painting, sketching, and a host of other matters is a rethinking of Spinoza’s words when placed in these new contexts. Berger cites, for instance, Spinoza’s lines, reminiscent of Wittgenstein at the end of his Tractatus, about silence: “Surely human affairs would be happier if the power in human beings to be silent were the same as that to speak” (quoted on p. 111 in Berger).

Berger’s attention to language appears numerous times, such as in this observation: “Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them. This was happening somewhere to the side of language. Any frontal view of language was impossible there. From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke — I — like a single post in a vast landscape” (35). Berger posits a linguistic multiverse, comparable to the description physicist Alan Lightman gives about a garden hose in connection to string theory:

String theories typically require seven dimensions of space in addition to the usual three, which are compacted down to such small sizes that we never experience them, like a three-dimensional garden hose that appears as a one-dimensional line when seen from a great distance. There are, in fact, a vast number of ways that the extra dimensions in string theory can be folded up, and each of the different ways corresponds to a different universe with different physical properties.

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