When all that's Left is despair

Hold Everything Dear
June 15, 2007

Frank Furedi finds hope in John Berger's study of modern disillusion.

Without struggling, it is difficult to achieve anything truly important. Yet history is not always hospitable to those who are prepared to question and challenge conventional wisdom. Periodically, history appears to mark time: instead of encouraging us to imagine a better future, all it can do is lie on its back exhausted and impotent. In this collection of meditations about humanity's current predicament, John Berger understands that we are lost, but to his credit is still able to summon enough hope to insist that there is always a way out.

Berger's imaginative grasp of global confusion and dislocation is enhanced by his own self-acknowledged sense of disorientation. Along with many of us, Berger is painfully conscious of the fact that he lacks a map that can help us make sense of the global patterns and influences that shape important dimensions of our lives. Throughout these essays, Berger displays anger and frustration over his and our collective confusion about which stage we are passing through. "People everywhere - under very different conditions - are asking themselves: 'where are we?'". That and "what are we living through?" are some of the questions that haunt the pages of Hold Everything Dear . Berger's questions do not simply betray a sense of incomprehension but also of disillusionment. Things were not supposed to turn out the way they did! As a man of the Left, Berger carries the burden of disappointment and defeat. "Much of what you believed was happening in history, or believed should happen, has turned out to be illusory," he notes before adding, "socialism, as you imagined it, is being built nowhere".

So what are we to make of a world where, as Berger puts it, "many people have lost all their political bearings" and where "mapless, they do not know where they are heading"? In such circumstances, world events can appear as random and arbitrary acts beyond comprehension. Not surprisingly, social and political life is experienced as a crisis of causality. A crisis of causality does not simply prevent society from grasping the chain of events that has led to a particular outcome. It also diminishes the capacity to find meaning in what sometimes appears as a series of patternless events. It was for this reason that US President George Bush was not being rhetorical when he asked, "Why do they hate us?" And similarly when Berger demands to know, "Is it possible that this Administration is mad?" he is posing a genuine question. For the same reason, the crisis of causality has led many to seek explanations in the realm of conspiracies.

Berger's perceptive, intuitive grasp of a world at once familiar but also not captured in thought is let down by his refusal to let go of the language of the past. Ironically, he is sensitive to the meaningless content of language used by those whom he despises. "There are a number of words and cliches, filched from the past, whose currency has now to be categorically refused," he notes, adding that "liberty, terrorism, security, democratic, fanatic, anti-Semitic... are terms that have been reduced to rags in order to camouflage the new ruling pitilessness".

Unfortunately, this critical questioning of the rhetorical strategy of the powers that be is paralleled by his own uncritical embrace of an embarrassingly moralistic rendition of outdated leftist vocabulary. Rescued by the power of hyperbole, Berger cobbles 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.

Yet Berger's artistic sensitivity to the mood of society provides him with interesting insight into the crisis of causality that dominates contemporary intellectual life. In several of his essays he draws attention to ways in which the global policy of the US makes little sense from the standpoint of its national interest. In his criticism of US and Israeli foreign policy, he constantly alludes to their failures of strategic thinking. In a roundabout way, Berger possesses important insights into the dissociation between the projection of military power and the exercise of national interest. Despite his occasional lapse into populist rhetoric about how it is oil and profit that drive global conflict, there is something compelling about his take on a world where power and force are exercised with little meaning.

Many politically engaged individuals attempt to transcend the prevailing sense of disillusionment through a populist romantic embrace of the universal underdog, which today is often called the multitudes. In Leftists' writings, the multitudes appear as a caricatured version of the old universal proletariat. Berger is convinced that the multitudes possess formidable intellectual resources and a progressive mission. "The multitudes have answers to questions that have not yet been posed," argues the author. Perhaps. But in the meantime, what drives and defines the multitudes is their sense of despair. Berger's meditations represent a celebration of this despair. Throughout the book, especially in the essay "Undefeated Despair", despair is represented as the positive energy that drives resistance. The very term "undefeated despair" is interesting, since it conveys a potential for hope. Instead of representing the response of despair as one of nihilism, the author describes it as that of "hope against hope" . This positive representation of despair subverts the classical meaning of the term, which is about a state of mind associated with losing hope. This is a very different world from the one described by the poet Shelley, when he wrote "Till Despair smothers/ The struggling world, which slaves and tyrants win". Hope and despair do not travel well together, and I for one hope that Berger could find a more plausible way of expressing his belief in the potential of people for creating a better world.

Berger informs his readers that it is "hard for the First World" to imagine the kind of despair that leads to a single-minded movement for desire.

However, this act of imagination requires distance - emotional, cultural and physical - to come into its own. Berger's own aesthetics orient him towards finding himself through faraway places. He notes that the poets who have meant most to him he "read in translation, seldom in their original language". It seems that distance gives focus to the imagination and enhances the artistic experience. Berger believes that as a result, "more and more the best poetry counted on readers who were further and further away". Perhaps the romantic imagination requires the perspective offered through the power of psychic mobility. However, there are problems when we attempt to discover ourselves through the intensity of other people's experience. 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. Throughout the 20th century, European artists and intellectuals looked to movements in exotic places to gain a sense of liberating possibilities. Often this reaction represented a form of radical escapism from struggling with the banal reality of the life that surrounded them. It also constituted experiencing the world second-hand.

Maybe it is time to realise that experiencing the world through translations can distort more than it enlightens.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance

Author - John Berger
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 160
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9781844671380

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