THE SENSE OF SIGHT
Writings by John Berger
Someone, at some time, must have told Berger he was sensitive. Now in this latest collection of the British critic/novelist's essays, poems, tales and reminiscences, readers are being forced to pay the price for that misdirected compliment. No subject, it seems, from peasants' eating habits to the rumpled sheet in a Frans Hals painting is safe from Berger's "sensitivity." He is like the unwanted dinner partner, secure in the murky subtleties of his own perceptions, while we try to catch the host's eye in a desperate plea for relief. The "host" in this case is Spencer, but expect no relief from him; he finds Berger's "concentration. . .a kind of instantaneous instruction." Never has "instantaneous instruction" (whatever it may be) been so muddled, so inconsequential, so long-winded. After 10 years as art critic of the New Statesman, Berger left England in the 1960's and settled in a small French Alpine village. Many of the pieces here concern their lives and Berger's tortured analyses of their thoughts and emotions. All his perceptions have a strongly Marxist slant and rely on fairly formulaic leftist principles. In this area, Berger also recounts meetings with a number of his socialist confreres, most from Eastern Europe, most little known. In between, the reader is treated to a few poems, a dissertation on Berger's reactions to his father's death, a critique of the works of Garcia Marquez, among other topics. All are needlessly opaque. The miasma clears somewhat when Berger turns his attention to the world of art. His essay on the sadness inherent in Monet's Impressionism and his speculations on Goya's reasons for painting the nude Maja are of passing interest. Too, his treatment of Cubism, its origins and objectives, one of the longer pieces in the book, is coherent and sometimes even perceptive. The occasional pleasures to be found in The Sense of Sight cannot, however, outweigh the tedium and air of self-congratulation to be found on almost every page.