Thursday, February 04, 2010

Excerpts from "The White Bird"

Image found here.

What follows are a few passages from John Berger, "The White Bird" (my source is Selected Essays). They might have some relation to some things I was trying to get at in my post on Serra and the Irreproducible. Maybe. But even if they don't, many thanks to Jim, in his comment on that post, for pointing me in this essay's direction. Reading Berger is always invigorating in its own right. Apologies for the length, but I want to show how Berger arrives where he does, and Berger is nothing if not a patient writer, showing his work. Especially in the case of the arts, anyone can declaim. Berger's great appeal for me is that he explains.

Everything not bracketed is Berger's own.

Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature. Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom. Peasants, sailors, nomads have known better. Nature is energy and struggle. It is what exists without any promise. If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good. Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. The first sign of life is pain. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist on the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.


[T]here seem to be certain constants which all cultures have found 'beautiful': among them--certain flowers, trees, forms of rocks, birds, animals, the moon, running water . . .

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself--without the pretensions of a creator--in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis . . . And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

Yet we do not live in the first chapter of Genesis. We live--if one follows the biblical sequence of events--after the Fall. In any case, we live in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope. That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone[; . . .] its form, perceived as such, becomes a message that one receives but cannot translate because, in it, all is instantaneous. For an instant, the energy of one's perception becomes inseparable from the energy of the creation.


[. . . .]Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, something to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply . . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

UPDATE (February 8): Over at Musings from the Hinterland, Randall pursues Berger's ideas in a couple of fruitful and compelling directions. Go and read.


R. Sherman said...

Back from Truman, the snowstorms not withstanding. Not to tempt fate, but the OD was on the short list for one of these, and she had a number of interviews which are part of the process.] She fell in love with Truman after her first visit, which was fine with me. It's got a good reputation for liberal arts, and frankly, with her interests tacking hard toward the humanities, I could think of no other better place for an undergraduate. The fact that it's in state is a bonus.

On to your post.

Suffice it to say, Berger had me with the first paragraph of your excerpt. One of the things that's always bugged me is the overly romantic view of Nature usually espoused by those who wouldn't be caught dead actually experiencing what Nature offers. Beauty, yes, but more often a lot of headaches. As Berger points out, people who live in Nature, see it as something to be subdued, or at best, tolerated. Those with an overly romantic view tend to wind up succumbing to its [Nature's] dark side. See, e.g. Into The Wild.

As for art, I agree with Berger's definition in the last paragraph. From a Christian perspective, art not only imitates the Creator, --Creativity being the first described attribute of God with us humans being made in His image-- it is Humanity's pitiful attempt to regain the innocence pre-Original Sin. It is our attempt to "get back to the Garden."

I've got more thoughts that need to be organized, but at the moment, I've staring at a pile of yesterday's mail I need to go through.

Back later.


John B. said...

Welcome back, Randall, and best wishes to your daughter.

Here, at least, Berger sounds to me something like Emerson after having read a bit of those writers steeped in naturalism. That's a healthy, honest stance, I'd say: a point of equilibrium, one that reminds us that being able to "read" nature does not remove us from Nature--that ability is not enough to keep us alive.

What I'm wondering now is how exactly to articulate the intersection, if any, between Berger's definition of Art here and whatever it is that's going on with Serra's work. I need to read a little more. But Jim's question in his comment on my Serra post--"Memorializing what?"--is part of that intersection, I think.

Anonymous said...


Love me some Berger, this essay in particular.

I'm glad the question I asked is puzzling you to the same extent it's puzzling me. I wrote it and then kind of stopped for a second & looked at it & couldn't figure out what to do with it so I moved on to a new paragraph.

I think I need to write through it somewhere else, preferably with a pen and a piece of paper. There has to be something to the way that your most immediate point of reference for Serra's work are two public memorials.

Pam said...

It's late and I want to come back and read this again - and follow the link you suggest. I'll try to remember and come back.