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Selected Essays of John Berger-John Berger.

Selected Essays of John Berger-John Berger. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров


from eastern Anatolia, on the borders of Iraq and Iran. They carry everything where the lorries cannot. And because the industrial part of the city is full of small workshops in streets too narrow for lorries, there is a great deal to carry from workplace to workplace.

      Fixed to their backs is a kind of saddle, on which the load is piled and corded high above their heads. This way of carrying, and the weight of the loads, obliges them to stoop. They walk, when loaded, like jack knives half-shut. The three now listening to the lorry driver are sitting on their own saddles, sipping tea, gazing at the water and the approach to the Golden Horn. The cords with which they fasten their loads lie loose between their feet on the deck.

      Altogether, the crossing takes twenty minutes (about the time needed to read this article). Beside the landing stage rowing boats rock in the choppy water. In some of them fires burn, the flames dancing to the rhythm of the slapping water. Over the fires, men are frying fish to sell to those on their way to work.

      Beyond these pans — almost as wide as the boat — of frying fish lie all the energies and torpor of the city: the workshops, the markets, the mafia, the Galata Bridge on which the crowd walking across is invariably twenty abreast (the bridge is a floating one and incessantly, almost imperceptibly, quivers like a horse’s flank), the schools, the newspaper offices, the shanty towns, the abattoir, the headquarters of the political parties, the gunsmiths, the merchants, soldiers, beggars.

      These are the last moments of peace before the driver starts up the engine of his lorry, and the porters hurry to the stern of the ship to be among the first to jump ashore. The tea vendors are collecting the empty glasses. It is as if, during the crossing, the Bosphorus induces the same mood as the painted lakes: as if the ferry boat, built in Glasgow in 1961, becomes an immense floating carpet, suspended in time above the shining water, between home and work, between effort and effort, between two continents. And this suspension, which I remember so vividly, corresponds now to the destiny of the country.


      The Theatre of Indifference

      A story I want to write soon concerns a man from a remote village who settles in a city. A very old story. But the late-twentieth-century city has changed the old story’s meaning. Such a city, in its extreme form, I see as white and northern. Climate helps a little to regulate the frontier between public and private. A Mediterranean city, or a city in the south in the United States, is of a slightly different character.

      How does such a city, in its extreme form, first strike the villager? To do justice to his impression, one must understand what is impressing him. One cannot accept the city’s version of itself. The city has at least as many illusions about itself as he, at first, has about it.

      Most things look or sound unfamiliar to him: buildings, traffic, crowds, lights, goods, words, perspectives. This newness is both shocking and exciting. It underlines the incredibility of the sentence: I am here.

      Quickly, however, he has to find his way among people. At first he assumes that they are a traditional element in the city: that they are more or less like men and women he and his father knew. What distinguishes them are their possessions — including their ideas: but relations with them will be more or less similar. Soon he sees this is not the case. Between their expressions, under their words, through accompanying gestures of hand and body, in their glances, a mysterious and constant exchange is taking place. He asks: what is happening?

      If the storyteller places himself equidistant from city and village, he may be able to offer a descriptive answer. But it will not be immediately accessible to the questioner. Economic need has forced the villager to the city. Once there, his ideological transformation begins with his questions not being answered.

      A young woman crosses the street, or the bar, using every part of her body, her mouth, her eyes to proclaim her nubility. (He calls her shameless to himself, but explains it in terms of what he assumes to be her insatiable sexuality.) Two young men pretend to fight to attract the girl’s attention. Circling one another like tom-cats, they never strike a blow. (He calls them rivals, armed with knives.) The girl watches them with a bored look. (He calls her too frightened to show emotion.) Police enter. The two immediately stop fighting. The faces of the police are without a trace of expression. Their eyes scan the public and they walk off. (He calls their impassiveness impartiality). The mythic quality and appeal of the early Chaplin lay in his spontaneous ability to act out so convincingly such ‘innocent’ misinterpretations of the city.

      For the first time the villager is seeing caricatures, not drawn on paper, but alive.

      Graphic caricature began in eighteenth-century England and then had a second lease of life in nineteenth-century France. Today it is dead because life has outstripped it. Or, more accurately, because satire is only possible when a moral reserve still exists, and those reserves have been used up. We are too used to being appalled by ourselves to be able to react to the idea of caricature. Originally the tradition of graphic caricature constituted a rural critique of the towns, and it flourished when large areas of the countryside were first being absorbed by the new cities but before the norms of the city were accepted as natural. Drawn caricature exaggerated to the point of absurdity when compared with the supposed ‘even tenor’ of life. Living caricatures imply a life of unprecedented fervour, danger and hope; and to the outsider it is his exclusion from this exaggerated ‘super-life’ which now appears absurd.

      Graphic caricatures were of social types. Their typology took account of social class, temperament, character and physique. Their content invoked class interests and social justice. The living caricatures are simply creatures of immediate circumstance. They involve no continuity. They are behaviourist. They are not caricatures of character but of performance. The roles performed may be influenced by social class. (The girl crossing the street or bar in that particular way is likely to belong to the petit rather than grand bourgeoisie; the police are mostly working class; and so on.) But the contingencies of the immediate situation hide the essential class conditions. Likewise the judgement the living caricature demands has nothing to do with social justice, but with the success or failure of the individual performance. The sum total of these performances make a collectivity. But it is the collectivity of theatre. Not a theatre of the absurd as some dramatic critics once believed, but a theatre of indifference.

      Most public life in the city belongs to this theatre. Two activities, however, are excluded. The first is productive labour. And the second is the exercise of real power. These have become hidden, non-public activities. The assembly line is as private — in this sense — as the President’s telephone. Public life concerns inessentials upon which the public have been persuaded to fix their hopes. Yet truth is not so easily ousted. It returns to transform public life into theatre. If a lie is accepted as truth, the real truth turns the false one into a merely theatrical truth.

      The very cohesion of public life is now charged with this theatricality. Often it extends into domestic life — but here it is less evident to the newly arrived villager. In public nobody can escape it; everyone is forced to be either spectator or performer. Some performers perform their refusal to perform. They play insignificant ‘little men’, or, if they are many, they may play a cohort of ‘the silent majority’. The change-over from performer to spectator is almost instantaneous. It is also possible to be both at the same time: to be a performer towards one’s immediate entourage and the spectator of a larger more distant performance. For example: at a railway station or in a restaurant.

      The indifference is between spectator and performer. Between audience and players. The experience of every performer — that’s to say everyone — has led him to believe that, as soon as he begins, the audience will leave, the theatre will empty. Equally, the experience of every spectator has led him to expect that the performance of another will be irrelevant and indifferent to his own personal situation.

      The aim of the performer is to prevent at least a few members of the audience from leaving. His fear is to find himself performing in an empty theatre. (This can happen even when he is physically surrounded by hundreds of people.) There is an inverse ratio of numbers. If a performer chooses an audience of a hundred, he is, in one sense, further from his fear of an empty theatre.